In The White Album Joan Didion writes, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” In a book that dips in and out of the feverish 1970s, she notes that we impose a narrative onto the “disparate images” of our lives, selecting and connecting information to pre-supposed stories about the self. When I write, this is exactly what I am doing. I am filtering and selecting from a color palette of memories — wind luminous through Welch Hall’s white linen curtains, the wet kiss of rain on brown brick each time it rains. As I paint, I abridge, cut and manipulate. Cause-and-effect blurs, subject to my own appraisal, prey to the tangled razor twine of what appears to be reality’s trajectory movies and books. At a place like this, our idealism leads us to this conscious self-deception, where we perform the character we believe we are. Yet it is being forced away from this superimposed narrative that allows us to recreate, to destroy the foundations of our knowledge about who we are.
Entering the iron-wrought gates, we surround ourselves with people who reflect our foils and doubles — older versions of the bookish electricity and leather jackets that filled our late-night diner memories from high school, or something different from before — eyes flashing out at you from a room laden with motion, an unspoken wavelength passing between you, something about their brilliance or their dyed braids or their blade-like jewelry cutting into you, and you think, Yes. I am about to be changed by this person. It’s all a part of the tale, the extension of your past stories. The thrill of public speaking competitions in pressed suits; a theater spotlight over the comforting discomfort of performing onstage — you desperately seek the same milestones within your linear activity; you try to create a mirror to your trajectory in high school, which culminated, in your mind, correctly. When I write, I am working towards an imagined timeline of growth, waiting for metamorphosis to come, praying for it. We take aim, misfire and attempt again, hoping for redemption with each failure.
There’s a real danger to this narrativization, however— it’s the drop. What happens when the climax we are working towards never occurs? The story is often in control of us — and not the other way around, as we tell ourselves. What happens when we want with a desire that rattles our bones through all of first semester, and our want is met with nothing but a quiet, sheer cliff — a rejection email, a lapse in texting that never reawakens? Like an echo that sweeps through campus, we watch others attaining their college dreams, wondering why our own lives are so cloudy. For me, it was constantly attempting to recreate what I’d carefully stitched together over my gap year: a life worthy of the artist’s gaze, of long walks on the beach and philosophical weekends sleeping in the desert. Staring at the sky above Joshua Tree in May of that year, the stars milky and white atop the gauze of a sky that felt so achingly close, I wondered how sustainable it all was, the constant desire to clutch and collect new emotional territory to turn into words that pierced me in new and newer ways. College, to me, loomed as a vintage frame on the wall, a red-brick hurricane, a tour de force of sensation. The morning before I moved in, my heart was jumping out of my chest. I listened to the song over and over again: Today is the first day of the rest of your life…
Arriving, I chased, to the best of my ability, this idealization — this projected narrativization — of the person who I wanted to be. My body was strung as hot and tight as a wire through my backpacking trip through Mt. Greylock — meditating by the waterfall one early morning. In those first nights I pushed through the debilitating white-hot anxiety, reminding myself, It’s okay to feel lost. Endless nights in the Stacks and coffees where my fingers twitched with terrible fear around white cracked mugs and orange peels. Spinning past faces dripping with gold clips and lurching, alone, into the library, trying to mine that spark from a blank page or textbook which resolutely yielded nothing. I wanted color; I wanted climax; I wanted endless poetry.
Life hurtled forwards like a vortex. The searing yet meaningless intensity of the life I had built leeched the solidity from the cocoon protecting the tender little abstraction of me –– the one that existed just for me. I collapsed into my room, feeling so worthless as I sought the external validation of others, and of my future self. I wanted a life worth remembering when I left for summer vacation. But in the search for the perfect experience, I sacrificed what it meant to really live.
Ocean Vuong said it best: “And remember, loneliness is still time spent with the world.” When that constantly felt like I was bending people to my will, I wasn’t valuing time spent with myself, when those moments of transformation often happen in the dark. All the laughter and the late-night conversations and the spontaneous meals that I nestle close to my heart have arisen from long stretches of nothingness together, from people who I do not remember consciously befriending. Rejected from clubs, I was forced to meditate, to spend time alone, and to write. I remembered that I do not know who I am meant to be, and stamped in myself the crucial reminder to turn inwards rather than seek social existence. My narrative dropped. But it shifted in chaotic and strange ways. Instead of bracketing myself in closed loops of picture-perfect ‘tasks,’ I lapsed into periods of meditation in my room, a candle lit, the breeze pushing through Welch. I want to grow so still and tender that I am like a single stone at the bottom of a pond: able to be swayed by the tides of spontaneity, no longer a fleeting peripheral figure in my own receptive field. Instead of assembling, I grow. Everyone needs, at least once, a radical undoing of their lives. Here is ours. Relish it. I delete, cut, and fundamentally restructure, looking towards reshaping the figure I cut on the page.
When we write our lives into a narrative, we are still following preconceived notions of what a narrative should look like. We are so focused on what our lives sound like to our future selves that we aren’t prioritizing our present selves — and we’re also heavily focused on fulfilling frameworks that are given to us, rather than ones we’ve forged. Narrativization provides us with the designed notion of a climax, but it prevents us from being truly unique, to fall to lows lower than any character you’ve learned about before in order to find your own set of values unhinged from anyone else’s. You see, when you read, it is not the smooth arc, but the specificity, depth, and cause of each want that makes each character come alive — it is the unreasonable and irrevocable humanity of their turbulence, when there’s no climax in sight, no rise, no ascension, only the depths of what makes them hunger, of what makes them dream. College tears us from this desire to be a protagonist and reminds us of the chaos of the world we have yet to assimilate into how we memorialize our lives. Here’s what I’ve been telling myself: let go of the artist’s gaze and paint.
Sarah Feng is an associate editor for the Yale Daily News Magazine. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she is a first-year in Trumbull College majoring in English and Cognitive Science.