Absent thee from felicity a while,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.
In the old days, soldiers rushed to die in battle on the promise that a bard would sing a song about their deeds. Denmark’s prince, presiding over innocent and guilty corpses as he dies in the arms of his friend, begs that his story be told. Norwegian Fortinbras, assuming the vacant throne on a battlefield of botched revenge, might misjudge him. Since Hamlet never was “put on” the royal stage, Horatio has no gesta to chronicle but “carnal, bloody and unnatural acts, . . . accidental judgments, casual slaughters, . . . and purposes mistook.” If that is the song his friend must sing about him, imagine what the prince’s enemies will say. But he’d rather live in infamy and scandal than be forgotten. Not many of us choose to be forgotten. Even suicide is a story.
I am a ghostwriter, coaxing out life stories. Some clients make it easier than others. Some days I dig and scrabble, and all I get is shards. Some days the story pours like water from a spigot, and all I have to do is hold the bucket. I name it. This is your story. This is where you were, and where you are. And now, where are you going?
I’ve made important decisions for myself by asking, Is this a story I can tell? How would I explain it to my mother? Can I tell this story to the ones I love? My friends? Associates? Colleagues? Children?
When we make a hash of things we wonder, what can I say about this? What story can I tell? There is the tale of denial: it didn’t happen. The tale of mitigation: it’s not so bad. The tale of blame: it’s his fault not mine. The tale of defiance: I did it and so what? The tale of responsibility: I did it and I’ll suffer the consequences. The tale of repentance: I did it and I’m really sorry. The tale of promise: I won’t do it again. The tale of apprenticeship: I’ll do better next time. The worst is if we have nothing to say. Nothing to say assures the maximum sentence. Solitary confinement. People will do almost anything to be included in a story.
Concessions are made. I want to play the lead, but if my claim is not respected, that’s all right: the character-lead, goofy side-kick or soubrette, gets more laughs anyway. Or if those parts have been pre-cast, I might bring my craft and my experience to a supporting role. Or if I’m out of work, a cameo. Oh hell: if the alternative is silence, I’ll carry a spear, or swell a scene or two like Prufrock the attendant lord. “Dispatches, my liege.” It’s better than nothing. A lot better. I’ll march in someone else’s procession, sing in someone else’s chorus. “Remember when So-and-so did Something-or-other? Well, I was there!” Better a recorded foot-soldier than a silent stay-at-home. “I brought sandwiches to Eisenhower.” Or Pol Pot.
I want my avatar to be the good guy (for secretly I know that’s what I am). But if I cannot make my story heard, if it’s drowned by dominating noise; if all the good guy roles are taken, and all the good supporters, henchmen and assistants already cast; if all my entrances are hooted down, my character assailed for trying, then I’ll be bad. Really bad. I’ll transvalue your dominating values. I won’t go to school. I won’t dress up. I won’t show up for work. I’ll trick you and make fun of you behind your back. I’ll live by petty crime. I’ll steal from the rich and give to the poor. I’ll be a monster that you can’t ignore. I’ll be really good at it. And sell my songs about it to your children, who’d rather be bad than obscure.
I read other people’s stories for a living. So what’s my own? Extroverts and soldiers and politicians like to have their deeds extolled. Introverts and poets and philosophers sing of their thoughts. My adventures are a snooze but my opinions might strike home. I cannot sing of arms but of this man. I am not Magellan: my rutter describes an interior passage. Pursuing the daemon to the maze’s center, I unwind this yarn behind me. Yank on the twine, and I’ll know you’re coming along behind. If you retrace my steps, you might see beauties and terrors of a private tardis. Come in: it’s larger on the inside than without. I won’t then be the only one.
One thing is sure: if I don’t sing, the expedition dies with me.