Photo by Hey Paul Studio
First the dog didn’t do her business in her usual prompt morning fashion. That meant I was standing there in the morning cold with just a fleece, knowing that my soft boiled eggs on the stove were on their way to becoming hard boiled.
Back inside, I realized I couldn’t eat my egg, anyway—it was time to take our oldest daughter to school. By the time I had fought my way home again, through the crazy morning drop-off traffic in the heart of campus, I had a 10-minute window for eating my cold egg, drinking my reheated coffee, and helping our youngest daughter find something for her lunch. After tearing apart the Tupperware drawer looking for a suitably-sized container with a matching lid, I spent five minutes trying to fix the broken toaster that was cruelly keeping me from redeeming my sad breakfast.
Finally, after one last emphatic slam of the toaster on the counter, I just stood there and cried. Jason is out of town, and I had woken up so determined to be upbeat and organized—to start the day right.
I couldn’t go back in time and delete what had taken place, so I would have to do the next best thing: Revise the story of my morning.
* * * * *
Revising my life story has been a talent of mine since childhood. It isn’t a matter of altering facts or inserting untruths; the writing of any true story, after all, is as much a matter of what you choose to leave out as what you include. And I’ve always been good at leaving out the ugly.
The stories I regaled my mom with after days spent navigating my elementary school playground highlighted the funny and dramatic, leaving out the hurt feelings and anything dull and inconsequential. My memories of family vacations and holidays are rich and bright, as if they’ve been run through a filter designed to catch all the mishaps and disappointments. And when a mishap can’t be ignored—when it’s at the heart of the story—my revisions have always relied heavily on humor and self deprecation. They are true tellings, but with the advantage of some time passing, which allows the tears to be transformed into laughter.
After my divorce a decade ago, my stories shifted darkly toward realism. Life was hard. My story was an unhappy one with an unhappy ending, in spite of all the revising I had frantically done throughout my marriage, desperate to convince myself and my community otherwise. Not only was I determined to tell the hard, cold truths of my own story, I began to look down my nose at any stories that smacked of bright optimism or Disney endings.
* * * * *
Today, I’m a third of the way through writing my memoir, and thankfully my storytelling techniques seem to fall somewhere between the two extremes. I still question, in a healthy way, how I’m revising my story: Am I being real? Am I being as true as possible to what really happened? Do my “revisions” move me closer to the core truths or further from them?
But I’m no longer hostile and suspicious toward this wonderful ability we have to revise our true stories. In fact, according to this fascinating post at one of my favorite sites, it is a gift with an official-sounding name: “the adaptive optimism bias of the human brain.” In essence, our brains adapt to receive more good news—or not, depending on how we shape our stories. The article, How to Stay Sane: The Art of Revising Your Inner Storytelling (I love the title!), explains that “learning to reframe our interpretations of reality is key to our experience of life.” (The Brain Pickings post is based on the book How to Stay Sane by Phillipa Perry.)
Our stories give shape to our inchoate, disparate, fleeting impressions of everyday life. They bring together the past and the future into the present to provide us with structures for working towards our goals. They give us a sense of identity and, most importantly, serve to integrate the feelings of our right brain with the language of our left. …
The meanings you find, and the stories you hear, will have an impact on how optimistic you are: it’s how we evolved. … If you do not know how to draw positive meaning from what happens in life, the neural pathways you need to appreciate good news will never fire up.
Wow. That kind of blows me away. And it takes me back to this morning, with its broken toaster and cold egg, and how I was able to move from tears toward a sense of humor. The errors were revised into a comedy of errors. I can’t completely rewrite my morning, but how I frame my morning—the meaning I choose to draw from it—is completely up to me. And it matters. Choosing to spin the truth of my life with optimism will help keep me sane—and I need all the help I can get.