The Stories We Tell Ourselves

summer“I dream, I make up pictures of a summer’s afternoon.” – Virginia Woolf

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Last night, I began reading Silent Dancing, a memoir by Judith Ortiz Cofer (of whom I am a huge fan!). In the preface, she begins by comparing memories of her childhood to “one perfect summer’s afternoon,” in which it is easy to forget about the hurtful parts and simply remember the happier times. She discusses the need that many of us have, as we look back, “to study ourselves and our lives in retrospect; to understand what people and events formed us (and, yes, what and who hurt us too).”

As a writer, I often find myself piecing together memories and romanticizing some of the less glamorous parts of my life, perhaps to my own detriment. I think this is part of the human condition; we create these stories about our lives that become part of our intricate mythology, and the stories become so ingrained in us that we can’t remember which details are historically accurate and which are wishful thinking. A few images from my own mythology are hard to shake — a boy playing Death Cab for Cutie on guitar when I was sixteen; endless afternoons at a retro burger restaurant with four best friends; that summer when my life was a Sarah Dessen book, down to every last trope that makes its way into young adult novels.

Of course, the stories we tell ourselves can make us nostalgic for the past, and we often forget the struggles that we faced in those times. We think back to our former experiences, jobs, friendships and relationships and remember the perfect summer afternoons, not the thunderstorms or the sleepless nights or the doubt or the heartache that came along with them. When we forget these challenges or minimize them, however, we don’t learn from our mistakes or move on properly.

It is important for us not to take too many creative liberties when looking back, and to remember that life changes for a reason. We change. And we will never be able to grow or truly experience life if we are stuck in that one seemingly perfect afternoon forever.

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