The Cracker Barrel: What's your story?

Columnist Craig Nagel muses about an author's idea that we all use stories to make sense of our lives

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A few years ago, I drove down to the Cities and back with a couple of friends to pay our respects at the wake of another friend who had died much too soon.

We spent part of the trip talking about how unpredictable life can be, how quickly death can extinguish it, and the other part talking about how our own lives were working out.

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Looking back, I think both topics were variants on a theme. And at the root of the theme is the word “story.”

The novelist Wally Lamb, in his book "I Know This Much is True," explores the way we all use stories to make sense of our lives.

Some of us think of ourselves as righteous agents struggling to obey the dictates of a higher power. Others see ourselves as sadly flawed, wanting but unable to follow our better impulses.


Still others find no particular reason for being alive, but feel content to live from day to day, dealing as best we can with whatever comes our way.

“What are our stories if not the mirrors we hold up to our fears?” asks Lamb.

Michael Ondaatje takes the idea further.

“We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell,” he writes in "Divisadero." "… Sometimes we enter art to hide within it. It is where we can go to save ourselves, where a third-person voice protects us.”

Given this penchant for hiding from ourselves, most of us have real difficulty seeing who we are. Nor does it help that we all suffer to some degree from the tendency to project our shortcomings on to those around us.

It’s been suggested that one quick reality check is to list the things that you find most irritating in your spouse or closest friend — and then commence working on improving them, since they’re probably your own greatest flaws.

Who are you? What sort of role do you play in the story of your own life?

Are you the suffering servant? The brilliant artist to whom society’s petty rules don’t apply? The undervalued person overlooked by others, never given a chance to really blossom? Are you feisty, given to speaking truths that others aren’t strong enough to handle?


Has life doomed you to an endless round of work and responsibility, none of which you truly enjoy? Do you harbor secret thoughts of someday breaking loose and running off with that co-worker you find so attractive?

What’s your story?

Simon Ortiz, one of our most respected and widely read Native American poets, a man who struggled mightily trying to understand his place in the world, concluded that there are no truths, but only stories.

From heads of state on down to the homeless, we each make our way according to the dictates of our inner narrative. What we commonly call fate may in fact be better seen as the plot line of our private drama.

The essence of drama is that none of us can walk away from the consequences of our deeds. In this way, our inward story forever affects the outward working of our lives.

If we would change the way we live, we must first rewrite the story lines within.

Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at

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Craig Nagel, Columnist

Opinion by Craig Nagel
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