How do you make sense of the changing world around you? What stories do you tell yourself about the world as you see it? Are they the stories you truly need to hear?
“Every normal kind of moral line was confused. But I guess for me I was aware of telling the story I needed to tell myself.”
This is author Zadie Smith, from her September 2020 appearance on Annie Macmanus’s excellent Changes podcast. Smith is speaking here about her experience of lockdown life in New York amidst the terrible uncertainty of the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. I caught up with this podcast in September 2022, hearing her recall what was already recent history when she spoke, in a conversation that has itself also become recent history. While the memories of those times are still so fresh, those particular times have now passed.
Life is forever fresh. Life will never run out of new ways to surprise you, good or bad. Life is forever changing.
Looking back to the start of the pandemic, Smith can now see how her mind worked through the question of whether to remain in or to flee this densely-populated city ravaged by the pandemic. It was all about the stories her mind told her, just as it was for everyone around her. Smith says:
“You could see everybody telling themselves the story they needed to tell themselves. Myself included.”
Gentle reader: What about the world you inhabit now? In a few years time, what will you be saying about the stories that you are telling yourself right now, to help you make sense of and process this precise moment?
Putting thoughts into form
I love the Changes podcast. Annie Macmanus creates a beautiful, calm and clear space for a wide diversity of people to reflect on their lives, each focusing on moments of profound change. Every episode different, all equally wonderful. I found Macmanus’s conversation with Smith particularly interesting, as Smith is able to speak with detachment about how she works through her thought processes via the solitary action of writing.
At its purest, writing is simply a way of putting thoughts into form. Once you have released these words – these stories you tell yourself – from your mind, you might choose to release them into the world. You can never know where, when, how or with whom these words might land. Smith says:
“With writing, you just can’t ever know what kind of use you’re being. It’s a kind of intimate thing between a reader and a writer. It seems to me very different from music, where you know from the crowd, the noise – it’s a much more communal and active thing. Writing is very quiet. The more public part, like reviews, that’s all an industry. But that has nothing to do with the reader sitting in their room. I’m kind of interested in that moment, and that’s the bit I never get to see.”
Smith’s words ring true to me. Writing helps me make sense of the changing world around me, order my thoughts and – I hope – arrive at the story I need to tell myself. I love the feeling of hitting ‘publish’ on a post, of having my words at last go out into the world. I do not know what will become of them.
I love what Smith says about how she feels about her writing once her thoughts have found expression as words, then found their way out into the world:
“Once the text is text, it’s gone. It’s nothing to do with you anymore. The reader has all rights, all control, and it seems to me foolish to cling onto it, like it’s something of yours. It’s gone by then.”
Why cling on to what is now gone?
Go with it
There is nothing to be gained from living in the past, or from trying to put off the moment when you must finally acknowledge that the world as you knew it is over and done.
Life happens in the moment. Life is forever fresh. Life is always capable of stopping you in your tracks. Life is forever changing.
I’ve always liked filmmaker Danny Boyle’s words about change. You have a choice to embrace change or to reject it. But opting to reject change won’t stop change happening. Boyle says:*
“You’ve got to go with it. And if you become unable to deal with it, that’s fine. Because it means your time is finished and it’s time for other people to take it on.”
The new world ahead of you may seem a fearful prospect. But fears do not always prove well-founded.
The ability to change is one of life’s greatest gifts. Learning to let go when the time is right is one of the most important lessons that life can teach you.
I would like to finish this post with some warm words of gratitude to you, gentle reader. I had the most wonderful and unexpected surprise the other day. Out of the blue, I received an automated WordPress notification, informing me that this wee blog has somehow hit 100,000 views since I moved it over to MJCarty.com a little over four years ago. I was taken aback to hear that many folks could possibly have stumbled over my musings.
Thank you for taking the time to read the words that I write and share here.
May you be nothing but kind today, to others and to yourself.
May today be nothing but kind to you and yours.
* Boyle is here talking about the evolution from traditional to digital filmmaking that he’s seen during his career. This quotation comes from such an unlikely source. Gentle reader, did you know that Keanu Reeves not only made a documentary, but that it is also pretty good? The documentary is entitled Side By Side, and is well worth a watch.
- Georges de La Tour, The Repentant Magdalen, c. 1635-1640, NGA 54386 via Wikimedia Commons.
- Georges de La Tour – The Dream of St Joseph (detail) via Wikimedia Commons.
- Blue marble via Wikimedia Commons.