The Weaving and the Unweaving

Monday August 31, 2009


I’ve just finished working through the proofs of my philosophy book, Finding Our Sea-Legs, and things look on course for a late September or early October launch. Kingston University Press, who are publishing the book, have sent me a mock-up of the cover, which looks tremendously handsome, and I’m hoping that when we get the printers’ proofs back, the diacritics will all at last be in order and it can be signed off and can go to press.

Anyway, one of the major themes of the book is that of storytelling or narrative. Personally, I prefer the terms “storytelling” and “story” to “narration” and “narrative”, because nobody sits down and says to somebody else, “Go on, tell me a narrative…” When one is talking about something as intimate as storytelling, then it seems to me that using what feels like a much more technical vocabulary of “narrative” and so on can distance us from what is the most interesting.

Anyway, I am interested in storytelling for several reasons. Firstly, as a fiction writer, I spend my days wrestling with stories, thinking about stories, and writing stories. Secondly, as a meditator, I spend a fair amount of time going in the opposite direction, unpicking stories, looking to see what lies behind the habitual stories the mind weaves. And thirdly, as a writer of philosophy attempting to think about ethics, one of the things that strikes me again and again in that if, on the one hand, our thinking about ethics seems to need stories, on the other hand, the kinds of stories that we tell are often the problem as much as they are the solution. As the Dhammapada has it, “‘He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me’ – for those who brood on this, hostility isn’t stilled.”

A few weeks back, I was watching that well-known blockbuster, Derrida, the Movie – not, I admit, everybody’s idea of a fun night in. Nevertheless despite the whiff of excessive reverence that surrounded the film, Derrida himself was really quite engaging as went goes about his business, making breakfast, pottering around, talking philosophy, and picking apart the fabric of the film as fast as the film-makers could weave it together. Anyway, at one point in the movie, Derrida said that “the story of one’s life – details, anecdotes, daily events – can only be inadequately told. The question for me is always the question of narration. I’d love to tell stories, but I don’t know how to tell them… so I’ve given up telling stories.”

It seems to me that Derrida has hit the nail on the head here. Our lives are, when it comes down to it, not particularly story-like. In one sense, they have beginnings, middles and ends; but they do not have the nice, tidy narrative arc that we expect of a story. We are always slap-bang in the middle of things, and the chains of conditions in which we participate stretch into the past and the future, far beyond the narrow compass of our birth and death. We are storytellers (even Derrida, as he goes about telling stories about how he has given up telling stories); but our lives are not stories. Daniel Dennett (not one of Derrida’s natural bed-fellows, perhaps) : “our stories are spun, but for the most part we don’t spin them; they spin us. The human consciousness, the narrative selfhood, is the product, not their source.”

If this is true, then the art, I think, is not to go beyond all stories. They are an important part of how we relate to the world, after all. The art, it seems to me, is to be able to maintain a sense of provisionality to the stories that we are telling about our lives, to tell tales whilst knowing that they are not the only tales possible, to hold to the stories lightly, to allow them to change as conditions change, even to allow contradictions between the various tales that we are telling because – if our lives our not story-like, even though they invite stories – then we may need a certain contradictoriness in the stories that we weave, so that our storytelling can take account of the entire range of our experience. And in this weaving and unweaving, it may be that we can find ways of binding ourselves together on the one hand, and of opening up breathing spaces for the telling of new stories and for the realisation of new possibilities on the other.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

# · Jo Ind

I loved this post – as ever. If our lives are not story-like, what is it about us or reality that means we feel the need to weave stories about them?

I’ve just discovered that Elizabeth Fry is my great great great great grandmother ( This news is causing me to go about in a haze re-telling the story of my life from every direction possible. It seems to be necessary and yet so necessary at the same time. Why do we do it?

# · Will

Hi, Jo. I read your piece about Elizabeth Fry, and the haze of retelling you write about is fascinating.

The question of what it is about our lives that makes us weave stories if our lives are not story-like – or, perhaps, what it is about us that makes us think our lives are story-like when they are not – is indeed an extremely interesting one…

All the best,


# · Phil Kingston

A quote from Martin Amis on ‘life’ and its relation to novels:

Look at it: thinly plotted, largely themeless, sentimental and ineluctably trite. The dialogue is poor, or at least violently uneven. And it’s always the same beginning; and the same ending…

Which on re-reading seems a bit sour but his general point seems to chime with yours.

And while I’m here I’ve always wondered if anyone’s examined the role of plausibility n stories. Why we find some more believable than others, how this changes over time/ location/personality?

Am reminded of a brief insight I had into Freud that the narratives of therapy aren’t scientific but gain their authority from their plausibility – “You dream of being forbidden to share a comb because you are nervous of entering a marriage with someone of a different religion” being one of his examples. And how this sort of plausibility used to be the monopoly of literature but maybe his work has spread it wider.

# · Jo Ind

But Will – I thought you were going to ANSWER the question of why we weave stories from our un-story-like lives!

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