Variations on a Theme – Stories we tell

Stories We Tell film poster

Last night I watched a beautiful and poignantly uplifting documentary/film/life story by Sarah Polley about her family – Stories We Tell.

It began with a quote from Margaret Atwood…

“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.” ― Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace

There were many of those moments in the flow of narrative where a sentence, a thought expressed, stood out and stimulated thoughts within me, stirring my own narrative, my own collection of stories about myself and my life, family and relationships.

Somewhere near the end of the film one of the storytellers asks, more of himself than of anyone else, whether we are truly ever able to express who we are to others.

He was reflecting on who he was and how he experienced himself, and how those who knew him did not seem to see him the way he saw himself, and he wondered if perhaps that was his own fault for not being clear in his communication with them.

Had he mislead them somehow, had he kept quiet when others had pressed him to be a certain way for them, had he gone along with their version of him, been reluctant to remove their image of him from their eyes and ask them to see who he was not who they wanted him to be.

Why? Was it because he liked what they saw or because he liked them and did not want to hurt them by making them see anyone other than who they chose to see. But what about him, did it not hurt him that they did not see him, that when they looked at him they saw their own story of him and not his, his story was lost under theirs.

This contemplation came from discussing his late wife, her view of him, and how her view had made her have expectations of him, of who he should be and what he should do, and who he had been and what he had done had disappointed these expectations which had caused an emptiness to appear in the relationship.

An emptiness which the wife had filled with someone else.

An emptiness from which he had distanced himself as he could never be who his wife wanted him to be, he could not live up to the potential which she had decided was his purpose without asking him if this was the purpose he wanted to have. He could not be who she needed him to be for her because this was not who he was, so bit by bit her image of him rejected his true identity. And his true identity rebelled against the image in passive silence.

If you reject my words because they are not the ones which you want to hear emanate from my mouth, because my voice does not play the music you want to listen and dance to… then I shall keep my music to myself.

Or at least that is how I viewed it, because in the stories of others we see our own tales.

Once the film was over, that thought stayed with me, and scenes from the film which echoed it floated in my mind.

Storytellers fighting for their story to be the version which would become the official one, mildly annoyed to vocally belligerent because none of them was in control of which version would become history. Someone else was in charge, someone who wanted all the stories and all the voices to blend together and create a multi-faceted whole which would speak for itself, a chorus of storytellers.

A feeling lingered and rose and fell like waves in an ocean. The feeling was similar to one which I had had after watching two other documentaries a while ago…

The Bridge

The Bridge documentary poster

and Dreams of a Life.


There was a connection between them, that connection was me, my stories finding themselves in the stories of others told by even more others, the themes in my life which seemed to repeat, replay.

Why? Why do these themes do that? What is their purpose… are they just there because we all must have a theme, several themes which sometimes overlap, and these are mine, mine and yet also belonging to others. No other reason, nothing to learn but things are learned anyway for no apparent reason, and then forgotten to be learned again, and remembered that they had been forgotten when they play again and are learned again.

“If I am good enough and quiet enough, perhaps after all they will let me go; but it’s not easy being quiet and good, it’s like hanging on to the edge of a bridge when you’ve already fallen over; you don’t seem to be moving, just dangling there, and yet it is taking all your strength.” ― Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace