For all the flack millennials have put up with over the last few years there’s been little talk of the similarities we share with our intellectual ancestors. The texting, Snapchats, Facebooks, and Instagrams come across as contrived and shallow, but in reality they’re evidence of a deeper bond with ancient methods of socializing: we’re damn good storytellers. Sure, the stories have gotten shorter, but the characters and plots haven’t changed. Think about it, I doubt anyone reading this has never had the experience of (be honest with yourself) carefully pondering an Instagram caption, or strategized about the results of liking this person’s Facebook picture before we friend them or befriend them in our three-dimensional physical world. We’ve all done it at some point, and we’ve built clever systems and detailed profiles to continue doing it in the future. These minor actions and social landscapes build up the small story that is a friendship, a vacation sojourn, or an autobiography of our time at school or work. And with instant feedback via our followers only a literal millisecond away via the refresh button on our browser or phones, we’ve assembled a large and comprehensive group of editors and readers that romantic novelists of the past could only dream of. Our social media outlets and profiles rise and fall in importance as characters, friends, places, and occupations come and go, and this natural arc of entangled plots and dialogues has much more in common with traditional storytelling than we give it credit for.
It feels slightly odd to imagine our raw and off-the-cuff posts being considered as part of some aggregate tale of “us”, but this happens every day and it’s what keeps social media sites’ valuations rising – analysts compare our habits, usages, likes, and statistically make a guess about what we’ll do next. Sound familiar? Read a good story lately where the author dropped a line and you said, “Oh I know what’s coming next…” ? Same principle, except our stories are far more predictable than the players in a Hemingway novel or Steinbeck epic. But imagine we, like any good protagonist, realize the fundamental conflict of our story. We’re not a mere representation of a novelist’s philosophy, we still author our own plot daily, and accordingly we have goals and ideals that will bring us our own version of success. While the best writing used to be reserved for epic tales of heroes, kings, and gods, we are lucky enough to draw on hundreds of years worth of storytelling cause-and-effects to shape our own reflective writing with a much different purpose: telling the story of us, and most importantly, telling it accurately to ourselves.
Two days after graduation I boarded a plane to go WWOOFing (farming) in Co. Cavan, Ireland for three weeks as a chance to disconnect from my old social media fueled environment (literally, there’s no internet where I’m staying) and engage mentally with everything I will need to succeed as a young professional during the next phase of my life. I got on the plane pondering big, extravagant questions from commencement addresses past, fresh off of my own release from four years of undergraduate education; questions like, “What do I really want to do?” and “What does success look like to me, and how can I pursue it?” I brought two notebooks and was heavily committed to reflecting at the end of every day, thinking that I’d stumble onto some personal philosophical truths I could adhere to and determine my success or failure as a young professional out in the real world.
Do you see this is a horrible setup by a rather obvious author, and you as an intelligent reader already have an idea of what is coming next? I couldn’t write shit, I didn’t have anything interesting to say. I’d spent all day bouncing from farmhouse to farmhouse, completely out of my element and not quite sure why I had thought this trip would be a good idea in the first place. I honestly missed the supportive community I’d left behind at school, and wished I’d taken more time to say proper goodbyes to friends and acquaintances I won’t be seeing again for a long time. Call it nostalgia, homesickness, or writer’s block – they’re probably all related anyway. I stood up and walked out of the house where I was staying just before the stars came out to go take a head-clearing retreat through the Irish countryside just down the lane.
Why come to Ireland? The Irish countryside is absolutely gorgeous. Ireland’s history is defined by local populations wanting the rest of the world to just leave them be to enjoy their paradise island. The clever Gaelic populations that took over the emerald isle brought their descriptive language with them, and Ireland’s beauty is reflected in the traditional placenames of her towns and hamlets. Rolling green country hills are named after the small of a person’s back while they lie down, and there are so numerous rivers, lush hedges, and iconic churches that they simply can’t be used as differentiating landmarks anymore. It’s no wonder that many poets and bards found their muse here, and as I walked around I began to wonder about how that translation from natural muse to protagonist on paper took place in the minds of great storytellers from the past. Most people don’t think that way anymore, and I certainly have no talent for writing or prose to bring out those thoughts here for you now. BUT I could simply write about what I was feeling in my own words, intended for my own eyes, and so that’s what I did when I got home that night. I’ll have great pictures and memories from the trip, but nothing quite captures the mind’s tangential effects of seeing something new like writing, no matter how poor the style might seem, and it’s reaffirming to see those discoveries come to life on the page.
This personal writing provided a space for me to express whatever I was feeling and make sense of it when I didn’t have any other resources to lean on. At first, it was therapeutic: I just left school after four years and still don’t currently have a bed to call home. I was so anxious to make sense of everything I’d picked up on at school that I hadn’t bothered to think about leaving that environment for good, and how much of a product of that supportive environment I had become. So I wrote of gratitude about my time at school, for all the things I was thankful for and why I would remember them. And as soon as I began to write, I realized a subtle change in how I viewed these things I missed. Gratitude is the best way of reflecting on our successes (in all fairness I stole this idea from Matthew McConaughey’s graduation address at the University of Houston) but this makes no sense until you actually sit down and try it. Seriously try it, take out a pad of paper, and when you write about what you are thankful for you will implicitly be writing the same story of things you care about and want to work hard to succeed at. By setting aside a time every night to reflect on my day and show gratitude, I was lucky to stumble onto a comforting and revealing stage on which to tell my own story, fears and repressed thoughts included, and ponder my next move void of any outside influences. Did my thoughts and feelings reflect my ideals, ideals that are supposed to lead me to my own version of success? Are my ideals evident of what I aspire to, or are they borrowed from someone else and just sounded cool at the time? These are much more specific questions than the ones I’d had in mind boarding the plane for Ireland, and ultimately these are the questions I can write about to check myself and make sure I am actually writing my own story and not falling off the path to adhere to something else.
Worded a different way, writing for ourselves gifts us an opportunity to examine the narrative voice in our own life stories. We build intellectually and emotionally supportive communities via techy social platforms, and we utilize these to develop ideas and opinions that form our next move in life, whether those actions occur on a daily, monthly, or yearly basis. Our networks inspire and humble us simultaneously, and anyone who disregards social media as worthless probably doesn’t understand the value of these multiple correspondences. But we also must recognize that our life story has one principle author and audience, and that is us. We narrate everything we do with a unique touch and execution that makes up our personality and eventually leads us on our path to personal satisfaction. When we write for ourselves, we cast this process out of the subtle shadows of our daily routines into the forefront of how we plan and live each day. Stay up on social media, and keep posting cool stuff to inspire your friends to think about things in a new way. But remember to balance the crowd with a voice from within, and what better way to capture that in real time than to just sit, take out a simple notebook, and reflect on how you feel or where you’re going. You can even start with commenting on this article, tear it to pieces if you must! I really don’t mind, at least we’ll all be writing again.