How We Feel = The Stories We Tell (With Ocean Vuong)

How we feel is a function of the stories we repeat to ourselves. 

To change, with repetitions, is to edit. We can edit for length, tone, truth – and/or any combination of things. 

When we’re telling stories to others, our stories come crashing into theirs. What they repeat when they walk away, determines how they feel. With or without the memory of our story. 

It’s all of storytelling, marketing, and communication, wrapped up in a nutshell. 


I’m thinking about this extra because Ocean Vuong made an appearance on Fresh Air to promote/discuss his new book of poetry, Time Is a Mother. Vuong is one of my favorite living authors. He talked about his greatest teachers and how they edited stories. 

When his mother, grandmother, and sister decided to leave their home country, they left a world of stories behind. They also brought a reader’s digest of emotional experiences with them, and this was the masterclass he grew up in. Here’s a quote from the interview that really moved me (emphasis added):

I realize now was that I was at the seat of master storytellers. I was receiving a master class, and it was in no institution. And what I mean by that is that when – in my case, these three women – when a woman decides to leave their country, something quite miraculous, in my opinion, happens in that they have to decide what to take out and leave behind in the archive of their self and what to salvage and carry forth because the memory is a limited archive.

And they’ve made the decision – what stories do I leave behind? What stories do I carry across borders and trepidations in order to lend and gift to my children and grandchildren? And by the time I received these stories – and sometimes they’re folklore. Sometimes they’re personal stories. But all of them were already beautifully crafted through hundreds of retellings.

My grandmother knew when to pause, when to grow anticipation, what part of the scene to describe, what part to speed up through exposition. And we were all just enraptured by what she was able to do. And I think it made me understand then, you know, even more so, you know, what I would later come to know intellectually, which is that nobody survives by accident. Refugees and immigrants survive because they’re innovative and creative. Survival is a creative act – you know, you stitching, you know, money in the insides of jackets – right? – I mean, all of these things.

We often see the refugee as a victim or a passive condition, you know, who is pleading for universal help and aid. But in fact, the refugee is an incredibly creative artist. I would even go as far as to say that my elders and many elders around the world who survive geopolitical violence are survival artists.

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