The ‘Unstoried Life’ — Not Having a Narrative

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In Things That Bother Me, Galen Strawson includes a beautiful account of his own experience as an ‘unstoried’ self, someone to whom it simply does not come naturally to experience life as a story. I feel amazingly affirmed by Strawson’s words.

In Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, the Self, Etc. , Galen Strawson elucidates a cluster of philosophical issues that particularly move and provoke him. One of these is very close to my own heart: the matter of narrative, experience and the construction of identity. It’s one of those things that consistently, in different contexts, comes back to bother me.

Three places in which the issue arises for me are therapy, writing and ethics. In therapy there seems to be a consensus which has become associated with a kind of moral pressure to see life as a personal narrative to be recovered from the false narratives forced on us by other players in our story. There’s a sense in which salvation is to be found in getting to grips (through a healing narrative) with an authentic narrative, and that without one we are bound to flounder, out of control, potentially at the mercy of those who do have narratives.

In the world of writing, it seems commonly assumed that in order to be any good a piece must be relatable, believable, and effective, and this entails having a story, one with characters whose personalities are expressed through their lives in a consistent way. Actions and features to be ‘believable’ must all show something about the character which makes consistent narrative sense, and this has a value in itself, is automatically a good thing. These assumptions have never made any intuitive sense to me.

In looking at the world in terms of ethics, and acting for change and justice, it seems that the right of people to reclaim their narratives and/or to construct them are equally regarded as automatically positive developments. Not identifying with a story automatically equates you with the privileged ‘norm’, the story which is not made explicit because it is the assumed background against which others tell theirs. Also, in order to gather support for any initiative for change, it appears compulsory to ‘tell your story’ in which to engender trust, to have others relate to you and your cause. If I am unwilling to do this it is usually taken as some form of witholding or a lack of self worth or acceptance on my part. This isn’t the case. It’s just that to ‘tell my story’ I would have to be in a strange, mildly dissociated state, and my authenticity is what I would actually like to share. I also see no reason why removing inaccurate, constraining or downright abusive narratives from individual lives in therapy, or from groups of people according to race, nation, gender or sexuality means that a different narrative must necessarily be constructed in its place.

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Hence, as a person who does not feel a story to their life I sometimes feel not only like an alien but treated as someone who has dubious moral values. Strawson gives a beautiful account of his own experience as an ‘unstoried’ self, someone to whom it simply does not come naturally to experience life as a story:

In spite of my poor memory I have a perfectly respectable degree of knowledge of many of the events of my life. I don’t live ecstatically in the present moment in any pathological or enlightened manner. But I do, with John Updike and many others, “have the persistent sensation, in my life…, that I am just beginning.” (p. 187)

I feel amazingly affirmed by reading Strawson’s words: I feel seen and heard, yet more than that, the characteristics he describes cohere into an identity. I feel as if I can come out of the closet and identify as a ‘non narrative’ — without the feelings I imagine come for people who identify with and share their stories. So I share a set of recognisable and definable features with a group of others, although they do not come as a narrative. This feels very solid, along with my sense of being here and knowing who I am — without doing what would feel to me to be the artificial move of standing back from the situation and telling a story about my life, intertwining causality and meaning, with a beginning, a middle and an end. While these are structural realities in my life, they are not my experience of it.

My experience now feels somehow held by the experience of another so well articulated. I want to thank Strawson profoundly for this. Maybe it always happens when people are really honest about the things that bother them…

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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