Story-telling is founded on the art of illustration and embellishment; it depends on colorful language and imagery. There is, however, a fine line between good story-telling and outright bullshitting.
We should all strive to have something unique about our own story, so many of us find something and make it into a major theme in our personal history. Struggle or “rags to riches” works particularly well for things like this. (e.g., Stephen King and Jim Carrey both used to be janitors, J.K. Rowling was contemplating suicide when she wrote Harry Potter for her kids. There are countless more.)
Interesting beginnings make our story a little more worthy of retelling. But there is a fine line between a legitimate story and something we beefed up into bullshit.
One such example is this: every once in a great while, I hear from people that they “used to be homeless.” They say this to illicit a reaction or to amplify their current achievements (e.g., “…and look how far I’ve come!”) This is all fine and well, but whenever someone says that they were once homeless – or anything else – I always want to know:
What do you mean by that, exactly?
As in: “just how homeless? In what way?”
And this is not to discount homelessness – in fact, quite the opposite. I think that there is a huge difference between how we interpret ” homelessness” (which goes beyond the literal “without home” and instead implies a sort of dejected and destitute situation) and the sort of casual “homelessness” that is often thrown around for the purpose of instilling an impression.
And it is not necessarily to say that a few days or one month of homelessness is “less” homeless, or qualifies at a lower score on the homelessness scale. It is rather that I want to differentiate between those who were homeless in the long-term – those whose lives were ones of homelessness – and those who, like a friend in high school, ran away from home for two weeks.
I met him at work. Two months into knowing one another, while mopping the floors together, he told me: “I used to be homeless.”
“Oh, wow…. What happened?”
“I left home and lived on 16th Street Mall for a couple of weeks.”
Not that that’s “less of a story” or suddenly less interesting, but more that I suddenly resented him a little for throwing around the term “homeless” when what he really mean is “I used to be kind of a punk kid – or, in the very least, I have at least once done something sort of punk-like.” And I’m sure that there were issues at home – I don’t know very many people who up and leave for no reason whatsoever – but that aside, why must we call the excursion “homelessness?”
This is all the same as saying “I am going in for surgery on Monday” when you are just having Lasik or “I got in a car accident” when you really mean you reversed into another SUV in the parking lot. “I model” when your friend once took photos of you wearing her knitted scarves for her etsy page.
And sure, the story is “sexy” – it gets our attention, including my own (which is why I am writing about it.) And I too am guilty of doing things like this – I am an incredible exaggerator. (Like, I am probably one of the most out-of-control exaggerators in the entire world – like, everything I say is an exaggeration.)
It takes one to know one, and as someone who often illuminates a story as I tell it – with things like what I just said about exaggerating – I can also tell: people use these things too much, and in a misleading way.
But it begs the question: at what point does story-telling become bullshitting? There’s a fine line here, in the craft of communication – a call that one must make in telling their story; a responsibility to keep from blatantly bullshitting.