I know I’m lucky to work in an office full of smart, engaged people, and I know not every office is like mine, but the longer I work in an office, any office, the more I am bored and a bit put off by films and books about how boring and messed-up office work is. (The Office is one of the exceptions to this rule, but I have difficulty watching it because I think Jim’s a bully and he sets my teeth on edge.)
The thing is, again, I know mine is maybe unusual, but everyone here is so interesting, and everyone has a story. Right now, alone, one of my coworkers is getting divorced, one is out of town at a LARP convention, one is moving in with her boyfriend, and one is the most experimental baker I’ve ever met. Her caramels are…interesting. Then there’s me, secretly lusting after a former coworker on another floor. And of course my Awkward Coworker, who doesn’t even need any other person to make him interesting. One of my coworkers’ wives had a baby this week, about six weeks premature, and he showed up yesterday with photos and a bleary look and a totally new mindset about life. It’s pretty impressive. Cute kid, doing fine, and they very much appreciated the fruit bouquet we sent them.
Most of the time we work, but there are also moments, usually spontaneous, where we sort of gather up and talk. I’ve been more and more interested in watching the others talk, watching how they construct stories about their lives; one of them is a stand-up comedian as a hobby, so he uses a lot of set phrases and expressions designed to amuse. Most of us are researchers, so we tend to cite whatever newspaper or magazine or website we’re talking about. Occasionally we have to break while someone googles to see if something is really true.
We don’t really talk to our coworkers about who we are, in the sense that we don’t just spontaneously share facts about ourselves (someone asked me today if I was a vegetarian, and I laughed). But we do construct our personalities through the stories we share with each other. I think this is maybe a common social thing, and I’m just so normally-unsocial that I don’t realise it, but I really like it.
I’ve always been taught that there’s a correlation between the person I am and the stories I tell; in high school I had an English teacher who worked the correlation backwards, teaching us that as long as we spoke with our own voice, and gave our own unique view of the world, we were being original storytellers. That’s an incomplete idea, because it roots storytelling in narcissism, but as a starting point it’s not actually a bad place to be.
There’s a theory that artists — writers, painters, composers, even performers — create in order to draw the eye away from themselves. Even actors are showing you a performance rather than a person. I think it’s a solid theory; it’s certainly why I create. But to go back to my high school English teacher, you can’t separate your voice from any authentic work, and whether it’s easy or hard, a part of you is always tucked into the work for the reader to see. Sometimes, especially with the young or inexperienced, their desires are writ large; their stories are fantasies about what they want to be, what they want to happen to them. Other times, even the writer doesn’t see themselves in the work until someone astute points it out to them.
But we do communicate ourselves through our stories. And when you have an intimate acquaintance of the structure and purpose of stories, that’s pretty fascinating.
I do a lot of listening.