Making Sense of Stories

Paperback book cover illustration, I Know Why ...

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“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Maya Angelou. 

If you’ve ever read any of Maya Angelou’s books, you gain an incredible perspective into the courage of telling a life story.  “A bird doesn’t tell a story because it has an answer; it sings because it has a song,” she wrote in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of her autobiographical series.  Her books captivate with their beautiful prose and at the same time made me squirm with the honesty in which she recounts her life, particularly her days as a prostitute.  I’ve heard her speak live and it’s amazing — she brings her books to life with her spoken voice.

I thought of her courage this week as I heard two burn stories.  My friend Renee’s aunt, on an oxygen machine, lit a cigarette and suffered second degree burns over her face.  Within days, I heard the story of a teenager from the kid’s school, who bent over a stove and her scarf caught fire torching her chest and neck.  Both are in the hospital.

It’s hard not to think of their searing pain.  It’s harder not to think about how they and their families handle both the emotions and the re-telling of the stories.  I know from my own experiences that until I can put the emotional framework in place, I can’t tell a story.  It always takes time for the “shock factor” to process and events to become clear before a story unfolds.  I wonder if it was the same for Maya Angelou — that the time that passed before she told her stories gave her the perspective to truly see the context of the events.

Maybe this is just the way we tell stories.  Even this week we saw a glimpse of it with the Osama bin Laden storyline.  Quickly we learn the news – bin Laden is dead.  Then, the next day we receive a new update, a revision as the true facts become clearer – yes dead, but he had no human shield as previously reported.  Then, each of the next days of the week, we find out a little bit more – he has been hiding in plain sight, there are the makings of another terror plot, this time using the US rail road system.

Life comes at us in pieces and parcels.  It’s our job to make sense of it all.  It’s a big job.  Story telling might just bring it all together.


  1. ‘that the time that passed before she told her stories gave her the perspective to truly see the context of the events.” thank u for that. i find that for me with some things that r very painful and must contend w my feelings even about not telling during the waiting time to tell. this perspective is friendly. keep on.


  2. My grandmother used to tell me a story about a curse that ended in fire and death. It was about one of her aunts who lived in the same tenement building. This aunt was caring for her elderly parents. For whatever reason, it seemed to her that the best way to care for both of them physically as well as economically was to split them up, sending her parents away, each to a different daughter’s home. The two had lived together through more than 50 years of marriage, and her mother was understandably furious about this. Speaking in her native Italian, she cursed her daughter with the words “You should die burned!” Several months after sending her parents away, there was a gas leak in her stove, and when my grandmother’s aunt went to light it it blew up in her face, and she did indeed die burned.

    Impressive, no? My grandmother also told me the urban legend of the dead cat in the suitcase as if it had happened to one of her friends. I think the proverbial grain of salt applies in both cases.


  3. I’ve heard of the book, but never read it. It sounds as though I should. Thanks for sharing. I agree with needing time for one’s life stories to unfold, to be able to wrap our minds around all the puzzle pieces and put it together to see the big picture.


    1. Her books are worth the read! Thanks for your thoughts — I agree we have to wait until stories unfold but it sure would be easier if everything were instantly apparent.


  4. Until an individual can identify, accept, and understand; there story is missing chapters. The plot has not unfolded. Life is a series of untold and forgotten stories. It takes triggers for us to recall, remember; and be willing to tell. Your article is a trigger for some. It will make a difference. I read the book also.


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