If you ask anyone who knows me (especially my partner, the poor guy), you’ll know that when someone starts to tell me a story I’ve already heard, I start nodding, sometimes in a bit of annoyance (I’m an awful person) and will quickly rattle off the end of the story they’re telling me. Of course, this gives them ample opportunity (not to mention justification) to say to me, “Oh yeah? Well, you repeat yourself all the time!” And they’re probably right.
Okay, they’re totally right.
I worry about repeating myself. Like, a lot. Any time I sit down to write something like this blog post, I’ll get to a point where I pause and ask, “Wait, have I written about this already?” This leads to an extended period of scrolling through old blog entries, journal files, and whatnot to see if whatever topic I’m writing about has come up before. This is its own form of procrastination, I suppose.
And yet, I love to rewatch old movies more times than is either necessary or productive. (Thankfully, iTunes does not keep track of the number of times I’ve watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.) I’ve reread stories countless times as well (“Wants” by Grace Paley is high up there, not just because I often use it as an example in my classes). So why am I so irked when others repeat stories, and why does it worry me when I do it myself?
One of the things my high school art teacher said has stuck with me over more years than I care to count. I was getting into watercolors and spent a lot of time working in that medium, and she encouraged my progress. “Once you’ve done a hundred or so,” she said, “you start to get it.”
A hundred? I wondered. How long was that going to take me?
It turns out, it took me most of the rest of that year, and while I’m not sure I “got it,” I did get better. Then I started working in pastels and pretty much fell in love with those, although I don’t do any artwork these days. Still, I think her point has some bearing here, and since this week has been all about the Olympics on the news, I also recall hearing how swimmers like Michael Phelps will swim 40,000 meters in a single week of practice.
A year of watercolors, it turns out, is not really that much time. I write and revise stories, set them aside and revise them again, abandon them and then write a different story on the same theme that turns out to have more in common with that previous story than just a topic. In a workshop one of my peers said of a manuscript I submitted that it had the trifecta of love, longing, and loss, the common themes of my work. (I decided not to take this as a criticism.) Even if the characters, settings, and situations change, are they the same stories?
Repetition is practice. The stories we tell each other, on the second or third or thirtieth telling, evolve a little each time. Maybe we get closer to the truth—not of the events as they actually happened, but of their significance to us.
So if I’ve written about practice and repetition before, maybe it’s because I’m still trying to figure them out. And I’m going to work on being a little less exasperated when someone tells me the same story twice. Instead, I’ll see if I can notice how the story changes as they retell it. Maybe they’re getting closer to their truth.