We are all natural storytellers. Even as we think we are just seeing a concrete image or hearing a distinct sound, we are in fact filling in gaps, putting material in context, constructing a narrative. That muted howl from the apartment next door--is it a woman crying, or a child laughing, or the laugh track from a television set? We make such choices at every moment, usually without conscious thought. We tell stories about other people, and we tell one big story about ourselves.
But sometimes, for some people, the story is torn. The essential sense of who we are, of what the world means, becomes lost. All the bits of life's evidence that must be sifted, digested, or passed over, instead fly like shrapnel. This happened to me a long time ago. In high school, when I first saw my name over small stories and articles, those words "Josh Shenk"--in ink against newsprint--struck me with dumb shock. I was thrilled and horrified at a small glimpse of what it meant to be real. It may seem strange that someone haunted by the inadequacy of words would become a writer, but I've often felt no other choice but to struggle and claw for what should be a simple birthright: to tell myself and others who I am.
Like everyone, I start with a handicap, which is that I don't know my own beginnings. Births and early infancy precede memory. Many later memories, which we should in theory have access to, are still as elusive as mist. So we become historians of our own lives, dependent on unreliable, reluctant sources. I can describe with precision the home I grew up in, its brown paint and simple brick, the gnarled limbs on the trees outside. But what did it feel like to live there? How did it form me?
I need to find these feelings, because the facts communicate so little. For instance, I was the youngest of three children and my parents divorced when I was seven. This is a story too common to be distinctive, but too important to be ignored--the slow leakage of affection and kindness from my parents' marriage, the grim entrance of resentment, confusion, and anger. The unspoken rules of the house forbade expressing these emotions, and this remained true after the divorce.