Posts Tagged ‘story’

“How do you tell a story when you don’t have the facts, but the story’s complete inside you?”

That’s Ben Okri talking about his book Starlighter, which I’ve never read. I recently finished another novel of his, The Famished Road, which I’ll admit felt like far too many words to support the story they carried; but after I finished it and started writing about it for class, I realized that it’s pretty amazing. Everything–the characters, the forward motion, the feeling of the world the book creates–accumulates as you read. In many ways the movement of the novel is more cyclical than linear, but each time something comes back it is intensified, and has subtly shifted. By the end the changes and emotion of the book left me breathless. It’s one of those books I’m very grateful someone made me read.

That’s not a review, and I’m too lazy to make it one; I’m basically procrastinating right now, anyways. Because open in a word document is one of those stories that is complete inside of me, that even has some facts to it (maybe too many), but I’m trying to figure out how on earth to tell it. It is a story of accumulation–the emotional accumulation of some things I’ve seen and some others I’ve been told–not to mention the pressure of all sorts of other things and stories that don’t directly affect the one I’m writing, but still exist in a network with it, inside of its reality.

But the accumulation in my head, while emotionally precise, has no plot, no shape except a personality.

So what does this story look like expressed on the page? Where does the movement come from? What facts are needed, what facts will just clog it up, and how do I navigate that?

It’s what I’m trying to figure out this weekend.

It’s what the deadline asks of me. (That’s March 28.)


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This post was originally composed last spring, when my grandmother passed away. I’ve thought more since then about place, and about the women in my family and what I share with them. Parts of these thoughts will probably end up here eventually, because they’re something I’d like to write more about. These are things that have often preoccupied me, but I believe this is the first time I tried writing about them.

The post has been sitting in my drafts folder for quite some time, and the only reason I can imagine for this is because I didn’t know what word came after “part of this” … so I have put a period there, and now I give it to you.


I have been absent this week, six hours away from Pittsburgh and immersed in my other life: the life in Philadelphia.

More accurately, it is my life in Doylestown, because although my grandparents (both sets) lived about an hour away from the city and I visited them several times a year growing up, I’ve only been to Philadelphia proper twice that I remember.

It is another life of mine, that part of Pennsylvania, with the stone houses and the red roads. It was a secret that my friends in Michigan couldn’t see, and that I couldn’t describe to them, and so a part of me that I knew couldn’t be known by many. And so, even though I’d lived in Michigan since age 2, I, like my parents, knew what it was like to live somewhere other than home, to feel like you belonged somewhere else.

That home is disintegrating, falling to pieces bit by bit. My grandmother passed away a week ago today, meaning that now an entire generation is gone. (“It’s down to our parents now,” I said to my cousin, and it was a sobering thought.) The house I spent so much time in–the living room with Pop-pop’s chair, the red maple we used to climb out front, the 11 acres of woods out back, the pipeline next door, the split driveway that my grandparents shared with Great-grandma Ivy–these things are gone, belong to strangers now, even though as I drove past them yesterday they looked the same.

But the roads still hold something. Those red, narrow country roads that can’t really handle the congestion that excessive development and suburbanization has brought. The feeling that I associated with them–something tangible in my chest, something different than anywhere else–it’s still there.

And I am sitting on the couch with a stack of essays next to me which I haven’t touched since Monday, seriously behind on my work; but I am still lost in stories: my stories, Grandma’s stories, my mother’s stories, Great-grandma’s stories. Right now they pull me back to the past, and I can get nothing done. They tell me that grieving is never really over.

But they also push me into the future, teach me that my stories, too, are a part of this.

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The week before last my Readings class read Didion’s essay “The White Album,” the first line of which is a famous quote of hers: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

I have seen this quote pretty often, and have probably used it more than once. It stirred me in the deepest places; it rang as true. It’s always presented as inspiring, affirming–which, standing there by itself, it is.

However, “The White Album” is one dang depressing essay. At the risk of being too reductive, the feeling it leaves you with is that the stories we make of our lives are largely meaningless and artificial. Although she is a writer, and thus always creating stories and attempting to impose meaning on events, she ends the essay by saying:

Writing had helped [Paul Ferguson], he said, to “reflect on experience and see what it means.” Quite often I reflect on the big house in Hollywood, on “Midnight Confessions and on Ramon Novarro and on the fact that Roman Polanski and I are godparents to the same child, but writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.”

Although I’ve gotten better at reading stories as they are, I occasionally struggle with projecting a tone or atmosphere on them and rejecting them for something that isn’t there. For example, when I first read Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, I didn’t realize it was funny. I thought it was horribly depressing. Then I saw Smoke Signals and thought that perhaps I shouldn’t have written a long letter to my cousin complaining about how awful the book was. When I reread parts of it they make me laugh.

So it is quite possible that when I say I sense this meaninglessness in Didion’s prose, I could be reading it into the stories myself. I sense a searching, a struggle, a determination to try and make meaning anyway; but in the end the best you can do is make yourself feel a little better. And it makes reading Didion unpleasant for me, unless I really zero in on the craft of her sentences, her dialogue, what a marvelous talent she has.

This week one of our readings is Flannery O’Connor’s “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” Joel asked me to present it–whether by intuition, perception, or chance, I don’t know, but I am very grateful–and in fact, I am a little stuck, because she lays things out so clearly there’s not much more to be said.

This presentation is actually what I should be working on right now.

It’s due tomorrow evening.

BUT. This post is relevant.

One of the things Flannery explains is that she does not write “to make the reader see what I see,” and that writing is not “a missionary activity.” This is very different from Joan Didion’s statement that writing is a hostile act, “of saying I, of imposing upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.

But this springs from an even more fundamental difference in their views of writing and what it does. O’Connor sees stories as aiming after truth. Not truth as an abstract concept, but as expressed and embodied in reality. This is what makes writing art. She explains:

[…] all I mean by art is writing something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself. The basis of art is truth, both in manner and in mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less.

(See? How am I supposed to talk about this, when she’s already explained it all so beautifully?)

Flannery O’Connor believed in the vision of truth her stories presented. Joan Didion, it seems, didn’t believe such a vision was possible. I admire Didion for continuing to write nonetheless, for looking chaos in the eye and staring it down. But whose stories are more powerful?

To search for truth seems one of the fundamental marks of being human. To believe what you’re searching for isn’t possible is madness.

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I am sad that I’ve finally caught up with Girl Genius.

I’ve been racing through it over the past week. Which means I’ve been spending more time reading it than doing the things I should be doing–writing, getting ready for the fall semester, and so on.

But it was like reading a good novel: you just couldn’t put it down. Or close the browser. And yesterday I finally reached the comic that was posted on Monday.

This morning I read Wednesday’s comic. It’s going to be a very different experience, reading it one page at a time, three times a week. For one thing, it made me realize part of the reason I couldn’t stop reading it when I was catching up for several years: although, like a novel, it is a unified whole (although I think I can see the moments where the story evolved for the authors, where they threw things in and tied other things together), the fact that it’s being posted page by page makes it very episodic: the end of every page is a mini-cliffhanger, or mini-resolution.

For another, the experience of really sinking in to something, inhabiting the breath of a story, is something nourishing. I guess I’m referring to this experience when I say that Girl Genius feels novelistic. It’s not something you can get from one page MWF, or from short stories. You need the breadth and depth offered by longer forms, something that gives you space to really live in it, alongside the characters who inhabit that space.

When I complained to Keith about how much time this comic was wasting, he half-seriously asked if there was any way I could justify reading it, make it a part of the work I was procrastinating. “This helps my work because X.” The short term answer was no. No, this is NOT helping me write my literary short story about skunks.

But the long term answer, I think, is yes. The ideas and inspiration behind the story; the characters, the world, the plots, the various storylines pulling apart and coming back together and weaving in all sorts of ways–yes, I think it can be justified.

Any novel, anything you read as a writer feeds you. Even if it feeds you garbage. (So maybe reading a bad novel is worse than reading a bad short story?) But a good story, well-told, sinks into your bones, makes the world in which you write a bigger place.

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I am, for the first time, writing about people who I have known in my life.

It’s kind of funny. People have often assumed, when they find out I am a writer (“Do you mean journalism?” “No, I write fiction.” “What do you want to write? Books?” “Hopefully.” “Books about what?”) that I will write about them, about my own life. Coworkers at workplaces teased me about finding themselves in my future books. Friends ask where I get my characters–if I model them on real people. My uncle jokes that I don’t have enough experience to write yet.

It is this mixture of curiosity, laughter, and sometimes skepticism. But part of it is often serious.

I’ve always said no. You will not be in my books. None of my workplaces, none of my friends. I’ve never had the desire to write about real people. The effort to capture someone on the page–especially someone you know well–to be faithful to them and follow them, is too much stress, to much responsibility. I have always felt it would mean surrendering the freedom of creation. To try and know what a person you really know would do and say and think–it is too much, it is not the same as the exhilaration of letting a character define himself as you define him. The limit of my “real life” characters was when I planned on killing off a teacher in a NaNoWriMo novel.

(I should clarify this. First of all, I never reached that point in the novel, so the character never died. Second of all, I have no personal grudge against this teacher–I got an A in the class–but the personality was too perfectly suited to this character’s role to pass up. Thirdly, it would have been an awesome and mysterious death, and very important to the novel.)

But lately I have been writing–or trying to write–a story about a family I knew growing up.

They are definitely the same people. The same wife and husband are married to each other, with the same children–although one of them is male and dead rather than female and alive, and they are younger than when I knew them. The father has the same hobbies. The mother has the same creativity. Various members have their various medical issues. Although the central event of the story is made up, it is based on two things that actually happened to this particular family. And I know that, outside of the story’s scope, this family will suffer the same losses.

But they are not the family I knew.

In fact, I find myself needing to completely forget, as far as possible, that these real people existed. To make the story even possible, I need to take it from them and give it to these other people: my characters, who must be free to think their own thoughts and live their own lives. I may even need to give the wife a different face, because she is stuck: stuck trying to be true to the real woman that, after all, I knew very little about.

The past few days I have been freewriting about this story, discovering things about these people–the characters, rather than the people whose street I remember, who are so richly complicated that I could not possibly capture them. (And that is one of the dangers: I want to put in everything I know about this family. Everything I remember. But I can’t. I can’t possibly.)

And I’m realizing, now, there are all sorts of ways I can write about the people I know, the things in my own life. To have a girl, somewhere, sometime, who is afraid and goes down steps one at a time; to have someone who feeds Oreos every evening to skunks in the back yard; to have the mother in charge of the children painting the set for the Wizard of Oz following the little boy who is painting v after v–“eagle” after “eagle”–in the sky and painting over them; to have a rented house with white carpet in the kitchen that the landlady always examines closely every time she visits … these are gifts to me as a writer. Facts that can be borrowed, rearranged, rewritten in the search for truth.

These people have given me their story, and perhaps part of my respect for them should be to make sure it is not them I am writing about.


I have just written the first rendered scene of this draft. First as in “first one I’ve written,” not “first in the narrative.” I would like also to write the beginning today. We’ll see.


And shoot, now I want to write that death. I do need to write that novel someday.

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While working on the story I started last month, I inserted a skunk in a room full of pre-adolescent girls at a birthday party. This comes near the end. I mean, is there really a better way to begin a story than with a skunk in the kitchen?

Here is what my writing process looks like so far this summer:

1. Open a document. Start a story.

2. Start the story in a different spot. Write for a page.

3. Skip ahead to a different part of the story. Write another page. Half of it is bold notes to self.

4. Open another word document. Name it [nameoforiginaldocument] 2. Start the story again. Or start another scene from the story.

5. Don’t write for two days.

6. Reopen second document and repeat step 3 here.

7. Etc.

Feel free to write these steps on pieces of paper, stick them in a bowl, shake them up, and draw them out in whatever order.

The sad thing is that this is what my writing process in general looks like anymore. Apply pressure in the form of a deadline and it still looks like this, just condensed. It feels icky and stagnant, and while I am resigned to the fact that I won’t always (or even often) be carried off by the muse, that writing is in factwork, I am worried that my stories will read like icky, stagnant things.

But I keep writing. I even keep writing the same stories. And about skunks.

I love writing because it is the unfolding of Story beneath your hands. This is why writing matters. Because of Story. That burning moment you can touch with words. It is nice to have that feeling while you’re writing, but it is the achievement of it in the end that matters.

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As I read a chapter from David Jauss’s Alone With All That Could Happen, I found myself also thinking about this Story that has no name yet, and that I’ve been trying to write for at least half the semester. I have wondered off and on if I’m not trying to write two stories as one, and what it would look like as two. Today I wondered if, in fact, I was trying to write about two characters as one, two personalities shoved into one body, and the story’s various transformations can be explained by the character switching between one and the other. I also wondered (as I have before) if perhaps this simply needs more space–a book or a couple chapters rather than a short story. And also, I wondered about the nature of the protagonist’s relationship to the (sadly rather undeveloped) secondary character–whether she was just a body in his life, a part of his routine, or whether there was something more there, a relationship.

The latter I may have the answer to–although this thing keeps changing, and probably will continue to do so. But I think that the answer lies in a balance between the two–a tension, a transition.

I’m wondering if that’s the answer to the other problems, too.

Which comes first, the story or the structure? They are inseparable of course, but I’ve been trying to figure out each one by playing with the other, and sitting and thinking isn’t getting much done.

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