Sunday, March 16, 2014

Some thoughts on story, plot, life and philosophy

I haven't done this for ages, this blogging thing. It seems that Twitter has satisfied my need to express myself, in tiny chunks. Or maybe I was only thinking in tiny chunks. Anyway, there's something that's been mulling around my head for a long while and I think the time has arrived for me to try and get it down here. I, as often happens, plan to figure out what I think through the writing of it, so this may be less than coherent - but whatever happens I probably won't edit it much because this is my blog, not an essay or an article, so I'm allowed to waffle and ponder! I welcome your comments, thoughts. I am expecting to raise more questions than answers.

I am already being an unreliable narrator because I have been doing a substantial amount of writing over the past few months, I wrote around 50,000 words as my half of the forthcoming Book of Short Story Writing: A Writers & Artists Companion  - co-written and edited with Courttia Newland - that will be published in December. Yes, you read that right, I, the short story writer, the flash fiction writer,  wrote 50k words, and in about 8 weeks. I didn't know I could do that. But what made me able to do it was the fact that it was about what I love - short stories and writing. What I hadn't expected was how much I would learn about myself through the writing of it, and not just about my own writing. I think I may have learned about how I can best approach this thing called life, too.

What prompted me to start writing this tonight (who knows when I will finish it) was going to see the National Theatre production of the play War Horse which was shown in a local cinema. National Theatre Live, it's called. I'd heard brilliant things about the play. I vaguely knew the story - there may be spoilers here, so look away if you haven't seen it - boy and horse form strong bond, horse goes off to WWI, boy goes off to WWI in search of horse. So, what do we want, what are we rooting for? For the boy to find the horse, of course.

Now, we get onto the technical stuff. The way I see it, there are two things at work here: plot and story.

Plot = boy meets horse. Boy loves horse. Boy loses horse. Boy finds horse again.

That plot (especially if you substitute other things for "horse") ain't new, right? So why, when I was 100% sure that boy would be reunited with horse, was I weeping at the end? Actually, I started premptively tearing up in the first half. Why? What was going on here?


Story is the stuff that is wrapped around Plot to make you FEEL something. This plot happened to have a story wrapped around it that involved war, friendship, family, reconciliation. But you can see how this plot could have had maybe an infinite number of stories - the boy could have been living on Venus and the horse might have been a robot horse that turned evil, see what I mean?  What made me cry wasn't, clearly, the surprise and joy that, oh yippee, boy and horse are beautifully reunited. It's because I cared - about the boy and about the horse. They'd become real to me. I empathized.

This, says philosopher Martha Nussbaum, quoted in an article I read this week on Brainpickings, is the power of story:

As we tell stories about the lives of others, we learn how to imagine what another creature might feel in response to various events. At the same time, we identify with the other creature and learn something about ourselves. As we grow older, we encounter more and more complex stories — in literature, film, visual art, music — that give us a richer and more subtle grasp of human emotions and of our own inner world. 
I want to stop to clarify something for a moment: When I use the word "story" I am definitely not just referring to the short story, or even to fiction. I have been writing poetry now for the past few years, tentatively at first, but in the past weeks much much more. And what I am discovering is that through poems I am able to write about my own life, my experiences, directly in a way that I can't through fiction, it has always made me deeply uncomfortable. Something about what I think a poem is - something about the language and the rhythm - is allowing me to "storify" real experiences enough to banish that discomfort with autobiographical writing. And, as several people mentioned to me this week, no-one else will know which parts of what I write are taken from my own life and which are not. 

I read the most fantastic interview yesterday in the New Yorker with American writer Lydia Davis, Long Story Short. She writes what she calls short stories -often very very short -  but which other people sometimes try and call other things, and, thrillingly, she won the 2013 International Man Booker Prize. I have been a fan for several years - she has a new collection out this year, get hold of it.

Anyway, back to the interview. What struck me most forcefully was how Davis seems to have "trouble" stopping herself turning everything she writes into a story. The article starts:

Somewhere in the files of General Mills is a letter from the very-short-story writer Lydia Davis. In it, Davis, who is widely considered one of the most original minds in American fiction today, expresses dismay at the packaging of the frozen peas sold by the company’s subsidiary Cascadian Farm. The letter, like many things that Davis writes, had started out sincere and then turned weird. Details grew overly specific; a narrative, however spare, emerged. “The peas are a dull yellow green, more the color of pea soup than fresh peas and nothing like the actual color of your peas, which are a nice bright dark green,” she wrote.  

The interview, Dana Goodyear, says Davis' stories "have very little in the way of plot; sometimes people get indignant and ask her why she doesn't call them poems or fragments. (She prefers the deeper associations of the word 'story.')" Goodyear doesn't explain what these deeper associations might be, but perhaps what I'm writing about here is touching on it.

Then, (spoiler alert) the article ends thus:

"I have to guard against the tendency - I could make anything into a story," Davis told me. Several years ago, she started writing a long note to her literary executor, but had to stop when it began to take on a life of its own. "I was trying just to write instructions, you know, 'My notebooks should go here,' ... But it began to get too elaborate, too detailed, too opinionated and too irrational. ... I didn't really want it to be a story, because I needed it to be an actual letter to my executor".

This tendency to create story/narrative even when we really don't want to, although maybe not as extreme as Davis, speaks to something I've been wondering for a few months now - how do PLOT and STORY relate to our "real" life? I've been formulating a sort of new philosophy: what if everything that happens to us, all external events, objects, people, is just plot, it has no inherent story at all? We are the ones who wrap it - or a series of events - in story, to make it fit a pattern, to try to understand it, to help us make choices for the future. In short, we need stories in order to try and deal with life's uncertainty. 

But - and it's a big but - if we're the ones telling the stories, can we just change the story we tell about a particular plot? And it it possible to have plot without story? (Scarlett Thomas' excellent novel, Our Tragic Universe, really inspired me, with its thread of the storyless story.) By which I mean something that is fairly akin to Stoic philosophy and/or Buddhism - some/all of the stuff that happens doesn't actually mean anything, we give it meaning and then we feel something about the story/meaning we have given it.  That feeling might be sadness, happiness, fear etc...

What I've been attempting to do over the past few months is try a new approach - notice what stories I am starting to create about things I actually don't really know about (what's going on in other people's heads is really the main thing), and then think, Do I need that story?

What I want to do is ditch the stories I tell myself that create stress. Sounds simple, eh? It's not. Clearly. Otherwise we'd all be doing it. But I am getting much better and faster at noticing when a story is starting up. Mindfulness, right? (Learning to meditate 11 years ago was a great thing, although bloody hard to actually put into practice, I've found).

Another thing I've been thinking about is our tendency to want to persuade people of our stories, because we are pretty wedded to them. And I'm noticing that a little more too - I can say to myself "That's X's story, which is great for them, they can have that, but I don't have to take it on." Now this is MUCH much harder than it sounds. I keep finding myself stuck in other people's - or society's - stories. Society needs its stories too - and conveys them to us through adverts, say, and other media, of course. (see excellent book and blog, Rewriting the Rules, for more on the difficulty of being in conflict with society's stories). They are all around us. I passed an antismoking billboard on my way home today and it's the campaign that has a child talking to a parent who died from lung cancer, wishing they were still around. Not just "Stop smoking - it's bad", but a fully-formed story.

If it is possible to have storyless plot - stuff happens - is there plotless story too, something that makes us feel without in some way "happening"? I've been thinking about this too (yes, I think a lot. A lot.) I think music is plotless story for me. My favourite song makes me instantly happy, can completely change my mood. But is it an event, per se? Perhaps all art is plotless story in this respect? Is art's "aim", if it has an aim, to make us feel something? (Regarding "making yourself happy", an interesting TED talk on "synthetic" versus "natural" happiness).

I think I should wind up now, I have a lot more thoughts, this is very much a work in progress (perhaps for the rest of my life), and I am very conscious of not wanting to try and persuade any of you to "take on" my story about story. All I will say is that I seem to have managed to dampen down my stress-creating mechanism considerably. I have found a way and a language that speaks to me - the language of fiction-writing, of plot-and-storyness.

It seems my own stories, and my own writing, have been telling me something it has taken me years to listen to. My own work has become more minimalist and surreal over the past few years, and I have felt for a long time that I was giving the reader more authority over the story, I wasn't demanding it be read a certain way. I was letting go, saying, Here, take it, make of it what you will.

I think that's what I'd like to do in my life, too. Loosen my grasp. If we are all storifying creatures, I won't try and stop it, but it helps me to notice it. To say, Oh look at me and that story I am starting to tell myself about X! And it often now makes me laugh, the amazing stories I started weaving around the most tenuous of plots! What an imagination we have!

Do you have any thoughts on this, anything comments, any critique? I welcome it, as I've said this is work-in-progress. Let's discuss!


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. I'm writing on the small screen of my phone and outside on a bench in a park, so excuse me if the following thoughts are not that well-organised. We should not forget about our own personal story, the one that we tell ourselves about ourselves and which, more or less, is our life. Or, at least, it represents that part of life which can somehow be transmitted (to ourselves or to others) in the form of a story (no matter how incoherent or absurd it may be). But we are all nests of stories, and the ones we think we invent have the same relevancy, the same 'truthfulness' with the ones we take from our lives. I don't think we can lie that easily; in lying we only continue to speak about ourselves. And behind all these nests of stories, there is a unifying line, our own inner 'music', which is irreducible, which can never be captured by words. So, behind the story, there is always the music - and the music is the only part of a story that needs to sound true.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir said...

I have that tendency too. If I wake in the night I am immediately spinning narratives. My brain is very noisy and, as you say, that can be stressful. I'm going to try your strategy and nip it in the bud when I find myself doing it. Thanks for this, Tania.

Tania Hershman said...

Sebastian, thank you, that is quite beautiful, I like the idea of our own inner music underlying the stories we tell ourselves and others about ourselves!

Tania Hershman said...

Hi N, I have to say that I find this the hardest to do when I am tired. It seems telling stories is our default so it takes energy to stop telling them, and when I'm exhausted they just take me over! So be gentle on yourself... xx

Anonymous said...

A lot of complicated thoughts here and I don't know if I understood it all. But it reminded me of my intial disappointment on reading a story about bullying (Jeff Gardiner: 'Myopia') because it wasn't my story. I needed to put my story aside in order to see that this one was just as valid. ~Miriam

Tim Love said...

"It seems telling stories is our default" - "Every human experience is a life in search of a narrative. This is not simply because it strives to discover a pattern to cope with the experience of chaos and confusion. It is also because each human life is always already an implicit story. Our very finitude constitutes us as being who, to put it baldly, are born at the beginning and die at the end." (Richard Kearney, "On Stories") and as you say, this tendency is exploited by ads, politicians, etc. And "history" is full of situations where facts haven't got in the way of a good story - the discovery of penicillin, grand narratives, urban myths, etc.

We collect story templates and fit facts into them. I wonder if your advances in poetry are to do with you developing new templates rather than falling back on your stock of prose ones. New, sui generis templates will make the facts that they contain seem fresher.

I think the Lydia Davis has helped to extend the range of prose texts considered literary by importing genres from non-lit sources (rather than from poetry). Art and Science have non-narrative ways to connect data-points. Lit prose (or rather, the readers who are innately narrative-driven) has been rather slow to exploit these possibilities. I've tried alternative ways of structuring prose - spreadsheets, alphabetic order, etc - but the results have been decidedly mixed.

Jen Harvey said...

Funny, I was reading a story today and found it so difficult to put my finger on what it was that felt "wrong" about it to me (I use that term with some trepidation).

After a few reads I suddenly started to grasp what it was that was bothering me. It's as Sebastian mentioned. The "music" wasn't there. There was no emotional connection.

I could appreciate the craft, the words, the structure. It was meticulously put together, but ....

As a reader I seek this emotional connection instinctively (don't we all?). Part of this comes from the author's skill in communicating, in matching story and emotion.

But it also comes from delving into my own story, into my own emotional repository.

Have I felt what the author is writing about here? Have I experienced it too? Is my emotional response the same as the character in the story? Or is it different? What do I think about that? How does it make me feel now that I have read this?

And when the author gives the story away and says, as you say "make of it what you will" I find, as a reader, that I am more responsive to the story. That I internalise it more, connect more, feel it more.

It is a rare thing, and poetry seems the best medium for transferring this emotional connection (aside from music).

I think a writer knows when they have achieved this state though, no?

It is certainly something I strive for.

Excellent and thought provoking post this. Lots to think about. Perfect Sunday reading that's for sure.

Tania Hershman said...

Miriam, I am not sure I understand it all either, so you are not alone! Very interesting about how you read someone else's story, thank you for sharing. It's hard to let go of our own stories.

Tania Hershman said...

Tim, thanks so much, I like that quote a lot. And yes, new templates, definitely. For me, just raising the possibility that I can change my own stories, break the old templates, is very empowering.

Tania Hershman said...

thank you so much for your comment and for adding to the discussion. Isn't it interesting, the way we read (or perhaps, in life, hear) other people's stories, always with one ear cocked towards our own, and how they fit, don't fit, require us to do a rethink. That's why, I guess, some stories work for some people, why it's subjective, perhaps?

Anon said...

'I've been formulating a sort of new philosophy' - is a story new just because it feels new to you? This is not really a philosophy but a thought and it is not a new thought but one that has been around as long as story has been or thought. It is a 'meaning of life' question, which you will recall Douglas Adams answered with the number 42. In my teenage years I stayed for three years in a house with the number 42… when I read Adams I thought there was some significance in the shared 42. It was a search for meaning, my search. I laugh at that 42 now. Life has the meaning we choose to give it and that includes the shape we want to give it, the stories we tell about ourselves and the shape we give those stories. And we need stories to help give meaning to our lives otherwise there is just feeling and being. ( I said 'just' there as if it is less than story that way and maybe that's the storyteller in me talking.)

I am attracted to something of what Buddhism says about mindfulness and being and feeling, and stripping away the story (actually, I think I am more interested in the absence of judgement in Buddhism and the generousness of spirit inherent in the philosophy); but I can't help feeling that in some ways Buddhism leans a little towards the selfish, or self indulgent at least or the self-absorbed. Connecting, it seems to me, is what story is and is a natural response to who we are because it is also what we crave: to feel a part of something or someone other than ourselves, a yearning to return to where we began and where we felt safest: connected to the mother in the womb. Story is about connection and so I urge you not to abandon it.

Anonymous said...

I wrote reams of poetry years before I began writing a novel and much earlier than the tentative beginnings of my short fiction, which is becoming shorter. I found such a freedom and a release in poetry that I threw my journals away. These were my earliest attempts to express my thoughts and were never for public viewing. Our narratives evolve over time, often covering the furthest reaches of our fears and questions. I think what Lydia Davis has pushed me to do (mentally, at least) is to become shorter, more surreal and less concerned with story, but I need the boldness to put that into practice. I really enjoyed your flow of thoughts with this post. Look forward to the rest of the journey.

Anonymous said...

I wrote reams of poetry years before I began writing a novel and much earlier than the tentative beginnings of my short fiction, which is becoming shorter. I found such a freedom and a release in poetry that I threw my journals away. These were my earliest attempts to express my thoughts and were never for public viewing. Our narratives evolve over time, often covering the furthest reaches of our fears and questions. I think what Lydia Davis has pushed me to do (mentally, at least) is to become shorter, more surreal and less concerned with story, but I need the boldness to put that into practice. I really enjoyed your flow of thoughts with this post. Look forward to the rest of the journey.

Tania Hershman said...

Anon, thank you for taking the time to comment. Won't you tell us who you are? I welcome critique, as I said. I will never abandon story, but I would be happy to abandon stress.

Tania Hershman said...

Fiona, I like what you say, "our narratives evolve over time", that's so true for me. Lydia Davis is an inspiration, do you have access to the New Yorker feature, it's wonderful. Looking forward to the rest of my journey too, wishing you all the best for yours, and the point at which our journeys cross in person!

Hayley N. Jones said...

I can't wait for your Book of Short Story Writing — reading that has made me so excited that I can't process my thoughts about the rest of the post!

Anon said...

Be careful what you wish for: stress is important and is only to be bandoned when we can't use it constructively, when it overwhelms us and incapacitates us.

I may be wrong, but when you say 'stress' and you talk about the stories you tell yourself, I hear 'insecurities'. Maybe I am being too simplistic. And you want to be rid of these, to be free of them so you can be more 'YOU'. But think - perhaps they are part of the 'writing-you'. I think it was Thomas Mann who felt he could not write without the experience of love and unrequited love and who went in search of such love in order to be able to write.

Rather than abandon stress, I seek to use it and to be strong enough to handle it and to put it into some sort of perspective. I never want to be without it completely. Psychology tells us we need it.

By all means change the stories you tell yourself… be kinder in the stories about who you are - you are allowed to do that. Love others as you would wish to be loved; love yourself only as much as you can love others. Judge not lest you be judged; be generous of spirit always and in everything; accept the imperfections of others and trust that they will accept your imperfections. Accept the blessings that you are given and give blessings freely.

Understand determinism - there's a philosophy.

Here endeth the lesson (but then you know all this anyway).


from Lin

Anonymous said...

Wonderful blog and comments. I read stories and poems with people who have dementia and memory loss and what I'm learning is that as readers we bring our own stories to a text, especially if there is something in what we are reading which connects us with our emotional memory (which I am told never leaves us). In our groups we talk about what we've read and our favourites are stories and poems with open endings, hints of other narratives, fragments of ideas. I feel grateful when there are open doors in a text and think it's a gracious act of a writer to welcome readers inside their story or poem in this way.

Above The Parapet said...

What an interesting post, Tania - I think a lot about the overlap of story, poetry and writing from life. I have wondered whether it is possible to write a story that does not have even a tiny nugget of personal experience within it. At the moment, I think not, and that it is this nugget that gives our stories their 'truth' and by that I mean their empathy. I have also found that with poetry I can write from the personal more than I do with a short story but that I can also move somewhere else with that story/experience - somewhere that explores a place outside of that initial experience (and like you say, no-one knows where the real experience and the fiction begins).
I often find that I am unable to keep within the template that is taught as 'the short story', although I love writing stories, but I will often find that I am veering away from the usual plot structures. Then I wonder if this explorative writing is too indulgent and whether the seeking of connection with other people, to readers, is the reason for it. I find that lately I am writing across all of these borders, where prose and poetry and life-writing overlap, unsure of the outcome - but then, that is the wonder of being a writer.
Good Luck with your new book - I can't wait to read it!
Alison Lock

nmj said...

Hey Tanya, What an interesting post, a lot to absorb! I discovered Lydia Davis just last year and got her collected short stories, I was hugely impressed. As I often write from an ‘autobiographical platform’, fictionalising – more and more heavily, these days! - as I go along, I was struck by Lydia’s words: 'A character in one of my stories may resemble me in certain ways, through a selection of biographical facts or psychological characteristics, but she is something different, a creation.'

Regarding narrative, and absence of narrative, I think we are hardwired to construct narrative, storytelling is at our very core, and this is why we endlessly retell our own stories, in order to make sense of the world, clichéd as that sounds. And, of course, we have to take on others’ stories, others’ making sense of their worlds, and that can be very stressful, as you say. I very much like your idea, in this sense, of ‘letting story go’.

I also am interested in you saying you are becoming more surreal in your own writing. I think it is healthy to go in these directions, challenge the reader more, or let the reader take control. I also liked Lydia Davis when she said: ‘I am simply not interested, at this point, in creating narrative scenes between characters.’ I have this in my head now when I am struggling to write a passage, and I think, just leave it, don’t pad it out, let the reader invent their own padding between the holes. Although I have always been someone who pares down as much as possible, but I do think you need to leave some meat on the bones. I guess I don’t always 'get' writing where the bones are so bare you have no idea at all, or no connection with what is going on. I guess I like a wee bit of narrative!

Thanks again for such an interesting post! NASIM ps.I hope this comment formats okay, am having difficulty, when I preview it goes a bit haywire...

Tania Hershman said...

Hayley - I hope the book lives up to your excitement!!

Tania Hershman said...

Lin, thank you for identifying yourself, and I appreciate your comments.

Tania Hershman said...

Josephine, I love how you phrase that, "open doors in a text", that's beautiful, thank you. x

Tania Hershman said...

Alison, I think I, like you, am drawn to writing outside of the traditional "boundaries" perhaps, and my PhD is exploring the kind of undefinable book-length works, I am interested in these grey areas. We write what we write, right? That is the wonder!

Tania Hershman said...

thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, lovely to have you here and the format looks fine to me! I like what you say about Lydia Davis giving you permission, perhaps, to allow you in your writing to let go, leave room for the reader. Isn't it wonderful when other writers give us those permissions? And wonderful when we realise all the stuff we don't "have" to include in stories, I find it very liberating, though I too have encountered- and perhaps written! - pieces with not enough narrative for me to make any sense of them! x

dan powell said...

Fascinating post. I am really intrigued by the idea of trying to achieve story without plot and vice versa. If music is, as you say, plotless story, that might explain some of why I need music to write. The music I chose then becomes the emotional arc through which I weave events that become my plot.

I have various instrumental playlists and artist that I turn to depending on the mood I want to write and I know from writing my collection to lots of Lowercase Noises and Explosions in the Sky, that key moments in the plots of some of the stories will always be read by me with the soundtrack of their writing buzzing in my memory.

I'd love to try some sort of mix media thing where musicians come up with music that writers then write to and see what happens then get the same musicians to produce a piece of music in response to the writing their original piece inspired. Kind of move from plotless story to plot filled and back again.

What's also interesting to me is that you seem, from what you say about your writing here, to be going in the opposite direction, heading out to a more story-less plot - and letting the reader fill in the story. You could do the opposite of what I just proposed in the previous paragraph, moving from writing to music and back.

Might be terrible. Could be a really engaging project that produced some interesting works.

And like so many here in the comments, I'm looking forward to the short fiction book. There's a space on my writing books shelf waiting for it.

Anonymous said...

Wow Tania, that's got my mind buzzing. I really like the separation you make between plot and story, and how each become something else without the other.

And it's true how this is so in 'real-life'. When I'm under emotional stress the stories I wrap around events, and people, become less and less grounded in reality until they either resolve themselves, or another problem rears its head.

I also think what is interesting about the stories we create for ourselves is that they are constantly evolving, i.e. when I was a young woman the stories of my childhood, family and parents, spun themselves through my mind in a certain pattern, but now, after having three children of my own and losing those parents, I realise that the stories are of an entirely different weave.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts,


David Griffin said...

Great post, Tania! I found it entertaining as well as informative.

You wrote 50,000 words in 8 weeks? Wow, you put me to shame… just goes to show though, if one is determined, it can be done - that’s inspired me, thanks!

> “Story is the stuff that is wrapped around Plot to make you FEEL something.”

I love that. And I think it’s excellent the way you’ve crystallised your thoughts concerning any story, being that the most successful ones involve/evoke emotion. (Also love your comment about music being a plotless story too).

Interesting that you are analysing your own writing, something I did only a couple of years ago when I started on my third novel but I got to a stage where I realised I was analysing too much and there was a danger of destroying part of “the magic” I hopefully have (all writers have) which involves those vague aspects of words tumbling from the sub- or unconscious mind, the muse, the sudden inspirations, etc., any or all of which can be “compromised” if given too much spotlight and scrutiny, I really believe…

> “And it often now makes me laugh, the amazing stories I started weaving around the most tenuous of plots! What an imagination we have!”

Excellent! That’s your talent as a writer, isn’t it; and I hope that continues for you. :-)

Tania Hershman said...

David, thanks so much for taking the time to read the blog and to comment! It's interesting about analysing one's own writing, isn't it? Since writing my half of the short story writing book, I have to fight a new self-consciousness about writing short stories, I am too aware of the nuts and bolts right now. I hope it wears off! In the meantime, am writing a lot of poetry. Wishing you well with your writing too!