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.
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!