Wednesday, July 12, 2017

How To Tell A True Story

Though some of us are better at it than others, we are all experienced storytellers.  Narrative is how we make sense of experience.  But why are some stories we hear more compelling that others?  The answer lies in structure.

Breakfast to Bed Stories:  The Problem with Simple Chronology
The basic problem to solve in telling a good story is simple:  What to put in and what to leave out?  How do we decide this? We often sidestep these questions by simply telling stories chronologically.  First this happened, then that happened, and then that, and so on.  The premise behind this approach is that the storyteller is merely trying to tell an audience “exactly what happened,” and chronology is often how we experience things. But this approach immediately runs into problems for audiences because there’s no way of knowing what information is important.  Every event, scene, or explanation has equal meaning. Consequently, many “breakfast to bed stories” like this are uninteresting—they lack a clear purpose and sense of emphasis.  It’s unclear what they are about other than the obvious:  to simply document what happened to the narrator. Usually, we don’t find such stories very interesting.

The Significant Event or Inciting Incident
Most stories are organized around a significant even or inciting incident—one part of the larger story that is particularly important to the narrator.  But why?  What is it about this event that makes it significant?  Typically, it is an event that threw the narrator out of balance, that disrupted his or her world in some way, or challenged certain assumptions or beliefs.  While this might be a dramatic or symbolic event—an unexpected death, the moment a friendship ended, sudden violence, or some symbolic rite of passage like first love—a significant event or inciting incident need not earth-shattering.  It could be a relatively ordinary moment—a comment from a friend, the disruption of a daily routine, or unexpected encounter. Significant events are usual categories of experience that most of us recognize:  coming of age, the attachment to place, the complications of loss, a test of courage, and so on.  The key is that whatever happened—whether it’s dramatic or ordinary-- is unsettling to narrators in ways that surprise them.   The puzzle is what caused the event and its potential consequences for the narrator.  Stories are about untangling that mystery.

Exploring Causal Mysteries
Identifying what is the significant event isn’t always easy.  Writers often have to spend considerable time exploring their experiences to locate the moment or event that stands out in the chronology of what happened to them.  But once narrators find it, the story arises from what was until then just another situation.  What makes a story a story is that it explores reasons and consequences that might explain the meanings of a significant event:  Why did a narrator feel, think, or act that way?  How has the event changed things?  What might it all mean?  This is how we decide what to include in a story and what to leave out.  Does the information help illuminate how and why the significant event happened or does it explain or show its consequences for the narrator?  Everything else is irrelevant.
Assuming for a moment that we’re telling a story about a single experience, let’s review what we’ve discussed so far.  First, from the many things that happened, we’ve chosen one that seems especially significant.  We’ll structure the story around this, emphasizing either the story of why this event might have been significant (reasons) or how it changed things for the narrator (consequences), or both.

 Which of these things—reasons or consequences-- writers focus on in their telling of the story depends on which of these questions they find most compelling.  For example, imagine that that the significant event in my story is the purchase of another pair of shoes that I really don’t need, and in the end, didn’t really want.  What interests me is what is behind this impulse to buy things I don’t need and want? That story will focus on reasons, and do it in two ways:  Show the moments that led up to that significant event and comment on their possible meanings

Two Languages and Two Narrators
This last bit about commentary is really important.  Unlike fiction, true stories both show and tell.  In other words, we don’t just render experience—trying to capture what exactly happened—but we also explain what we think of what happened, particularly what it helps us to see and understand about ourselves and our world.  The language of rendering is usually very concrete and specific, like this description of my father when I was a teenager.

Booze makes the eyelids lazy, and when he looked at me from under that dark brow, his pupils were half-covered—the body’s signal that it, too, knew the brain could not be trusted.  “I have not been drinking,” he said when I confronted him in the dim light of the kitchen.  So I checked the bottles in the cabinet above the stove, and I saw that though the vodka was even with the black marks I’d left, the bottle was full of water.


The language of thought is little more general and expository, like this:

When I returned home, and he was drunk, I looked for anger and couldn’t find it.  My dad was drinking a lot in those days, and I felt responsible for doing something about it.  This made me crazier than it made him, and that sucked the anger out.


We more naturally tell true stories in both the language of rendering and the language of thought when we imagine that while there is obviously only one person telling the story, there are actually two narrators, each separated by time.  The first, the then-narrator, tells the story of what happened, trying to recreate the world as it was.  The other is the now-narrator, who comments from the present.  This narrator can look back on what happened with an understanding that the then-narrator did not possess.   

Here’s another way of thinking about these two narrators:  The journey metaphor is commonly used to describe storytelling; narrators describe their quests to resolve the mystery of how and why their lives were thrown out of balance in an attempt to get things back to normal.  This involves describing two kinds of actions:  external and internal.  External actions describe events that the narrator experienced during the journey.  Internal action captures what the narrator was thinking when these events occurred and looking back at them now.

So What?
These two narrators collaborate to address the question that all true stories must address: so what?  Why should anyone else care about what happened to us and what we think about it?  Since most people are already hesitant to share stories about themselves with a wider audience, these questions can intimidate many from speaking at all.  But answering the “so what?” question is why stories are a source of discovery from both writer and audience, particularly if they help illuminate, in some small way, the things we all share about being human.  A story about someone’s compulsive shoe-buying is also a story about what drives us all to acquire things. A story about one drunk father is a story about living with drunk fathers.  In other words, we tell stories not just about what happened but what happens. Identifying what category of experience best describes our significant event helps us to ferret out the larger themes in our story that we might want to say something about.

Three Act Structure
We have a motive for telling a true story:  To unravel the mystery of the causes and/or consequences of a significant event in our lives.  In doing so, we hope to discover something, however modest, that will speak in some small way to the lives of others.  The method of discovery is to deploy two narrators, a remembered self and a remembering self, one that recreates what happened and one that looks back with the understanding that wasn’t available then.
Let’s return now to structure.  How might we order the events that make up the story we’re telling?
To state the obvious, stories typically have beginnings, middles, and ends. In drama, we often describe these as Acts 1, 2, and 3.  However, that doesn’t really help us at all unless we describe the purposes of each Act.  Since the beginning of a story needs to establish the narrator’s purpose in telling the story, then Act 1 frames “the trouble” the narrator hopes to resolve.  This might include the significant event—I suddenly realized one day that I buy shoes I don’t need and want—and the stakes involved for the narrator (and audience):  What does this say about me (and us)?  Act 1 should dramatically establish the mystery the story hopes to resolve and the narrator’s motives for resolving it. How was the narrator’s life thrown out of balance? Naturally, Act 2 describes the action—internal and external—as the narrator goes about establishing how things got to be this way and what he or she is trying to do about it.  This usually involves confronting obstacles—experiences or information that complicate things—as well as moments that push the story forward towards resolution, which of course is the domain of Act 3.  By the end of the story, narrators should be prepared to say what they understand now that they didn’t understand when the story began.  How has the narrator changed, if at all? Resolutions are rarely neat or complete. Mystery often remains.

The Importance of Being Honest
The difference between a dull story and an interesting one comes down to writers’ motives:  Do they just want to tell what happened or do they seek to explore the mystery of why something significant happened and what it means? In the absence of mystery—and the possibility of discovery for both narrator and audience—a personal story is nothing more than a situation: this happened to me.  But good stories need something else, too, and that’s honesty.[i]  The most appealing stories are told by narrators who are more aware of what they don’t know than by what they do.  This is what guides a writer towards the most promising material. We tell true stories to better understand our experiences; it makes little sense, then, to tell a story whose meaning we have already figured out, which often comes off as just a performance meant to impress. The reward of discovery is insight, which however modest, should seem earned. Most of us love reading true stories where we sense that the narrator has tried hard to understand something. This is more likely if two conditions are met:  the material the writer chooses raises questions that aren’t easily answered, and the writer is willing to suspend judgment long enough to get at some small truths.   The best true stories, then, begin with the choice of material—itchy subjects that make their writers a little uncomfortable.

[i] Gornick, Vivian.  The Situation and the Story. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2002.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Rising, and Rising Again

As the year ends, I'm pleased to share a new essay that was published recently in the online journal Full Grown People.  This is a fishing story, but it's also a meditation on how we live with the undercurrents of loss.

There are magical days for fishers, unique because they are both rare and mysterious.  These days are also accidents, and don’t fit naturally into the pattern of causes and effects, though they must somehow be turned into stories.  Last August, Richard and I drove up to McCall, Idaho, and decided to fish the Brundage reservoir.  This was a trip we both needed.  Richard’s wife was dying, though her medical team continued their attempts to stop the growth of cancerous lung tumor, which had doubled in size in a year.  Death struggles cannot be contained; they send their tremors in every direction, and Cheryl’s condition made my own marriage seem vulnerable, a feeling I had not expected or had ever felt before.  Richard had lived long enough with an ailing partner that the idea of losing her—and of being alone—wasn’t as terrifying to him as it seemed to me. He was an attentive caretaker, and when I proposed that we take a day to fish, he said he would love to.  “But let’s see how Cheryl is doing,” he said.  She encouraged him to go.
Reservoirs hold the visible memory of the land they flooded.  There are the naked stumps of decaying timber, particularly in low water, and the rise and fall of water often scores the shore with impossibly straight ridges, each a few feet apart, which could be steps one might descend to reach the river that once flowed through there.  Idaho was burning last summer—historic fires in both the desert and the mountains—and the air was filled with smoke, even in McCall, which is at around 6000 feet elevation.  Here in the West, gaining elevation is the solution to a lot of problems—heat, inversions, and one hoped, smoke.  But when the high country burns the smoke stays here the fires are.  Unlike fishers, firefighters hope for smoke because it helps suppress the fires.  It was a sunny day, but the haze created a pewter wash over everything, especially the water on the reservoir, and all else was drained of color.
We launched our small kickboats, and in the morning the fishing was pretty good.  I trolled small streamers, and landed and released five or six fish in a few hours.  They were pretty fish, many of them rainbow and cutthroat trout hybrids—“cutbows”—with scarlet backs and golden bellies and sides.  But after lunch, the fishing slowed.  Kickboats are quietly propelled by flippered feet, freeing the hands to hold the rod, and one of the great pleasures of these small boats is the comradery of trolling with a companion.  When the fishing goes south, Richard and I often find each other on a lake, kicking along in unison, and talking now and then.  In light of everything—Cheryl’s suffering set against the somber and smoky gloom of that day—those moments together, floating high above a lost streambed, seemed especially poignant to me.
When the hatch started, I heard the fish first, rising to take the flies, and then trout were all around us, swirling and splashing, hungrily working the surface.  I quickly switched over to a dry fly line and put a big bug on—grasshopper-like with rubber legs.  Tying knots when fish are rising around you triggers a desperation that makes knots harder to tie.  The mind focuses on one thing—getting the fly to the feeding fish.  Meanwhile, the hatch intensified.  “Have you looked up at the sky?” Richard said.  When I did, I saw a rolling cloud of flies.  They were big black bugs with yellow-orange bellies that defied classification—they weren’t mayflies, or stoneflies, or caddis or any of the usual aquatic insects that flyfishers typically imitate—and yet they seemed to emerge from the water, hovering around us and nowhere else on the reservoir.  Soon I was casting to the rising trout, my fly landing on a carpet of floating bugs.  The takes varied from violent to lackadaisical, and before long we were tying into nice fish, nearly all fifteen inches or more.  These were thick, well-fed trout that rose hungrily from the bottom of the reservoir.  The hatch continued around us for more than an hour, and the feeding and catching continued, each of us pulling fish to our boats and quickly unhooking them to begin again.  From time to time, Richard and I would turn to each other and comment on the magic of it all—two men alone together in small boats in the middle of an eruption of flies and fish.  

 When the hatch finally waned, we floated together for a little while, exhausted but still wondering if somehow the magic would continue. For a few minutes, the sun wanly broke through the smoky sky, but the reservoir’s surface went slick, unbroken by rising trout.  For that hour, though, Richard had a break from his death watch.  It was an hour filled with life—the golden flash of rising fish, the frantic flight of insects, and the steady, back and forth beat of our forearms as we hurled our fly lines out and away to where the fish were.  Cheryl died a few days later.  But when we returned to Boise that night, tired and exuberant, she was waiting for us on the back deck at Richard’s house, lying in the dark on a chaise lounge and wrapped in a white blanket.  Cheryl could not get up to greet me, and yet somehow, in my mind, I see her rising, again and again.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

In Such a World, Does Writing Matter?

Published in the Idaho Statesman, December 19, 2001

As I write this, searchers still comb the rubble of the World Trade Center in New York looking for answers.  Questions are much easier to find these days; they came raining down along with fluttering sheets of paper that filled the air as the buildings collapsed.  This is the image that haunts me--the flurry of white paper that was once letters, scribbled notes, application forms, birthday cards, and perhaps a journal page--words sent aloft only to settle anonymously on the debris-covered New York sidewalks below.

In such a world, can writing matter?  When carefully chosen words are taken violently from their owners and sent aimlessly swirling in the wind drafts of collapsing buildings, doesn't it seem that language is suddenly as insignificant as those shredded bits of paper? What can we say to each other that has enough meaning?  What do we say to those who hate inspires such violence?  What words do we choose to capture what we feel?

Yet for most of us, especially now, there is a hunger to speak, to write, to communicate.   It is one way that we long to learn that we are not alone. It is one way we can struggle to understand what seems incomprehensible.  While our words often seem to fail us, we still invest them with hope.

Such things are on my mind as I consider my work as a writing teacher.  For the first time in 20 years, I wasn't standing before a class this September, but in the days that followed September 11th I imagined that I was, looking back at the stunned faces of 25 students who came to hear how to write a good lead, or discuss the use of detail in an essay, or ask questions about sentence fragments.  I imagined that they, too, held the image of impossibly white pages falling, falling against mushrooming clouds of gray dust.  What would I have said to these developing writers?

Perhaps I would have told them that is it the writer's job to make sense of things.  In the face of the incomprehensible, language can seem insubstantial.  But if writers are willing, they can pursue words, chase them like loose pieces of paper blown helter-skelter in the wind.  If writers do this, let language lead in pursuit of meaning, they will find themselves on streets they don't recognize, among strangers and friends, stumbling on things they didn't know they knew.

But this requires faith that words are still worth following, as I have followed them here, trying to discover what it might mean that before the World Trade Center towers collapsed, paper fell like snow.