Lost and Found

I become lost in my stories from time to time. It is never immediately apparent at the moment I stray from the path, but before long I sense something is wrong. I am the visitor to a foreign city who has misread his map, and the neighborhood is looking dodgy. Now, my characters have nothing interesting to say, and I can’t see any details of the world they occupy.

It can happen very quickly, losing one’s narrative way. Your hero meets a stranger and you have the thought, “Maybe they should buy some pears.” It isn’t a very interesting thought to you, but at that moment it’s the only thought you have, and so you follow the dull thought hoping somehow you were wrong. Now your character is buying pears and you couldn’t care less, and if its one of those days, you wonder what is wrong with you, and why can’t you make this scene work, and maybe you should abandon the whole story.

The beauty of fiction, of course, is that every word is just an idea until it goes to print. Before then, everything can be changed. When I become lost in a story I usually retreat to the last point where I was on the path and toss everything else. Next, I get very, very quiet. The wrong path was a reminder that I had been impatient, a common problem of mine. The quieter I become, the more patient I become, and eventually the next step presents itself.

I wander from paths all the time. One thought is all it ever takes, and I find myself chasing an idea down dark alleys. Sometimes these thoughts compel me to move not just in mind but in body, and I find I have literally traveled somewhere I don’t want to be, where I am in the company of people with whom I share little, or working at a job I dislike.

The moment I recognize that something is wrong is often a grim one. If I am feeling small and bitter, I blame fate or the rude demands of others. If, on the other hand, I get very, very quiet, no matter how far I’ve wandered, I sense the path I had been following and where I must turn next to find it. In this way, becoming lost is often the greatest gift, reminding me as it does that every path eventually leads home.

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The Never Ending Story

Yann Martel makes the point in his interview that without what he calls “stories or gods” people become lost. As he says, neither religion nor stories serve any rational purpose, yet there they are, everywhere, and without them, he believes, we are untethered.

I tend to agree, although I would say that stories, a concept that encompasses the religious narrative by which so many live, are not only rational but unavoidable. Though I’m quibbling a little. His point is that rationally we must hunt the wooly mammoth to feed and clothe ourselves – those are the empirically necessary action steps of survival.  Everything else, cave paintings and grunt-filled stories around the campfire, are just a little icing to make the time between hunting, eating, making babies and dying a little more pleasant.

Except all stories, from cave paintings to Ulysses, are simply concretizing what is going on within ourselves all the time. We cannot stop telling ourselves stories – they are, as Martel points out, the engines or our lives. The stories we tell ourselves, from, “My wife loves and supports me,” to, “The government is dysfunctional and corrupt,” color every moment of our lives. We wear our stories like glasses through which we see the world.

This is why the stories we tell each other, at the dinner table and in books, are in fact rationally, if I must use the wretched word, necessary. In our stories we are in effect offering one another alternative realities. I might have a story in my head that goes, “The world is unjust and rewards the cruel and squashes the meek.” Perhaps then I read a story about a man’s world crumbling under the weight of his cruelty and a kind person thriving through generosity. If the story is compelling, perhaps I will tell myself a different story, and if so, my life has changed.

It is that profound. Our lives are nothing but stories we are telling ourselves. I implore you tell the best stories you can, to yourselves, to your friends, and to the strangers who pull your book from a shelf. Actions may speak louder than words, but every action has had a story told about it in words, and it is that story we carry with us long after the action has been subsumed irrevocably into the past.

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The Good Story

One of my earliest memories of a close friend was the day he told me the story of Knack the Black. We were in high school, and Knack the Black, Father Knackowitz, had been the Vice Principal of the parochial high school Chris, my friend, had been compelled to the attend the year before. It was a simple story, really. Chris wanted me to understand what life at this particular Catholic school was like, and so he told me about the time he had seen Knack catch a student shirking in the hallway between classes.

The key was Knack’s coffee. He loved his coffee, and, according to Chris, was never seen without it. In this instance the shirker made the mistake not only of shirking, but bumping into Knackowitz and spilling his beloved java. Chris was fifteen years old at the time of the telling, had never taken a writing class or had never read a book on the craft of storytelling, but painted such a compelling portrait of Knack, his coffee, his black raiment, and his rage, that forty years later I still have a vivid picture in my imagination of a man I never met.

Did Chris exaggerate? Of course. Did it matter? No. The truth was hardly the point at all. We were becoming friends, and stories would always be a part of the friendship. Not everyone is good at telling stories, but not everyone is good at listening to them either. I know I am good at the latter, and I hope I do a fair job of the first. The better we are at hearing stories, the better stories we get to hear. Just as a comedian is funnier when his audience is laughing, so too a storyteller will tell better stories when his listener is appropriately shocked, amazed, or delighted.

The reason I became such fast friends with Chris and why I am a writer and storyteller today is because stories are a vehicle through which I can express my own love of life. I have always felt that discovering a new writer is like finding a new friend. What we call friendship is a shared perception of life. So when lovers and friends, when readers and writers, when comedians and audiences get together, the applause and the laughter and hugs and the handshakes never mean merely, It’s good to see you, or, You’re so funny and entertaining—rather, they are us standing up and cheering as we discover once again that life is worth living after all.

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Stories Of Power

I wrote yesterday about the stories we tell ourselves. I was reminded of this again this weekend when a friend of mine told me about what he was currently reading. This friend has always been concerned with the lives of people who do not hold political power—people without much money, or who lack political connections, or simply the ones not currently holding the political baton. For him the world is often a struggle between the powerful and disempowered, which for him is a battle of good versus evil.

You would think, then, that he would be drawn to read stories of the disempowered rising up and seizing power from the powerful. Not so. He prefers to read stories about the powerless being taken advantage of by the powerful. I believe he reads these stories to serve as motivation, to remind him how unjust the world was and is so that he can remain vigilant in his lifelong struggle against injustice.

Yet these stories actually demotivate him. And why shouldn’t they? Given these types of narratives, he is forced to choose between being noble and just and decent but easily controlled, or greedy and powerful and corrupt. Power, in the end, is the measure of one’s willingness to take advantage of others. My friend is a sweet guy who doesn’t like to take advantage of people, so the choice has been made.

I mention all this because it stands as one of the best examples of the power of the stories we tell others and we tell ourselves. It doesn’t matter whether that story is told in a novel, on a movie screen, or around a kitchen table—the relationship between narrator and audience remains essentially the same. Everyone on earth is forever offering everyone else on earth an interpretation of life as it has been led and as it can be led. We listen; we decide; we tell our own stories.

I disagreed with my friend’s narratives, but I did not choose on this occasion to offer a different one because he seemed so committed. And anyway, later he told me another story, this one about his father and their strained and fractious relationship. Now I saw his stories of political struggles a little differently. This story of his father slipped out between those of oppression and of good and decent people being ignored and trampled. I think we are all trying to tell the best story we can, and I think sometimes the most important stories are the ones we don’t realize we are even telling.

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The Best Story

Why are stories so important? Certainly, a storyteller’s first job is to entertain, by which I mean keep the reader engaged. Whatever further ambitions you have for a story, if you cannot hold the reader’s attention by some fashion those ambitions will not be met.

But stories have not remained so important to us because they are merely entertaining. Ultimately, all of life is a story we are telling ourselves. The past, despite photographs and films and videos, remains securely locked away in the vault of time. Anything we say or even think about the past is a story, as the limitations of time and space requires that we prune details and select a lens through which to view what has happened. These stories frequently change and always change us. Was the Civil War a war of Northern aggression or a struggle to end slavery? Did your boyfriend dump you because you are unlovable or because he was afraid to be loved? Pick your story.

Stories are often seen as containing little lessons within them—let go of the past, risk change, trust your heart—and this is all to the good. But I think the greatest lesson the best stories can teach us is how to tell our own stories. And I don’t mean keep them entertaining. I mean interpret events in a way that most serves us.

The most important stories you will tell are those you tell yourself. For me, the act of telling other people stories, particularly people I don’t know, has brought me again and again to this question: what is the best thing I could possibly tell someone else about what has happened? As I have trained myself in storytelling, I have seen the stories I tell myself change—or perhaps it is the other way around. No matter, the two are much the same thing.

Most published stories, be they fiction or narrative non-fiction, are filled with conflict and turmoil and loss and physical suffering. Why bother us with this? To kill a plane ride? No. The best stories are told with the knowledge that our own lives will be filled with conflict and turmoil and all the rest. We must live with the stories we tell ourselves about these events. Choose your ending wisely.  Choose the very best thing you could tell yourself. Trust me. There is nothing more important.

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The Song Without End

Once when I was on vacation with my wife in a rainforest in Washington State, I found myself inspired by the moss and mist and felt a story bubbling in me. When I shared it with my wife, she rolled her eyes and said, “You’ve got this antenna and it’s always picking up stories. Just because you pick one up doesn’t mean you want to tell it.”

She was absolutely correct, and in fact the story never got told. But I’ve thought about my antenna a lot since then. I always viewed it as useful when finding a story, but unnecessary in the telling. Once the story had been found, it was my job to tell it. I have since come to understand that the antenna is the most valuable tool at a writer’s disposal, from the first kernel of an idea, to the final edit.

Imagine the world of possible stories like an infinite number of radio stations, each of which plays only one song. All these stories pass through your antenna, and you, as the writer, tune your dial to the song that interests you most. But you aren’t writing a song, you’re writing a story, and so it is your job to listen carefully to that song and translate it into characters and actions and scenes and words, trying to match the scenes and characters and words to that song in its feeling and intention and energy.

What is important to remember is that that song never stops playing. It plays whether you are happy or sad, whether you are waking or sleeping, whether you are writing to watching television. At times it appears the station on which the song is playing has been shut down, but it has not. The silence we call writer’s block is only the writer believing he and he alone must make everything up, and so forgets to tune his receiver, or worse yet, simply stops listening to it altogether.

In this way, we are not really making anything up; we are only listening—but listening as patiently, and as carefully as we can possibly listen, and always comparing what we have written to what we are hearing. The only thing that can stop that song from playing is fear. Fear shuts off the antenna in an instant. You must trust to hear it again, and when you do you will feel not the strength of creation, but the steady assuring melody that has been playing for you as long as you have been asking to hear it.

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Life Itself

I changed my writing schedule today. Instead of writing in the afternoon I am now writing in the morning. Not that I never got work done in the afternoon, but my children get home from school just as I’d be getting warmed up and so the interruptions began and the flow would be interrupted.

The flow is very important. Writing is unlike any other work I have ever done in this way. I feel sometimes when I am writing as if I have plunged into a swift current. The ride can be exhilarating and interesting, but the engine moving everything forward is somehow separate from me. This is why writers often talk about characters hijacking their stories, or beginning a sentence and realizing by the end of that sentence that the story has changed completely.

I understand now that I both love and fear the current. The current is what draws me to writing and what, on my bad days, keeps me away from my desk. On the bad days I don’t trust the current at all. What if it leads me to a quagmire? Shouldn’t I know where I’m going before I jump in? On the good days, I’m happy to be along for the ride, and when it’s time to get out, there’s always a dock at the ready.

It’s great to learn about dialogue and plot structure and crisp sentences—these tools help you stay afloat when the water gets rough. But writing is more about trusting the current than all the technical know-how put together. Eventually you must release your hold on the shore, and even the most skilled navigators can strike a rock now and again.

I have wanted to write to be famous; I have wanted to write so people would think I was smart; and I have wanted to write to make other people happy. It is obvious why none of these are reasons to write, but what was not obvious to me until recently was that I wasn’t even writing to tell stories. Eventually, I, like everyone else, was going to have to learn how to let go of the shore once and for all. The closer I got to the water the more I understood that nothing I wrote was make-believe, that the current I called a story was actually life itself.

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We Are Not Alone

Ernest Hemmingway described writing as the loneliest profession. Ivan Doig told me the first thing a new writer must ask him or herself is if they are willing to be alone for long stretches of time. True enough, I suppose. As I write this blog I am alone at my desk, and must remain so if I hope to finish it. And it is easy to look out at the other arts, at the filmmakers, the musicians, the dancers, to say nothing of carpenters, businessmen, waiters, bankers, teachers, and lawyers who practice their living every day in the company of other people and feel a tinge of longing for a friendly face to toil beside.

Given their propensity for shyness, plenty or writers, I’m sure, can only grouse—good riddance. Give me my solitude, my quite desk, and my imagination. All else is distraction. Except that nothing you do you really do alone. Even this blog required my webmaster to construct this wonderful environment, to say nothing of those men and women I’ll never meet who created HTML, and java, and all else stretching back technologically to Gutenberg and his Bible, the Greeks and their alphabet, and the first cave man to understand that by scraping one rock against another he could leave a mark for future cave people to live by.

And more to the point, this blog did not spring out of a literary void. I’ve learned, I’ve borrowed, and I’ve stolen from all the writers I’ve read, from Tolkien to E. E. Cummings. My mother told me stories, my father told me stories, my sister and brother and friends and teachers and co-workers, everyone told me stories, and when I sit down to write, conscious or not, I am reaching back through all those stories I have heard to cobble together one of my own.

Small comfort perhaps, when the quiet is closing in on you and your blank page. Where are all those stories now? Well, they can’t have gone far. They can’t be any further away than they ever were. Must be that in those dark hours that some name writer’s block we are keeping those other helpful voices away, because we have convinced ourselves we are alone and must remain so to do this supposedly solitary work.

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