But I’ve been listening to a lot of “This American Life” recently, and I can’t overlook what’s missing here. I’ve never suffered rape or abuse, never lived through a catastrophic or dramatic break-up or death, never been switched at birth, never had a brother who murdered my mother, never jumped out a second-story window in my sleep, or generally been so drunk, angry, or lost that time disappeared.
I am, in other words, boring.
Wikipedia lists “Narrative,” as one of the principal rhetorical modes (along with argumentation, exposition, and description) and traces the word to “gno,” the Indo-European root for knowing. Understanding means converting observations, occurrences, and experiences into stories. Even argumentation, exposition, and description seem superfluous. As long as we’re time-bound, every mode relies on sequence—you must decide what’s next.
Which should be some consolation. If telling is central, if chronological decisions matter more than the subject, perhaps telling is all that counts. The author who can create narrative from less dramatic or engaging material might show the greatest genius.
And maybe I don’t need to leave my living room, after all.
Some aesthetes place character ahead of plot. They say perspective really creates meaning. Seeing how someone else experiences life lets us reshape our understanding or escape ourselves altogether. “This American Life” includes the “This” because it implies something common, a life we share. Sure, few of us have lost our memory in India from taking anti-malaria medication or had a boss who terrorized us with car bombs, but the person who can speak about that life is what fascinates us—we have American experiences too. Our common humanity allows us to absorb the tale’s peculiarity. Every story is about its author.
The trouble is, these answers are self-serving. When you offer only fellow-feeling, when every reader already knows your best material, you place more weight on telling than most stories can bear. Being expert at the obvious and commonplace will only carry you so far.
According to Bob Baker of the Los Angeles Times, narrative is, “Any technique that produces the visceral desire in a reader to want to know what happened next.” The most direct way to compel that desire is to demonstrate what’s at stake, some unanswered question—about narrative perhaps—or difficult confession—“I am a sham” perhaps—or undesired intimacy—I’m not sure what you’re reading right now is at all worthwhile, perhaps.
But how far can a writer compel a reader without a distinctive story? Sometimes, before my recent acquaintances realize the person they’re talking to is a blogger, they pan blogs as tiny tempests of melodrama and banality. Though their criticism hurts, I see their point about a certain type of blog… a type that might include this one. You can only mine the mundane so long before the whole house falls into a vast sinkhole.
Many teachers in MFA programs find themselves prescribing real life experience as the cure to writers’ woes. As much as I’d like to wriggle out from under these pressing questions and believe the teller matters more than the tale, I worry. Can any art rest on artifice? Is the everyday enough?
To be his or her best, a writer must get out and live. Myself included.