Myself Included

As I prepare to write a blog post, I think, “What story do I have to tell this week?” Nearly always, I start with “Nothing” and move onto “I’ll think of something.”

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.

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3 Comments

Filed under Art, Blogging, Doubt, Ego, Essays, Genius, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Sturm und Drang, This American Life, Thoughts, Writing

3 responses to “Myself Included

  1. Great post. One thing is sure: YOU ARE NOT BORING.

    It’s nice of you to say so. I’m not looking for the sort of experience that would make my writing more exciting, but I have to remind myself sometimes that writing has to be second to living. It’s easy for me to substitute.

    Thanks for visiting! —D

  2. Lovely confession, but I concur with Ms. Barlow: sorry, you’re not boring. I should know.

    Your comments on narrative and mentioning our MFA days remind me of advice Ted Hoagland gave me about travel writing: “It’s not enough to take readers to a place, something has to happen.”

    As for the interior/exterior tension, George Packer and I were talking after a Barry Hannah lecture (“Writer’s block is God’s way of telling you that you have nothing to say”) and George, in effect, said, ” When I have trouble going inside, I go outside; and when I have trouble going outside, I go inside.”

    Good to catch up with your blog and your ruminative talent again. You voice familiar turmoil. With authority.Thank you for doing so. Now, put your shoes on and go enjoy the summer weather while it lasts.

    I was happy with my teacher during my semester of non-fiction at Bennington, but I wish I’d had a chance to work with George Packer. I loved his lectures… he seemed absolutely sensible.

    It’s hot in Chicago now, so I don’t feel like getting outdoors, but while everyone was complaining about how cool early June was and saying, “When is summer going to start?” I was enjoying some long walks (and short runs).

    Thanks for visiting. I enjoy stopping by your blog too. It’s something charmingly episodic, and I always look forward to the next
    chapters.

  3. Steve

    You weren’t boring “back in the day” and I doubt you are boring now, even if you’re not jumping out of second story windows with your hair on fire. Our conversations always left me entertained, edified or enlightened…sometimes all three.

    Thanks–maybe I’ve just reached the age when I’ve heard all my stories too many times. I wish I could go back to the way it was then sometimes–everything was new to us and so the world was new. Thanks for visiting, Steve.

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