Monday, December 06, 2010

The Story Project #1: It's Embarrassing To Tell A Story

For this new project, let’s pick up where we left off in a piece I wrote a few months ago about… 

--Wait! Stop! That’s exactly the problem I want to talk about! Did you see what I did there? I invited you all here today to tell you something, but when you showed up, I was too embarrassed to just start from scratch. I didn’t say “I’ve got something to say about storytelling, so boo-ya, here it is…” Instead, I felt the urge to couch my new comments as merely the continuation of an ongoing narrative. Why do I feel the urge to do this?

This is a mild example of something that I have come to realize is the big problem that lies behind so many little problems facing writers: It’s embarrassing to start a story from scratch. I’ve recently become more and more aware of all the ways in which storytellers contextualize their story into a previous framework, or apologize for trying to create meaning, or emotionally distance themselves and the audience from the characters, or explain that this story isn’t really their story at all—it’s just something they found lying around.

This is nothing new. The history of storytelling is the history of apologizing for storytelling. Three thousand years ago, if you wanted to make up a story, you had to pretend that it was a foundation myth. A foundation myth is a story with four big caveats attached. The reader must understand a few things:
  1. This really happened
  2. This is part of the origin of why the world is the way it is, not just a metaphor for how the world is. You will see relationships you recognize and can identify with, but this is the first time those relationships were established. You are the way you are because they were the way they were.
  3. These are our ancestors. In the end, they or their direct descendants become the founders of this very city. Our current ruling family is descended from those founders, who were themselves partially descended from the gods. This story explains why we treat our rulers like gods.
  4. Because this is part of our foundation myth, everything that happens in this story has consequences in your daily life. If these events had turned out a different way, your life would be different. These events aren’t just metaphors for our beliefs, these were the actual events that were the source of our beliefs.
Modern-day authors would kill to have that sort of p.r. work supporting their own launches. But today’s authors have their own ways of announcing, “this is not just a story—this is authentic!”. First and foremost, they announce: “I am not an author. This novel is not a product of the time I spent in graduate school learning the art of fiction. No, this novel is a result of the time I spent in prison, or growing up on a ranch, or doing odds jobs around the country, or slumming in Prague. 

Doctors and lawyers boast about where they got their degrees, but writers hide their degrees in shame, at least for the jacket copy or magazine interview. Writers live or die on their “authenticity”, which is the degree to which they are not really “writers”, deep down.

And of course, if professional writers are too embarrassed to admit that they’re making all this up from scratch, just imagine how embarrassed everyday people get when they have to tell a fictional story. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the one distancing technique we’re all most familiar with: “This happened to a friend of a friend of mine.” What can urban legends tell us about where stories come from?

1 comment:

rams said...

Ah, that would explain the girl in Fiction Workshop who prefaced every piece with "This is my Lydia Davis story" or "This is my Steven Millhauser story."