N Is for Narrative

Like many other word people, the cataclysmic 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign and its ongoing aftermath got me wondering whether my particular skills as a writer and editor could be useful and, if so, how. Clarity and accuracy seemed way down low on the country’s priority list.

Then in late January, I found Theodora Goss’s blog post “The Politics of Narrative Patterns.” It began like this:

There are all sorts of reasons the American election went the way it did, but I think one of them, and perhaps quite an important one, was the way in which our thinking is determined by narrative patterns. What do I mean by narrative patterns? I mean that in narratives, in stories, there are underlying patterns we are familiar with. They recur from story to story: stories are often variations on these patterns. When we encounter these patterns, we feel fulfilled, comfortable — we recognize them, we like to read about them. We like variation, but only a certain amount of variation. Too much variation makes us feel unsatisfied, as though somehow the story is written “wrong.”

After discussing some narrative patterns popular in our culture, Goss notes that male characters have more archetypal options than female characters. Right, thought I, thinking of the path-breaking work writers of f/sf (fantasy and science fiction, hands-down my #1 go-to choice for fiction) have been doing since the 1970s and earlier to expand the possibilities for female characters.

Then Goss ties this to presidential elections, past and present. “People did not get so excited by Barack Obama, when he first ran, because of his policies,” she writes. “No, he was the young hero who had overcome adversity and triumphed.”

And Donald Trump? “He fit another narrative pattern: the stranger who rides into town and imposes order, bringing justice to the frontier. . . . It did not hurt him that he was not morally pure, because we do not expect the gunslinger to be morally pure — no, that’s reserved for heroes.”

Immediately it dawned on me that the wise old man in the race, the Gandalf, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and maybe Walter Cronkite character, was clearly Bernie Sanders. Wise old(er) men have loomed large in my fantasy life since I was a kid, but I never “felt the Bern.” The more I researched his record, the less impressed I was. But I had such a hard time conveying my reservations to my many, many Sanders-supporting friends that I finally stopped trying.

When a narrative pattern takes hold, facts take a back seat. This applies to writing as well as politics: novels that capture the public imagination and become runaway best-sellers seldom do it on their literary merits alone. Don’t tell me the gatekeepers of the publishing world, the agents, editors, publishers, reviewers, et al., are impervious to the power of narrative patterns!

What about women? asks Theodora Goss. Plucky girls are OK, but what happens when they grow up? “We only have two patterns for older women who want political power. One is the Virgin Queen, like Elizabeth I: a woman is fit to wield power if she is willing to give up other aspects of being a woman, such as marital relationships or children.”

Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t  fit this pattern. “What was left?” Goss asks. “The Wicked Queen. We know what she does — she seizes power (illegitimately) for her own gain, to satisfy her own ambition. She kills people or has them killed (this too was a criticism lodged against Clinton). And the Wicked Queen cannot be allowed to gain power — she must be defeated. All of our stories have told us that, from childhood on.”

Walk around that for a while. It resonates.

It also brings me round to the question of what can we word people do in this world where it seems our skills are only valued if we put them in the service of spin, obfuscation, manipulation, and outright lying.

It brought Theodora Goss around to a similar place. At first she thought (feared?) that writing had no use and maybe she should have gone into another line of work. “But now I think that one of our most important tasks is telling stories, and I am a storyteller. I am a perpetuator and creator of narrative patterns. That means I have an obligation to be aware of the patterns, to wield them in ways that are good, and true, and useful. And I can create new patterns.”

That’s the key: the old patterns won’t lose their power with the wave of a pen, but they can be undermined and transformed, and new patterns can be created. I saw it happening in f/sf, where women went from being add-ons and sidekicks to having their own adventures.

Well into the 1960s, lesbian characters in pulp fiction had basically two options: go straight or die. Cracks began to appear in the pattern before the end of the ’50s, and over the following decades, thanks in large part to lesbian and feminist writers, presses, and readers, new patterns were created. In many quarters these days “go straight or die” is an anachronism.

Note my inclusion of “readers” here. The culture’s narrative patterns are very strong, and the gatekeepers, often citing “market forces,” have a vested interest in perpetuating them. Books that break or undermine the dominant patterns are unsettling, and plenty of people don’t like being unsettled. It wasn’t a commercial press that broke the back of the “go straight or die” lesbian stereotype: it was Daughters., Inc., the small lesbian press that in 1973 published Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle. The novel’s “underground” popularity caught the attention of mainstream publishers, and Rubyfruit Jungle went on to become a mass-market best-seller — and a cultural icon for a lot of us.

Narrative patterns are deeply rooted in all our heads. They’re our default settings when we read, when we write, when we choose among political candidates. They’re powerful for sure, but they aren’t invincible. Words, our words, can change them, one story at a time.

 

The Drive to Connect

My work nook

My work nook. It’s considerably more cluttered than it was when I took this picture three years ago.

After I get dressed in the morning, I put on the teakettle, reheat whatever is left in yesterday’s teapot, light a candle or two, and sit down in my work chair. Before I pull the tool of the morning into my lap (either pen and paper or my laptop, depending on whether I’m first-drafting or revising; today it’s the laptop), I usually reach for my copy of The Writer’s Chapbook (I’ve got the 1989 edition), open it at random, and take whatever my eye falls on as my guide.

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This morning I reached instead for Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language, which happened to be sitting on top of The Writer’s Chapbook. If I had to list the most important books I’ve read in my life, Dream would be in the top five. I’m still reading and rereading it almost 40 years after I encountered it for the first time. You might guess this from the fact that my copy is in two pieces and the front and back covers are less than pristine. (The spine broke between the last two pages of “Natural Resources.” This is not a coincidence.)

This morning my eye lit on the second stanza of “Origins and History of Consciousness.”

No one lives in this room
without confronting the whiteness of the wall
behind the poems, planks of books,
photographs of dead heroines.
Without contemplating last and late
the true nature of poetry. The drive
to connect. The dream of a common language.

The stanza that gave the book its title. A stanza that acknowledges and even begins to respond to the questions I can barely ask out loud: What good is writing in this world where talk is cheap, lies are endemic, and so few people seem up to the challenging of actually listening? What can a writer do?

“Origins and History of Consciousness” blends writing and loving  in imagery that can’t be easily summarized. You can find the whole thing here. At the moment I can’t find the complete text of “Natural Resources” online. It’s a long poem, and everyone loves to quote the last stanza. The Dream of a Common Language is still in print, and all of it’s included in Collected Poems, 1950–2012, edited by Claudia Rankine and published last year.

Do I Own My Story? But What If It’s Also Your Story, and You Don’t Want Me To Tell It?

A thoughtful discussion of a crucial issue for most of us who write nonfiction about real people. Read the comments too.

Having come up through the feminist movement, written for feminist publications, and worked in a feminist bookstore, I know how important it is to tell our stories. If we don’t, our stories don’t get told. Taking their place in the public arena are stories about us told by others. At best these are incomplete; at their all too common worst, they’re self-interested distortions and outright lies.

At the same time, writing confers power, especially when it comes with access to a large audience. Some glibly say “Let the people I’m writing about tell their own stories,” ignoring that those people usually don’t have our skill, our will, or our access to print. This goes for journalists as well as memoirists, personal-essayists, and all of us whose writing involves real places and people. These are big questions, and they deserve better than glib, self-serving answers.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

zz hertzel Laurie Hertzel

By Laurie Hertzel

Like any good student, I sat in the front row, took diligent notes, and believed, for a while, everything my teachers said. As a young newspaper reporter, I had ambitions beyond daily journalism, so for years I attended as many workshops and seminars as possible, studying narrative writing, fiction, and, eventually, memoir.

“I own my story,” I obediently jotted during a memoir lecture—or words to that effect. “No one has the right to tell me what I can or can’t write.”

But when I began working on my first memoir, I realized that it’s not that simple. Yes, I own my story—that is, I have the right to tell the stories of my life.  But I don’t live in a vacuum, and in order to tell my stories I cannot help but tell the stories of others. Do I have that right? Do I have the…

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