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.

 

J Is for Journey

“A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you.

That’s Ursula K. Le Guin in “Talking About Writing” which you can find in her Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (1979). I don’t write fantasy, but I’ve read a lot of it, which may explain why fantasy elements keep sneaking into my real-time fiction.

It may also explain why for me writing is a journey, especially writing fiction, and everything Le Guin says about fantasy applies. The journey I’ve been on for three years now started with a dog running through the woods and a girl sitting on a playground swing. As I wrote my way toward them, I began to understand who they were and how they were connected.

I also ventured deep and deeper into my own subconscious, or memory, or imagination, whatever it is, and found images and questions that preoccupied me in the past but that I’d set aside. Rescue — both rescuing and being rescued — was a big one. In my novel in progress, the rescue of the dog turned out to be pretty easy. The rescue of the girl is still working itself out. I’m still not 100% sure of what she needs to be rescued from, but it’s a lot clearer — and more unsettling — than it was when I started. So are the stories and motivations of the would-be rescuers.

One of my mantras is “Your writing will teach you what you need to know.” It will, but the catch is that you have to keep doing it. My hunch is that a fair amount of what’s called “writer’s block” stems from the cautious mind’s fear of those subconscious places where reason has to relinquish control. The fear is totally justified because, as Le Guin wrote, the journey will change you.

It may change you in ways you don’t expect and can’t control, that may sharpen or blur your vision enough to unsettle your view of the world. It’s a wild magic, writing.

As the letter J drew closer in my passage through the alphabet, I couldn’t decide between “journey” and “journal.” The two words had to be closely related, I thought, and so they are: both stem from the Latin word for “day,” diurnis, by way of the Anglo-French. If you know any French, or even if you don’t, the “jour-” in “journey” and “journal” probably suggests jour, the French word for “day.”

“Journey,” it seems, originally suggested a day’s travel. Now a journey can take much longer, especially if you’re working on a book-length work, but breaking it down into days isn’t a bad idea. The journey may indeed lead into dangerous places, but the closer you get, the less scary they seem — because you’re getting braver with every step you take, every word you write.

The journey continues.

 

Murder, They Write — and Write, and Write

I’m probably going to get into big trouble here. Quite a few of my friends and acquaintances write murder mysteries. A vast number of my friends and acquaintances read murder mysteries.

Still, I’ve gotta say it: Something bugs me about murder mysteries.

The other day lonelyboy1977, a blogger I follow, blogged about “the one trope I love to hate.” The trope he loves to hate is the love triangle. It’s not the trope itself he hates. It’s the way writers who use it tend to fall into ruts. Rather than develop their characters and plots, they let the trope do the work.

In real life, murder is a crime. In fiction, it’s a trope. In murder mysteries, it’s a sine qua non. Without a murder, it’s not a murder mystery.

Aside: OK, now I’m curious. Are there any murder mysteries out there in which murder doesn’t happen? Recommendations welcome.

No, I don’t for a minute believe that writing and reading murder mysteries makes a person insensitive to murder. I get the distinction between fiction and real life. Even when it’s set in a real place, fiction creates an alternate reality. My friend Cynthia Riggs writes murder mysteries about Martha’s Vineyard, the place where we both live. They’re fun, they’re well-written, they’re true to the place in almost every detail . . .

body outlineExcept for the dead bodies that keep turning up. Homicide is very rare on Martha’s Vineyard. If murders happened on the Vineyard as often as they do in Cynthia’s books, the Vineyard would be a very different place. More of us would lock our doors. Fewer of us would go for long walks in the woods alone. Every time someone was murdered, we’d be surreptitiously studying our friends and neighbors for clues: Did you do it?

And perhaps wondering ourselves: Who out there is itching to kill me?

Why is the murder trope so popular with writers? Well, duh, writers write murder mysteries because there’s an apparently insatiable market out there for them. But how about from a strictly writing point of view?

fingerprintToss a murder into the meandering stream of daily life and plot happens. I’ve blogged before about how I’m plot-impaired. The number of online how-to-plot guides out there tells me I’m not alone. I’d probably be better at plotting if I were better at killing characters off.

The task I’ve set myself, though, pretty much precludes that option. In my fiction, I’m exploring Martha’s Vineyard. In creating my alternate-reality Vineyard, I’ve limited myself to the materials lying around in the actual place. At present I’ve got a loose dog, a child trapped in a bad family situation, and a protagonist who gets sucked into trying to rescue both of them. The dog almost gets shot and there’s one character I wouldn’t mind killing off, but so far no one’s died or committed murder.

What I’m curious about is how the murder trope influences the writer’s imagination. Murder is such a sure-fire way to get a plot going — does it push other possibilities out of the picture? The same goes for other tried-and-true tropes, like the love triangle. If something works once, we’ll usually do it again — and again and again and again.

Till it stops working.

Which isn’t likely to happen in our lifetimes.

Here I’m going to take a giant step backwards. As the late Grace Paley said, and I’m forever quoting, “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.”

My feet aren’t in the mud of murder mysteries, and I’ve already said enough. But I’m curious. And I hope some of you murder mystery writers and avid readers out there will weigh in.

Murder weapons

Murder weapons in waiting