Departure and Arrival

This is how stories work

I had an interesting day on Sunday. Part of it was catching up with friends at a masked-and-distanced meet-up for a local State House candidate who’s done a terrific job for us for the past six years. As part of that, I was able to chat with two friends we haven’t seen for eight months, and talk about writing and writers. One of them said that the thing that has always captured him in fiction, and the thing that he so often finds missing in modern fiction, is an arc of motion. That completely mirrors a metaphor I’ve used before, which is that any story is a form of travel, taking us from one place and delivering us safely to another.

The rest of Sunday was taken up with writing a story myself. All morning, most of the afternoon, and an hour or so after dinner, and I’d taken an idea that came to me on a country drive on Saturday afternoon and developed it into a solid draft of a 2,700-word story. I’m proud of it, but that’s not the point. The point is what it does. Does it do the job of being story-ish?

That’s the question, isn’t it. What is the job of being story-ish? I’m enormously weary of those stories that lead us right into the heart of an emotional morass and then end. These stories follow a “choose-your-own-adventure” theory of literature that basically says that, since the reader is doing most of the work anyway, we should leave it to the reader to imagine what they would do if their lives sucked as badly as the one’s portrayed in the story. So we quit while the father is running down the side of the freeway during a schizophrenic episode. We quit while the adult brother and sister are just learning that the same man abused them both. These stories always feel as though they’re missing the last third or so. Climax and denouement are seen not merely as old-fashioned, they’re somehow intellectually dishonest, a summing-up that is unavailable in life and thus must be withheld in fiction as well. The crisis is all that we have.

Nope. Nope nope nope. I still feel that it’s the author’s responsibility to land the plane, to pull up to the gate and lower the ramp. The author can surprise us endlessly with delights along the journey, and the destination itself might be something other than we imagined, but a story is fundamentally a trip from A to B—for the characters, and for us.

The story that stops in mid-stream is, for me, the very definition of a chapter. It is the cliffhanger that invites us to come back tomorrow, the tension suspended across reader-time until we pick the book back up again after dinner. A story—whether flash or short or novel-length or epic—is a journey that can reasonably be said to have been completed.

The twentieth century modernists and their post-y offspring were just as unkind in music and architecture and visual arts as they have been in literature. We are mocked for wanting, for carrying expectations, for having hopes. Emotion is suspect; we are just brains in jars, logical sequences, information processors, data clouds. (The human mind used to be a watch, with intricate connections and levers. Now it’s a computer, with memory storage and processing capacity. Metaphors are insidious if we leave them to be invisible.)

One of the great losses brought about by recorded music and radio was songs that ended. Magnetic tape and mixing boards allowed the sliders to gradually descend at the end of the record, and the necessity of the DJ to talk over the space between records led to songs that didn’t have to end at all except at the demand of networks and advertisers. (Now that the role of the DJ has changed, songs can end again, except in various modes of electronica and dance music, where the DJ continues to be responsible for continuous sound and songs still needn’t be composed to a conclusion.)

[If I were David Foster Wallace and this were paper text instead of a website, each of the parenthetical remarks closing the last two paragraphs would have been footnotes. The medium remains at least part of the message.]

Songs and stories are similarly linear. The composer places us onto time’s arrow and fires us off in the direction they’d aimed. Einstein supposedly said (actually, it was science fiction writer Ray Cummings, in 1919), “Time is so everything doesn’t happen at once.” But time also allows emotion, because it allows anticipation. We know what happened, and we know where we are now. “And then what happened?” we say, unable to go to sleep until we know.

If we told stories at the campfire the ways that some of our contemporary writers told them, we’d be pelted with marshmallows until we finished the damned thing. You took us up here—it’s your job to get us back down.

So that, for me, is the job of being story-ish. It begins from one whole and entire place and brings us, moment by choreographed moment, to another whole and entire place. It is, as David Littlejohn once said about teaching, an opportunity to create an experience more shapely than our daily lives.

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