Hostility Lit

Well, that’s ONE model, I guess…

I’m going to paraphrase here, just so you know.

My writers’ group was meeting on Sunday, discussing a truly wonderful story from one of our members. She’d started with this story fifteen years before, had built it into a novel that became something of a shambling beast, and wanted to go back to the story as a stand-alone and rediscover what had drawn her to write about this specific moment.

The story still carried some remnants of its novelization, like scraps of plaster stuck to the back of a painting’s frame when it’s taken from a long mounting on the wall. Most specifically, it ended with a narrator from some long distant future, enclosing this perfectly rendered instant within a more inert historical frame. We thought about how, if that retrospective conclusion were removed, the story might otherwise end; thought about different modes of denouement that would land the characters into a modified world.

And one of our group said that he wasn’t sure that a denouement was needed at all. “A novel has to make friends with you,” he said, more or less, “but a short story just has to run up, slap you in the face, and run away.”

Ummm… okay… and we want that why, exactly?

I mean, think about that metaphor. In what other mode would we want meaningless, random aggression that we’re left to figure out on our own? Isn’t that a definition of terrorism? Domestic violence? Do we want our stories to give us micro-dosed PTSD?

Larry David, the lead writer of Seinfeld, said famously that his two rules for the show were “no hugging, no learning.” And that’s just a sad, disappointing recipe for a life.

Years ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece about young scholars’ transition to faculty life, an editorial essay called “That Guy.” The premise was that we’ve all run into jerks in our professional lives—the dissertation adviser who never returns papers, the self-important professor who reads the same lectures off the same crumbling, handwritten notes for decades, the senior scholar now allergic to any of the new thinking of his field—and that those modes of jerkishness can act as positive motivation for our own career. We can take, as part of our developmental task, to “not be that guy.”

I feel the same every time I run into another instance of our modern fetish for hostility lit. It simply convinces me, once again, that I don’t need to do my work that way. I can hold that up as an opposed magnetic force that pushes me toward my own aspirations.

Let me go back to a couple of things that I noted in my comments about the passing of Barry Lopez a couple of months ago.

  • From the Inuktitut language, the word for “storyteller” is isumatuq, which means “the person who creates the atmosphere in which the wisdom reveals itself.”
  • Storytellers are pattern makers. If our patterns are beautiful and full of grace, they will have the power to bring a person for whom the world has become chaotic and disorganized up from their knees and back to life.
  • If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive

Back when I was doing academic research, I devised a framework for myself that I called “narrative research,” which was the idea that everything we learned about some person or culture or community could be seen as an expression of an important collective story, and that my job was to understand and to tell that story. Part of this came from my particular field of interest, which was ethnographic work among teenagers. I came to mistrust the “hard science” of developmental psychology, with its inevitable sequential Piagettian stages from sensorimotor through pre-operational to concrete operational to formal operational cognition. I was more drawn to Piaget’s contemporary (and competitor) Lev Vygotsky, who framed youth as an apprenticeship in the ways of life that adults wanted to teach, learning the stories that mattered.

Contemporary adolescence is best understood, for me, as a time of lost story. The story of childhood has been removed, but the story of adulthood is yet withheld. Teenagers don’t have a legitimate cultural story in our structures; they’re no longer A, but not yet B.

Life is filled with those moments of narrative gap, which we often call “crises.” We move from college to career. From free single to young parent. From a house with kids to a house without kids. From fertile to menopausal. From married to divorced. From married to widowed. From employed to retired. From mostly well to mostly infirm. In every case, there will be some liminal period in which we’re no longer A, but haven’t yet figured out how to be B.

Every single one of my stories, now that I look back at them, is a story of someone attempting to build a new B now that A is no longer available to them. I write passages from one nation to another, stories of exile and new home. It doesn’t matter whether the story is 1,500 words or 95,000 words; what matters is that someone in uncertainty, in a “life of quiet desperation,” is helped to find a new community and build a new self. What matters is that they can help a reader for whom the world has become chaotic and disorganized to rise from their knees and back to life.

Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.

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