In an interview I came across once, the late David Foster Wallace said,

I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, …imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.

Less than 100 years before, C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we are not alone,” which is to say the same thing, only better, more concisely. In his famous Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner said of storytelling, “…the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself…alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” And there is what John Steinbeck said in the dedication portion of his great novel, East of Eden; as the story goes, the dedication refers to the first finished draft of the novel, which he had placed inside a wooden box, so that its recipient, Pascal Covici—or Pat, as Steinbeck called him—could open it and read this note on top. The note says,

Dear Pat,
You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said, ‘Why don’t you make something for me?’
I asked you what you wanted, and you said, ‘A box.’
‘What for?’
‘To put things in.’
‘What things?’
‘Whatever you have,’ you said.
Well, here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts—the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.
And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.
And still the box is not full.

Later in the book, in chapter 34, Steinbeck breaks out of his role as narrator, and writes an essay about what story is. The beginning and end of it go like this:

A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?” And a grown man or woman may wonder, “What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?”

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and the chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?

…In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love. When a man comes to die, no matter what his talents and influence and genius, if he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him and his dying a cold horror. It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.

We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.

I know a man, Ronaldo, a percussionist from Colombia, whom I met eleven years ago outside a coffee shop. I had come to listen to my friends play folk music, to drink coffee, to smoke cigarettes, and to read some of John Updike’s book of short stories, Trust Me. When I arrived to the coffee shop, there were no empty tables, though there were plenty of empty chairs, and I saw that this man, this Ronaldo, whom I’d never met before, was sitting at one of the tables, reading a newspaper. I asked to join him, and he agreed on the condition that I not smoke—since, he told me, grabbing his chest, he had a heart problem. He was in his forties or fifties, fat, dark skin, and had a small Afro. He spoke with an accent. We sat quietly for a few minutes, listening to prerecorded music through speakers while my friends set up their instruments, and I opened my book to read. He saw that I was reading Updike, and he asked me whether I’d ever read him in Spanish. I told him, No, but I’d like someday to read the great Spanish authors in their first language. I mentioned Don Quixote and the stories of Jorge Borges, and he nodded politely—probably because he figured, as I did, that I was just putting on a show, that probably I would never get around to doing it, ever (though, incidentally, a few years later when I travelled to Ecuador I did buy my first Spanish Borges book, Ficciones). And then I mentioned—and this part was true—that I’d read One Hundred Years of Solitude only a couple months prior, and that I imagined it was a beautiful novel in Spanish, and he assured me that it was indeed more beautiful than I could imagine. From there, our conversation moved naturally along a kind of winding path: we talked for a while about the nature of translation, and that Updike’s use of alliteration, in particular, and the thick sounds he can produce out of his paragraphs—especially when he seems to be showing off—cannot easily be replicated in Spanish. We talked for a long time about art, and about music in particular, how it moves “up” through the ranks of economic class, from the slaves (where African dance music, brought over from their original home, had begun in the Americas), to the ruling classes (where samba and all the other músicas latinas were refined and formed into art). He told me of music he had played, and where. He told me about great percussionists he had played with, people I’d never heard of, and how, after thirty or forty years of playing, he still looked back to the 1970s as his favorite time. Then, excitedly, he told me about a show he played one night in a bar in Colombia. The place was small and dark and not very crowded. People were sitting and listening and drinking and talking and smoking and laughing. When they had finished about half their set, one of the waiters brought them a tray full of drinks—courtesy of one of the members of the audience. A few songs later, another tray full of drinks came. Then another. Then another. Who was paying for all these drinks? Who enjoyed the music so much that he would continue thanking the band with all this expensive alcohol? The waiter told them: It was G.G.M. (in Spanish, it is pronounced Heh Heh Emmeh, the initials of Colombia’s greatest writer, Gabriel García Márquez). The band was in disbelief. No, could it be? No! Of course not. Then the waiter tried to point him out, and he pointed to a man sitting alone at his table, but the place was dark enough that nobody could know for sure. All they could see was that this man, whoever he was, wore bathroom slippers and smoked enormous cigars. Still, though, the drinks continued to come. At the end of the show, G.G.M. lingered—yes, it really was him!—and the band got to talk to him. At this part of the story, Ronaldo’s eyes grew big and proud. “Ciento Años de Solidad had come out a few years back,” he said to me. “It was the best book I had ever read. And here he was, the master himself, buying me drinks!” Ronaldo went on. “We sat and talked. All night. Just him and the band. He kept smoking those cigars and buying us drinks. He told us that it was his job, that people paid him all kinds of money, to tell lies.”

Now it occurs to me to say something about the things I’ve said—about the things, really, that I’ve listed—which are things other people have said about stories. When I reflect on all the things I’ve listed here—things all which seem good to believe about what story is, or what story is for, things all which I agree with in one way or another, things all that are not unlike many of the other things that throughout history many smart people have said about story (from Aristotle to Tobias Wolff)—I find that an interesting kind of paradox begins to poke up a bit, which is this: Stories are a kind of beautiful, poetic union of telling the truth, and telling lies.

They are truth, of course, insofar as they speak of the honest-to-goodness “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself,” of “pain and excitement,” of “feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts—the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation,” of “the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil,” of the “ineluctable part of being a human self”—which is suffering. They are true because they remind us of the greatest truth, that “we are not alone.” They are truth in this way because they represent the way of the world as it actually is, the metaphysical scheme of things—sharing with all religions at least two metaphysical truths: 1) There is something wrong with the world, and 2) It must be fixed.

A preacher named Rob Bell asks of the creation myth in Genesis: which is more important, whether the story in the Garden of Eden, the story of humanity’s great fall—whether that story actually happened, or whether it happens: Whether or not they are historically accurate, he says, stories nonetheless communicate precise and fundamental truths of the human condition. Adam and Eve are relevant because their story happens all the time: We try to hide the wrong inside us. At bottom, the truth of history is less important because the truths of the heart are the most fundamental, the most basic, the most universal.

It is true, however: Mythology, that group of stories which create for individual cultures their sets of morals and ceremonies and vision and values, was powerful precisely because the stories’ hearers thought those stories were true—not only in a poetic sense, but in a historical sense as well. Odysseus’s pride, when escaping the Cyclops’ cave, is wrong not only because too much pride is a vice, but because there were consequences—real consequences, consequences which all Greeks believed occurred in time and space—for his actions. His story served in part to warn and encourage all Greeks with this great metaphysical truth: Humility will earn you the favor of the gods.

And, yes, it is true even today, in our contemporary version of historically true mythology, creative nonfiction, since there is a great deal of disappointment when it is found out that, say, James Frey had imagined, conjured up, lied about history, in much of his so-called memoir.

So we like our stories true, and we demand that they be true, because there is something amiss when it turns out stories are not true, perhaps because there is something inherent to humans, a kind of “narrative empiricism,” maybe, which tries to justify the significance of stories by assuming that a story’s significance must actually be played out in “real time.” And there is something to this, because—yes, I admit—it is deeply satisfying to hear a story that has actually happened. (I confess: I watch the news; I like movies “inspired by a true story”; I watch E! True Hollywood Story when I can.)

On the other hand, for almost three thousand years the significance of Homer’s epics has remained with us, and that for many of those years we have known his stories to be—historically, at least—false. Historical truth, then, really is not the essence of what makes a story a story, but truth of a different kind: poetic, metaphysical, symbolic, experiential (as opposed to propositional). Odysseus’s journey, his convictions, his virtues, the suitors violations of hospitality, Penelope’s loyalty—these make up the wonder of the Odyssey. It is not whether the Odyssey actually happened—but that it happens—which makes it significant.

And so fiction—that art of telling lies, that offspring of mythology—is born. And indeed, stories are a batch of lies—aren’t they?—and this even if stories have the possibility of having occurred in history, even if stories have that “it really happened” credibility, they are still a batch of lies, since they take us away from what is before us, from what is here and now; they distract, they mesmerize, they surround us with what is something other-than-this. They bring us fantasy. In short, they lie.

In so many words, Michael Chabon agrees:

The brain is an organ of entertainment, sensitive at any depth and over a wide spectrum. But we have learned to mistrust and despise our human aptitude for being entertained, and in that sense we get the entertainment we deserve.

I’d like to believe that, because I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period. Oh, I could decoct a brew of other, more impressive motivations and explanations. I could uncork some stuff about the reader response theory, or the Lacanian parole. I could go on—God knows I’ve done it elsewhere—about the storytelling impulse and the need to make sense of experience through story. A spritz of Jung might scent the air. I could adduce Kafka’s formula, as the brilliant Lorrie Moore did in this space last year, of a book as an axe for the frozen sea within. I could go down to the café at the local mega-bookstore and take some wise words of Abelard or Koestler, about the power of literature, off a mug. But in the end—here’s my point—it would still all boil down to entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure. Because when the axe bites the ice, you feel an answering throb of delight all the way from your hands to your shoulders, and the blade tolls like a bell for miles.

And so it was with us one night, for a class project in graduate school—Robert, Rachel, Carlos, Sarah, Christine—telling lies, however true they might have been historically, as our experiment. We set out to see what would “come up” if we put ourselves in a place that stories can come about naturally (more or less)—in our case: around a table, sipping drinks.

This is how the idea came to us: After all kinds of theorizing between us, after all lofty ideas about what a story is capable of, about stories being at the foundation of all civilizations, Robert reminded Rachel and me that what we have left are people—regular people, theory-less people, in the hours after work at the bar, or stuck in a car together for several hours, or between a father and son on a fishing trip, or—in the most extreme of conditions—stranded together, snowed in, sharing the space of a small cabin for a few days.

Robert asked Rachel and me to consider what happens in those situations, and in the countless others like them.

Stories, he said. We tell stories.

Yes, we resort to stories, even though there are, technically, alternatives: we might, for instance, recite numerals to one other, seeing how far we can remember pi. We might list moral imperatives, back and forth, all night: Respect your parents, Do not lie, Do not cheat, Practice honor in the workplace, etc. We could hum. Or whistle. Or say nothing. But we do not. Instead, we tell stories. We talk about our day, we gossip, we make sense of our childhoods. We tell each other great truths, and dirty lies. We relate to one other great sadness and joy, heartbreaks and victories. We confess, we brag, we enter into psychotherapy. We listen to country music. We play video games whose characters aim at a definite goal. And we do it all in the form of storytelling. Even without knowing why, we go naturally to it, and it is a mystery, and it is the most natural thing in the world.

So it was with this in mind that we went to the Silk Elephant in Pittsburgh, and ordered drinks.

Our situation was, admittedly, a bit contrived: we were members of a class—and not, say, regular patrons of the bar. This was not Cheers. Our lives did not naturally overlap in a way that made this night especially comfortable or easy—a condition, I would argue, necessary for confessions or the stories of true, vulnerable heartbreak. On top of this lack of intimacy and history together, there were some things which made it feel unnatural, like the presence of a tape recorder (for the purposes of the assignment), and Robert’s prompt cards (with possible story topics on each one, like France, or Fashion Errors, or the 1980s, or Cattle). Still, while we understood that some conditions for great storytelling were missing, we also understood that this was a class project, that most of us had known and liked each other for more than two years, and that we were more or less at ease with one another. So we tried to make this as smooth a night as possible, tried to make the best of a somewhat unnatural situation. Plus, beer helped.

And what did we find?

That stories told off the cuff—that they have in them the same qualities as the stories of great art, if somewhat less refined. We listened to characters developed, described, compared to things. We heard surprise twists in plot. We saw how failed stories lacked a central conflict.

In re-listening to Robert’s story about his attendance policy, I found myself thinking about Malcolm Gladwell’s slow, methodical approach, as well as comedians Martin Lawrence or Dane Cook—who, in order to reach a climax, tell one large story arc with many smaller, funny parts that build up to it.

In Rachel’s story about breaking into a stranger’s changing room at a clothing store, we saw evidence that repetition of events—in this case, Rachel’s continued banging on what she thought was her friend’s changing room door, saying to whom she thought was her friend inside, “Let me in! Let me in!”—is a key element to building tension, not unlike the Big Bad Wolf’s repeated visits to each of the three little pigs’ houses, or, in Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, the Boy’s repeated action of coming to the Tree with a request.

In the story about my surfing accident, specific details help the story’s payoff: 1) that I was a prepubescent teenager, having continued the theme from an earlier story about painting my naked armpits black with marker, and 2) that I was a well behaved church boy, using what compensatory skills I had acquired in my years of “moral” development. Having planted those details early on in the story, I was able to use them later to create key moments of awkwardness and pain.

But Sarah told the best stories of the night, and her style was very clear: introduce the characters by way of their traits, along with short “scenes” of evidence of these character traits (mimicking the great principle “Show, don’t tell”) by way of impersonating her characters…then, finally, entering “real time” (“One day…” or “Once…”), to give us a short crisis to relate to. Her stories, three of which are included on the tape, are the most perfect, the most refined, and the best evidence that successful stories—no matter the venue—retain their most essential features in every situation.

I believe I saw in our organic-ish night of storytelling what Ronaldo and I talked about eleven years ago: not only in our raw versions of stories, unrefined as they were, we had the beginnings of what, as it travelled “up” through the classes, could be turned into a form of high art. In an analogous sense, we created the sounds of African music that could (and in the literal case of the African music, would) be turned into músicas latinas. I believe we experienced all the lofty ideas about story, as well as “mere” entertainment. I also believe that, had we been better friends, and had no tape recorder been there to make it public, our time together could have gone on long into the night, and we would have been listening to one another, not alone, not expecting or wanting anything else, and we could have told each other all the truths of humanity, all of our suffering and hope, in all kinds of little lies.

One thought on “Storytelling

  1. i am amazed at the depth and honesty you achieve with this post. as with all of your stuff i’ve read, i can’t stop reading until i finish—and in that way, this post in itself is a good story.

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