Posted December 29, 2010on:
The world is full of stories.
Every fact in the realm of science, every claim of myth or religion, is a story that someone told somewhere. Every event in a man’s life spawns a story as he tries to explain it to himself. As he gets older, the stories may change but the storytelling does not, should not. I can imagine no sadder fate than to be a man who tells a story in which story-telling itself becomes impossible, or unnecessary. There are such people, we call them fanatics.
The art of story-telling is the art of imagining possibilities, trying them on for fit, not only to the story-teller but to all the other stories he’s told. Truth becomes not a thing to hold in the hand, but a coherence of stories to each other. Happiness is a result of this integrity, this ‘fit’, and therefore always possible. There may be a greater truth, a correspondence of the stories we tell to the world as it is, but we don’t know that truth. The world we live in is a world we make for ourselves. My world is not your world, although they have enough in common that we can achieve something like communication.
Since story-telling is essential to understanding, it is inevitable that the story told will change the story-teller. When the story-teller changes, all the stories change. There are two parts to his universe, himself and everything else, and everything else is what he says it is. When the stories change, it often happens that stories that once fit no longer do. If the story-teller is ‘lucky’, they will no longer fit with each other, the amount of revision to his universe to bring them back into coherence will likely be small. If he is ‘unlucky’, they will no longer fit with him.
All of which is great if I was writing a philosophical dissertation, but this is a blog post, supposedly about writing and authoring in general. I had no idea what sort of post to write until a few days ago, when I read this blog post. I commented back, but I also ended up thinking about the subject as I drove in to work, and being a philosophically minded person, I quickly started spinning the subject up into ever greater heights of generality (like my post about Story Flow a while back). So let me (try to) spin it back down again.
My stories usually begin when I notice that two or more previously disparate elements might ‘fit’. ‘Werewolves’ + ‘On the Moon’. ‘Young’ + ‘Raising the dead’. Writing the story is an attempt to make this appearance of fit a reality. Sometimes it works, the fit you try to make leads you to see and realize other connections, and the story just gets bigger and better, as do you. Sometimes it doesn’t, and the story goes nowhere, or worse. I’ve never found myself disliking my own characters. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.
Writing a novel is not nearly as complicated as writing one’s life, but the same thing happens there. A story you read, even if it’s the story you’re currently writing, may suddenly not fit anymore. (It may have gone off in a direction you don’t want to follow. Your attempt to realize the fit may instead reveal that there is no fit at all. You may realize that realizing this fit is more than you the writer are capable of doing. Or the connection may reveal itself to have a totally different character than what you expected, one you don’t like.) There are lots of ways to handle this. One way is to say that the story has failed, kill it, and move on. RIP. But this assumes that fit is only one-way, which is not true. I have many stories which I have started and then realized I was unable to finish, not the right man at the right time. I don’t kill them, though, I just put them to one side until I am the right man. Which may never happen, but I’ll be working on it.