Stories Aren’t Special: On Story Chauvinism

Everybody loves stories, they’re one of the first things we fall in love with as children, stories and toys, but when we imbue story and storytelling with some biohuman essence beyond its aesthetic pleasures (or edifying ones), we fall into a mindset I’m calling story chauvinism.

Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘The universe is made of stories, not of atoms’ captures it fully, the mindset’s I think therefore I am. Any brief perusal through storytelling circles—creative writing handbooks, MFA program literature, viralgoing pullquotes from author interviews, ‘The Moth’-style event posters, etc.—will soon present a belief, if not a certainty, that the game we play of putting events in consequential order is a practice humans literally can’t live without.

For instance, behold Elizabeth Koch, co-founder of the resoundingly successful publishing hub Catapult, writing on its website: ‘[Prehistoric] humans did not become the revolutionary beings we now consider ourselves to be until we began to share what we know. Swap stories. Consistently. Stories that mattered. It’s our humble point of view that every creative act, every scientific development, every technological disruption is the result of some brand of storytelling collaboration. We say with equal humility that everything in existence, past present and future, is in constant storytelling interaction with everything that came before. […] We don’t celebrate stories because they’re easy. We celebrate stories because that’s the best way we know to celebrate life’ (her italics).

I’ve been thinking a lot about where this mindset comes from, and the faith that it proselytizes with this kind of language, and I’ve been thinking about this as someone who might be called an essay chauvinist. (Swap ‘story’ for ‘essay’ in the above quotes and I nod along without worry.) Who are we and what are we needing when we give story the power of water, air, heartbeat?

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One thing we might be is children all over again, in that story’s origins lie in myth, fable, parable. In the dawns of civilizations, stories carried customs from one generation to the next and instructed the young on Who We Are—and thus, Who We Are Not / Who The Other Is. That’s the function of a myth. Old stories are as nationalist as anthems. I’m risking an ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny fallacy here (then again so are story chauvinists, ’cause like I wasn’t the one who brought up the dawn of civilization), but loving story returns us to the early years, receiving stories directly from tellers wanting to help us understand the world. We remember those years and project them back to the infancy of our species and believe we humans cannot be ourselves without story.

I’ve found it helpful as a writer to see story less as a genre and more as a mode, or a method for drawing meaning from the world. (By ‘method’ I mean the process of finding causes and effects, and seeing resolutions to conflicts that produce lessons or ‘takeaways’.) Now: story is a method but not the method through which we understand the world, and it’s story chauvinism’s insistence to the contrary that’s driving me to write this post. It’s a cute if obvious point to make that story chauvinism is itself a story we tell about stories, one of many.

In this way, story replicates itself. Everyone has a story to tell, which leads me to appropriate a common story chauvinist dictum: stories are like assholes—everybody’s got one. Story chauvinists celebrate this plenty but lament the plenty of opinions, and I want to try to understand what makes the latter so less attractive in the public’s eye, and despite the dictum I don’t think it has anything to do with supply. If story is a record of what you’ve done and opinion is a record of what you’ve come to believe, people don’t have more opinions than stories (I’d argue they have fewer), but story moves an audience more than opinion does.

What I mean has something to do with story’s ability to transport the listener. In being led through a string of events, we avatar ourselves inside the actor and come through it together—in less time and with less risk. Story packages the whole of trial and travail and delivers its reward without the audience having to do the work. In many ways opinions—or, to use a less hated term, ‘ideas’ or ‘knowledge’—are the prize one wins from story’s contest, and prizes don’t share well. They feel precious to us. We show them off without affecting our audience too much.

Fine. This may be more clearly true of ‘bad’ or ‘pointless’ opinions, and it’s good to remember that stories can be bad and pointless, too; there are far more bad and pointless stories in the universe than atomic, life-celebrating ones. What interests me in the original formulation, ‘Opinions are like assholes’ is the low status granted the former through the presumed lowest status of the latter. For story chauvinists, the asshole is a locus not of creative pleasures but sodomitical ones (or it’s void of any pleasure at all, save voiding).

Instead, imagine the anus as a desired erogenous zone each of us shares, across genders, and something special happens: Opinions are like assholes! Everybody’s got one!

I have a flimsy argument about how there’s nothing more heteronormative than a story (I’ve made the argument elsewhere), but whenever I get into it I find myself soon in dark wood. My point in this section is to show that story chauvinism teaches what it’s learned, or what it’s decided on: stories have a value over other forms of sharing knowledge, and other forms of art. This is true only if you’ve decided you want it to be. Why, for instance, is the universe made not of atoms, but of songs? of poems? of dramas?

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Note the way Koch above conflates sharing what we know (indistinguishable in our minds from what we think we know [i.e. what we don’t actually know]) with telling stories. Is that what we’re doing? If you want to share what you know, you better not tell me a story, dressing up what you know in a string of causal events.

Here’s something I know (or think I do) that I want to share: we have a tendency to make story more than what it is, and regardless of what this reveals about us, in doing so we belittle or shut down the potential power of other forms of understanding the world.

How do I tell you that story?

Indeed: that this knowledge is untransferable through story leads us often to belittle the very quality or utility of the knowledge. (Opinions are like assholes.) I don’t have a ready example. I might be in another dark wood, but tied to the transportive quality of story I got at above, our resistance to listening like bedtime toddlers to each others’ ideas may have something to do with our sovereignty, and the difficulty we have in transporting ourselves within the mind of an opinion-sharer.

Essay tends to shatter the ego as much as story works to keep it intact, by forming an avatar-ego out of an other person (whom we call the protagonist). Essay’s omnipresent ‘I’ reminds me often of the scene in 30 Rock where Jenna is hanging with a lot of other D-list narcissists (Mankind, Knob Kardashian, etc.), and she keeps saying me. ‘You’re using that word wrong,’ Mankind says, knowing certainly that me refers always and only to him.

It’s been a struggle as a longtime opinion-haver and -writer (and even -editor, back at my college newspaper) to learn how to design a thought process in a way that evokes, for readers, not an argument or confrontation or speech, but an experience (even, yes, a transportive one) more along the lines of Lane Kauffman’s point about the essay, which is a form that seeks ‘not merely to transmit the essayist’s thoughts but to convey the feeling of their movement and thereby to induce an experience of thought in the reader.’

If a story is like a little adventure you go on, an essay is more like a dream. Or a delirium. So much art lies behind creating that essay delirium, and so many essays transport me as viscerally as any good story does. Here I am once again fighting for the underdog.

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Underdog? Hasty Wikipedia-ing teaches me that the origin of language in humans is an unsettled matter, but it’s far easier to see those origins as something other than telling each other stories. (Noting that Koch’s claim above is not that we began speaking with story, but that only when we turned language to story did we become post-prehistoric, which like good luck proving.) Risking again a recapitulation fallacy, likely the earliest spoken words were some variation on yes/okay/like and no/stop/dislike, which make us, in a sense, protohuman op-ed writers.[1]

The world’s oldest joke, dating to Sumer around 1900 BCE, is ‘Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.’ Another essay. Another desire to take what we believe we know and share it artfully with another. And if you want to argue that all jokes are essays, I invite you to consider the causal/fictive transport lying at the heart of the world’s 2nd oldest joke: ‘How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish.’

So you know, we’ve been around since the dawn of civilization, too.

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Back when I was an unwitting story chauvinist, I read Didion’s ultra famous line, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ as an affirmation of what I thought I knew. Yes, stories are life. It wasn’t until I read more Didion (and more everyone, I needed a while to get better at reading), that I started to understand what this opening to ‘The White Album’ is really saying, and I found it best articulated in Michael Silverblatt’s interview with The Believer:

[Didion] has a mind that aggressively finds the flaws in an argument and the places where you’re trying to burnish your weakness with pretty words. And her attitude is ‘Everybody’s lying and life is the story we’re telling ourselves in order to stay alive. And an artist sees through the story. Sees through the fakeness of the story to the very bare and difficult impossibilities of the coping mechanism functioning in a true situation of devastation.’

Stories help us fit the world and our lives into patterns that may very well be the basis of our undoing, or so says this writer who lived 25 years in denial of his sexuality because To Be Gay created too great a conflict in the story I’d been working to fit myself in.

Here’s how I wrote about this last week in my book-in-progress, in a section about the Oedipus complex and other origin myths: ‘If I learned anything from my young heterosexualization it was how to isolate any difference—one of these things is not like the other—and connect it to a reason why. Hetero thinking also taught me to see myself at the end of a story, the result of a series of conscious/unconscious plot points. It’s such a romantic and in-built notion of selfhood that the alternative—in which we might not be in a story, but an essay; we might not be a character, but a fact—reads like death. What else to do in the face of such a hard truth than do what unresolved Oedipus did? I blinded my eyes.’

When I hear about story, I think about what that story is blinding us to. Every story told tells another story the teller isn’t telling, and may not even be aware of. I see mostly danger in putting that at the center of my creative or reflective practice, which is ultimately why story chauvinism bothers me so much. It’s not just about rooting for the underdog (no matter who they are). Story does indeed bind us, but not together so much as to itself.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I can’t find the source, but recently N shared a story he found where ethologists believed they’d decoded batsong, and turns out it’s like 99% kvetching over space and comfort, which returns us to sovereignty, and the swift ability of essay to shatter it.

A Podcast Had Me On

Last weekend I flew to Portland and took a bus to Corvallis, Oregon, where three friends of mine live. One is Clay, who grew up across the street from me and who I’ve known all my life. I wanted, as the pandemic was loosening its grip on my life, to be with old friends and just spend time with them, and Clay was the oldest who’s the closest, so I flew up there when his quarter was done (he and Elaine, his wife, are math professors at Oregon State) to see him and Elaine and their son, Jack.

We went to a restaurant and a winery and a park, and we ate dinners on their back patio. It was the exact great vacation I needed.

My last day in Corvallis—which is a town in the western, central part of the Willamette Valley, one of the more verdant and fecund parts of the country, which was, Clay told me, and then highway signs confirmed, the end of the Oregon Trail, and so, for some, at a certain point in the violent history of this country, a promised land—I spent with my other two friends in town: Justin St. Germain and Elena Passarello, who teach nonfiction at OSU. They’ve got a podcast called I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead, and on Saturday they let me sit down with them and talk about, among other things, essays about sex.

You can stream the episode here:

Those folks do a good job making a nervous man like me feel relaxed and welcome, though if you listen to the audio you’ll see I can’t help my run some of my words together, in a kind of almost giddy panic. What’s scary about being interviewed is that you can’t compose your thoughts, and you sure as hell can’t revise them, and though I understand this is the thrill of the live-recorded podcast it’s hell for a nervous man like me.

Luckily, I have this blog, which Elena and Justin were kind enough to plug. So I’m going to use it to revise or elaborate an idea I brought up around 41:30, where I talk about my usually feeling turned off or more shut out from most sex writing. The people who have this gift about not being ashamed, or those who assert that readers are sex goddesses, etc. I’m talking about a narrative I’ve read a lot, one that tells the story of overcoming sex shame, which almost always leaves out the middle.

Here’s the middle: “Slowly, eventually, through trial and error and progress and regression, I found a way to understand, and then let go of, the shame I have about sex.”

Is it because the middle is boring? Or is it not much of a story? Perhaps writers who write about being empowered by sex and their bodies, or who write about sex the way they write about walking into a room, all have the same middle: they just one day decided to stop shaming themselves, and there was nobody around to make them doubt that decision, and thus there’s no real dramatic weight to their middle. Or, as I surmise unfairly (and with no amount of insight on her life) about Maggie Nelson, that they were magically raised never to feel ashamed of their bodies or their sex.

A more informed surmising might be this: my favorite writers about sex have spent enough time held close by queer communities that any shame they may have had has long seeped out of them, light a bulb that gets dimmer and dimmer until you forget it was ever really on. And how do you write the experience of something unnoticed running in the background?

I’m reminded of a thing I see on social media a lot (I’ve written about this before), where people get a lot of likes when they give an unhelpful but important-sounding life tip, like this tweet I once screenshotted:

Many versions of that tweet are out there, and the most liked one has 23.1K retweets. People fucking love shit like this, and I’m calling it shit deliberately, because how, motherfucker? How do you propose people go about learning this wisdom you claim to just have?

It’s the teacher in me, perhaps, the educator Elena points to in the podcast. I get largely angry when knowledge is asserted to the uninitiated without any form of instruction or help, and so much sex writing asserts more than it instructs, or if it instructs it begins from what still to me seems like an intermediate/advanced position.

Examples, as usual, are failing me. But anyway: big sincere thanks to Justin and Elena for having me on their great podcast.

Form and Formlessness

I.
First, listen to this 6-minute song (you can skip through but I don’t recommend it):

For those of you who skipped it, what you have are 3 chords cycled over and over again: G then A then Bm. It’s a scalar step up that feels like a step down, but the point really is that it goes on and on and on. I’m a devout Bill Callahan fan—or I have been, I no longer am, and what’s changed is what I’m writing this post on forms in artmaking to find out—and this song is my favorite of his, probably, from what’s historically been my favorite of his like 49 records.

When I listen to Knock Knock I’m once again living alone in an attic apartment in Pittsburgh, cooking freezer-aisle pierogies or Wishbone-marinated chicken breasts on the gas stove in the tiny alcove of my kitchen, or I’m washing plastic plates in the wide shallow sink, this record playing across the room on the turntable I keep under my cabinets, next to the microwave my parents bought when I was 7. Callahan’s cycles are cycling, and I’m trying to figure out what to do with my life now that I’m out of school and all of my school friends have left Pittsburgh for bigger places. Those were lonely years, and I was deeply, woefully closeted to myself, but I can look back on them fondly.

The point: what Smog songs did for me was strip art formally bare and still present an enormous lush world rich with emotion. The form is this: put 2 or 3 chords together, repeat that forever, and then either throw a new chord in, briefly, or shift to a one-line refrain that resolves the tension of repetition as surely as a tonic chord resolves a dominant seventh. More than the romance of Bill Callahan’s world—a world of horse textures and river-longing where each of us listeners becomes a quiet traveler alone in our thoughts far outside of towns—my fandom was built on this minimalism.

Bill Callahan is different now. Now he’s rhapsodic:

Rhapsody or collage? The new idea is that there’s this part of the song, and then once it’s established it’s time for a new part of the song. Then let’s do this. Then let’s do this. Let’s end once some effect is achieved.

If “River Guard” is a poem, or a prayer, “Breakfast” is an essay. Why don’t I like it?

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II.
What I mean by “is an essay” is that one formal characteristic of the essay is that it has no set form. Essays don’t have prosody to break down their wholes to component parts, and they’re unlike narrative which has causal progression and a “beginning, middle, and end.” Essays’ formlessness disturbs basically every student I teach: we all want someone to give us a structure. I try instead to teach the embrace of formlessness. It’s a feature of essays, not a bug. (I’ve written about this before.)

Now watch this video with Callahan pal and labelmate Will Oldham, where he talks to schoolkids about how he learned songwriting practice:

Oldham’s idea is “why try to reinvent the wheel” when the classic form of songwriting “works”. “The only reason it has to be new is you want to claim something for yourself,” he admits, which is true of most artists. But, newnesses are possible within old forms. If you skipped the above video, here’s the song he gives as an example (and then elaborates more on the idea afterward):

I don’t need to spell out all its newnesses. The great big useful point Oldham makes is that once you’ve established a familiar form (in this case by following a verse with a chorus) then you can get away with unfamiliar content. “Anything you want to put into a song can work when you put it into the song.” You can be weird or dark or unusual in what you sing and how you sing it, because the form indicates to wary, unsure listeners that they’re still on steady ground, and something of what’s expected will soon return.

Anymore Bill Callahan keeps his ground unsteady. I don’t think he’s stopped singing about rivers and horses and brambles, but his forms’ songs feel less to me like worlds I’m invited inside and more like landscapes blurring out the window of a train I’m on, one that’s not stopping anytime soon. I was open to this years ago, and maybe I’ll need it again soon, but not this year.

So what does this have to do with essays? And what does it have to do with Hallmark Christmas Movies?

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III.
Well, everything. I’ve said before that HCMs are like sonnets—or probably I said that they are as formally predictable as sonnets—and lately I’m trying to figure out if I’m an HCM formalist or something else. (One flaw in English is that there’s no adjectival equivalent for “content”. That is, we’ve got nothing good to complete the analogy, form : content :: formal : _____. “Semantic” comes close, but not close enough. “Material” is closer.) Maybe I’m an HCM materialist.

If HCMs have 9 acts, then Act 1 is “Demonstrate the Woman is good at her job.” Last night we watched an HCM where the Woman was Lacey Chabert and told a shopowner in Brooklyn how a judge ruled that the owner of his building can’t legally raise his rent, so he won’t have to close the store that’s been in his family for generations. The Woman is good at her job of Being A Lawyer. Before that, we watched an HCM where the Woman had a hairless cat’s face and told a panicking bride-to-be that red and white roses would make a far better bouquet than the white peonies her flower shop was out of. The Woman is (questionably, for those of us not in the target audience) good at her job of … it wasn’t clear what her role there was but you won’t be surprised to learn she leaves that job by the end of the movie to plan events at an enormous wintry inn.[*]

I’m going to do my best to list every job I recall the Woman having in an HCM:

  • Event Planner
  • Baker
  • Cafe/Coffee Shop Owner
  • Bookstore Owner or just small-scale retail shopowner in general
  • Reporter/Online Content Producer
  • Lifestyle Blogger
  • Scavenger Hunt Designer
  • Lawyer (rare as hell)
  • Teacher (rare as hell)
  • Executive Assistant
  • Violinist (twice this year alone!)

We haven’t watched the one where Holly Robinson Pete plays the titular Christmas Doctor who has a background in the military, but there’s a doctor-soldier for you. My point here is look at that list. If you know anything about HCM formulaicness it won’t surprise you—the oldest joke about HCMs is how baldly aspirational their Womans’ jobs are, how they seem to flatter something the target audience secretly believes about themselves.

That’s the form. Why can’t we all imagine different content to fill it?

Hallmark has done something pretty special these last few years, which is use the textures of yuletide to make a form as formulaic as the romantic comedy far more baroque than it’s ever been[**]. But not too baroque that the rest of us have had any trouble absorbing its nuances. You don’t need to watch this entire 6-minute commercial for a deodorant that wants you to use it on your “private parts — front and back!” but look at how they pack in all the acts:

We watch an HCM as steadily as we hear a verse-chorus-“middle-8” pop song. We always know what will happen next, so why not make what is happening now more interesting?

I’m not getting at a point, I know. What am I saying? More and more I’m watching Hallmark squander the treasure of its form. I think they are extremely insecure about the reasons people watch and what keeps them coming back for more. I think they have a real fear that if the Woman’s job isn’t aspirationally fun or cute or challenging-but-not-too-stressful, then they’d lose viewers/money.

Why, for instance, have I never seen a nurse in an HCM? I’ve seen far too many soldiers, but none of them has been the Woman. I’ve never seen a Woman be a cop (thank God), but this absence has nothing to do with what cops have become in the dominant imagination after 2020’s exposure of their decades of systemic violence and abuse, and everything to do with Hallmark failing in its imagination of what people will readily watch over the holidays, and how the magic of relating to a protagonist works.

N & I are in disagreement on this, and characteristically I probably in my heart believe he’s right. Last night, we watched the Man and Woman walk into a bakery, and there on the floor were big circle-stickers set 6 feet apart from each other, in a line back from the counter, indicating where people should safely stand in a pandemic, and my heart surged and I literally sat up in my chair. I rewound it and verified what I was seeing—evidence. Something real in the fakest of TV worlds. (Never mind that everyone in the packed bakery was maskless, because no pandemics exist in the HCU.)

I repeated to Neal my old complaint that none of this year’s HCMs has even acknowledged the circumstances of this pandemic, and N asked how I think they could do that. How could they do Almost Kiss with masks on? How could actors enunciate their lines and do carol songs during Town Square Christmas Tree Lighting Applause Scene? And obviously they can’t. If the magic of an HCM lies in its content, the HCM falls apart, but I don’t think it does.

So, finally my point, which is Will Oldham’s point: when your form is strong enough your audience will follow you, and don’t conflate your content with your form.

If you demonstrate the Woman is good at her job and then disappear her to a location outside her routine where in time she’ll help a Niece-Daughter with a seasonal creative project, we will watch them do this with masks on, or with unglamorous jobs to have to go back to, or with a skin color that isn’t white and speaking sometimes a language that isn’t English. We will accept aggressively grumpy people or outright horny ones, we will feel less alone. Or I will. I’ll be grateful that Hallmark has in this way said yes to the pain and confusion I feel about being alive right now.

I’m not even getting into the sex-positive HCMs I can imagine, or the HCMs about working-class people living paycheck to paycheck in ever-unaffordable cities. That we don’t have any made-up stories to watch—on Hallmark or any channel—about us living safely together in a pandemic, that we have only the news of this, is one part of why we’re not living safely in this pandemic.

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IV.
“Once I realized that formalism was on my side,” Oldham says in the above vid, “it made going to work every day a lot easier.” I’m hoping to teach this in the spring, in my Nonfiction Studio course (I’ve abandoned the MFA workshop model, probably for good, a topic for another post). I’m hoping to spend some time thinking very hard about the forms of the essay—and I don’t mean “the braided essay” or the (ugh) “hermit crab essay”.

I mean essay forms that all of us know as well as songs and HCMs. Does that mean only the 5-paragraph essay taught in most high schools? Well that’s the big one. The toast is another. The prayer. If all an essay is is the written-out portrayal of a thought process, putting ideas out there and coming to some new understandings, we do this all the time, and I want to see what happens to my and my students’ writing once we sign on to a form and unanxiously honor it. If you don’t have to worry about losing your reader, where might the art you make take them?

The essays of late Bill Callahan are not, turns out, what I go to music for. Without formalism I need dynamism, I want the sonic equivalents of a sex worker being disappeared to a small northern town over Xmas and finding not just clients but love, and Callahan is keeping his voice steady, and guitar picking understated, and what’s left are his incredible lyrics. (“With kisses / sweet as / hospital grapes”). His newer songs sound the way my students’ early drafts read and the way HCMs feel to me now: magical at times, but hopefully on their way to somewhere better.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Probably we’ve watched 5 HCMs since I last live-blogged one, and the only thing I can say about my not writing about any of them is that isolation and not seeing family over Xmas has been hitting me hard, and I’ve had little motivation to do anything, and a side effect of this has been to hourly convince myself of my worth-/use-lessness, so to the five or six of you who seem to be enjoying these writeups I apologize. But I also think you aren’t missing out on anything enjoyable. I might be out of things to say.
  2. Though if you watch 1949’s Holiday Affair with Robert Mitchum and Vivien Leigh you’ll be amazed at how many of the HCM acts and tropes they cover, even down to the Woman’s debate between Sensible Man She’s Meant To Marry and Irascible Handsomer Kook She Can’t Stop Thinking About.

On True Stories

Somewhere early in the sixth My Struggle[1], the narrator asks, “How can reality be represented without adding something it doesn’t have? What does it ‘have’ and what does it ‘not have’?” I read it while visiting my friend Adam, and I asked him, “Do you value a story more when you hear that the story is true?”

“Probably less, to be honest,” he said.

I feel that’s true. “True stories” cleave more to history than story, and history was my least favorite subject in school.

Lorrie Moore had things to say in a similar vein, Jesus 8 years ago now. Her argument is that nonfiction’s strengths and power come elsewhere from telling a story, and the novel will always be for readers a better storytelling delivery system than the memoir. Stories require a suspension in some mediated place, and fiction’s invented narrator fosters such a space’s creation better than nonfiction’s author-narrator. Where nonfiction beats the novel is being able to move in and out of storytelling modes to encompass research, history, essay, etc., and so when memoirs don’t do this Moore feels the form isn’t working to its full potential.

I buy the argument for the most part, but I go back to Knausgaard’s question a lot, especially as I embark on a book that will be telling a lot of true stories. I’ve been seeing this process as a reduction or a distillation: whenever I write about a person in my life I’ve taken something from them and left the bulk behind. The bulk is what’s true. The whole of a person.

But it’s worth considering what is added to reality when it’s represented. Mimesis is what we call the representation of reality in art, and all art requires a point of view. What reality does not have is a single perspective, and so presenting reality from one person’s point of view adds that primacy or privilege to reality. One way we talk about this is by saying There’s Two Sides To Every Story, but of course that’s also wrong. Usually there are more sides than we can count.

Being a writer, I know a lot of other writers. And being a nonfiction writer, I read a number of things that are about people I know. I try to tell myself that I’m not getting a story about this person I know, but rather a portrait, a caricature. I’m getting one person’s perspective on the person I know from a different perspective.

Which perspective is right or truer? The one written down for others, or the one I’ve been working on myself?

But all that aside, why do some people prefer True Stories to made-up ones? What pleasures or value does their trueness add to the general pleasures of reading a story? I have no idea, but my best guess goes to another concern of mimesis: verisimilitude. If mimesis is the realm of representation, verisimilitude is its scale. How true does this feel?

I’ve been reading Stanislavsky, and about 80% of his system is about the actor convincing themselves that what is happening on stage is real. Convincing seems the key term. There’s an anxiety about whether a story will feel true, or sound true, or whether the actors or characters will appear convincing.

The work of verisimilitude is the work of the artist, but the task of assessing verisimilitude falls on the audience. A True Story insists on its verisimilitude from the get-go, letting the audience of the hook, or at least one of their hooks. It must be some kind of relief.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. And by “early” I mean on page 178. (This was a book I abandoned, recall.)

On Calls to Action

I.
I posted this to Instagram last week, with a caption: “But woke people never dream.” It got minimal likes.

My point is clear, but I’ll also add that studies show[*] sleep deprivation has adverse impacts on memory and cognition. So: bad advice. “STAY WOKE” is bad advice.

There’s also the problem of Wokeness itself. Merriam-Webster tells me its origins came from an Erykah Badu song and then shifted, as language does:

The word woke became entwined with the Black Lives Matter movement; instead of just being a word that signaled awareness of injustice or racial tension, it became a word of action. Activists were woke and called on others to stay woke.

That’s not the problem, those origins. Those origins are noble and good. The problem is that things with “woke” have continued to shift. Being woke indicates little about the content of the woke person’s thoughts or beliefs. You can now be woke about chemtrails, or the “Jew-run media”, or how men have a harder time of it nowadays than women etc etc.

Being is one thing; it’s the staying that bothers me. The condition of being on all the time, permanently at watch. The image “STAY WOKE” brings to mind is the paranoiac with foil on their head. Or better: all the fearful kids in Nightmare on Elm Street, trying hard to never sleep. I don’t think anybody’s life is improved—I don’t think society is improved—by their living in watchful, waking fear.

So: if I were to make a sign in my window with postits, what would it say?

“DON’T STAY WOKE”?

“LET YOURSELF SLEEP”?

“GET INFORMED BUT DON’T, Y’KNOW, LET IT MAKE YOU CRAZY”?

The problem with nuanced arguments is that their language is always so fucking feeble.

II.
I’ve written before about my uneasy relationship with activist language, and maybe I’m picking up that discussion here. But when I thought about how I wanted to write a blog post about this pic and my general argument, I hit a wall, and the paper on that wall read: YOU ARE PATHETIC.

First: I wasn’t calling to any action so much as writing against someone’s call to action. If my argument was for anything, it was for moderation, and when I saw this I felt like any of the centrist Democratic presidential candidates I have zero interest in getting to vote for next year.

Second: When I thought about this as a writer, I saw the connection between the position you take and the power of your words. Any argument I had might be itself be strong, but the language or form of it would be weak. Certainly weaker than “STAY WOKE”. And what effect does weak and feeble language have on its audience?

In other words, I could (once again) have a strong rhetorical position that had no effect on my readers. And if a tree falls in the forest etc etc.

III.
There’s another connection here to the Call To Action in an essay, which comes up from time to time in NF workshops, usually when a student writes a non-narrative essay, something with an argument or lamentation. Examples are failing me, but more than once students (or I, most of the time) wonder in discussion what solutions or new ways of being the writer might imagine in the piece. What can we do, we ask, given the case you’re making? What would you like us to think or feel instead?

A common refrain from the student is, “I didn’t want to end with a call to action.” What I’ve always taken this to mean is that the writer wanted mostly to explore what they’ve been observing or thinking. They didn’t want to feel forced into the role of problem-solver.[†]

But now I think something different. The Call To Action does something to language, or asks for a certain kind of language, and this something feels at odds to the nuances of complicated and sustained thinking—an essay being a written record of complicated and sustained thinking.

In other words, just as my feeble “Let’s Be Reasonable About How Woke We Are All The Time” would fall on bored ears, so would a Call To Action in an essay make the lofted cloud of a complex thought process fall like so much fog.

An even longer post for next time: bless the activists their language gifts, like the poets, and the advertising copywriters. I’m not of them, but I’m not against them.

(Well, maybe the copywriters.)



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. “Today, prolonged wakefulness is a widespread phenomenon.” Indeed, NIH.
  2. I see every situation, and most people, as a problem to solve. A puzzle. Ask my partner about how well this proclivity serves me outside the classroom.

New Mission Statement for Memoir

Some months back I read this bit in a New Yorker profile of Wolfgang Tillmans:

Tillmans seeks out the experience of displacement. In 1990, he enrolled at Bournemouth & Poole College of Art & Design, on the southern coast of England. He described the pedagogic style there as “psychoanalytic.” His tutor Tony Maestri was less interested in looking at the students’ work than in forcing them to ask themselves why they wanted to take pictures. “To express myself” was not an acceptable answer.


Maestri “was really asking, Why on earth do you think the world needs more pictures?,” Tillmans said. “Don’t say, ‘What is successful and I want to be like that,’ because it’s very unlikely that you can get to that point from behind. You have to ask yourself, ‘What is not there? How do I not feel represented in what is being exhibited?’ ” 

I wanted to get my students to ask themselves a similar question, or I think more specifically I wanted to get them believing in the truth of that answer. How do I not feel represented in what is being written? Had I been encouraged to ask myself that question in grad school, rather than taking published books as models of not just how to write but what to write about, I’d’ve maybe saved some time.

As a teacher, I’ve learned not to ask students a question I already have the answer to. Which in my lead-up to the class where we’d have this discussion I saw myself preparing to do. Why do you want to write? NO. WRONG. IT’S TO TELL THE STORIES ONLY YOU CAN TELL. NEXT! Instead, I asked students to think about how they’d finish the following sentences:

  • I want to write a book that _____
  • I don’t want to write a book that _____

The idea was to think about their future books as art objects, or maybe as chemical reactions on the brains of their readers. I wasn’t looking for the content of these books (I want to write a book that tells the story of etc.) but rather the image they had for their books. Or, contrariwise, an image or form of a book they were working against.

It was a new exercise. I put them in the vulnerable position of sitting in chairs in an oval, like in an AA meeting, rather than having tables like forts to sit behind. I imagined they’d ask me to answer, and so I prepared answers.

I want to write a book that is serious about sex without being humorless or taking itself too seriously.

I don’t want to write a book that tells to others a story I’ve been telling myself.

This last was news to me when I came up with it. I hadn’t had that thought before, but it rang like an alarm. Or maybe the bell on a church. A clarity of purpose. Why I’d dismissed memoir—at least as a form I could write in—for so long was that I saw it as this: retelling a story from one’s past. This despite all I’d been teaching about memoir’s purpose.

My workshop syllabus this term as two epigraphs:

We all craft a story we can live with. The one that makes ourselves easier to live with. This is not the one worth writing. To write your story, you must face a truer version of it. You must look at the parts that hurt, that do not flatter or comfort you. That do not spare you the trouble of knowing what made you, and what into.

Melissa Febos

The exercise of writing is a lesson in the art of thinking against the grain of inheritance and illusion … in letting the language of alterity unsettle the sententiousness of the sovereignty of selfhood and nationhood.

Homi K. Babha

Both these writers are talking about how much of the art of writing is found in the transformation—of the subject, the material, the self—that occurs during the process of writing and revising. Every book that comes out exactly the way it seemed going into writing it is a failed book, evidence of a process deflated, like a souffle that never rises.

Vivian Gornick talks about this as testimony. If you simply tell everyone what happened to you, that’s testimony. Memoir asks for a certain ongoing analysis, or rethinking about what happened. Thinking “against the grain of inheritance and illusion,” as Babha says, until you find the new language you need.

Continuing to mull over my “I don’t want to write a book that” sentence, I’ve come up with a new, or at least newly worded, idea of the work I’m trying to do these days. I don’t want to write, “This happened,” but rather, “That this happened tells me something the writing of this book is meant to simultaneously discover and disclose.”

There’s nothing wrong with testimony. If your story has never been heard before, or is apt to be disbelieved, testimony is powerful. It’s news. But these days I’m not writing the news. It’s like a recent joke I tweeted about wanting to petition AWP to change the name of our genre to nonjournalism. But that’s a post for a different time.