ENG 162 Fall 2013

ENG 162 at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor ME, taught by John A. (Don't ever, ever ask!) Goldfine johngoldfine@gmail.com

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Week 5: Narrative aka story

On your own blog, think about the material in this post as you write your own narrative (your own narrative is your theme for the week.)

Proceed cautiously!!! If you actually worry about the stuff below, it may paralyze you! Many a good story was told around a cavemens' campfire, or as medieval pilgrims wandered footsore, or in a cowboys' line shack with blizzards raging outside—without giving a thought to any of what I say. Quite possibly the same story in all three cases!

Keeping my warning in mind:Experimental and post-modern writing aside, a narrative usually implies a series of reversals or challenges needing to be overcome. That little formula covers everything from the Iliad to the story of Moses to the tale of Cinderella to last week’s cineplex blockbuster.

Narrative usually has an arc: a series of rising actions leading to mini-climaxes and then culminating in some sort of major climax and then a resolution and final gathering–together of characters left standing.One of the reasons the American Civil War fascinates people so is because it fits this pattern so well: the back and forth battling culminating in Lincoln’s death and the meeting of Grant and Lee.Great stuff that just happens to actually have happened.

Which is where you come in in Creative Nonfiction.

This is all by way of introducing this week’s theme: action, narrative, stories.Creative nonfiction does not depend on narrative the way it depends on voice, ideas, things, places, people. But it often is pretty dry without a bit of a story.If I were writing about cutting wood, getting it in, burning it—I could give you statistics, numbers of cords, types of wood, sawing and splitting issues, distance I haul it, description of my woods, data about my woodstove and its manufacture and purchase.I could do better than dry—I have things to say in my own voice, from my own experience, and in my own words about all those items, and it would be okay stuff.

But it would be so much better, don’t you think, with a few stories, tales, anecdotes, yarns, all true: a dangerous chimney fire during a blizzard; a deeply mired wood-wagon and me dressed all in mud; a kicking-back chainsaw heading for my foolish face; a hung-up tree jumping off a stump with my tender spots on its mind; my wife stripping to her bra to clean the narrow chambers of an antique woodstove where my brawny arms won’t reach; hot coals jumping out at innocent long-haired dogs; little children sitting on the cellar steps watching mumma making kindling, etc.?

Action, narrative, stories is what you’re going to be working on this week.

Here’s a warning: in fiction, a story is its own justification. If you have a good yarn, the world will beat a path to your door.In creative nonfiction, a story is not its own justification. It is not the king, it is the courtier. The story is in aid of something else: a larger point, a deeper understanding, a different focus.So, this week’s assignment is not stories. It’s stories-aiming-at-something-else-beyond-themselves. Write, but don’t just tell a story—use a story.

Example: http://yosemite.emcc.edu/faculty/jgoldfine/double_standard_dad.htm

Stories Part 2

Most of the course up to this point has been geared to getting you to put in details, examples, and stories that you know from your first-hand experience. Nothing is going to change--that's what the course is about.

Why? Why is the course about that? Because "to see what is in front of one's nose requires a constant struggle." George Orwell said that.

You must believe that the world starts with what's in front of your nose. Sadly, most people give up the constant struggle to see it. They accept shadows and imitations. If I say 'Outastata,' they laugh, say, 'Masshole,' and start some involved story about a slow Winnebago and a tourist who insisted that he wasn't buying any so-called live lobster that was green--lobsters are supposed to be red! No downeaster's gonna fool him.... Etc, etc.

You can't do that. You have to really look at the story, see the details. What if the above story really happened to you? I don't believe it did, but what if? What are your obligations to the reader?

You have to note that the Winnebago was a 1979 model, that its tires were bald, that one of the brackets holding the roof ladder was held onto the vehicle with a coathanger, and that the Masshole driving was that very old-man kind of scrawny, but he looked like he once had been a fat man. You noticed his hands quivering as he pointed at the lobster tank. For a second you almost thought he was going to cry, but then his voice grew loud and hard, hard enough to remind you of your grandfather who thought of nothing, ever, but his time in Korea at the Chosun Reservoir where his best friend had been killed. Every one said he used to smile before he went to Korea, but you'd never seen him smile. This Masshole reminded you of him.

And you have to remember that when he pulled out his wallet to pay for the lobster--finally--it was an old-time kids' cowboy wallet with gimp stitching that was coming undone and that he paid the last $2.25 of the bill with quarters and a few dimes and nickels and that his wife had to find a last quarter in the Winnebago. That he and his wife had argued over how big a bag of potato chips they needed.

And that when you said, 'Have a nice day,' the wife smiled and said, 'Thank you, dear,' and the old guy said something under his breath that made you start hating him all over again, just when you were feeling a little sorry for him.

Details, examples, stories, pushed to the limit and right under your nose, if only you will open your eyes, hard as that is (it's hard because the world is hard, and it's easier to make do with a model or a sketch rather than facing the whole nasty confusing messy itchy stinky thing.)

More on narrative

I'm finding a lot of people having trouble with narrative. Instead of really telling a story, writers are recounting events in an outliney sort of way without any dramatization. It's not laziness; they just seem to have forgotten what we all know instinctively--that a good story has to have a problem, a conflict, tension, collisions (and I don't mean car crashes!). So, the writer is defaulting to a very dry, hunkered-down defensive, one-thing-after-another way of writing.

Here's an example, not from any student's writing, one I'm making up for this lecturette. I'm getting narratives like this:

When I was a kid, I went out trick or treating on halloween and collected a lot of candy. When I got home, my mother made me share it with my little brother. He was always the skinny one, unlike me, and I resented having to share my candy with him, but I was obedient and did what my mother asked.

That's a very dry, minimal graf--it's not really a story. I describe a situation without dramatizing or detailing it in any way. A lot of you are giving me comparable pieces. Here's a better version:

When I was a kid, I went out trick or treating on halloween and collected a lot of candy. Bags and bags of it, really. It was the early fifties and, even considering inflation since then, candy was very very cheap. The grownups in the neighborhood had all come up during the Great Depression and they were just loving the fifties: big cars, lots of booze, nice clothes...and a ton of candy for the kiddos. "What are you supposed to be tonight?" they'd say, and then dump a big Snickers or two in my bag.

So, one shopping bag was never enough for all the loot.

When I got home, my mother would tell me to share my swag with my too-little-to-trick-or-treat brother--bratty, snotty, mom's-cutiepie SETTTTTTTH! (I always said his name in the same manner I would later say the word "MOTHERF**ER!") I couldn't stand him, but I knew I had to obey or he'd go whining to mom. Seth was a pest, Seth was skinny (I was not), but, okay, I dumped my bags, all my bags, out on the bed and started sorting candy.

On the left, far away from SETTTTTH's bed went all the Snickers, the Peanut Butter Cups, the Three Musketeers, the Welch's Fudge, the Charleston Chews--all the chocolate and candy bars I loved. Then in the middle, I'd make a second pile of the okay stuff: candy corn, caramel, jawbreakers. That stuff was good but not great. It was my backup candy and would last me a lot longer than a loose Snickers bar!

Then on the right, closest to Seth's bed was the pile of stuff I intended to give him: nice healthy apples, dark bitter licorice, weird homemade candies, mints. All the stuff I hated would do very nicely for the little brother I hated.... And, best of all, my mother who had no sweet tooth at all, also had no clue that Seth was only getting the sweepings, the garbage, the less-thans and left-behinds and also-rans and never-wases from my bags and bags of candy.

She'd see the pile and nod with satisfaction. John was good, John was obedient, John was sharing nicely with his little brother.

Seth, though, Seth even at age 4 or 5, knew better than Mom what was really going on.

That's better, but it still doesn't quite turn into a narrative. To do that, I'd have to go further and create scenes of me laughing at Seth for not getting any good candy and him throwing an apple at me and me beating the crap out of him and my mother coming into our bedroom and hearing the truth of the deal from Seth and her confiscating all my candy and me then hating Seth with a hatred no human ever experienced in all of recorded history and him smirking his miserable skinny-ass smirk as he sat there on his bed eating MY Snickers....

Then we'd have a story.

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