Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Story as a Sentient Being

I started teaching a Valerie Martin essay for this quote, "The desire at the start is not to say anything, not to make meanings, but to create for the unwary reader a sudden experience of reality." It seems crucial to young writers at the start of the semester and fits with the way I prepare them for their first story. I've always given the word "unwary" a hard time -- I assume all readers are wary -- I love the essay because of Martin's quote and those of other writers on how a story/characters come them. As I was prepping to teach it again this semester, the essay seemed to be completely new -- in that it takes a turn I never really understood before. (To prep for this, it helps to know that I just saw the film HER for the first time, and last night I saw ADORE, based on the Doris Lessing story "The Grandmothers" -- my, my, Ms. Lessing!) Here's the part of the essay that -- upon reading it anew this semester -- suddenly appeared, "Stories think, and they do it the same way we do. They talk straight sometimes, right to the heart, but they have always a deep, symbolic understanding of reality that can dictate what happens on the conscious level. They speak to us, as dreams speak to us, in a language that is at once highly symbolic and childishly literal. They mirror our consciousness exactly because they are composed through a process both conscious and subconscious." If stories think, they have their own consciousness. They go out into the world and interact -- in dialogue and in a subconscious way -- with humans. Drawing on HER, stories are alive; they have their own intelligence. Sure, I've understood that art can be immortal -- those old unaging monuments of intellect. I've never been drawn to those notions. But this -- this idea that a story is a being, a living conscious being, that's a way of looking at it that I've never quite done before. Explaining this to Dave this morning, I reminded him I'm no fan of birthing metaphors for publication. (They make me a little crazy because I've had four children come out of my body and no one ever says, during labor, "It's just like writing a book! Bear down and push." They don't because it's not and because someone might slap them.) However, the story as a conscious being that the writer's made that then goes off and moves through the world interacting with others, having conversations, moving them or angering them... that does make sense. They gone on without us, as our kids do, into the world. Martin starts this essay with a birthing metaphor, in fact. "Unlike babies, not all stories come from the same place, and not all people who create stories go about it in the same way." I'm not sure I agree. People go about having babies often long before a physical act (which also comes with its variations) -- sometimes, in fact, a child starts as an act of imagination. People start with an image, just as the many writers in Martin's essay confirm. I'd say that miscarriages have been hard for me, the loss of a future imagining of our lives; the physicality of the miscarriage an added bereavement for my body. Maybe this idea of story as its own conscious moving into the world hits me now because my oldest children are moving into the world themselves. I'm actually really stunned that I'm making any of these metaphors about art and birth, as opposed as I've been to them all my life -- and certainly I'm not willing to take them too far. My children aren't stories. They're human, truly, beautifully and miraculously. Maybe, more simply, what I find really startling is how the Martin essay has its own consciousness -- one that, when I came to it this time, had different things to say to me -- ones I'd have sworn weren't in it before. This is also often true of the fiction I teach. It changes on me. Just this week I said of the short story "Owls" by Lewis Nordan -- he's defining love as the place where you can tell all of your secrets, and how beautiful it was -- this time -- that even a parents' failed love, when re-imagined by the child (the imagination as an active creator), prepares the grown-up for romantic love. It fits perfectly with Martin's essay -- as if those two beings are talking and I'm only eavesdropping, "In a world where the ultimate power to destroy all human life lies in the hands of people we can neither admire nor trust, and with the certain knowledge that this extraordinary power is held by people we may even despise, one must assume that the average person is making up stories all the time. Otherwise we would simply go mad from anxiety." We're all storytellers.