Stranger than Fiction   Leave a comment

If you’ve read previous posts here, you’ve heard about my Nanowrimo experience.  One of the perks of such an online endeavor — beyond the solace of knowing that thousands are struggling right along with you, engaged in the same mad attempt, maybe chewing the end of a pencil like a trapped animal gnaws off its own leg to escape, or staring blindly at a computer screen, in either case despairing of ever writing another readable word — is the series of pep talks by published novelists.

Towards the end of the Nano-month, author Janet Fitch posted one such talk which I’ve copied and saved — both for my own benefit and for the writing classes I teach.  As I was re-reading it recently, it struck me as peculiarly applicable to our own lives.  You probably suspected we’re all just characters in somebody’s novel — it’s not a new idea.  But this should be no surprise in any case — we tell stories constantly.  Why shouldn’t storytelling advice also bear some connection to living IRL?

Here’s Fitch writing about “getting stuck” with a character, and what to do about it:

So you have these options, but which one to go for? When in doubt, make trouble for your character. Don’t let her stand on the edge of the pool, dipping her toe. Come up behind her and give her a good hard shove. That’s my advice to you now. Make trouble for your character. In life we try to avoid trouble. We chew on our choices endlessly. We go to shrinks, we talk to our friends. In fiction, this is deadly. Protagonists need to screw up, act impulsively, have enemies, get into TROUBLE.

The difficulty is that we create protagonists we love. And we love them like our children. We want to protect them from harm, keep them safe, make sure they won’t get hurt, or not so bad. Maybe a skinned knee. Certainly not a car wreck. But the essence of fiction writing is creating a character you love and, frankly, torturing him. You are both sadist and savior. Find the thing he loves most and take it away from him. Find the thing he fears and shove him shoulder deep into it. Find the person who is absolutely worst for him and have him delivered into that character’s hands. Having him make a choice which is absolutely wrong.

You’ll find the story will take on an energy of its own, like a wound-up spring, and then you’ll just have to follow it, like a fox hunt, over hill, over dale.

Imagine this as the rule of thumb that God (fill in your favorite entity to blame — corporations aren’t exempt, now that they’re people too) follows with us, and our lives may start to make a lot more sense.  If it’s true that all the growth is in the hassle, maybe we should seek out a moderate degree of hassle from time to time, rather than letting it back up and accumulate and swell until it spills over and clobbers us when we’re least expecting it.  Instead, take it on in smaller doses.  But whatever we do, you’ll have noticed that we end up in relationships with people who manage to uncover our weaknesses with uncanny accuracy and poke and prod them in their most sensitive spots, as well as with people who will love us regardless — quirks, warts, fetishes and all.  And we provide the same service to others.

As we become more fully conscious, and assume at least some of the responsibility for the characters we play, we even get to revise them.  Meanwhile, when you think your life’s a disaster, it may just be going through some heavy rewriting behind the scenes.  Whole chapters get chucked.  Motivations get rearranged.  You’re on your way to a normal daily ordinary even humdrum lunch, and something changes in your life forever.  Or, on the other hand, if nothing is happening and nothing just keeps on happening in your life, maybe the show is on a commercial break, or mid-season hiatus.  Don’t change the channel yet — stay tuned for the next episode.

Writer and AODA Archdruid John Michael Greer observes in a 1/11/12 blog post:

As human beings, we think with stories as inevitably as we eat with mouths and walk with feet; the stories we tell ourselves about the world define the way we make sense of the “blooming, buzzing confusion,” in William James’ phrase,  that the world out there throws at our sense organs. In what we are pleased to call “primitive societies,” a rich body of mythology and legend provides each person with a range of narratives that can be applied to any given situation and make sense of it. Learning the stories, and learning how to apply them to life’s events, is the core of a child’s education in these societies, and a learned person is very often distinguished, more than anything else, by the number of traditional stories he or she knows by heart.

In one very real sense, then, Druidry is “merely” a rich source of stories that provide alternative ways of understanding our existence and experience.  The important thing is to have, ready at hand and from a tried and wise source, an ample supply of story alternatives that teach us and help us and entertain us as they do so.  The “single story” of much modern life just isn’t enough.  I’ll be talking more about this in a coming post.

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