Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Series of Unfortunate Events -- Is Not a Story

No, this is not a rant about about Lemony Snicket. It's suggested by a number of posts I've seen from professional writers on various private lists lately. They're talking about something that happens to every writer at one point or another.

It's a close cousin of "I've got this idea! You write it and we'll split the profits!" But unlike that chronic annoyance, it's a lot more difficult to turn away with a clear conscience.

I'm talking about the person with the Great Personal Life Story, the combat veteran, the cancer survivor, that lady who lived through a plane-crash, the man who invented the digital pet-dish, the famous actor's lover, the retired blimp pilot. Their life would make a great book! Write it and they'll cut you in! Or maybe they'll even offer you money up front to take on the job so they can keep all the profits for themselves.

Sadly for them, this isn't the way it works. That isn't to say the people can't, and don't, manage to cash in on their personal tragedy (or adventures) through books. It does happen, and there is sometimes value to be had in the first-person tale or the "authorized story."

But what's had for people to understand is that they even don't HAVE a story until someone (they, or somebody else) tells it. The story is almost never the events themselves. It's the arrangement and editing of those events, and the frame that somebody puts around them. And with rare exceptions, the value is all in the story, not the events themselves.

This gets back to what I think story is, at the most fundamental level. Story is a way of applying meaning and form to the apparent randomness of life.

Completely without evidence (hey, I'm telling a story here), I imagine our primitive ancestors huddled in a cave somewhere against a driving rainstorm. Among them is Oog, who has the curse of thinking-about-these-things-a-lot.

It's been a bad day, just like most every other bad day. This little band of barely-upright fur-people is always cold, always wet, always hungry, always in fear of their lives. Every snap of a twig or new smell in the wind is cause for a moment of panic. Life could be snuffed out at any instant.

For example: there's a sudden stirring at the back of the cave. Naturally, any place this comfortable and dry is already occupied. In this case, it's by a large, cranky, half-awake cave bear. The little band runs, screaming and chattering, for their lives, back into the cold and the rain. All except for poor Mek, who was just a little too slow today and is now bear-food.

The band again shivers in the cold and the dark, huddled together for warmth. In the distance, thunder cracks, and they all jump in unison, their hearts pounding as one.

Oog thinks about poor Mek. So random. It could have been anyone, even Ogg himself. Or could it?

What if Mek weren't Mek? What if Mek were, say, Meek? Meek who he just made up. Meek who is lazy, and does not do his share in gathering food, and does not stand watch, and complains when the others run and he falls behind. Meek is slow, and lazy, and would deserve to die! All would be right with the universe.

Oog smiles and feels better, and will be certain to share this with others just as soon as they develop this language thing.

Now, imagine a variation on this scenario. Mek is the lazy one, and Oog doesn't like Mek much. He still tells the same story. But there is no name changing, and Oog feels better yet. (Or consider that Mek is the hard-working one. The one who does things for others. The one who runs just for the fun of it. Mek is still dead, and Oog has invented "irony.")

Should Mek profit from his "story?"

No, because he is dead.

But also because there was no story until Oog came up with it. Until Oog did that, Mek was just another dead ape-man in a long line of ape-men. And really it doesn't matter if Mek is the hard working, good ape-man, or the lazy, bad ape-man, or just your average ape-man. The story still all rests with Oog coming along and giving the common and simple events of Mek's death some kind of meaning.

In fact, I am pretty sure that non-fiction story came first. Mek was Mek, no matter what. His veiled counterpart Meek came later. Later still came his completely-fictional cousin Mook, who was killed in a great hollow tree, not a cave, and not by a bear, but by a stone that turned into a horned-turtle with the claws of a lion, and who sprung back to life out of turtle-poop because he was too-darned-mean to die.

See where we're going here? Mostly, the story is in the telling, not the living, even when you're telling your own story.

The tale of poor Mek also points out one other sad fact. Getting killed by a bear in a cave is pretty dramatic. Certainly poor Mek thought so (if he was thinking anything at the end beyond: "Aaaaa! Bear!"). In fact, if Mek were around to consider it, he'd likely put it high on the list of the biggest things that ever happened to him.

But the plain truth is, Mek's story wasn't that unusual for his people. There are lots of bears (and lions, and wolves, and...), all of them are hungry, and the fur-people are weak, slow, and tasty. Though his end was very special and important for him, and though it would be special and important for anyone else it happened to, in the greater scheme of things there just isn't much to make it stand out.

Back to real time. Try telling that to the person who lost their leg in Iraq, or their eye to cancer, or their wife in the 9-11 attacks, or their child to a terminal disease. "Yeah, it's awful, but it's just not that unusual, and on the face of it, there just isn't much reason for people to be interested."

Lots of people got hurt in Iraq. Some were killed and never came home. Lots more were shooting and getting shot at and nearly getting blown up, and on some days, that could be exciting too.

People get cancer every day. Children die every day. Maybe your wife died in 9-11, but so did thousands of others. People get murdered. Get in car crashes. Plane crashes. Fall into farm machinery. Human existance -- all of human history -- is full of tragedy, horror, wonder, and miracles. What the hell makes you so special anyway?




Perhaps I've made it seem like these people are often selfishly seeking fame or fortune or both

Some are, sure, but many are not. Many of these people, I think, approach writers because they are themselves struggling to find some meaning in the events of their lives. Either they hope the writer will pencil that meaning into the blankness of their existance (in which case they perhaps don't need a writer, but a therapist), or actually believe that if they can inspire a book, that will itself be the meaning they seek. "It was all terrible, but at least I got a book out of it." "Perhaps my terrible story can inspire or comfort others and that will make it worthwhile."

In either case the book isn't what the subject of the book needs. It's an imperfect means to an imperfect end; one likely to disappoint everyone.

There is one more reason why the subject of such a book may not be satisfied with the result. An important aspect of story is that it wraps that package of random events up in a neat package. It trims off the fat, plumps it up in the middle, and gives it a beginning and and end.

People, too, have beginnings and ends, but they are rarely the end-points of good story. Former U.S. President Richard Nixon's memoirs famously (thanks to "Saturday Night Live") begin with the words "I was born in the house my father built." Does anyone really care? Nixon did. The rest of us, not so much.

The movie "Patton," starring George C. Scott is a riveting biography of a WWII General George S. Patton, a man whose character was so mythic, his style so colorful, his role in history so great, his failings so ironic, that it practically did write itself. It swept the Oscars and was a landmark of its day. But few people remember that Scott played Patton again in a 1986 TV movie called "The Last Days of Patton." It's based on the same book as "Patton," and has the same Oscar-winning star in the role, but it isn't much celebrated.

There could be many reasons for this, but the most obvious is this: It tells of a fallen Patton, his best days behind him, suffering a terrible auto accident that severs his spine. Scott spends most of the movie on his back in a hospital bed, fish hooks in his face to immobilize his head. Love the man or hate him, this is not how you want to see him. "Patton" found the place to end Patton's story, and it was not on his deathbed.

Likewise, Mek's story perhaps does not end with snapping teeth and ripping claws. Perhaps it ends when he makes the fateful decision to tug the members of his little band towards that cave. Perhaps it ends when, Reh, who feels Mek has wronged him, does nothing to stop the band from going in. Perhaps it ends with Reh sitting alone in the rain, waiting for the screams to start, crying at his betrayal of Mek, who he both loves and hates.

Who is Reh? Why have we not mentioned him before?

Like I said, finding the story in facts is about knowing what to pull in, and what to throw out. Perhaps Mek would have wanted to include his brother Nek, who will doubtless greatly mourn his passing. But from the story-tellers standpoint, Nek may not figure in at all. It is Reh, who Mek barely knew existed, who makes for the better story.

Perhaps this isn't Mek's story at all. Maybe it's poor, tragic, Reh's, and Mek is only a distant figure, the object of his self-destructive obsession.

"Hey," says Mek, "what about me?" (Translated from the cave-man.)

That's the other thing about the person with the tragic past or the fascinating life. They may be part of a really fascinating story, but they may not be the center of the story. And they may not like that. They may not like it at all.

Really, there are stories everywhere, and in some aspect of these people's lives, there likely are fascinating and compelling stories to be told. But in stories of this type, my experience is that the best ones are usually written from the inside, by the people who experience them and have found some meaning in the story of their lives, who have reached some kind of peace or understanding with events therein. Sometimes these people will have a writer as collaborator to turn the story into prose. But story and manuscript are two different things, and I get the sense that the story itself comes from within.

Or they're written by independent observers who approach the facts from a distance. No matter how close they ultimately come to the subject matter, they circle in like bloodhounds to sniff out the story within the larger events and to pick out what is most important and central to that story.

An example of the former: Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson. This fascinating book works on multiple levels, both as a study of animal behavior, as the story of author Grandin's life coping with autism, and finally as the story of how her condition allowed her the insights to create that study.

I'm sure Johnson had a great deal to do with the form of the final text, but I suspect the story itself could only have come from Grandin, it being a fascinating, inspiring, and occasionally shocking trip inside the mind of someone whose brain is wired completely different than yours or mine. It's the story of someone who understands themselves as well as they understand animals, and ironically, in the same way, for the same reasons.

An example of the latter: The Perfect Storm - This book, by Sebastian Junger, tells one of those tragic, dramatic, and yet timelessly mundane stories: Men go to sea in ships. Men don't come back. It could have been any men, any ship, any time, any place.

Yet this is a gripping and powerful book, and he makes this story stand above hundreds of others like it that could have been (or have been) told. He makes these men, this ship, this storm, this loss seem special and unique, and yet in a way that honors all the more "common" stories that go untold.

Especially interesting is the fact that a good deal of the book dramatizes details of the men's last hours that are unknown and unknowable. Though based on general facts, it's almost made up out of whole cloth. In this case, it doesn't matter. It's a mythic tale of men who stand up against the gods themselves, and though they go down, they do so with honor, courage and recognizable humanity. The story is that of the men who died, yet it is completely Junger's.

It's hard not to feel for the person who comes to you with the most personal and tragic events of their life, hoping for you to put them into words, and ultimately, into print. It's hard not to sympathize, to empathize, and to start looking for the inevitable threads of story you, as a writer, see in their experience.

But my advice is to listen patiently, nod knowingly, and back slowly away. If they cannot tell their story themselves, then you may already to be too close to tell it for them. If they pay you, then they will expect the story they want to hear, not the one that should be told. If they do not pay you, then you are on an uncertain road with many detours to ruin, and few to happiness and success.

Tell them they should perhaps write their own story, and direct them to a class, a workshop, or a favorite writing book. Tell them it's a very interesting story, but you really don't do this sort of thing, and you wish them luck in finding a collaborator.

Tell them anything. Be kind. Then get clear.

These are dangerous waters, and you'd be wise to steer away without good cause to do otherwise. You are a writer, and this probably isn't a story you have to tell. You're a writer, and you know stories are everywhere.

You're a writer, and you know this isn't where your story must begin, or where theirs will end.

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  1. Great post. I'd add as a fiction writer that what those with their "story" to tell haven't quite grasped most of the time is that it takes a great deal of work to generate the immediacy of the story. In writing workshops I find that such students are often telling their true story at arm's length (or even the distance of the other goalpost on a football field). Their personal story is too personal, and they retreat from that to a safe distance. Instead of a gripping story like Junger's, you get a series of events related in summaries. We're told ABOUT the thing, but never are we placed within the events. Never do we feel what the people there felt, see what they saw. Sometimes the argument for this is that the author wants to tell it the way it really happened; but this argument falls apart immediately, because even memoir is fiction--selectively emphasizing some events and opinions and even discarding others entirely. That's never the way it really happened. It's the way it happened that best makes a story.

  2. Good points. Could be too that people are looking for someone to write their story because they're too afraid of it to write it themselves.

  3. Also a great post to send people to when they're worried someone will steal their "idea." An idea is nebulous. A story gives it form--and characters give the story life. Starting with the same idea (such as your Patton example) we'd all come up with vastly different stories.

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