Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Relevance of Elephants: rambling thoughts on eternity and storytelling

The first job of the writer is to captivate the reader.

It helps to have something to say. It’s even better if you have something important or exciting or inherently fascinating to say. In this respect, some writers clearly have an advantage over others: no matter how exceptional your imagination or keen your insight, there is no getting around the fact that we write what we know. And some of us have more, well, interesting lives than others.

That said, even the most intriguing subject can be made irrelevant, like too many elephants. Similarly, there is always (and I mean always) an angle which, if the writer takes it up, will make the dullest slice of life, enchanting. A good writer can make pork and beans relevant.

I think this is why we need writers and storytellers. Like magic, they toss a handful of eternity into the temporal salad. And, as aggravating as it is, most of us sense that we are eternal souls in temporary encasements.

Our temporal self only half recognizes eternity when the two bump shoulders, because we are too busy being part of our own story. It’s hard, for example, to know when you are being heroic (and when you think you are, you probably aren’t). It’s difficult to grasp that loss can morph itself into redemption or that a “series of unfortunate events” is actually funny. But writers, and stories, give us truth and beauty in whole form and coax us to hunt for traces of it in the flesh. By this means, other people’s stories (actual or imagined) – many of which have long since seen the curtain call – serve us in the fashioning of our own story.

Several years ago I read Annie Dillard’s memoir, An American Childhood. One night I tossed the book into my leather satchel, along with a pen or two, several notebooks, and enough cigarettes to chain smoke (with coffee breaks) for 4 or 5 hours. I drove to Discussions, a downtown coffee-house, where you can sit for hours chain-smoking (with coffee breaks) and no one will look at you crossways.

My intent to spend the evening reading dwindled, as I read. Heaviness settled on me, like oil settling on coffee. It wasn’t a problem with the book; not exactly. My life was the problem, inasmuch as I compared it to Annie Dillard’s own, presented in the book.

“How,” I thought, “can I presume to be a writer, when I have nothing of interest to say?”

I shut the book dramatically, took a resentful last drag on my cigarette, rubbed it out and rummaged around in my bag for a pen and paper. And then I started writing.

It began as a diatribe of my less than glamorous, less than cultured, less than eventful life. But just at that point, something curious happened. In order to portray my lackluster childhood, I had to choose appropriate descriptors. I had to scan my memory for examples. I had to add some biting sarcasm and self-effacing humor. I imagined my pencil going up in flames (difficult, since it was a pen). I paused to read over my last paragraph, chuckled under my breath and lit up another cigarette.

By night’s end I had six or seven pages of something funny, poignant, descriptive, sad, reflective, and - very accurately - my life. What’s more it was interesting. I couldn’t wait to turn the page.

I’ve thought for a long time now that, as a writer, I can’t do fiction. By that I really mean that I can’t write stories. I can write essays or papers or letters or emails. But story requires something more- imagination and a deep well of experience from which to draw. As for that, I figure I’ve got pretty darn near the same amount of experience as your average thirty-year-old. I’m starting to think it just needs an angle. And an angle is something I might be able to find.

There’s a relatively new genre of writing called Creative Non-fiction. I’d like to have a go at it. If I can’t spin tales of Middle Earth, I can at least tell you what it’s like here in Middle America, in the middle of my head. And who knows but that my efforts to infuse my temporal existence with eternity will act as a weird, self-referential means of grace, helping me to fashion my story.


Ron said...

Hey Rachel,
Like I said,now I know where to find you...
Great post - obviously resonates with me. Just reading through a couple of your posts and I would say that you clearly have a knack for putting words together. Creative non-fiction would seem to be a good fit for you. Keep it up!
And tell everyone "hi" from all of us.

Rachael said...

oh, dear. I always feel weird when people start reading my blog. But I suppose it's only fair, since I've been lurking around yours for awhile.

Tell everyone "Hi" there, too.