Nonfic: Efficient stories

An AVClub article had this statement — “The New World unfolds less in acts than in movements” — and reading that statement prompted in my mind a thought not about the movie but about my own concept of writing: that a piece of writing doesn’t have to follow conventions like having acts, but further, it doesn’t need to be efficient. That may not be the best word for this vague notion that I’m trying to put into words, but here’s trying:

Last weekend, I posted about taking out, editing out, the dull parts of any text. This week, I’ve noticed myself telling anecdotes about recent experiences, and I notice that my telling of these anecdotes has gotten more efficient. To be specific, lately I’ve been writing down (in my pocket-pages) particular things I’ve overheard while at the school where I teach, and in order for these statements to be sensible when I read them later, or when I read these to others, I write also some explanation of the context in which the statement was made.  I realize that I’ve gotten pretty efficient in telling what needs to be told to convey a story, and not telling more.  This efficiency may have come through the practice of repeatedly telling stories, but it wasn’t particularly intentional — I haven’t been sitting around and editing-down my stories.

But the stories have gotten slim and efficiently told, for the purpose, I suppose, of communicating to others (my future self and any people I’d later read these to) why I found these statements particularly note-worthy. In order to communicate effectively, I want to tell spare stories — almost more like jokes, these brief anecdotes, where certain information must be related upfront so the punchline (the overheard quote) produces the same reaction in my listeners as the reaction I had on first overhearing the statement.

But I’ve also been thinking that with this efficiency of storytelling, I may be getting too efficient. I may be turning these overheard bits into performable material, and I’m not sure that’s a great thing, in the sense that I may become likely to start to see much of my experience as material ready for shaping into anecdotes.

The danger here, and this is where the quote from the AVClub article comes in, is that a story structure becomes a way of seeing the world. (Maybe this is overstating this phenomenon a bit, but I’m pushing through here.) In a sense, I was glad to be reminded, when I read the quote, that interpretations of reality, interpretations of one’s experience, are necessarily leaving things out, and maybe that’s worth remembering. I mentioned in the previous post about editing “dull” things out — but since my brain tends to do that anyway (in daily living and also in storytelling), maybe it’s also worth remembering that we don’t have to be editing our experience at all. We don’t really even have to be remembering it. If I edit out those parts which don’t contribute to the particular story I’m telling, that may improve the story itself, but there’s nothing inherently boring which any moment of experience, of course.

I assigned my creative writing students to go do a nonfiction freewriting while they were in some public place (like a restaurant, mall, library, park, etc.) where they could watch and listen to others. One student did his freewriting in a quiet school study hall, and the text he produced described such mundane things as how other students swung their legs as they did other things or nothing at all. No particular act or statement that was profound or amusing made it into his prose, and yet, the student had created a sorta wonderful record of study-hall boringness, mundanity. He had noticed routine things, and somehow this led to a document that was interesting to read. It was a record of what that student had noticed as he was desperately searching for exciting things to notice.

If we’re only looking for grand events, or easily quoted overheard speech, we are only looking for those moments when our conscious experience matches our mental models of what an amusing story is  — when, of course, we could also be noticing experiences that are not so easily told as stories, those experiences that could challenge these existing models, too. Movies don’t have to be structured in three acts, and my stories don’t always have to be efficient or amusing.

Not that all of my stories I tell to students and friends need to be amusing, but that tends to be my default. If I were a cable channel, I’d be more like Comedy Central than I would be Bravo or Food Network or NatGeo. But I’ve found myself getting bored lately with Hollywood movies whose story outlines are overly familiar to me. I understand that Hollywood too wants to tell stories efficiently to as big an audience as possible, but I guess I just want to see different kinds of stories, different ways of thinking about experience, which thinking will lead me to having different experiences. Instead of just asking commercial storytellers to come up with new story-forms to amuse me, I could come up with some of my own. And I could check out The New World, which I haven’t seen yet but which, the AVClub article pointed out, did try some of these new ideas.

2 responses to “Nonfic: Efficient stories

  1. I think another point with longer stories, novels and so on, is that you want to have some “noise”, because you don’t want the straight line, you want to confuse the reader to an extent. While I can produce suspense by using certain words, I can also get there by being somewhat “inefficient”.

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