A couple days ago, I posted a nonfictional account of things I saw and heard while sitting in a small-town McDonald’s restaurant. One of the things I saw was that there was a wasp outside, and then later, I saw a wasp inside, and my immediate comment was that seeing the wasp inside turned the earlier observation into “foreshadowing.”
One definition of “foreshadowing” is:
the use of indicative words/phrases and hints that set the stage for a story to unfold and give the reader a hint of something that is going to happen without revealing the story or spoiling the suspense. Foreshadowing is used to suggest an upcoming outcome to the story.
and Wikipedia’s entry describes “foreshadowing” as when
an author hints certain plot developments that perhaps will come to be later in the story … foreshadowing only hints at a possible outcome within the confinement of a narrative
And these definitions seem to imply that the author knows, or at least suspects, from the beginning of the telling of the story how it will end. For example, if I knew the wasp would do something later on, I’d better foreshadow that early in the narrative so that the wasp-event didn’t seem to come out of nowhere. Stories where the main characters are trying to rebuild their lives after battling mental illness, only to get killed in a car accident (one way of telling my father’s story), aren’t satisfying as stories.
But what I’m thinking today is this: I was writing as things were happening, in “real time,” and so when I first mentioned the wasp, I just saw it as a mildly interesting thing that was happening — I had no idea that I’d see it again later, or feel threatened by it. On first seeing the wasp, I had no idea it had any significance beyond its mere presence. So I mentioned it, but I wasn’t “foreshadowing” anything.
A larger point: everything I see around me, all the time, could possibly affect me. A neighbor kid’s ball could be batted into my windows, every car I see could careen into me, and my wife could leave me. This is what it means to be alive, as a mature adult (little kids may not have the experience to predict outcomes) —being aware of these possibilities. But of course, not everything is foreshadowing: not every batted ball will break a window, not every car ride ends in accident, and not every fight leads to divorce. In fact, to look at real life as having foreshadowing is to either be paranoid-obsessive, or to believe in prophesy/foretold fate, and neither seems a fun way to live.
So my point may be a modest one, that narratives are not the same as lived-experience. But it seems important to make this distinction between story and real experience clear. I spent years of my youth and young adulthood thinking that my real life was inadequate for lacking some of the qualities of the stories I read. My experiences paled in comparison with, say, Kerouac’s cross-country road trips. Yet, when I did take my own road trips, those two weren’t quite as compelling as those in On The Road. So I feel like learning the artificiality of storytelling has freed me from false, unrealizable expectations of my own life, and has helped me to enjoy my life as it comes to me. And even when I do tell stories about things I’ve experienced, I tend to tell them in understated, under-dramatized ways. I generally don’t try to play up my experience as fascinating — I prefer writing about my thinking-life rather than my experienced-life. I don’t mean to condemn those who can interestingly mythologize their experiences, but I was glad to learn that I wasn’t an inadequate writer if I didn’t.
And so, as a writer, I enjoy writing descriptive nonfiction, of my own experiences, of places I visit, as it happens — en medias res — because, well, I live my life en medias res. I wake up to this current moment to find myself here — in this body, at my age, with my wife and job and family and etc. The narratives that result from my writing aren’t tight narratives — but they are interesting in ways (interesting to write, perhaps also to read) that tightly plotted and planned artificial narratives are not.
P.S. I suppose a similar analysis exists for symbolism in a story: that we find symbolic meanings in our own possessions, but we don’t make a big deal out of it. When my wife and I bought our first-and-only house after years of wanting to, we felt like we had finally “succeeded,” in a sense, and that we were finally adults (a meaning that shares in the cultural significance of home-ownership in our rural area, perhaps also in the contemporary U.S. generally). But seeing our house as a symbol of success and maturity isn’t something worth writing an essay (or even a blog post) about. Almost every single object in my house has some kind of meaning to it (and if it doesn’t, I probably throw it out) — thus, symbolism doesn’t seem all that interesting of a thing to think about, in some story-analysis ways.