Tag Archives: fiction

‘That’s a damn story’: Considering To Kill a Mockingbird after visiting Monroeville

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I read To Kill a Mockingbird just before visiting author Harper Lee’s hometown Monroeville, Alabama, recently, and I’m left with some questions about the nature of fiction, nonfiction, and real places, and how these intersect. Seeing the town and thinking about Nelle Harper Lee’s life story got me confused; I’ve yet to make sense of these things for myself. Since I don’t yet have an overall theory, I’m going to list some things I learned and what these things imply.

In the beginning of the novel, Maycomb, Alabama, lawyer Atticus Finch is the widowed, 50-something father of 6-year-old Scout Finch and her 10-year-old brother Jem Finch. Scout and Jem befriend a boy, Dill Harris, who spends summers in Maycomb living with his aunt Rachel Haverford “next door.” Neighbors “three doors to the south” are the Radley family, and “the Radley Place jutted into a sharp curve beyond our house. Walking south, one faced its porch,” and “the Maycomb school grounds adjoined the back of the Radley lot.” Arthur “Boo” Radley was kept “out of sight” from his teen years on after a run-in with the law.

Nonfictionally, Monroeville, Alabama, lawyer Amasa Coleman “A.C.” Lee was 52 when Nelle Harper Lee was 6. Her brother Edwin would’ve been 11 then. Nelle befriended neighbor boy Truman Capote, who lived with his Faulk aunts in the house directly north of the Lee house. Neighbors two doors to the south were the Boulware family, whose property extended into a south-easterly curve, whose house faced north, and whose back lot adjoined the elementary school yard. Alfred “Son” Boulware, Jr.’s “father promised to keep him under his thumb in lieu of punishment for an adolescent theft.

A piece of the oak tree that was the model for the oak tree near the Radley house in the book.

A piece of the oak tree that was the model for the oak tree near the Radley house in the book. Also in the case are pennies, a gold watch and chain, gum wrappers, marbles, and carved soap figures.

An intriguing example of the mix of fiction, nonfiction, and real physical objects is the display in the courthouse museum pictured above. There’s a photo of the real oak tree that was supposedly the inspiration for the oak tree in the novel, and there’s a chunk of wood from that tree. The other objects represent the gifts that Jem and Scout found in the tree, an incident that may have had a nonfictional precedent, but there’s no claim that these other objects were the actual gifts. There’s a card reading “The Famous Tree,” naming a real tree made nonfictionally famous by a fictional text. About this display, visitor David G. Allan wrote, “It’s this kind of conflation of history and fiction that happily muddles your head in Monroeville.”

Of course, after the similarities, there are also many distinctions between the fictional characters and the real people, and because of the earlier similarities, these differences become that much more stark. We readers might wonder why certain things were changed when so many things were not. For instance, Nelle Harper Lee’s mother was alive until Nelle was 25 — “Frances Finch Lee, also known as Miss Fanny, was overweight and emotionally fragile,” according to Nelle’s New York Times obituary. Nelle had two older sisters; Scout does not. Dill lived with one aunt; Truman Capote lived with at least three aunts and an uncle.

 I’m very tempted to use the phrase “real life” to describe Nelle’s life. But of course, any description of her life is still just a story. Her life story isn’t real in the way the streets and buildings and trees that I saw a few days ago were real. Her life story and the town’s history are simply nonfiction, as are the old photos of Nelle and of Monroeville in the museum and in books such as this. The house where she grew up does not exist and can be found only in story; the Lee house was torn down in 1952 and replaced with a food stand, now Mel’s Dairy Dream (see photos here).

What seemed the most real when I was at Monroeville were the physical objects before me, but it was actually hard to keep my attention on those things because I kept thinking of them through conceptual overlays (like a heads-up display, projecting information onto what I was seeing) of both the novel and of the history. The fiction and the nonfiction were both ideas, abstractions, but I kept applying them to the physical items I saw. I snapped pictures of anything associated with Scout or with Nelle; for instance, I took this photo of the pavement around Mel’s Dairy Dream while thinking “maybe Nelle Harper Lee once stepped here.”

Pavement at the site of the former Lee house.

Pavement at the site of the former Lee house and the current Mel’s Dairy Dream store.

I realized then I’d been thinking that the possibility of Nelle having stepped in a place made that place special. I was regarding her as more than just a regular person (whose footfalls aren’t special). I realized this thought was an example of magic thinking, that somehow I must have started to believe, by being in this town where Nelle lived and about which she wrote, that I could somehow enter the story itself and live within the funny, charming sensibility of the narrator’s depiction of Jem and Scout. This sounds absurd, of course, and it is, but I suspect this thinking might be similar to that of people who visit a site of a miracle or an important historical event. Why go to a place like Monroeville, Lourdes, or the Gettysburg battlefield unless I’m expecting, somehow, to get closer to, become part of, and be personally transformed by, the reality of these places I’d previously only read about?

I can read and analyze a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird without being anywhere near the town that inspired the novel’s setting. To visit the town does give me a chance to see for myself what buildings described in the story look like and how places relate to each other (for instance, now that I’ve walked from the elementary school to where the Lee house was, I think the length of Jem and Scout’s walk at the end of the book was exaggerated. But perhaps Nelle Harper Lee knew that the walk didn’t actually take long, and she made it seem longer to increase suspense in the story). Of course, even as Lee was writing in the 1950s, the town of her youth in the 1930s had changed. It’s also foolish to compare fictional descriptions to what I saw in the real town because, well, the fiction writer is free to change whatever she pleases, and also, to say a real place is “the basis for” or “the inspiration for” or “the setting for” a fictional place is basically meaningless. The fictional town and the real town are not be the same; it’s only in our abstract thinking that we conjoin the two.

Nelle Harper Lee wrote the book because, she told an interviewer back in 1964, in one of the last interviews she granted,

“This is small-town middle-class Southern life as opposed to the Gothic, as opposed to ‘Tobacco Road,’ as opposed to plantation life,” she told her interviewer, referring to the Erskine Caldwell novel, and adding that she was fascinated by the “rich social pattern” in such places. “I would simply like to put down all I know about this because I believe that there is something universal in this little world, something decent to be said for it, and something to lament in its passing,” she continued. “In other words, all I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama.”

Mockingbird does present an image of her childhood’s cultural and material conditions and does effectively convey this to her readers. In doing this, she created characters based closely enough on real people so that the real people can be identified: noble Atticus as A.C. Lee, reclusive Boo Radley as Alfred Boulware. A.C. Lee is said to have been appreciative enough to sign copies of Mockingbird as “Atticus,” but Alfred Boulware’s relatives (he died before the book was published) have not been pleased by their association with the book, as I was told by Monroe County Museum staffer Rabun Williams.

Nelle benefited from writing about real people, but since she became famous, she seemed to discourage others from writing about her:

She returned to her solitary life in Monroeville, keeping the press and the public at bay. In writing “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee” (2006), Charles J. Shields maintained that he had conducted 600 interviews with friends, acquaintances and former classmates of his subject, but Ms. Lee eluded him, turning down his requests for an interview “with vigor,” he said. (Times obit)

After turning other people into the abstractions of fictional characters, Lee perhaps did not want to be turned into the abstraction of Author Harper Lee. She wanted to control her own life story, though through her novel, she had taken control of others’ stories. According to the Times obit, “Ms. Lee lived a quiet but relatively normal life in Monroeville, where friends and neighbors closed ranks around her to fend off unwelcome attention by tourists and reporters,” which protection was perhaps more than Lee granted to the people she wrote about.

By writing about her home town, Lee has also reshaped it. Entering Monroeville from the south on Rt. 21, I saw a sign that said “Literary Capital of Alabama.” While the town is home to only about 7,000 residents, nearly 30,000 visit every year. The old courthouse has become a museum dedicated to Lee and Capote, and local actors put on play of Mockingbird each year, on the courthouse lawn and in the old courthouse itself. The book and museum prompt goofball tourists like myself to wander around taking pictures. Museum staffers and other locals also become willing storytellers as they share their own stories of Monroeville and the Lee family. The town has many empty storefronts, and poverty seems a problem in Monroe County, but no doubt the area would suffer more without its literary fame.

The book’s title comes from father Atticus’s warning to children Scout and Jem not to shoot mockingbirds with their air rifles for “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird,” and it’s a sin because, as another character explains, “mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.” Mockingbirds are a symbol of beauty, of selflessness, etc. On the other hand, a mockingbird “often imitates other birds,” and so could also be a symbol for taking the expression of others and making it one’s own.

Update, 22 July: This essay makes a point about the mockingbird as a symbol of the South, and that it wouldn’t necessarily deserve the praise it gets in the novel.

Some additional links about Nelle Harper Lee:

† Google Books link to I am Scout biography of NHL by Charles Shields.

† NY Times review of Go Set a Watchman

“A Queer Look at Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman'”

† “The Decline of Harper Lee” at Vulture.com

Daily Mail article on Harper Lee from 2010

“In Search of Harper Lee” (dated 2010, seemingly written in 1997)

† Sister Louise Lee Connor obituary

Alice Lee practices law at age 100

†  The Guardian: Should Marja Mills’ memoir have been published?

† Go Set a Watchman in the papers of Harper Lee’s literary agents

†  Rabun Williams’s speech at Harper Lee vigil

Some comments regarding Boulware

19 Things about Harper Lee

10 Facts about Harper Lee from AL.com

† Southern Literary Trail: Monroeville

Two nonfiction pieces Lee wrote

† An early (1960) review of Mockingbird includes this section:

Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is sugar-water served with humor. … It is frankly and completely impossible, being told in the first person by a six-year-old girl with the prose style of a well-educated adult. … A variety of adults, mostly eccentric in Scout’s judgment, and a continual bubble of incident make To Kill A Mockingbird pleasant, undemanding reading.

Fiction: What happens?

Below is a fiction dialogue I wrote for a local public radio station contest, which declined to use it, so I’m publishing it with this wonderful blog.

“What happens?” Tom asked. He grabbed a Greek yogurt, blueberry, from his fridge and sat in his green recliner.  I had a few more seconds to think of a response as he got back up to get a spoon. He peeled back the foil lid, scooped the fruit from one plastic well into the larger yogurt zone, slurped up a spoonful, and then looked at me and waited.

“Things happen,” I said. “Events, experiences. Birds fly from one powerline to another. A squirrel bounces across the street one moment, and is flattened the next. You mixed up the yogurt and it can’t be unmixed.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Tom said. He took another spoonful of yogurt, striated with blueberry juice  like carrara marble, and swallowed it.

I squinted at him, partly to query him and partly to engage my brain.

Tom scraped the last of the thick dairy from the hard plastic and set the tub and spoon on an end table. He put his hands palms-down on the arms of the recliner.

“What I mean is — well, I’m not sure what I mean. But there’s gotta be more to it than what you just said.”

More to what, I asked.

“Life,” he said.

“Shoot,” I thought. I can predict where this is going. I suddenly felt safe in a banal way. I waited to again be brought to the edge of a mental chasm, to see how he’d drive the idea while staying between the cliff wall of known thoughts and the dropoff of cleverness.

“Well, not life itself, which is far too abstract. When I squash a squirrel, I’m also killing its children,” he said.

“Mary Poppins steps in time,” I said.

Tom ignored me and continued, “I’m ending a piece of that which gives life, that which IS alive, and which, according to evolutionary theory, has been continuous through unknown generations of individuals for more than a billion years. I just ended it. … That doesn’t make me special — but I can’t recreate squirrel life. And sometimes I end life so as to continue my own.”

“But when I’m alive, I’m eating yogurt. I’m turning food into thought. It’s literal food for thought.”

And we were both silent a moment. He closed his eyes and lay back his head.

I said, “Your need to define life and what happens is an emotional need, and not necessarily an intellectual one.”

“That’s a valid point,” Tom said. “But it doesn’t answer the question.”

“Which question, again?” I said.

“The question of what happens,” Tom said. He added, “Maybe we get in trouble when we ask such vague questions. But maybe these simple questions can be the most profound.”

“Maybe. But maybe they’re also just simple,” I answered.

He leaned toward me from his chair and said, “We’re alive, you and me, right here, right now. Doesn’t our very existence pose the question of what it is to be alive?”

I think I finally got his point: “And you’re wondering if considering this question is exactly the right, or exactly the wrong, thing to be doing with this experience of being alive.”

Experimental writing: Following my cellphone’s suggestions

Here is a text co-written by my smartphone and me. I provided the starting word, and then I repeatedly chose one of the 3 words my keyboard program suggested to me. Here’s one starting with the “rhinos”:

I am going out with you and Jessica Simpson. the other day I was wondering how much of it is not an intended recipient of the book, but I didn’t know that you have any questions about your business and look forward to hearing from a single person who’s both polished and good luck. I’m sure that you have a lot more than happy to help me with the same thing as well as other hand.

Here’s another one that my phone wrote with my editing assistance, starting with the word “constables”:

the same time as a result of this product is not a problem with the help of my favorite part. it was the first time in the world of difference between the ages of my own mind. I don’t want to hear that you can also be used for a few years. this was a great deal with the new year to the title of your choice. the only thing that I have received this communication in error. please immediately notify me immediately by return false alert.

And here’s another text, made by my wife’s repeatedly selecting only the middle of three suggestions her phone offered:

Ok! See you manana, and then I will be able to set up a few weeks or months, but it is not a parent or something. I’m not sure if you are free to contact me. I have to go to the doctor. I am a beautiful person. I am a beautiful person. I am a beautiful person.

Why lit classes should teach bad novels

Looking though a catalog of books for use in English classrooms, I saw many of the old classics. Here are the contents of a bundle of books labeled “Common Core Literature Pack for Grades 9 and 10“:

The Odyssey, The Best of O. Henry, The Metamorphosis, The Grapes of Wrath,  Fahrenheit 451, Things Fall Apart, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Killer Angels, The Joy Luck Club, Oedipus Rex, Macbeth, A Doll’’s House, The Glass Menagerie, Great American Poems, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Great Speeches

This list seems tedious — it’s hard to imagine 14- and 15-year-old humans getting excited about reading Sophocles, Shakespeare, Ibsen, or Tennessee Williams — but this list is certainly full of books that are commonly considered to be worth teaching. These are good books, worthy of the title “literature.”

The tenth graders I’m teaching now are currently reading “Of Mice and Men,” another classic that this catalog company describes as “one of America’s most well-known naturalist stories.” As we read and discuss this book, I guide students in finding “textual evidence” to support their judgments of characters and their interpretations of themes. And Steinbeck’s novel/novella is very tightly structured; as I’m rereading this book this semester, I can see that Steinbeck foreshadows in the first 16 pages almost everything that will happen in the next 91.

The story works in the sense that readers can accept the text’s storytelling logic. Once these strongly defined characters are set together, they act on each other in ways that make sense. Curley starts a fight with Lennie because that’s what Curley likes to do, pick fights, we’re told. And once Lennie fights back and hurts him, Curley seeks revenge. This all makes sense (if maybe perhaps it’s a little too pat, too easy) and we readers are able to suspend our disbelief enough to accept this story as an entity worth discussing.

This isn’t always easy to do, as writers of fiction would acknowledge. It’s not hard to put words down on paper and say that one has written a story, but convincing readers that such a text is actually a story is a different matter. What exists on paper as merely words must build into a kind of (paradoxical) imaginary quasi-reality in a reader’s mind in order for a reader to think that there are “people” behind the words “George” and “Lennie,” and thus, to care about those people. (Perhaps psychologically, we readers think of fictional characters the way we think of our friends and family members who aren’t physically present to us. Maybe “Lennie” is a concept like my Dad, dead now 15 years, is a concept to me — it’s just that I also have a concept that my Dad was once alive, and Lennie never was. But, of course, it’s more complicated than that, because “Lennie” isn’t merely a fictional idea, either, as Steinbeck once said, “The characters are composites to a certain extent. Lennie was a real person. He’s in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks. He didn’t kill a girl. He killed a ranch foreman.”)

A text that doesn’t convince readers it is a functioning story isn’t a story at all — it’s the literary equivalent of a set of car parts that can’t drive anybody anywhere. But when those car parts are properly assembled, they produce a machine that works, that functions. The physical objects, acting in consistent ways (we describe these ways as laws of physics), can produce motions that seem useful to us — namely, by moving us. But when a text works in conveying a usefully coherent story to readers, is it acting according to some psychological laws? Some thinkers, including Aristotle, this guy, here and here and here, have tried to discern the laws of making a satisfying story. But if there existed an adequate explanation of how to make stories that are effective and attractive to audiences, certainly book publishers would not make books that don’t sell. Even when a new story may follow the model of an familiar story that works, this may feel too formulaic for readers to really engage with the story. Readers may stay aware of the text as a text, not transmuting into story.

If literature students read only those novels that are good, that are judged to have succeeded, students are studying the effects produced by a text — the story — rather than the text itself. To continue the car analogy, it’s as if students experienced riding in the car but didn’t look at the parts of the car, or how the parts contribute to the car working, except as how the car parts affect the car rider’s experience. Saying “Lennie kills the girl because he likes to pet soft things and he gets carried away” is like saying “I could see out the windshield because the dashboard doesn’t rise too high” — both of these things are explicit to readers and riders (and these things are obvious to a more experienced reader, but maybe not to inexperienced students in schools. On the other hand, maybe part of what literature instruction is trying to do is to get students to make their implicit understandings explicit).

If we really want students to understand how fiction texts work, maybe we should have them read novels that aren’t good, novels that don’t really lead readers to suspend disbelief and fully engage in the story. By reading only good novels, students might see how a writer intends them to interpret the story’s text, but students might not see how the writer constructs and even manipulates the story to produce certain effects in the reader (for example, why did Steinbeck’s novel deviate from the facts of the story of real-life Lennie mentioned above? Is Steinbeck, as author, trying to tell readers what they should think, as opposed to just describing what happened? What is the point of fiction, anyway?) Students  are learning to follow the text’s decoding instructions, but maybe students should also be wondering why these instructions are there, and are the way they are.

As someone who teaches classes both in reading fiction and in writing fiction, I’m often looking at published novels by adopting the perspective of a writer, by which I mean that I want to see how the text was made, how it works. In literature classes, novels are often presented as inherently valuable, as worth the class’s time to study, and thus it’s easy to see why lit students would start to think of writers of these assigned novels as Great Writers, and thus the mythology around these writers builds (into its own story). In becoming a writer myself, however, I had to tear down this mythology and realize that Steinbeck and other writers were my peers, not my unassailable geniuses. And in a literature class, readers often treat the text as being complete, or perfect, as they find it in the published version. It makes sense for readers to approach texts this way, and yet, writers often view texts as imperfect, as infinitely revisable. This is perhaps what Valery meant by “a poem is never finished, only abandoned.” For instance, Whitman published multiple editions of “Leaves of Grass,” in which poems changed significantly between editions. It may give literature students a more realistic view of the novel to see it both as a reader and as a writer.

Links: Philosophy, fiction, fairy tales, Bob Dylan and James Brown

1. On how to think about a text’s truth: In a philosophical discussion of Hinduism at The New York Times (which I found via The Dish), there is this quotation about how Hindu religious texts are regarded:

One explanation of this tolerance of difference is that religious texts are often not viewed as making truth claims, which might then easily contradict one another. Instead, they are seen as devices through which one achieves self transformation. Reading a religious text, taking it to heart, appreciating it, is a transformative experience, and in the transformed state one might well become aware that the claims of the text would, were they taken literally, be false. So religious texts are seen in Hinduism as “Trojan texts” (like the Trojan horse, but breaking through mental walls in disguise). Such texts enter the mind of the reader and help constitute the self.

The Hindu attitude to the Bible or the Quran is the same, meaning that the sorts of disagreements that arise from literalist readings of the texts tend not to arise.

2. On fairy tales (a discussion of Kate Bernheimer’s book How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy Tales):

fairy tales are like rudimentary contracts. They are provisional fixes for the horrifying problem of reality: adulthood, time, and death (a set of truths so pure and terrible they can only live in myth). Fairy tales have terms: They will bring you to an uncanny, dreamlike place in which natural laws are waived. In return, you must accept wild nonsense logic, impenetrability, and—with no three-dimensionally human characters in fairy-tale land—a degree of solitude.

You cannot argue with a fairy tale.

3. On “close writing” fiction technique. I’m not necessarily agreeing with this writer’s position, but I found this article thought-provoking.

4. In this post about Bob Dylan at Vulture, I found a couple things interesting:

And, finally, a key component often overlooked: Dylan’s artistic process. On a fundamental level, he doesn’t trust mediation or planning. The story of his recording career is littered with tales of indecisive and failed sessions and haphazard successful ones, in both cases leaving frustrated producers and session people in their wake. You could say the approach served him well during his early years of inspiration and has hobbled him in his later decades of lesser work. Dylan doesn’t care. During the recording of Blood on the Tracks, which may be the best rock album ever made, one of the musicians present heard the singer being told how to do something correctly in the studio. Dylan’s reply: “Y’know, if I’d listened to everybody who told me how to do stuff, I might be somewhere by now.”

and

Given the chance, Dylan will give the audience his art, unadulterated, as he creates it, and nothing more. He believes it’s a corruption of his art to be directed by someone else’s sensibility. In its own weird way, isn’t this one sacred connection between artist and audience? It might be nicer if he did things differently. It might be more palatable, more commercially successful. (He might be somewhere by now.) This is what ties together his signal creations, his ongoing shows, and even the wretched albums of the ’80s and ’90s; what he does might be sublime and ineffable or yet also coarse and unsuccessful; it is what it is, defined by where it comes from, not what it should be.

5. David Remnick suggests a particular video clip of James Brown.

6. Why we put adjectives in the particular orders we tend to in English.

7. “Three Steps to Better Music Biopics

M*A*S*H time: Chronological or concurrent?

While writing this post, I commented about the run of the TV show M*A*S*H, which, according to Wikipedia and IMDB, included 256 episodes over 11 seasons.

Of course, the Korean War itself lasted just a few weeks more than 3 years, or about 160 weeks. The fact that the show lasted longer, in real time, than the war in which it was set, is self-evident and not in itself all that interesting. What does interest me though is how time within the show, fictional-time, might possibly be mapped to real time.

So, 256 episodes for 160 weeks would be a simple average of 1.6 episodes per week; 7 days divided by 1.6 episodes is roughly 4.4 days per episode, meaning that most episodes would take a setting-duration of 4.4 days.

There’s a way to figure out approximately how many days each episode requires:  watch all 256 episodes and map out how many days are depicted in each show. I’m not interested in doing this data-collection myself, but it might look like this:

In the fourth season episode “Dear Mildred,” Col. Potter writes his wife a letter. Judging by how the scenes flow together, whether time-jumps are indicated by dialogue, action, or day/night lighting, most of the episode occurs during what seems like one day. Potter starts writing his letter and is interrupted, and the camera follows Radar to Hawkeye and B.J. as they meet a helicopter pilot who mentions a wounded horse. A later scene has Potter writing in the mess tent, and he explains that he left his office to go get a cup of coffee. While he’s there, he has a flashback of Father Mulcahy singing, at some earlier movie evening. Later, Hawkeye, B.J., and Radar capture the horse, which seems to be the same day they learned of its existence (since the horse is still alive and near where the pilot indicated). The next scene shows Potter writing in bed, having returned from Rosie’s bar, and when he looks out the window, there is a light (hite, like moonlight or an artificial lamp) that seems to indicate the night of the first day. There’s a cut to Burns and Houlihan hiring a sculptor to make a bust of Potter, and then a cut to the two doctors and Radar removing shrapnel from the horse. When they go outside to avoid the horse’s kicks, it’s night-dark over their heads. I surmise that all this happened within one fictional-day.

The following day begins with a daylight scene with Hawkeye, B.J., and Radar talking about what to do with the horse. More difficult to ascertain in time is the next scene, a cut to Burns and Houlihan where Burns says the sculptor promised to deliver the bust that morning, and it’s night moments later when the sculptor arrives. I’m guessing here that this scene takes place at least a couple days after the sculpture was commissioned, to allow for sculpting time. That same night, Potter is presented the bust and he is also presented Radar’s horse, and the last scene of the episode shows the Colonel riding the horse during daylight, so at the earliest, the following day.

So, the time-within-the-story for this episode depends on how long the sculptor took to make the bust, which in theory could be as little as two or three days (he was, after all, paid $7.50, above his initial asking price). If so, then the episode could fit within the episode average 4.4 days.

However, some M*A*S*H episodes take much less than this average amount of fictional-time. A famous episode is set in real-time, with a clock in the frame indicating the time that has passed since a soldier’s circulation was cut off. Other episodes, including  “Your Hit Parade” (season six, episode 18), “Hawkeye” (season four, episode 18), and “The Army-Navy Game” (season one, episode 20), take place within hours.

The season two episode “Radar’s Report” takes place very specifically during “17 October — 22 October inclusive 1951,” Radar says in voice-over as he fills in the report that structures the sub-stories of the episode. At the end of the episode, as Col. Henry Blake signs the weekly report, he says, “Well, every week can’t be exciting,” which seems to suggest that the episode contains the only notable events of the week.

But at least one episode, “A War for All Seasons,” showed scenes from the camp across the whole year of fictional-1951. If this episode contained all the interesting story moments from that year, it would leave only about 2 years in which the other 255 episodes take place. But it can’t be the case — using the story’s logic — that nothing else of note happened in 1951, because the episode “Radar’s Report” also is set in 1951. So these two episodes are set, as it were, concurrently, suggesting that M*A*S*H episodes are organized thematically, with particular stories followed across days, as in “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet,” days in which other episodes’ stories are also occurring, but off-screen. “Radar’s Report” wouldn’t likely have taken place during the same time as “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” (because of the all-inclusive nature of the report), but maybe an episode like “The Incubator” was put together from events that were happening on the same fictional days as in “Sometimes ..” The editing of one scene to another allows gaps (what was edited out) into which the events of concurrent episodes could be seen as having happened.

It’s kinda fun to think about which episodes may be concurrent — and if someone wanted to take the time to do this, perhaps it could be figured out which episodes take place on the same days, and this could add information to help explain, say, why a character does things in one episode that may seem puzzling — maybe that character’s behavior is influenced by something that happened earlier that same day in the character’s life but which appears in a different episode. (Of course, to be satisfying, each episode should contain all of its own causes and effects — unless we take the whole series as an interlocking story.)

Clearly, this entire post is looking at the fictional world of the art work (the series as a whole) from within the story (and setting) logic of the work itself. It may be that the story’s whole fictional timeline, were it mapped out as each episode having happened on separate days from every other episode, or whether episodes happened concurrently, doesn’t perfectly fit an actual calendar, and if so, that does not diminish the series itself. We don’t need to demand that every narrative artwork be completely realistic and fill in its “plot holes.” For instance, this page points out a few time issues the series has, such as how the war lasted only during three Christmases, but the show depicts four (unless, again, these could be seen to be overlapping, with four episodes containing stories that happened only during three holiday days).

But what interests me about thinking of M*A*S*H episodes as having taken place concurrently is that it provides a metaphor for understanding how we organize our own life stories. When I write every day in my journal, I write chronologically (as in “Radar’s Report”), including everything I did the day before, even if those events were unrelated to each other. But when I write thematically about my life, say, when I write about teaching a particular unit in my classes, I’m talking about experiences and ideas that occurred to me at moments across several days. Chronological and thematic organizations could be seen as two different dimensions along which experiences could be graphed/grouped. I’m wondering what other dimensions of experience there could be — and what these different groupings would show us about our own lives.

Of course, there’s the larger issue of how we decide what makes up one unitary experience, where to begin and end those experiences, those stories, out of the continuity of one’s life’s duration, and what do we decide to edit out of our life stories, and why. The choices we make about which memories to include or exclude are probably not based in logic either but in something more personal, less conscious, even (see here and here). We probably shouldn’t be too hard then on fictional works with “plot holes” when we may have our own “plot holes” in our own life stories!

 

Time, memory, kids, and writing

I haven’t posted much lately. I’ve been waiting to feel really excited to blog, to have what I think of as “authentic energy” to create, so I’m not forcing myself to write, which tends not to lead to interesting prose. I haven’t yet felt excited to write. But I keep telling myself that I should be writing, so I’m blogging today just to break through the “shoulds” and the self-pressure. I don’t feel I have anything particularly compelling to say. But that’s OK, too. I’m skeptical of my motives when I do feel compelled to say something: maybe I’m just trying to convince others to think as I do, or maybe I want to really criticize somebody else’s idea (and it’s always easier to criticize someone else’s ideas than to figure out my own), or maybe I am non-humbly thinking that what I have to say will Change Your Life.

Eh.

Maybe writing-silence is OK. I’ve been writing my daily journals, but just not on this blog so much. It’s quite possible that I’m just too tired to be creative. Most summers, I am ready to write after a month of summer vacation. Not this year, though.

I could be satisfied with silence, but somehow, I’m not. I feel some self-directed pressure to post (along the lines of, “How can you not be working — this is your best time of year to work!”) … and blerg. I was on vacation last week — out of my normal routine — and so I wasn’t telling myself that I should be writing, and that lack of self-pressure was itself a vacation.

One idea on my mind lately has been why I prefer reading and writing nonfiction to fiction. I recently tried to explain this to a friend, but I couldn’t explain this well even to myself. But later, after looking at some videos I took of his young children’s antics, I had an idea why: Why should I pay attention to fictional worlds and characters when real people and places are so fascinating? And also fascinating are the ways we talk about, write about, photograph, and document real life — what I was wanting to video, what I thought about as I took video, what I thought about as I watched the videos days later (when I still remembered contexts), what I will think about as I watch these videos years from now, and how my friend’s kids may watch these videos years from now, when they will most likely not even remember themselves being the ages they are in the videos.

My friend’s kids surely are forming memories, even if they are not yet forming memories of themselves as the center of their own experiences, which experiences often (for me, anyway) take the form of a story. The oldest memories I now have seem to be from when I was about 4, or a little before, maybe. (When I say “oldest memories,” I mean that, when I think of watching my dad ride a bike away from home on the day my youngest brother was born, I must have been about age 4 when having the experience, because my brother is 4 years younger than I am. The memory itself, of course, is fragmentary but seems almost as clear and as fresh in mind as memories of experiences from a couple weeks ago.)

These youngsters, ages 1 and 2.5, also seem to have a different time sense from most adults, in that the kids seem very much involved in the present moment — they get fully absorbed in playing, or in eating, or in expressing discomfort, etc. The kids are unconsciously living “in the now” in the way adults have to more consciously follow the advice to “be present.” On the other hand, the kids’ present moments often involve urgently felt needs and demands, so it’s not exactly patient or mindful.

It feels banal to talk about time passing, to look back, to look forward — it’s all too boring to talk about how things used to be, and it’s pure fiction to think about how things could one day be. But, of course, what else is as confounding, as ever-present (it’s hard to avoid awkward language usage when writing about time), as having memories that contrast with what I’m presently seeing and what I’ll expect to see.

Perhaps my desire to be aware of, and keep my attention on, the present moment is part of why I am not drawn to fiction, which often asks readers to pull their attention out of the present reality and place it in the pure abstraction of story. I talked today to someone who enjoys reading novels, and he said he prefers the 700- or 800-page versions to shorter ones. I think that this person is someone who wants to get fully immersed in a story, caught up in a fictional world, a world of ideas. I suspect that, for readers like this, getting absorbed into a narrative is a way of letting go of their own realities for a while.

I don’t mean to say this is somehow ethically or socially wrong. But it’s personally wrong for me. When I got absorbed into the fiction I read, back in high school and college, I used to want to have my own life experiences be as deeply felt and as meaningful as those experiences I was reading about. I wished that I had a journey as exciting as Bilbo’s in “The Hobbit,” or that my adventures with friends were as exciting as Kerouac’s in “On The Road.” But at some point, I started to realize that the fictions I was reading were always unreal, were idealized — even realistic fiction is edited to be more intense than real life. Rather than spend time in an unreal narrative, I began wanting to see what real life is and how it can be interesting even without being structured by plots of murder and intrigue, etc.

It’s ridiculous, of course, to dismiss a whole category of art as big as fiction. I wince a little inside when someone tells me that he or she just is not interested in the poetry genre I enjoy. I think, You don’t know what you’re missing! Sure, a lot of poetry isn’t interesting, but some is really great! And I know fiction-lovers could say the same to me.

But I think I like poetry more than fiction now because poetry — because some poems — can surprise me more than fiction can. I feel so many fictions, whether short stories or novels or TV shows or movies, are just too familiar. I wanna be surprised. (I do still like comedy shows, because, I think, of the surprises of the jokes — jokes that aren’t surprising aren’t jokes). I wanna be shown something that has a unique form, something that tries something new.

My friend’s daughter, who’s two and a half years old, watches kids’ TV stories, hears books read to hear, hears her parents make up stories using her toys, and she even tells her own stories unprompted. Having never spent a lot of time with children her age, I was interested to see how much she is taking in stories and absorbing their structure. It probably is valuable, for anyone living within our contemporary culture, to be familiar with narrative, to be able to interpret narratives; even as someone who’s skeptical of fiction, I wouldn’t advise kids not to absorb and enjoy stories.

Presumably there are developmental markers for when kids learn stories, and for when they learn to question stories. And presumably I was told stories as a kid, stories whose structures I began absorbing before I even could form memories. My own childhood is lost to me, is itself an abstraction. Even the past I remember is inadequate. I wake up to find myself (in whatever condition I find myself) in each moment.

‘You must keep track of inventory’: Story-problem stories

brandi_math_2014

A friend recently posted this photo to Facebook, and, as I am a Matt, I was drawn to it. But I found this story problem to not accurately represent my desires. I don’t really want any flag at all, but given the choice of the two, I’d much prefer the Mondrian-esque flag on the right rather than the one with “4 equal parts.”

But then, story problems are all too often mere fiction. Students are expected to apply some math processes to situations that, while plausible (like realistic fiction) are not actually, you know, real.

I see some problems here with story problems that have fictional set-ups. One, if the situations are fictional, doesn’t that also suggest that the math is fictional (see also here), too? And if so, why should I spend any more time learning math than I do learning the names of all the dwarves in The Hobbit? And, two, if I’m an imaginative person, I might get so interested in the fictional situation and/or the fictional text that actually doing the math might seem damn boring in contrast, or even besides the point. Who cares about an equally sectioned red flag, if green better matches my living room decor?

Below are some examples (found here, questions that are in the style of the exam given to high school juniors in Illinois) of fictional math situations that seem strange and wonderful.

4. A customer in the music shop where you work purchases 3 cassette tapes. One costs $8.99, one costs $7.99, and one is on sale for $3.99. Excluding taxes, how much does the customer owe?

First, let me ask why the test writers either, A., know preternaturally much about my afterschool employment, or B., are asking me to pretend a whole lot here: I work in a “music shop” — what is this, 1998? Nope, wait, a customer is purchasing “cassette tapes,” so this is 1985. These prices certainly suggest those of the ’80s, but even then, who is selling a cassette for $3.99? Is this a good deal? I mean, is this cheap cassette Led Zeppelin IV or is it the Bullet Boys? If it’s the latter, should I harass the customer for his terrible taste?

So many questions: Why would I exclude taxes — isn’t that included in what the customer has to pay? I mean, am I gonna offer the customer numerous nonfinal tallies, say, giving a subtotal after every item? And why doesn’t this 1985 “music shop” have a cash register to do this work for me? Is the power out? It’s store policy to ask patrons to leave and we lock the store until the lights are back on.

The word “owe” — is the customer taking out a loan to buy these cassettes? Should I, as a math student of the future, advise the buyer not to buy cassettes at all, as the vinyl that now seems inconvenient will be cool again in just a few years, and the CDs that are coming soon will be usable long after cassette players become scarce, but the cassettes he buys will just be stored in some box in a closet in his mother’s house, to be thrown away when she moves out? Would the customer find my future-perspective frightening, as he did not know he would be buying items from a test-taker who was born long after 1985?

6. You must keep track of inventory in an office supply warehouse. This week, 8 computers of a particular model have been shipped out of the warehouse to a local store, while 4 more computers of the same model have been received by the warehouse from the factory. What is the overall change in the number of these computers in inventory this week?

I “must.” Ha, such imperatives. Am I a slave in this office supply warehouse? Or is it a family obligation, like maybe my manager is my wife’s uncle, who was kind enough to give me a job when I got fired (for asking too many questions and frightening the customers) from the “music shop” in question 4 above — and I had to spend some purgatory time in Question 5,  where I was told to Calculate the missing values so as to complete the chart — and so now I feel like I owe the guy, even though our warehousing business isn’t doing so well. It’s these damn Kaypros. I keep telling him that everybody wants IBM or Apple computers, but he won’t listen, and half the computers we send out come back. He just tells me to stick with the strategic plan, but I really think he’s just jealous of my intellect. My wife tells me to bide my time, that the resumes I’m sending out to get a job in my field will eventually pay off, but until then, I’m stuck in the logistics biz. No kid ever grows up and says he wants to be in “logistics” — but here I am. Ah, well, at least I got a place to go and a paycheck to keep my home warm. And thanks to all these Kaypros we keep getting returned, I don’t have to do the inventory myself. Lotus 1-2-3, take it away.

After Question 7 — Calculate the missing values so as to complete the chart — ignores the spreadsheet the Kaypro made, I’m apparently moving to the health care field. Such career whiplash:

8. In the hospital where you work, one of your duties is to take pulse counts. One patient has a pulse count of 21 beats in 15 seconds. At this rate, what should this patient’s pulse count be for 60 seconds?

Man, oh, man, do I hate taking pulse counts. Having to hold the bony wrists while keeping a finger on the sagging flesh of these old arms, it’s the worst. Plus, are we really sure that it should be my “duty”? I mean, I have no experience except selling cassettes and inventorying computers. But around this place, man, you never know. But that’s why sometimes, just to keep myself amused, I’ll count a pulse beat for 10 seconds, and then scream, “OH MY GOD, WHAT’S THAT ON YOUR HEAD?” at the patients just to see how much faster their heart rates can get. I go for unpredictable. But even if I don’t scare them on purpose, how do we know that their heart will beat at an even rate for the next 45 seconds? I mean, dead people’s hearts once worked, too, until they didn’t. And once a person’s dead, at least they don’t have to do these stupid story problems.

All Satisfying Stories Have Morals: A Reader’s Critical Perspective

Simple stories for children, like the Brothers Grimm’s “Cinderella,” seem to have obvious themes that are also morals, instructions on how one should and should not behave. I have used these fairy tales as fictions that are easy for my high school students to analyze critically. We have looked at the stories and decided which characters are winners, those who end the story in better position than they started it, and which characters are losers who end up worse off.

This approach seemed too simple to use for more modern, psychologically complex stories. But as I’ve been thinking about how to best teach my students to analyze Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” (see also here and here), it occurred to me the other day that most traditional stories also can be analyzed by making a distinction between the morally good characters — those who get rewarded — and the morally bad characters, who get punished.

By traditional stories, I mean those stories that have a consistent point of view and tone (so it’s clear to readers what’s “really” happening in the story and how we readers are supposed to feel about it) to convey a sequence of events that can be causally explained by reference to the characters’ given traits and chosen actions.

For example, “Of Mice and Men” is a traditional story. Not that we can predict the outcome from the beginning (though there are strong hints that things will not end well for George and Lennie — and without these mood-hints, the dramatic ending may seem unbelievably abrupt), but once we get to the resolution, we can trace back the causes. Everything that happens has a cause based in the characters’ natures and their actions. George shoots Lennie because Lennie killed Curley’s wife. Lennie killed her because he thought she would get him in trouble, as he has gotten in trouble before. If he got in trouble, he wouldn’t be able to get the rabbits he hoped to tend. He wants rabbits because he seemed to have an obsession with soft things, which obsession also leads to his conflict with and killing of Curley’s wife.

Everything is explainable. There are no random acts in this story. (Stories that do have random acts are not the traditional type of stories I’m talking about.) If Lennie had gotten killed by a rattlesnake after killing Curley’s wife, that would not be directly caused by a character’s choice, and so this wouldn’t feel like a satisfying ending to readers.

And I want to suggest that satisfying endings are those that grow out of human causes — human decisions. Characters had to be free to choose their actions, so that they deserve their consequences. This is what makes stories satisfying — consequences are direct result of human choices. We readers can ask what choices the characters made, or could have made, and this can help reveal the behaviors that earn consequences. The metaphysical implication here is that we are in control of our lives, our fates.

But, of course, in real life, it does not seem that we are not in control of all aspects of our lives. Sometimes things happen to us. Perhaps we read traditional stories so as to, for a time, enjoy the feeling that events can make sense. Traditional stories are appealing because random things do not happen, and because fairness and justice are served, unlike in real life, where sometimes bad deeds go unpunished, innocent people get killed by drunk drivers, and people disappear without a trace. Hell, in real life, we don’t always even know what the right decision is.

And so these traditional stories can be satisfying. Sometimes, though, these stories may seem artificial, false — altogether too tidy, not life-like. And so there are other stories — stories told from multiple points of view, stories that end ambiguously, stories where random things happen, stories where the good guys lose. Though these stories may better resemble what really seems to happen in life, these stories tend to not be satisfying. I often get frustrated by the predictability of traditional stories, but I also wonder what is the point of reading a nontraditional story that is just as messy as real life.

A story that isn’t traditional won’t have a clear meaning, because it’s more like life and life doesn’t have clear meanings — because meaning doesn’t reside in physical things, but only in consciousnesses.

(Perhaps I cannot be satisfied by reading fiction. My friends who enjoy fiction more than I do tell me they appreciate the journey of the reading experience — they enjoy being absorbed into the story, spending time with the author’s voice, perhaps, or seeing how the narrator makes variations on the usual storytelling conventions to avoid being too predictable. Maybe I just read too much for theme to enjoy these other aspects of fiction. But if an author’s gonna ask me to read a couple hundred pages and pretend that these characters are real people, it better be worth my time. There’s a Kurt Vonnegut quote about giving readers a plot by which he can make his ideas more palatable, but sometimes I wonder why Vonnegut doesn’t just give us his ideas without the machinery of characters and plot.)

So it had never occurred to me until recently how must stories that we enjoy reading serve an ancient, eye-for-an-eye sort of morality. I should be careful not to overextend my analysis to all traditional stories, but I suspect this would be a critical perspective that might work. I hadn’t thought that so many stories could be analyzed from a punishment/reward perspective, but maybe traditional stories are that simple, and are satisfying for — but are also limited by — that simplicity.

Afterthoughts: Here are some related ideas I want to convey, but didn’t want to clutter up the above discussion.

* Traditional stories have human characters, or characters with human-like consciousness. They tend not to have, say, animals-qua-animals, or trees, or shoes, as main characters. I suspect that this is because satisfying stories really require choices to be made. Narratives where a character is just acted upon might not seem so satisfying. Morality only involves human choices; nature is amoral, beyond moral, because animals and trees can’t make moral choices. They live not by choice but by their natures, their instincts.

* I mentioned above an “eye-for-an-eye” morality, which implies an Old Testament idea; this prompts the question what a New Testament, “turn the other cheek” story would be like. Would that be dull, because the point is to avoid conflict?

* Characters: There’s a weird dual nature to fictional characters. They are just ideas, of course, but in that way, they are not so different from those real people we know but who aren’t currently in our presence. Characters must be real-seeming enough for us to care about them, particularly in a drama that doesn’t want to be laughed at — and yet, some of my students may have reacted to George shooting Lennie with (perhaps nervous) laughter. We readers of fiction books and viewers of fiction movies can’t feel too strongly about characters, or we’d feel too strongly to watch people get killed in action or horror movies. At some level, we know characters are merely ideas and not real, but we need to see them as real if we are to take the work seriously. There’s a duality here to our understanding of characters.

* So much of fiction requires conflict, and so it sets mutually hostile characters into revealing situations. This can feel artificial at times. It’s not unlike what reality shows like “Big Brother” do — “let’s put a bunch of terrible people into an enclosed space and watch them do terrible things to each other,” as the producers might say.

* The meanings that stories often present — what choices and behaviors are good and should be rewarded, and which are bad and should be punished — these can sometimes seem arbitrary. The meanings I find even in my own experiences may change over time.

* It’s easy for us to see some traits — mutual respect, kindness, fairness, for example — as generally good, and other traits — greed, selfishness, disregard — as bad. But beyond these, I wonder how many qualities seen as good are simply cultural or situational. For example, I wonder if the resource waste and pollution that I take for granted in my life — or, I feel a little bad about it but I figure that it’s too hard for me to live without fossil fuels, say — will come later to be seen as terribly bad qualities.

* Steinbeck makes Curley’s wife seem like a bad character. The other characters complain about her, and when she talks, she says terrible things (like threatening Crooks with lynching). But somehow this makes her seem like she was partly to blame for her own murder, and I’m not comfortable with “blame the victim” mentality. One wonders how she would tell this story from her point of view. She certainly wouldn’t have lived to see Lennie killed.

* We know the main conflict is resolved when the story ends — this is partly how we know that “Of Mice and Men” is the story of Lennie’s demise. George keeps living after, but Lennie does not. This is the end of their relationship. In a way, the resolution is George choosing to shoot Lennie, and yet, this is the resolution to a much earlier problem — why George brought Lennie to this ranch in the first place. Readers want to see how the set-up, how the main conflict, turns out. A story that sets up a situation but does not resolve it is not going to be satisfying.

* Sometimes a story doesn’t end. For example, the TV version of “Game of Thrones,” which story kills off important characters, and so then I feel like this must not have been Ned’s story, or Rob’s story — I must not have understood whose story this really is, who the main chars are. When a story goes on and on, it’s tediously unsatisfying — again, it starts to seem like real life, and yet real history has at least the ending of the present moment.  If one reads English history from a thousand years ago, there’s a lot of it, yet you know that it stops at the present moment. With “Game of Thrones,” it’s not clear that it will ever end. The books that would end the story haven’t even been written yet, and once a story goes on for so long, it seems it would be difficult to have an ending that is meaningful enough to justify the duration of the story. (See also “Lost.”)

* Steinbeck says he based Lennie on a person who killed someone, but did not get killed and instead went to an asylum. So I wonder why Steinbeck decided to have a story where it seems OK for the George character to make the decision to take Lennie’s life instead? Why did Steinbeck change the story in this way — because it provides a better sense of “divide justice” than if Lennie just gets locked up?

* Though a published narrative is fixed and unchanging, I think it is a valid critical technique to ask what options the characters had each time they made a decision. Even if George and Lennie didn’t have good options, they had options. They had to, if they are to be held responsible for their actions. And in a way, “Of Mice and Men” seems like the story is told, seemingly from George’s point of view (the narration is third person, but George is the only character we see from the beginning of the story to the end), as if it were George’s justification for his decision to shoot Lennie (though the story offers George a self-defense claim when Carlson suggests that George took the gun from Lennie, and George, knowing this is false, agrees). This entire story, then, can be seen as an argument for when a person might be justified in taking another person’s life out of love for that person. I’m still not sure this argument works, however. The story seems to draw a parallel between George shooting Lennie and Carlson shooting Candy’s dog — but of course, Lennie is a person, not a dog.

* We readers find happy endings satisfying when the characters have earned them by some means (even if that means is just by suffering, as Cinderella seems to). But an unearned happy ending isn’t satisfying. If someone struggling with poverty suddenly wins the lottery, that would be a “deus ex machina” and would feel like the author is too heavy-handedly forcing things. That’s not satisfying. A traditional story could be satisfying if it would have an unpredictable thing — lottery winnings, earthquake — happen at the beginning of the story, and then it could show how the characters react to these things.

* Another example of how we like to find control in our lives is when we hear that someone got a diagnosis of cancer, and we think of reasons that person did something to cause that disease.  We might say or think, “well, he WAS a smoker” — as if we’re looking for ways to protect ourselves — ” I won’t get lung cancer bec. I’m not a smoker,” when that’s not always true, of course. This is a terrible, petty thing to think, but we sometimes want to understand the world and feel we’re in control — it’s disturbing to our human consciousnesses to realize how much we do not control (our genes, our environments, other people who might hurt us, etc.).

* Simplistic stories sometimes make the bad characters simply, evilly bad — bad without an understandably human motivation. I prefer to think of most bad characters as not just evil but merely self-interested — more mafioso than demon. Cinderella’s stepmom doesn’t mistreat her out of pure meanness, but because she wants to advance her own daughters’ fortunes over Cinderella’s. I once had a student who said, somewhat plaintively, “But my stepmom is nice,” and I said, yes, in real life, lots of stepmoms are nice. But as characters whose interests may be suspect anyway, stepmoms can play that role of antagonist (as opposed to, say, making a mother herself opposed to her children, as was the mother in early versions of “Hansel and Gretel.” That’s just too monstrous to consider). My wife pointed out that conflicts over resources remain a significant fact for a lot of people in the world — it’s the stability of our American political/industrial/military power that allows so many of us in this country to take so many of our basic needs for granted. (As I mentioned above, this “taking for granted” may turn out to be a bad trait on our part.)

* And what IS good? Lots of modern fictional shows have anti-heroes — “Breaking Bad,” “Sopranos” — why do people watch those? (I choose not to. For entertainment, I usually watch comedy, shows that imply the world isn’t so bad.  I don’t want to spend my time and attention on grim stuff when I see so much of that in the news and in my students’ lives.) Do we come to have some respect for these anti-heroes, even if we disagree with their goals? Do we respect their code of conduct — efficiency, effectiveness, loyalty — even if their goals are selling drugs. But I’ve heard some drug gangs’ operations are similar to those of legitimate businesses, and some businesses do morally questionable things as a matter of normal actions.  We don’t really know whether we’re good — until we get judged in Heaven? Is that all we really wanna know, if we’re good or not? We know we’ve done bad things but we want redemption? — are these the reasons we find traditional stories satisfying — we can compare ourselves against these bad characters to feel OK about ourselves?

Addendum:

* Stories that are not traditional — those stories with multiple narrators, or random events, or ambiguous endings — do not contain meaning about theme and character so much as they present meanings about story structure itself. Update 16 Feb.: In the 10 Feb. 2014 New Yorker magazine (paywalled, but here), James Woods describes as “the full, familiar postmodern quiz-kit” these “metafictional questions” in a fiction work: “truth-telling, the veracity of representation, the coherence of the self, language’s relation to silence, and what we mean by innocently talking about fictional ‘characters’ as if they were real people.” These, Woods seems to say, are the markers of stories that aren’t really about characters and events but are about the philosophy and practice of storytelling itself.

Filling in a form: Traditional stories don’t match real life

An idea I’m working through: that there is a form (not some universally existing Platonic form, but a pattern, an outline, a blank structure — even a Mad-Lib sheet, to be crude) for traditional stories, and that stories that “work” fit this form, and those that “don’t work” are those stories that try but fail to fit into this form. Of course, there are lots of fictions that don’t try to fit into this form at all, and I’m for now calling these “nontraditional stories.”

In a way, this isn’t news — I remember hearing, probably as a high school student, that there’s a certain structure to story: characters, plot, setting, rising action, climax, denouement, etc. And I know there are certain story structures that are acknowledged as formulas — certain romance fiction, three-act movies, etc. I think I accepted this idea as a shorthand, jargon-y way to talk about novels in lit classes, but I also think I resisted the idea that all stories had to have these features, or they were failures. (It has taken me a while to realize that stories don’t have to all be traditional.)

But I’m now teaching a lit class, after having taught creative writing classes for several years, and we’re reading “Of Mice and Men,” and it’s such a short, tightly written book that I’m feeling like the seams are showing — I feel like all I’m seeing here is form, is how Steinbeck put this story together in an efficient,  maybe too efficient, way. I’m looking at this story as a nearly iconic example of the fiction form — by which I mean, this story also feels mannered, empty, cold. It feels like I’m supposed to admire the architecture of the writing here. All hail Steinbeck, master of form. He’s got distinct (not complex, but distinct) characters here, bouncing off each other in a tight proximity — as if he put bees in a jar and shook the jar just to see how pissed off the bees would get. And so a woman gets killed and a mentally disabled man gets “put down” in a fashion that parallels how an old dog is “put down.” Great. Thanks, Steinbeck. Sure, his story is plausible, and I’m not saying he tells the story clinically — there’s pathos and drama there, and sadness, and etc. But it still feels so … artificed, so set-up, so much like the author is like God, pitting these characters against each other.

All this is to say that perhaps Steinbeck was a master craftsman at filling in the form, the Mad-Lib of story, and yet, this seems to bug me all the more. Because what I’m realizing is how artificial the story form is compared to how I have experienced being alive (and now I’m older than Steinbeck was when he published “Of Mice and Men” — not that Steinbeck’s wrong, but that I might be equally right).

I remember taking fiction-writing classes in college and finding it difficult to come up with reasonable conflicts, especially in my stories that grew out of my real-life experiences (an approach I wouldn’t now recommend to a young writer, but at the time I was obsessed with how Kerouac had turned his nonfiction experiences into fiction). Now, today, as I become aware of the traditional-story form, I’m thinking, shoot, I was going about it all wrong. Why didn’t I pick characters and conflicts from the start? Why try to be realistic and still fit into traditional form? (Here, I’m thinking of trad-form not only as what we encounter in formal fiction, but also this may include many of the daily anecdotes we tell each other. When I meet someone who seems to tell stories that have no point, or that don’t directly get to the point, I suppose I’m expecting that person’s anecdotes to conform more clearly to story form.)

But maybe if I only told stories where there were clear goals for each character, and clear obstacles/opponents, and conflicts, and these conflicts were external — well, I’d be writing action movies or other genre fiction. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with genre fiction, or traditional stories. I don’t mean to throw those out and not use them at all. But I’m starting to see their limits. And I’m starting to see that I’m much more personally interested in both reading and writing stories that don’t follow the traditional story form.

Here, I’m defining traditional story form as that narrative whose outcome/resolution can be causally explained in terms of characters and situations. In “Of Mice,” we can see why George killed Lennie, and why, even though this may have been a sad or tragic outcome, it also “makes sense” in the story logic — that is, readers likely find this ending satisfying. Also, traditional-form narratives have a purpose — a “point,” as in, what’s the point of this story? What’s the theme — and the narrative sets expectations (through mood/tone, symbolism, foreshadowing, etc.) to serve/reveal that purpose. “Of Mice and Men” has a serious tone throughout, and killing and death and Lennie’s problems are mentioned many times. We readers are surprised, but are not unprepared, when Lennie kills Curley’s wife and then when George kills Lennie.

I’m not saying that the set-up dictates the ending, necessarily, but as the story goes along, perhaps it narrows the range of likely (reasonable, satisfying) outcomes. Maybe Lennie didn’t have to die, but he wasn’t gonna marry Curley’s wife and head for Niagara Falls, either.

And had Lennie died from any cause not connected with the other characters’ intentions, it wouldn’t have been as satisfying, either.  Had Lennie been bitten by a rattlesnake as after he killed Curley’s wife, that wouldn’t be a satisfying conclusion, because that would seem too random, would be a cause that wasn’t provided for earlier in the story.

But this is the limitation of story — we expect there to be reasons. We are satisfied when there are human reasons and causes for things — that is, when the good are rewarded and the bad (or in Lennie’s case, the hapless and dangerous) are punished.

But of course, things happen all the time in real life that have no cause in human behavior. Tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes regularly kill people. Young, healthy people get brain aneurysms and die. My dad was killed when he was a passenger in a truck hit by a much bigger truck. What bugged me when this happened, a few years ago now, is that there was no story there. There was a scientific explanation for why his body ceased living, of course, but there was nothing he did, no intentional move or even mistake he made, that led to his death. (And whenever I’ve heard people say, in situations like these, something like “no one can know God’s plan,” it’s always felt like complete bullshit.) And further, this death was no satisfying ending for any overall narrative of my dad’s life; my dad had some problems he was working through, and then he got killed, and — huh.

So we can study traditional stories as the — what’s a good metaphor here — magician’s device that they may be, so long as we’re clear that traditional stories have not much to do with how one may experience real life. And yes, there will still be lots of popular books and movies and nonfiction narratives that will try to fit into the traditional story form. And I can teach my students how these work, and maybe that will spoil some of their surprise in encountering these stories, but education shouldn’t just teach kids to fill in these forms, but to also take these forms apart, see how they work, and understand that they are forms.

But I think what has become clearer for me today is that not all stories are failing stories if they don’t fit the traditional model. And maybe I prefer those stories that don’t try to fit the mold, that don’t try to end clearly and cleanly — those seem to have more legitimacy to me, at this stage in my life, in my intellectual development. Perhaps some people like the idea that life can be tidy, some people who prefer to know exactly how everything comes out.

Far be it from me to end this post tidily.

P.S. (Here I lose the tidy ending): I suspect, after recently talking to some family members who appreciate fiction more than I do, that at least some people who read genre fiction do so in order to get absorbed, get their attention absorbed, into the story. My wife reads historical romances, she says, so as to forget about the stresses of the workday at her law office. I get that. I also read to relax, but I tend to read news articles online or New Yorker profiles, (‘cuz that’s how I roll.) Whether we’re reading genre fiction or news articles, my wife and I are both reading things that we don’t have to think too hard about. The forms of each are familiar to us, and because these forms are familiar, we don’t have to think too much about them. We can mostly accept whatever the words are telling us.

But perhaps the forms mean different things to us individually: I get annoyed at fiction that feels fake, and my wife doesn’t want the stress of having to read about problems in the world. Maybe we have our preferences of form because we agree at a fundamental level with the assumptions and conventions of each form. I’d rather read mediocre writing about the real world because, well, it’s about the real world, and maybe my wife feels the opposite.

P.P.S.: A few minutes after posting this, I’m thinking that one could read this whole frustration with fiction as some misplaced grief I still feel over my dad’s sudden death. Could be, maybe, but I don’t think so — I was frustrated with fiction for several years before he died. But, I do recall being especially frustrated with the idea of story, and how my dad didn’t get to finish his, after his death.

P.P.P.S.: And to clarify, I don’t mean to say that all traditional-story writers have it easy. But I do want to say that I think that I’m more interested, as a writer, of realizing the limits of old forms and of trying out new forms, than I am in completing the task of trying to fill in the trad-story form.