Tag Archives: storytelling

15 links on creativity, writing, art: Recorded poets, audience, storytelling, etc.

1. “75 at 75″: Recordings from the 92nd Street Y’s series of writers reading their work. Here’s an NPR story about this as well.

2. The persistence of a writer’s voice: Tom Stoppard’s quote that “all my people speak the same way, with the same cadences and sentence structures. They speak as I do.”

3. Regarding the audience for one’s art: Frederick Wiseman says, “the only safe assumption I make about an audience is that the people who are going to see the film are as smart or as dumb as I am. I think anything else is condescending.”

4. “The Psychological Comforts of Storytelling” in The Atlantic

5. “Steven Pinker’s Bad Grammar.” Related: “Style Wars

6. How one pastor writes his sermons.

7. How cartoonist Tom Toles finds ideas.

8. “There’s a tiny handful of musical-cultural conversations Americans have decided they want to be a part of, and then there’s everything else.

9. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s nonfiction book.

10. Several links about Sesame Street from the AVClub: “What do you remember learning from Sesame Street?” and “Sesame Street is the perfect TV show” and Adam Savage’s dad’s animation for Sesame Street and The Ladybug Picnic and other counting songs and pop culture allusions in Sesame Street.

11. Jazz non-improvisation: A re-creation of Kind of Blue.

12. “The Uncanny Power of Weird Fiction

13. “Introducing the Reality Novel”: Writers don’t need to go fictional to discuss their own problems and issues in a permissive society. Related: Tim Parks’ article “Trapped Inside the Novel

14. Story-writing and -sharing site Wattpad.

15. A documentary about a marble quarry.

‘Boyhood’ and Nonfiction Across Time

My notebooks: 20-plus years of texts writing in the present

My notebooks: 20-plus years of texts written in the present

Last night on “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart interviewed Richard Linklater about his new movie “Boyhood,” which was shot over a period of 12 years. Thus, the three-hour film contains footage of all the actors at yearly intervals.

In the interview, this passage caught my attention:

Jon Stewart: “Philosophically, did the act of being observed, for the younger actors, change their behavior? Were they conscious …”

Richard Linklater: “I don’t think so …[but] I guess it [the film] was pretty mind-blowing to them [the younger actors] when they finally saw it.”

JS: “What did they, what was their reaction?”

RL: “I gave a DVD to [actor] Ellar and I said, I suggest you watch this alone. Um, you know, build up some kind of relation with this crazy thing. And I didn’t hear from him for a while , so I was worried, but, ah, yeah, I think they’re still processing.”

JS: “Right. It’s an awful lot to take in.”

RL: “Yeah, yeah.”

JS: “What’s very interesting is, it’s hard not to watch it and process your own life within it, which is how art works that way.”

RL: “Yeah, you have to.”

Some of the movie’s reviewers have also responded to the images-through-time/time compression aspects of this movie. This article at Time concludes with:

We now know that cinema can depict the passage of time convincingly in a way we never thought possible before. Here time is real. We watch it accumulate on the actors’ faces and understand the toll it takes on adults and on mothers specifically.

Of course, this movie is not trying to prove that time is real; what this writer intends, I think, is that watching this movie prompts viewers to think about their own relationships to time.

I have yet to see “Boyhood,” but the method of filming a movie across so much time highlights some aspects of artistic creation that are otherwise easy to overlook. For example, Anthony Lane makes a point about how a plot-driven work can obscure character, which is revealed in

those episodes which seem dim and dull at the time, and only later shine in memory’s cave. A haircut, in short, matters more than a Quidditch match. We happen upon ourselves when nothing much happens to us, and we are transformed in the process

Lane generalizes from the movie’s structure to claim that the meanings we find in our own lives — the stories we tell about what has mattered to us, what has shaped us — depend on “memory’s cave.” Lane also writes, “that twin sense of continuity and interruption—of life itself as tracking shot and jump cut—applies to everyone,” which editing metaphor also implies that our memories may themselves be artistic products.

An individual’s memories, along with most of our culture’s stories (both fictional and non-), are structured as events from the past that are recounted in the (storyteller’s) present. We can’t tell a story — in fact, we may not even have a complete, satisfying story — if we don’t know how it turns out. Even if a writer starts off telling a story that she doesn’t know how to end, it will end before she finishes the book, and she would be able, before publishing the book, to go back and revise the early parts of the story to better fit the ending, once she knows the ending. (Stephen King writes — if my memory is accurate here —  in “On Writing” that it’s after the later drafts of his novels that he plays up the symbols that appear almost unintentionally in the first draft.)

But, of course, Linklater could not have gone back after Year 12 of shooting to film something from Year 2. He could re-edit what he had, yes, but he could not have gone back with the same actors. Even if, say, Linklater could have fabricated — because it IS fiction, and there are options such as stand-ins and CGI — a new Year 2 scene in Year 12, Linklater would himself be a different artist than he was earlier. As a review in The A.V. Club states it,

Because of how it was filmed, in piecemeal from 2002 until 2013, Boyhood exists in a constant present tense, providing a snapshot of recent history as it unfolds. Conversations about Obama and Bush were written and delivered without the hindsight the audience now possesses, as was an unexpectedly funny moment of Mason and his father discussing the possibility of more Star Wars sequels. (Ah, the innocence of 2008.) The movie also functions as a chronicle of its creator’s artistic evolution: The filmmaking becomes more confident and relaxed as Mason gets older, Linklater increasingly letting go of his plot aspirations in favor of a loose, conversational hang-out vibe. He, too, seems to blossom before our eyes, gestating incrementally into the director he is today.

What intrigues me about “Boyhood” is that its “constant present tense” describes how most of my nonfiction writing is done. Rather than telling memoir-type stories about my long-ago experiences, I mostly write journals about previous-day events and present-day impressions, and I write down my real-life observations and my thoughts within moments of having them in mind.

I don’t often tell stories about my past, but I do tell some, and I’ve become skeptical of telling these stories because the versions of these stories that exists in my memory doesn’t always match the versions that I wrote on paper soon after the event. For a few years, I warned my high school senior students not to drink when they go to college because I remembered seeing a person have his stomach pumped outside my dorm on the first Friday night of my freshman year of college. Not too long ago, I found the journal entry where I’d written about this, and it happened on the fourth, not the first, weekend of that year. This new setting doesn’t invalidate the story as an anti-example, but it bothered me that I’d remembered it wrong (and in a way that heightened the student’s foolishness, and thus, the anti-example lesson). It made me less confident in trusting my memory, particularly when I have these texts written more closely in time to the actual experiences.

In fact, I’ve also noticed that some of the things I remember from college didn’t get written down in my journals, and that what’s in the journals, I don’t always remember having lived through. It’s actually sorta disturbing to feel this disconnect between what I wrote (which reflected who I was) in the past, and how I now remember these things (as the person I am now). Maybe this disconnect is part of what Stewart and Linklater were referring to when they said that watching “Boyhood” required the actors to process their experience.

I value having my writings going back 20-plus years now, and I’m not so interested in present-day telling of stories of my past. I mean, sure, I can go back now and re-interpret my remembered experiences of years past, and this can be a diverting pastime, but it doesn’t draw my attention to the current moment, and how to live in the current moment, which seems to me to be the most interesting part of my writing.

I don’t want to overly define myself and my writing, but it’s valuable for me to understand who I am and what I do, and I think that what motivates most of my writing is a drive to understand — to form concepts of who I am, what I should do, how I should act toward others, why others do what they do, how I should think about my job, my writing, etc. These concepts, of course, I am willing to revise over time, which thinking and revising feel like the most interesting, even necessary (in the way that I get out-of-sorts when I don’t have enough time to write) processes of my being alive. Others may have a need to run marathons (maybe they do — it’s hard to understand others except by analogizing their needs to my own) while I feel I need to write, and specifically, to write about myself and my experiences.

So I’ve got these 20 years of texts, mostly journals and notes, and I used to wonder how I’d make these interesting to other readers. I felt that I needed to do that, if I were ever to become a Famous Author, and yet, I didn’t find myself naturally writing things that would appeal to others. What I had were my journal writings, and I thought for a long time about how these writings could be made interesting to others. I still don’t have a final answer, and now I don’t expect to find one, but I have come to think that there’s value in the texts written as they were at the times they were written.

Like Linklater’s movie, these texts present the problem of time: when I wrote about my college years, I was in college. I could write now about about my college times, but that’s 18 years after the events. So at the time of the journal-writing, I had lots of particulars but no distant perspective; now I have perspective, but that it’s the perspective of a 40-year-old.

And this is kind of a basic problem with writing (and it’s the basic problems that interest me the most): Everything one writes must be written from a perspective; writing is a product of a consciousness, and every consciousness is always already situated in time. I’m a better writer now than I was at age 20, but I’m no longer the person I was at age 20. I can see the changes when I read “between the lines,” as it were, in my texts written when I was different ages. I’m a different person. Yet, I’m not an entirely different person, which may be the point Lane was making in his quote above.

So if I want to be honest to the perspective I have now, I could write only about now, with the knowledge that whatever I say now will be superseded by what I write later. Or, maybe not — maybe one’s later nonfiction writings don’t supersede one’s past writings; maybe they’re just completely different and shouldn’t be compared?

That Linklater’s film was filmed over 12 years interests the commenters above because it uses real actors. If the film were made of, say, animated characters rather than human actors, the movie could’ve been made over 12 years without the characters’ appearances changing, as “The Simpsons” characters haven’t changed much over 25 years of TV episodes. (Although the characters were drawn differently in their first appearances on “The Tracy Ullman Show“.) Of course, what Linklater did is maybe not all that different from looking at how the actors of M*A*S*H change over 11 years of the show (which was weird, too, as the show was set during a war that took only 3 years).

And I suppose I could put together a document that contained my writings across the years, like an overview anthology of any author’s work, but then the main impact of such a document might be to show the change in the author’s voice over the years (which might overshadow any thematic concerns of the particular works anthologized). Linklater’s film may show the cinematic equivalent of that, but it also coheres as a single story. I’m still not sure how this would work with nonfiction.

But perhaps this problem requires a format of writing and/or of publishing that’s broader than any one book or other single-themed work.

P.S.: See related thoughts on writing in/through time here.

Foreshadowing, artifice, & being alive

Tree-breeze, Oct. 2012

Tree-breeze, Oct. 2012

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), is be 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 them, 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.

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.