Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Finding the story in everything

I've been thinking a lot about how writers see the world. Recently on Facebook, a writer I really, really admire (the extraordinary Rhian Ellis, who wrote After Life, which I've written about here before) was telling me how she had been arrested for protesting some white supremacists in her neighborhood. I instantly peppered her with questions. What did it feel like to be in a cop car? Did she have handcuffs and did they hurt her wrists? What did the cops say? I kept seeing the pictures in my mind, imagining the story, carrying it further than what she had told me.

"Caroline, you're such a writer!" she said, and then she said that the thing she remembered about the experience was that she was trying to make story out of it. She was seeing characters and plots, beginnings and ends and a story arc. I know this feeling all too well. I asked her, "Do you ever stop in a moment of intense emotion or drama and think: I can use this. Or: I need to remember this?" And she said Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

It got me thinking. Writers spend their time shaping stories, living in worlds they make up that are as alive to us as any. We dramatize events. We over-worry when we board a plane and imagine the danger in the cockpit, the way we might escape, the relief in our bodies when we hit ground. We see the story in events that others might just see as a detour in their day, something for them that might not have a beginning, middle, crisis and end, and we create narratives where there really are none. (Give me an apple, and I'll give you a story. I promise it.)

But I'm of two minds. Sometimes I think we writers need to be more in the moment. Sometimes, a child coming over to us in a park is simply a child coming over to us, and not a child who was taken from his mother in a custody battle, or a child who had vanished who has suddenly reappeared. Sometimes it's important to just see and appreciate what is right there in front of us.

But then again....this urge, this delicious compulsion to make a story of everything, is as natural and essential as breathing.


Amy said...

Hee. I have a friend who, when she's having a fight with her husband, will tell him she needs to use the bathroom when he says something especially "interesting." She keeps a notebook in the bathroom and writes it down, then returns to the fight!

Caroline said...

Amy, that's so funny! All the world is material--!

Shampa said...

Caroline, Have long admired your blog silently (it's my daily intellectual caffeine) and thought it was time to de-lurk. Loved this post in particular because it's something I constantly struggle with myself. On the flipside, I'd also argue that sometimes, especially when you do experience real trauma or danger in your life, the story-shaping urge can actually be a useful coping mechanism - a way to regain control. I think you've written about this too in previous blog posts.

Caroline said...

I am so thrilled you are delurking! And I agree about trauma and the way story can help make sense of it. I've had some horrible things happen in my life (the death of a fiance two weeks before our wedding, becoming critically ill for a year after the birth of my son) and though I wrote about both in non-fiction, I found that writing about it in fiction was actually the most healing for me. Making story of it was making sense of it and it gave me a very safe way to go through it and process it.

Please stay! I'm so happy to have you here.

Jeff Lyons said...


Yeah... I know what you mean... sometimes a good cigar is just a good cigar.

But... people like us are hardwired to "think story." It's so automatic we don't even know we're doing it. I catch myself all the time, "... wait... this is real life... " But, then I'm back at it ten minutes later. I know "living in the moment" is all very Ekart Tolle and metaphysically PC, but do we really want to trade in our escapist circuitry for some consensus view of the world (I'm not saying you're suggesting this--I'm just throwing it out there.)? I don't. That cigar has a lot of possibilities worth exploring! Reality can wait, thank you very much. :)



Robin Antalek said...

I've found for myself, as a writer, the absolute best comes when I stay in there a moment longer than feels comfortable. That means, sometimes, that I know I'm treading dangerous territory between what is "real" and what I've added to the reality to make it less so, at least for the people around me who may recognize certain snippets of conversation or a situation....

Sorell Says... said...

I think because I am an actor as well, and it was the way that I was trained, that the most important thing for me is to stay "present". Really being in the moment allows me to clearly see, hear, feel, and absorb what is going on around me. By doing that I can go back later and on my own time, quietly tap into those feelings and then make story out of them.