Finding a story

If you’re telling stories, you have a fund of experience to draw on. Don’t we all? Nearly all of us tell stories, and jokes, in daily life. We regale and assail each other with such stories. We while away the time, which otherwise might bore us out of our minds. We stake an advantage. We perform.

But what to do with these stories if we would tell them in print?

I should say rather than stories, it’s narratives we all have, sequences of events that happen to us and around us and sometimes way out there in the family of man. And we may have sequelae, also: outcomes whether healthy or not that are moral, physical, psychological. They may be punch-lines in a joke or a sad or hilarious coda to a story. But how do we get these narratives to add up and make sense and march on in print?

There’s a very good hint provided in a recent essay by Daniel Mendelsohn in The New York Review of Books. He talks about the long research journey he undertook to write about how the Holocaust wiped out the Jews in a town once in Poland, now Ukraine, in which his ancestors lived. And how, once he published that book, he was depressed and paralyzed and floundered for another project.

Mendelsohn is a writer of factual accounts and analyses. After a hiatus of several years he was able to reach out past the Holocaust back into ancient Greek history and find a subject in Homer’s Odyssey. He wrote hundreds of pages of narrative in three parts, based on a classroom (in which he had taught the Odyssey), a ship which recreated Odysseus’s route home, and a hospital in which his father, who’d taken Mendelsohn’s course in the Odyssey, lay dying.

He gave the script to an old friend and mentor, and got this reaction:

The first part, the account of the seminar, was interesting, he observed—after a small silence during which I absorbed his criticism—but, in his opinion, the problem was that once you reach the end of that part, once you come to the end of the Odyssey course, you didn’t want to keep reading. You don’t want to get through the whole semester and then have to go on a cruise, he said, at which I weakly protested, But that’s how it happened. I don’t care how it happened, he returned; this isn’t about fact, this is about a story. You need to find a way to plant the cruise and the hospital within the narrative of the seminar. Use flashbacks, use flash-forwards, don’t worry about chronology. Make it up, if you have to! You just have to find a way.

When he said the word way, I couldn’t repress an embarrassed start of recognition. The phrase “find a way” allowed me, first of all, to understand retroactively the nature of the creative and spiritual crisis I had undergone after finishing my previous book. I was suffering from what the Greeks called aporia: a helpless, immobilized confusion, a lack of resources to find one’s way out of a problem. The literal meaning of aporia is “a lack of a path,” or “no-way.” I hadn’t been able to leave my apartment; I couldn’t think of a new project. I was, in the Greek way of thinking, pathless—the adjective, as it happens, that in the Odyssey is used to describe the sea, the terrifying blank nothingness from which Odysseus must extricate himself, literally and figuratively, in order to reclaim his identity and find his way home.

Now you or I may not be writing a book. But whether we’re rendering a narrative orally or writing it out, we have to concern ourselves at some point with the central, essential story: where are we going with all these details? what do we want our audience to feel and understand?

If we don’t know these matters well at some level, we may well mess up a joke — or a written essay, article, or book. You know how that works? You go through the details of a joke, and then realize you’re leaving something out or putting something in that shouldn’t be there — you’re messing it up (again), aren’t you?

Henry James
Henry James, The Master, as painted by John Singer Sargent in 1913, three years before James’s death.

Some people, of course, are inveterate and practiced jokers. They know how to tell a joke or perhaps play a trick, and everyone is convinced. Most of us, however, have to work on our capers and find out, however we can, what is the essential story. There’s a struggle between our conscious and unconscious faculties. We want to control the narrative, but must let the chthonic powers play.

This sort of struggle may have underlain Henry James’s idea of the story “germ.” He writes in his notebooks about how he would overhear a story told at dinner and take its essence, the germ, home with him, only the germ, the central point, as he saw it, and then work it up on his own into his own story.

Once he had his suggestion … he hastened to close his ears to the rest of the story lest clumsy Life should take his seminal idea away. When the artist is too close to the reality he wants to describe, his imagination is no longer stimulated and therefore ceases to work. — “James on Art and the Novel”

James’s MO may or may not work for you, but the gist of this story of the Master is that he let his imagination play, have free rein, roam beyond the confines of the tale he had heard. Of course, James like his brother, the philosopher William James, had a great moral imagination. He was able to create characters and tell their stories with a profound human empathy. Many of the stories, like The Portrait of a Lady and Washington Square and The Aspern Papers, have to do with cold-hearted, amoral men who cheat women out of love, or money, or full personal development. After a while, I would think, such a concern, or motif, a central part of his own character, would be part of the germ, naturally, of many of his tales.

So how do you find a story, telling the facts, such as they are, and developing the meaning of the facts — the solid, essential story which experience, the gift horse, has presented you? Surely, you can’t spend too long looking it in the mouth? Giddyup, you gotta ride experience’s suggestions.