Picking Your Story-stolen from According To Hoyt June 2018

Picking Your Story-stolen from According To Hoyt June 2018

*Yes, that’s right. I am now stealing content from my own blog for Blasts from the past. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about story, and it occurred to me this is more important than ever, with the changing “realities” of trad pub, and what’s going on with new publishing. You have to pick your reality. Twilight of the gods, or brave new world? The end or the beginning? In this as in all else, choose wisely. – SAH*

One of the best definitions of what a writer does is to extract narrative from random events.  Okay, I guess that applies mostly to non-fiction writers.

Say you set out to write the biography of one of the English fighters in the peninsula during the Napoleonic invasions.  You’ll find there’s not one narrative but at least four or five.  And I don’t mean just that this guy looks completely different in his auto-biography, his mentions in his superiors’ biographies, or his friends memories of their parties.  It goes far beyond that.

You could extract the moments of his soujourn in the peninsula to craft a “homeland and heroism” story, by picking all the highs and moments of valor, and how he wanted to rout Napoleon for England and glory. It would be a true account, as he really was a patriotic young man who wanted to serve.

Or if you had an anti-war bend, you could choose every one of the incidents in which he saw what we call “the horror of war” and show him becoming jaded and depressed.  Look, even if he in general was suited to a military career and thought the cause just, he’d have moments of discouragement.  Everyone does, and war really is a horrible business.  Also if he joined at 17 or so, as many did, he couldn’t’ help but become at least somewhat jaded. By showing/lending prominence to this, an anti-war writer will craft the narrative no one should serve.

Or you could string together all the times he got drunk and went rabbit hunting, and had a contretemps with a local woman of uneasy virtue, and craft a tragi-comic narrative.

Well, it’s not just in books, you know? And not just writers.  Life is chaotic.  It has been said that the human brain is a machine for extracting meaning from chaos.

Hell, some people think that we — our minds — create time as a sequence, and that it has no existence outside our heads.  (I have issues with this.  Though it might be true, there where physics becomes theology.)

Just like the young officer in the Napoleonic wars, your life, your every day has many meanings, and you can pick and choose to craft a narrative.  In fact, you do, instinctively.

Now–

This is where it’s important to write and craft stories.  Humans are social apes.  That means, to quote my grandmother “we don’t make ourselves.”  Okay, I think she meant something more religious.  But she was right in a more mundane sense, too.

Humans often aren’t even aware of crafting their narrative, or shaping their view of the world.  Heck, most of us writers aren’t either.  Not in our real, actual, personal life.  Instead we fasten onto stories which are complete and coherent narratives, as a way to figure out who we are, where we are and where we are going, and to try to plot our path to a happy future.

Jane Austen with her incredibly practical view of marriage did more to reconcile me to physical existence and the realities of life than any number of “feminist” writers.

And that’s part of the problem too.  When some stories — say the fairy tales with the happy ever after save when they threw the furniture at each other endings — are condemned by damnatio memory and people are told they can no longer use them to shape themselves, you craft anti-narratives.  And these never have a happy ending.

I understand idiots — really — are complaining about Incredibles 2 and saying that Mrs. Incredible should divorce her husband.  That’s the anti-narrative at work.  The women don’t need men, the no woman is totally happy in marriage.

Now I’m not going to say women should only or primarily look for happiness in marriage. And I don’t think you should look for a perfect prince/princess, someone who will make you happy without questions.  If you’re going to dip into legends and fairytales, go for the older more realistic ones, not Disney.  The woman still had to do something brave, to go exploring, to perform tasks, before she was ready to be married.  And married couples sometimes threw furniture at each other…

I’m saying be aware of the narrative in your head and how it’s influencing you.  Because it’s possible to be trapped in a narrative that not only doesn’t suit you, but makes you miserable.

I’ve seen women rant and rave about how happy they are since the divorce, when it’s obvious they’re telling everyone this, and destroying any and all possible chance of happiness.  I’ve seen men tell me how much they love their job and they don’t have time for family or friends, and yet their eyes are miserable.

They’re trapped in narratives where what they sold themselves as happiness and joy isn’t, but they can’t find their way out because they bought their own narrative, and can’t see it’s killing them.

In the same way, if men buy into the tales that men are inherently violent/war like/awful while women are perfect, they go through life with a huge chip on their shoulder, being passive aggressive, alternating grovelling with posturing.  It’s not great for women to believe that either, btw, because no human being is perfect, and while women are far less likely to bash your skull in, they’re far more likely to poison your chocolate.

More importantly, if you believe the lies you were told in school, about the overpopulated world, depleted resources, everyone is a killer ape and a horrible person, there is no joy or glory anywhere, and “nothing to live or die for”, you’re going to live in a dark world with no future and no hope.  And it isn’t even true.

I don’t know if there were humans before story.  Maybe at the beginning there were tiny, tiny stories: “Gorg wans to be like Ogg and be leader of band.”  Or “If Mog makes basket and catches fish Gorg will notice her, and they’ll have many babies.”

What I do know is that anything, even at the level of semi-competent tribal existence has a story.

Those sagas told over millennia provided role models.  Are you Odysseus the quick, always with a stratagem?  Faithful Penelope?  Circe who lures men and has the power of making them animals? Are you Telemachus searching for his dad?

There were roles in those stories, things that went to the back of the brain and gave people ways to react to things that would otherwise destroy them, and ways of behaving that were if no constructive congruent with their society and the lives they could live.

Beware of stories.  Beware of those that can trap you and suck you dry, like a spider catching an insect in a web.

If you can, pick a narrative with a future, one that allows you to build and be happy.  In my experience the happiest people have something to live for: a spouse, a lover, a child, a garden, a house, a cause, an institution. (Just make sure the cause is not one that promotes misery.)  Humans were built to work.  To build. To expand. To create.

Make yourself a narrative that allows for that.  And then build and live and, yes, if you can, write stories of building and living, so that others might live and build.

30 comments

  1. Remember that in fairy tales, if you did not kill the wicked stepmother, she often came for your firstborn.

        1. Unfortunately, the definition of a poison includes dosage. There’s a line between “flavor” and “fatality”.

  2. You know, I’ve never read any Jane Austin. I probably should.

    Is there a recommended 1st, 2nd, 3rd book of hers to go through?

    I wonder if there would be value in a general Ur Books to Read for Various Genres list?

      1. I spell gouda don’t I?

        Looks like Project Gutenberg has both. Pride and Prejudice has 60k downloads, Persuasion has ~5k. Time to figure out how to migrate it to my phone app…

    1. Pride and Prejudice is the most widely known and adapted of Jane Austen’s books, followed probably by Emma and Persuasion in that order. They are probably also the most “relatable” for the average male reader, because P&P has the most memorable male characters, Persuasion has a bunch of Navy officers in the supporting cast, and Emma expects the reader to relate to the heroine/main POV character with exasperated affection, kind of the same way the heroine’s love interest does. She more or less lived after Samuel Johnson and before the Bronte sisters, so her prose is old-fashioned and complex, with a tendency towards semicolons and long sentences. And she wrote primarily about young women who needed to marry well (in both the money and psychological sense) in order to insure a good life for themselves and their families.
      Men are mostly examined at a psychological remove in her books. The three main marriageable men in P&P are this kind of trinary star system, with two lesser men orbiting the alpha male, that the female leads have to study from a great distance initially and only gradually become closer to. The reader gets slighter more information about these men than the female characters do. The most popular TV adaptation (from 1995) turns a corrected-Hubble grade telescope on the men, so we see a bit more of them while still pretty much following the original story. The only adaptation that really gives a lot of space to the male characters (Italian language, 1957), changes so many things around that it feels more like they were adapting some lost work by Austen admirer Georgette Heyer instead.

      1. In this context I’m less concerned with whether it will be relatable to me, than that the book is generally good. These are research and perspective widening exercises 🙂

        Kind of like the time I read Black Sheep. Though I will admit, I strongly sympathised with the guy. That was kind of trippy.

      2. Personally I do not enjoy Emma at all.

        Northanger Abbey is fun, but you have to be able to enjoy a satire by deducing the genre it’s satirizing.

      3. Three? I recall two: Bingley and Darcy. Are you thinking of Colonel Fitzwilliam as the third? He’s a pleasant enough guy, but he’s not marriage material for the P&P heroines. He makes it clear to Elizabeth that his wife is going to have to be someone much, much higher on the social ladder.

        Or are you thinking of Wickham? Again, not really marriage material. He’s handsome and charming and fun to flirt with, but he doesn’t have the resources to support a wife. Even before the revelations about his character (sorry for the spoilers for a book that’s two hundred years old), it’s made clear that his wife would have to be wealthy enough to support him, and again, that pretty much excludes him for the Bennet girls and their circle.

        The only other one I can think of is Mr. Collins, who is marriage material, but I can’t really see him as part of Darcy’s “orbit.”

  3. Well, if you’ve read Heyer, you have some idea of what you’re getting into. P&P is probably still the best from a research/perspective expansion POV, just because you get a wider and more memorable variety of female characters who have their say. (Persuasion’s heroine is the classic “good, upright woman gets second chance at love” and Emma is the classic “comically well-meaning busybody who learns better” but the supporting female characters in those books are kind of bland.)

      1. P&P and Lady Susan and their adaptations are “my” Austens. Emma and Mansfield Park are both cases where I can respect the craftmanship, understand what the author was trying to do, and be amused by some of the adaptations even though I personally don’t enjoy the books that much. S&S and Northanger Abbey are early works with the raw materials to be much more interesting (duels! Not-so-haunted mansions!) than the final books actually are, and I enjoy some of the adaptations of same. I liked Persuasion’s gentle melancholy a fair amount when I was younger, and I still respect the craftsmanship, but it just doesn’t speak to me as much now.

      2. I think my mother did as well. Was that the one where the main character more or less lost their marbles, or started out a few barrels shy or par? I may be thinking of a different one.

        1. Sense and Sensibility is the only Austen book where one of the heroines (the less sympathetic one at that) has anything that could be described as a mental breakdown. Emma is the funny-annoying matchmaker; you may be familiar with her modern(ish) day descendent, Cher from Clueless.

  4. I can’t read Emma. Kind of wish I could, because I’ve memorized all the other Jane Austen books, but I just can’t stand Emma.

  5. WP is still insisting that I want all emails from the blogs I’m subscribed to blocked. (Why is that box even there?)

    I think that if our minds constructed time, there would be a lot more memories of the future, not just the past. I know memories of the future occur just enough to be freaky, and sometimes weird.

    As well as some “ghosts” that appear to be time-echos.

  6. “I’m saying be aware of the narrative in your head and how it’s influencing you. Because it’s possible to be trapped in a narrative that not only doesn’t suit you, but makes you miserable.”

    I find it amusing how leftist point to the quote from the Statue of Liberty. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to be free…” They use it to demand open borders, among other things. And that was never the meaning for it at all.

    What it means, and meant, is that here- here– the ones that had been kept down by their aristocrats, their Marxists, their greedy grasping fools in power could thrive. That freedom and liberty were blessings of such immense value that even the *least* of men over there could rise to become the greatest, here. That without the boot on their necks, men and women could raise their station by dint of hard work effort rather than birth and influence.

    That story is a true one still. And it was proven once again in 2016.

    The story I’m writing now, if it has a theme, is one that tells of the permanence of duty. That there will always be dragons to slay, evils to fight, and work that must be done. That standing for something right and true is good, and that failure is non-permanent. That even in dark times the light is never extinguished, so long as even one person holds to the things that are right, true, and important.

    And along the way, occasional zombie slaughter.

    Today I just realized that Dr. Z. was unwittingly following the hero’s journey. I didn’t intend that when I started writing it. The Monomyth really does sneak in when you least expect it.

    1. Where in a Post Doc has an adventure and finds himself doing and saying things quite unexpected.

      On a more serious note… I think that may be why I like THIS zombie apocalypse story so much over the others. This is about him. And him rising to the occasion. The others are about the Zombies dooming everything. I like Dr. Z’s zombie apocalypse much better.

      1. Yeah, I would not want to read a zombie story where as soon as the hero meets up with, and rescues survivors, they start plotting to feed him to zombies.

        I’m pretty sure Z’s rescuees are helpful.

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