Literary Term Larcency: the Co-opting of Narrative

In “The Cognitive and Anthropological Origins of Narrative,” Richard van Oort argues for the “coeval origin” of narrative and language. If that’s true, maybe I have no business complaining about this, but I’m going to anyway.

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As a writer, we have certain literary devices and terms which we call our own. They are the tools in our proverbial toolbox, and they are ours. Here’s my issue: I don’t like hearing the word “narrative” used outside of literary circles.

My husband is a political enthusiast. I am not. Our compromise is a Netflix marathon of “Scandal,” a White House-based drama. While the show isn’t the first place where I have heard the word “narrative” used to describe something quite unliterary, its repeated use in a political context unnerves me. It angers me. Our pure tool, so beautifully designed to shape truth by fiction, there means nothing more than “make the story palatable and helpful to our political aims.”

It’s unforgiveable. It’s outright theft, and I’m angry.

I suspect I am not the only one who is angry about this perpetual (in my view) word/device abuse. Did you catch Sam Lipsyte’s story in the May 5, 2014 issue of The New Yorker called “The Naturals”? He speaks of a company who wants to create a lakefront development but the area needs a “narrative.” “The main thing is we’re trying to tell a story here. A lakefront narrative,” says a consultant. Huh? His main character seems just as puzzled as I am by that usage.

Throughout the story the main character, Caperton, encounters people who openly admit to being storytellers: a wrestler, his stepmother who works in “narrative medicine” helping patients tell their stories, and his dying father who tells him that “Death is just a part of the story.”

While I think Lipsyte’s claim is a bit different than mine — I believe he’s complaining about everything needing a story and I’m specifically complaining about the misuse of the word “narrative,” our beefs may not be so far apart. Why must politicians have a narrative, which implies a purposely crafted and presented tale rather than a strict presentation of the facts which would allow a person to decide for him or herself what happened?

Okay, there may be some writerly ego involved here: I want to be the one who tells the stories, who explains through fiction, which means admitting that my story, although true, is based on a narrative created by me.

“Stories were devices for deluding ourselves and others…” says Lipsyte’s truth-disguised-as-tale. Sometimes. Sometimes our stories make the world a much more beautiful place. Sometimes they make a hero of someone who is not. But when we admit to shaping the, yes, narrative, that’s fair, not manipulative. At least not a veiled manipulation. To hear riverfronts and politics using it, well, that’s just dishonest. Give me back my narrative, you hear me? Or at least find another word to call it.

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Something Borrowed…

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There’s something special about reading a borrowed book. I don’t mean a library book, although that can be special too. I mean reading a book pressed into your hands by someone who can’t wait for you to read it, because they know you’ll love it. Someone you trust to know your tastes enough that you know you’ll enjoy the read and who wants to discuss it with you when you’re finished reading it.

Borrowed books feel better. Someone else has broken in the pages, unstiffened the spine. They have made the book friendlier than a brand new book.

When the friend has made notes in the book, ah, that’s bliss! Then you can have a conversation with them about the book even when they’re not there. “But how can you SAY that?” you ask when you don’t agree with their scribbles, or “Oh, I didn’t see that,” when you are suddenly enlightened by their notes. I’m a visual learner, so seeing things written down is so much better for me than hearing them, and being able to read someone’s notes is a gift.

It’s been awhile since someone’s told me I “must” read a book and handed it to me fresh from reading it.

When I was a child, a dear pastor friend accidently left his Bible behind while visiting our family. As I knew it was his favorite, I stayed up all evening copying down his notes out of it before giving it back to him the next day. Somehow I thought this would teach me everything he knew.

I’ve found interesting things in borrowed books. Candy wrappers. Photos. Postcards. Receipts. A hair once. I think that was the most startling, the hair, because it was so unexpectedly intimate.

Have you ever loved a book someone lent you so much that you just didn’t want to return it? Have you ever treasured the obvious love and affection someone has lavished upon a copy of a book so much that you don’t want to part with it, valuing it maybe even more than they do?

Maybe this explains why I often buy second-hand copies of books. For one thing, they’re not as intimidating. And they don’t come with those annoying slipcovers that I just take off anyway.

Borrowed books seem to be the ones whose stories stick with me the longest, and are the ones of which I have the fondest memories. Thick Dickens and other Victorian tomes. Worlds handed to me when my own was a bit bleak, a place to hide out until the storms passed, as they did.

What about you? What are your favorite books that were lent to you? Do you, too (shhh…), have a few you have just never returned and don’t think you could bear to? Leave your “confession” here.

A Writer’s Retreat…in Changzhou, China!

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Until recently my body was in China, my mind in France, and my heart in the United States. Let me explain.

I apologize for having been silent for some time. My last post was actually written while in Changzhou, China. Drat these days of having to be so careful when one travels that one can’t shout from the rooftops “I’m in China!”

This post is not meant to be a travelogue. I’m sure stories of my time in China will come out in my posts, but I wanted to deal more with my writing while I was there. If you’re truly interested in more about our time there, may I refer you to an article I wrote about it for glo Magazine? http://www.the-papers.com/OnlineIssue.aspx?pub=glo  (It’s on page 42.)

“How do you think your writing was affected by your trip?” I have been asked multiple times since returning. One of my friends has given me the perfect reply: “We’ll see.” She’s so right. How anything changes us often takes some time to reveal its effects. But I can say how lovely and fantastic the experience was!

The beauty of this retreat:

1. I did not have to do laundry.

2. No cleaning house.

3. No cooking. (That was a mixed bag as I actually like to cook.)

4. Naps!

5. Staying in a five-star hotel.  Very posh!

6. Being treated as if we were royalty by the hotel staff. They gave me a private writing space complete with an attendant who brought me drinks and snacks! Weekly fruit selections delivered! Nightly cookies! Surprise cake and desserts!

7. Amazing food generously supplied wherever we went. I now adore seafood and eating with chopsticks!

8. The gift of not being able to speak the language. This allowed me to focus on my writing, even when I was in a teahouse full of chattering people. The sound was mere music because I couldn’t understand a word! It also forced me to find other ways to communicate: hand gestures, drawings, etc.

9. Being fully appreciated by very sweet people for…well…everything! That I am a writer. That I am an American. That I am a blonde.

10. Sightseeing! Beijing. Shanghai. The architecture was spectacular. Always something new to see. Everywhere.

11. Buying pearls. In the above photo I am standing in front of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower…my favorite building in Shanghai, and I’m wearing the pearls Barry had newly purchased for me. (I’m having a hard time not wearing them every day! I’ve always been a fan of pearls.)

Clearly, I could go on at length. Let me shift gears.

My goal for writing in China (other than accompanying my husband, who was there for work) was to write a new section of my WIP. I had hoped to add 50 to 75 pages. I ended up writing over 100 new pages. There was something about writing in another country that allowed me to tap into something I did not at home. The section that I had no clue about in the States came to me bit by bit, then page after page. I wrote with pen and paper, something else I don’t usually do. It was wonderful to look up form a long morning’s writing only to realize that I was in China, not France.

Barry and I spent many fun evenings out with new friends, but we also had not only private evening dinners or room service, but we also had cherished hour-long breakfasts. We would sit and drink cup after cup of tea and talk, which thankfully emptied my mind for my day’s writing and energized him for the work day. It was perfect.

You wouldn’t think it would be any different, writing at a desk, sitting in a chair, or on a couch or a park bench, no matter the country, but it was. I honestly haven’t had much time to look over the new material I wrote while I was there, but I’m eager to see how it was different. In part I think there’s a real difference in writing not in stolen moments or almost as a hobby, but instead writing because the day was created for you to write, and everything in the universe confirms that, down to the weather. Everyone and everything seems as if it’s your handmaiden, your doula.

If you ever get the chance to take a writer’s retreat — even if you have to steal a weekend and go to a hotel, do it. There’s something special about purposely created moments. The muse, I am firmly convinced, is ever with us. (S)he’s just waiting for us to say hello, no matter the country in which we find ourselves. There’s something very comforting about knowing there’s a whole other world ever present, ever ready for us to tap. Here’s to catching buckets full of rich writing.