The World of Wrestling (link)
For my last post, I decided to do something a little different and share this old essay by Roland Barthes that provides a different perspective on how stories function at a very basic structural level. Here, Barthes describes this professional wrestling circuit in his native France, but what he’s really talking about is how symbols work within narratives. In wrestling, and storytelling in general, there are archetypes. The hero, the villain (or “the bastard” in Barthes vocabulary) and these roles come prepackaged with a set of signs that the reader expects to digest. Barthes uses the example of wrestling because the signs are very clear and very physical. The actions of “The Bastard” cause us to be repulsed, and so we root for the hero, and so on and so on. The physical performance of wrestling involves a multitude of signs that signal specific reactions from the viewer.
I bring this essay up because, at least for me, its helpful to reexamine the very essential objects that constitute how information is relayed in a narrative through a series of symbols. As writers, we exist at the forefront of a very long tradition, and it can be easy to get lost and lose track of the basic symbolic structures of a story. It is important to remember that while characters and plots are in a sense “people” and “actions”, by being written down they become, first and foremost, signs. That which refers to something else. All these details and lies we invent for our stories serve this purpose of being read and hopefully interpreted as one or more intended things. Barthes essay provides what I think is a very useful structural perspective on just how even the more vulgar aspects of culture take part in these practices of narrative weaving.
The title is a little deceptive. I’m not raising this question in the hopes of finding some lofty, philosophical answer, but because the question itself is important when crafting any individual story. The question is really “why is this specific story being told” and it’s this question that writers oftentimes overlook. What is the occasions of this story’s telling? Was it an action that precipitates the story’s need for transcription. Is the protagonist writing it down themselves (in a diary, journal, what have you). Maybe a character is simply a storyteller by trade, or has to because their life depends on it, like Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights. My point is that a story can just come into existence before the reader, and they just accept it as is. However, the question of “why was this story written” still persists. What is the bias in the narration? From whose perspective are we looking through? Even if its not explicitly laid out before you in the final draft, I think its useful for the writer to consider the fact that stories have an occasion, a reason to be. Working out the details of this reason is a practice that can help reveal the complete narrative in all its storyness, which the writer can then cut down to size.
Please post your response to the Joshua Ferris story “The Dinner Party” here. This week is an free-for-all–no questions this week, so respond to whatever aspect of the story interested you!
-Victor “Free-Ballin” Hugo
Now that I have your attention, I’d like to open up a discussion inspired by an anecdote I recently stumbled upon. The legend goes that Victor Hugo, when afflicted with procrastination, would order his servants in the morning to remove everything from his home, including his clothes, except for his pen and paper. Through this means, Hugo’s nude self had no choice but to remain at home and write until his servant returned in the evening. Hugo was mainly trying to avoid the temptation of going out and getting hammered at some Parisian brothel, but the modern writer of today has so much more to contend with beyond the odd desire to go on a syphilitic jaunt through 19th century France.
Which brings me to my main point. Are there any stipulations you self-impose to “force” yourself to write? Do you turn off your internet connection? Retire to some remote part of the world? In other words, do you actively try to become your own secret police force, dolling out punishments or restrictions when writing goals aren’t met? I see the reason why some do. We all love to write, but for many of us, writing is incredibly tedious, depressing, painful, et cetera, especially compared to the simple pleasures of web browsing. Sometimes, one needs to go to extra lengths to maintain the discipline required by serious writing. What do you think?
There’s a lot of interesting stuff here from someone who is both an accomplished writer and teacher, but a few things in particular stood out to me.
Barthelme says that the only rule he has in his writing workshops is that his students aren’t allowed to mention the weather in their stories, saying that it saves pages of “ordinary” language. Now obviously, great stories can still mention meteorological phenomena, but the central insight in this idea is that the writer should avoid that which is isn’t there own. In other words, when you force yourself to abandon conventional modes of setting scene, mood, themes, et cetera, it leads you on the pursuit of something much more interesting. Rules or exercises like the one Barthelme suggests teach you that there are always infinitely many ways in which you can communicate with your audience, meaning that the “ordinary” is not always what suits a work best. One should always stop themselves after every sentence and ask, “where have I seen this before” and “should it be used here.” Its a long and convoluted way of saying, how can I say something fresh, and how can I make this story a product of myself.
This leads me to his next major point at around 19 minutes into the interview, where he talks about clarity and accessibility. He talks about how though his works might appear difficult, in the process of writing, he avoids being “needlessly obscure” in favor of being “needfully obscure”. Needful obscurity, for Barthelme, is created when a work pairs two things that are very unlike together. This pairing is where the ability of fiction to communicate with the reader becomes very important. The writer making connections where others don’t see them is what makes for a challenging, but also engaging, read.
“The Genie declared that in his time and place there were scientists of the passions who maintained that language itself, on the one hand, originated in ‘infantile pregenital erotic exuberance, polymorphously perverse,’ and that conscious attention, on the other, was a ‘libidinal hypercathexis’ — by which magic phrases they seemed to mean that writing and reading, or telling and listening, were literally ways of making love.”
In the spirit of Berger’s novel “G”, I’m offering this blog another recommendation for an experimental novel from 1972 written by someone named John. In this spirit, I’ve selected John Barth’s “Chimera.” While technically a novel, “Chimera” is actually three loosely connected novellas based on interpretations of classical stories. The first novella, the “Dunyazadiad” offers a great lesson in short fiction, as it does so much in what amounts to well within the length of longer short stories, and I highly suggest checking out this story even if you don’t read the rest. I chose this work because it functions as a master-class in incorporating meta-fiction into narratives, where self-referential story telling is incorporated at every level, even going so far as having the author himself appear as a djinn to relate the Arabian Nights from memory. Its insanity and that’s why it’s so great. What I love about this story is that while at first it may appear obscure, inaccessible, and even incoherent, once you understand its internal logic, it becomes a joy to discover how this author’s passion for literature becomes expressed in such fresh and interesting ways.
The book is also appropriate for a fiction writing class because on top of its extreme narrative techniques, it also tells a fascinating story about the relationship between storytellers and those that care to listen. A relationship that goes back to antiquity. Its also my personal belief that, fortunately or unfortunately, every writer contemporary to our current age has to confront the strange beast of fiction itself in one way or another, not to say that your methods have to be as explicit as Barth’s.
“Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.” -Ted Talk
This TedTalk is one of the best I have watched!! It addresses the questions we asked each other in class on whether it is possible to tell the story of an entire nation with just one book/story? If your character is Indian, does that make your story an Indian story?
As we said, we can’t hold characters accountable for telling the story of a nation. But characters can tell stories of people, of human experiences and of what it means to be human.
I like how in this speech, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (the author of the short story “Ghosts”), talks about breaking stereotypes and how there are many stories of different people and countries.
In conclusion, there are dangers of knowing a single story of a group of people. And one novel, short story or movie shouldn’t be the face of a nation or group of people.
P.S PLEASE watch this talk, I think you would find it interesting!
“It is a fine line—the one between a literary novel where eroticism is richly imbued throughout and the more explicitly sexual prose of erotica.” – Roxane Gay
I’m one of those writers that likes when characters have sexual relations in my stories. I believe I do it mainly to humanize the stories and give more depth to characters. However, I’m always scared of crossing that divide between tasteful sexual innuendoes and full on ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’.
I recently read this article by Roxane Gay (who by the way wrote the recommended short story ‘I Am A Knife’), where she talks about the different ways to imbue sensuality in your work by presenting an anthology of both erotica and fiction where eroticism is saturated within the story.
When I started sharing my work with people, I was always scared of how they would perceive the sexual tensions in the stories. I like this article because I feel like it gives me permission to continue striving to recreate human experiences using sex/ sexual tension as a medium in fiction. If you are interested in adding sex to your stories but might be worried of crossing that tasteful line I encourage you put aside your fear and just try it. There can be a good balance!
In the end, I think the bigger question while telling your story is ‘what am I trying to relay in telling this story and will imbuing sexual tensions help convey this objective?’
“What I love about stories is that you can begin with an image, a feeling, or a phrase and see where it leads you. It’s a journey without a map. With a novel, although you will encounter surprises along the way, you need a clearer sense of structure and story from the outset “- Dawn Raffel
I’m writing this post as a reply/ addition to Lisa’s post here as I found it really helpful in my understanding of short stories. Personally, when it comes to writing short stories, I find the writing process a bit dreadful! It’s always a question of how do I say enough within reasonable scope without writing a novel or being too vague.
This Huffington Post article is a series of interviews with writers who discuss ‘the short story form’.
What I like about this article is that you get to see writers who have written collections of short stories as well as novels tell you about their process and what they think embodies the essence of a short story.
My biggest takeaway seems to be that effective short stories tend to detail a specific moment or conflict where every word has an impact. Whereas, novels don’t need that much word economy and you can have various scenes which in turn build your characters and make your audience invest in your book/characters.
In the end, this is creative writing and not science! There are no set rules on writing but I hope you find these authors’ thoughts and processes as inspirational as I do!
When I lived in New Jersey, I would occasionally attend writing workshops in the area and there was one particular writing activity we did that I found helpful.
All you have to do is go on any search engine and look for images of people. Pick any image you find intriguing and write a story based on that image.
Most times I ended up getting ideas from the images and writing an interesting story. So why don’t you try it out and comment!!