Thursday, October 13, 2005


This began life as a comment (in my head...I never got over there to post it) on Becca's post on stories, but it kept growing and growing so I put it here.

So: why do ambivalent experiences make for better stories than happy ones?

(Can I just say, I love the intertextuality of blogs? I would never have gotten to this without the prompt from Becca...)

Well, there's Tolstoy's quip about happy and unhappy families. The unhappy families, experiences, whatever, give us the conflict we need to move a narrative along. Happiness is not really always static, but it is much harder to find the motive force, I think, in a happy story. (Not one with a happy ending--those are often pretty conflict-laden along the way.) Thus we spent a fabulous summer in England, but the story we most often tell is about the obnoxious neighbor who played the drums so badly and loudly. That's the story that has conflict. And, for that matter, resolution.

(Here's the short version of that story: early in our stay the woman next door came to tell us that her son and his mates practiced music on Saturdays and we said that would be fine. She said it would be loud and we said that was ok, we could probably go out. Then it started. It was really really loud. And really really bad: arhythmic drums, unmelodic, feedback-laden guitar and bass. Screaming. The whole bit. And then the practicing started happening on other days, other times. On rainy days Mark and the kids felt trapped in the house by the rain, assaulted by the noise. Finally he went over to remonstrate with them. No one came to the door. He went back later, when the mom was home from work. She brought her son and his mates over to the house, where they sat in the living room while Mark played the heavy. I believe the word "police" was mentioned. I believe "get a job" may also have been uttered. (Did I mention the son was 20-something?) The band returned to the previous practice schedule, the weather improved, and things got better. La-la.)

But that's not really ambivalent. So that brings me to my second thought, which is that, while we may tell the conflict-laden stories for entertainment, to amuse or delight or excite an audience, we may tell the ambivalent stories for ourselves. Ambivalence always has something to work out. And the more we tell those stories, the more we work through the issues about which we were ambivalent, the more we come to some kind of closure or resolution on them.


I"m not sure at all that this is what Becca really meant, actually, but it's where the thoughts led me. Which is why I need to read other people's words at least as much as I need to write, and indeed in order to write.

(Speaking of which: Gilead? Over there on the reading list? I can't remember the last time I finished a novel and wanted immediately to turn back to the beginning and start again. To buy copies for everyone I know. To keep it with me so I could quote lines from it at random times during the day. I know, I know, I'm late to the party, everyone already knows what a good book this is, but let me enjoy it anyway.)


Claudia said...

I enjoyed Gilead as well, though, as an atheist, I found some of the religiosity curious. But not off-putting. I am continually interested in how others view their beliefs and while that wasn't really the story here, it added an extra layer for me that might not be there for another reader - a "believer." The narrative seemed at first so simple and yet there was layer upon layer of things going on - it almost does take a second reading, I think, to take it all in.

Libby said...

I did think that was the story, or central to it, Claudia. How does what we believe influence our actions? Can we square our actions with our beliefs? What does it mean to believe? (That's the thing between the narrator and his godson, especially.) And it's about forgiveness, and language, and lots more as well that I need to read it again to remind myself about.

Susan said...

No book has ever moved me like Gilead has. It had me sobbing for an hour toward the end. And then I really felt I had to read it again, immediately, from the beginning. It's a powerful book, and I don't think of myself as a "religious" person.

Claudia said...

No, I agree with you. I didn't think that was the central point either but it was one of the things that drew me to the book because I am interested in how religious belief shapes people and informs their lives - in fiction and non-fiction. How people are more than simple labels used to define them. As I've come to certain conclusions about my own self and my own life, I become curious about how others decide that *this* rather than *that* is who they are and how they choose to live. Gilead sounded, when first described to me, as something I wouldn't be interested in reading but it was that very thought that made me pick it up. That and other reasons. But, good writing and a good story are all I ask for in a book and Gilead delivered this and more. And, gave me insight into that "religious life" I'm curious about.