word craft


This is Where I Came In

This is Where I Came In

I have long believed sto­ries — nar­ra­tives — are one of the basic forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Nar­ra­tives are one of the ways we make sense of the world. It’s how we cre­ate log­ic out of chaos. No sur­prise then that I have always been fas­ci­nat­ed by dif­fer­ent forms of nar­ra­tive and have come to believe that the way one tells a sto­ry is a key part of that story. 

I believe that jokes are a form of nar­ra­tive, as is gos­sip. The Bible tells a sto­ry. So does the dai­ly news­cast. By way of con­trast, one dis­turb­ing aspect of night­mares is that they have no log­i­cal nar­ra­tive: they can be trou­bling (even fright­en­ing) because they are disjointed.

As a writer, I am not com­mit­ted to any par­tic­u­lar form of nar­ra­tive. When I sit down to com­pose a sto­ry, I gen­er­al­ly begin with the ques­tion, “How am I going to write this sto­ry?” It can take me awhile to work that out, and I am open to any form.

Con­sid­er two of my books, The True Con­fes­sions of Char­lotte Doyle, and Noth­ing but the Truth. Pub­lished one year after the oth­er, one is a straight­for­ward plot­ted tale, the oth­er a plot cre­at­ed by inter­con­nect­ed documents.

I have writ­ten a graph­ic nov­el (City of Light, City of Dark) and a nov­el which is all dia­logue — no descrip­tive text at all — Who Was That Masked Man Anyway? 

I cre­at­ed the high­ly suc­cess­ful ser­i­al sto­ry ven­ture, Break­fast Seri­als, which ran sto­ries chap­ter by chap­ter in news­pa­pers. I once held a class at New York Uni­ver­si­ty on “the nar­ra­tive struc­ture of dai­ly news­pa­per strips.”

I’ve com­posed very short sto­ries (Things That Some­times Hap­pen) and very long nov­els, (Beyond the West­ern Sea). That’s in con­trast to pic­ture books with less than a thou­sand words.

The three Crispin books (long nov­els) are writ­ten in Iambic pen­tame­ter. The But­ton War (a novel­la) has lan­guage that is brief and terse.

 The Pop­py books — writ­ten over a twen­ty-five-year peri­od — and not writ­ten in the order of the full sto­ry arc, can now be read as one con­tin­u­al­ly flow­ing tale. It’s a case of a dis­joint­ed tale becom­ing one sto­ry over a long time of creation.

One of the odd­est forms of nar­ra­tive expe­ri­ence I have expe­ri­enced hap­pened when I was a kid, going to the movies.

In those days (the 1940s) we just went to the movies. I can’t recall ever check­ing to see when the film began as I do today. In any case, when we went to the movies then, it was not just to see one film, but sev­er­al. There was an A movie and a B movie. Often, there was a news­reel between the films. If it was a kid’s show­ing, there were per­haps sev­er­al car­toons and a chap­ter of an ongo­ing serial.

But nor­mal­ly, when I went to these movies — because we didn’t seem to care when they start­ed — we sat down in the the­atre in the mid­dle of one of the long films.

We sat through the entire offer­ing until we came back to the part of the sto­ry when we first sat down. At that point, one of us said, “This is where we came in.” 

We left the theatre.

That meant we recon­struct­ed the whole sto­ry of one of those films by putting togeth­er (in our thoughts) the last half and then the first half — backward!

Indeed, have you not sat down with a friend or rel­a­tive, and in response to the ques­tion, “How are you?” got the same old sto­ry you have heard a mil­lion times?

In your head (you are too polite to say it) comes the refrain, “This is where I came in.”

Life is, in fact, a story.

What’s your story?

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