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Stories of Love

In honor of Valentine’s Day, and the feelings of love it engenders, I’ve decided to devote this post to the notion of love as portrayed in love stories. A well crafted love story transcends time, touching our hearts generations after it has been written. My favorites are the classic tales of star-crossed lovers, such as Romeo & Juliet, Orpheus and Eurydice, Abigail and John Adams, Marie & Paul Curie, Napoleon and Josephine, as well as the story of Tristan and Isolde’s taboo love affair.

The writers of classic stories emphasize love as a life altering and shaping experience, with the potential to heal or cause harm. While the plot may lean toward the melodramatic, I think these stories portray love’s nuances more fully than contemporary works. For example, in the classic story of Romeo & Juliet,  Shakespeare presents the dangerous elements of love, addressing the turbulence of passion in images of violence, death, religion, and family in an impressionistic rush that leads to the story’s tragic conclusion.

I love the Greek myth about Orpheus and Eurydice, the couple separated on their wedding day when Eurydice is killed and is taken to the underworld. A bereft Orpheus secures permission to bring her back to life under one condition: That he lead her through the dark tunnels of Hell without looking back to see if she is following him. But, as soon as Orpheus sees the light at the end of the tunnel (so to speak), he glances back at Eurydice. She suddenly disappears, with a final “goodbye,” leaving behind a gasping and horrified Orpheus.

The theme of this story, the potential for love’s loss when one fails to understand its power, underscores the faith we must have in love’s ability to live on in our hearts. In fact, some believe that love’s survival depends on our willingness to surrender to and trust its strength.

Contemporary love stories seem to convey the message that love exists in limited supply, an idea that contemporary author, Deepak Chopra argues against in The Path to Love: Renewing the Power of Spirit in Your life. Chopra’s central claim is that spirituality is at the basis of all forms of love. This essence, he argues, infuses our hearts with love for one another, for family, friends and for God. I love Chopra for tying together spiritual and romantic love, because it affirms my feelings that spiritual love precedes romantic love. If we cannot love one another at the level of spirit, we are limited in our ability to share any other kind of love.

When we have expanded our perception of love and begin to share love on different levels, Chopra maintains that we’ll begin to love so deeply. we’ll turn into love–a natural state for human beings. He writes that compassion–the  highest level of love, becomes possible only when we understand our worthiness, our level of perfection in the eyes of God. Loving with compassion frees us from imposing conditions or expectations on our loved ones.

Maybe the reason the classic love stories still tug at our hearts is, they reveal love’s essence, without simplifying it into a so-called Hallmark moment. At some level, I believe we want to learn to trust in love and my contribution to this effort is this post in support of love’s enduring power to sustain us as human beings.


Stories–Why we Love Them

demeterpersep250400

“People create stories create people; or rather stories create people create stories.” Chinua Achebe

As human beings, we are predisposed to love stories. We tell stories, read stories, listen to and watch them in movies, videos, television and the internet every day.  Much of our cultural knowledge is passed down from one generation to the next in the form of narratives. Creation myths and parables instruct us in our most basic religious beliefs, while myths about powerful gods and goddesses have influenced our ideology, the set of beliefs we hold about religion, politics, and culture.

An example is the Greek myth of Persephone and Demeter, the mother and daughter who are associated with the change in seasons (Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall).  In this story, Demeter, the earth mother, retaliates against her daughter’s kidnapping (by Hades) by refusing to replenish the earth with plants or sunshine.  Eventually, there are no more crops to feed people and the existence of humankind is threatened. In response, the gods of the underworld allow Persephone to return to the earth for brief periods of time each year, and, during those times, vegetation and fruitfulness resume.

This myth explains the division of the year into winter (when the earth is bare), spring  (when vegetation begins to awaken), summer (when the crops grow), and fall (when they are harvested).  Although we may not invoke the names of these goddesses, we honor the change of each season of the year with rituals and honor the transition that comes with each one.

Mark Breitenberg of the Academy of Art Design explains that as a meaning-making species, we are born with the capacity to tell stories. “The power of stories comes from deep in our past and from deep in our consciousness: humans are homo fabulans, the species that tells stories. As the French critic Roland Barthes wrote, ‘narrative is present in every age, in every place, in every society . . . it is simply there, like life itself.’” Stories show remarkable consistency from one culture to another. Russian literary scholar, Vladimir Propp claims, there are just a little over two dozen plots that appear consistently in the folklore of every culture. These plots appear time and time again in various form. Their structure remains, for the most part, unchanged by technology. Only the medium used to tell the story changes as technology evolves.

We love the stories that unfold before us each day, such as the hair stylist’s  fourteen year old granddaughter’s victory over cancer. We love stories about family feuds, lottery prize winners, movie stars’ tragic lives, the downfall of world leaders, or those that illustrate the imposition of justice on evil-doers.

More importantly, when we tell stories about our own lives, we create ourselves. Our life stories reveal themes or patterns of life decisions and responses to challenges. As we work to capture our lived experiences in stories and narratives, we discover things we may have overlooked about ourselves. As we select the details we want to share, we begin to incorporate these experiences into our perceptions of who we are as individuals. Breitenberg adds that the power of stories lies in their ability to exceed reality, re-write it, to give it a coherence that does not actually exist. And it comes from the way stories reveal the life we imagine living, the person we would like to be, the past as we wish it had been.

Given the power of narrative to shape thought, one must seriously consider Chinua Achebe’s observation that it’s not always clear who’s doing the creating–the story or the person telling the story.

Hugo Cabret

I recently spent a couple of hours reading a delightful book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, about a young orphan, who, like his (deceased) father and uncle, is a clockmaker. Hugo lives in an apartment above a train station in Paris, where he attends to the station’s twenty-seven clocks, oiling the gears and levers, checking the weights that keep the clocks running, winding the cranks, and listening to the machines inside each one.  Time is his life. Keeping the clocks running on time is his mission.

When the story begins, Hugo is trying to avoid discovery by authorities, who have threatened to jail him for stealing food from one of the station vendors. It’s interesting to watch his attempts to remain invisible in the story while evolving into a fully realized character as the plot develops.  Over a short period of time, he develops from a helpless orphan, struggling to survive, into an astounding young man who preserves an important (historical) invention. Hugo is figuratively invented in the timeframe in which the story unfolds.

Rolling Stones. “Time is On My Side”  watch?v=ZwJBYfVAars

It could be said, we all come into being in time. We are born after nine months of gestational development, remain in infancy for a prescribed amount of time; then, move through life stages that are often described by the acquisition of age-related skills, such as walking, speaking, writing. Time is a central force that directs our lives, providing shape and structure to our days, weeks and years, and determining when we will begin and end certain important life events. Time also provides a framework for recording and interpreting our lived experiences.

Narrative theorists assert that when we tell or write life stories, such as autobiographies and memoirs, we cast experiences against a backdrop of measurable time, dividing our stories into an Aristotelian structure with a beginning, middle and end. We flash-back, push forward, and foreshadow critical life events. The best authors, like William Faulkner and Tim O’Brien (two of my favorites) understood the power of time to frame action and advance story plot, and they made it a central element in their storytelling.  In fact, in certain literary circles, Faulknerian time is celebrated.

When used properly, time provides a structure for movement, a path for the story to follow (or not), as the reader works through the pages, engaging in the action as it occurs. Time and plot work together to create a rhythm that engages the reader on a subconscious level, turning the act of reading into (at once) a physchological,  intellectual and emotional experience.

When it comes to writing about life experiences, we use time and plot to demonstrate connections between seemingly unrelated events. This process gives shape to our life experiences, and allows us to create meaning that helps us make sense of our lives. French philosopher Paul Ricoeur was one of the first to suggest the power of time to to give shape to action, in his seminal work, Time and Narrative.  Ricoeur and other scholars believe the presence of time and our use of a timeframe to encode life stories is what allows us to remember lived experiences.

Time is particularly useful for giving shape to stories about traumatic life events, especially those that seem to defy containment in words, because they are so difficult to accept. As a meaning-making species, we use story to try to contain these memories, with the hope that we’ll be able to come to terms with that which seems impossible to understand, as well as those events that seem to occur randomly. Methods for measuring time allow us to create  structures for contextualizing our experiences, for understanding or interpreting them.

Our preoccupation with time and measuring time is based on what some theorists believe is a duality of being in which we focus either on an inner time of conscious awareness of things that have occurred, or a cosmic time, “based on the regular movement of the stars, a time that mankind has always and everywhere been taken note of in order to measure time out in days, months, years — before clocks made it possible to do the same thing in terms of minutes, seconds and so on” (www.onlineoriginals.com/showitem.asp?itemID=287) .  In one sense, it would seem that the rhythm created by writers and experienced by readers mimics this movement.

Interestingly, our need to keep track of time predates the technology that made it possible. And, the technology has not freed us from our dependance on cosmic time; rather, it’s made us slaves to time, as it’s organized by human beings.

To return to Hugo, the young orphan, who invents himself in his story about machines and inventions, we read about his childhood experiences. Hugo lived in 1931, but as readers, we experience his life in the present tense, and, in the process, we forget our own ages and, albeit vicariously, live the life of a young clockmaker/keeper.

Can time really exert that much pull over our conscious thoughts? If so, one must wonder how much awareness we bring to the process of inventing our own selves. Whether or not we realize it, we invent ourselves each day, blending elements from both the distant and recent past with activites as they occur. As we live our life stories, we alter the timeline, dancing backward and forward in our minds, in movements that suggest connections between events and decisions or choices we make in our lives. We simultaneously live and create our stories. Time is on our sides.

It’s said that in prose, there is fiction and non-fiction. In poetry, there is only poetry. I like this for its allusion to the notion of truth in writing. When we read non-fiction, we expect it to be comprised of facts, to be informational. On the contrary, as readers of fiction, we want a story shaped by literary conventions, such as plot, character, setting, and lovely imagery. Above everything, we expect a good story.

One literary genre that incorporates narrative and non-fiction, demands that the writer be at once honest and creative. Autobiography or memoir writing blends the best of storytelling with the reportage of real-life events. However, when the author is writing about himself, he often finds truth to be a difficult thing to pin down, slipping out of his grasp as he attempts to articulate it.  Writers who compose autobiographies or memoirs find themselves challenged in ways that would intimidate even the most honest.

120px-Tiffany_Window_of_St_Augustine_-_Lightner_Museum

Generally, autobiographical writing is traced back to St. Augustine of Hippo and his Confessions, in which he describes his conversion from that of a sinful young man to a member of the church, who eventually is annointed as a saint. As a practice, this kind of personal or confessional writing has evolved from autobiography, written by the very famous, to memoir, penned more often by the not-so-famous, who led interesting or unsual lives. While autobiographies deal with entire lives, memoirs focus on a few important  events that reveal the writer as a person.

For the writer, the process of composing one’s life story in an autobiography, can be a cathartic experience, because, as the late composition scholar and writer, Donald Murray observes,

“We humans are the beasts that record and share the present, remember the past, and predict the future in narrative. We are storytellers, using the beginning, middle and end to order the river flood of confusion and contradiction in which we struggle to survive” (89).

As we write about our lives, we weave together seemingly unrelated life experiences until patterns and themes emerge, and we are able to connect experience with causation and intention. Writing becomes a process of personal discovery, and we write to understand who we are. Composition scholars claim that in the process of writing about one’s life, the author creates his identity. This process, called narrative identity theory by French philospher Paul Ricouer, is an act of self-creation or author-ization. Simply put, we reveal who we are by the stories we tell about ourselves.

The complicating factor here is that the writer who composes his memoir must work with the material he has at hand–memory. And, because of its fluid, uncontrollable nature, memory makes writing more difficult, albeit more interesting. It doesn’t help that this genre encourages the writer to take liberties with the truth.  Mara Naselli observes in “Truth in Memoir” (January 2006, identitytheory), that memoir, as an art form may well encourage a certain non-truthfulness in the writer. “It isn’t that fact doesn’t matter in memoir. It’s that the very form, at its best, wrestles with fact and with the space between fact and memory. Because there’s always space between fact and memory. We are dependent on stories, not facts, to make sense of our lives.”

Naselli isn’t claiming that memoirists are incapable of being honest with themselves; rather, she’s making the point that, as human beings, we rationalize events and justify behavior, until, eventually, we build up psedo-identifies of the people we think we have become, based on those rationalizations and justifications. And, because the genre of memoir favors storytelling, writers are not challenged to exmaine themselves as the architects of the stories they write.

A recent example of this is the memoir written by recovering drug-user, James Frey, whose chronicle of his life events was exposed as a collection of highly exaagerated stories, if not lies, on the Oprah Winfrey show. Frey admitted that he exaggerated and, in some instances, manufactured events. (This, by the way is not terribly unsual as memoir writers go). Was Frey enticed by the conventions of the genre to write good stories at the cost of honesty?

In her NY Times article about Frey, Mary Karr notes that “memior writing is about the testing and scrutity of our own myths because our true stories are better than the myths we have created around them.” But, one must wonder if Frey’s version of truth was shaped by his drug-induced state of mind.  The rub is that writing is a process that sets the writer on a journey toward truth, although it doesn’t guarantee that he will arive at its door. Let’s take this a step further by returning to the notion of the writer’s identity, particularly as it’s shaped by the experience of writing in a computer-mediated environment.

For the past few years, scholars have been interested in the impact of technology on the writer’s identity. It’s already accepted that a writer must assume the identity of an author in order to compose, and it’s widely accepted that the setting in which writing gets done influences the finished product.  For example, writers produce different works when they are in an academic setting, than they do when they write in a private setting. So, it follows that the author may be a very different person when writing online–as is evidenced by the behavior exhibited by participants in a chat room or online discussion. In order to compose online, the writer must become one who understands the conventions and navigates the environment with some ease.

A new form of personal writing, that of blogging, has some interesting implications for the writer’s identity and, of course, for his quest for truth. When the author composes blogs, she records her thoughts, impressions, reactions, questions, observations about life experiences. She chronicles daily activities, at least those that catch her attention, she rants, or purges her thoughts onto the screen. In the movie, “Julie and Julia,” the central character publishes daily posts about her adventures as she cooks 524 of Julia Child’s french recipes. As a genre, blogging is a very spontaneous form of writing, not unlike impromptu speaking.  Because the reading audience expects to be able to read a blog quickly, sentences tend to be shorter, verbs stronger, and lots of imagery is used to do the work of conveying ideas. The publication deadline is short–shorter than, perhaps any other genre, so the writing tends to be done rather quickly. These elements may put truth in writing at higher risk and make it more difficult for the writer to apprehend.

To appreciate the way blogging shapes the writer’s identity, it’s important to understand that personal writing, such as memoir or blogging, focuses on the emotional and intellectual notions of the author–placing the author at the center of the text. As the writer composes, he clarifies for himself, his identity. But, the work of French philosopher, Michel Foucault suggests just the opposite. He argues that text becomes primary, taking importance over the writer, and, eventually, diminishes the writer’s presence. In his essay, “What is an Author?” Foucault argues that writing is “primarily concerned with creating an opening where the writing subject endlessly disappears.” In Foucault’s words, the “author is dead.” The writer becomes secondary in importance to the text; in fact, he is produced by it. Of course, to subscribe to this notion, one must believe that the author’s identity is fluid, and changes as he writes.

Every author is the subject of his/her own memoir or autobiography. In that sense, the truth about the author’s identity shifts with each experience she reveals in her work. It’s altered by every story she tells. Whether the writer is inside the text, or not, the process or act of writing is, in the words of Ray Bradbury, “survival.” It’s more than how we project ourselves into the world, tell the world who we are. Writing is how we become the authors of our lives. As we come to terms with the demands technology has placed on the writer, we may discover more about who we become when we write in computer-mediated environments. In particular, we need to examine the nuances of technology’s impact on the writer’s ability to come to terms with truth or unity about the self. Does writing online complicate the writer’s ability to apprehend truth, or facilitate it? This is just one of the questions that must be asked as we consider the implications of technology for writing and writers.

For more on my musings about truth telling in narratives, read this post.

http://amusingnotes.blogspot.com/2009/06/story-truth.html

Seeing a Story

 A colleague and friend, who taught photography at a nearby university, used to say that a photograph reveals the essence of the photographer, because it is composed of meaningful subjects he or she has selected. But, he explained, the photographer isn’t always conscious of  what he’s photographed. So, he encouraged students to be spontaneous in taking pictures. Then, he advised them to study the images, as a way of discovering what they  projected. 

For example, I took this photograph (above) to capture the contrast in color between the muddy stream and the vivid green trees, green grass and the brownish-black barked trees. Several months later, I recognized another subject in the image, that of the stream’s path.  My mind’s eye had responded to the way the stream flows beyond the trees, until it’s out of view. Today, as I write about seeing a story, I’m struck by the complexity of  recognizing or seeing what we know on an intuitive level and, then, putting it into words. 

This image reminds me that, as a writer, I have to trust the ideas that reside just beneath my consciousness and and interpret them into words for the reader.  Just as photographers must allow themselves to take pictures, trusting the process of discovery, writers must learn to trust that little voice that wants to tell a story.

About three years ago, I developed an interest in taking picturess of nature and writing about them. One morning,

while reviewing the pictures, I noticed they were all focused on horizons and spatial thresholds. I had been taking pictures of bodies of water and bridges that crossed them, shorelines that  intersected oceans and this photo, of a beautiful horizon at a beach in Mexico. 

What these pictures revealed was my fascination with the experience of standing at a threshold, where I can look backward and glance forward. Backward, at the decisions I’d already made in life and forward, to see the infinite possiblities that exist in the future. As a photographer, I loved standing behind the camera, trying to capture what lie on the other side of the lens. As a writer, I wanted to stand at the edge, between life and life’s story, to observe and write. 

In literature, thresholds, such as doorways, windows, cliffs, mountains, passageways, and horizons are used to represent an opportunity for the central character to see his life in a new way, or reach a higher level of understanding.  When the protagonist in a story approaches a threshold, he often experiences a new state of consciousness that allows him to reflect or reconsider his experiences.  This state of consciousness is called liminality, and is characterized by an ambiguousness, a feeling of being in between two worlds.

In Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, the protagonist is struggling to decide whether to honor his draft notice during the Vietnam War or to defect to another country. He travels to the American Canadian border and checks into a fishing lodge, looking for some time alone to think about his future. One rainy morning,  the lodge owner, an old man, takes him fishing on the Rainy River, which forms a long border between Northwestern Ontario, Canada and Minnesota.

Halfway between the Canadian and American shores, the old man stops the boat, and, in silence, the two men fish for several hours.  As the protagonist thinks, he shifts his gaze toward Canada–where he could go to avoid the draft, back to the shores on the American side. He is torn between his obligation as an American citizen and his desire to avoid war. He is at the threshold, both literally and figuratively, where he can look forward and backward.  Standing in the boat,  between two worlds, he contemplates his options.

Learning to see is part of an artist’s craft.  But, seeing is made more complex when the artist, or the writer must discover what she has seen because, as Leonardo DaVinci taught us, the eyes are the windows of the soul. We see what we project onto the world. That’s why it’s important for writers to allow themselves to discover as they write, discover what their souls want to say to the world.

A a writer, I walk along a path that allows me to see a single event and, using words, cast it into a larger picture for the reader. I see a tiny butterly’s wings flutter and I want to describe it in the context of an unwavering sense of peace in a world that stands still long enough to allow the butterfly to navigate the sky and land on the ground. Then, I wonder, is it the world or the ability of the butterfly to cross boundaries, to move from one plane of existence (the ground) to another (the sky). I want to be the butterfly, to move between one threshold and another, to get a glimpse of what is about to happen. 

lake with sailboats

The task of seeing a story, or seeing story, is more challenging when the writer is trying to interpret real life experiences. It’s particularly difficult to write about events that occur suddenly, without warning, because they have a randomness about them, and we often need time to distance ourselves from these experiences before we can come to terms with them. At the time, we can only try to live through them.

This photograph, taken at a lake where my husband and I vacationed a couple of weeks before his death, has puzzled me for nearly three years.  On the surface, it’s simply a picture of a horizon, its threshold marked by the sails of boats that are  barely visible.  As I sit writing, however, I can see the photographer/writer on this side of the camera, searching across the expanse of water, straining to see the small white sails, in search of a sign that her life was about to change.  She is looking, both forward and backward, trying to understand. This is the process of seeing and writing story.

 

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