story telling


Today’s USA Today features an article by Bob Minzesheimer and Anthony DeBarros which looks back at the past two decades of best selling books and tries to draw some conclusions about what it says about our culture.

They found that the late 90s was something of a golden age for self-help:  “Of the 25 most popular books from the list’s first era (1993-98), nine offered self-help or other advice.”

More recently, however, fiction has ruled the roost.

In 1998, 56% of the books in the list’s top 150 each week was fiction. That’s the same year the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky sex scandal propelled The Starr Report, the investigative account by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, to the top of the weekly best-seller list. (Maybe it was just one of those stories that even a novelist couldn’t imagine.)

Since then, fiction is on a roll — up to 68% of best sellers in 2002, 77% in 2010, and to an all-time high of 81% so far this year.

What interested me was their conclusion as to why fiction has become more popular in recent years.  Their answer: escapism.

“People today are looking for escape,” Fitzgerald says.  (Carol Fitzgerald, founder of the Book Report Network of websites.) “Fiction provides that. In the ’90s and early 2000s, we were in a different economic time. People were living the dream, not just dreaming it. ”

Is it right to assume that fiction is, first and foremost, escapism?

I would like to offer an alternative theory.

In the late 90s we were in the middle of an economic boom. It was based on some pretty flimsy foundations, but we didn’t know that yet.  The system seemed to be working well for most people.  People believed in a certain cultural mythology.  A rising tide lifts all boats.  All you have to do is work hard and play by the rules and you too can prosper. Think and you can grow rich.  What people wanted to know was how to be one of the winners.  It seemed easy. You just needed to follow the steps in the latest self-help book.  People were firm believers in what social science author F.S. Michaels calls the Monoculture, an economic framework for understanding what it means to be human in the wold.

“Monocultures, though overwhelmingly persuasive and pervasive, aren’t inescapable. In the end, the human experience always diverges from the monoculture and its master story, because our humanity is never as one-dimensional as the master story says it is. The human experience is always wider and deeper than a single narrative, and over time, we become hungry for something the monoculture isn’t speaking to and isn’t giving us — can’t give us. Once you know what the monoculture looks like, you can decide whether it serves a useful purpose in your life, or whether you want to transcend it and live in a wider spectrum of human values instead — to know it so you can leave it behind. In our time, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the monoculture isn’t about science, machines and mathematics, or about religion and superstition. In our time, the monoculture is economic.”

After the economic crash in 2009, a lot of people had a crisis of faith in the single story of our culture.   They didn’t want to know How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying or Who Moved My Cheese, thy wanted to find new ways of looking at the world and new perspectives.  That is what fiction can provide.  Through fictional characters, we learn about the entirety of the human experience.  It is the only window through which we can view another person with all his complexity and frailties and ambiguities and inner life.  Only fiction allows the reader to see inside another person’s mind, to travel to another era, another country, another culture and to see the landscape from another vantage point.

Of course there is fiction that is pure entertainment and escapism, but that is not the only function of fiction.

We are constantly creating the story of what it is to be human in the world, how we relate to one another and what it means. Different narratives appear and dominate for a time and then new ones become dominant.  When we reach a crisis point in society the old narrative doesn’t seem to work any more and people go looking for a new one. One of the first places they look is in the pages of the novel.




But What Are We Growing For?

The way you read a book is framed by what type of thing you think it is. As a literary scholar recently demonstrated, if you put random words on a board and then tell the students it is poetry, they will have no trouble coming up with poetic interpretations of its meaning.

The way you interpret the events in life, too, is framed by what type of stories your culture tells and what type of narrative you use to make sense of those events. If we believe each event in life is part of a particular type of poem, we will have no trouble interpreting the poem as we’ve been trained to do.

A few years ago I was working as the newsletter editor at a Unitarian church. I happened to be working in a time of staff reorganization. The highly active volunteer church board had posted its goals and objectives around the church. All of the objectives were based on the idea of growth. We needed to do x, y, and z in order to grow.

What struck me at the time was that there was no explanation of why we needed to grow. Why was a larger membership needed? What could we do with more people that we could not do at our present size?

Presumably no one thought such an explanation was needed. It was simply understood that bigger was better. That growth was success and attrition was failure. (This push, incidentally, corresponded to a period of declining population in my home state of Michigan.)

Of course there might be reasons to worry if you found you had a mass exodus of members. That might be a sign that you were not meeting the needs of the congregation. The question of size, though, struck me as one step removed from the real mission, to serve people’s needs and to give the community a reason to congregate regardless of how many showed up.

At the time, I had the impression that our focus on numbers was a symptom of a bottom line business mentality that was permeating everything in life. This is how I framed a similar push for church growth in my novel Angel:

Paul had nothing against growth, per se. It would be good for his ego, certainly, to see the pews full each Sunday. But he was uncomfortable with the implication that worship was a product to be marketed the same way you’d sell a soft drink or a pair of designer jeans. It seemed that the entire culture had become permeated with a marketplace mentality and that church should be the exception. Once, people had viewed commerce through the lens of faith. Now it seemed people viewed faith through the lens of commerce. Instead of arranging their lives to live in accordance with their faith, they went “church shopping” to find a faith that fit their lifestyle. Something had been lost, Paul believed, yet he realized there was really no way to turn back the clock.”

Lately, though, I’ve come to think that our marketplace mentality comes to us naturally because of some older biases in our thought. I have been reading a book called The Geography of Thought by Richard E. Nisbet. In it, Nisbet contrasts the way people in the east and west view various aspects of life. Here in the West we tend to view time as a straight line. We think of our lives as progressing along that line. Whereas in the East they view life more like a circle. They view life as constant change but always curving back to some prior state. I think of this as a symphony with a recurring musical motif.

When you think of history as a straight line there are only two ways to move, you can go forward (progress) or back (regress). Thus, if you are not always moving forward, you are falling behind. You must grow or perish.

This is a story that is told in one way or another all our lives. The book The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham talks about the value of the Alcoholics Anonymous storytelling style, which they define as “what we used to be like, what happened, and where we are now.”

The metaphor is of a journey out of darkness into which, presumably, we will not return. This is the same type of story we hear on every biography program. Here was the star’s rise, then the star had problems, but now they have recovered and, presumably, will live happily ever after.

I wonder, though, how we might deal with our ups and downs if we saw them not on a straight line but as recurring motifs in a symphony? Would we define success differently? Would it be easier to cope with hardships if we saw them as part of a cycle, like rising and falling tides rather than as a wind that blew us off horribly off our course?

The stories we tell are important.

(This post originally appeared in 2011 on the blog of Fighting Monkey Press)

What Time Forgets


This is a photo of my great-grandfather, William Jewell, when he was a child actor in Michigan.

I’ve been working a bit on my family history.  By pouring through old census records and city directories you can learn quite a bit about your ancestors.  You can discover their parents’ names, their occupations, with a bit of research you can imagine them in a context, how did people dress then?  What were the rituals of their church?  What were the big events in their communities?  If you’re really lucky you will find an obituary that notes something about the person’s life.

Yet as much as you discover, there is always a big hole in the center.  There is something vital, something that gets to the heart of who a person is, that never makes it into a genealogical database.

Yesterday I came across an old letter written from my great-uncle to his sister, my grandmother.  As I read his memories of his father, I realized what is missing from the records.  Everything that the person did not do. Their unrealized potential.

The goals that seem just beyond one’s grasp that we can’t help chasing, these are what animate a life and give it meaning.  When a person dies we mourn not for what they did but for what they could have done and never had the time.  The world may see your resume, but only those who know you best know what lies behind it, what you wish to accomplish and haven’t, not yet.

When you examine the census records in your search for William Jewell, you will find his occupation listed as “salesman” but his business card said, “Wm. F. Jewell,  Fine Arts.  Theatrical Work a Specialty.”

His sister Ada, just two years older, had become a Vaudeville star with her husband Dick Lynch.  Bill, as he was known, made a poor businessman when he tried to run a family candy store in Detroit.  He did better selling ads for the Detroit Journal.  In his free time he would pick up extra cash and drinks by doing recitations in the local bar.  Even the members of his family, who bore the brunt of his legendary temper, admired the acting talent he showed when he recited the old stories.

The story of his life lies in what drove him, what fueled his ambition, what he was never able to achieve.

“He needed only the opportunities that I gave you children,” said his wife, the woman who has been dubbed in family lore “Saint Clara.”  “To me he was truly a successful man.”

And what of her dreams?  Clara was “a practical, pragmatic, wonderful lady,” who wanted a stable home and family and who had the fortune or misfortune to fall in love with a man with big dreams and big disappointments. His dreams and her dreams crashed into each other.  And that is the story of a life.  It is not what we manage to accomplish that makes us who we are. The real work of a life is bridge building.  It is the story of the bridges we try to build to cross the distance between our dreams and the reality of our lives.

The Purpose of Epigrams and L’Esprit de L’Escalier

A couple of days ago I had the pleasure of attending the Plymouth Book Club in Grand Rapids, Michigan at the Plymouth United Church of Christ.   I met some great people and we had a wonderful discussion of the novel Angel. 

One of the questions that I was asked had to do with the epigrams that begin each of Angel’s chapters.  Some people don’t like them and tend to skip them, which doesn’t bother me, and shouldn’t impact the understanding of the story much.

So why put them there?

I gave an answer to the question, but not a very good one.  Rather than explaining why they were there, I talked about the process of finding them and deciding which illustrations to use.  After the fact, I thought about this question a bit more and I have come up with a better answer.  

This phenomenon is called Treppenwitz in German and l’esprit de l’escalier in French.  Both expressions refer to finding the perfect rejoinder or answer the moment the other person has left the room.  Writers are the masters of Treppenwitz.  In fact, I have a theory that a large portion of literature is made up of the things writers thought of later and wished they had said at the time.  They have their characters say it instead.

(One such Treppenwitz of my own, which found its way into Angel, was Paul’s response to a woman who said that gays shouldn’t advertise their sexual orientation, which Bishop Craig Bergland mentioned in an article on his blog Engaged Spirituality.)

It can be difficult as a writer to articulate why you wrote something the way you did.  This is not because you don’t know why you did it.  Rather it is because finding the right words and style is more a matter of feeling than intellect. 

I put the epigrams there because I felt they belonged there.  That’s the short answer.

The longer answer, now that I have analyzed it, is this:

The novel Angel was inspired by Mount Rainier in Seattle.  The mountain provides the spiritual center of the story.  It was the image that I kept going back to in order to find the right feel for the events of the story.  In the book club meeting we talked about some of the things the mountain represents in Angel

It symbolizes the church and is tied into an internal church debate about whether or not to repair a crumbling steeple.  The steeple is a man made mountain, designed to remind us of our smallness and humility in relation to divine forces.

It is also a symbol of natural forces that are of a scope that does not allow them be controlled through human will (as is the attraction the character Paul feels toward Ian).

The mountain also symbolizes the relationship of the protagonists.  I consciously thought of Ian and Paul as being like the mountain, where heaven and earth meet, so Ian is earthy and Paul has his head a bit in the clouds.  This shaped the characters and what makes them compatible. 

The mountain symbolizes beauty and the fear that sometimes accompanies our experience of beauty.  (Our experience of the mountain is one of of “beauty and terror” as the author Bruce Barcott wrote.)  Thus as Paul discovers his attraction to Ian’s natural beauty, he is forced to face his fears.  And like the dormant volcano that is Mount Rainier, the relationship has the potential to be destructive in the future. 

The cycle of destruction and renewal that a volcano represents also ties into a theme of resurrection that is a subtext of the novel.  It comes into the novel through Paul’s discussion of the mass with Ian, Ian’s participation in communion, and the new life direction that each finds through his relation to the other.  (At the cost of the death of a previous way of existence.)

Finally, a volcano, so seemingly solid, is a reminder that everything beautiful is transitory and therefore we should remember to cherish it.

The mountain informed the story for me from the beginning and infuses every aspect of the story.  It is the breath of the story.  So I wanted it to remain a poetic presence.  In the body of the narrative itself, however, I did not want to constantly refer to the mountain.  Ian and Paul’s story is their story, not a metaphor. 

The epigrams at the beginning of the chapter, however, ask the reader to back up for a moment and view the intimate and personal events of the story in light of universal truths, the types of truths that are difficult to articulate, but which can be discovered and felt by contemplating nature.  It asks the reader to connect the specific to something that is, like Mount Rainier, larger than the story and its characters. 

This is what I would have said at the book club if I’d been able to go off in a corner and write my reply.  That might be a good way to interview authors in general, really.

Bert and Ernie I’m Awfully Fond of You (Woo Woo Be Do)

I have to admit that the whole “Should Ernie and Bert marry?” nonsense has managed to capture my imagination.  In case you have more serious reading habits than I, here is the story: an online petition asking the Sesame Street Workshop to “allow” the muppet roomies to come out of the closet and get married got so much attention that the Sesame Workshop was forced to issue a statement about it.

I like their response, which does a good job walking the tightrope of saying Ernie and Bert are not gay without implying that there would be anything wrong with it if they were:

Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets™ do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.

I am not among those advocating for a Bert and Ernie wedding.  The whole thing, however, got me reflecting on how differently we discuss and think about same sex and opposite sex unions. 

It is, of course, not true that puppets (or fictional children’s characters in general) do not have sexual orientation. 

Miss Piggy, not a Sesame Street character but still a puppet and a muppet, was a huge flirt who made no bones about her attraction to Kermit the Frog.  The puppet couple even had a wedding in The Muppets Take Manhattan.

Miss Piggy is, in fact, one of the few female muppets and just about the only well-known female muppet.  I can only think of that hippie chick from the Dr. Tooth band and a fairly unmemorable blonde haired puppet from Sesame Street episodes when I was a child.  (Was her name Prarie Dawn?)

Giving my hero Jim Henson the benefit of the doubt, I will assume the lack of female puppets was due largely to the fact that the puppeteers were men and found it more convincing to voice “male” monsters and frogs and dogs and… whatever Gonzo is.  (By the way, didn’t Gonzo have a romantic relationship with a chicken?)

The fact remains that the main character trait of the only famous female muppet is a romantic one.  As with a great deal of children’s entertainment there are people (males) and then there are love interests (females).

(In 1992 Sesame Street added Zoe to increase the number of female muppets and again in 2006 Sesame Street added a female fairy to its mix for the same reason.)

Some of the comments on the many Ernie and Bert stories were from people who argued that the whole topic of sexual orientation was inappropriate for pre-schoolers.  One commenter noted that the original petition mentioned the prevention LGBT teen suicides as a reason that the puppets should come out of the closet.  She wanted to know, and I am paraphrasing from memory, what teen suicides had to do with a pre-school program.

Teenagers who take their lives because they believe they will have to exist as social outcasts do so because of messages they assimilated throughout childhood about what is normal and accepted in our culture.

Far from steering away from sexual orientation, children’s entertainment thrives on it— when it is heterosexual.  There are all those princes seeking their beautiful princesses.  The stories end in lavish dream weddings.  Romantic attraction and attainment of marriage is the primary story we tell to little girls.  That is the great drama and what life is about.

Sesame Street has, to a large extent, steered away from that.  Yet it does have, among its human population, a number of married characters. 

We do not see opposite sex married characters in children’s entertainment as being examples of “heterosexual orientation.”  They are examples of family. 

We are perfectly able to recognize the beauty of innocent romance and to offer it up to kids in the form of Micky and Minnie Mouse, or Pepe Le Pew mistakenly chasing after a cat, or Miss Piggy and her mostly unrequited love for Kermit. 

When the subject is a marriage between two male children’s characters, however,  we stop imagining innocent romance and family.  “Marriage” becomes a question of sex.

One commenter (whose post I agreed with overall) said that Ernie and Bert were an example of friendship and a world where people who are different from each other love and respect one another.  She went on to say that making them a married gay couple would “demean their friendship.”

Have you ever heard anyone say that it would demean the friendship of a man and a woman if they were to marry?  Probably not. Instead, we see marriage as the highest expression of a relationship.  It is a sexual union.  We understand that, but that is not our focus.

I hope that some time in the not too distant future that all of this will change.  We will be able to see same sex marriages with the same kind of innocent romance as the opposite sex kind.  Committed couples, gay or straight, will represent not “sex” but “family.”  It may well begin with the stories we tell our children.

So why don’t I think Ernie and Bert should get married? 

Maybe a child growing up in a home with two daddies would interpret them as a couple, and that is fine. There is nothing to say they cannot be understood that way.  The married human couples on Sesame Street don’t go around all the time saying, “Hey, we’re married” and kissing and holding hands.  Their relationship is inferred and understood.

Yet Ernie and Bert represent something more important.  They are roomies and best friends.  Soon enough boys start to get the message that there is something “unmanly” about being too close to another male.  They will pick up that they can play sports and punch each other, but that sharing warm affection with each other is a bit weird.  Society will start to tell them that they can have a roommate in college but their closest emotional bonds better be with women by the time they’re, say, 25.  Girls can talk about their “girlfriends” and cry on each other’s shoulders and take vacation trips together as friends.  Boys have to be careful. 

Wouldn’t it be a much better place if guys could be more like Ernie and Bert?  I hope that the Sesame Street Workshop will not be tempted to downplay Ernie and Bert’s love for each other in an attempt to quell gay rumors.  There are few things in life more beautiful than true friendship.