The next few posts are all part of an ongoing series. Or rather, an extended piece I assume no one wants to read in one sitting, as it's already rather long. Trust me, we'll go places.
The first story I ever wrote (or remember writing) was prompted by the death of a man at my church. He was a professional dancer, could only have been in his thirties. He died of AIDS when AIDS was just beginning to creep into public thought as an epidemic. It was 1988. I remember a performance he gave with two women in the parish hall. Large, decadent cloth was draped across banisters, their outfits a matching monochromatic, creamy shade. Their movements took up the length of the hall; the large space devoured quickly by their three bodies, graceful leaps defying the thump of the dull floor when their feet landed. I remember it as silent except for their feet, but there could have easily been music. It was modern dance but still very close to ballet. Fluid and controlled, their bodies were free from air, kinetic molecules released from gravity. I was eight years old.
The story I wrote in red pencil and I never showed it to anyone. I didn’t tell anyone about it either. I have a vague memory of one day finding it in my mother’s dresser years later some afternoon when my friend and I were talking bras, growing up, but this memory could be entirely wrong. I found a lot of reasons back then to despise my mother, to convince myself she invaded my privacy like a snake, that she couldn’t be trusted.
The story had been about a little girl named Samantha dying of AIDS. Samantha was my favorite girls’ name, my sibling envy of that toughness only boys could have, already pissed that girl delicacy and sweetness wasn’t as cool. Samantha was diagnosed and in the hospital. She was going to die. All her friends came to see her. Then everyone at school, even kids who weren’t her friends came to see her. Everyone felt really bad when she died. She was the most beautiful girl, even when she was sick, and she was braver than even the grown up men. After she died, everyone talked about how brave she was. How wrong it was that she died and how she took hold of her death with such dignity.
I’m pretty sure I wasn’t a very morose child. I wasn’t anxious about death or think about it often. I think my preoccupation at the time, and what prompted the story, was a search for meaning. That what threatened me, when I was eight and a man I knew died because of a disease no one yet had a handle on, was the possibility of dying without the life or the death having meant something. Of course I also desperately craved acknowledgment, the final triumph of the brave girl hero, and I’m sure the writing and its red scratchy penmanship was dripping with self-pity. Feel bad for me, look at what I’ve been through. But at the time it felt important. It felt important for me to put it on a page, to believe that the worst possible moments, the scariest things, could still be beautiful.
There’s been a lot of talk, for centuries even, about why people read literature, what its purpose is, its reason. A lot of the experts have suggested comfort; that human beings turn to literature for models to live by, to confirm and convince themselves of the great human truths. A whole life put down in a book, given order, described with precision and care. It’s reassuring, it lets us believe that sense can be made, that however tragic or dull there is a logic or energy that propels life forward. I can swallow that. I’ll tip my hat to the end of the bar where that announcement sits, but I’m not going to buy it a drink or go over to talk to it.
I want to suggest two particular anxieties that seem to me to run against each other, each anxiety responsible for an underlying desire drawing people towards story. I’m not suggesting these are the only anxieties or only reasons people read – those possibilities are endless and personal and can do and behave however they want. And I know it’s dangerous and kind of low down and shameful to group ideas or tendencies but I’m going for it anyway. Just run with me on this and rest assured I don’t believe I’m accounting for everyone, plus, I think the same reader can go back and forth on these, reading one book and getting one kind of satisfaction out of it, another story for a different kind of pleasure.
I think a lot of people read in order to reaffirm their own beliefs, to feel commended by their own view of the world, to believe the world as ultimately knowable and unthreatening. Or rather, there are stories that do this. However unstable the world of the story might initially be, the story’s job is reign the world back to something controlled, contained and finite. Familiar characters, familiar plot, vivid description and titillating action with a recognizable narrator, the reader knowing his or her place immediately as the fly on the wall, or the one confessed to, inside the character’s head or spoken to by some wise and forgivably fallible sage years after the event has finished. This appeals to a reader anxious to know that things are going to be okay, that there is beauty and truth in the world and we can see it and believe that it exists.
Another anxiety that I think is at work drawing people toward story is the fear that the possibilities of the world, of narrative, are subject to exhaustion, that one day there will be nothing left to seek or say. That there are only so many truths and discoveries and that these truths are simply repackaged once they’ve been forgotten in order to fit into a new style of thinking. That nothing under the sun is news, that someday we can (or will, maybe have) stop searching. Narratives that ease this anxiety will fill a reader with doubt, question the positions and authority of narrator and reader, thwart a reader’s expectations as to what they are supposed to find. Readers suffering from this anxiety read in order to see things in a new way, to discover something about the world or themselves that they didn’t already suspect.
One kind of story can reassure us that we are able to know the world, another kind of story can reassure us that there is still more left to discover. I’m going to ask that you keep this in mind.
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