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McKinney, Bell, and Issue No. 91, or Narrative form and Story

Tuesday, April 17, 2012 11:20 PM

“Story is not about getting ready, story is what happens after we leave the house.”
Chris McKinney, "Snooze Button." Bamboo Ridge No. 91

     I almost remember the exact moment when I read this issue of BR: I was on a lunch break at work and had wandered into Borders, I immediately moved toward the local literature section or ‘local interest’, you know those stacks. This was usual routine, I’d often browse titles to see what was out, see if anything new had made its way onto the shelves, checking for new publishers or if publishers had expanded their titles to include a work that somehow aligned with the work I was writing. I decided to pick up 91 because it was an issue I hadn’t seen yet, and I remember reading McKinney’s essay in a single sitting. I went back to work hungry but inspired. The writing was sharp and colloquial, efficient and filled with wonderful insights into writerdom.
     The past few blogs I’ve written have focused on writing process, with much unconscious overlap, and for this one I’d like to talk about story, specifically “good” story, whatever that means. In McKinney’s essay, he discusses how, over time and through practice, “you get better at writing. Or at least, you get better at knowing what not to write.” He challenges this by then noting that, although your writing may improve, “you can get worse at storytelling.”
     As a grad student, I’d have to agree. Often times, as our writing improves, we begin to challenge ourselves to tell different or more unique stories, sometimes losing sight of what makes them stories to begin with. Part of this comes from the alienation that one feels when studying “good”, “classic”, or “canonical” techniques of fiction, another part stemming from the workshop format, which as Madison Smart Bell noted in his book Narrative Design, “90 percent of what you hear will be useless to you and irrelevant to what you have done.” He does not mean to dismiss the workshop, but encourage the writer whose work is being discussed to, “Learn to listen carefully and to discriminate what’s useful to you from what’s not. Remember the relevant part and ignore the rest” (Bell 8).
     The workshop is of course an important part of the writing process for any student and for any writer, to have a sense of what your work is doing in the real world or at least with a real audience outside of yourself and close colleagues. For me, Bell connects to McKinney a page later, when he discusses how most workshops are craft driven, focusing on technique. “You cannot really learn anatomy without dissection. But the risk is that the process will lead the student to forget that the story is supposed to be a living organism. Tilted too far in the direction of mechanics, the process will turn out monsters of mere technique” (Bell 9).
     I often times find that my most successful stories come when allow them to breath, when, caught in the moment, I press on and stop myself from self-editing, saving that for when I’ve actually finished the piece. I wrote “Da Same but Different”, the runner-up in the Honolulu Weekly fiction contest, in roughly an evening. Taking the next two to trim it down and clean it up, work out the kinks, before submitting it and just barely making the deadline. “Blood and Ku,” a story that took me several months to write, is lost somewhere on my computer. Although I don’t think you should gauge the quality of a story by the amount of time it takes to write it (often times a successful story can take a lot of time, “Between Sky and Sea” took months, if not years depending), there was a significant difference in how I approached each.      With “Da Same”, I began with a sentence, “I nevah seen Jimmy in years,” and let the story take me where it wanted to go. I didn’t really stop and consider how the paragraphs were working or if the sentences were complete. The most I did was read the paragraph aloud to place myself in the moment and to make sure the rhythm was sound, and then continued on. With “Blood and Ku,” I was inspired by my experience taking breadfruit from a neighbor’s yard, and worked from there, trying to impose a “good” story onto that inspiration. What ended up happening was that I got too caught up in trying to make everything more meaningful than it was, and turning out roughly fifteen pages when really I had a two-page event. I eventually, through the workshop process, realized this mistake. I’ve since edited that story and worked it a bit. I feel better about it, but it’s a learning experience.
     The basic mechanics of form in narrative: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution are not to forgotten. “Conflict, the question which requires the story to answer it, is what generates the energy to ascend the rising slope […] toward the peak where the conflict will be, for better or worse, resolved; on the descending slope, the byproducts of the climatic fission or fusion settle back toward a (temporarily) steady state. […] The point is that all stories do bear some relationship to the structure of rising and falling action […]” (Bell 28-29). Bell’s comment on form is an important one, but not necessarily something that as a writer should be focused on at the point of story’s inception.
     Think about the best stories you’ve read, what makes them so great? What is it about the story that keeps you reading? Is it the plot or the character, maybe it’s the setting that keeps us in suspense? Plot, character, setting, these are just as important as the technical stuff, and you cannot have one without the other. It’s important to remember that stories are not about intertextuality and larger themes of existentialism in post-modern narrative, they’re about people and places, and events that make us reflect on who we are and the lives we lead. Although the technical is important to grasping the craft of fiction and the discipline of writing, the elements of story function to communicate and connect with audience, and without audience, well, you’d have stories, but who would read them?
     I’d like to end this entry with another quote from Bamboo Ridge No. 91, this from the editors who have had a large impact, perhaps even the largest impact, on making possible the sharing of local story:
     “Once again, we present an anthology full of writing that is vibrant, provocative, funny, and poignant. […] We hope you’ll agree that the writing helps define us and sustain us and will continue to have lasting effects on all of us. Aloha.”


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