Monday, July 22, 2013

A Word is Only the Beginning of the End

This is a topic I might have already touched upon, however I wanted to revisit it. If I have not mentioned it on Detangled Writers, or if I have and you just don't want to scroll a dozen pages back, I will start by asking you all a question: What does it take to make a story? Not a good story, not an amazing story, or even a bad story. Just a story, the rest can come after; and why am I asking you this? Because this is a topic that is both intriguing to me, while being irksome at once.

We have many expectations for a story, some of them very shallow. I'll name a few, a story must have plot, and it must be reasonable, that's one expectation - or often considered requirement. A story must have characters, and those characters need to serve a purpose. A story must have meaning, not necessarily a lesson, but meaning that relays to the reader. And that leads to the most shallow of expectations (in my opinion), a story must be written - or oral, but it must be made of words.

This expectation has often baffled me, as a person who can sit and stare at a piece of artwork, or listen to a classical work of art, and wonder and imagine and build from them. Yet many people are very adamant that such things as music or artwork are not stories. Do you believe this is true? In one of my writing courses we had a very heated debate on what a story was, and most people attested that no, a story had to be a full manuscript, but it could not be a picture or any form of artwork.

I believe this to be a very narrow view, and as a writer, as an artist, as someone who loves listening to music, I wanted to share this idea with you all. I was one of three people that contested this view of storytelling, and here is why. All of my stories, start with pictures, start with a feeling that I'm having inside, because that's my outlet, and so when I was told that art was not a form of storytelling I was quite offended, because this is what I believe a story is.

Anything that can get your imagination invested. As simple as that. I believe that if you look at a picture, and you ask 'why?' there is a story there, because as soon as you ask why, your mind starts building that story for itself. The artist who painted the picture, there was an investment in the presentation, there was a thought, and as an artist myself, there is a story, at least for me, even if it's missed by everyone else.

Now I know that's a very broad view, and can be equally as dangerous as the narrow view of story, so I'll condense it into a smaller frame of idea. Native Americans and Ancient Egyptians often used pictures to depict their legends where words and language were not enough. Would we deny that these are stories?

Finally the definition of story that really bothered me was that a story must have length:

"For sale, baby shoes. Never worn."
- Ernest Hemingway

This is the story that Hemingway considered his very finest in it's power to invoke a reaction. He believed this to be his greatest work of all time, and many people say that this is not a story at all. They say it's a piece of prose, but that it lacks the length and meaning of a story. It lacks the meaning? Do you believe this is true? "For sale, baby shoes. Never worn." This lacks meaning? ...Never worn; why? Why were these shoes never worn. Considering Hemingway's time, it leads to the assumption that the child died, if the child didn't die, there was something amiss with the shoes, but either way, there is a distinct feeling of loss - at least to me.

Because of the contention against this piece, a form of writing known as flash-fiction was created, and in fact my limited research on the topic genuinely suggests that this is the very reason flash-fiction was created at all. However flash-fiction doesn't necessarily make it a story. I admit I don't believe this is probably Hemingway's best work, but the fact that it resounded so strongly with him, and that he believed it to be his best, doesn't that investment in and of itself make it a story? Of course Hemingway knows much more than any of us behind the true meaning of the story, because perhaps the shoes were just too small for the baby, we don't know, it leaves us to wonder though.

So I want to ask all of you, what do you think qualifies as a story? Do you think it's an underlying meaning, or does it have to have words and length? Do pictures and songs count? Or is it what comes after that counts?

1 comment:

  1. Anything that reveals a secret self is a story in my opinion. I became acquainted with that term this last residency and it means just that - a secret part of the artist or character, a secret notion or belief, something that you can't decipher from the surface. A song, a flash fiction, a detailed art piece - if they reveal something deeper than just what the words or the paint says, then there is a story to it. Or maybe it's anything that raises or answers questions (though if it does answer questions they don't have to be the ones the it raised). Not sure. You've given me something to think about! Because even poems hold epic and vignette-like stories in sometimes just a few lines of verse. When is a story a story and not just an illustration or a vignette? Or are those stories, too? ^^