Grieving the loss of the linear narrative

Because I am or have been:

1) A rule follower, and

2) Timid, and always, still learning how to write,

I have tended to write stories that are mostly linear.  I might mess with the order of things but there is usually only one layer of story happening.  As a writer, more than that confuses me.  Until recently.

Last spring, I set out to write an essay about stuff, the physcial stuff that fills my house.  I forced all these ideas (William Morris!  Feng shui!  The long-kept dead canary in a close relative’s freezer!) into the salad bowl of words until it was a big mess (kinda like my closet).  But instead, what emerged was that I actually needed to write an essay about my childhood house that burned down, and, alongside it, growing naturally from that fire, a ghost story (two ghost stories, as it turned out, because I thought the narrator was the ghost, but it was actually the boy whose father was the fire chief orchestrating the planned burning of the house.  I’ll save the ghost POV for a parallel story, I think.)  These last three layers (of fire) all turned out to be strata of the burning house “story” which is inspired by my own experiences.  As the mess emerged (“wretched from my spirit” as I once described some of my friend Mark Horiuchi‘s ceramic art, which was “wretched from his spirit”) I realized I wanted to mess with my automatic stance of linear narrative.  For the essay about the burned down house where I used to live, I set out to build layers, to mimic the memories as they occurred to me.  Really, I was attempting a weak tea imitation of Joan Didion’s glorious memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking.  My essay is still an unfinished mess.

There is something in me that until very recently has always believed stories actually are (or worse, somehow should be) linear.  Believed that, trick around with things as writers might, the human being who reads actually needs, on some biological level, a pattern that makes sense.  But I’m starting to see more deeply into the crusts, the layers, how much there is (or can be, some day, if we work hard enough at simultaneous clarity and opacity) under the patina of the linear.

Like layers of paint, the story starts to peel away, revealing hidden stories and complexities and differing perceptions.

Like multiple transparencies (remember those, before PowerPoint?) in slightly different languages I try to make something that’s more complicated (on purpose! Take that, William Strunk!) but that still has some sort of shape, so it’s not chaos exactly, but a sort of artifice, imitating the mess that is realness while also, by the end of the thing, amounting to something, making some sort of sense or logic or scaffolding, a pattern, no matter how faint or possibly only visible to the eye of the writer.  (I did say “try.”)

(What was I saying?)

I still want things to make sense.  Maybe it’s my primal need.  Writing a story that’s relatively linear, like arranging and organizing things in my home, gives me a false sense of control, as if I can shape the unshapable.  The problem, maybe, is that no matter how we play, words can only roll out one letter at a time, it’s how they are made, so there’s no avoiding the linear, and facts and feelings tend not to adhere to my yearning for order, tend to sprawl out like oversized legs in the aisle of a plane, tend to bump against the cart that delivers (via lovely manicured hands) peanuts and near-dry, immasculated slices of lime in tonic.

I don’t want to open a book and have the letters fall off the page, I just don’t.

But then you realize there is a large-ish ball of magenta fuzz on the seat back in front of you and although you have been staring at it, off and on, for two hours, you will never know the air-traveler who left it there for you to stare at while your plane bumps in the air, what is this metal machine bumping against, exactly? for it must be something there, or how can air have such an impact?  Somehow, we have to live in all this not-knowing, not ever being able to know whose fuzz we are staring at without even realizing it.

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7 responses to “Grieving the loss of the linear narrative

  1. Laraine Herring

    What a great post, Rebecca. I am no fan at all of the linear narrative. It stumps me every time. Life doesn’t seem to happen in an organized way, so when writing is overly organized, it feels so false to me. I think I’m pretty incapable of writing a story that way. Yes, my work has a structure, but it’s never in a straight line. I think a non-linear narrative can still have the essential logic that a reader needs to connect with the piece. Have you read Kate Haake’s WHAT OUR SPEECH DISRUPTS? It’s a glorious, feminist, book on creative writing and in part how the masculinity (yang – linear) & heirarchical direction of our English grammar (something must always dominate something else in Eng sentences – there’s a subject and then there’s an object (think a king of a sentence and its servants) required to make the sentence work. Her opinion is that the language we use itself subverts our ability to experience the world as it is. I’d love to read your “messy” essay. I’ll bet it shines. :-) xoox

  2. Hi Laraine–and thanks! I haven’t read Haake’s book, but it sounds great. I will add it to my list. What a great metaphor about sentences. So what is the solution? Or is it just that we have to be aware of how language helps us stumble from experiencing the world fully? And fight against it in some way?

    (If you are offering to read my essay, I’d love to take you up on it! Let me know if you have time.)

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