Even One Word

The Blog of Nathan St. Pierre


The Narrative Problem Thursday, August 25, 2011

As long as I can remember, I've told stories.

I don't remember if my first lie was one that I told myself in order to turn my back yard into a forgotten realm of magic and wonder, or if it was one I told my mother to turn a broken lamp into my brother's problem. But as long as I can remember, I've made things up and shared them.

There are times when this attribute was beneficial: creative writing was a breeze for me, and I remember the end of my fifth grade year, kids volunteered to read their stories to the class. We were running out of time and the teacher called for one more. I was in an awkward stage and didn't volunteer for much of anything --let alone something that would put me at the notice of everyone around me-- but my classmates begged me to read my story aloud. They later told me they loved the way I was able to keep their attention and make them laugh. My teacher said as long as I'd bothered writing it, I might as well share it. For better or worse, I remembered that the rest of my life.

There were times that this habit was dangerous: I'd think of an interesting story that seemed plausible, and use it in conversation when I had nothing to say.  A friend knew how to do some task like juggle chainsaws, a relative once saw a bear. Inevitably, I'd paint myself in a corner and people would think I was crazy. The simple fact of the matter was that I lived a pretty boring life. I played sports and rode my bike, like most boys. I watched TV and played video games, like most kids of the early 90s. I had nothing to tell them they didn't already know. So, I made stuff up.

I think my parents and teachers just assumed I'd outgrow it. I'd discover girls (which I already had) or end up taking up a hobby (I had many) and forget all about that strange phase of my life where I claimed to see commercials that never existed and re-examined past events of my life with a revisionist view. Obviously, I didn't.

For the most part, people stopped noticing. I grew wise enough not to tell enough stories for people to notice they were complete bull, and my actual life experiences started to fill in the gaps in my imagination. I began to write stories down, filling notebooks with confusing epics featuring more characters than a phonebook. At one point I wrote a design document for a roleplaying game that in its raw text format was at least five hundred pages. It was almost a compulsion. I'd like to say this all just stopped one day, that I could remember the exact moment it halted. But I don't.

I've pointed to events in my life, mostly of rejection (being placed last in competitions where I knew the winners had plagiarized entire pages/being shot down for a writing team without the teacher even reading my submission) that lead to my eventual abandonment of the pursuit of storytelling. Looking back, I'm sure those were just events in a gradual shift in the way I saw things. I became a musician, italicized for emphasis. That was my identity, and it made me genuinely happy. I would listen to music I loved and get goosebumps. I would stay up all night working on music and then wake up the next morning not being able to wait to do it again. I would play my favorite video games and movies on infinite loop: waiting for that perfect moment when the hero triumphs and the music rises to a crescendo. I was like an addict seeking a fix, but it never ran out and I never came down.

You may have seen the obvious trend here; but I didn't. I was still writing stories, and living through them. A rich multimedia narrative was what drew me to music, to video games, to film. This was not a problem for me at the time. It kept me vitalized, and it kept me going through two years of ups and downs in high school. Having been a big fish in a small pond, it was hard to compete with kids in other schools, and I practiced for hours a day to keep up. Great band directors and family kept me encouraged, and I kept my head down and ignored the fear. When I went to college, I experienced four years of being thrown into the ocean. I laughed at the time I used to only spend three hours a day practicing one instrument. Because of financial issues, I also had to work and keep my grades up for scholarships. But I never wavered, because my love of telling stories through my music kept me alive. I think my best teacher in composition was the one who told me that everything he taught me was just a series of skills, and he'd only be grading me on how hard I worked to apply them. My aesthetic, my style, was not up for grading.

This was the best and worst thing that could have happened to me.

As it turns out, the field of Music Composition in its current state tends to look down on the concept of "narrative." Storytelling, specifically programmatic music, was a prominent feature of music of the 19th century. The 20th century was about pushing music to its logical and emotional limits. There were two major camps at North Texas, one that pushed the more "Performance Art" nature of modern music, and one that pushed the much more cerebral "Who Cares if You Listen (look up Milton Babbitt, who just died this year, if you don't know that phrase)"  way of thinking. In both of these cases, plot and story were considered pointless and overdone. Music was not about telling a story. If it was, it was about telling a very abstract and complex story that was less about the common archetypes of the everyman or the battle between good and evil and more about pressing societal commentary and political issues. Fortunately, most teachers were able to separate this opinion from the grades, and I made it through one of the hardest music programs in the country With Honors in four years. When I tell people this, they either act like it was the most incredible achievement possible, or they think I'm awarding myself a medal for putting my shoes on. Very few seem to see the truth, which is that it was just an inevitable step in the process of becoming who I am today.

Wait, I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

Before I graduated, I spent a lot of time in discussions with a variety of my teachers, trying to decide my next steps. Most of them told me I'd be a great composition professor, because of how open-minded and patient I was, both things that are in short supply in higher education in the creative fields. But, they were always quick to point out that I'd have to "play ball" in most grad schools in order to get a degree,  and spend most of my time avoiding any form of narrative. When I eventually was able to teach, I'd likely have to do that as well. Add to that the fact the fact they more or less told me I wouldn't be accepted to the grad school there, which meant moving across the country. With my wife still in school, it seemed like a bad deal, and I began to re-examine my path. I decided that grad school was still an option, but it would make more sense if I went into Creative Writing, since narrative was the focus I had originally wanted. So, I took the ACT, polished up some of my latest stories, and got set on my path again.

I scored in the 98th percentile on the verbal portion, and got the highest possible score on the writing. I was entering with a 3.6 GPA. I was sure that I'd finally found my true calling.  What happened next was almost ironic given the past experiences. Almost.

I made it into the grad school on my grades alone, but the Creative Writing department had to approve me as a student. I got a very basic, formal letter stating that I did not have the right pre-requisites to enter. I scratched my head fairly hard, as I had tested out of the 12 hours required before my first day of college with the AP system. I was certain it was a mixup. For days, I got the runaround from everyone in the administration system. Finally, the head advisor of the creative writing graduate department wrote me a personal e-mail. Because it was so nice, I'll share it here (name removed as I didn't ask for permission to post this... yet).

Thanks for getting in touch -- I apologize for not getting back to you right away, but as it's midterm time, other things are currently competing for my attention. Your AP credits do count -- they are included on your undergrad transcript. In this case, it turns out that the number of hours wasn't the issue; if you didn't meet the number of hours, we would've stipulated in your acceptance letter that you take some leveling courses here.  The "minimum requirements" referred to the letter are rather vague, but as with all MA applicants in creative writing, the decision came down to the quality of your writing sample.  This is not a judgment on your ability to write, necessarily.  Rather, it's whether or not the C.W. faculty felt they could, as a group, provide the kind of feedback you need based on the writing sample you submitted. You have two options, as I see it.  One is to find another program where people whose work you desire to emulate are teaching; the other is to take undergrad writing classes here and get some feedback on your work and then apply to the program again.  Either is fine -- or perhaps you may decide that more school is entirely superfluous, and that you should just go ahead and keep forging on to greatness without an advanced degree; that's how Colson Whitehead, Thomas Pynchon and Terry Pratchett and many other people have done it, and there's no reason you can't do it too.
Huh. I very quickly learned through talking to the faculty that every one of them writes non-fiction as a career, and in most cases write for newspapers. Most are critics. Not a single one considered fiction to be their primary skillset, or even one that was close to the top of their interests.

Narrative was pretty much outlawed at UNT, it would seem. But, reading this letter, I realized something. I hadn't yet read Stephen King's On Writing (get it and read it now if you plan on doing any professional writing), but I knew that most writers whose work I enjoyed had spent a majority of their early years working dead-end jobs to make ends meet while scribbling away in their off-hours. I knew that Khaled Houssini had worked a full-time job as a physician while scraping together enough time to also write The Kite Runner. I'd later find out that Stephen King worked part-time as a teacher and part-time cleaning clothes while he was working on his first manuscripts. I knew that JK Rowling had spent every waking hour between being a single mother and working multiple jobs writing every little bit of story she could. It all hit me at once.

The problem was never anyone else, or their opinion of narrative. The problem was me.

I was afraid. Afraid of failure, perhaps. Afraid of hard work, maybe. But afraid of facing myself and being truly honest after a lifetime of making crap up to justify who I was? Definitely.

So, like any good obsessive-compulsive, I went to work. I wrote a manuscript for a book, based on a suggestion my wife made. I wrote in the mornings before work, and then immediately after getting home from work. In less than a month, I'd written 66,975 words. My wife was the best encouragement I could have asked for. She begged me for each chapter and I'd leave a cliffhanger at the end of each one to keep her wanting the next. Might as well share it, right?

After a month of this, I was positive my hard work was about to pay off somewhere.

So, I showed it to a friend, who was very interested in what I had done. This friend gave me some great feedback, and was excited about the prospect, but said he was afraid some of it sounded familiar.

A large block of ice clotted the bile in my stomach. I knew it. I'd somehow ripped off someone I'd read. I've spent thousands of hours reading, playing video games, watching movies and TV shows, absorbing narrative and plot like a greedy sponge. I must have somehow accidentally re-applied what I learned, a phenomenon known as cryptomnesia: "a forgotten memory returns without it being recognised as such by the subject, who believes it is something new and original (from Wikipedia)."

The truth was much, much worse.

Once he finally tracked it down, he gave me the name of the book and the author. I won't share it here, but it's an author I despise. I've attempted to read her books (since then, at the time I didn't know anything other than her name), and failed to get even halfway through a volume before feeling dirty and uncomfortable. My main character's name was almost the same as hers. The city it took place in was the same. The overall genre of the story was the same (although comparing the two is a lot like comparing Blade Runner and Spy Kids... and I mean that in no way of making myself look cooler).

The hilarious thing? I didn't know any of these details before I started. I still didn't know them up until my friend informed me of the existence of the person and her books. It was dumb chance.

Finally, after accepting my destiny as a storyteller and pushing myself to write the story, I had committed the worst possible writing foible imaginable. I had made my work seem like a knock-off of someone else. All of the elements of the plot were completely different, but to summarize the "gist" of the story on a dust jacket, it'd sound similar enough that no agent would take it seriously. Something cracked.

I couldn't write. I couldn't tell stories. I buried myself in my work, learning the deepest meanings of programming and math theory that I had no business understanding as a so-called writer or musician. I wrote complex algorithms that solved a problem and didn't even come close to explaining a story. I took a job where my creative abilities were not necessary. We had writers for documentation, and all of our design had been done for us. I was, for lack of a better word, a complete code monkey.

There are worse things to be in life, and it was at this job that I learned a lot about myself and about the world. I got paid a decent wage and I worked my 8 hours a day and then went home to work on my house. Life was simple. But I was missing something.

Soon enough, I found myself falling back on strange habits. I told lies and half-truths. I made up stories that never happened. I wrote iambic pentameter into comments in the code. Some part of me was screaming to get out. Finally, adding insult to injury, a family tragedy happened. I won't go into detail here, but I'll simply say that we lost someone very important to us, and the circumstances made us all doubt ourselves and our relationships with each other.

I'd like to say my wife handled it like a slap in the face, but it was more like a metamorphosis. For months, she was inconsolable and unreachable. She was in her cocoon, and no one could get her out. Then, one day, she burst forth with a simple realization: I am an artist.

You see, like me, she'd spent a large part of her life making compromises. She wanted to draw, color, paint, and create visual things for a living, but everyone told her it was a pipe dream. Never mind that she was talented or that she had a great work ethic-- it was impossible. So, she fell back on her other skills. She was also very organized and had a gift at understanding human anatomy (part of the reason she was so good at figure drawing). Health seemed like a natural fit, so she'd gone into the health field. When her job wasn't as satisfying as she'd hoped, she went back to school to learn other ways of providing health as a nurse. When this didn't go the way she wanted, she went back to become a teacher, possibly teaching art so she could still have that part of her life, but knew that teachers were always in demand.

In a life-shattering moment, she realized all of these were a shell that she'd wrapped herself with. They were ideas and concepts, they had nothing to do with her or what she wanted to do with her life. And when it was all stripped away, she stood there naked and beautiful like a butterfly, and said simply: "I am an artist."

I'm sure you're seeing it again, in the way I see the world. I may be a programmer most of the time. I may be an IT guy when folks at work need me to fix their computer. I may be a musician on the weekends and when I find friends to jam with. But ultimately? I'm a storyteller. I just needed a goody story to wake me up.

For the past couple of months, I've been trying to write more. I finally finished a very long blog post about insurance yesterday, which was droll and wonderful and you should read it here . I have been working on another project together with my wife, and a third project which may be an undertaking I do alone for a long period of time. A friend of mine asked me to write some music for a video game he'd made. Okay, I'm a story-teller. I found out he was making one and I begged to write the music for it. But my point is that I'm creating again.

Not necessarily for a living. Honestly, maybe that's the problem I've had from the start. Once you start doing things in order to feed your family, it becomes hard to find yourself in them, unless you're lucky enough to be able to create whatever you want as opposed to having people dictate that for you. Something my wife told me has changed my life forever. I told her that a lot of writers say writing is a basic human skill that most people will eventually learn in their life. The only thing that makes a writer different is that they can't stop writing. She said, "Well, then you should write that down. Write everything down. You don't have to show it to people, or try to sell it, but at least you'll have it written down somewhere, and that should be enough."

Thus, this post.

Because honestly, I was going to write it somewhere. I might as well share it.