Villains and Stories


In a certain kind of writing, picking out villains is simple.  Whether they wear an iconic black hat, or kick small animals, they make themselves known in a way eases the reader into a comfortable understanding of the world.  These days lesser writing simply overturns the conventions: white hat—bad guy! (Surpirse!).  Better writing muddies that understanding: the villain acts out of sincerely felt good intentions (hence the road to hell), and in such a way that we can sympathize (if fleetingly, or longer) with their motivations.  When we pillory these bad actors we do so gently; after all, we could just as easily be in their spot.

Real life is the sticking point.  I’ll admit that I read to find out about and reflect on life.  Writing, after all, is easier to understand than life.  Life, with all its fits and starts, resists narrative cohesion. Beginnings do not always lead to middles or ends.  The setting often has nothing to do with the plot.  And the plot is repetitive and makes no sense. I hazard to suggest that we build stories as a bulwark against the confusion and chaos of life.  Stories narrow our focus and create a framework for understanding the world.

As we meet people, we turn them into characters that either fit or do not fit into the long standing master plots of our lives.  Someone who disrupts that story risks becoming a villain—or in rare occasions, a hero—but chances are that our daily heroes are those people we encounter who affirm the story we have told ourselves, who give us comfort in what we already know.

And in all this, I wonder whether we are ever the actual authors of our life stories, or whether they simply accrue around us in response to the life that happens. Most of us inherit a story  before we even begin our own.  When Fitzgerald wrote, “there are no second acts in American lives,” I think he was pointing to this phenomenon.  We (privileged) Americans hold the truth of our freedom so closely, that we fail to grapple with the fundamental lack of self-determination in our most essential stories.  We swallow those stories whole and they become an inexorable and unexamined part of who we see ourselves to be. Without a chance to address, let alone to change that story, we get stuck in a first act that repeats and repeats and repeats.  The second act is the place for a turn and a change; resolution comes in the third.

When I think about the villains in my work, my writing, I know I need them to maintain some kind of conflict.  They are the “B” to the protagonists’ “A.”  But in the need to create something like verisimilitude, such easy binary relationships seem false.  I can’t help but think about how the stories of “A” and the stories of “B” surround them like straitjackets, and how they either wriggle free or remain obstinately stuck inside.  And for me, that is the true definition of a villain—a character who refuses to escape the boundaries of one story, even if it’s a really good story.

I think of David Copperfield, who begins the narration of his story with, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”  Spoiler alert, David becomes the villain, but is entirely unaware of this horrible fact—or almost, he leaves a trail of bodies and breadcrumbs obvious enough to belie his eventual rise.  His story is powerful and uplifting, and not a little inspiring.  But the “upward” at the end of the novel speaks as much to his class aspirations and a justification of all that has happened around him on his road to success.

Of course this also has something to do with my life.  How can it not?  I have wrestled with the stories that surrounded me since I was young.  I have tried on one story after another like the ficklest of shoppers at an all-day sale.  Some I have worn long and others dismissed quickly. I am drawn to those who have deeply certain stories and devastated by their lack of room for my uncertainty.

I am a tailor of stories, and an escape artist, busily making one while I wriggle out of another.  The contradiction makes me and destroys me. And then makes me again and again and again.


The Flags of Memory

Facebook politely reminds me that I have memories.  On April 28th last year I posted #FUCO, inspired by the Daily Show’s effort to get the Democrats and Republicans to F#$%ing Cooperate. Two years ago I celebrated being a scant three days from traveling to China to meet my daughter. Three years ago I posted Tom Waits’ cover of “Somewhere.”  Four years ago, two articles from the New York Times’ caught enough of my eye that I reposted them. Day after day, another batch of the past is just a click away. But all I have to do is turn my head, and I can glimpse the shades of things past.

I am surrounded by memories.  Even the most ordinary thing in my household triggers one or a dozen memories.  The computer speakers on my desk top are the speakers that I had in my attic office, are the speakers that I had in my apartment by the beach, are the speakers that were in my apartment in Roland Park, are the speakers I bought when I lived on Fair Oaks Avenue.  I can see them on a desk in each place, and around that desk old rooms organize themselves, and around those rooms entire buildings take shape, and around those buildings, streets spread out into cities populated by people whose faces are just a turn to the left or right from the chair in which I sit. I feel as if I could start a conversation with these memories just as easily as I begin one with the people who walk just outside my office window just this very moment.

I am not sure if other people experience memories in this same way.  It’s not as if I have an excellent memory; the rules of German grammar eluded me when I was in high school.  But I knew the Constitution by Section and Article almost at first glance.  And I drove all over the suburbs of Philadelphia without getting lost as soon as I had a driver’s license—all based on my childhood memories of being in cars. Years later, when I traveled to Maine after a twenty year absence, I did the same there.  I cannot dredge a memory up, but feel wrapped in a thousand wispy scarves each one peeling away to reveal some past me surrounded by a past world, which is also the present me surrounded by the present world.

Some people must be able to store their memories in boxes in an attic, and that out of sight and out of mind, their memories don’t regularly come crashing down off the shelves.  Or they put one or two—or more—on the mantle in the living room, or on a hidden altar in their homes. And those memories take precedence over the ones in the attic. Maybe I am unable to select, maybe I need them all, maybe I do not know which memory will hold the key to some unforeseen puzzle.

I guess that someone who felt more melancholic would feel ensnared by all these connections. I have moments when I would like to be cut free from them, when the sadness of a particular skein feels overwhelming, and the sadness overpowers all the other threads. At different times of my life I have combated those feelings either by playing a simple solitaire game that I learned from a college friend, or by getting in my car and driving until the roads became strange, or by playing a video game for the seventh or eighth time.

Repetition dulls the brightness of the connections, and I have simple repeated rituals (peanut butter and jelly for lunch nearly every day) that offer some respite from the densely colored warp and weave of the past.  Just this, for now, before the return. And then the glorious return of how many days—twenty thousand?—and how many moments?  This, writing, also limits the connections—the focus required to write narrows my vision to this word, this letter, this comma.  And yet the inspirations to write are all the peripheral visions that are always just a distracted head turn away.

I also turn to the new.  I remember those late night drives—in a brown Volkswagen Rabbit with the stereo turned up beyond reason, listening to John Adams’ Shaker Loops, or Laurie Anderson’s United States, or the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light—which became longer and later in my twenties as I drove farther and farther west, traveling on back roads from Philadelphia all the way to Harrisburg.  I came home, because as far as I went I never forgot my cat.  I returned home to my apartment on City Line Avenue more to tend him than to prepare for a job.  Now, with four cats and a daughter, the journeys away must be curtailed.  I must drive in.

And so in I go, trailing a billowing cloud of memories like flags from countries that I have not claimed, but have claimed me. Turn this way, they insist.  This is where to go.  This is the key.


Story Telling

Two weeks ago I gave a sermon at my church about what I learned from my father about fatherhood for Father’s Day. It went well. Afterwards some people told me what a good story teller I was, which was nice. I’m sure a few left thinking what a gasbag I was, which is fine too. I was asked whether I got so wrapped up in the story that I forgot that people were listening. Not really, after all, the whole point is to get everyone to focus their attention. Here are some things I did that I hope made that more likely.

I told the story about what I learned from him about fatherhood. I did this by relating things that had happened between him and me in our life. When I “wrote” it, I observed the “rule of three”: the big story (the sermon) had three separate main incidents. Why three? I draw an analogy from geometry when I explain this to my students: it takes three points to define a plane in space, and without that plane, we have nothing on which to stand. I’m sure there are corollaries to this rule: two points make a line, which is only good for tightrope walkers; four points make a solid which will block the reader. Besides, I only had 15-20 minutes: three is enough.

There was plenty of connective tissue to get from one incident to the next. When one shares a story from one’s life, it can be easy to forget to make the connections because they seem so obvious to whoever lived that particular life. I was cognizant of the fact that I wasn’t simply telling my story, I was telling a story based on things that happened to me. My life was the evidence–I still had to make the case.

When delivered it, I put my written notes aside, and followed the outline I had practiced over and over during the month I had to prepare. This is not a useful strategy for everyone. First, not everyone is used to speaking in public, and a strong written text can be an enormous support. Second, one needs to practice a speech to be delivered extemporaneously: the odds of ramble increase exponentially without a firmly rehearsed structure. The advantage was that I could listen to the hundred or so people who were listening to me while I delivered the sermon. I knew what I had to say; I didn’t know how people would hear it. I was able to tinker as I spoke to fit the way people were listening.

Did I end up leaving things out? Sure, I always over-prepare. Was it perfect? No, but what is? Did I get to my conclusion? I think so. It felt done. And now on to the next story.