Is This A Real Story Or Did You Make It Up?

Sitting at my computer, I realized that I was Charlie Aspen.

Parents ask the question. School principals ask the question. Police ask the question. Journalists ask the question. What’s the story? The questioner has two expectations. He or she expects to find out what happened. He or she, at the same time, expects to receive a not-quite reliable version of what happened. You might, in answering, be mistaken. You might have neglected a few facts. You might even be lying. That is, every story begets the need for more stories. And so, what’s the story going to be?

I should begin by confessing I’m a recovering novelist. My doctors have me on a heavy dose of poetry. It seems to be working. I’m persuaded that I’ve kicked the habit. I can now look back, in quiet and relaxation, at the foibles and flaws of story. Even now, in my use of alliteration, I see I’m turning from story towards a poem.

We live in a time when the possibilities of story are exploding. The idea of exploding, of course, is a version of story, as your TV screen will tell you at any time of day. Like you, I am a symbol-making animal. I take all the TV explosions to be metaphoric, even if possibly real as well. It’s that metaphoric possibility that delights us. And confuses us. We need more stories to explain the stories we are told.

Story is one of our principal ways of thinking. What a shaky way to go about thinking. We base our individual lives, our cultural groups, even our very existence, on stories. Once upon a time… In the beginning was… On a dark and stormy night… Have you heard the one about? Premier Stelmach announced today…

We base society on stories, yet we can’t for a moment agree on what the stories are saying. Fortunately, our emerging story-makers will remedy all that.

One of my sisters, when I published a new novel, would ask, “Is this a real story or did you make it up?” Back then, I gave the answer, “I made it up.” She, brusquely, returned the book I was trying to give her. She never read one of my novels.My sister read cookbooks. She could read a cookbook and imagine whole feasts. She gave me a cookbook: Easy Meals for Lazy Bachelors. I tried to make a beef stew. The dog left the kitchen. So much for creative non-fiction. Back then I said that my novels were made up. Now I’m not so sure. Perhaps the task of the writer is to make up what isn’t made up.

I’ll try another example: One of the places where I see hope is in social networking. In these developing strategies of the Internet we can tell lies, we can be promiscuous, we can be poetic, we can tell the bald truth. Purity is fatal to story. Every existing version of story, from gossip to the yarn to the novel to the sacred text, is full of desire and exuberance, violence and terror, facts and possible facts and contradictions.

This new version of story, social networking, is written by many authors, authors who invent others and themselves. Surprise erupts through the clichés of story. At one time the censors worried about the novel. Now they don’t even read the cover flaps of novels. Now they worry about the Internet. That’s an encouraging sign. Censors give us a good indication of what’s in the future.

Story is at once glue and solvent. Let’s look at something as pinned-down and trackable as the novel. Currently, as I see it, the novel is becoming prisoner to its own aesthetic. It has become, too often, a bad imitation of the greatness, the supreme greatness, of Jane Austen. It has become an ingrown batch of stories about privileged people living trivial lives, the women, without needing jobs, imitating liberation, the men, with no help from the women, trying busily to rectify erectile dysfunction.

The novel has to become young again, down and dirty, promiscuous, in bed with poetry and science fiction and plain lies and wild imagination and evolution and revolution and disgust and shameless desire. The success of historical fiction at the moment is a small signal. The borrowings from fantasy and the detective story are a sign. What a dangerous, exciting, prodigious time in which to be a young story-teller.

Story is always waiting to be rescued from itself. How’s that for wisdom?

Part of the diminishment of what the novel might be comes from a naïve sense of what entertainment might be. Story is often about difficult or impossible choices. It challenges our very being. Pure entertainment makes the other guy the goat; it makes us, as mere voyeurs, feel comfortable and privileged. And safe.

Perhaps poetry is, once again, a place of serious entertainment. For me, story begins with Homer’s two great poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. If you want a dangerous woman, read about Helen of Troy; if you want a tricky, attractive man, read about Odysseus.

Perhaps what we need is a social network in which the participants can only address each other in verse. We would have to think about language; we would have to think. Unless, of course, the thumb replaces the mouth as our means of communication.

But—back, one more and final time, to the novel.

I’ll change my confession: I didn’t voluntarily take a cure for novel-writing; rather, I made the necessary mistake of tackling the impossible. I tried to write a novel that I was going to call The Fence. It was going to be about an aging Alberta man who was trying to build a fence in the foothills and the first range of the Rockies west of Edmonton. A wild country full of ghost towns. My hero, Charlie Aspen, was going to try to start a cattle ranch in the forest. He had been a coal miner; he came out of the ground.

Charlie Aspen acquired the land around an abandoned coalmine and began to build a fence. Then he noticed the wild forest and moose pastures and beaver ponds and valleys around his land and instead of closing his fence he began to extend it. Perhaps we are all squatters. Then he fell in love with a beautiful Spanish woman whose husband believed the area now called Alberta still belonged to Spain. Charlie was disappointed in love. He needed more land. He still had not so much as a single cow.

One dark and stormy night, sitting at my computer, I realized that I was Charlie Aspen. I, the novelist, was endlessly extending my fence. I couldn’t close it, because I longed to embrace the whole West. Maybe even the whole world. I realized I wasn’t going to make it.

One last thing: remember, story-tellers. Just to attempt the impossible is victory enough.

So. What’s the future of story?

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