I spent a bit of time researching MFA programs yesterday. Just a bit. It’s still a ways in the future for me, but I began with a survey of the pros and cons of formally studying creative writing at all. Jennifer Ellis has assembled a helpful list of cons, and the first item she included particularly sparked my interest.
Ellis cites an argument that MFA programs, while perhaps effectively teaching the technical craft of writing, fail, ultimately, to teach writers what really makes a good story.
That’s the idea I want to explore today, not for too long, as it’s a beautiful, sunny Sunday here in Flekke, and I’m getting a bit later of a start than normal, but all the same. Let’s reflect today. What is the substance of our stories? What is the purpose of them? As ever, I would love to hear your thoughts.
Here is the question: can a beautifully phrased, thoughtfully crafted, elegantly narrated story about something… meaningless… can that be a good story?
Even that question contains so much ambiguity… we must strip it further back: What subjects make a story “good”? What make it… no. Even here, this question doesn’t work.
Let’s start here: What is the purpose of storytelling? Why do it? Perhaps then we can judge its worth, in how successfully it renders that purpose.
We can start by saying that there can be more than one purpose. It can be a personal one. Some of us do write primarily to entertain. Of course that’s legitimate. And some of us write primarily for reasons of political mobilization and promotion of justice. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was written as a kind of warning against permissive sexuality (although we can see an interesting counterpoint here). Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in order to win a bet. The question of purpose is one we must address for ourselves as individuals, and it can change from project to project, perhaps even shift within a project–
When I consider my own purpose… I’ll confess that I tend to be a bit old-fashioned. Not that I don’t want my writing to be entertaining or enjoyable, but those qualities, to me, are much more a means than an end. To me, writing is most centrally about creating empathy. I want people to experience the powerful emotions of others, to make them their own, to encourage empathy with others’ experiences, and thereby understanding and greater human compassion.
I think often of Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads. “All good poetry,” he says, “is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings… recollected in tranquility.” Obviously I’m primarily writing fiction, but I see poetry’s concentrated, distilled emotion and fiction’s more immersive, circuitous route as two approaches to an analogous goal. I want my stories to exist not because they are simply interesting, entertaining, or fun, but to open windows to feeling and experience.
Let us then return to the question: what make a story worth telling? I would argue, for me, it’s one that illuminates a character’s journey, in which the reader who might, from the outside, judge their choices, can instead understand the actions, the meaning, the feelings, can empathize.
Is this too broad? Does every story I write fit this criterion? Is this how I would answer this question again tomorrow? I’m not sure. It’s a part of this business, or this art, if you will, that I continue to explore. In part, each project, even the short stories, takes enough time that my data points are relatively few. It’s like knitting a sweater.
Departure: a metaphor
Yesterday afternoon, my husband and I set out to forage for ramps (it’s a plant of many names. “Wild garlic” is what it’s called by the teachers here in Flekke). Doing a bit of research just now (thank you, Wikipedia!), I did find that the Eurasian and North American plants are technically different species, although practically-speaking they’re the same.
We packed two bowls, two scissors, a bag, and headed off into the forest in the late afternoon light.
Norway and the other Nordic countries follow the principle of “Everyman’s Right.” This is the opposite of the North American insistence on the sanctity of private property: legally, any person can hike, camp, and even forage on any piece of natural land. You can’t camp within something like a hundred meters of somebody’s front door, but other than this, the land is everyone’s to roam.
For us foragers, it’s a great boon. Whereas in the US we had to be very careful about checking regulations (luckily Minnesota state parks allow mushroom foraging and some berry-picking), and some natural edibles were (legally) off-limits (ramps in Minnesota, for example, can only be picked on private land with the permission of the owner).
In Norway, such restrictions are anathema, and in the forests nearby campus we found a valley burgeoning with ramps. Crouching low, we snipped one leaf here and one leaf there. Ramps are very slow to grow, and in the interest of sustainable foraging, we left all the bulbs in the ground for future years. It didn’t take long for our bowls to fill.
There’s a real magic about collecting food wild in the forest. It’s deliberate. The awareness grows of our food cycles, of humans’ impact on nature, and our ultimate dependance. There’s an ache in the legs and back. There’s life abundant. And we are a little piece of it, taking just what we’ll enjoy that night, thankful for that chance.
That’s a bit like storytelling, I think. Life is a many-facèd and a varied thing. The world teems with stories, interpretations, meanings we might write down. I pluck one, coax it up into a flower, do my best in the pan then to season and prepare it, to be thankful for the food, for the idea, for the story, for the lesson, for the feeling, for the life. That’s what it feels like, anyway, a good story.