Tuesday, November 20, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 27 - Forcing All Stories


When I was on vacation from my boozy college an alert, personable friend from home, Bruce Agnew, a guy who like me wanted to be a writer, and unlike me had been considered the smartest kid in our eighth grade class, told me he had just gotten the word from the famous author Robert Penn Warren in a seminar he had just taken at Yale. The word was that something had to change in every story. If nothing changed, you did not have a story.

This was very bad news, the way I took it, for it seemed to mean you had to follow other people's versions of reality in reporting change that did not sexist. Or worse, follow entire patterns of stories as ordered up by the literary establishment. Kill off your own version - conform to what others in power, if not Warren himself, wanted for you.

Well I had a few triumphs behind me, pre-college triumphs in the boarding school years, where I had started at the bottom of my class and wound up at the top, even sometimes passing my twin brother Peter, the good twin whom I had perhaps put under siege causing him to fight for his life to maintain his family-awarded titles of good twin, socially adept twin, smart twin.

And then there were changes during vacations, especially during the long summers up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I had wondered if I would ever have girlfriends like guys in novels and movies did, and sure enough I came to know heart-warming necking that made the antics of Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart look like kindergarten stuff. There were girls, but mainly there was this one girl – too nice and too good looking to be true – this one girl who seemed to be the right girl and who seemed to return my love. And meanwhile down at the Holderness School in the New Hampshire lake country, the school’s trophy case had been filling up with trophies I had won on the New England debating circuit – big plastic and wood objects each topped with a naked, sylized brass woman who held a laurel wreath high above her head. And I had just about the best grades in the school now, whereas I had started with the very worst, so bad I had had to sit with the slow boys in compulsory evening study hall every weekday night.

There was poetry now, that I read and also that I wrote and that went into the school paper, which was edited by my twin brother and me now, whereas so recently everyone would have laughed at the thought of me having such a position. The boys had stopped laughing at me now. A number of them were becoming my friends. I knew deep down that any success I had was only provisional. I could still, as in the past, start making missteps that would cause everyone to forget everything about me except that I was shy and slow and bad at sports. One misstep and I would again be known as “Speedy,” the cruel school nickname that had dogged me in the beginning.

There had been all these changes back in boarding school, so maybe, I thought briefly, considering the Yale version of compulsory change, there might be something here for me to write about.

I wondered about it, but the answer in my head was a harsh “No!” – for this was not fit material for a story that would work. My experience at Holderness would not qualify as literature.

I had already found in my reading that there was a tradition in fine novels, usually British novels, of telling stories about the horrors of boarding schools. And I had horror stories. But our school still did not fit neatly into this literary category. For one thing, it was too small. And
although there was some cruelty and bullying brutality, I was not convinced at the end that it was as horrible as such places in correct fiction. And so I did not think that these changes in my life would really count as the change needed in a story as stories are supposed to be written.

And now college, which was a famous and much bigger place – heralded by authors ranging from F. Scott Fitzgerald to my grandfather – and in fact seemed dreary and conformist and stuffy and silly. How could I write about this college and get in the Robert Penn Warren-mandated change. For surely, some voice was telling me, change in a correct college story should be for the better.

And how could I write about the world around me if I could not put change into the story?

The world. The awful Eisenhower, who spoke only in clich├ęs and hated all art, cheered on by so many at my college. And two years back the strutting General Macarthur had attempted treason for working to invade and drop the big bomb on China, and when relieved of his command had come home to a hero’s welcome. . Nothing changed. The crazed, mendacious Senator McCarthy, who was ruining lives of the sort of people I admired from a distance, was riding high, and the press and almost all politicians treated him as a serious and legitimate political figure. An earnest Jewish couple, the Rosenberg’s had gone to jail for treason because of their efforts to prevent use of atomic weapons, and then, like in a bad movie about other times, they had been executed. The Rosenbergs were dead and so nothing in the world changed, unless you counted their deaths.

I didn’t really think all stories had to have happy endings. But I had fallen for this very limiting idea that without change you did not have a story - with the rider that change meant following some triumphal notion of how things are supposed to be.

When I first went to Princeton I put my boarding school time away, not as in life but into a literary wax museum version. In the college time I tried even to like spectator sports while also focusing on my own interests, stirring writing and radical politics and nightlife. I drank heavily to get around how distant what was around me was from anything that deep down I honored. As for my boarding school time, which had given me life, I dismissed it. I picked up on a college roommate’s label for the place, “Holderness in the wilderness,” which helped me bury the story.

Many years later when the Authentic Writing program was in full swing the school mandates for correct stories had been refined even further. Now kids where being taught something called rhetorical modes, which seemed like something from the 19th century, and there were classes where you were told that every story had to have two elements that in fact are but rarely found in life – an epiphany and a resolution.

By the time I heard these new dictates I was quite willing to admit that college was as bad as it seemed. And that it had seemed bad in large part because I had had something else to compare it to - which was the period in boarding school when I came into my own, and chords in literature resonated with who I was and what I wanted. I had had such a big experience in boarding school that I was not ready to accept social nastiness and pretentious academic attempts to control art as my yardstick for measuring what I came to know. I was not ready to become a good, gray Princeton man. But I was not ready either to completely give up the fictional disparagement of what loved or the fictional glorification of what I hated. And so I drank.

The boarding school story had indeed contained more change than any writing teacher could order up – but I had not seen it as the correct story for is did not fit the classic boarding school story. And eventually I realized I had walked away from my early girlfriend for the same reasons I had tried to falsify the school and college times – mainly because she was too real for fiction.

And so more time would go by before I was able to write from the inside, from my own true version of reality, not someone else’s.

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