Friday, August 07, 2015
The Power of Narrative
Earlier this week I taught a day-long contemplative arts compendium - presenting practices like haiku, Miksang and contemplative writing all in short hour or two-long snippets. In the micro haiku workshop, which went surprisingly easier than I thought, one woman came back from her perception walk with a few photos and a few short narratives in haiku form. Though I had encouraged the students to cut as close to direct perception as they could, viewing their thoughts as another set of sensory data, I had not explicitly said to avoid narrative. I find it better not to say "don't do this," especially in a short workshop.
And paired with the photos that the narratives explained/interpreted, her work really shone. One shot was an abstract, textural photo of part of a tree trunk, beautifully shot and totally simple, with a lot of space. Her haiku referred to an elephant that she saw there. By itself, the haiku would be too metaphorical, too abstract. By itself, the photo was really more of a texture shot. Together, they made something quite poetic - not haiku, other than in form, and not quite Miksang, other than in form. I told her so, as she apologized when she heard others' haiku and realized that she has a penchant for narrative. I said that her pairing was simply less haiku and more senryu (human-based experience, with more room for metaphor/narrative) and/or a haiga (an image and haiku matched together). In other words, forbidding narrative would have cut off this experience for her, which was rich and affirmative. Especially in a short workshop, where they are going out for a first pass to just see and smell what they experienced.
I encouraged her and the other students to simply play with this - not abhor narrative, but explore what it is like to write "just from senses" and then also from narrative. In Shambhala Art teachings, we call this felt sense (senses) and thought sense (narrative), and what is significant is to understand that felt sense comes (chronologically) first before thought sense. If we can become clear about what we felt (sensed) then what we think (create) can be clearer, too.
Last night, unable to sleep after giving a dharma talk and chatting a little late with some of the attendees, I got some bedtime tea, a nectarine and sat down to relax for a bit, hoping to calm my busy mind. I made the "mistake" of picking up a book I had bought yesterday, Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie. I've had my eye on this novel for forever, wanting to read it, loving her other books and talks. Flush with some fun money, I got this and Lidia Yuknavitch and Ta-Nehisi Coates' latest books at our local feminist bookstore. But when I looked at this short stack of books I know I will love, Americanah popped out. I took a moment to consider - is this a good idea? I am trying to calm my mind, not stimulate it. Good writing can keep me awake for hours longer than I would have had I had my tea and gone back to bed.
I'll just read one page, I thought.
And even as I thought that, I knew it wouldn't work.
And it didn't.
An hour or so later, I ripped myself from the narrative already unfolding in the first forty pages. Gripped by the story of two lovers long lost to each other, obsessing over old love and looking for someone else to fix us, I couldn't put it down. No one died, no mystery to be solved. Adichie's work is direct, funny and powerful. Not even very romantic. Just a hint of narrative did it - wanting to know - will they meet again? How will it work out?
This is the power of narrative. I want to keep going, to find out not just if but how - how will it all come about? How, as a writer, will Adichie negotiate these characters' minds and lives? And chances are, if the reading is that gripping, the writing was, too. Chances are, she wasn't sure herself how the story was going to end, or even how the middle would go. Her surprise is my surprise, and I am along for the ride.
And yet, though our lives, and writing and other creating, are always surprising, the fact is that I am reading a finished product, one that has a constructed stream and a definite beginning, middle and end. The power of narrative comes from this - that it gives us a logic, a backbone, a known and unknown to work with. This is both incredibly genuine and powerful and universal, and can also cover up all that we don't know and never can.
After my father died, my mother, who previously read only French or Russian literature and the New Yorker, suddenly started reading Agatha Christie and other mystery writers exclusively. When she got on my case for choosing Stephen King over Charles Dickens at age thirteen, I shot back at her to look at what she was reading. She said simply that at least with mystery, she knew she'd find out why someone died at the end.
One of the conversations, the longest one, I had last night was with a woman who is about to see her newly adult children. She lives far away from them, and already she knows that she is dreading saying goodbye. "I haven't even said hello and already I am thinking how hard it will be to leave them!" She felt she was crazy - no one else obsesses about this kind of thing. I promised her it is not only truly universal but profound and the core of human suffering. Impermanence. As is the case with most Buddhism, this is what it all comes down to. Stories - even painful ones about how we will have to say goodbye eventually, even depression and obsession - can keep us from feeling the far more subtle and acute pains of life. And at the same time, reading or hearing someone else's stories - literature, creative groups, conversations - really helps us to see we are not alone. With the framework of narrative, things can come together a bit too neatly and we can lose a lot of subtle sense detail. But also with narrative, we can ingest, digest and comprehend other humans' stories.
Without narrative, without the storylines we tell ourselves and others, we'd have a hard time communicating. Narrative is a universal structure, a backbone to how we present our experience. While we don't always need it, 99% of the time it arises naturally - in our minds, our memories, and in what we share or create. As we practice - meditation, contemplation, creativity - we can become more sensitive to the power of this structure, and work with it more mindfully - in our lives as well as in our art.
There's no reason to cut out this way of knowing, thinking, being. No reason to live narrative-free. And yet, if we can recognize that the stories we tell are not concurrent with our direct experience, that there is a gap between what we feel and what we say about what we feel, then we have gained great insight. This also makes our narratives more powerful, more spacious and more real, whether only in our heads, in conversation or on the page or stage.