Monday Motivation: It’s our job to make sense of the world
It’s part of the pedagogical lexicon of writing classes: don’t write just one damn thing after another.
The temptation to do so is especially strong when you’re writing memoir or biography. But it lurks in the undergrowth for all writers, whatever their subject.
Consider the story a biographer is writing.
On Monday, the subject of the biography hears that she’s won the MacArthur Genius Prize. On Tuesday a hailstorm destroys the vegetable garden she’s been tenderly nurturing. On Wednesday, she learns that she is pregnant. On Thursday, she receives a letter from a long-lost suitor who declares himself still madly in love with her. On Friday, her father dies. On Saturday…
Now, these events might all have been true – but the problem is that they simply happen, one after another. There’s no connective tissue binding them into a single, compelling narrative. This creates real problems for the non-fiction writer. What to do about random unrelated events?
The non-fiction writer has to select. She decides that of the five incidents that occurred in this momentous week, only three serve her purpose. There’s the enormous and exhilarating news of the MacArthur award. It comes (as the MacArthur prize always does) without warning. It is implicit recognition of the work she’s done in the field of performance art. Her most loyal supporter through the lonely years of obscurity, was her father. He’s the first person she phones to tell the good news. They make ecstatic plans about how she’s going to use the money to embark on her most ambitious work yet…
Then she learns she’s pregnant. Her first reaction is, ohmigod, what’ll this mean for my project? Her second thought is: joy. She tells her boyfriend the news. He responds with appropriate enthusiasm and support. She phones her father… and discovers that he’s had a cardiac episode and has been airlifted to hospital. Her personal roller-coaster is about to plunge into the abyss.
Then, with her at his side, he dies – but not before he tells her that he believes in her and the audacious target she has set herself, and not before she has told him of her pregnancy…
Now we have a story. The apparently unrelated events flow from one to the next. The winning of the prize affects the way in which she responds to the news of her pregnancy. Her relationship with her father affects the way in which she responds to the winning of the prize. His death is, of course, a deeply wounding blow – but it serves to feed her ambition to prove herself a daughter worthy of his love and support.
What of the suitor with his unwelcome declaration of eternal love? What of the devastation caused by the hailstorm? Well, the fact is, they might well be part of her life, but they are not part of the story the writer is telling.
Stories make sense of reality. They provide the emotional, or causal links between incidents. I love my father, therefore I will share my good news with him first.
Poor journalists give you the facts of a story. Great journalists explain how those facts are related. They help us make sense of the world.
Whether we’re writers of fiction or of fact, that is our job. We tell stories to help people make sense of… love. Of betrayal. Of ambition. Of disaster. Of crime. Of conspiracy. Once we understand this, we understand the need to show the links between cause and effect, between the dancer and the dance, between the archer and his target.
P.S. These thoughts were inspired by my re-reading of a long article by Rian Malan concerning the extraordinary career of the 2i/c of the National Prosecuting Authority, Nomgcobo Jiba. The tale of her rise and rise and fall is extremely complicated. In the article, first published in Good Governance Africa, Malan navigates his way through the thickets to make sense of her career, her allegiances, and her sometimes inexplicable decisions. The article has been rightly praised by many.