I admitted to a friend recently that I don’t consider myself a storyteller. I try not to define myself so absolutely, but I consider it an honest description of how I’ve been more than a barrier for how I might become. (I preach to students how they shouldn’t settle into any self-bias because it’s too easy to confirm it and feel the satisfaction of self-fulfilling prophecy; I ought to practice this, right?) Its effect aside, let’s work with the premise.
I’m not a storyteller; however, I do tell stories about stories. You could say that makes me meta or derivative or both. Regardless, none of those qualities strike me as criticisms. What I do well is conceive possible, divergent ways of understanding a single thing; this makes me, I think, at least an effective analyst and teacher of literature. I don’t weave narratives. I take their threads and create tapestries across narratives. I synthesize.
Dare I be bolder?
I build cities out of floor plans. I am the architect of my ancestors’ designs. I create nothing new. I take what is already alive and bring it into communion with other life. I renew what is already made. I make it anew in something else.
It’s been written that “poetry makes nothing happen.” I am yet another embodiment of poetry, making nothing happen. What seems dead is filled with my life’s breath, and it wakes up to dance, a defiant happening. Or the only possibility before the rhythms of the universe. Shall we dance? A silly question. We are already always dancing. Your hairs stand up on your arms when your body remembers this truth, as if saying, “Ah yes. I know this song.” You sway despite yourself.
I say and sway. I say to sway. I don’t know the order. Perhaps there is no order. The happening of nothing.
What prompted this utterance? Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, a passionate examination of essay and memoir, a vindication of writers everywhere grasping at form and persisting anyway in its absence. A writer doesn’t need genre; a true voice fits nothing but itself. And yet it helps to work within a context, to participate in a grand procession and enter your rightful place in life’s boundless feast. Of course, you have no right. There is no place. Still you can’t stop. You must move. Energy flows through you, crying out for substance, and so you impregnate words violently.
Somehow, the words accept your imposition gracefully, and they become yours. Somehow, they just as soon flee your tyranny, and they belong to no one. Somehow, they enter everyone.
Who are you to write? Who are you if you don’t? There is no choice, no question, no escape from this energy engulfing you. Are you a novelist, an essayist, a memoirist? Yes to all and no to all and does it really matter? I write. I am my actions. If I pause to say I’m a writer, does that mean I’ve lost my way? Writing betrays identity. It’s too busy in its own doing and making. So too living.
Pray that you are always nothing, and get lost in the poetry that makes you happen.
And if it just so happens that you find yourself writing…