Thursday, June 23, 2011

Kaleidoscope writing

Among the most interesting observations I’ve heard this week at the Aspen Summer Words writers’ conference is this one, from National Book Award winning novelist Colum McCann: “There are no new stories to tell. As writers, we must be kaleidoscopic.”

What a fitting image for the way we writers tell stories, I thought to myself. Kaleidoscopic. You look through a cylinder at a specific object, and you see its colors and approximate form – but it is variegated strangely, and if you turn the cylinder, the colors will change as the shapes will shift. That’s exactly what we do when we tell stories, especially if we are in the genre of day-to-day narrative nonfiction as I am. It’s fair for me to assume that nothing that I write about hasn’t been written about before. Right now there are millions of women writing books, drafting essays and blogging about the same topics I cover: daily life, child-rearing, writing, running, friendships, life lessons. In none of those spheres are my experiences unique, or even unusual. But we each shift the kaleidoscope and watch the pieces break into different shapes, colored in different hues: we each tell the same story a little bit differently.

Sometimes the same story can be told differently even when being told by the same person. When I was growing up, my father told us lots and lots of funny stories about pranks that he and his friends played when they were kids in school, or at camp, or at home. In one of his stories about junior high, a science teacher left the room briefly and all the kids put their heads down on their desks and closed their eyes. When the teacher returned, he thought the students had all passed out, and in his flustered confusion, he flung a chair through a window. I’m quite certain that the way my father told this story amused us when we were young. But years later, I heard him tell the same story with different nuances; in this one he included the detail that the science teacher was a World War II vet, and in this telling it became a disturbing story about a prank gone wrong as the teacher apparently had a post-traumatic stress disorder flashback and thought some kind of chemical had been released into the room and knocked all the kids unconscious, breaking a window out of panic.

The memory has stuck with me for just the reason Colum McCann identified: its shape-shifting, color-changing qualities. Sometimes the same thing happens to me when I remember stories from my own past: something that seemed funny or entertaining at the time becomes unnerving or alarming in retrospect. Lots of my favorite and funniest childhood memories involve glitches in household operations that as a parent myself I now realize were probably sources of frustration rather than amusement to my parents (the way that the Blizzard of ’78 knocked out our electricity for five days, for example).

A simpler way of saying it is just that most of the stories we know vary with perspective. The parable most often used to illustrate this concept is the one in which several blind people describe an elephant, each feeling a different part of the animal. I like McCann’s invocation of the kaleidoscope image, though. I’m exploring the same stories as millions of other writers: stories about children, households, community life, marriage. Shift the kaleidoscope and it’s a little different for each of us, and from there comes the art of narrative.

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