Finding the Thread of the Narrative
I write because I don’t know what I think until I see what I say.
– Flannery O’Connor*
I have mentioned before that I have a hard time figuring out what it is I’m trying to say about a topic. Usually I flail around for two or three long and involved posts, and then one of you nice people makes a pithy comment that clarifies everything for me, and I go, “Yes! That’s it exactly!”
Well, I have come across a very simple concept to help me tease out specific topics from my big mental basket of fleecy ideas.
I’ve been reading a book called Image and Myth: A History of Pictorial Narration in Greek Art by Luca Giuliani. It’s about the imagery on Greek vases and how to read the stories they illustrate. Defining his terms in the introduction, Giuliani says that images (up until modern art movements, anyway) are either narrative or descriptive:
So what actually is a narrative? The first and most spontaneous answer is probably a simple one: every narrative involves and element of surprise. Thus only something unusual and unexpected can become the subject of a narrative. “For there to be a story, something unforeseen must happen.” (Location 619. His quote is from Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life by J. Bruner, 2002)
A description does not give rise to expectations on the part of the recipient and does not place him in a state of suspense. It limits itself to portraying anything that is the case — on a large or small scale — without occasioning questions as to why something happens or what consequences it will have. (Location 642)
You’d think that since I was a fifth grade teacher, I might have run across these ideas before, but no. I wish I had, it would have helped me give clearer lessons to the kids! We talked about antagonists, protagonists, and conflict, but I think the idea of surprise would have been easier for them to grasp and to achieve in their writing. It would also make it easier for them to know how much description to include — enough so a reader will understand the surprise when it occurs in the story, not so much you bore them to death on their way to it.
Well, I’m not teaching any more, but I am finding the narrative/description concept helpful. After reading interesting research, thinking “What surprised me most?” helped me find the nugget to spin a blog post around. For example, when I was reading about the Minoans and Mycenaeans, I was really surprised that textiles played such a huge role in their economy, and that way back then, the state controlled thousands of sheep, and hundreds of spinners, weavers, and dyers. Using that as my focus helped me know how much background information to give, to make it my sense of surprise understandable.
Sometimes, I skip over things when I first read them, but they surprise me by sticking in my head and begging to be written about, like the silk trains that raced across America, or the tiny medieval illustration of a woman bopping a man on the head with her wool cards. (And then I have to go back and see where I came across them in the first place, and I wish that I kept notes on everything I read.)
And while my quilts and weavings don’t tell stories, I can look back and see where the theme of a surprising idea pulled a piece together. In my butterfly quilt, I was astounded at the number of butterfly species that were out in one pasture on one day, and in the companion pollinator quilt, I was surprised at how many different insects are important pollinators. For future quilts, a focus on surprising ideas would give me a structure to build around, with less mental dithering.
But there are many times I don’t need any narrative. I can just describe a technique and my results – most of us are on the same page as far as the importance of creativity in our lives. I don’t need to explain the cause of my textile experiments or worry about explaining any consequences — I can just put the description out there for you to do with as you please.
So if you ever have the problem of knowing what you are trying to write about, I hope this idea is helpful to you too.
But please feel free to leave additional pithy clarifications in the comments whenever you see fit! 🙂
* I found the Flannery O’Connor quote on two different websites, but not its original location. So I hope it is something she actually said.
Fascinating read! I am also observing in the fiction I read, dialogue and what purpose it serves in writing, character building, moving on the narrative…..
Yes, this is enormously helpful for both writing and quilting, and something I will mull over quite a bit. I have often considered what makes a quilt interesting or boring. Certainly the element of surprise is a big part of that. I recently sent a quilt to a niece and enjoyed it one last time before doing so. It was in turquoises and greens and purples and hot pinks. But one of the things that helped make it “work” was an accent of burnt orange. That was an unexpected color with the others. And my favorite quilts to work on are those that surprise me. Another quilt recently given was one I added blue to only after my husband’s insistence. No, I kept telling him, there is NO blue in this quilt. Well, of course the blue is what made it!
OK, rambling… it’s too early and I’ve been awake since much too early. But again, this was a great post. I’ll read it again and think about it a lot.
I’m glad you liked it! It’s a little out of my usual subject matter but it has been bubbling in my brain and I had to write it.
I agree with you about the benefits of surprising color in a quilt. I think I am good at adding a little touch of surprise in my textiles – and that helps differentiate them from predictable, mass-produced textiles. I was also good at adding a little surprise to the lessons I taught, to make them memorable or just keep the kids awake. So I could add surprise in when I knew where I was going with something. But when I ran into information and ideas that I thought were worth sharing, I had a really hard time figuring out the essence of what I wanted to share. The idea of looking for that initial surprise is going to help me a lot!
I’m so glad you took the time to comment on this busy day!
What a fascinating post! I’ve read about this concept somewhere but in different terms, I think, and, of course, I can’t remember where. I do think that, in our writing, it helps to think about the key point or the “hook” upon which everything is hung. And to think about it as a “surprise” is way more fun than to use concepts like thesis statements!
Giuliani based a lot of his thinking on Aristotle’s Poetics, and he goes further, with saying that there has to be a change of direction in the beginning, that every element has to be important, and the loss of one narrative element would shift the whole, etc. Which is probably true for a real story. But a lot of blog posts are more like conversations, just sharing stuff you read or thought about, and since the same topic can go in lots of directions, I needed a way to pick one direction!
I kept thinking about quilting as I read this post, and the narrative of how a quilt often changes from conception to completion. I call it being guided by voices. The narrative can be shaped by color choices, shapes, textures. It’s why I love seeing what a group of quilters will create from a common theme.
I have experienced that with quilts too – I pick a starting point and then see “what the quilt wants.” But in writing, I just had such a hard time picking the starting point! I am amazed at how often I don’t generalize skills from one form to another! And then it seems so obvious when I finally figure it out. 🙂