How to tell a story, or not to tell a story

Yesterday I went to a not-so-good play that was, somewhat incidentally, about a novelist who has run out of novel and realizes the most interesting thing she has to write about is her own life. (This ruins everybody’s life, because it’s one of those plays. The guy who wrote it also wrote tv weepie Brothers and Sisters)

I was struck by this as someone who has long wanted to write about things that didn’t happen, but seemingly can only write about things that did happen. What I’m trying to ask is: can a person by force of will become a creator of fiction?

A couple of cliches I know about writing fiction: the people who do it often say they are habitual evesdroppers, which does not point to an innate ability to create, but they also often say they have always been a storyteller, or words to that effect.

I have never been a storyteller, though I’ve always liked trying to say something interesting about people and things they do, actual ones. I suppose I eavesdrop, but honestly most of the time the best you get is an amusingly unlikely sentence, ready for Overheard in New York. Is it possible to become someone who makes up events, and then has the same liking for them as he would have for shit that happened to non-nonexistent folks?

The making up part should be easy. Didn’t Propp say there are only twenty seven stories anyway? Ok, that’s not exactly what he said, but the point is, if one were really determined, couldn’t one just grit one’s teeth, pull a few events out of a hat, connect them, and then trust that plot is character and set about filling things in?

This is not idle musing, quite. This is me asking, because I feel like I’m missing some opportunity (not to be an actual successful author, but to do a thing I might do passably well and might enjoy.) I’ve never understood how composers came up with a novel melody either. Is it possible to become a creative person in awkward middle age?

9 responses to “How to tell a story, or not to tell a story”

  1. Tim says:

    I just started reading Lynda Barry’s What it is, a book about creativity that is highly creative itself. I wish I could say more right now (having only read the first 20 pp), but it promises to be an interesting way to get the creative juices flowing. Barry also teaches seminars called “What it is,” and there’s a Tumblr on which she posts herself reading her students’ stories.

  2. LP says:

    Smearcase, I think you should write fiction. You are a very good storyteller and I think if nothing else it would be a revealing and possibly fun exercise. What’s to lose? Write us a story, man.

  3. LP says:

    Love, the nonfiction writer.

  4. FPS says:

    Ha, thanks nonfiction writer! I want to. I just don’t know how. I will see what this Lynda Barry book has to say to me perhaps.

  5. Dave says:

    The eavesdropper thing makes sense. I think creativity is mostly being a magpie. I agree with the nonfiction writer that you should give it a shot.

    I read the other day of someone using the @horse_ebooks twitter bot (which is hilarious, by the way) as a sort of Oblique Strategies prompt for creative work. This seems like a decent idea.

  6. FPS says:

    Ha, I only know Oblique Strategies via Slacker. Take the most embarrassing detail and magnify it.

  7. josh k-sky says:

    I had an Oblique Strategies desktop widget for a while but they discontinued it so I have to content myself with the webpage. I find them almost always un-useful, although sometimes I go outside when it tells me to.

    I always thought of myself as a storyteller, but aside from some fiction in college, some songwriting with narrative elements, and occasional short pieces dashed off for friends’ readings (which were more fanciful than narrative), I hadn’t really written many stories. Then, in a sneak preview of my eventual career change, I decided to write my first feature, a union organizing movie with the beats and style of a caper. I read the script to Ocean’s 11, outlined it, figured out characters I wanted to get to know, and blocked out my story using O11 as a guide.

    So, yeah. If you have an itch to do it, do it, and cheat until you get it right. And always remember that your taste exceeds your skill. Until it doesn’t.

    (The feature came out OK for a first time. Unfortunately, the O11 script is 145 pages long, which is about 35 pages than a spec script should be. I ended up using it to get into a rewriting class at UCLA extension, where I never quite finished a rewrite.)

  8. PB says:

    I am not sure we are capable of making something completely from nothing, isn’t there some science corollary, like you can’t create matter? It is all recycling, resynthesis, repackaging. Fiction is reconfigured real which is reconfigured the minute you experience it, let alone filtered through memory. Non fiction is collaborative viewpoints, fiction is one person telling how they saw it. This definition may get you in trouble with Oprah but I think it is the truth. My truth. Ha!

  9. josh k-sky says:

    I think film and TV people are less shy about this kind of thing. (And, to be fair, it’s more evidenced in our work.) When I met Jane Espenson (Buffy, Caprica, Game of Thrones) she had recently developed an interest in writing short stories and talked about how she had sat down with, like, six editions of The Best American Short Stories and had developed her own theory of structure and commonality in them. My writing partner said that a recent academic paper did some metanalysis that lined up pretty neatly with her back-of-the-envelope conclusions.