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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Essay. The Difference Between Story Telling & Writing.

There's Story Telling.
And there's Writing.
And there's a Difference.

All words, punctuation, implication, spaces--all literary breath--matter. You see, as an undergrad at Pitt, in the 3 years that I officially declared my major, I spent probably every single Saturday morning writing. 

Seven, maybe 8 hours, to craft 2 page literary analysis essays. What didn't, you cut. Precise. Concise. I argued creatively. But I wrote critically.

So if I had to rank the above disciplines, a student of English Literature: I value the latter. The story has to be good. Make no mistake. But the writing? Better. Ironically, I imagine that those who major in the writing, and thereby who might depend upon such to make a living, probably value the former. Point-in-case: all popular non-fiction/canon, ever. (Including The Hunger Game series. But I won't go there. Either just yet, or ever. But--without getting my doors beaten down with a 2,000 lb. log only to be burnt at the stake with it--I have a lot to say. And ya' probs won't like it.) Writing, sucks.

However, I will bolster this argument by using this book which I picked up at the Atlanta airport to while away my idle lay-over hours and to enrich my relaxing vacation time (I'm in North Carolina, holler!), as an exemplar.

The Butterfly's Daughter
Mary Alice Monroe
New York Times Bestselling Author

Decent read. In fact, carefully read the first 10 pages before purchasing because the last novel I bought and brought home after not getting to know it so well (use this as an analogy for other life lessons), I promptly returned. ... Didn't feel like returning to Hotlanta (had to) just for that.

Interesting characters. Readers' familiarity with them: instantaneous. A flame to a match to a fire. Hardy imagery. Symbolism: immediate and meaningful. To sincerely imbue the plot with a larger commentary on life, Monroe artfully layers the Monarch metaphor throughout theme and character. One that never falls artificial despite its propensity toward sweet.

Maybe courage was listening to her own voice rather than the opinions of others. Paying heed to the call of one's instincts, no matter how small and weak the voice sounded in her ears.

Narrator on protagonist's, Luz a 21 year old Mexican-German woman's, struggle using characteristics such as "courage" and "instincts" to make universal and real this commentary while subtly alluding to the delicate, though strong, nature of the Monarch Butterfly, the central metaphor to and namesake of Monroe's novel (pg. 76).

But it's not great writing. I'm just about 1/3 through the 382 pg. turner. Let me provide a few examples.

1. Make Your Words Count. But Not Your Word Count.
All students of both literature and writing will hear at one point, and most certainly reiterate, that they should take a cue from Hemingway. Mimic his minimalism. It's what your words don't say that should, in fact, be said. Here's a great example. While acquainting us with Luz's absentee mother though Luz herself has not yet met Mariposa nor has any idea of her existence, Monroe writes: "Mariposa's brow furrowed in thought," (p. 109). Get rid of the "in thought,".

A). Concise: The verb "furrowed" implies thoughtfulness. Monroe does not need to hold our hand.
B). What Words Don't Say: By including the "in thought," Monroe almost leads us to, rather than illustrates for us, a conclusion. Even if "furrowed" doesn't directly  imply "thought" for all readers, a great writer trusts readers to draw conclusions. To leave it at "Mariposa's brow furrowed," is to allow readers to conjure individual emotions. So that we personalize the character. Think. Try. As though standing there, ourselves in front of, interacting with, Mariposa. She becomes human.

A great writer relinquishes control so that we readers can create, essentially, our own characters. 

2. Make it Real. (Show, Don't Tell.)
Not yet 1/3 through the novel, and I know where it is going. Worst part is: in the very beginning, I didn't! No spoiler alerts here, but (despite, now obvious, foreshadowing), there's a solid turn-of-events in the novel's beginning. And because we readers experience with Luz, rather than are told about it through the 3rd-person omniscient who might as well be the third-party neighbor who thinks she's omniscient but is really sometimes obnoxious, her hardship, it feels real. We identify. So even if the sheen of the cover and the allegory of the Monarch--I mean who lets a butterfly suffer?--tell us that all will be okay at the story's end, the sourness of these potential plot spoilers and the acrid saccharine aftertaste of the life message still sit well. We readers know that Luz's resolution is a well deserved accomplishment.

Not so with Mariposa (which happens to be Spanish for butterfly...), without a doubt the story's pivotal character. Whom without, there'd be no story to name and no title from which to take this name. Though introduced early in the novel, we readers meet Mariposa in chapter eight. I won't give too much away. Just note that hearing about her past--however horrid our narrator describes it to have been--does not do justice to her character. Why? Again, we already know that by the story's end, all will end well. It is not enough for Monroe merely to describe Mariposa's former disgrace. She must show it. Provide a flashback scene. Open the chapter, and our introduction to her, not with a imagery of her recovery which is how we will travel along side her, but instead, of her demise. Of what courted the telling of this story.

Telling me her current pain? Also not enough. When I hear, "Mariposa's eyes flashed with pain. Sam's calm suddenly infuriated her," I do not feel her rage (p. 115). The descriptor, "eyes flashed with pain," does not allow me to sympathize because instead of marrying this rage with her past, from which it springs, I understand it only in the moment of Mariposa riding horses with and talking to Sam, her therapist-like friend. Sounds sexy, actually. Not dejected. Yet had Monroe brought us along with Mariposa to her darkest hours, a scene like this could have evoked empathy. Understanding.

...So long as she used the write un-words.

.Baby Bun & Squirrel.
Relaxing in North Carolina

Story Telling. 

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Not your typical BarbaraEllen ... but still be constructive. Creative also welcome! xo.