Sunday, November 16, 2003

Thought of the Day: chronology and personal narrative
Is narrative inherent or imposed on a person's life? Is a person's life a story? Or is story a device we place on someone's life to try to get a hold of it? I've been thinking about this as I do some personal profiles for the Trib: one on a rabbi who was a tour guide in Israel and whose parents were Holocaust survivors, another on a Filipino immigrant and his latest business venture here in Chicago. I introduce them by describing and quoting them, but you can't do an profile without the when and what of their lives. In the case of the rabbi story, this is especially true, since the theme of the story is how unexpected occurrences have strung her life together. But is life essentially a chronology, or is it not a temporally defined experience?

My questions of this were fleshed out by the profile of screenwriting workshop guru Robert McKee in the New Yorker's recent Making Movies issue. McKee is the guy portrayed in Adaptation, when Nicholas Cage is asking these kinds of questions--how life is like and unlike a story, why certain kinds of storytelling conventions resonate with audiences (according to Hollywood, anyway). How does life amount to what happens, and how does life transcend what happens?

Stories, McKee says in his seminars, are "metaphors for life." The New Yorker quotes Barbara Hardy as saying “we dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative.” The profile continues:

McKee seems persuaded that real life has the shape of a story-there are third acts, even if they may have a second-act air about them. “Yes, there are turning points, and points when the curtain comes down-ta-da!-then the thing starts again.” For all McKee’s gloom, and his love of stories in which grown men cry ... he is driven by a kind of melancholy optimism: “Hopefully, you can live in a way so that you can die with the notion that, on balance, the sense of achievement outweighs the regret.” ...

In McKee’s description, this is what a story is: a human being is living a life that is more or less in balance. Then comes the “inciting incident.” (McKee borrows the phrase from “Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Screenwriting” which was written in the late forties by John Howard Lawson, the first president of the Screen Writers Guild, and an inspiration to McKee.) The protagonist reacts, his life falls out of balance, and he now has had aroused in him a conscious or unconscious desire for whatever it is that will restore balance-“launching him on a quest for his object of desire against the forces of antagonism.”

But is this really who we are, or who we are about? The sum of our "inciting incidents," our achievements and failures, our loves and partings? Or is the human person something else, someone whose essence these models only begin to explore? For example, you could say a person is defined by her relationships with other people and God, her personality traits, her thoughts, her emotions. When she dies, those are the most important measurements of what has been lost. And perhaps the elements of achievement and progression in McKee's story archetypes are empty exercises whose worth does not match dread of death. But as Adaptation asks, why do we need a story--why aren't those wondrous orchids compelling enough without some kind of progression, without a narrative arc?

McKee sketches out the “Classical Design” model--as the New Yorker describes: stories with causality, closed endings, linear time, an external conflict, a single, active protagonist. (He ignores a question from the audience that inquires about the meaning of the success of banal blockbusters, as the New Yorker summarizes: "are some resonant stories not metaphors for life? Or are the fans of 'Titanic' leading lives that make lousy metaphors?") The way he talks about himself suggests McKee's own fear of death shapes him the same way he says it shapes characters. The New Yorker piece ends with him talking to a friend about Adaptation ahead of time and saying, “I cannot be a character in a bad movie. I can’t be.” Of course, the New Yorker piece was itself a story about McKee--talking about where he got what degree and what accomplishments (and failures, including a long unfinished novel) compose his life. For a piece about story, it never suggests to us whether this story about McKee is how we should know him and understand him. After reading it, I feel like I've sat in on one of his seminars, but not that I know who he is. To know another person, story alone won't cut it.

Related: When writers turn their friends into characters, from the Sydney Morning Herald
Previous Thought: Does everyone keep to a comfort zone?

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