What Makes Narrative, Narrative

Because You Have To“You have a narrative mind,” a friend recently told me at a holiday dinner.

I thought, “Nice!”

He was making the case that I should be part of the little band of people he wanted to assemble to create a small film society. He teaches film, loves the form, and wants a group of pals who feel the same to watch movies with.

I was glad for his designation, because I notice the word narrative showing up in shiny ways all over the place these days. What strikes me repeatedly is the word’s immediate absorption into the conversational fold, its unquestioned weight and density. I’m fond of the fondness itself for the word, of the appetite people demonstrate everywhere for the need for narrative—maybe kin to poet William Carlos Williams’ what is found there. And I notice that when narrative is lacking in a work (in most forms), it pretty much loses me.

I don’t feel too guilty about that.

In talking recently with a writing friend, I was doing my best to describe a book, which happens to be the second novel following a huge-splash first novel by a tremendously talented and admired writer. I heard myself say that the writing was fine but that it seemed mainly to rehash a character’s condition—a sensibility—in myriad ways. It did not take me anywhere.

“It just sits there,” I said, helpless to find a better way to convey the problem, and then I realized that that was why the work had lost me.

This was an interesting moment for me, because I tend to be the first to seek out and defend stories in which very little happens.

I also happen to write stories like that. (Surprise, surprise.)

I still contend (without much fear of contradiction) that a quiet work, in which plot is minimal and yet in which the reader feels taken on a strange or wondrous journey, is not only entirely feasible but desirable and, when it works well, brilliantly admirable.

Much of the time the journey taken occurs mostly within a character’s head. But what’s essential, for a work to enter us to dwell there ever after, is that some kind of movement, however infinitesimal, be felt. It also matters that the movement feel necessary, integral, and that something ineffable be at stake, if only a character’s grip on the terrifying miracle of life.

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust won the Silver ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.

Site: http://www.joanfrank.org/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/joan.frank.9?fref=ts

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Filed under Joan Frank, Reading, Writing & Editing

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