I dislike telling stories. People always say, start at the beginning, and I get lost looking for it. Stories don’t really have beginnings; they’re more like cats. They like to wander in and out as they please, and you’re left picking up small furry corpses and thankful they didn’t bring in a live raccoon this time. As for endings – most people have a pretty good sense of where stories should end. The problem is, they end – and then they continue. It’s like the drive-through scene in Dude, Where’s My Car: “And then? And theeeeen? AND THEN?”.
I think of stories more like moments of small revelation, piling up. When enough of them accumulate, the mystery or displacement or unease driving your interest in the whole thing collapses like a house of cards into a (hopefully) satisfying sense of resolution…until the accumulation begins again. Call it the Snowdrift Theory of stories.
The trick with revelations and resolutions is they are incredibly subjective. Monsieur Poirot closing a case is, realistically speaking, the middle of five or six other narratives that have likely been going on since about the middle of Dame Agatha’s novel. (Some of my most enjoyed early reading material was Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries. One of my earliest life lessons: Blackmail Never Pays.) One can imagine characters coming home for dinner, chatting over mid-century modern and martinis – “Oh darling, you’ll never guess what I heard today. It was the stepson all along!” – and then getting back to the all-consuming business of their own storyline.
So: every story is just a point of view. Call it the Point of View Theory of stories.
It’s also hard to pinpoint stories because, once you know people for a while, you just hear snippets of their life, fading in and out like a radio station.
For example. For most of my life, I thought I knew a story in full. A boy grew to the age of 14, ran away, Did Drugs, Became An Alcoholic, Was Saved, married, and lived happily ever after as a carpenter in the mountains of New Hampshire. It was a pretty good story.
After he lived happily ever after, his wife started hearing voices telling her to divorce him. They were separated for a while and then she came back. They lived happily ever after, again. They restored an antique barn.
After they lived happily ever after, again, he learned he had Hepatitis C.
His wife said she didn’t have time to take him for blood transfusions.
He got sicker and sicker.
His wife, a very loud person, talked about praise and martyrs.
Sometime in the winter, he died. His family didn’t find out until after he’d been cremated. It felt like he just got lost somewhere in the winter and never came out to springtime.
The last part isn’t completely true, because it isn’t true to him; that’s not how he would tell it nor want it told. But it’s true to the pain of loss, like dark water under ice, in the silence of wintertime woods. And even that isn’t an ending, because it doesn’t explain how the dark water and the silence now runs through other lives, changing them in small everyday ways.
Words are different from stories, because words don’t try to give an ending. The purpose of some words is just to help you find a way through. When you’re walking through dark woods, you don’t look to the right or to the left; you look at the path, because if you look away you might lose it. It’s also a bad idea to think too much about where the path goes, either in hope or fear.
From the Point of View Theory, I work with words, rather than stories. I work with words, at the end of stories, outside and around the stories I see, a framework of understanding and a misguided attempt at benediction. I try, over and over, to make some sort of path through the confusion and mess and fear. Faith, hope, and love may abide, but in order to “abide” I have to understand where I am – in the thick of it.
From the Snowdrift Theory, the cards come together to say something like: I may not see a beginning, and I certainly won’t see an end. Lives and events happen around me, some of which I may be aware of and some of which are beyond my understanding. I try to make a neat framework of understanding, but the system is greater than the system.
Pay attention to what is in front of you. You may not see it again. Seek to craft a way through that is better than what is on either side, for anyone who may follow behind you.
Like most stories, this has no true end. But I’ll leave it here. I may wander into it again, like a cat wandering into a kitchen. Or sometime in the future I may again happen on my own tracks, leading into stories for which I can find no beginning or end.