a meditation on story

I’ve been reading a lot of short stories over the past few years, and I’m a fan. I like a novel (or a series) and I’m always up for some non-fiction, but I think my heart will always be with the short story. I can remember going to used book stores when I was in high school and focusing on old beat up science fiction short story collections. And I will always have some minor regrets that I didn’t keep them all, even moving across oceans.

I remember literature class in high school when we talked through the structure of story, with rising action and then the climax of the action, followed by the denouement. And I love a story that nicely subverts this classic structure.

There are some stories that continue to ring with me, like The Lady and the Tiger, with its beguiling ambiguity at the end. I won’t list all the stories in this category, but beyond the stories whose title I remember, there are other stories, their title long forgotten, whose core idea is still one that rings.

One that still rings particularly strongly, perhaps after having been an associate dean for some years, is a story in which the humble bureaucrat saves the day and gives new life to an alien species whose planet we’ve taken, all the while leaving no fingerprints of his own on the critical decisions.

I like how some basic ideas echo through stories over the years and the decades, but this leads me to think what it says about us that these are ideas that continue to echo. One of these, loosely put, is that we as humans aren’t able to organize ourselves to do well by ourselves, and so we require an external threat to bring us all together. And while I’m not meaning to be pessimistic, but recent world events lead me to think that this basic storyline is one that we might need to rework.

But I’ve been thinking through my own stories that I’m working on, and one thing I find interesting there is the extent to which some of these old ideas echo through what I’m trying to write. Can I do justice to some of these ideas that I can only think of as classic ideas? I would like to think I can, but that’s still a road I’m walking.

But interesting things sometimes happen. There is the occasional idea that seems as though it might lead to an uncomfortable ending. And the question becomes, do I want to work through this idea, among all possible ideas, because there are lots of ideas. And to this, I think the only answer can be, does that idea lead to somewhere sufficiently intriguing to make the journey worthwhile.

And so, stories. We have always been story tellers. We entertained each other by telling stories born from the stars overhead, to each other as we sat around fires we’d wrested from nature. Long let the stories continue.

~ by Jim Anderson on 5 June 2022.

2 Responses to “a meditation on story”

  1. A possibly-interesting book (which I may have mentioned to you before) is Angus Fletcher’s WONDERWORKS, which looks at a bunch of different stories as *technologies*. Fletcher is (in ANATHEM terms) a Procian/Rhetor, so I sort-of have a built-in distrust of him… and a strong desire to go back and re-read both ANATHEM (yes, again) and I.F. Stone’s THE TRIAL OF SOCRATES (which has a lot to say about rhetoric and the Sophists), and probably Robert M. Pirsig as well (ditto). And I should probably move on from the whole Platonism-or-not thing and look at Aristotle. And re-read THE NAME OF THE ROSE. My education is sadly both incomplete and faded…

    • Many thanks for this. I remember enjoying The Trial of Socrates, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is on my list of FOR SHAME, YOU HAVEN’T READ IT YET for later this summer.

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