One fine Easter weekend, having come home from graduate school, I stood in a field where waist-high egg hunters swirled like waterbugs. Their fathers and grandfathers stood in a knot and told each other stories, mostly about tractors they had known.
I stood a few steps outside the circle of men, my arms folded, and I thought to myself, “Ah, yes…here is how men construct community: by rendering experience into shared narrative.”
It makes me blush to admit that I ever entertained such a thought. Not because it’s untrue—for all I know, men do construct community by rendering experience into shared narrative. The embarrassing thing is that I stood outside that circle of men—at a critical distance—and thought I understood more about what they were doing than they understood themselves.
At least I had an excuse: I was only twenty-two years old, and I was in graduate school. In graduate school, what passes for insight is the ability to take concrete, real-life experiences and melt them into abstractions.
Within a couple of months, I had experienced a writerly conversion of sorts. I came home for the summer and got a job on a remodeling crew. One of my co-workers was a seventeen-year-old boy named Jake, who unwittingly launched my fiction-writing career. I have told his story before on the Rabbit Room. Most nights Jake spent in nearby swamps hunting wild boar, without a gun. After his hunting dogs bayed up a hog and caught it by the ears, Jake and his buddies would tie it up and carry it out of the swamp alive. Tough as Jake was, I saw him cry once—after an alligator ate one of his dogs.
I say Jake launched my career as a fiction writer because he presented me with stories that were too good to turn into abstractions. In Jake’s hunting stories I recognized the distillation of experience that is the stuff of great fiction. That summer I decided that if I ever wrote books, they would have more in common with Jake’s stories than with the academic fare I was reading and writing in my graduate studies.
The academic impulse is Platonic. For Plato, ultimate reality is abstract and cannot be detected with the senses. The world around us is a dim reflection of that abstract reality. Art, which imitates nature, is a dim reflection of a dim reflection; it is at a distant remove from the true and the real. Poets are liars, said Plato. He banned them from his ideal Republic.
But the storytelling impulse is Aristotelian. According to Aristotle, stories don’t dilute the truth that is to be found in our everyday experience—they distill it. Stories, when they are told the right way, give us something that is truer than everyday life.
Chesterton, that great Aristotelian, said we’re all like castaways who have survived a shipwreck and wake up on the beach. We don’t remember much about where we came from, but we’re surrounded by the broken pieces of our beautiful ship and its broken contents, and we set about the work of trying to put it back together. That’s what storytelling is like. It’s also what the teaching of storytelling is like. All these broken pieces of truth and beauty are lying about: how do you begin to put them together into something that is a little truer, a little more beautiful than what we see every day?
I am convinced that we’re born Aristotelian/Chestertonians. We look and touch and listen and smell and lick so that the world will give up its secrets. Our hearts leap up at the old stories of long journeys and lost loves and old boys slogging through a swamp in pursuit of wild hogs. The Platonist’s skills of abstraction are important skills, but they can get in the way of good writing. It’s worth noting that those skills are acquired rather than innate. I find that teaching creative writing to adults is largely a matter of peeling away the habits of abstraction and helping writers recover the skills of storytelling and description and characterization that have been there all along. “Writing close to the earth,” as I call it, is about learning to speak again in our native tongue.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.