Getting There

Gavin Shulman '05, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

The Challenge

How many times, the morning after, have you told someone an absolutely hilarious story about something that happened the night before only to be met with a blank stare and a locked jaw? The worst, isn't it? You could have sworn that when your friend Steve fell off the stool and sliced his head on the same can that he had crushed on that same head only one hour earlier, it was the funniest thing you had ever seen. So, when you tell the story next day, you're always shocked when someone doesn't find the same amount of satisfaction in such a hilarious tale. You stand around, after the punch-line, awkwardly, in silence, staring at your audience, wondering where you went wrong, and what could have been so different about last night that the morning after has no sense of humor for. And then, red-cheeked and sweaty, you come to the conclusion, the only conclusion possible in times like these, the all-time classic excuse for a story gone bad, "Oh, I guess you had to be there."

Because, if you were there, if you had seen the way Steve slipped and the gash that that can had left on the side of his face, if you had heard the way he cursed after getting up, the way he had looked around all disoriented and asked if it was bad, the way he worried if it would leave a scar, if you had been sitting there, right next to him, as I was, there is no way you would be staring at me with that straight-face right now. You would be on the floor yourself, praising me for my story-telling abilities. You would be wiping the tears from your eyes and the front of your pants. You would want to hear another one.

But, alas, you were not there. You are here, now. And now, that story from there, and then, is simply not funny. So, I'm left, as in the first paragraph, standing in front of you, with a nervous sweat running from my arm-pits, entirely embarrassed, wishing I had never opened my mouth in the first place, and offering in a lame, weak whisper, "Oh, I guess you had to be there."

This having to be there, then, creates quite a challenge for any person attempting to tell a story. How do we compensate for that inevitable delay between something happening and our opportunity to relate it? How do we go about ensuring that something from the past will receive the appropriate reaction in the present, and on a larger scale, the future? How do we make a story work, so we can save our excuses for the next time? What is it that writers do, armed only with words, to overcome this necessity for being-there-ness? Well, actually most do exactly what it is that all of us do when we want to tell a good story; we lie.

We use what we have. Our advantage as story-teller is simple; the person receiving the story was not There, and we were. In other words, There is whatever we tell them There was. So, we fudge it some. We exaggerate, we re-create, we humiliate. We raise the stakes a little. We make the person wish they were There. We make them so jealous of our having been There that they have to laugh even if they don't want to. We wrap them up so tightly in our There that they have no option of not being present. We describe how the blood dripping from Steve's face on to the floor was forming puddles deep enough to drown a gerbil in. We imitate the sound of Steve's head slamming in to the can by smacking the table in front of us. We share the string of profanity that Steve shouted towards God, Jesus, and every other heavenly body who helped to draw up his fate. No one cares that most of the blood actually ended up on Steve's shirt, or that the collision of his head and the can resulted in more of a dull thud than anything else, or that most of his profanity was directed at the general "mother." We invent a There that will work here, one that is sure to make for a good story.

This is what we call fiction writing. You didn't have to be There, because There never existed. There is being created and altered every time you flip the page. There is whatever I tell you There is. If Steve fell, Steve fell, and that's funny, because you didn't know it was coming, and everyone else who is There, who I put in There, is laughing at him, and in There it is very funny that Steve fell. Fiction does not require the reader to put themselves There, it puts them There itself. That is the staying-power of fiction, There is always now.

But, this is problematic, for the nonfiction writer. They have rules against that sort of thing. That can ruin a reputation. In nonfiction the writer has to stick to the facts. Lying is not allowed. Non-fiction is allowed to color, but it has to stay within the lines.

This is why nonfiction presents the story-teller or writer with a much stiffer challenge. Now, There was a reality. Writers can not just invent a There to fit their fancies. Now, it needs to be actual, to be factual, to be true. Thoreau's cabin in the woods was not a creation of the whims of a creative mind; it was his home, the place by the pond where he could transcend, his There. Thoreau is not allowed to imagine the color of his walls, unable to conceive of a scent that he does not smell, incapable of hearing a sound that does not slip through the walls and inside of his ears. He is limited to his senses, to reality, to replication. He must render a There that is there, one in which the readers can relate to and even visit the There he is writing about.

The Answer

So, how do nonfiction authors, without the aid of imagination and lies, put the reader there so that the story they wish to tell remains effective? One of the most obvious methods would be observation. If a writer can gain a mastery of his or her own There, noticing every hue of the ground, every odor of the air, every feel of the breeze, then that writer can create a physical There that becomes real enough for the reader actually to enter. There must be the complete picture though, no holes. The reader needs to be able to walk confidently through There, stepping in the foot-steps left behind by the writer, and knowing he and she will not slip. This technique of reconstruction of the There can be seen in various forms and texts of nonfiction writing.

Annie Dillard, for example, in her edited journal Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, puts us There, on the banks of Tinker Creek, by way of vivid description and sensual re-creation:

It's the most beautiful day of the year. At four o'clock the eastern sky is a dead stratus black flecked with low white clouds. The sun in the west illuminates the ground, the mountains, and especially the bare branches of trees, so that everywhere silver trees cut into the black sky like a photographers negative of a land-scape. The air and the ground are dry; the mountains are going on and off like neon signs. Clouds slide east as if pulled from the horizon, like a table-cloth whipped off a table. The hemlocks by the barbed-wire fence are flinging themselves east as though their backs would break. Purple shadows are racing east; the wind makes me face east, and again I feel the dizzying, drawn sensation I felt when the creek bank reeled. [10]

Without falsifying her setting, Dillard is able to establish a living, breathing There that the reader can envision and embrace. Her story, all that she wrings out of her experience and journey alongside Tinker Creek, hinges on this physical There that she has depicted for the reader. We do not need to be there, we are there. She has planted us here, simply sticking to the truth of what she sees.

Travel writing also relies heavily on this construction of setting, but in this genre it is even more challenging to create the There because of the exotic and foreign components of the environment. In travel writing readers are expected to have no frame of reference for the There, yet the writer is still supposed to put them There, right in the thick of things. That is the purpose of travel-writing, to introduce readers to a There they have never experienced or witnessed before. A There completely different from the Here.

One way to do that, once again, is with the physicality of this foreign environment. With what you see; the land, the horizon, the sky, skin-colors, architecture, trees, fog. What you can paint with words. With the sounds of the street, what wakes you up in the morning. With the food. What it tastes like, what texture, what it's made of, and how bad does it smell. What the weather is like. Whether people whisper or yell. What they talk about.

But, this is only half-there. Any place contains more than what your senses can perceive alone. One must use their mind as well. A place requires contemplation. That is why D.H. Lawrence can visit an entombed There and almost make us believe it still exists:

There is a simplicity, combined with a most peculiar, free-breasted naturalness and spontaneity, in the shapes and movements of the under- world walls and spaces, that at once reassures the spirit. The Greeks sought to make an impression, and Gothic still more seeks to impress the mind. The Etruscans, no. The things they did, in their easy centuries, are as natural and as easy as breathing. They leave the breast breathing freely and pleasantly, with a certain fullness of life. Even the tombs. And that is the true Etruscan quality: ease, naturalness, and an abundance of life, no need to force the mind or the soul in any direction. [12]

This is a different way of rendering the There. It is the rendering of the mood, of the tone of a place. What one feels not externally, but internally. How does the history of the place matter to the present? Why do the people behave the way they do? What goes unspoken? The mind opens up a whole other perspective on a place, one above where the senses are confined. With the use of the mind the writer can create a three-dimensional There; one in which the reader may be able to wander alone. The reader is not only There but is involved in the active exploration of his or her surroundings. In this case, the There creates insight into the Here.

Memoirs, the increasingly popular literary genre, as writers continue to search for a dominant narrative but unable to find one turn to themselves, present an additional challenge for the writer's construction of There. In these texts the There is not merely a foreign location, another place, but it is a personal past. Now a time needs to be created as well as a texture.

The creation of There in a memoir requires much more subtlety. For example, instead of a travel narrative where characters are met at random on the way, people who offer a place to sleep, people who buy a drink, people who are passed on the street, in memoirs, characters usually stick around for a while. Characters need to be developed, fleshed out. The fawn-faced boy of Lawrence's Italy is fine for a single image, but is far from sufficient to build a narrative around. That is why the characters in Sara Suleri's Meatless Days, her family, are composed of a much more complex, thick substance. These characters are necessary for her There. To Lawrence and other travel-writers the characters they encounter are what is There. To Suleri, however, the characters of her story, are what There is.

That is why she makes such efforts to tell their stories. The stories of the women who "don't exist" in the physical third world but exist in her own personal There. That is why she can not reduce her characters to simple summations. It would only be silencing their stories again. Her mother is not merely a Welsh woman in Pakistan, her grandmother is not just an old-fashioned, traditional Muslim, her sister is not simply a maternal being. Every character is composed of contradiction. Every character has a story that contributes to Suleri's sense of There.

When Dadi, her grandmother, renounces prayer after receiving extremely serious burns all over her body, Suleri sees this as a representation of the change that will take place throughout her There, Pakistan. "When Dadi patched herself together again and forgot to put prayer back into its proper pocket, God could now leave the home and soon would join the government" (15). Without her characters Suleri has no other way of understanding what is happening in Pakistan. You couldn't see the change in the sky, it wasn't being shouted in the market, no one could smell it, but it was happening. Her There was shifting and reforming, and Suleri was searching, through her characters, for a way to make sense out of it.

In a memoir an author must discover every and any way to get the audience There. Whether this is setting, characters, dialogue, historical context, every angle needs to be explored so that the reader can relate. If the author can't get them There, put them exactly where they were when whatever it is their tying to tell occurred, then the audience will not be transported, and will not care. A memoir writer needs to make the reader care about their own, personal There, even though the reader was never There themselves and can't really go any time in the near future.

The final genre of nonfiction writing I wish to explore in our on-going journey toward There is commonly referred to as sage-writing. This writing is concerned with the realm of ideas. That is the most important distinction from any of its alternative nonfiction counterparts. The sage is after the truth, not the story.

At first, one may be puzzled at how sage-writing could even fit within this There theme that has been dealt with so far. These writers are not describing foreign locations, they are not combing the depths of their memory, they are not trying to transport the reader any place else but where they sit. What There are they even attempting to create? What There had we to be There for? The very fact that there is no specific There in these writings of the sage is what is so important about the works they produce. This timelessness. The fact that you did not actually have to be There. That what they are writing extends out of There and maintains a foot-hold in Here. For a piece of sage-writing to be effective, it must not be limited to a There. It must be divorced from There. It must be universal, free, infinite, eternal.

That is why when Ruskin offers his plan for an Exchange he does not merely present an architectural sketch, something concrete, an appropriate solution for his assignment. He takes his opportunity to say something true of architecture always, something about the fundamental nature of architecture that will remain as long as any building stands.

Now, pardon me for telling you frankly, you cannot have good architecture merely by asking people's advice on occasion. All good architecture is the expression of national life and character; and it is produced by a prevalent and eager national taste, or desire for beauty. [233]

You do not need to be There, in England, in the nineteenth century, to understand what Ruskin is pointing to. He refuses to confine his message to time or place. He refuses to rely on a specific, established There.

The same can be said for Thomas Carlyle and his message in "Signs of the Times." The irony of this piece is that it is written to display the importance of now, yet retains its value over a hundred years later. Carlyle continually informs us that looking to the future is a waste of time, but time is unable to make a waste of his writing. His message maintains its significance in that very same future that Carlyle tried so hard to avoid considering. Carlyle and Ruskin had the ability to root their works in the There of their existence, but still have the branches grow out to shadow and shade the Here of the present. They have forever merged There with Here. That, I suppose, is why they call them sages.

The End

And that's enough of that. Truth be told, when I sat down to write this, I had no idea it was going to come out so serious. I really thought I was going to be much more creative. None of those quotations, discussion of genre, techniques of writing, I just thought I was going to do a little poetic waxing on having to be There and hating when a good story goes bad. I had no idea it would take such a boring turn.

Honestly, in the now and here, as I write this, I wish you had been There, when I first thought of it. Because, then, this was a great idea. It was so exciting. I had so much I was going to say. I was going to liken There, the past, to a dream. How when you try and tell a dream to someone and realize towards the middle that it makes absolutely no sense, so you start messing with the chronology a little. Start making up characters who were there. Changing things. All of a sudden the dream had a plot, made sense. The past is a dream that we pull narratives from. Then and There disappear like that, and all we are left with is our own, selected memories.

And I was going to talk about telling a joke for a second time. Either because you want to repeat it because you don't think enough people heard you the first time you made it, or because only the half the people heard it and those that missed out are complaining that they didn't get a chance to hear it themselves. In any case, you're trying to repeat the magic of a good joke. How you could either say it as it was said, or subvert it a little. If you try something different there's a good chance it won't work, something different isn't what got you the desired response. But, if you just say it again, the timing's thrown off and at best you'll earn half the first laugh. Really, either way, you're screwed. A lesson about vanity; don't ever repeat a joke.

I was going to talk about the stories that you can tell over and over and why that is. How your favorite stories, your best stories, the stories you have to tell, are immortal because they never change. They're always There, locked in the moment. The outcome is always the same. The punch-line will never surrender its fist. They do not float out in somewhere, they are That Time. That trip. That drive. And they will always have that that, and that that will always ensure the There. People love a story that they know has been told a million times before. It enables to them to believe it.

Oh, I had so much to say There. It was great to be There. Honestly, I wish for your sake that you had been able to come. All these ideas were so much fresher. So much more to the point. Now, I'm not even sure what the hell I'm talking about. Wait, that's an idea.

You should go There. You all should. I'm telling you, it's an excellent place to be. Trust me. There is awesome. In There the ideas always make sense. In There the stories are always funny. In There, Here makes no difference. Willingness is really the only thing you need to get There. If you allow yourself to go, nothing can prevent you from entering. There is beautiful. Every color, ever scent, every sensation is There. Every thing that you need to escape is There. All that you desire is out in There for the taking.

So, where are we left? Well, I guess with that hilarious story about Steve. There we are, sitting around in a circle, in the cement common room of a packed-up friend, all of us, laughing and talking and having a great time. The walls are bare and the breeze from the outside smells of relief. The cold is good for stress. Steve, in a fit of the moment, because he thinks it will be funny, takes a silver Coor's can and crushes it on the front of his skull. We all laugh wildly. Steve's a weird guy and we all love it. Then, about one hour later, we're all still sitting around, laughing more talking more and having even a better time, when we see Steve, leaning on the back legs of his stool, lose his balance, and slip sideways, crumbling down like a civilization, until he slams to the floor. We all laugh like high enas, nothing can be funnier, until Steve lifts his face off the floor, smeared with red blood, and holding the crushed can in his hand. It makes one think that coincidence must be part of the plan. Oh man. How funny is that?

Still not laughing? Really? Well, I guess you had to be There after all.

Works Cited

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harpers & Row. 1974.

Ruskin, John. Unto This Last and Other Writings. "Traffic." Penguin Books. 1985.

Suleri, Sara. Meatless Days. The University of Chicago Press.1987.

Lawerence, D.H. D.H. Lawrence and Italy. "Etruscan Places." Penguin Books. 1972.


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Last modified 15 December 2003