Sunday, December 20, 2009

A good story

I've been reading since I was a boy, perhaps as young as four or five years of age. Growing up in Kishinev, the tranquil, green and sprawling capital of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova, I loved to read. I can still smell the projector my father used to play cartoon story reels, focusing the image on the white ceiling of the room I shared with my brother. The heat of the projector's lamp would warm the film, emitting a distinct chemical scent. We lay in our beds, transfixed on the images suspended above, immersed in our father's voice as he read the subtitles. I don't remember who taught me how to read, but I remember reading, alone, and as much as a year earlier than my classmates. One of my earliest memories is of being sick, in bed, on a school day, wiping the bubbling snot with my sleeve as I devoured Marc Twain's Tom Sawyer.

Our home was filled with books - from beautifully illustrated Russian fairy tales to Jack London's engrossing accounts of survival, Isaac Asimov's strange alien worlds to American-style detective mysteries, usually brought in by my uncle Zonick, and delightful British childrens books about a little boy's beanie propeller adventures through London (Carlson Flying on a Roof). European, Persian, Turkish, Cossack (Taras Bulba!), Viking and Mongol epics filled a column of bookshelves, bookshelf stacked on bookshelf, from the floor to ceiling - an eclectic collection by American standards, but representative of the broad penetration of Euro-Asiatic thought on Russian literature and psyche.

A good story is nothing less than a fix, a drug, a narcotic for the soul. It robs one's mind of awareness over the body's most primitive functions - eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom. How many cumulative hours of my life I have spent holding in a full bladder, writhing and twisting but unyielding, my eyes darting, furiously, until a chapter was complete, until a beloved character's fate was resolved?

A book I recently read by a Kurdish Jew made a connection between storytelling and a con, a ruse for the senses. From the mouth of an old man, or a yellowing page, a good story, I recognized early, was pure, packaged power. In summer school, just prior to entering first grade, I would read from a children's science book to the entire class as we lay in our cots for the afternoon nap. My mother says the teachers would leave the students in my care and go off, probably for a smoke. I remember the pages of the book: pictures of young explorers and a compass (I had a real one just like it), forests and their flora, oceans and their fauna, and space, the glory of Soviet Kosmonavtika (astronautics). Upon returning, our caretakers would discover not a head-supporting elbow had stirred, our minds far too busy traversing the universe itself.

In English and creative writing courses, one is taught to structure writing. First, it is explained, one must free write. A thesis statement is constructed, encapsulating the main points you aim to communicate. Next, a skeleton is crafted, organizing one's main points in some fashion - logic, chronology, etc. Then, each point is fleshed out with its own, dedicated paragraph, one or more, with supporting evidence. Finally, a conclusion summarizes the main points and provides closure to the reader. While the value of such technical writing in a professional context is clear, nothing is more suffocating to burgeoning fantasy than three supporting statements, annotated and cited in MLA format.

No, a good story has no structure and no rules, no allegiance to form or sensitivity to function. Tugging the heart here, stimulating the mind there, seeping in through the crevices of our compassion and churning, coaxing, pleading for identity, for the release of self, for transcendence. We close the cover, turn off the light and stare off into the dark, our mind colliding worlds. Our mind, colliding worlds. Now that was a story.

On My Bookshelf