It’s the fall of 1985. I’m sitting in a classroom at Washington University in St. Louis, participating in a seminar for my master’s degree. This particular seminar is simply entitled “The Nature of Story.”
Of all the novels on the syllabus, the only one I’ve previously read is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The syllabus includes The Sound of the Fury by William Faulkner, A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean, and about eight other novels. As it so happens, the first novel we’re reading for the course is One Hundred Years of Solitude. I first read it in college when it was relatively new and all the rage, about the same time as The Lord of the Rings. I’ve dutifully read it again, and it’s a completely different experience from my first reading. This time, it almost seems like personal history.
The professor leading the seminar asks, in a casual, offhand way, “So, what did you think?” A short silence follows, until one student says, “It’s a ridiculous book. All this business about flying carpets and children sprouting pigs’ tails, well, it’s simply ludicrous. This is what they call magic realism?”
It seems most of the class agrees. We’re an unusual group; I’m the youngest of about 15 people; the oldest is the CEO of the local gas utility. No one had previously read the book except for me.
The discussion becomes a critical pile-on. Finally, the professor asks, “Did anyone actually enjoy it?”
I raise my hand and nod. “I grew up in a place and culture like Macondo,” I say. “It doesn’t seem alien or ludicrous at all. My grandmother and aunts and uncles told stories like this. I know we had flying carpets. And I’m sure there must have been a few kids in my neighborhood who had pigs’ tails.”
I look around the seminar table, and I see some surprise and even astonishment.
“Where did you grow up?” the professor asks.
“New Orleans,” I say.
“Ah,” he says, nodding, “the northern edge of the Caribbean culture. That makes sense. It’s Garcia Marquez’s culture, too.”
Part of what we learn that semester about the nature of story is that story speaks to us very differently than history or sociology or economics or political science. Inherent in the idea of story is something fundamental to our understanding of who we are, where we come from, how we grow up, what we experience, and what we accept as true. A myth can be just as true as a historical fact. In fact, a myth may be more powerful than a historical fact. Story and myth are the building materials of our worldviews, and they shape us in both known and subtle ways.
I’ve read novels since I was seven years old. And now I’m writing them. When I’m asked where the idea for a novel comes from, I can usually pinpoint a moment, an event, something someone said, or even a song (a song was the inspiration for my first novel).
But none of these things explains where the story comes from. The answer to that question is far more complex. It likely goes back to that big green book of fairy tales my mother read to me. It was that ninth-grade English teacher who taught us Great Expectations and made me fall in love with Dickens. It was my grandmother who worked in a cotton factory when she was five years old. Or my other grandmother who scrubbed floors in the big movie theaters in downtown New Orleans to keep her family fed. It was my great-grandfather who was a messenger boy for the Confederate Army in the Civil War. It was Inez the Crazy Woman who roamed the streets of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans and was every mother’s threat for misbehaving children. It was the list of births and deaths in the family Bible published in 1801, and all those names like Octavia, Cora Belle, and Jarvis.
And it was those flying carpets and children with pigs’ tails.
That’s the nature, and the power, of story.
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.