Epistemological storytelling

There’s something epistemological about storytelling. It’s the way we know each other, the way we know ourselves, the way we know the world. It’s also the way we don’t know: the way the world is kept from us, the way we’re kept from knowledge about ourselves, the way we’re kept from understanding other people.

–Andrea Barrett

Creatures of narrative

Memory, according to Bergson, occupies the space between mind and body. It conveys mind to body and body to mind. It gives us our quality of life—makes possible, in other words, the narrative that keeps our lives going forward to the next thing. If the thing is not next it loses its richness—isolated and unlinked to a history, it becomes meaningless, even ridiculous. Biologically and neurologically, we are creatures of context, of narrative. . . . By nature, then, the activity of the neuron is narrative, metonymic, associative.

–Karen Brennan

Defining story

Four quick paraphrases:


Algis Budrys:

  1. A character,
  2. in a situation,
  3. with a problem,
  4. who tries repeatedly to solve the problem,
  5. but repeatedly fails, (usually making the problem worse),
  6. then, at the climax of the story, makes a final attempt (which might either succeed or fail, depending on the kind of story it is), after which
  7. the result is “validated” in a way that makes it clear that what readers saw was, in fact, the final result.


Geoffrey A. Landis:

  1. Require the character to make a choice,
  2. show that choice through actions, and
  3. let those actions have consequences.


Jim Shooter:

Introduce the character (“Little Miss Muffett . . .”), introduce the status quo (“sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey”). Establish the antagonist and conflict (“Along came a spider”), build suspense (“and sat down beside her”), increase the conflict (“and frightened Miss Muffet”), and resolve the conflict and provide a denouement all at once (“away”).


Steve Barthelme:

A story follows an active character through emotionally charged experiences which change him or her.


Here are some questions I was asked about “Feast,” one of my stories, as part of a class called Writing for Social Change.

  • What inspired you to write this short story? Was there an event that led to it?

No specific event led to the story. I’ve been giving homeless people cash for years and wondered, usually in the act of trying to be helpful, if I was doing a good thing. At least once, my son and I have been together and been asked for help or decided to be helpful. A friend from New York, while visiting Salt Lake City, commented on the number of homeless men here. Members of my immediate and extended family have debated the issue. I have relatives who are working, in their way, to alleviate extreme poverty in developing nations. The question of how to best be helpful, it seems, ought to be a more important one. Rather than an event, the collection of influences listed above led me to the story.

  • What did you hope to understand about social class by writing “Feast?”

I was less interested in understanding social class than in presenting the experience of a character. Social class is undoubtedly one of the forces active in that character’s life, an extremely important one, one more influential than he knows, but it’s not the only force acting on him. He needs to make decisions about what kind of person to be, what kind of relationships to have, with a range of forces seeking to influence him. Part of what I wanted to do was capture his experience within this web of forces. This seemed worth doing because most readers will probably be living within a similar set of forces or influences. The character’s hypothetical experience can be something readers consider in light of their own lived experiences.

  • Was this piece meant to be about social change? Or, how do you think it fits the category of writing for social change?

I remember, as I wrote it (in 1989), not being sure how it would end. I remember asking myself why the sorts of events I was trying to describe didn’t happen more often in the real world and then what would happen if they did. Those questions led me toward an ending. Sometimes the ending seems like a literal cop out.  I remember not wanting the story to be didactic. Didacticism is counterproductive. Years ago, I reread the story and felt it was. This morning, it didn’t seem so, or at least not in terms of homelessness.

The story is about social change in that it poses a question about a problem. Fictional characters model a hypothetical solution, rather than proscribing one.

  • Do you think that fiction is more effective than academic writing/argument? Why or why not?

There are several ways of thinking about this question. One is that fiction is argument by another means. It appeals more directly to ethos and pathos, for example, than academic writing and argument. The difference between fiction and argument is one of degree, of which appeals are emphasized and which strategies are used. Fiction brings about social change, perhaps, using a different set of tools than more overt arguments.

Another way of thinking about this question is that fiction generally encourages empathy, shapes group identities and reinforces cultural norms. While they are revisable, these identities and norms are also foundational, glacial. They suggest who gets to be human and who gets to be, among other things, fed. Who is treated how, in other words. These narratives need to be questioned, revised, and shaped, but such changes happen extraordinarily slowly. The stories we tell each other, in tiny but persistent ways, influence larger cultural norms. Whether parables or fairy tales, part of the reason stories are persistent is that they are memorable and that they are repeated and recycled often.

Academic writing and arguments also influence these larger norms, but not at the glacial level. Academic writing and arguments happen within a context shaped in part by cultural norms and those norms have in turn been shaped by stories, some of them extremely old and some in dire need of revision.

  • In your own words, what is the message you hoped to convey to your readers?

These aren’t my own words, exactly, but I like them: “Be excellent to each other,” especially, I’d add, when doing so is difficult.



A ticket to escape

Alexander Chee:

To write is to sell a ticket to escape, not from the truth but into it. My job is to make something happen in a space barely larger than the span of your hand, behind your eyes, distilled out of all that I have carried, from friends, teachers, people met on planes, people I have seen only in my mind, all my mother and father ever did, every favorite book, until it meets and distills from you, the reader, something out of the everything it finds in you. All of this meets along the edge of a sentence like this one, as if the sentence is a fence, with you on one side and me on the other.

If you don’t know what I mean, what I mean is this: When I speak of walking through a snowstorm, you remember a night from your childhood full of snow or from last winter, say, driving home at night, surprised by a storm. When I speak of my dead friends and poetry, you may remember your own dead friends, or if none of your friends are dead, you may imagine how it might feel to have them die. You may think of your poems or poems you’ve seen or heard. You may remember you don’t like poetry.

Something new is made from my memories and yours as you read this. It is not my memory, not yours, and it is born and walks the bridges and roads of your mind, as long as it can.

Storytelling sustains

[T]he very act of writing assumes, to begin with, that someone cares to hear what you have to say. It assumes that people share, that people can be reached, that people can be touched and even in some cases changed. . . . So many of the things in our world tend to lead us to despair. It seems to me that the final symptom of despair is silence, and that storytelling is one of the sustaining arts; it’s one of the affirming arts. . . . A writer may have a certain pessimism in his outlook, but the very act of being a writer seems to me to be an optimistic act.

–Tobias Wolff