Thursday, December 15, 2011

What's in a story

One of the things that struck me, as I was listening to my friend Marie's show at Voices of Venus last night, was that we were not just hearing a story, we were getting a look inside the process of writing that was far more effective than any Q&A session where the writer talks about how she does it. I could imagine for a moment that I knew what it was like to be the kind of serious (although, not always serious, if you know what I mean) writer that Marie is.

What she'd done was quite clever, I thought. Asked to bring a storytelling set to Voices of Venus, the kick ass women's performance series, she brought a series of kick ass female characters - her own and others' - and took us through the journey of finding the right ending for one of them. She started with a very real object - a broken hoe, one that she had found when she took over her brother's apartment - and put it in the hand of a character, Mariella, who, I realized as she started telling the story, was the main character in the first story Marie had published. "The Taste of Strawberries," I think I remember it being called. The story ended on a serious downer, and I thought to myself, that's not how it ended the last time I heard her tell it. But that's also the point at which Marie started off on a different story than the one we thought we were listening to. She started telling us a story about making a story.

In trying to find a better ending for Mariella, Marie went on, she looked to other characters. Other emotions to give Mariella, working out, almost backward, who this character was. So she told us another story about a different woman, and when it was done, came back to the last scene of Mariella's story and started it again, but infused with that character's feeling and emotion. She shifted from story to story, some of them her own, some of them other authors', and each time she finished a story, she came back to that one final scene of Mariella's story, with her standing over her husband's grave and having to decide what to do next, and she retold the ending.

It's a risk she took, there. Going back, again and again, to the same scene, the same lines. Telling it again, but then taking it in a different direction each time. (Once, even, when things had gotten really wild, there were zombies. Yeah. I should have expected something like that.) But it paid off. We got to know the scene so well that returning to it rang this familiar motif before Marie did whatever she was going to do with - or to - Mariella. (I mentioned there were zombies; Marie also killed the poor woman off at one point.) Meanwhile we got to hear about King Arthur and Guenivere, Barbara Allen, and a brave girl who only wanted to save, and then avenge, her brother. And come back to Mariella and the grave and whatever the right decision was for her to make.

Like I said, one of the things I really liked about it was the way we got taken along for the fun and sometimes ludicrous ride of trying to work out a story. We got to experience it without being told that's what we were experiencing, exactly.

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