(13 january 2008)
in grad school, there was this overriding philosophy that every piece of writing had to have a point. not just a central thesis, mind you, but an assertion that spoke to the condition of life in the modern world.
presumably without this people would not be interested. because, presumably, people are very dumb.
so you couldn’t just say, “a rose for emily” and the virgin suicides employ startlingly similar narrative devices. isn’t that neat? or hey, jackie was totally a groundbreaking fictional character! rather, you had to say, the modern voyeurism frequently found in the life of the fast-vanishing interconnectivity of small communities such as starkville, mississippi, circa 1999, is conveyed through the startlingly similar first personal plural narratives of both stories or my friend dana reads celebrity magazines on the way home from work because jackie as fictional character irrevocably altered the course of contemporary media, thus rendering tabloids ubiquitous in the modern world.
i never liked this. which is why i did a creative thesis and why i prefer biography. in biography, the convenient conclusion is death. it’s not we’ve almost reached the end of what i’ve got to write, so i am now going to sum up the many things i think i was trying to say in case you cannot discern them yourself.
maybe this is advantageous for some. maybe there are people who genuinely need a convenient conclusion. i think it gets writers in trouble. it leads to mind-wander and it screws things up.
a few months ago, croftie and i went to see a production of sarah ruhl’s passion play. it was a long play, but at the first two intermissions, we were really enjoying it. it was clever and brilliantly staged. there were elements we did not love (fish periodically, inexplicably paraded across the stage), but we liked it overall.
then came the end.
in the final six minutes of a 4-hour play, we were given five different conclusions. one would have sufficed. five was downright indulgent. croftie and i spent the entire rest of the week puzzling over that play, and it always came back to the end- to the points- which is where it all went wrong. ultimately, we would’ve gladly taken pointless over a hodge-podge.
in the end, the story should hold the point. if something is well-researched and well-written, it has a point by default. yes, you can tell a story without a point (an “empty story”), but if it’s a good story, it’s got one. it may be subtle, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. it doesn’t mean we need the writer to tack on fifty pages of point-making to be sure we didn’t miss it.
to make all this rambling applicable to the modern world- lest anyone lose interest- i finished the ghost map yesterday. i loved the ghost map, pages 1-228. i did not, however, love the end. because suddenly, a story that elegantly twisted and turned its way through the streets and sewers of london became a clunky, heavy-handed treatise on nuclear terrorism and the avian flu.
i felt betrayed, because that was not the point i had imagined we were making. we were talking about how cholera had changed science, cities and the modern world. we were tracing the footprint of an epidemic from one single baby’s dirty linens to the contamination of a well to the intestines of hundreds upon hundreds of people. “the nuclear problem” never entered that picture. and it need not have.
that was my only point. there is no convenient conclusion.