Setting a Story in Motion
by Bonnie Nadzam
Midway through writing Lamb, my heart misgave me. I knew, could feel as a sort of misaligned bone in my rib cage, that there was something wrongheaded if not dark-hearted in the way I was writing it. In fact, I was not unlike Lamb’s manipulative and deluded protagonist, who tells stories to convince himself and others that abducting an eleven-year-old girl is in her best interest. There was violence in my initial impulse—a thinly disguised attempt to protect and polish my ego. The draft I was working on was misleading, and in a very particular and insidious way. It was, at that time, a version of Lamb that pointed many fingers at questionable human behavior, never acknowledging my own capacity for and history of speaking and acting in the ways David Lamb, Tommie, and Linnie often do. I put the manuscript away for a summer and didn’t write a word. These were days of sitting still, of talking to friends and family, of trying not to flinch when peering into my own heart.
If you can’t learn about an author’s personality by the formal elements of the novels he or she writes, you can perhaps read, indirectly, something of the author by the novel’s implied author (a term coined by Wayne Booth that is distinctive from author and narrator and by which he means the persona and values we attribute to a real-life author, based on the literature itself). In fact, I would even argue that you can sometimes tell what an author wants his or her implied author to look like. Not a bad way to establish a cult following, to sell books, or to unconsciously reinforce the person you wish you were, rather than the person you are. The former may be particular to a contemporary market, but the latter motive is, I suspect, fairly timeless.
There are so many ways to play each other and ourselves false. What exactly was I attempting to do by writing Lamb? Whom or what was I serving as I wrote? I want to believe that whatever my aim, it had little or nothing to do with any of the ways stories can be told to hurt and destroy. Such is the practice that David Lamb, Linnie, and Tommie spend a tremendous amount of time and energy learning to master. They are each so good at it. And it’s a talent that seems to spread like fire.
The following September, I threw away that entire first draft of Lamb. It was hundreds of pages. And by “threw away” I mean deleted permanently from the world and all computers. But what became increasingly clear to me as I worked on a new manuscript, with a “new” approach, was the slyness of that ego, the endless opportunity in three hundred pages to deliberately and then unconsciously sneak in an adjective, a single word, here or there, suggesting worlds of authorial backstory reinforcing the story I’ve long told myself about who I am. Cultural values, religious beliefs, political opinions, special knowledge, eating habits…
I’m not quite sure what the difference is between this matter of consciously and unconsciously creating an implied author as I describe it, and the perfected aesthetic objectivity some attribute to, for example, Shakespeare. Perhaps there is none. But there seems to me some subtle and significant difference between the two. I’m not thinking so much here about artistic skill, but, more broadly, what it is we’re aiming for in this neverending dialogue of and about literature, and how we get in our own way. After all, all kinds of things are set in motion when a person tells and/or responds to a story—some willfully, others more mysteriously. Especially when we’re telling stories without noticing we’re doing so.
Bonnie Nadzam was born in Cleveland, went to high school in suburban Chicago, and has moved continually westward since then. She studied English literature and environmental studies at Carleton College, and earned an MA and PhD from the University of Southern California. Her fiction and poetry have been published in The Kenyon Review, The Mississippi Review, Story Quarterly, Callaloo, The Alaska Quarterly Review, and others. She taught at Colorado College, where she served for two years as the Daehler Fellowin Creative Writing. She is married to her childhood love and lives with him in the Rocky Mountains.
This article originally appeared in the September 2011 edition of the Other Press newsletter. Click here to subscribe.
read full text