Thursday, October 3, 2013

The DNA of Lasting Story

Although there have been many remarkable meals shared with Digby Wolff, the one that seemed to become the signature meal was  tiny clams and linguine.  Over time, the restaurant narrowed from a few in Los Angeles and one in particular in Albuquerque to one here in Santa Barbara, the Via Maestra 47.

"We need clams," he'd say.  Or perhaps he'd call to ask, "Do you fancy some clams?"

The DNA of story was in most of our meals, but in particular the means with clams and linguine, then the conversation, the interplay of what each was doing, thinking, working on.

One evening, you commented on that aspect of story having an identifiable DNA.  "Stop,"  he said,  "Say that again."

Thus you began your final round of conversations, sometimes growing so animated with excitement that neither of you could finish eating, switching instead to latte or cappuccino and long walks.  "Do you really believe this?"  he'd ask.  "Story with its own DNA?"

"How can it not be?"  You'd say.  "We know the elements,  We use them."  You'd pound his shoulder.  "We bloody teach the elements.  How can they be random and not part of a genome?"

You have the notes and you have the memories.  You sent promises over the telephone, when he was in the hospital, the oxygen tubes running into his nose.  You promised to live long enough to get the book done so that it would be a tangible thing, beyond platters of clams and pasta, beyond feverish emails sent with the fury and intensity of text messages between teenage lovers.

Story does have a structure and a circulatory system.  It pulses idiosyncrasy and as the discussion of it grows more passionate, it becomes as suspect as athletes being questioned about their use of steroids or other enhancements. 

 Sometimes story becomes hijacked in academic discussions whereby it is suspected of illegal enhancements by those who wish it to remain closer to morality tracts than sincere explorations of individuals forced beyond their Teflon of civility.

A story, however coded a propaganda tract  for a particular cultural bias, has greater resonance than a sermon, its own volume turned up for moral justice.  This is so because the individuals who populate story make an attempt to incorporate faults, flaws, and foolishness into their behavior, causing us as readers to root for them because of their humanity rather than their virtues.

Story leads us to engage conflict resolution and, to a major degree anger management, asking us at the same time to look at one of our most beloved president's better angels of our nature, and to open our sensitivities to one of the major elephants in our cultural living room, the aura of irony about any given incident.

Story shows us ways to manage contingency and irony so that while we encounter the better angels of our nature, we also confront the heaviest albatrosses of our culture.  How does story accomplish these lofty goals--by taking us to the brink of our darker potentials for misadventure.  Given an uncompromising look at our inner Captain Ahab, our Hannibal Lecter, and Scarlet O'Hara, we are better able to appreciate and root for our inner potential for selfhood uncluttered by --isms and dogmas.

It's right there in the DNA.  Good story cannot exist without it.  Excellent story reinvents it, a step or two beyond the defining wave of the present.  Superb story causes all our available resources to resonate for us.

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