Tuesday, October 25, 2016

When Story Is Like a Navajo Rug

What a pleasure it was, hearing a book designer tell you she was going to use vignettes instead of asterisks to separate bodies of text in an ornate and mannered series of essays, written by an old friend, most of which had originally appeared in the Playboy that was, as opposed to the Playboy that is, of more recent years.

You were delighted to hear the term vignette having a more visual use than the seemingly dismissive literary meaning that had come from more than one of your early writing instructors. 

"This is not a story," one of them said, "this is a vignette." Yet another said, "This material is like those short Talk of the Town pieces in The New Yorker.  Good evocation of characters, but no plot. Maybe that's your calling. Go to New York, get on with The New Yorker, write vignettes."

The rub there was that some of your favorite writers, such as John O'Hara, were appearing regularly in The New Yorker, but not in Talk of the Town. They were short story writers, and although there seemed to be lively interaction between their characters, and a resident appearance of dramatic irony, they did not seem to know any more about plots than you did. Their stories had outcomes rather than resolutions.

When you spoke of such things to your instructors, they were back on the subject of vignettes again, whereupon you were reduced to thinking one of the easiest thoughts possible for someone of your years, a two-word thought, the last word of which was the neutral but all-inclusive "it." Fuck it; you'd be a vignettist.

Over the years, you've gone through many phases in your attempts to help you see what you were getting yourself into when you stumbled into the rabbit hole of storytelling. Like Alice, who represents for you a splendid metaphor of life within the rabbit hole, you are fascinated and bewildered by the characters you encounter, even at one point going so far as to base your characters on what you would call Dodgsonesque archetypes in tribute to Alice's creator.

The rabbit hole is the perfect portal to the world of story. Unlike others who walk with chins tilted skyward, you often walk with head cast downward or at some indeterminate point between ground- and waist-level, looking for clues, the nooks and crevices where entry may involve a darkened passageway for a time, but then opens into an alternate universe with its own denizens, its own rules of such physical behavior as gravity, its cultural rules of personal behavior such as gravitas or its absolute lack.

Vignettes, as you understand them, are focused examinations of an incident or a detail. They require no explanation or resolution, yet they are dramatic and illustrative, reminding you of the quilts you have owned, still own, and have seen on display.
As you understand Navajo rugs, these, even the obviously more patterned ones, such as the small one on your living room floor, are replications of sand paintings which, as you understand these, are ceremonial drawings, set forth to cure a particular lack of order and Grace.

These rugs have some imperfection or anomaly deliberately woven into them, in keeping with the notion that the sand painting and its accompanying ceremony are temporary, not meant to endure, recreated only when there is some cosmic disarray that wants repair.

Can it be that you have, after all this time, stumbled on the meaning of story, which is a form of ceremony in which vignettes are linked to illustrate some cosmic disorder and a possible way to approach the disorder?

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