Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Christine Sneed on Personal and Narrative Spaces

In the 32nd in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Christine Sneed, author of The Virginity of Famous Men (Bloomsbury USA), compares the governing logic of stories with the messier logic of existence.

In the last few years, I’ve become more interested in finding solitude and silence, two things I spent much of my childhood and early adulthood trying to escape. Now, in my forties, I look back at these years and shake my head. Little did I know at twenty-five how fondly I would view, at forty-five, the quiet suburb where I grew up and where my parents still reside. For the last ten years, I’ve lived on the far northern fringes of Chicago, across the street from an emergency room and an elementary school. Tranquility and a low decibel level are difficult to find much of the time, even late at night.

My partner copes with these conditions better than I do, in part because more than twenty years of daily meditation have equipped him with a certain trait that I have found elusive: He is able to live peaceably with the frequent uproar outside our home, and more importantly, with the unoccupied spaces within him.

We all have these spaces, I think. They are vacancies where an absence of rote activity resides, and in myself, I find these empty rooms unsettling because from them the truest opportunity for self-knowledge could emerge, but only if I’m not peering at my computer or phone.
Empty room

One reason I think self-knowledge is often painful is because it requires an unsentimental reckoning with one’s flaws. In the short stories I write, the pivotal moments usually center on the point-of-view characters’ dawning awareness of their faults, and consequently, how these flaws have dictated the choices they’ve made. If there are no flaws, there are no trouble-inciting choices, and therefore no drama or conflict to describe and navigate and potentially overcome.

In a story, I try to identify my characters’ problems within the first few pages, and by the final page, to offer some kind of resolution. In the non-fictional, physical world, however, I never seem capable of confronting an emotional situation as coolly and logically as I do on the page, and perhaps this is one reason why I keep writing.

Something else that I have begun to understand after years of teaching and writing fiction is that although our bodies experience the passing of months and years in a linear, chronological fashion, our minds do not—they are sophisticated but capricious time machines, zapping us back and forth through the years, often at inconvenient moments. This phenomenon might explain why some of us spend innumerable hours talking to therapists about our experiences growing up in families whose members were better at fighting than loving each other, about residual but still-powerful disappointments or triumphs, whether related to love, work, or friendships.

The governing logic of a story is in its narrative structure, but the governing logic of a life is that there might not be any logic, other than in the most elemental sense: We are born, we live for a time, and one day, we cease to exist in any comprehensible manner.

Those quiet spaces within us—they are, as I’ve come to think of them, where the story comes from—the story of who we are, but also, the stories we are writing or hoping one day to write.