narrative. n. 1. a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious. 2. a book, literary work, etc., containing such a story. 3. the art, technique, or process of narrating: Somerset Maugham was a master of narrative.
Sometimes, when I’m someplace other than my house, I watch people. Okay, always. I’m that creep in the corner staring at you and looking away when you make eye contact with me. My partner has kicked me under restaurant tables for doing this, probably because sometimes I forget to participate in conversations as a result of it. Or because it’s weird. Either way.
But it’s not just watching. It’s storytelling. I’m spinning a narrative. Making shit up in my head about people I don’t know, occasionally recording the most interesting details in a notebook that I think of as my “reporter’s notebook,” even though I’m not a reporter and I usually forget the notebook at home. When I do have the notebook, it usually functions as someplace to make lists and/or obsess about things other than narrative. Whatever.
Take, for example, that guy over there right now, reading the Morrissey autobiography with his headphones on? He has Morrissey hair. I bet he’s listening to the Smiths. He’s tall and has his legs outstretched under the table. I’m surprised by how young he looks. Frankly, I didn’t know anyone still gave a shit about Morrissey, at least until Penguin released his ridiculously long autobiography which, based on what I gather from reviews, sounds very much like Morrissey’s song lyrics in its almost-painful self-consciousness. I’ve also heard that he participated in NaNoWriMo and is planning to publish a novel this year. I’m not sure yet if I’ll read it.
I digress. This guy is probably a psychology major. He’s thinking right now about the psychology of Morrissey. Later, he’ll go home and Skype with his girlfriend, who lives in a different state, and he’ll try to convince her—again—that the queen is dead and every day is like Sunday.
He keeps coughing. He caught a cold this week from the brunette in his math class, with whom he flirts. The girlfriend doesn’t know that he does this; he doesn’t see anything wrong with it, because it’s not like he acts on any of it. It’s just innocent flirting.
Because this is for a blog post, I’m recording many more details than I typically would of his—I mean my—narrative. Any notes in my reporter’s notebook would probably look more like this:
“ “ hair
Later, if I look at that page of the notebook as I hope for inspiration to find me, I will have forgotten the details about how tall the guy is, how his legs are stretched out so far, how young he looks as he turns those pages of the book, how he taps his hand against the table in time with whatever song plays through his earbuds. So I’ll have to spin it from what I have, and the notes that I took won’t give me an accurate picture. I’ll never get the moment back. I’ll have to make him a completely fictional character.
You know, as opposed to a “based on a true story” character.
But it’s more likely that I’ll never look at the page again and that Morrissey-guy will never make his way into my writing.
Wait a minute.
I guess the moral of the story is that some version of the guy might, one day, end up in something (else) that I write. Then again, he might not. I use him here as a mere example—and for that, I guess I apologize, since outside of my little narrative he’s a real person with a name and a life and probably a family, and I just made him into some kind of character from central casting just to illustrate a point about process and contemplate, in a purely subjective and perhaps irrelevant manner, the word “narrative.”
(In other news, I had to look up who Somerset Maugham was since, in spite of myriad degrees and though the name rang a faint bell somewhere in there, I’m an ignorant jerk. Whatever, I’m an Americanist, so I have good reason. Maugham was British. [Do you like that disclaimer?]
Wikipedia tells me that W. Somorset Maugham was the highest paid author during the 1930s, at least in Britain. He seems like an interesting guy who wrote interesting things; I’m especially interested in The Magician, which is purportedly about Aleister Crowley—or, to be fair, it’s a fictional narrative about someone who sounds a lot like Aleister Crowley. I read the whole Wikipedia entry.
I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know much about Maugham until now. And here’s another disclaimer: I always tell my students that Wikipedia isn’t a legitimate source. But, you know what? Maybe it is. It struck me as I was reading that even Wikpedia is a collection of narratives.)
It’s all narrative. We can’t get out of it; it’s how our brains work; I’m pretty sure a bunch of philosophers and E.L. Doctorow have said as much.
But here’s a question, one that’s driven me professionally, if not creatively, for the past several years: how do we decide what makes a narrative “legitimate”? Does it have to be “high art,” you know, literary fiction of the kind that the academy sanctions?
You probably know by now what my answer is to that last question, but I really am intrigued by the first one. Is the legitimacy of narrative purely subjective?
(The academic in me says of course not; it’s culturally determined.)
But maybe it is subjective. Just maybe.