Narrative Species

I’m reading Unless It Moves the Human Heart, by Roger Rosenblatt.  He’s a many-decades teacher of writing, and this book details one semester of his graduate course: Writing Everything.

There are a dozen students in the story, so you feel like you’re just reading a narrative about a professor and twelve students giving their hearts to the page.  But he has also woven in his best teaching on writing essays, short stories, and poetry.  Basically, if you’re interested in taking a writing course for less than $15.00, buy this book.

* * *

“We start with the story because it is basic to human nature.  It’s like a biological fact, an inborn insistence.  In the last days of the Warsaw ghetto, the Jews knew what was going to happen to them.  They had seen their mothers and neighbors hauled off to the extermination camps, and were themselves dying of diptheria and hunger.  And yet they had the strength and the will to take scraps of paper on which they wrote poems, fragments of autobiography, political tracts, journal entries.  And they rolled these scraps into small scrolls and slipped the scrolls into the crevices of the ghetto walls.  Why?  Why did they bother?  With no news of the outer world available to them, they assumed the subhumans of the so-called Master Race had inherited the earth.  If their scaps of paper were discovered, the victors would laugh at them, read and laugh, and tear them up.  So why expose their writing, their souls, to derision? Because they had to do it.  They had a story to tell.  They had to tell a story.”

I tell them about Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French editor of Elle who suffered so massive a stroke that the only part of his body he could move was his left eyelid.  Yet with that eyelid, he signaled the alphabet.  And with that alphabet, he wrote an autobiography, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

And about the skipper of the mackerel schooner who wrote a message by lantern as his ship was going down.

And about the messenger in the Book of Job who had a story to tell.  And about Melville’s Ishmael, who alone was left to tell the tale.

“We like to distinguish ourselves from other animals by saying we’re a rational species.  That is sort of a commonly shared joke.  But a narrative species?  That, one can prove.”

They are beginning to wonder why I am spending so much time on the subject.  “And yet, if stories lie at the center of experience, indispensible to our being, there still must be those people responsible for telling them, those self-elected few who are the chief storytellers, and keep the race alive and kicking.  And do you know who those people are?”

They stare at me, surprised.  Someone asks, “Us?”

* * *

Sign me up.  Self-elected chief story teller.

Tricia Lott Williford

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  1. I’m going to buy this book for my daughter, a gifted writer. Thank you for this post! Happy New year Tricia. 🙂

  2. The thing is, if you didn’t elect yourself…the rest of us would.

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