Sunday, August 23, 2009

On the Fundamental Nature of Narrative and the Fundamental Narrative

Entry for 22 August 2009:

Tad Williams and Deborah Beale are featured in the July 2009 issue of Locus magazine, the monthly professional magazine for science fiction writers. In addition to the separate interviews with each of them, there is a lovely dialogue in which they talk about their new young adult series, Ordinary Farm, the first volume of which is Dragons of Ordinary Farm. I haven’t read the this book, but many years ago I read Williams’ early book, Tailchaser’s Song, to one of my kids. Kenneth swears it wasn’t him, so it must have been Brendan, but I loved this story of an ordinary cat’s journey to “cat hell and back”. For his part, Kenneth has read and enjoyed some of Tad Williams’ fantasy books.

In this interview, Williams and Beale discuss narrative as fundamental to being human. Here is a quote from Williams:

It’s a fact of human biology that literally makes us look at the universe in terms of beginnings, middles, and ends. If you’re not caught up in biology, the middle is so much more important than the beginnings and the ends! For star systems, the middle is billions of years long, and the beginning and the end are remote. But with human beings, we’re born, we live, and we die, and we see everything in that tripartite way… (p. 66)

Those of us to work with narrative therapeutically and in our research are of course very familiar with the tripartite structure of narrative, in terms of past, present, and future. What Williams does here is to locate this existentially: the fundamental paradigm for the past is our birth; our life exists as an extended present; while our ultimate future (at least as we know it within the boundaries of our life) is our death. Thus, narrative is grounded in our mortality; the most basic story of all is the story of our personal birth, life and death. Our ancestors knew this and recorded it in the story of Everyman, the medieval morality play depicting this Ur-narrative, in which the main character is intended to represent each of us.

Williams concludes with another equally acute but more consoling observation:

As a reader I feel that when I finally snuff it I will have lived so many thousands of lives through other people and through things I’ve experienced in both fiction and nonfiction … I will happily shuffle off the moral coil because I’ll feel I had such a dense existence. (p. 66)

Both reading and therapy offer this boon of this enabling us to experience others’ lives, the difference being that in therapy we engage actively in helping the other construct what we both hope will be a more satisfactory narrative. In this way, therapists and counselors live many lives within the frame of their own particular span of years. A rare privilege!

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