“Just Tell the Story,” by Louise DeSalvo
April 30, 2010
Just tell the story.
Years ago, I was teaching an undergraduate writing class, and the acclaimed novelist Faye Weldon came to speak to my class. It was a memorable occasion and all the students were starstruck. Still, Weldon was down-to-earth, which was important for the students to see. She had working woman’s hands – rough, coarse – from working in her garden. That was important for them to see too – that a gifted writer had a complete life; that she not only wrote, but gardened.
Weldon spoke of many things that day. But the advice she gave the students that stuck with me, stuck with them, was her simple suggestions to just tell the story. She said that many beginning writers think that they need to embellish their narrative, and so they get themselves stuck in hoopla, in embellishments, in imagistic unclear narrative, in complicated structures. All this, she says, defeats what is the essential goal of narrative – to just tell the story.
Just tell the story.
I had a wonderful lunch recently with a writer friend whom I’d not seen for some time. She’s working on writing a book about the events surrounding a famous painting. (It’s a delicious story; when it emerges, scores of writers will ask themselves why they didn’t seize on the story.) She’s been doing research for years. Tracking down manuscripts. Visiting archives. Looking at paintings. Reading works about the painter’s contemporaries – significant figures in the art world and history.
She’s been thinking through how to present the work – through fiction, or through literary nonfiction. And she’s been stumped because of the possibilities of each genre. There are so many wonderful examples of “fact into fiction” out there, among them, Colm Toibin’s The Master, about Henry James, which we both adore. Among my other favorites are Kate Moses’ Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath and, of course, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. Reading any one of these brilliant works is enough to want to make a writer with a fabulous subject render it in fiction.
What complicates my friend’s situation is that she is both a writer of fiction and nonfiction, equally at home in both genres. She’s written fiction; she’s written nonfiction. She knows the ins and outs of each. I’ve published one novel; still, my inclination for many years is to write nonfiction. So, for me, there isn’t really the difficulty of making a choice of genre, though I’ve flirted for a time with rendering the story of my father’s war as fiction.
For some time, she’s been drafting the work in both forms. She’s written scenes as fiction; she’s written scenes as nonfiction. Now, though, she’s at the point in the process where her forward movement will be impeded unless she makes a choice.
After our lunch, we walked over to a fabulous coffee shop on the Westside of Manhattan. It’s as close to a European café as you get in New York City. As we sipped our cappuccinos, we talked about her project and mine. She has been a stalwart supporter of my work; has always said just the right thing to urge me on when I’ve faltered. We all need such friends as writers. I’m blessed to have her.
I checked in with her about where I’m at. Told her about a piece of my father’s story during his first tour of duty in the Navy in the 1930s, illuminating our country’s relationship with Japan prior to Pearl Harbor. It’s an event my father knew about because he was in the Navy – the sinking of the USS Panay in Chinese territorial waters –, which nearly plunged the US into war with Japan in 1937. Unsure of whether or not to include this in my work, my friend urged me on – “I think you should write it,” she said. And because of her assurance, I returned home, knowing that I should move that narrative along.
When we turned to her work, it became clear to me that her sitting on the fence between fiction and nonfiction was impeding her work. And so I took a risk. I told her what I was hearing: that she was afraid that the tremendous cultural significance of this story of hers required the embellishment of fiction because she was afraid that her narrative gifts were not up to the task of telling this immensely fascinating story. But I told her, too, that she should stop equivocating because it would get in her way. She should “just tell the story,” because the story was a fantastic one and that she would find the language to render it faithfully and artfully.
I know my friend’s work well. I know that she’s one of those writers who, though unsure of herself each step along the way, turns out a work of nonfiction that reads like a novel, that’s a page-turner, that’s as artful as any work of fiction. (All the fabulous writers I know doubt they’re up to the task; the writers who don’t doubt their skill, I’ve found, are – and here I’ll be ungenerous but truthful – nothing but hacks who don’t challenge themselves, who repeat formulas they’ve found work in the past. Read Virginia Woolf’s diaries; she was often filled with questions about the worth of her work.) This story will be powerful when rendered as nonfiction precisely because the reader will know it really happened the way my friend will tell it.
Just tell the story.
We decided, over our cappuccinos, to check in with each other each week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We wouldn’t exchange work. We’d simply relate to each other the progress we were making. I’m delighted we decided to do this. It’s always helpful to know that someone we care about is struggling at their own desk just as we are. It’s helpful, too, to read of their triumphant moments. It gives us hope as writers.
My friend and I have exchanged our first “check-ins.” I’m going to keep my notes to her in my process journal so I have an account of my progress. I hope she keeps hers. This way, if we reread, we might remind ourselves of our process, of all the steps along the way.
I’m so happy we had that time together. Our conversation helped me. I hope it helped her – I trust it did. Sometimes we need to talk to our writing friends, to ask them to tell us what they hear. Sometimes just by talking, we hear what we need to write, how we might structure out works, or, quite simply, that our work is indeed interesting and that it matters. (Each writer of nonfiction, I’ve found, wonders about the worth of the work.)
Just tell the story. Faye Weldon’s wisdom, passed on to a writer friend, at work, right now, on just telling the story of how one painting that astonished the world came into being.