Tales worth telling

Michel Piccoli and Romy Schneider in Claude Sautet’s Les Choses de la Vie.

When I was a teenager my parents took me to see an adviser to help me choose a path to take after school. The adviser liked me, had me do tests he normally didn’t give high school students, interviewed me extensively, and in his final analysis told me I was full of promise, but had no story to tell.

Of course he meant I didn’t have a story to tell yet and at age 16 in a small European town that is not unusual, but since then I have always been afraid that even if I have the ability to write, I might have nothing to write about. It is a feeling of singular uselessness, like being all dressed up with nowhere to go, but worse.

Nora Ephron said that everything is copy and I agree – to a degree. What makes a story worth telling? What is having something to say? Obviously there are issues enough in this world that need attention and I have great admiration for journalists who venture into physical and mental danger zones, am humbled by scientists and engineers who spend years bashing away at a problem and even manage to explain their findings to the rest of us, I marvel at camera people who travel under icebergs in tiny pods that sometimes leak in order to show us what life is like in the place where it first began, and like everyone else I love tales of the extraordinary and the absurd.

But what about the ordinary? The totally recognisable? Surely that is where real magic lies? I love Claude Sautet’s film Les Choses de la Vie: a man crashes his car and while car parts fly he thinks about his lover and the letter in his pocket, telling her he is leaving her. That’s it, that’s the story. And it is a wonderful film. In a different way Don Marquis’s Archy & Mehitabel never ceases to delight me, the little cockroach headbutting his poetry out into the world, musing on the life of alley cats and the eternity of insects.

Archy and Mehitabel drawn by George Herriman

There are so many ways to tell the same story; a thousand answers to the same question. Speaking truth is essential, but also difficult, because we all want to impress. And of course the thing that makes a story really interesting is failure. Life never unfolds in the way you thought and it is how a person responds to the dragons on the path that makes a hero or heroine.

Having failed a lot, I guess I now have something to say. A comforting thought – except the failures are so banal. And so the rest is in the telling. I read a recent article in The Economist about interactive novels being written for the Chinese market and Steven Soderberg’s upcoming app Mosaic, which sounds to me much like a video game. Does such a format make for a good story? At the risk of sounding fusty, I wonder what possible good such a way of storytelling can do. Surely what we are all hungry for is one good story artfully told? Where is the catharsis in constantly being able to change track yourself?

But perhaps the story is always worth telling, even if only to yourself. I think the essence is that you must mean what you say and say what you mean and don’t get indulgent in your telling or try to be flash. I love well-constructed prose, but it reeks if it isn’t genuine, if it’s too crafted. And some of us are extremely well-read, well-travelled and clever, but if that is what you rely on to my mind you are just a hack.

There are stories that date and stories that don’t. Stories that are meaningful to someone at a certain point in their development and stories that speak to people all their lives. The dream, I suppose, is to write one of either kind; preferably one that will give young people an inkling of what they can do, how strong, brave, weak, cruel they can be – and to help them feel that it is useful to look the dragons they meet on their path in the eye, for what comes out of your confrontations with them is the stuff that makes life worth living – and it is how you write your own life, even if the only person you want to tell it to is yourself.