November 3, 2008: Narrative Strategies

The book I chose last night is The 19th Wife by David Ebersoff. It’s about Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young’s 19th wife, and about the 19th wife of a man in a modern-day polygamous LDS sect, who’s accused of murdering her husband.

The novel is structured as a collection of narratives — a reimagined autobiography by Ann Eliza Young (who really did write her autobiography when she left Brigham Young), the stories of her parents, newspaper articles from the 1870s (when she left), his mother’s story by the son of the modern-day 19th wife.

The narrative strategy is working for me because I don’t think this is really the story of any one of the characters in particular, as it is of a particular world. This is particularly interesting me because I can’t help thinking that this would be a viable narrative strategy for my story, if the story I’m telling is about the world of the story, more than it is about the people living in that world. So I’m flirting with the idea.

The thing is, what I do as a writer is show what it feels like to be that person, whoever the person is. Breaking the story up into a collection of narratives runs the risk of undercutting that, of not making the most of it. In the case of The 19th Wife, I think part of what’s going on is showing how the stories people tell are designed to serve their purposes. Basically, spin existed even before there was a name for it; the 19th century characters are putting spin on their stories just as surely as the 21st century characters. Since what I do is write about emotional experience — what it feels like to live through this moment, as this person — an examination of spin is not something likely to turn up in my work any time soon.

I think.

I have a friend whose response to “You can’t do X in that genre” is to go out and write something that does X. I have a little bit of that quality too, so now I’m thinking, “I wonder if I can merge multiple narratives, spin, and emotion in one story…” When I think about it, I might already be doing it; part of what goes on in Dragonfly is people lying to themselves about their own truths. The thing is, that’s not really about spin. Spin, to me, is about managing the story you give to the outside world. In the case of Dragonfly, people are telling stories to themselves that aren’t true. The story that goes out into the world is a secondary consideration (with one possible exception).

So now that I’ve wandered all over the place (and now that you know how it goes inside my head, because that’s my thinking process up there), where does this leave me? Still undecided about whether the multiple-narratives strategy would be a good or bad way to tell Dragonfly, and really eager to finish The 19th Wife.


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