Saturday, November 4, 2017

What is the More?

Last week we introduced students to a memoir in which the main character (before the age of nine), started a house fire, experienced being beaten half to death, abandonment at an orphanage, starvation,  life threatening hatred based on his race, and became addicted to alcohol.  My high school charges dubbed the first two chapters of this story, “Boring.”  At which point, I wondered “What in heaven’s name would be considered interesting?”  

In my brain, the narrative formed, “The teenager stared at her phone. She received fifteen text messages and a funny gif. No one harassed her about staring at the small hand-held device in her hand. She drifted through school, not noticing the passage of time.”  Call me optimistic, but I don’t think anyone fifty years from now would find a memoir filled with “Lol’s” and emoticons as riveting or as soul scalding as the sufferings and deprivations of Richard Wright’s childhood.  Such a book would read like the Odyssey written by one of the Lotus eaters.  Something happened, then, something else did.

The question struck a nerve and wouldn’t let go.  What would catch their attention?  What would hold it? 

I listened to students in the writing lab talk.  They planned to see “Thor, Ragnarok” this weekend.  Wondering if they knew the Norse mythology behind the film, I checked the times for movie myself and asked. They didn’t.  Thor, Loki, Ragnarock were merely constructs of the Marvel Universe, like Iron Man, Captain America and the Hulk.   They knew the origins from the movies, but not the reasoning behind these creations.  They didn’t view Captain America as a patriotic icon or the Hulk as an example of the destructive power of unchecked anger.

As the fantasy worlds become more real, we, the actual actors exploring these fake places via our culure, are becoming less interesting. Our world’s myths become stories without purpose or intent other than to amuse, rather like contests set up by the “Grand Champion” in the movie.  Escape in heroic movies works for a time, like staring at the phone.   Each subsequent addition to the Superhero epic genre, charms less and bores more, because it becomes only a story about a person having powers. Even the victors in the arena, (if they have any reflective capacity whatsoever) grow weary of the constant fight which must by necessity become more epic, more vital, more collossal in scale and consequently, less interesting.  Rather like facebook friendships based solely on mutual agreement in all things, interaction leaves the participant overstimulated and oddly bored, starving for something deeper without knowing what or why. Good stories never tell only the story you read.  Good stories always leave a deeper mark, like real friendships, real jobs and real romances. 

How do we get the students to the more? To the meaning?  To the marrow? What would it take to break open these words and make the world more visible? How do we break the spell of the false siren of the internet (and I realize the irony of blogging this question), and replace it with the sound of genuine souls singing?  I don't know the answer, but I do know, for every teacher, for every parent, and for every director of every film yet to come into our collective culture, that's the real question we should be asking.  How do we make a story which reveals the universal in the minute, and which carries weight and a story arc that moves people out of wanting merely to be entertained and diverted for a few minutes? 

What is the more that we're either not putting in the words, or which they are not hearing? 

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