in which I think about pyramids

The students are to write remembered event essays. I am to read them. And I am to instruct them in the writing. I have begun that, actually. We read a fine example in class and discussed it. We talked about dramatic pyramid structure in narratives. (Their textbook says “resolution” where mine, seven years ago, said “denouement.” I prefer “denouement,” but “resolution” requires less explanation.) I emphasized that their stories must involve some sort of conflict, problem, dilemma.

I laughed internally and felt somewhat hypocritical emphasizing that; one of my greatest story-writing problems is the fact that my stories rarely involve problems. I had conflict with a creative writing professor because of it. Recently, I’ve taken refuge in words from Willa Cather:

I can’t write plots. I don’t see life in terms of action.. Persons like me who have to see it in terms of thought and imagery would best keep away from plots. It’s design they want, not conflict, not episodes which get tangled up with other episodes.*

That is exactly the sort of thing I like: thought and imagery and design. I’ll read your plots; I’ll analyze them; I’ll enjoy them. (Ah, yes, this month, I’ll grade them.) But when I look out at the world, I don’t see plots so much as patterns, pictures, ideas. Cather is famous for her novels-which-do-not-have-plots, stories which weave in and out around certain ideas, and end without necessarily being over.

It isn’t that she saw, or I see, the world as free of conflict. Read her novels; they show broken people living broken lives. They resonate, because haven’t we all been broken, gathering animal pelts around us, fleeing from the garden which witnessed our shame?

The textbook assures students that “resolution” in the dramatic pyramid does not necessarily solve the problem; it just brings some kind of closure to the story. Outside the garden, in spite of clothes to cover nakedness, we face the ground which brings forth thorns and thistles, the multiplied pain of childbirth. The climactic scene in which God confronts man and woman and serpent — that is not the climax, that is only the prelude.

Some stories, maybe, fit nicely on the pyramid. But we are born broken, so that to put a character on a page is to introduce a problem. Sometimes, yes, there is a climactic confrontation of person and problem; most days, though, it’s just life in and around and over and under brokenness: the pyramids in the desert testifying to the problem which no human confrontation could resolve.

That’s why I lean on grace, find grace in and around and over and under my brokenness: the One who crushed the serpent’s head dealing tenderly with my bruised heal. That’s the pattern; that’s the idea; that’s the image of my story. Rather than remembering events, I’d rather you remember that. That is my denouement.

*quoted in Elienne Squire, A Lantern in the Wind: The Life of Mary Ellen Chase, 1995

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