Monday 5 May 2014

Hoped-for bits of narrative: We never want just the plot

Today is the sixth anniversary of the debut of onfiction. Anniversaries always make us think of the beginnings of things and of the passing of time. They make us think of plots, about how things will go between beginnings and conclusions, what vicissitudes there will be along the way, what unexpected events will derail expected trajectories, and how the agents involved will respond. But important events do not just elicit our thinking about plots. They also elicit feelings, memories, conjectures about how we might feel in future, and interesting combinations of these responses. 

Last week I had the good fortune to attend a dinner with a large group of baseball aficionados, aficionadas, coaches, players, and supporters of every ilk. The highlight of the evening was the panel of former Major League Baseball players, including four pitchers, and one designated hitter, three of the group Hall of Famers, and all of them elite players. Members of the audience were asking questions of the panel. A number of questions harkened back to particular games or seasons, or altercations between some combination of player, umpire, or manager. One question went something like this: “It’s 19XX. Last game of the playoffs, last inning and you’re up by one, with one man on… you and the catcher seem to be on different pages, everyone thinks you’re coming in with the slider. But you don’t. It’s out of the park. The fans sit in stunned silence. Could you tell us what you remember about that night?”  The Hall of Famer waits a moment, smiles broadly, and exclaims as if surprised himself, “That’s what I remember!”

The audience breaks out in laughter. Then, as the chuckling fades, we wait as the speaker enjoys the effect of the unexpected response on the audience. And as we wait, it occurs to me that in our laughter and in our waiting, we really do understand, perhaps not quite consciously, something important about stories.  Of course, most everyone understanding the game that night years ago understood the plot of the unexpected events, as everyone in the audience last week understood the plot. Indeed, the audience member posing the question was not actually after what the Hall of Famer remembered about that evening. He needed no confirmation that he had got the facts correct. If he could narrate so articulately the core of the plot, he was in no need of details to confirm the what-happened of that experience. What he was after, of course, were the embellishments that don’t embellish -- but bear up the whole, make resonate and sparkle --  the plot as viewed through the eyes of a young, extremely powerful and competent pitcher, indeed one whose feats of elite athleticism had very probably never been approached by any of the others present in the room, except the other panel members.

And of course, the pitcher knew what we wanted really: his recounting of the feelings in that moment of defeat, the thoughts, the wishes, hopes, rationalizations, plans for overcoming, and of remembrances … most definitely not the facts, but perhaps his memories of how he felt physically and emotionally after such defeat. His beautifully timed and unexpected response deftly opened up that box of hoped-for bits of narrative for us to see for ourselves. We never want just the plot, even though that is what we share most often with others, for dozens of reasons: feeling that we have no time to get into the details, not wanting to share our feelings about an event, our belief that the plot really is all that another wants, among others. But, of course, the elite pitcher did not leave us hanging there. He talked about the night of defeat just as we hoped we would, of how he had thought about it and contextualized it later, telling us how it felt, or at least what his older self remembered of how it felt. We smiled to ourselves and got back to drinking our beer.

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