Vela Writers On: Storytelling

Where do fictional characters come from; what does it mean to bear witness; is information the death of story? In three short essays, Vela writers explore both the nature and the craft of storytelling.

In The Non-Bravery of Bearing Witness, Lauren Quinn wonders why she gets called “brave” each time she writes a personal essay, and considers this definition of bravery:

I don’t think telling these stories is brave. Largely because I am not brave in these stories. I am the “survivor” in these stories, the one who gets out—and survival, I have learned, is a dirty game. I write these experiences because they are the ones that have taught me the most about life, including my own capacity to be shitty and to fail the people I purport to love and the morals I purport to have.

In “On Empathy and the Novel,” Miranda Ward considers the relationship between travel, empathy, imagination, and fiction:

An involuntary game I sometimes play when I’m traveling is to pretend that I belong wherever I happen to be – to watch the girl in the cafe get up and put her coat on and leave and then imagine I’m her, walking towards my life here, my flat, my cats, my job as a graphic designer or a waitress or whatever. It’s partly a way of being in a place – to try to picture it as home, and then either succumb to a happy fantasy or bask in the relief of belonging elsewhere – but it’s also an act of empathetic imagination. In these instances I’m both me and not-me simultaneously, trying to see out over the tall sides of my self. Is this what it’s like to write fiction, maybe?

But the problem is that even the not-me is still me, and my imagination, to be honest, is not that good.

And in “Information is the death of story” Sarah Menkedick wonders if voice and fact are inherently at odds:

The deeper I get into fact the less playful it seems I can be with language; for one thing, I am limited by the information I have. In describing a desert I did not feel or a sky I did not see I can use only the details I am able to solicit; any further embellishment begins to erode the core truth, and when the core truth is the hard-won product of long interviews and trust and careful relationships I want it to be adamant and indutible. Robust sentences seem like gaudy costume jewelry when used to describe how many security cameras were hidden on the U.S. border in 1995. And then there is the prison of my notebook: the more I’ve crammed into it, the less free I feel to simply sit down and write. It seems impossible now to just let ‘er rip the way I used to; I have to revisit, verify, double-check, chiseling the rough sculpture of the facts as opposed to conjuring from the watercolor pool of memory and imagination. It has begun to seem increasingly like fact circumscribes language.

These are the types of eddies writers are constantly trying to paddle their way through; we hope these essays will offer a bit of navigational guidance.


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