The Algebra of Storytelling
CALEB JOSEPH WARNER
There is nothing mysterious about the acquisition of ideas. The beginning of a story is when something in the world encounters me and I have the heart and eyes to endure this encounter. This adds up to finding an idea worth writing about. That is all. I find a bit of world worth writing about. And why is it worth writing about?
It is worth writing about, because I do not understand the thing yet. I do not yet understand the thing and that is why it seems worth writing about. I am never interested in writing about something I already feel I understand. If I feel like writing about something I understand, that is motivated by the rediscovery of that thing’s novelty. I want to write about the thing, because I believe that there is something to understand about it that I do not yet understand. I would not write about something I do not understand if I believed that there was nothing worth understanding.
Some of this has to do with personality. The material is chosen because there are key things about the world that interest me, though I might not be able to name them. Maybe someone who has read all of my stories could say, “You seem preoccupied with these things.” Maybe that is true and maybe that means that what I do not understand are the very things that preoccupy me. Maybe I am preoccupied, because I continue to not understand the same items of interest.
What I find interesting about this is that I time and again feel I have achieved understanding only to lose it again. But if that is true, then I am no better or worse off than the Israelites, even the remnant, who time and again required the reminders of a weekly Sabbath and an annual atonement and many other bits of rigamarole like special undies in order to get it into their thick skulls that this is true and that is not true—and though this is supposed to be written on the tablet of my heart, it was supposed to also be written on the tablet of the Israelites equally as God so clearly expected and therefore, I am no worse off as a child of the New Covenant if in my work I seek to understand what I often forget. Of course, it is much more particular than this. It is much more particular, because the truths I am supposed to remember can seem quite different if we have named the limits. What do I mean?
Take for example the truth that Jesus has paid for all of our sins. What does this truth look like when the limits have been set by an item of interest? Say the item of interest is the failed relationship between a father and son or say it is a battle in history or say that it is old houses coming alive to murder those who abused them.
Here is an equation. Take two truths and set the parameters of the two truths and what is at the other side of the equation? What do those two truths, limited by a set, equal? The process of writing the story and the process of reading the story is the equals sign and the conclusion of the story itself is what it all adds up to in the end.
I’ve gotten obscure on you, so let me rein this back in. I was talking about the origin point of stories. The origin point of stories comes from the addition of some bit of world that does not yet have meaning to any number of truths that are already accepted in order to discover the real value of the unknown variable. What is the unknown variable? The variable is the bit of world that is not yet understood. We come to understand the variable by plugging into the equation what we already understand.
You can also invert this, but who cares? This is just abstract gymnastics. Anyway, I will tell you how to invert it if you have spent the time paying attention to the drifting of the clouds. Often by using a bit of world you do not understand, you actually discover that what you understood before was not understood. By using an unknown variable, we also come to discover the true value of the known elements. It is a way of digging deeper into reality. None of this can happen without writing the story, without actually working out the problem and showing your work. Who knows what turns you will have to take while working out the problem.