To Understand, We Must Produce Narrative

Like language, narrative refers to concept rather than reality. The structuralist description of the sign can be extended to narrative, since both words and stories are symbols played out across time. A word occurs as a sequence, as when we say or read “T – U – N – D – R – A.” Similarly, a narrative may be defined as signs in a series. The story then can be considered a sign itself, an arbitrary signifier, referring not to events in the real world, but to a subjective concept of what happened, is happening and will happen.

In late 14th century French, the word narratif referred to parts of a legal document laying out “alleged or relevant facts.” We are more familiar with the more recent definition of narrative: “An account of a series of events, facts, etc., given in order and with the establishing of connections between them; a narration, a story, an account” (Oxford English Dictionary). Note that events and facts must be given in order, but the order is not specified in the definition; it may or not be chronological, as long as there is some sense of sequence. By this definition all accounts, whether novels or scientific articles, are narrative. I will be using “narrative” in this broad sense interchangeably with “story,” “tale” and “chronicle” to refer to any narrated sequence of events or facts.

What matters most though is the second part of this definition, “the establishing of connections” among a series “events, facts, etc.” We are narrative-minded because we are constantly searching for connections, identifying patterns, and creating meaning. In order to understand anything, we must locate it within “a series of events, facts, etc.” in such a way that it makes sense within a larger context. As my friend Michelle Okafo said, “A narrative, whether real or imagined, is often necessary for comprehension. It’s how we teach, so if one is unable to form a narrative around a concept or object, they lack understanding.”

Why do we even bother to look for meaning in the constant noise and confusion of the universe? In his article “Chaotic Quijote:  Complexity, Nonlinearity and Perspectivism,” Cory A. Reed argues that scientists look for order in chaos because of training (and then extends this observation to all human perception): “Scientists perceive order in chaos because they are trained to do so — both human perception itself and the scientific method are exercises in understanding nature’s complexity by identifying meaningful patterns and structures” (Reed 745). The primary goal of a writer like Cervantes is to find meaning through “patterns and structures” in a chaotic world.

Most of our patterns and structures are ready-made. As we are born into a pre-existing language, so are we born into established narrative structures, which determine both the form and content of our stories. In “The Narrative Organization of Collective Memory,” James Wertsch argues that nations recount history according to set patterns. Not surprisingly, a man who grew up in the Soviet Union does not write about or remember World War II in the same way as an American vet does. The Russian may not even mention Pearl Harbor. A boy born after the fall of the iron curtain writes about most of the same events as his older comrade, but eliminates some occurrences and includes others. The story of World War II as it is told in Russia is changing, but the basic form of the narrative was established a long time ago.

The use of pre-determined structures is not just a characteristic of History but of all narrative accounts. Wertsch calls language, form and content of stories “textual resources” and makes it clear that “textual resources used to produce narratives invariably have a history of use by others” (Wertsch 122). Because we are borrowing words, structure and material from others, we echo our predecessors in our speech and writing. Paraphrasing Mikhail Bakhtain, Wertsch explains that narratives are always “half someone else’s.” Writers are always in a struggle to ”coordinate their voice with those of others that are built into the textual resources they employ” (Wertsch 122). It is because of these borrowed “textual resources” that writers face a crisis every time they write: How can we make our voices heard above the voices of others present in the language, grammar and narrative forms we use? How can we make a story our own when we have borrowed the content, structure and words of others?

An immediate example of a writer’s struggle with established forms is this introduction. Although I am trying to work against convention (by referring to myself and you, my imaginary reader), I am still following form. For example, I quote other authors. Cervantes parodied this already ancient convention four hundred years ago in the preface to Don Quixote. The “author” apologizes about the lack of notes in the margin and annotations at the end of the book, “seeing that other books, though fabulous and profane, are so full of sentences of Aristotle, of Plato and of all the tribe of philosophers, that the readers are in admiration, and take the authors of them for men of great reading, learning, and eloquence” (Cervantes 16). Although Cervantes laughs at this venerable convention, he mentions Aristotle and Plato often enough throughout the novel to show that he is playing along with tradition. An author mentions another to give the writing more authority, and that writer quotes others, and so on and so on in an endless deferral of authority.

Since the main purpose of a thesis (even more than argument or information) is to prove oneself to be a person of “great reading, learning, and eloquence,” I will adhere to this convention as well. If I do so, the university may award me a “Masters of Arts in Literature” degree. (I have no idea what it might mean to “master” literature, however. One reason literature is appealing to me because it is so difficult to tame.)

Not only do language and structure determine our narratives, most of our stories were begun before we were born. Tales tens of thousands of years old precede us, like the archetypes of mother earth and the trickster god. Many features of our lives arose from the development of agriculture ten thousand years ago: sedentary lives, surplus produce, social hierarchy, career specialization, organized religion, government, warfare. The ideas of long-dead Greeks and Romans still echo in our heads, whether we have read their works or not. The plot lines of our cultures, countries and communities are well-established and difficult to change. Our families have their own comedies and tragedies in full production before we arrive.

We may add to, alter, rewrite and revise those stories, but can never completely escape them. We are born into a tangled mass of stories and so we must play out — or rebel against — the narratives created by our ancestors while using their language and their conventions. It is all fiction. All of it.

(The third part of a six part series, following “Extending the Linguistic ‘Concept’ to Include ‘Narrative Function,” and followed by “Fiction and Reality.” For more on chaos theory, see my post “Metafiction and Chaos Theory: Cory A. Reed’s “Chaotic Quijote.” To learn about the conventions of metafiction, see “An Overview of Metafiction.” Read more about these theories in my book Narrative Madness, available at or on Amazon.)

Works Cited

Reed, Cory A. “Chaotic Quijote: Complexity, Nonlinearity and Perspectivism.” Hispania 77.4 (1994): 738-749. Print.

Wertsch, James V. “The Narrative Organization of Collective Memory.” Ethos 36.1 (2008): 120 – 135. Print.

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