Friday, March 25, 2011


Having nearly exhausted my creative capacity after a year-long project of researching, writing and rewriting, (and now seeking publication of) my popular history of American literature, ‘American Masters’, I have given myself a month off. (Of course with my novella ‘The Angelic Mysteries’ due out in August, it won’t be much of a break). But it is important to replenish the wellsprings of narrative creation. For some time I have put off writing of my inquiry into narrative structure, desire and resistance in nonfiction – what is called plot in fiction. (This along with the study of language generally). So now, after many patient months of doing other things, I have begun. It is the fruit of this lengthy inquiry I would like to share with you today.

I begin with a new notion of language itself as set down by Steven Pinker in his brilliant and popular book (is popular the right word? Well read, perhaps.) ‘The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language’. It is his contention that language is something far more organic than has been previously believed. (Something I have suspected for a long time, too). Language is, he writes, a human instinct that is hard-wired into our brain much as animals have instincts of their own. (A squirrel to bury nuts for winter. A spider to spin its web). This is why, when stone-age people were discovered in New Guinea, for instance, long cut off from any other humans, language had still developed among them. This offers us only a place to begin – it is not my intention here to dig deeply into the work of either Pinker or Noam Chomsky. Let us say that my conclusion has been this: If language grows naturally and organically from the human subconscious, perhaps our approach to narrative structure and plot has been too formal, just as the dictates of grammar may restrict rather than enhance a student’s ability to learn language.

With that as a premise, then, I began to look further afield for ideas that I may employ in my narrative nonfictions. I came across some very interesting writings by Algirdas Greimas – ‘The Semiotics of Passion’ and ‘On Meaning’ in which he searches for those elements in narrative that create oppositions. What he discovered is that there are points of opposition – of friction we might say – that lie outside our normal patterns of narration. They lie, rather, in the deep structure of the work itself. He designed a semiotic square with which to illustrate his findings. Contradictory pairs could be found not only between life and death, but in ‘not life’ and ‘not death’, for instance. If such pairs could be identified in a work at the outset, a certain tension could be created without the use of standard ‘fictional’ plotting techniques. As you can see, this gave me another way to think about narrative nonfiction. If tension could be introduced that was not glaringly borrowed from fiction, a new and different kind of story would result. And, since nonfiction has at least the potential of being more ‘true’ than fiction, whole new possibilities present themselves.

I hope this gives you something to chew on this week, as it has me for some time now. I will continue the subject next week in Part II. As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments either here or on my Facebook page. This is part of an article ‘The New Language of Nonfiction’ Copyright © 2011 James D. Sanderson. All Rights Reserved.

Thanks for reading,

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