Monday, August 20, 2012
I Am So Over The "What I Learned" Narrative
I started obsessing about this when I listened to Ira Glass as the guest on Marc Maron's WTF podcast. Regular readers know I'm a fan of WTF. I'm not a fan of This American Life. That makes it sounds like I hate TAL, but the truth is I've never listened to it. It bothers me that the show is neither journalism or story-telling but has elements of both. I like the truth and I like fiction but you can't run them together like that. It's annoying.
Anyway, during the interview, the always irrepressible Marc Maron asked Ira Glass why none of his submissions were ever accepted for the show. Evidently he, Marc, was rejected a number of times. Ira Glass basically told Marc to tell him a story he'd submitted and they'd try to figure out why it hadn't been accepted.
Marc told a true story about how he had a fling with this woman who it turned out was already involved with someone, and who had lied about it, and about how the whole thing became a complicated mix of the funny, the horrible, the sad, and the surprising -- that mix which is so characteristic of real life for most people. Well, for me anyway. I liked the story a lot.
If I remember correctly, immediately Ira Glass started explaining about how to be a good TAL story, it should have a certain kind of narrative structure, which it lacked. Ideally, that structure should involve some element of surprising personal development. He restructured Marc's story so that it featured a pre-event Marc, who was a certain way, followed by the event itself, followed by a description of post-event Marc, who had clearly learned an important lesson from the whole experience.
I hated the restructuring of the story. It seemed to me to present a fake moral: that when bad, weird, or confusing things happen to you, it's primarily an occasion for personal growth. That in turn seemed to violate something I learned about literature from David Foster Wallace, who was described in The New Yorker years ago as having said that good literature had the function of making him feel "unalone—intellectually, emotionally, spiritually." Literature makes me feel that way too. The real story made me feel that way. Bad, weird, and confusing things happen to me, too. The restructured story didn't make me feel that way. I don't typically experience those bad weird and confusing things as opportunities for personal growth.
The more I thought about the personal growth narrative, the more sinister it started to seem to me. Because the one of the main things about a a narrative of what I learned is that it's not generally a narrative of I knew it all along and the world is an unjust and fucked up place. But sometimes that narrative is the one you need. Because the world is an unjust and fucked up place, and sometimes it's that way in the same stupid ways over and over and over again.
The whole thing made me feel this weird complicity between the political disenfranchisement of regular people and our cultural narratives of positive thinking and learning stuff and all that. I know it's not the same people -- I mean, the people who want the rich white guys to make all the decisions while the proles are left in the dark are not the same people who want every narrative turned into a narrative of personal growth. Probably these groups want as little to do with each others as possible.
But the personal growth narrative, at least when it becomes common, has the effect of muting the narrative of rage, of justified anger, of ordinary opinion, of complaining, and even just of I-Have-No-Idea-What-Is-Going-On-With-That. Sometimes those are the narratives you really need. Like, now maybe.