Some Thoughts on the Storyteller’s Imagination

by Timothy J Jarvis

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here, largely because I’ve been busy with teaching. The teaching is time-consuming, and does takes me away from my own writing, but, in addition to the satisfaction of seeing students develop and explore different ideas in their work, I also get, from the discussions we have in lectures and workshops, a lot to take into my own poetics. One of the things we’ve been attempting to formulate recently is how the storyteller’s imagination works in the increasingly fragmented, fractured world we live in.

I’m drawn to Calvino’s notion, expressed in his 1967 lecture, ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’, that storytelling is a kind of combinatorial game, a case of attempting all the permutations of a given set of elements, till one ignites, resonates: ‘Mythic significance,’ he argues, ‘is something one comes across only if one persists in playing around with narrative functions.’ Calvino argues this game could be undertaken by a machine (at least theoretically – he doubts it would be worth the trouble).

But, despite huge advances in the field of cybernetics in the half century since Calvino’s lecture, no convincing literary automaton has yet been created. It would seem that stories cannot be generated procedurally; though randomization can produce some startling juxtapositions, there needs to be something more. After all, the chances of the proverbial monkeys producing anything lucid, let alone affecting, are vanishingly small, even given the whole lifetime of the universe, and Borges’s librarians spend their entire lives perusing the shelves without finding anything coherent beyond a few isolated phrases. There must be something more that is possessed by humans, but not by computers, something that leads the storyteller to select some combinations of elements and abandon others.

Now a classicist might argue it is ‘taste’ or ‘discernment’ that enables writers to choose between elements and shape stories, and I wouldn’t disagree that some narratives can be crafted in this way. However, the restraint inherit in this process gives rise to works without teeth, as anyone who has felt the gummy slobbering bite of such a book will know. The same is also true of stories that are overly reliant on tropes for their structures – bone takes many thousands of years to petrify, genre conventions can fossilize in months.

Vital work, it seems to me, is produced when the combination of elements, drawn from the writer’s life and reading, is animated by fear or desire.