A teacher I had in graduate school once mentioned that all stories are either about a stranger coming to town or someone going on a trip. The teacher was shortish with wavy gray hair and had a plump face and husky voice. He came to class with just a pen and the student story to be workshopped, and most of what he taught us was said in a wandering preamble that opened the discussion, or as an afterthought to a student’s earnest comment during the class. He never came with a point to make, and he did not hold forth or even inform, but instead shared a thought or two with us without seeming to care about the effect of his remarks or even whether we’d heard him. We in class did not hang on his every word, but we listened attentively, and at his mention of the two formulas for stories, everyone else in class nodded, because of course they all knew this. You go out into the world or the world comes in. Only I was astonished. To learn so late something suddenly so obvious! It was like having wondered all afternoon where your glasses are only to find them on a cord around your neck. You’d had them all along! They only seemed to be missing! If only I’d thought to check around my neck! If only I’d thought to think about stories! To think about life!
That experience of pulling up short at information so basic that it should have been in my blood was repeated recently when suddenly, epiphany-like, I understood that you have a story as soon as you have someone entering a new world. It felt like a brand-new insight, but really it was the trip my teacher had spoken of. How to get a character into that world—what a wonderful lot of ways! Going through a wardrobe, making a wish while clutching a magic charm, falling down a rabbit hole, jumping into a puddle, climbing into a hot-air balloon, being swept up in a tornado—all throw a character into a new world where the big adventure is seeing if and how the old rules apply.
Most of the stories that popped into my mind were children’s stories. But Jack Finney’s science fiction novel Time and Again revolves around the protagonist’s repeated excursions into the world of the past, and as classic a piece of fiction as Jane Eyre launches the character into the new world of boarding school, far from her home, and from there on into the world of employment. Jane, whom the reader first sees as a 10-year-old hidden in a library alcove, has far to go before she is mistress of her domain, not relegated to corners. Isn’t that what a good story, a happy story, tells? How we come from our corners to join the world, even if we had ventured out to grapple with it? Lay down your arms. Look about in wonder.
Sometimes a character doesn’t learn this in the course of a story but simply attests to the good of wonder as a response to life. It seems to me that’s what Forrest Gump does in the film named for him. The adventure is his, but the lesson is ours—welcome life and do not worry unduly. He does that, at each turn, despite the sorrows he feels and the ones he seems oblivious to. But why, I wondered along with two students in my pre-intermediate adult class, describe Forrest Gump as a comedy, as our English textbook did? Surely it isn’t that. Two students remained in the class, and one of them frowningly pronounced that assessment wrong. Forrest Gump is not a comedy, he said. I turned to the other student, who shrugged. So I pressed him. He made a gesture to suggest a tear at the corner of his eye. “Sad,” he said.
I had by chance just seen the film for the first time, and I agreed it was no comedy. In fact, the comic scenes had confused me because they hardly fit with the tenor of the film, full as it is of trials, hardship, and death. Even the ending is not a solution to a problem, like sending the stranger on their way or returning safe and sound to one’s world, because, really, Gump has no problems, merely circumstances that he stolidly deals with, giving no indication that threats or loss might overwhelm him. He never seems to venture into another world but takes his world with him, and his acceptance of it protects him like a shell. Other lists classify the film as a drama or a romance, but my students and I decided it is most broadly an adventure story. But then, isn’t everything? The adventure! Go forth to meet it or stand back to let it in. Or, as Gump does, just wake up each day open to what comes. Again the basic, unquestionable truth that hits me like a novelty: the adventure of it all. As Helen Keller said, If life is not an adventure, it is nothing. I’ll take adventure over nothing, no question.
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