At a summer writing workshop in high school, a professor told me that the sentence “The king died, and then the queen died,” is just history, but “The king died, and then the queen died of grief,” begins to tell a story. It seems so obvious, it hardly bears repeating, but lately, I’ve been coming back to this simple lesson when I ask myself what I’m trying to achieve by writing, and why we like stories, and ultimately, what a story is in the first place. My tentative conclusion—open to revision—is that we like stories because we have also died of grief.
Vonnegut said, “Do you realize that all great literature is all about what a bummer it is to be a human being? Isn’t it such a relief to have somebody say that?” When I first read this quote, I thought it was a comment on the depressing nature of Great Novels—a concept I still believed in at the time, as though there was a massive library somewhere that amassed and prescribed The Official and Definitive Canon. And at the time, it was a relief to hear someone say that the books I knew I should be reading were all depressing romps through the lives of unhappy families. But this is perhaps not exactly what Vonnegut intended. He meant, instead, that it’s a relief to open a book and hear someone else say—as you’ve always suspected—that life as a human being is a bummer, to say that you’re not alone, to say that they have also died of grief.
When I begin to write now, I start with this concept, with the assumption that we have all experienced what a bummer it is to be a human being. The author’s job, in any piece, is to create a reminder of that, to retell the story of the reader’s grief in a way that they’ve never heard before—to make it almost, but not quite, unrecognizable.
People will tell a young writer to write what they know, or what they’re afraid of, or to do neither; to write every day, or only when the inspiration strikes, or that there’s no such thing as inspiration anyway; to read everything but Melville, read nothing but Melville, read nothing. The maxim about the king and the queen is the only one that holds up. Tell the story about how we all died of grief, how we are not alone, and feel the relief it is to have someone say that.