Sunday’s New York Times Magazine featured an essay on narration that a friend mentioned on Facebook. I didn’t see her comment initially because I don’t frequent Facebook. My husband posts there several times a day though, so he passed the news along to me. Now that I’ve read the essay, I’m ready to enter the conversation–but not on Facebook, where it seems too late. My friend’s request–“I’d love to hear more thoughts on this”–now lies buried beneath four days of links and “likes” and photos.
The essay “Once Upon a Time, There was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time‘” reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s story “‘The Veldt” (1950), which my students and I read and studied this week. The story’s crystal-walled virtual-reality nursery leads the Hadley children away from creativity toward passivity. When the son, Peter, admonishes his father for removing the picture painter from the nursery, George Hadley replies: ‘. . . I wanted you to learn to paint all by yourself, son” (76).
“I don’t want to do anything but look and listen and smell,” Peter replies. “What else is there to do?” (76).
In “Once Upon a Time. . . ,” writer Steven Almond addresses how visual media (Bradbury’s crystal-walled virtual-reality) has changed how we conceive of storytelling. “Traditionally,” Almond writes, “stories represented an active collaboration. Listeners and readers were called upon to create the world described by the artist. Film advanced a new model of collaboration. An array of artists (screenwriters, actors, cinematographers, set designers, etc.) worked together to invent an ultra-vivid artificial world. The audience’s role became increasingly passive–to absorb and react, not to imagine. Television shrunk the wonders of film and delivered them directly to our living rooms.”
The absence of narration in “the shrunken wonders of film”–now shrunken to fit our iPhone 5 screens–isn’t simply the loss of a literary device. It’s the atrophy of an essential skill: one that enables us to make sense of the world. It’s no surprise that Almond’s creative writing students produce short stories that lack coherence. Or that many of the freshman in my classes struggle to produce essays of more than 1,500 words. If I write any more, I’ll be repeating myself, they often say, not because they can’t write more, but because they can’t imagine writing more. To do so would require the sustained attention and reflection that our digital culture leaves behind.
Posting to Facebook about the decline of narration isn’t the equivalent of driving and texting about the dangers of driving and texting. But it does underscore a consistent contradiction in our lives. As a writer and a teacher, I attempt to reconcile that incongruity with blog posts–writing that my students and I can draft and revise before our words enter the sphere Almond describes as “the simulated world through which most of us flit from one context to the next, from Facebook post to Tumblr feed to YouTube clip, from ego moment to snarky rant to carnal wormhole.”