The Shape of our Stories

Vonnegut wrote his master’s thesis on his theory that all stories could be graphed by computers – with good- and ill-fortune on the y-axis and time on the x-axis.


He believed novels were ultimately about how characters get into and out of trouble and that plots – no matter how varied their premises – could be represented by a mere handful of simple shapes.


My four-year-old, on the other hand, like so many post-post-modernists of her generation, is interested in subverting literary conventions and inventing new ways to tell stories.


Some days, she’ll call her imaginary friends on her toy phone and go on and on and on and on about her day – her stories a marriage of litany and tangents, like a cross between Whitman’s catalogs and David Foster Wallace’s footnotes.


Other days she has no patience for steady arc or logical discourse. She believes in escalation and she believes in it now.


How ‘bout we put away those markers and take a bath, I’ll say.


How ‘bout I dead your brain, she’ll respond.


But while conversations with my four-year are entirely unpredictable, I’ve been worried, lately, that too many of my own poems could be graphed into the exact same shape.


I begin by pursuing one idea and as soon as I’ve figured something out, I feel the need to reverse directions – consider the opposite of what I just said – until that too needs an opposing consideration. And before I know it, I’ve snaked my way up and down some mountain.


Not that there’s anything wrong with switchbacks, but you can only take the same path so many times until you stop paying close attention, until the process is more about execution than exploration.


And when you focus too much on execution, you end up with dead poems.


The understanding of whether an experience is a linear sequence or a constellation raying out from and into a central focus or axis, wrote Denise Levertov in her essay “Some Notes on Organic Form,” is discoverable only in the work, not before it.


Last night, my daughters and I were building a tower out of magna-tiles when I accidentally knocked half of it down.


I immediately started rebuilding it back into the exact same shape when my four-year-old stopped me and said, doesn’t it kind of look like a spider-robot-monkey? And suddenly we were playing an entirely new game.


That’s always both the scariest and most exciting moment of composition, for me.


No matter how well conceived our original idea something always collapses. But if we can weather the anxiety of starting over – think of it not as revising but re-envisioning – we sometimes witness shape transcending into form.

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About the Author

Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters.

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