The Pursuit Of Story

Listen, here’s the thing about an English degree – if you sat somebody down and asked them to make a list of the writers they admire over the last hundred years, see how many of them got a degree in English.

David Mamet


Imagine that . . . attending university to formally learn the intricacies of writing. My grind to achieve a four-year, double honour degree in Psychology and Sociology required a truckload of specialized courses, four terms of statistics, one term of chemistry and technical writing, and a smattering of other courses of personal interest.

Thirty years ago, a degree in the social sciences was not the lesser degree it is today. At the time, I dabbled in crafting stories. But professional report, thesis, and proposal writing was an essential part of my studies as I developed a rich understanding of how human behaviour reacted to mental, physical, chemical, and social influences. 

Chemistry terrified yet mystified. I’m a hands-on learner, but classes were conducted in the classroom not the lab. My brain struggled to wrap around the abstract concepts of chemical composition – element properties, weight significance, and the combining of elements to produce a reaction or new element. Despite earnest effort, I failed to comprehend how those dreaded chains of letters and numbers written on the board conveyed an important story. Imagined Einstein, whom I admired to the nth degree, smiling graciously at my complete ineptness as his head shook with pity. 

Years later while engaged in the pursuit of mastering story mechanics, the ironic connection between the concepts of the hard and soft sciences and fiction composition revealed themselves. All required a knowledge of connecting elements to create a reaction. The deeper the understanding, the more proficient one became at producing a desired outcome. 

A satisfying story requires powerful chemistry. Loosely speaking, mindful crafting strings together a blindsided protagonist and questionable supporting characters in an interesting setting with a near impossible problem to solve. Add to the chain a painful unspoken truth or dreaded secret, and a malicious antagonist bent on foiling the success of their quest. Sounds silly, but in truth a fruitful imagination combines these elements to create stories powerful enough to ignite moments of fear and relief, tears and laughter, triumph and defeat, compassion and anger in the reader. Moments of enlightenment.

The brilliant David Mamet’s quote made me sigh.  Though amusing and imbued with truth, the comment roused sympathy for all those well-schooled people with English degrees whose purpose was to teach English or attain jobs that required a sound understanding of the language’s mechanics. And for those writers with an English degree whose works fell short of the taste of mainstream fiction. 

We inhabit and nurture an on-demand, impatient world. An attitude sullying much of our story telling. We’re expected to write tight, move it along at the speed of quicksilver with conversations exchanged in unnaturally terse and cocky replies. To utilize middle-school or street vocabulary. Mamet’s forte in his work. But that’s not my world nor will it ever be.

A blanket adherence to such an audience’s needs is done at the expense of brilliant and rich storytelling. Disregards a significant sector of readers who crave a rich and well-stitched writing style. My willingness to compromise is highly questionable.  

Thanks for listening. Cheers.

S. C. Roberts 



9 thoughts on “The Pursuit Of Story

  1. This is an example of different shoes for different feet. I too prefer a story that paints vivid pictures of setting and feelings. The language of conversation should remain true to the speaker. I agree there is a preference for snappy and contrary conversations that sounds unnatural in many ways. As for that English degree…I teach writing and drama to level 7 and 8 students. A tough but worthy job.

    On Mon, 28 Mar 2022, 11:39 pm The Journey To Writeside-Up, wrote:

    > S.C. Roberts posted: ” Listen, here’s the thing about an English degree – > if you sat somebody down and asked them to make a list of the writers they > admire over the last hundred years, see how many of them got a degree in > English. David Mamet Ima” >


    • Hello MaxiGirl. I bow to you and your bravery. Teaching is an honourable and worthy job. It’s a huge responsibility. I, too, value a writer’s skill to paint a picture that places you beside the characters. Thanks for listening. Cheers.


  2.     Hmm, the chemistry of things: I’ve forgotten almost everything but for some reason I still remember Avogadro’s Number of 6.02 X 10Exp.23, and when I write I still have 22.4 liters of hot air (oops, that’s supposed to be at STP). It’s interesting about the value of psychology and sociology — many of our leaders are either born or trained psychopaths. So there aren’t many practitioners of applied morality despite years of training in these subjects.
        Ah, but, story telling seems like the perfect refuge from reality with a chemistry that can be pursued with an elaborate thought experiment that doesn’t have to be done in the lab with dangerous chemicals or pathogens.
        And here’s the thing about “cocky” replies and such: A conversation in print can’t be real, because it has um’s, pauses, pregnant silences, distractions, and wanderings off-subject (what was that? I think I heard a plane crash. Um, never mind. What were you saying. What was I saying). Anyway, I lost my train-of-thought, but I enjoyed your essay. Thanks.


    • Hello “James” – Thanks for taking the time to listen and respond. Ditto regarding your opinion on the psychopathy of world/political leaders. I’ve taken to viewing the mess like I watch suspense/horror movies … with one eye behind a pillow. As for dialogue – because speech patterns are so varied among people as it’s a characteristic of a person, to reduce it a such an artificial level degrades storytelling. I agree one must tailor dialogue to remove the noise but not destroy it. BTW – I use ums and pauses, pregnant or otherwise as a tool. And yes, storytelling does represent the perfect refuge for thought experiments. That’s why concocting one is so enjoyable.


      Liked by 1 person

  3.     I don’t want to pile on exactly but I think that David Mamet’s quote is a good indication of how many people feel injured or shunned by academia. Moi? I’ve managed to not throw away about 400 poems because I like some, some of mine I hate but other people like, some are spoofs of structured styles I hate like sonnets that I’ve managed to enjoy mocking, and some sum up comeuppance. Mostly I do free-verse derived from long complex sentences, elaborated with strategic line breaks, and I rhyme on a dime or sing out if my profound whispers don’t draw near those I’d wish to shepherd towards the meadow of my poetry, those who’d lend their ears to verses to be heard by the herd. Needs work.
        As you might expect, I’ve sold a trivial trifle of poetry books (or is that a gaggle of flying off-the-shelf books?). I’ve been thinking maybe I should write a book on how to write poetry.
    But I got bogged down with attempted satire that soon degenerated into the attempted murder of the language. But actually I sometimes feel they say that to write a poem, one should have PhD’s in medieval French poetry, ancient Greek and Latin, Sanscript, oh and (what did I forget?) — English.
        And must it be abstract and buried in the grave of twisted overwrought metaphor? It does not give one gravitas, does it? (That was a fad word for a while).
        So here’s my hatred of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”:

    Indeed I’d liken thee to a hot intemperate day.
    Thy art work hangs on the wall by the bed:
    in the heat and torrents of Summer’s bray
    the painting warps ‘n tilts though glee outspreads

    Though furies of heaven are too hot tempered to tame
    And oft’ the sea would rush in with scorn,
    a perfect day fickled with clouds it disclaims
    a wispy willow tickled and teased forlornly

    Though a Sonnet in thy bonnet hotter than the Sun
    thy eternal fire of soul consumes thee not;
    Thy burning bush fertility rite not done
    Nor will death retrieve heat God wot:
    One summer’s day none can tame
    As there’d be forever my Dame.

        Yadda, yadda, yadda, it makes no sense to speak like that. Anyway, I’ll never do that again. I’ve exhausted myself writing Ukraine poems — I think I’ve done 7. Maybe one is good. I don’t know. A while ago I had some love poems. Now I think I hate them all. So hate poems are next then. No. I don’t think so.


    • Hello Doug. You have quite the sense of humour. Poetry is a wonderful example of a concise, technical use of words and imagination to convey a story. A lost/undervalued literary form in many ways. Not one you should throw away for love or money. I’m a true believer in art for the sake of art. If you profit it from your work all the better. As for Mamer’s comments – the lack of context in that quote is what makes it interesting. As such, the meaning is in the eye of the beholder. The value of any degree, or endeavour, is gauged by what is held in social esteem at the time, isn’t it? I shudder at the lack of importance placed on basic language skills. I am embarrassed and have pity for those children who leave school without a basic understanding of sentence structure, spelling, and lack the ability to communicate effectively with the written word. Education is now all about STEM… Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics. That leaves several massive holes, doesn’t it?
      Thanks for reading and chiming in. Cheers.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree. I miss the rich art of storytelling. I often wonder ‘where is the literature’ in pieces meant to be literary fiction.
    I loved your description of story elements; “mindful crafting strings together a blindsided protagonist and questionable supporting characters in an interesting setting with a near impossible problem to solve. Add to the chain a painful unspoken truth or dreaded secret, and a malicious antagonist bent on foiling the success of their quest.” So well said.
    Your chemistry insight about connections was interesting. I struggled with chemistry in university. Is that why I often struggle with my plot? Hhmmmm.


    • Hello Bev … I’m beginning to see storytelling as a form of speed dating. A fast and furious affair requiring the author to snare the reader in five minutes before the next candidate comes through the revolving door. I understand the need for economy (words, pages, production costs, etc.) in the world of publishing. It’s an expensive affair expected at a discounted price. But like you, I believe the beauty of any literary work should not be compromised by the need to condense a story to the point of being artificial and skeletal. The work becomes more of a screenplay with the expectation the camera’s eye (the reader) adds the richness though their own lense. I suppose that is why we now have a distinction between literary fiction and mainstream. As for the link between the struggle with chemistry and plotting? You can’t compare cumquats and watermelons. Plotting, to me, is the technical side of writing. It requires me to colour within the borders of my outline. Once the first draft is done, I can add the artistic flourishes and curlicues and smiley faces until its beautiful. WHICH I’m still struggling to master. Have faith in your storytelling abilities, Bev, and it will return the favour. I have faith in you because you are a talented writer. Cheers for now my friend.


  5.     I’ve heard it said, “Write what you know.” That is a problem because I don’t know anything. Well, OK, that’s an exaggeration as extreme as clichés are shallow.
        I’ve tried to write by elaborating ignorance. I have a friend who calls herself a High Priestess because she’s studying under a guru called Utcoozhoo. He’s teaching her meditation and they meet in a cave complex. She wanted to show me what she learned, but it was more dangerous than I could have imagined. After teaching me a weird mantra and breathing exercise that made my whole face vibrate, she invited me to meet her in the cave. It was supposed to be good for my writing slump. She called the vibration the ‘ka’ sound. She told me to write a diary at this point. I’ve kept most of it.
        I had visited the caves a few times, but as I traversed the maze to reach my appointed meeting with Zawmb’yee, I made my way past familiar speleothems that loomed like broken talismans. An ominous insight seemed to trickle into my consciousness.
        But the sword of the silver-red stalagmite spoke to the gods in heaven, the legend said. Nevertheless I walked past to the left, up the narrow ledge.
        On edge, I hummed a few umm’s as I put foot to each stone, trying to remember the sound I was supposed to make for Zawmb’yee’s incantation. Yeah, good for writer’s block, or is that writer’s stone.
        She waved as I approached the Ngtqua….
        Zawmb’yee said, “Doug, I’m so excited. But I forgot to tell you, you have to add a deep voicing, like a bass hum, to the ‘ka’ and the gargle, like this…” The whole cave vibrated, a small stalactite fell out of the ceiling, and a stone fell off the ledge. “Except a little deeper … you try…”
        I made my whole face vibrate and my eyes shook like little REM’s from a dream. No stones fell.
        She said, “Good, perfect. Now we just have to harmonize. OK, now, we stand by the entrance to the Ngtqua. We do the ‘ka’ together, but when I point up, I want you to raise the tone of your voice, and when I point down, I want you to lower the tone with more bass. When we get the beats right, you’ll hear a ‘wah-oh-wah-oh’ sound, but think that you’re focusing your energy at the entrance…”
        Somehow, her giddiness just didn’t seem to match the occasion. I said, “Do you know what you’re doing?”
        Zawmb’yee said, “Um, well, let’s just do this.”
        When we did the sound together the wah-oh was intense. The large square stone pivoted on one edge, opened like a door, but smoothly without creaks. The inner surface of the door was smooth and polished, not at all like a rock, but more like the vault door of a bank.
        She said with confidence, “Now, we go in.” We walked into the Ngtqua. The door slammed behind us with the sound of locking bolts. The inner surface glowed red hot for a moment and a frost of rock formed, making the door indistinguishable from the surrounding rock of the chamber. There was a trickle of water on the floor.
        Zawmb’yee covered her gnolum lantern with her back pack until it was totally dark. She took my hands in the dark, said, “We are of the universe, the distant stars, we diffuse into a unity of chaos, a smear of light, the glow of love; we are the moment. See the pfambuuwisen, and choose the one that glows the most. Let it expand. Dive into the blue light, and let it expand into a dream. What do you see?”

        “I see a woman in a helmet with a spear.”

        Zawmb’yee laughed. “Oh sorry, I lost my focus. That’s an opera that I went to. Actually, I should tell you that I saw Chloë at the opera…”

        “You know Chloë?”

        “Well, yes.”

        The trickle of water was increasing and I found myself standing in ankle deep water. “Don’t you think we should go?…”

        And so the diary goes on, but I don’t know if it shows any improvement in my writing. I wrote some contemporaneous stuff:

        The water is rising more rapidly by the second. We’re doing the ka wah-oh up and down the scale.

        It’s not working — the door is not opening. Zawmb’yee is screaming. I’m telling her that screaming is not the right chant. She’s looking around. She’s running to the back of the chamber where the golden steps are. She’s taking a deep breath, diving underwater, swimming down the stairs.

        Returning, gasping, Zawmb’yee says she doesn’t see an exit. She’s screaming at me to stop taking notes. The water is up to my neck. Seems like a rainy day today. I’m putting this in the waterproof case but I’m not going to be able to fix the spelling, and this doesn’t seem complete enough, but I think incoherence is acceptable under these…

        We’re floating towards the ceiling. Zawmb’yee has put a sheet of paper on top of her floating backpack, and she’s making notes.

        I feel a buzzing panic … thought I’d have a traditional birthday cake this year — maybe this time really have a wish come true when I would blow out the forest of candles. It never seemed to work before. I think I had my first cake with candles when I was three…

        The water is still rising. I smile at Zawmb’yee. She is praying. I wonder about the golden steps we were to step down, each one more relaxing, more soothing. We were to reach a plateau, make a bubble of protection, be bathed in white light. I see a glowing blue globe. I remember when I was three. “Uncle Coozie, Uncle Coozie, I’m fwee today.”

        “You’re three?”

        “I’m fwee-years-old and I can sing: ‘Haffy Birffy to me/Haffy Birffy to me/Haffy Birffy dear Dougy, haffy birffy to me.’ Uncle Coozie, Mommy chased the angel away — she says ’cause it’s jimagery. Daddy said to hurry up and blow out the damn candles and I forgot to make a wish. Can I still make a wish after everybody’s gone? I made a wish on a teddy bear…”. Zawmb’yee is asking me what we do now. I am saying, “Utcoozhoo says to feel along the beam in the ceiling for a lever.” I am reaching up. There is a beam. The water is only an inch from the ceiling. There is a piece of metal sticking out. I’m pulling it. The water is draining.
        The water drained slowly. Treading water wasn’t much fun. My backpack was too heavy — I had brought a picnic blanket, a bottle of that two dollar wine that won a prize from the blindfolded snobs, and blue cheese. I tried to arch my head back to float, but having to do the elementary backstroke to stay afloat, made me crash into a wall. I switched to breaststroke, swimming around Zawmb’yee who was holding onto her floating backpack.
        Slowly, as the water drained, we floated down to the floor. Little rivers gurgled down the stairs. The water was gone.


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