That is chocolate. Those are chocolates.
A friend of mine recently returned from visiting her family in Belarus and brought everyone chocolate. “I don’t understand why chocolate here [in the US] wouldn’t look like this,” she said. By “this” she means that high-bond paper, inked with lovely, subdued patters, wrap each chocolate. Two wings of paper reach out from the edges of the little package so that each chocolate looks like the top of a Japanese torii gate. The chocolates are elegant and, yes, exciting and they will not pack well into boxes or shipping containers.
Why don’t chocolates here look like this? I had no answer except that I had never considered that chocolates could or should look like this. Chocolate, for my money, comes in rectangles or squares, hospital-corner wrapped in foil. Sometimes there is a second layer of paper over the foil. Sometimes chocolate comes in tubs and, occasionally, lined up in a box and nestled in tiny cupcake papers. I do not let it sit on my counter for weeks because it is too beautiful to open.
Yesterday Svetlana Alexievich won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature. If you have not read any of her work, here is a selection of her Voices from Chernobyl that the Paris Review published a while back. Alexievich, seeking a method to express the world and specific human experience in the world hit upon a process and an idea of what a novel can be. Interviewing hundreds of individuals, Alexievich compiles, edits, shapes, curates, sculpts the language into “a story of one Soviet-Russian soul,” or whatever single soul she seeks to understand. Part oral history, part Greek chorus in the first person singular, part meditation on experience and emotion, death and time and love and government and humanity (yes, all that in just a few hundred words), this selection is not traditional narrative, either in format or structure, but man, does it tell a story. More than that, it does tell the story in a way novelists have been doing for centuries, the story of human experience through the experience of the individual.
Why doesn’t all narrative look like this? Not that it should, but, like chocolate, many, many ways of wrapping and presenting narrative exist and, sometimes, it takes someone coming back from Belarus to get you to think about a new method.
Here is a writing challenge. It comes straight from the Nobel committee. Go listen to some Studs Terkel interviews. Eavesdrop on a bus. Create your own voices. Then express a story through bits of monologue. Clear a path where people’s words can get through to the reader.
And have fun.
And come to Other Fictions Workshop! If you are interested in further exploration of the possibilities of narrative and where we can find lessons about story creation and, then, creating stories, come join the Other Fictions Workshop. Just a few days left to register! It’s going to be a lot of fun and there will be chocolate.