Surviving the German forest
Recently, I was leafing through Jessica Abel’s Out on the Wire, an updated and expanded version of her classic illustrated guide to radio, when I came across the following story from Radiolab host Jad Abrumad:
The station manager came to me and he said, “Hey, do you want to do an hour on Wagner’s Ring Cycle?” Had I done five minutes of research, I would’ve realized that Wagner’s Ring Cycle is an eighteen-hour cycle of operas that tries to encompass the totality of European art in one work. You got imagery, you got music, you got psychology, it was supposed to be “the work of art that ended art.” I could’ve found this out in thirty seconds, but I didn’t, and so I thought to myself: “Wagner, Wagner, Wagner, I don’t know much about Wagner. But, uh, sure, okay, Wagner, why not.”
Fast-forward a couple months, I had missed four deadlines, I’m on the verge of getting fired, and I haven’t slept for four days. I had the pressure of ideas that I just couldn’t reach, I had the pressure of being a newbie and talking to people who were very sophisticated. And I had the pressure of deadlines that were going “splat!” left, right, and center.
Abrumad concludes: “And we at Radiolab have given this state a name, because it happens quite often. We call it ‘the German forest.'” And it’s a place, I think, where most storytellers find themselves sooner later. When you begin a project of any size, whether it’s a long essay or a short story or an entire novel, you can feel overwhelmed by the amount of material you have to cover, and one of the hardest part of the process is translating the inchoate mass of ideas in your head into something that can be consumed in a sequential form. Abrumad doesn’t minimize the difficulties involved, but he notes that wandering through that forest is an essential stage in any creative endeavor:
When I head the Wagner thing on the radio later, I was like, “Whoa, somewhere in the middle of that trauma, I think I found my voice. There’s a real correlation between time spent in the German forest and these moments of emergence. And to be clear, the German forest changes. That sense of, the work is just too big to put my head around this, how am I gonna do this, that never changes. But what does change is that the terror gets reframed for you, because now, you’ve made it out a few times. You can see over the treetops, and into the future, to where, there you are, you’re still there, you’re still alive.
What interests me about this the most, though, is that Abrumad—a MacArthur fellow and very smart guy—is working in a form that has laid down strict rules for managing its material. As I’ve noted elsewhere, because radio poses such unique challenges, it has to be particularly ruthless about sustaining the listener’s attention. In the previous edition of Abel’s book, Ira Glass lays out the formula in a quote that I never tire of repeating:
This is the structure of every story on our program—there’s an anecdote, that is, a sequence of actions where someone says “this happened then this happened then this happened”—and then there’s a moment of reflection about what that sequence means, and then on to the next sequence of actions…Anecdote then reflection, over and over.
Glass frames this structure as a courtesy to the listener, but, more subtly, it’s also there for the sake of the storyteller. It isn’t a map of the forest, exactly, but a compass, or, even better, a set of rules for orienting yourself, and the tricks that survive are the ones that provide value both during the writing process and in the act of reading or listening. You can think of the rules of storytelling as a staircase with the author on one end and the audience at the other, allowing them to meet in the middle. Their primary purpose is to ensure that a project can be brought to completion, but they also allow the finished product to serve its intended purpose, just as the rules of architecture are both a strategy for building a house that won’t fall down halfway through and a blueprint for livable spaces.
And this is a particularly useful way to think about all “rules” of writing or storytelling, particularly plot and structure. Kurt Vonnegut says: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.” And, he might have added, of keeping writers writing. Similarly, in The Art of Fiction, John Gardner notes that one of the hardest lessons for a writer to learn is how to treat each unit on its own terms:
The good writer treats each unit individually, developing them one by one. When he’s working on the description of Uncle Fyodor’s store, he does not think about the hold-up men who in a moment will enter it, though he keeps them in the back of his mind. He describes the store, patiently, making it come alive, infusing every smell with Uncle Fyodor’s emotion and personality (his fear of hold-up men, perhaps); he works on the store as if this were simply an exercise, writing as if he had all eternity to finish it, and when the description is perfect—and not too long or short in relation to its function in the story as a whole—he moves on to his story’s next unit.
You write a story, as David Mamet likes to say, the same way you write a turkey: one bite at a time. And a few seconds of thought reveal that both the writer and the reader benefit from that approach. You find your way through the forest step by step, just as the reader or listener will, and if you’re lucky, you’ll come to the same conclusion that Abrumad does: “You begin to recognize the German forest for what it is. It’s actually a tool. It’s the place you have to go to hear the next version of yourself.”