Completely Subjective: Elaine Equi’s “A Story Begins”

Elaine Equi’s ¨A Story Begins¨ first appeared in New American Writing’s 29th issue in 2011. Equi, who has published six books with Coffee House Press, was born in Illinois in 1953. Now, she teaches at New York University and in the MFA programs at the New School and City College.

When I first came across Equi’s “A Story Begins”, I expected a light-hearted and simple poem, with more of a rhyming or sing-song feel to it. My expectations could not have been farther from the truth. The poem “A Story Begins” is not a poem about storytelling, which I had anticipated given the name, but about stories and books in general. Equi criticizes books by explaining that every novel has the same story line. Each one has basically the same rising action, climax, falling action, and a resolution. She notices that each story has “just one different thing” included in it, meaning that authors add new details or plot to make their books appear original.

The reason people read is literary escapism, which is the diversion of the mind to purely imaginative entertainment to escape from reality. Readers try to escape their own life to indulge in fantastical lives that tend to be better and more colorful than their own. They seek the thrill that the characters encounter and the excitement leading up to the climax of the story. The books people read just seem superior to their own lives. Maybe people crave books because there is always repeating action or a happy ending, unlike in their average lives. They want to escape their boring lives, and enter an unrealistic world.

Literary escapism, however, changed for Equi when she realized that all stories are the same. One summer, her apartment was undergoing construction so she decided to pass the time by escaping in novels. She was disappointed when discovering that every novel she read, including the most outstanding works of literature, were predictable and almost artificial in a way. Equi noticed that after people read books they become “the excess of the story” and “washed ashore”. After readers are done escaping reality, they are forced to continue their lives, with a feeling that they would rather be living in the fictional one.

As I’m not a big fan of reading, I usually spend my time watching movies. Two winters ago, I became a movie addict, watching them an unhealthy amount. I was fascinated by fiction movies rather than non-fiction. My favorite genres were comedies and sometimes adventure. I would become absorbed in the movies, so to speak. I loved the characters and the plot and everything in between. I watched movies because I had nothing else to do and looked to find action from films. Sometimes I would feel attached to characters, feeling emotional if they died or something bad happened to them. This seems like every other movie watcher, however, so I never really thought much of it. After spending countless hours watching generic romantic comedies, I started to get bored. I began to realize I could predict the end to any movie in front of me, even if I had never heard of it before. It all became too fake to me: the story line, characters, and the events. You can imagine my disappointment when I discovered that movies could not excite me anymore. I stepped back and noticed how much time I spend absorbed fiction rather than my own reality, and how all fiction stories were practically the same.

At first, I felt stupid for not noticing that every movie I watched was basically the same one, but I would still get excited by each one. Then, I was upset that I lost something I could use to escape my life. Reading Equi’s “A Story Begins”, I was able to connect with the poet’s ideas, after she lost her love for books and discovered that literary escapism is sad. She ended up giving up on novels for enjoyment the summer her apartment was undergoing construction, and lived in poetry. To Equi, all poems are different because readers have to analyse them and interpret their own meaning.

Equi’s very pessimistic poem reminded me that I should not be lost in a fictional world, and should focus more on my own. Many people use escapism to turn away from reality. Some people watch movies, some read books or write stories. Both my and Equi’s cynical view on stories are reflected in “A Story Begins”, and I discovered that I have to learn to not escape reality, but embrace it.

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