“Why did you put a frame on it?” The writing conference fellow eyed me with distaste. “Frames aren’t modern.” We were meeting with her two at a time, supposedly to find out about publishing opportunities, and she was talking about the beginning of an early draft of my novel. I cringed inwardly, grateful there was someone else there to distract her attention while I puzzled over this comment.
Framing, a structure where a story is contained within a story, does have a lot of history behind it. Think of the ancient mariner grabbing the wedding guest; that is the frame for the story the mariner tells. The beginning of Wuthering Heights is another time-hallowed example. The nurse tells the story of the Earnshaws to the visitor to explain the strange household he finds himself in. His visit and experiences are the frame for the story she tells. There are many more recent uses: every book or story that begins with an explanation that this tale, manuscript or old journal was left to the narrator or came into his hands under mysterious circumstances, is using a frame.
Frames can be slight or substantial. Often they explain why the story is being told. The purpose may be announced up front or it may be revealed at the end. I would argue that it is in fact deeply modern to frame a story, particularly one in the first person, because in real life we hardly start telling stories out of nowhere: there is a time and place that draws us on to speak, a listener we shape our tale for, a reason that we tell it.
But that day I didn’t argue. A voice of authority had said the words not modern, but in her tone I heard old-fashioned, odd, wrong. Later I tried taking the frame off, but then the story didn’t seem to work right. My adult narrator had a reason for telling this particular story of her teens–I needed her adult voice to introduce the story and suggest why she was telling it, and I would need it again at the end to show its impact on her life, on who she became. That was my story. But it wasn’t modern, so I put the book aside, worked on something else.
Everybody I know has a story like this: the teacher, parent, writing group leader or Famous Author who used a few words to crush something that was newly created or in the process of being created. Or it was done by a grad student earning a free ride at a conference by meeting with attendees to discuss publishing, about which she in fact knew little. Often some bizarre “rule” or standard (like modernity) is invoked and the writer slinks away, chastened. They hadn’t known the rule. They had actually thought their work was good, maybe, or at least okay, because they hadn’t known about the secret standard that has now been applied to it. To them.
These days, I don’t believe any of that is true. The proof is in any library or bookstore, heaps of it, between hardcovers and soft. There’s only one secret, and I’m sharing it here for free: there aren’t any rules. Just voices, just stories that take their own shapes in the process of being told. So ignore anyone who tells you there’s a secret handshake for admission to this club, and tell the story you have to tell. And then, if you want to, put a frame on it.