I feel frustrated when I try to text people, especially those I love. There is so much nuance, so much extra, so much digression that I want to do. But my thumbs are awkward instruments of communication. There is not room to tell all the stories inside the story I want to communicate. And no one writes friendly letters any more. I do send and receive some digressive e-mails from time to time, so all is not lost.
Most of my favorite writers occasionally use a literary technique known as framework—telling an anecdote or series of stories inside a larger tale. Boccaccio perfected the method in The Decameron and Chaucer used it to good effect in Canterbury Tales. In the former, plague exiles spend their days telling stories. The larger idea is the plight of the displaced folks but the stories they tell are the focus. Of course, Chaucer’s storytellers are on a pilgrimage, telling their unique stories within the journey framework.
African-American writer Charles Waddel Chesnutt explored racial and class identity in several framework stories. My favorite is Mars Jeem’s Nightmare. That work starts out as an episode concerning a white man and his wife who have just bought an old plantation in North Carolina. A former slave called Uncle Julius who lives there soon takes over the interest and the narration, relating to the white folks a powerful tale about a conjure that turns a plantation owner into a slave and then back again. Uncle Julius explains at the end of the framework that when the shoe is on the other foot, minds and dispositions change.
Earlier in American literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne employed framework to good effect. His famous novel, The Scarlet Letter, starts out with the narrator in a customs office examining old documents. He comes across a beautifully embroidered scarlet letter “A” and it seems to burn his fingers. This sensation leads him to research and relate the story of the adulteress turned angel, Hester Prynne. Of course, even the framework is fictitious, but it gives an initial sense of reality, almost as a documentary would.
Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find is one the shortest framework stories I know. The larger story is about a Southern family taking a vacation to Florida. The smaller stories reveal a miscreant called the Misfit on the loose. The framework comes to a screeching halt with a car wreck caused by the family cat, Pity Sing (Pretty Thing). The Misfit comes on the scene and his dialogue with Grandma nails down the most chilling framework imaginable.
I write all this simply to give my view that we should not find digressiveness too terribly blameworthy. One must start somewhere and if another story kicks in, it may be more important and entertaining that the initial narrative. Such phrases as, “oh, by the way” and “I’ll tell you this so you will understand what I will tell you later,” should be welcome in conversation. I like actual conversations, don’t you? You can’t digress much while texting.