Curiosity, unfinished stories, the grand jury, and Orlando

For the last eleven months, I’ve spent my Wednesdays in a federal courthouse, serving on a grand jury, helping to hand down indictments on charges varying from drug trafficking to tax fraud, immigration violations to child pornography, illegal firearm possession to identity theft, and much more. (Yes, this is a thing that can happen if your number comes up. In Maryland it’s an 18-month term; I’ll be done in December. Merry Christmas!) I can’t talk about any of the cases, ever, and if anything I come across there happens to sneak into my writing, you’re just going to have to guess where it came from.

But I can talk in general terms about what I’ve learned, and one thing I’ve picked up has to do with the reactions of my fellow jurors and how this relates to the art of writing. Let me back up a bit first. We handle two types of cases: quickie indictments that usually involve just one witness, a federal agent (who’s read all the other agents’ and officers’ reports; grand juries are allowed to consider hearsay), and for which we know the charges and the target (later known as the defendant) while we’re hearing the evidence; and longer investigations that may take weeks, months, or even years to reach the indictment stage (we inherited several of these from the previous grand jury). For these we hear many witnesses, mostly civilian, and often the government prosecutors don’t decide on the charges or even the targets till late in the process. Grand juries don’t decide guilt or innocence to the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard like trial juries do; our job is to make sure there is probable cause that a certain crime as committed and by a certain person, and that the case is worth pursuing. As a body of at least sixteen people at a time, twelve of whom have to vote yes for an indictment, grand juries very seldom say no to this (our group never has), because prosecutors won’t bring a case before us unless they’re sure of their evidence. And since we don’t get to hear the defense’s side of the argument, we only have the evidence pointing toward guilt—but for the charges brought, it’s usually (as our assistant deputy foreperson is fond of saying) a slam-dunk. Our job, to some extent, is to keep the prosecutors honest, but also to tag a case as serious, help a judge make decisions about bail and so forth, maybe spur arrests or even extraditions, and to keep a record in case witnesses later change their minds. Some days the task feels more important than other days.

What does this all has to do with writing? Well, it makes me think about the nature of story-telling. Stories are very important to us humans; it’s not hyperbole to say they are how we make sense of the world. I mean fiction and nonfiction both when I say “story”—every journalist knows that just because something is real and true doesn’t mean you don’t have to craft its presentation. (Sometimes it becomes less real and true in the process; just ask any politician about that.) The U.S. attorneys who present cases to us craft them carefully as well (although I often feel that we are the rehearsal audience, or the audience for the pre-Broadway tour where the ultimate trial jury is the one who’s going to qualify you for that Tony nomination—once you’ve cut out the scene with the witness who’s really boring or insufficiently trustworthy or unable to speak up for the microphones). But they are not required to tell us the complete story; they can just give us the parts we need to indict on particular charges.

And that’s where the jury splits down the middle (in different places, on different days). Some of us (and I am usually one of these, but not always) say, “Okay, what you have given us is clearly not everything you know, but it’s enough to prove the charges—no further questions, let’s vote.” And some of us say, “Whoa, wait a minute—I want to know more! Tell me…” and then the questions start coming, about floor plans and relationship status and ownership of various objects and previous criminal history (I mean, we mostly know better than to ask about that now, but still), and the attorneys patiently work through it all and say, mostly, “This is not relevant to the charges.” Or sometimes, “All right, I’ll ask the witness that, just because I know you’re curious.”

And we are, as a species, curious—inspiringly curious, terminally curious, cat-zapping curious, Curie-curious, slipping into the great grey-green greasy Limpopo curious. We want to know the whole story. More than that: if we’re presented with a set of random facts, a skeleton of data, we make up stories to fit. And then we get emotionally involved, and we judge, and we decide things on flimsy pretexts, and we see the same picture from different angles and insist on our own point of view. Which is why grand juries are given the bare necessity of evidence and a lot of reminders how to consider it, and why it is sometimes so difficult for trial juries to reach unanimous verdicts. (I have been there, too: till ten p.m. with takeout pizza for dinner, on what everyone probably thought was a slam-dunk DUI case. Deadlocked with a side of migraine.) Making up stories, and wanting to hear the stories other people have made up, is simultaneously a miraculous, humanity-defining thing, and one of our great curses.

It’s terrific for writers, of course: we love feeding the beast. But it’s been interesting to watch and participate in this… not to be dramatic or anything, this abattoir of stories, where narratives are continually cut off before their time, gone as soon as the last witness leaves the room. I suppose it’s not different than what we’re exposed to on a daily basis, as we browse headlines or hear tiny tantalizing bits of other people’s phone conversations, except that in the grand jury room we get just enough of real people’s lives to discover sympathy or anger in ourselves, and then that’s it. Anyway, it’s made me think about styles of writing and how some stories give you everything you want to know about the characters and their situations and ultimate fates, and some keep the information sketchy and let the reader fill in the blanks. There are extremes on each side, but I think most of us work somewhere in the middle. Sometimes skipping over detail is a conscious choice; occasionally we don’t realize we’ve done it until readers start asking for floor plans and previous criminal history. Is it good to be less than explicit about your protagonist’s favorite color or that mysterious triumph or tragedy in her past, to have events occur “offstage” or to let a book just end with lots of questions unanswered? Or is it a conspiracy of literary fiction types designed to drive readers crazy? Series fiction, on the whole, is more likely to fill in the blanks over time, but it doesn’t have to; genre fiction usually provides a ringing conclusion to plots, but it doesn’t have to; literary fiction often delves deeply into character motivation and lets the narrative trail off as a replication of the continuity of real life, but it doesn’t have to; and I don’t believe in artificial divisions in literature anyway.

What I do know is that the biggest part of writing is looking for, finding, and crafting stories, whether they are “complete” or not. You find out quickly enough that “complete” is always a lie, that just because something is real doesn’t mean it makes a good story, and that even though we’ve all evolved to appreciate tale-telling, writers’ brains examine it somewhat differently. This is among the many reasons (the biggest being that I hate conflict) that I mostly shut up about politics, because if I don’t I end up rambling about the shape of the narrative and making people think I don’t care about issues or feel political choices have real effects (I mean, it’s arguable, but mostly yes I really do), and in fact I was doing that for a while earlier in this horrible epic of an election season until I got sick of listening to everyone concerned without exception and started mainlining old “West Wing” episodes instead. It’ll come out in the wash; I’ve got an election happening in the Waters of Time ‘verse too. I usually deal with political reality by writing distant echoes of it, and of course by voting.

I was going to say something about Orlando, just because I feel sorrow and sympathy and the common impulse to react—though it is clearly an unfinished story at this point. But there you are: the need to fill in the blanks. The responses began as soon as anyone had information to report, or sooner, orienting by perspectives: this is about homophobia, about Islamic extremism; this is another “mentally ill” shooter with whom none of us have anything in common; this means we should ban guns or have more of them (though I haven’t yet seen the “if everyone in that nightclub had been armed this wouldn’t have happened” argument, probably because most of the people who usually argue that way don’t want to visualize hundreds of armed homosexuals. But wait a few days). Perhaps it’s the tweet-and-meme-happy world we live in, or more likely our reductionist political culture, but most posters seem to want to hang the horror on one favorite cause. Why can’t it be all of them together? Okay, I’m not going to vote for the “give everyone guns and it’ll be fine” one, and I suspect the shooter’s ties to both Islam and its twisted perversion are nominal. I am for the Greek tragedy with the fatal flaw that we keep shoving back under the proskenion: the bit of this that makes us different from all the other countries that suffer gay-bashing and terrorism, the repeated motif of walking up to a gun counter with money and a sick idea in your head. (We get a lot of gun cases in the grand jury too. Few of them end well. And just about all criminals have the arrogance to think they are the good guys, or the cool guys, or the guys with a legitimate grievance.)

But really: it’s not one thing, it’s usually everything at once. “Keep it simple” as advice for crafting motivation or occasion is bollocks even for fictional enterprises where you’re avoiding reader confusion, and it’s got nothing to do with real life. Life is complicated; narratives are complicated; reasons are not always reasonable. And we hardly ever get to hear the whole story.

To end this on a personal note—I haven’t posted here in quite a while, and I will try to do better. I wish I could say my absence has meant I’m making enormous progress on The Seed Time, but I’m still writing slowly and without much of a guiding narrative impulse. It is coming together in my head and will coalesce on the page soon enough. I can’t assure you that I’ll be telling you the whole story, but I promise you it’ll be a complicated one, both the author and the characters will be full of curiosity, and you’ll probably be confused. I know I will be. And I think that’s not always a bad thing.

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3 thoughts on “Curiosity, unfinished stories, the grand jury, and Orlando

  1. Antonia says:

    Love, love, love this post. You’re so right about narrative, and how we need it, shape it, and are shaped *by* it. I’m aghast at your 18 month term – I thought being called up for trial jury duty twice in two years was bad, and the standard length of time for that in the UK is two weeks. It can take a lot longer, or a lot less long, than that, but that’s what you originally get signed up for. 18 months – I mean, my God. lol That said, I did find the jury duty experience fascinating, and at times sad or disillusioning, about the state of justice in this country. But from a writer’s perspective, it was great, and has absolutely informed my writing on occasion.

    I am so happy to hear a new book is in the works! I apologise for not having read NTF yet. This has been a hard year in terms of parental illness and I’ve found my concentration span has severely suffered as a result (so too has my own writing), but I anticipate starting NTF soon, perhaps on holiday. I’m really glad to know that world is there, waiting for me to fall back in, and that the story doesn’t end there. Yay!! Will feed back as soon as I get stuck in there. 🙂

  2. Erica says:

    18 months is indeed a long time, but at least it’s just once a week (or less, since we get some weeks off – don’t know till the day before, though). The trial juries I’ve been called for are “one trial or one day,” so if you don’t end up on a trial you are dismissed that day, and most of the trials are one day too (that’s at the county level). And yes, it’s informative and also kind of spiritually tiring.

    No problem about not reading yet – I have certainly had that “cannot commit to this book right now” feeling – and I look forward to your comments when you do.

  3. Antonia says:

    Here’s hoping the trials to come aren’t too bad. I’ll definitely be reporting back soon. 🙂

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