Why stories are subversive

Thumbelina

From "The Joys of Storytelling" by Ben Okri:

"Storytelling is always, quietly, subversive. It is a double-headed axe. You think it faces only one way, but it also faces you. You think it cuts only in one direction, but it also cuts you. You think it applies to others only, when it maintly applies to you. When you think it is harmless, that is when it springs its hidden truths, its uncomfortable truths, on you. It startles your complacency. And when you no longer listen, it lies silently in your brain, waiting.

Little Red Cap  illustrated by Lisbeth Zerger

"Stories are very personal things. They drift about quietly in your soul. They never shout their most dangerous warnings. They sometimes lend amplification to the promptings of conscience, but their effect is more pervasive. They infect your dreams. They infect your perceptions. They are always successful in their occupation of your spirit. And stories always have mischief in their blood.

The Legend of Rosepetal

"Stories, as can be seen from my choice of associate images, are living things; and their real life begins when they start to live in you. Then they never stop living, or growing, or mutating, or feeding the groundswell of imagination, sensibility, and character.

The Seven Ravens

"Stories are subversive because they always come from the other side, and we can never inhabit all sides at once. If we are here, story speaks for there; and vice versa. Their democracy is frightening; their ultimate non-allegience is sobering. They are the freest inventions of our deepest selves, and they always take wing and soar beyond the place where we can keep them fixed.

The Tortoise and the Hare

"Stories are subversive because they always remind us of our fallibility. Happy in their serene and constantly-changing place, they regard us with a subtle smile. There are ways in which stories create themselves, bring themselves into being, for their own inscrutable reasons, one of which is to laugh at humanity's attempt to hide from its own clay. The time will come when we realize that stories choose us to bring them into being for the profound needs of humankind. We do not choose them....

The Swineherd

"In a fractured age, when cynicims is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are living the stories we planted -- knowingly or unknowingly -- in ourselves. We live stories that give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness.

The Swineherd

"If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives."

The Swineherd

Pictures: The paintings above are by the great book artist Lisbeth Zwerger, who lives and works in Vienna, Austria. She has illustrated many editions of fairy tales and children's classics, and her work has been collected into two fine books: Wonderment and The Art of Lisbeth Zwerger. All rights reserved by the artist.

Words: The passage above is from "The Art of Storytelling I," from A Way of Being Free by Ben Okri (Phoenix House, 1977). All rights reserved by the author.


Sentences & Mermaids

Sea Nymph by Edward Burne-Jones

It's my personal belief that it's not possible to be a truly good writer without a love of words and sentences. Plotting and storytelling skills will only you take you so far, for writing is the art of language: how it rests on the page, how it sounds in the mind's ear, how it sinks down deep like a stone thrown into the unconscious, leaving ripples of metaphor and meaning behind. Today's quotes come from a variety of writers, reflecting on sentences and the writer's craft.

The mermaid art is a response to the beautiful poems by Jane Yolen and Wendy Howe in the comments under yesterday's post.

Sea Maidens by Evelyn de Morgan

Stanley Fish:

"In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard tells the story of a fellow writer who was asked by a student, 'Do you think I could be a writer?' 'Well,' the writer said, 'do you like sentences?' The student is surprised by the question, but Dillard knows exactly what was meant. He was being told, she explains, that 'if he likes sentences he could begin,' and she remembers a similar conversation with a painter friend. 'I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, "I like the smell of paint." The point, made implicitly (Dillard does not belabour it), is that you don't begin with a grand conception, either of the great American novel or masterpiece that will hang in the Louvre. You begin with a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium, paint in one case, sentences in the other."

A Mermaid by John William Waterhouse

Annie Proulx:

"A lot of the work I do is taking the bare sentence that says what you sort of want to say -- which is where a lot of writers stop -- and making it into an arching kind of thing that has both strength and beauty. And that is where the sweat comes in. That can take a long time and many revisions. A single sentence, particularly a long, involved one, can carry a story forward. I put a lot of time into them. Carefully constructed sentences cast a tint of indefinable substance over a story….

"There is difficulty involved in going from the basic sentence that’s headed in the right direction to making a fine sentence. But it’s a joyous task. It’s hard, but it’s joyous. Being raised rural, I think work is its own satisfaction. It’s not seen as onerous, or a dreadful fate. It’s like building a mill or a bridge or sewing a fine garment or chopping wood—there’s a pleasure in constructing something that really works."

The Land Baby by John Collier

Barbara Kingsolver:

"My morning begins with trying not to get up before the sun rises. But when I do, it's because my head is too full of words, and I just need to get to my desk and start dumping them into a file. I always wake with sentences pouring into my head."

Little Mermaid by Helen Stratton

Ernest Hemingway:

"I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences and I have to get rid of them fast -- talk them or write them down."

Mermaid by Howard Pyle

Colm Tóibín:

"The sentences I write have their roots in song and poetry, and take their bearings from music and painting, as much as from the need to impart mere information, or mirror anything. I am not a realist writer, even if I seem like one."

Murmur of Pearls by Gina Litherland

Alice McDermott:

"I've got to hear the rhythm of the sentences; I want the music of the prose. I want to see ordinary things transformed not by the circumstances in which I see them but by the language with which they're described."

The Little Mermaid by Edmund Dulac

John Burnside:

"I love long sentences. My big heroes of fiction writing are Henry James and Proust -- people who recognize that life doesn't consist of declarative statements, but rather modifications, qualifications and feelings."

The Little Mermaid by Helen Stratton

Gwendolyn Brooks:

"My sentences tend to be short and rather spare. I'm more your paragraph kind of gal."

Merfolk by Virginia Lee

John Banville:

"When you're writing there's a deep, deep level of concentration way beyond your normal self. This strange voice, these strange sentences come out of you."

Undine by Arthur Rackham

Wendell Berry:

"A sentence is both the opportunity and limit of thought-- what we have to think with, and what we have to think in."

The Little Mermaid by Sulamith Wulfing

Jhumpa Lahiri:

"Even printed, on pages that are bound, sentences remain unsettled organisms. Years later, I can always reach out to smooth a stray hair. And yet, at a certain point, I must walk away, trusting them to do their work. I am left looking over my shoulder, wondering if I might have structured one more effectively."

Mermaid in Flight by Fay Ku

Zadie Smith:

"Don't romanticize your 'vocation.' You can either write good sentences or you can't. There is no 'writer's lifestyle.' All that matters is what you leave on the page."

Looking for mermaids

The Little Mermaid by Helen Stratton

 The pictures are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


Myths & shibboleths

Jana Heidersdorf

From Startle & Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing:

"Writing is a mysterious process, and this vagueness about it makes it into a mystique. Writing is so various; it rises up from so many curiously undetectable springs, it has so many contradictory intentions, and critical judgement swings so wildly that what is good writing in one decade is execrable in the next.

"Like every mystique, it has its sets of shibboleths, its injunctions and freedoms, some of them true or untrue, helpful or harmful, and a good many constitute a systematic discouragement for the beginning writer. Let me mention a few of these myths.

Jana Heidersdorf

"Writing is a performance. This statement has the impact of aphorism, and aphorism is something we must fix with a wary eye. It sounds good; therefore it must be true. Most writers will say that writing is a matter of groping your way to some kind of truth, an act of exploration. Joan Didion plainly said that she writes so she can know what she is thinking, and V.S. Pritchett, a writer I particularly admire, said that he wrote so he could feel out the surface of what he is and where he lives. Notice the implicit modesty of these statements. And notice the moderate though not unintelligent voice. And notice how these assessments remove the burden some writers feel that they must make every word shimmer and every insight dazzle. Survey the whole field of fiction and you will see that pyrotechnics are only a small part of it. There is a great deal of moving people around and listening to what they are saying.

Jana Heidersdorf

From the ''100 Mermaids'' project by Jana Heidersdorf

"Another injunction, a double one this time. All fiction is a form of autobiography. And the command: Write about what you know. This is a serious problem for a beginning writer since there's a good chance he undervalues what he knows and a good chance, too, that he doesn't want to risk exposure. Writers of course draw on their own experiences, but the fact is, few draw directly. As Alice Munro wrote in an essay entitled 'What is Real' in the magazine Canadian Forum, she requires for her fiction a portion of actual experience that acts as a kind of starter dough -- I'm assuming you're familiar with bread-baking terminology. John Irving, a writer I have grave reservations about, said in an essay that his writing comes out of the act of revising and redeeming actual experience. Pritchett goes all the way, saying a fiction writer's first duty is to become another person.

Raven Boy by Jana Heidersdorf

"One of the most discouraging admonitions is this: Don't write until you have something to say. How often have you heard that one? Clearly everyone has something to say, whether she writes it down or not. You don't get to the age of six without knowing fear or intense happiness. You don't get to the age of twelve without having suffered. You don't arrive at eighteen without knowing what it is to love someone or, just as painful, not to love someone. Everyone has something to say; it may not be codified or arranged in the neat linear patterns of philosophy or the point of view of political commitment or as a moral conviction, but the raw material is there, the 'something' to write about.

Jana Heidersdorf

"There's a novel in everyone. You've heard this one. It's a myth that has suffered misinterpretation. There probably is material enough and more in every life, but does this mean that anyone, given time, can write a novel? Time is what you sometimes hear people say they need. In fact, I have heard of one writer who got so tired of hearing people say 'I'd write a book if I had the time,' that when he came to write his autobiography he titled it I Had Time. Time isn't enough. Skills of observation and skills of language (attention to rhythm, extension of vocabulary and distortion of syntax) are required. A feeling for structure. Stamina -- for it takes an extraordinary effort to write even a bad novel or completed short story.

"Finishing has always seemed important to me. The end of a story is as important as the process. The feeling of completion, however imperfect, is what makes art -- when we feel something being satisfied or reconciled or surrendered or earned."

Jana Heidersdorf

About the artist:

The imagery today is by Jana Heidersdorf, a young illustrator and animator in Germany whose art is inspired by folklore, fantasy literature, and the natural world. Her work is filled with animals, birds, and various forms of aquatic life, viewed through the lens of myth, surrealism, and the darker side of fairy tales. "There is mystery in unpredictability and wildness," she says. "I have an undeniable romantic side that idealizes the rawness and chaos of nature, especially opposed to our need as humans to categorize and order everything. One of the reasons I primarily like to draw animals, or at least non-humans such as mermaids, is that we cannot apply our set morals to them. They can be scary or dangerous, but never evil. That’s something that fascinates me."

To see more of her magical art, please visit her website and Tumblr page.

Jana Heidersdorf

Words: The passage above is from Startle and Illuminate: Carol Sheilds on Writing, edited by Anne and Nicholas Giardini (Random House Canada, 2016). All rights reserved by the author's estate.

Pictures: Jana Heidersdorf's art above includes illustrations from her "Raven Brothers" series, inspired by the Grimms' fairy tale The Seven Ravens, and from her "100 Mermaids" project. Identification can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artist.


It begins with noticing

It begins with noticing

From Moments of Being by Dani Shapiro:

"As I write, a hard rain is pelting against yesterday’s snow, and patches of dark green, wet stone, fallen twigs are visible just beneath fields of translucent ice. A world, submerged, slowly reveals itself. It reminds me of what it is to make a book -- or, perhaps, what it is to live a life.

"A world -- submerged -- reveals itself.

Moss and Leaf

"It begins with noticing. Something buried rustles and stirs. If we’re quiet and attentive enough, we may notice the stirring. What is this? Perhaps we poke at it. Or maybe we turn our backs. Run away. We ignore it. Or we don’t notice at all. We stick our fingers in our ears and hum a merry little tune. If we don’t notice, the noise might grow a bit louder, but maybe the contents of that submerged world -- that beast -- will turn over and go back to sleep. At least for a little while.

Frost rimmed leaves

"The thing about the writing life -- or any creative, contemplative, solitary life, really -- is that merry little tunes don’t work. Not in the long run. Not even in the short run. What we ignore, we ignore at our own peril. What we embrace with courage, perseverance, humility, and clarity, becomes our instrument of illumination. This is why I often say that when I’m not writing, I’m not well. What I mean by this is that my mind and my heart begin to become unknowable to me, because the way I come to know myself is through following the line of words until the ice melts, until the field once again becomes visible. Countless times, over the course of these thirty years of writing, I have looked back at a piece of my own work and realized: so that’s what I was thinking. That’s what I was feeling. I had no idea."

Wild daffodils

From Red: Passion & Patience in the Desert by Terry Tempest Williams:

"I write to make peace with the things I cannot control. I write to create red in a world that often appears black and white. I write to discover. I write to uncover. I write to meet my ghosts. I write to begin a dialogue. I write to imagine things differently and in imagining things differently perhaps the world will change. I write to honor beauty. I write to correspond with my friends. I write as a daily act of improvisation. I write because it creates my composure. I write against power and for democracy. I write myself out of my nightmares and into my dreams. I write in a solitude born out of community. I write to the questions that shatter my sleep. I write to the answers that keep me complacent. I write to remember. I write to forget….

"I write because it is dangerous, a bloody risk, like love, to form the words, to say the words, to touch the source, to be touched, to reveal how vulnerable we are, how transient we are. I write as though I am whispering in the ear of the one I love."

Woven Textures

Snowdrops in the woods

Pico Iyer:

''I write -- though perhaps it sounds pretentious to say so -- to make a clearing in the wilderness, to find out what I care about and what exactly to make of it.''

Green World

John Green:

"I believe there is hope for us all, even amid the suffering -- and maybe even inside the suffering. And that’s why I write fiction, probably. It’s my attempt to keep that fragile strand of radical hope, to build a fire in the darkness."

Trailside Bloom

Octavia E. Butler:

''Every story I create, creates me. I write to create myself.''

Hound, noticing everything

Words: The Dani Shapiro passage above is from "On the Submerged World," published on her blog Moments of Being (February 16, 2016). The passage by Terry Tempest William is from her gorgeous essay, "A Letter to Deb Clow," which I recommend reading in full. You'll find it in Red: Passion & Patience in the Desert (Vintage, 2002). The shorter quotes above, and tucked into the picture captions, are from a wide variety of essays and interviews. All rights to the text above reserved by the respective authors.

Pictures: Moments in a Devon winter, on the cusp of spring.


When the magic is working

Dartmoor ponies on the Commons

From "Seeing Around the Corners" by Susan Cooper (1976):

"But of course, the whole process is a mystery, in all the arts. Creativity, in literature, painting, music. Or in performance: those rare lovely moments in the theater when an actor has the whole audience in his hands suddenly like that. You may have all the technique in the world, but you can't strike that spark without some mysterious extra blessing -- and none of us knows what that blessing really is. Not even the writers, who talk the most, can explain it at all.

A gentle encounter

"Who knows where the ideas come from? Who knows what happens in that shadowy part of the mind, something between Plato's cave and Masterlinck's Hall of the Night, where the creative imagination lies? Who knows even where the words come from, the right rhythm and meaning and music all at once?

Tilly and the ponies

Brown pony

"Those of us who make books out of the words and ideas have less of an answer than anyone. All we know is that marvelous feeling that comes, sometimes, like a break of sunshine in a cloud-grey sky, when through all the research and concentration and slog -- suddenly you are writing, fluently and fast, with every sense at high pitch and yet in a state almost like a trance.

White pony

"Suddenly, for a time, the door is open, the magic is working; a channel exists between the page and the shadowy cave in the mind.

"But none of us will ever know why or how."

Light brown pony

Like Cooper, I'm fascinated by the various ways one finds this state of trance, or magic, or flow, or grace (call it what you will). Discovering our personal methods for reaching it best -- with the least amount of struggle, the fewest obstacles put in our own way -- is surely one of the most useful skills we learn over a lifetime in the arts.

Curiosity

My husband is a director, performer, and teacher who specializes in mask theatre -- such as Commedia dell'Arte: a traditional form of slapstick comedy that is also deeply archetypal. As a teacher, he trains university-level drama students how to work with masks -- which requires finding that same state of trance in order to let the "mysterious blessing" come through to bring the masks fully to life.

Commedia masks

In mythic terms, he is the psychopomp, leading his students from one world into the next -- from time-bound daily reality into the timeless flow of performance art -- but the goal, when their classroom days are done, is to have the skill to cross over on their own, using their own best methods of travel.

The Servant - pyschopomp and trickster

Howard Gayton & Peter Oswald  rehearsal for ''Sorry About the Poetry''The masked Servant & the Poet in rehearsals for "Sorry About the Poetry"

Howard returning from mask stateHoward returning from "mask state" at rehearsal's end

The students are at the start of their creative lives, and I remember well what those years felt like -- when you think you know what art requires, and then the realization comes that you must go deeper and deeper still (if you're serious at all) into the unknowable, uncomfortable, vulnerable place where the root of creativity lies...which is to say, you must go deeper and deeper into yourself, which can be daunting indeed.

Even now, after all these years, I still have days of sharp (or anxious, or befuddled) resistance to this act of deep surrendering...but the joy of age is that I know my own process now, the daily habits, practices, and mindset that will carry me past each block and obstacle and back into the work of writing,

Every day I breathe deep, open up the heart again, and let the Mystery in.

Dartmoor pony

Words: The passage by Susan Cooper is from Dreams & Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1996). The poem in the picture captions is from River Flow by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Wild ponies grazing on the village Commons; Commedia dell'Arte masks in our livingroom several years ago (there's been a change of curtains and rugs since then); and Howard with Peter Oswald in an early rehearsal for Peter's Commedia-inspired play, Sorry About the Poetry.

This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in March 2014 (although the mask-theatre rehearsal pictures are new). My apologies for the lack of new post this week. I'm still recovering from flu, but hope to be back to a normal studio schedule by Monday. Fingers crossed.


Mastering the craft

And a Fairy Song by Arthur Rackham

From The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life by Ann Patchett:

"Why is it we understand that playing the cello will require work but we relegate writing to the magic of inspiration? Chances are, any child who stays with an instrument for more than two weeks has some adult who is making her practice, and any child who sticks with it longer than that does so because she understands that practice makes her play better and there is a deep, soul-satisfying pleasure in improvement. If a person of any age picked up the cello for the first time and said, 'I'll be playing in Carnegie hall next month!' you would pity her delusion, but beginning writers all over the country polish up their best efforts and send them off to The New Yorker.

"Perhaps you're thinking here that playing an instrument is not an art in itself but an interpretation of the composer's art, but I stand by my metaphor. The art of writing comes way down the line, as does the art of interpreting Bach. Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means to get to the art, you must master the craft.

Two illustrations by Arthur Rackham

"If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish but because you long to write well, because there is something you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment: The only way to get the clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the fresh water underneath. Does this sound like a lot of work without any guarantee of success? Well yes, but it also calls into question our definition of success. Playing the cello, we're more likely to realize that the pleasure is the practice, the ability to create this beautiful sound -- not to do it as well as Yo-Yo Ma, but still, to touch the hem of the gown that is art itself. 

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

"[My writing teacher] Allan Gurganus taught me how to love the practice, and how to write in a quantity that would allow me to figure out for myself what I was actually good at. I got better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages. Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don't know where exactly, I arrived at the art. I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.

Sir Launcelot & the Fiendly Dragon by Arthur Rackham

"Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this, because it is the key to making art and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let's face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of intelligence. Every. Single. Time.

Two illustrations by Arthur Rackham

"Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe that, more than anything else, this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is the key. I can't write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself."

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Pictures: The paintings above are by the great English book illustrator Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

Words: The passage above is from "The Getaway Car" by Ann Patchett, published as a Kindle ebook (2011), and in her essay collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Harpers, 2013), which I recommend. A portion of the text above was quoted on Myth & Moor in 2013 -- along with the poem in picture captions (which is one of mine).


News from another country

Inllustration by Lisbeth Zwerger

From Startle and Illuminate, a collection of writing about writing by Canadian author Carol Shields (1935-2003):

"The resolution to become a writer formed very early in my life, but it took years for me to to discover what I would write about and who my readers would be.

"Several layers of trust were required before I began to find my direction. I had to learn to rely on my own voice, and after that to have faith in the value of my own experiences. At first this was frightening. The books I had read as a child related daring adventures, deeds of courage. The stories took place on mountaintops or in vast cities, not in the sort of quiet green suburbs where my family happened to live. It was as though there was an empty space on the bookshelf. No one seemed to talk about this void, but I knew it was there.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger

"Gradually I understood that the books I should write were the very books I wanted to read, the books I wasn't able to find in the library. The empty place could be closed. My small world might fill only a page at first, then several hundred pages, possibly thousands. I could make up in accuracy for what I lacked in scope, getting the details right, dividing every experience into its various shades and levels of anticipation.

" Illustration by Lisbeth ZwergerI could write a story, for instance, about Nathanial Hawthorne School. About the school principal whose name was Miss Newbury (Miss Blueberry she was called behind her back). About the chill of fear children suffered in the schoolyard, about a suffering little boy named Walter who had an English accent, and whose mother made him wear a necktie to school. About human foolishness, and about the small rescues and acts of redemption experienced along the way. I saw that I could become a writer if I paid attention, if I was careful, if I observed the rules, and then, just as carefully, broke them.

"In the books I read -- and I find it hard to separate my life as a reader from that as a writer -- I look first for language that cannot exist without leaving its trace of deliberation. I want, too, the risky articulation of what I recognize but haven't yet articulated myself. And, finally, I hope for fresh news from another country, which satisfies by its modest, microscopic enlargement of my vision of the world. I wouldn't dream of asking for more."

The Tinder Box by Lisbeth Zwerger

The paintings today are by the extraordinary Lisbeth Zwerger, a mulit-award-winning book illustrator based in Vienna. I highly recommend her many illustrated volumes (especially her fairy tale renditions), and the lovely collection of her work from North-South Press: The Art of Lisbeth Zwerger.

Studio

The passage above is from Startle and Illuminate: Carol Sheilds on Writing, edited by Anne and Nicholas Giardini (Random House Canada, 2016). All rights to art and text above reserved by the artist and the author's estate.


In praise of small things

Small radiant souls

"In the Author’s mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story," said C.S. Lewis in an essay on writing for children. "For me it invariably begins with mental pictures. This ferment leads to nothing unless it is accompanied with the longing for a Form: verse or prose, short story, novel, play or what not. When these two things click you have the Author’s impulse complete. It is now a thing inside him pawing to get out. He longs to see that bubbling stuff pouring into that Form as the housewife longs to see the new jam pouring into the clean jam jar."

Although readers today have a marked preference for novels, there are still many of us who love short stories for their different but equal pleasures, and there are tales inside us "pawing to get out" which belong in that form and no other. "Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams," Neil Gaiman explains. "They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner."  

 

Small guardians of the field

Just because stories are shorter than novels doesn't mean they take any less skill to write. In fact, some believe they require more:

"When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant," Truman Capote once said. "Whatever control and technique I may have I owe entirely to my training in this medium."

"In a rough way," contends Annie Proulx, "the short story writer is to the novelist as a cabinetmaker is to a house carpenter."

Small companion

Jonathan Carroll describes the difference like this: "A short story is a sprint, a novel is a marathon. Sprinters have seconds to get from here to there and then they are finished. Marathoners have to carefully pace themselves so that they don't run out of energy (or in the case of the novelist, ideas) because they have so far to run. To mix the metaphor, writing a short story is like having a short intense affair, whereas writing a novel is like a long rich marriage."

"Short fiction seems more targeted -- hand grenades of ideas, if you will," Paulo Bacigalupi suggests. "When they work, they hit, they explode, and you never forget them. Long fiction feels more like atmosphere: it's a lot smokier and less defined."  

on a small hillside

Emma Donoghue notes: "The great thing about a short story is that it doesn’t have to trawl through someone’s whole life; it can come in glancingly from the side."

Haruki Murakami tells us enchantingly: "My short stories are like soft shadows I have set out in the world, faint footprints I have left. I remember exactly where I set down each and every one of them, and how I felt when I did."   

Small paw print in the mud

But in the end it's George Saunders who describes why I love short fiction best:

"If they ever get around to building The Short Story Museum, I think they’d better carve this over the doorway: ‘A short story works to remind us that if we are not sometimes baffled and amazed and undone by the world around us, rendered speechless and stunned, perhaps we are not paying close enough attention.' "  

Small frost-rimmed beauty

Or maybe it's just that I love small things: small ponies, small tales, small treasures of nature, small moments, small ideas, the small hound close beside me. In an interview some years ago, Sandra Cisneros reflected:

''What I didn’t know in my twenties, but am certain of now, is that there’s lots of miseria in the world, but there’s also so much humanity. All the work we do as writers is about finding balance and restoring things to balance. You need to consider the daily choices you make to create or destroy with every single act, whether it’s in words or in thoughts. The older I get, the more I'm conscious of ways very small things can make a change in the world. Tiny little things, but the world is made up of tiny matters, isn't it?''

Small tales

Small, study, and large of heart

The books above (recently read or re-read) contain small gems of mythic fiction, fairy tale retellings, and fantasy literature. They are: The Bitterwood Bible by Angela Slatter; The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen; The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke; Wonders of the Invisible World by Patricia A. McKillip; The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, edited by Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe; On Becoming a Fairy Godmother by Sara Maitland; and Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins by Emma Donoghue.

The passage by C.S. Lewis is from "On Three Ways of Writing for Children" (Of Other Worlds: Essays & Stories, Harvest Books, 2002). Related posts on the beauty of what's small: "Daily Myth" and "The Small Things."


The sea of stories

John D Battan

''We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort. And that is why we write.''

  - Neil Gaiman

"This earth that we live on is full of stories in the same way that, for a fish, the ocean is full of ocean. Some people say when we are born we’re born into stories. I say we’re also born from stories."

- Ben Okri

The drawing is from "English Fairy Tales," illustrated by John Dickson Batten (1860-1932), born across the moor from here in Plymouth.


Creative solitude: an alternative view

Nattadon Gate 1

After recommending Dorthe Nors' article on the value of creative solitude yesterday, I'd like to follow it up with an essay that takes a very different point of view: "How Not to Write Your First Novel" by American novelist Lev Grossman.

Fresh out of college and intending to be a writer, Lev headed West to find a lonely little town where he could "hunker down and get some real work done" -- and ended up on the coast of Maine. (For UK readers, this is like heading for Devon and ending up in the Shetlands.)

"I can't overstate how little I knew about myself at 22," he says, "or how little I'd thought about what I was doing. When I graduated from college I genuinely believed that the creative life was the apex of human existence, and that to work at an ordinary office job was a betrayal of that life, and I had to pursue that life at all costs. Management consulting, law school, med school, those were fine for other people -- I didn't judge! -- but I was an artist. I was super special. I was sparkly. I would walk another path.

"And I would walk it alone. That was another thing I knew about being an artist: You didn't need other people. Other people were a distraction. My little chrysalis of genius was going to seat one and one only."

Nattdon Gate 2

Lev found the isolation he craved in a rustic (i.e., barely habitable) apartment down a long dirt road -- but isolation proved to be a less romantic and creatively fecund state then he'd imagined.

"I'm not even sure I understood how lonely I was. I had friends back in the real world, but I never asked anyone to visit me. On some level I still didn't believe that I could be lonely, even though it was staring me in the face, all day and all night. I genuinely thought that because I wanted to be a writer, that made me different from other people: mysterious, self-contained, a lone wolf, Han Solo.

"But by the end of November my sanity was starting to sag under the weight of all that solitude and empty time and creative failure. I wrote less and less and liked less and less of what I wrote. I felt like I couldn't go to bed till I'd accomplished something, anything, but usually that just meant I stayed up till dawn and then collapsed from exhaustion....

Nattadon Signpost

Nattadon Gate 3

"Maine was trying to teach me something, but I was a slow learner. I thought I'd gone to Maine to face my demons and turn them into art, but it turned out that I couldn't face them, and not only that I couldn't even find them. I was trying to write about what I knew, which in itself probably wasn't a bad idea, but I was mistaken about what that was. I thought that what I knew most about was myself, but I could not have been more wrong. I didn't know the first thing about myself, and Maine wasn't going to teach me. You don't learn about yourself by being alone, you learn about yourself from other people."

To read the essay in full, please go here.

Nattadon Gate 4

And while we're speaking of Lev today, I also recommend his fine essay on C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: "Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy." And his 2015 Tolkien Lecture at Pembroke College, Oxford University.

Nattadon Gate 5

Nattadon Gate 3