Tilly's prayer at the end of a very long winter
Tunes for a Monday Morning

Telling Stories

I've been thinking about the storytelling process recently -- and why some of us are driven to make the telling of stories (on paper, on canvas, on the stage, etc.) the central work of our lives. What's behind this compulsion? Beyond issues of skill, craft, and earning a living, what is it we have to say? Every so often, in different stages of my life, I ask myself once again: Why am I a writer; why am I a painter; what is it I am trying to communicate? I can't reply on past answers to those questions, because the answers change as I age and change. Sometimes I'm clear and passionate about why it is I do the work I do. Other times, it is only by engaging with the work itself that I come to understand my own mind -- as thoughts, feelings, and concerns I didn't even know I had emerge in the creative process.

Yesterday I was in a large bookstore, which is generally one of my favorite places to be -- and instead of feeling thrilled by all the choices around me, I felt suddenly depressed by all those shiny new books. So many authors, so many dreams, so many voices clamoring to be heard. What need had anyone of mine? I thought, dispirited. Later, while I was making supper, I turned on Ellen Kushner's radio program Sound & Spirit for company. I've only recently discovered how many of the Sound & Spirit shows are now available online, and I'm enjoying listening to old favorites again and catching up on the ones I'd missed. Last night, I listened to "Surviving Survival" -- a show Ellen recorded years ago, for which I'd been one of the writers interviewed. I then had the very odd experience of listening to my younger self explain to me why the telling of stories is important. It's simple really (my younger self reminded me): I tell the stories that I do because I'm the person that I am. It's bearing witness. It's creating beauty in the teeth of destruction. It's both a necessity and a privilege, and that's enough.

Patricia Hampl once wrote (in The Writer on Her Work, Volume II): "For a writer it's a big deal to bow -- or kneel or get knocked down -- to the fact that you are going to write your own books and not somebody else's. Not even those books of the somebody else you thought it was your express business to spruce yourself up to be."

It's taken me all these years to fully appreciate how true this is.


Video above: "Telling Stories" by the exquisite Tracy Chapman. Photograph: The younger Ellen and me. The picture is from the late 1980s, when Ellen, after working publishing in New York, began her radio career in Boston, and I was starting The Endicott Studio.  Photographer: Beth Gwinn.


Synchronous minds are making the rounds. Tonight at another blog I love, grace Forrest at windthread posted 'the absolute BEAUTY of this Circle of Cloth Women' in which Barry Lopez tells a story that has us all enthralled. I have a writing friend who lately can not seem to get a draft she likes at all, and so doubts herself she can hardly rise to do what must be done to keep her life afloat. It so worries me when someone loses heart, loses her reason to tell stories, throws in the towel and withdraws. What a rare opportunity you had to look back and listen to the younger you. what a gift. And thanks for reminding me about Sound and Spirit. It once was a favorite. Now I have the link to the archives and can revisit.

truly synchronous...these discussions of late. i like to think of the grand interconnectedness of us all and that these topics arise to comfort, inspire (and prop up!)those of us who are struggling at a crossroads....

thank you xo

I was a faithful listener to Sound & Spirit... wish it were still going! I still sometimes feel the way you did in the bookstore when I look around at all the paintings, all the artists, all the stories on canvas. It doesn't leave me dispirited anymore, but very aware of how essential it is to tell my own story by looking deeper and deeper inside myself and mastering my materials. Somewhere in the interface of these I hope something authentic develops in my work, and that someone with the eyes to see it, does.

Bearing Witness

“I tell the stories that I do because I'm the person that I am. It's bearing witness. It's creating beauty in the teeth of destruction.”—Terri Windling

We have all had the teeth at our throats.
Even you, princess, gnawed by time,
and the memory of the weight of crowns.
Even you, hero of the moment, your sword
and sword hand still red with a stranger’s blood.
Even you, tale-teller, myth-maker,
the stained fonts of your reviews before you,
your best work like a long tail behind you.
We all need to own the story of our lives,
bear witness, weep down the moon, iterate,
move on.

©2013 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Thanks for posting that link! I had never heard of Sound & Spirit, and now I'll have hours of listening pleasure. I remember staying up till 2 am one Wiscon, singing songs with Ellen in the hallway on the party floor. I'm so glad she's put that encyclopedic knowledge on the radio for us all to share.

Also grateful for the Tracy Chapman video. I'd seen it but had not bookmarked it.

"...weep down the moon..."

Such a beautiful image.

This is a wonderful, elegant post. I love this experience you have, of listening to the wisdom of your younger self.

I'm not so sure what's behind my compulsion to tell tales. When I think of my answer, others' words come to mind. Maybe I'm not experienced enough to know yet. Right now, the truest response for me is my experience of healing and anchoring. I search inside of myself and what I encounter is told in my work.

we made promises to ourselves early on to hold fast to the dreams and never sell out... no matter what. Thank you Terri for shining so bright keeping the dreaming true.

To Terri and Ellen Kushner: I just listened to Survival Survival. I feel deeply moved and a little stunned by it. So many brave, beautiful voices.

To Jane: Your poem was the perfect thing to read after listening to Surviving Survival. So powerful. Thank you. Thank you all.

Thank you.

Beautiful. Jane. There is an epic novel inside this poem. I am in awe.

I remember you Terri from many years ago. I remember how I'd lighten up when I saw your name, and
thought, this is a special person, magical and practical; wishing I could know her a little more. I've never
seen you in person but I could "see" a kindred spirit, in another hard won fairy tale. I grieved when Mythic Arts left us, but found what was Drawing Board and now Myth and Moor. In a way I still like the
image of drawing board, as a board in a kitchen, one for chopping onions and preparing raw bread,
the fixings of something new. Only it is painting something new. But Myth and Moor is glorious. And I may never meet you but I have so much to thank you for.

Lately, I have seen publishing statistics appearing on multiple sites. One of those is that 1,000,000 books are published annually in the United States. There are says when that number, like the shelves of books in your favorite bookshop, fills me with despair because--according to the statistics--most of those voices will never be heard.

On other days, I see the opportunity in all those books, the riches within them, and feel reassured that there is always more to read, that the stack of treasures on my nightstand will never disappear. Each of us says in print what we must say, and most of those words will remain locked in the solitude of old bookshops. But they are there. We said what we needed to say to remain ourselves as though the fates spread the sheets of paper out before us and supplied the ink for our pen.


I can imagine it was quite the experience to have a voice from the past, your own voice no less, reach out to you in the here and now to lift you up when you were questioning and remind you of the simple truths of why storytelling by you as an individual is important. It may be hard for authors to hear, especially given that sincere comments can often seem (and maybe often are) self-serving flattery, but yours truly is a unique voice. This time every year I find myself pointing people to your nonfiction articles on the old Endicott site (I SOOOOO miss that) and to The Wood Wife as a must-read story for Once Upon a Time. Not every author's voice *feels* unique for every reader, but the ones who do connect tell stories like no one else can and we the readers would be the lesser for not having your voice in that admittedly crowded literary world.

Speaking of the literary world, wanted to let you know that I picked up a copy of Queen Victoria's Book of Spells this week and had to congratulate you and Ellen Datlow (and the folks at Tor) with how lovely this book is. Allen Williams' cover art is gorgeous, the interior chapter headings are lovely, the texture of the paper of the cover is such a great choice. Everything about the book is lovely and I hope to attest to the stories being every bit as magical as I get into it this week.


Thank you so much, Carl. *blush*

I love the way Queen V looks too, and credit for that goes to Tor's art director Irene Gallo. She's amazing.

She is! I can't wait to see her again in May at the Spectrum Fantastic Art Live 2 event.

And I agree, Queen V. looks amazing.

Thank you! I'd wanted to do that show for years - I think we waited until our 6th season on the air, for everything to "come 'round right" - including getting Terri as our interview..... Very glad it's still available for all to hear, and that you liked it.

I'm sorry "Sound & Spirit" had to end - but delighted that WGBH has kept many of the shows online for all to listen to - particularly that one.

That was some mighty singing we did, then!

Getting to make "Sound & Spirit" was an amazing chance for me to tell so many people's stories.... I'm so glad it's still up on WGBH's website.

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