Thursday, January 20, 2011

Back to Basics

Wendy … was just slightly disappointed when he admitted that he came to the nursery window not to see her but to listen to stories. “You see, I don’t know any stories. None of the lost boys knows any stories.”

“How perfectly awful,” Wendy said.

— J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan (1928)

Wendy’s right. Can you imagine how terrible a world without story would be? Can you even remember a time before story was a part of your world? I can’t. My earliest memories are of my mother reading to me from big books of Bible stories and fairy tales. I can remember following my grandmother through her house, begging her to tell me about “olden times” as she washed dishes, dusted, cooked lunch, and completed all the other seemingly endless tasks that were part of her daily routine. Stories of her girlhood as one of five motherless children on a farm were as fascinating as the stories my mother read to me. My grandfather’s stories were usually connected to photographs. My favorite involved my mother as a big-eyed infant in a long dress and bonnet in the arms of her schoolteacher grandmother.

I can still recall how excited I was when I could read stories on my own. I had an even greater sense of accomplishment when I wrote my first story with a fat, red pencil in a wide-lined tablet and “published” it by reading it aloud to my suitably impressed younger sister. It was all about Sue Brown who ran away to visit a big-city department store and rode the escalator and looked at evening gowns. The character’s name reflected my desire to have a monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon name rather than the different name I possessed. Sue’s propensity to runaway seeking adventure was also autobiographical, although my own trips were limited to the mom-and-pop store across the highway, and Sue’s virtuous promise to henceforth always obey was far removed from my furious objection to being deprived of the candy I had purchased.

This week I’ve been working at recapturing the simple joy of storytelling. I can get so caught up in the crafting of the text, in the struggle to find the proper texture, the right weight, the exact colors for this tapestry of words I’m weaving that I forget story is the beginning and end of what I’m doing. I like what novelist Amy Tan said: “Writing is an extreme privilege but it's also a gift. It's a gift to yourself and it's a gift of giving a story to someone.”

"The Long Way Home," my completed romance novel, started with a single image of a young woman standing, gazing out a window as she wept. Then, there was a voice that said, ‘I’m Max and I can tell you why she’s crying.” I started writing to discover the answer to that why and to share my discovery with others. Alice Hoffman, author of Practical Magic and more than 20 other novels, speaks of the “inner and outer story.” “The outer story,” says Hoffman, “is what happens every day, the things that keep you turning the page to find out.” The “inner story” is the heart that is revealed as the writer moves through the writing process. Hoffman posits that it is the promise of discovering the core of the story that motivates the writer to write. Just yesterday I discovered that forgiveness lies at the heart of my three stories. All of my primary characters have to learn to forgive themselves as well as those who have hurt them.
That discovery thrilled me. The more I think about it, the more I like Hoffman’s idea of discovering the essence of the story. I think it connects in significant ways to Amy Tan’s claim that the stories we tell are first gifts to ourselves. That first story I wrote that filled me with such delight and pride was a gift to me before I shared it with anyone else. I want to get back to such moments.

Some have suggested that writers are either predominantly storytellers or wordsmiths, but I’m not persuaded. However enchanted a writer of fiction may be with words as tools, I think the story and the desire to share it come first. I want my prose to be lucid and lyrical. I want my voice to be fresh and distinctive. I want my plot to be tight, my setting vivid, and my characters compelling. But I want even more for the story to be powerful enough to pull the reader into the world I’ve created and find it as vital as a dream, as cherished as a memory. C. S. Lewis famously said, “We read to know we are not alone.” John Steinbeck suggested that we write for similar reasons: “We are lonesome animals. We spend all of our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say-and to feel- ‘Yes, that is the way it is, or at least that is the way I feel it.’ You’re not as alone as you thought.” One of the best books I know about story is Barry Lopez’s Crow and Weasel, a tale of the journey of two young Sioux braves. In it, Lopez writes, “If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed.” See—there’s the double gift metaphor again, and through the giving comes the connection that reminds us we are not alone. For me, that’s basic, and I have recommitted to getting back to the basics.

What are the first stories you remember? If you are a writer, have you discovered the heart of your story? If you are a reader, what stories speak most powerfully to your heart?


TerriOsburn said...

Another wonderful blog, Janga. The core of my stories seems to be trust. Trust to believe in others and to let them carry some of the burdens of life.

This is such a reality in my real life, sometimes I think I'm trying to write myself a cure.

The first stories I remember reading over and over were Dr. Seuss books. But when I started reading for myself, I was fortunate to find condensed versions of Hound of the Baskervilles, Little Woman, and The Wizard of Oz. At that point, I was off and running.

I'm sure you'll know. LOL!

irisheyes said...

The first story I can remember is The Pokey Little Puppy. I can still see the brown and white puppy on the cover sniffing the bug or insect.

I think my stories and the ones I gravitate to are those where someone (either the hero or heroine) are overcoming fears. Probably, as Ter stated, cheap therapy for myself.

Just last night we were hanging out and the conversation drifted to The King's Speech. The DH tried quizzing us about the longest living monarch and a few other facts about English Royalty. I, of course, answered correctly to all questions put forth. My daughter kept saying how do you know/remember this stuff. Simple, I say - history is just a bunch of stories strung together and I love a good story!

Janga said...

Thanks, Terri. It's great that you identifies your core issue so early. I think trust is an issue that resonates with a lot of people.

I love Dr. Seuss. I'm glad that the two youngest grands love the books too. No books are more fun to read aloud than Dr. Seuss, and they provoke some great conversations too.

Janga said...

Irish, when I had my students write literacy autobiographies, I could count on The Pokey Little Pony being mentioned frequently.

You're so right about history being made up of stories. The two words are even etymologically related. I also think readers of historical romance acquire a great deal of historical knowledge without even being conscious of how much they are learning.

Anonymous said...

Well, Hello Stranger! No time like the present to jump in, right? Very thought-provoking post. I've been working on a very political-centric work of science fiction for several years now, but the core? I think the core of it is NEED: the correlation of what all living beings NEED, the things that make us the same. As far as the earliest story I remember, I think I'd have to agree with Terri and say Dr. Seuss but I did as you did as well and follow my grandparents around, begging for stories of their lives.

Anonymous said...

I love your posts, Janga. So elegant and evocative. :)

I remember being enthralled with Greek myths, and wanting to be an archaeologist, so I could help bring those ancient stories to the present time. I'm fascinated with genealogy for the same reason--these people had stories that they LIVED.

As for the heart of my stories? I'm still deciding that one. :) You've given me some ideas, though, which I am going to ponder a little longer.


Janga said...

Aza, is that really you? Yay! How is it that I never knew you were working on a science fiction project? Or did I just forget? Anyway, I'm happy to see you here and delighted that you did jump right in.

Do you think the storytelling grandparents are more common in the South? (grin)

MsHellion said...

Wonderful blog!! Just lovely!! I love the concept of an inner and outer story.

Core of my stories... Acceptance of self. Trust. Forgiveness--I think you can't have love without forgiveness. I'm not sure if that's what others get out of my stories, but it's what I think is in my stories.

First books I read over and over: Little House. Though I'm sure there were some horse stories earlier that I loved. *LOL* King of the Wind was a great one. The Black Stallion.

Janga said...

Thanks for the kind words, Donna. When you discover the heart of your stories, be sure to share it with us.

I love mythology too. I still have tattered copies of Bullfinch, Edith Hamilton, G. S. Kirk, and Joseph Campbell on my my reference shelves. One of the articles I wrote in December was on Asian mythology, and the research for it stirred my interest anew.

Anonymous said...

*hugs* yep, it's really me. SciFi seems to fit me better, though Romance definitely still works its way in. How can you have life without it, right?

As for the Grandparents, I'd have to say the only ones that would tell me stories were from the south. The ones from up north were rather more focused on the present and looked at me funny when I asked. So perhaps the southern influence may have something to do with it? :)


TerriOsburn said...

I also think you might be right about the grandparents telling more stories in the south. My grandparents never talked about the past. Ever. But when I moved south with my former husband, the older women in his family could sit around and tell stories for hours.

Santa said...

The first stories I remember are the ones told around the table at holidays after the dinner dishes were cleared. Then the stories would begin about the town where they grew up, who lived where, who did what for a living. How the landowner's son spent his latter years sitting by the window in his run down villa lamenting the turn of the cards that brought his family to ruin. I loved those stories and the ones who told them.

I've always read and had a book in my hand. It's a love fostered by school librarians. I can't remember the exact book that sealed it for me but I know I can thank Mrs. Williams, my elementary school's librarian.

quantum said...

I think the story and the desire to share it come first.
But I want even more for the story to be powerful enough to pull the reader into the world I’ve created and find it as vital as a dream, as cherished as a memory.

Absolutely agree. The story, or plot, is tops, for without it the characters, even if charming, are ultimately a bore!

I'm getting so old that early school memories are fading. I think that the first books that I really enjoyed were Enid Blyton's 'Famous Five' stories. They were frowned on by the teacher and perhaps that was part of the attraction!

Recently I have become acutely aware of how important is the ability to read. How barren the world can be without this gift.

I am involved with helping a child with learning difficulties. She has an intelligent inquisitive nature, but sadly has not been able to keep up with learning the three Rs in school.

In spare time I am teaching her to read using the DISTAR phonics approach, as developed in the US.
She loves me or my computer reading stories to her and if I can get her to the stage where she can independently read the stories that I write for her, then I will offer a prayer of thanks to the creator!

I'm not sure which stories appeal to my heart most strongly. I like most genres but romance and love finding a way through adversity probably wins.

Wonderful Blog Janga! *smile*

Manda Collins said...

Lovely post, Janga. And very interesting that you've found your core story. I think mine is trying to make sense of the past so that the characters can live happily in the present, which again, like Terri said, is totally self-analytical.

It's going to be odd coming from me, but the first book I remember actually reading on my own--and re-reading--was called ZED AND THE MONSTERS. Zed was this red haired southern kid who basically had to rid his small town of a family of monsters. I think I liked that it used dialect, though I didn't know what that was at the time. I just knew he talked like the people I knew. And said "reckon" like my Papaw. :)

AZA! So glad to see you're still writing! I was just thinking about you the other day and wondering how you were.

Janga said...

Thanks, Hellie. I can see that self-acceptance, trust, and forgiveness could all be woven together in a single core. They would all be essential in the two of your stories that I know the most about.

I knew you would mention the Little House books. I loved those too. I don't remember rereading any horse books but Black Beauty. I liked dog books better, especially Lad, a Dog, over which I wept many tears.

First books I read over and over: Little House. Though I'm sure there were some horse stories earlier that I loved. *LOL* King of the Wind was a great one. The Black Stallion.

Janga said...

Good luck with the sci fi, Aza. I know romantic sci fi has a lot of fans in the romance community. Sinclair, Shinn, Asaro are all terrific. Let me know how things go for you. (Hugs)

Janga said...

Terri, I think storytelling is a ritual in many Southern families. When two of my nephews married within one month, I became aware of how our family used stories to welcome the brides into the family. One of my favorite novels is Losing Battles by Eudora Welty, and one of the many things that it's about is the stories of a family and a community.

Janga said...

Q, how wonderful that you are helping that child. I'm sure it must be rewarding for you too. I think that love of stories is strong in children. Welty says in One Writer's Beginnings, "Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole."

Janga said...

What great memories you have, San, colored by love! And, yes, on how influential librarians can be. I love visiting my local library on Wednesday mornings and seeing all the little ones so thrilled to be arriving for story hour. I can get militant about all the threatened--and actual--library closings this past year.

Janga said...

Thanks, Manda.

trying to make sense of the past so that the characters can live happily in the present--What a great "inner story," and how necessary for all of us.

I'll have to look for Zed and the Monsters. I don't know that one, but it sounds like something the grands would like, as would I. And I loved your "reckon" comment. When friends talk about the South becoming homogenized, I always argue that as long as Southernisms survive, we will remain a distinct region.