October 19 The Song of Rig (and various Norse Tales) – the lost art of Form

I like folk tales and have never really out-grown fairy tales. I’ll admit I’m a sucker for a good grown-up retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. (Ever seen Angela Carter’s bizarre 1980 film A Company of Wolves where the wolf was actually a werewolf and the main metaphor was first sexual awakening in a young girl? Good stuff, weird stuff. No, really, very, very weird. Also, if you’re jonesing for a good adult retelling of the old tales check out Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood, very good stuff!)

But the old tales were more than just a fun, little diversion for young children. We’ve turned them into that in the same way that Jazz when it was first introduced was scandalous and infuriated moral outrage in the Moral Majority and now it’s considered quaint. The tales were sacred, but were a connection to Ethnic identity and also a source of common knowledge. They had a deeper meaning to the ancient world.

I started reading the Norse tales when I was a kid out of a sense of curiosity. Many of the books I read referenced them and I wanted to know what the source said. (Turned out not much because most of the original tales are actually lost to time. What we have now are really copies of copies.) They were engaging enough and I found them as fun as any folk tales, but when I returned to them as an adult I saw them in a new light.

I already knew, as I’d learned in school, that these stories worked on many levels and provided many services to ancient listeners. Yes, they were entertainment, but they were also morality tales, stories of how not to be (what not to value), or how to be (what you should value). I like to think of the Raven tales and the other tales of tricksters doing things that society sees as wrong and getting hurt doing it. Or the opposite, tales of Thor, being, well, Thor and showing great strength and bravery – the perfect Viking – someone that everyone admires and wants to emulate. The modern version of Thor (other than the comic book hero) could be Captain America or Superman. A trickster could be comic characters from sitcoms like Al Bundy from Married with Children, or Homer Simpson from the Simpsons.

And I also knew that these tales were also instructions on how to live life and do basic daily tasks. The Iliad gives a detailed account of soldiers polishing shields, sharpening swords and putting on armor. This extreme detail was the ancient world’s instruction manual on how to do these things. Useful, given that they didn’t have writing and therefore needed some useful way of transmitting these essential instructions to the next generation. (I can’t imagine what the ancient world’s Ikea manuals would be like.)

What I started to figure out on my latest re-read was that the value of the tale was in the prestige that the tale granted the listener. Each tale basically said, “this is the story of our people.” (And, yes, in certain way the Old Testament can also be seen as folk tale.) This is our heritage and our sacred link to the past and to the gods or the heavens or whatever they defined as divine. The tales gave them a definition of who they were as a people, their culture, and what values they were to hold dear, so basically a picture of identity. They spoke of where the people who told them came from, why the world is the way it is and how they fit into it.

The Song of Rig, one of the tales of the Edda (basically the tale of Odin, Thor, Freya and the gang) starts with one of the lesser known gods, Heimdall, and follows him through his journey of Middle Earth, the place between the world of the gods and the world of the giants (heaven and hell, basically). It shows how he started all of the races of humans: the serfs, peasants and the warriors, and the line of kings, in other words, how he created the peoples of Scandinavia. It also follows one of his sons who becomes the first in the line of kings and how this son embodies all of the best attributes of not only his father but also of humankind. How like a king to claim this, but okay, this guy was somehow perfect.

This is from the book The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland who claims in the index that there are better sources of myths (there are several books on that translate and tell the myths), but his seems pretty well researched. I’ve been reading the author’s notes in the back that serve as a companion to the various Norse tales. He talks about how they were collected, that he draws from Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic poet who was born many centuries after the poems were created, who drew from two sources: the Prose Edda and Voluspa. He also mentions several other sources but sided with Sturluson for most of his accounts. But it’s obvious from the author’s notes that much of the tales that are being re-told are pieced together from sources that are second hand. The Song of Rig isn’t even complete. It just trails off and Crossley-Holland left a footnote stating that this is all the manuscript they could find (though it does feel pretty much finished).

It reminded me of how difficult it is to preserve the past and also how malleable the stories are, because they were oral tales, but told in different ways over the many years. Each village had their own version of the same age old tale. So there were several versions of the Story of Rig all throughout Norway and perhaps other parts of the world. Tales crossed over from region to region. The god Tyr, mentioned in the Tale of Loki’s Children (where we learn about the inception of his scary son Fenir the wolf) was actually a Germanic god of war who wandered into Norse tales and there is a version of him in Irish tales and East Indian tales. That guy really got around.

But they never made up any new tales, because in the ancient world originality wasn’t a thing instead they depended on new and more original ways of telling the same old story over and over again – that was the beauty of the thing. Oh, and one more thing, they weren’t stories.

Well, I mean stories as you and I define them. Remember this is the ancient world and they did things very differently from us. Like for instance they didn’t write anything down. That didn’t happen until long after the tales were old. None were written around the time they originated (with the exception of the ancient Chinese tales, but they were way ahead of everybody writing-wise).

But if they weren’t stories, what were they? They were poems.

“Wait, what? Poems?” Yep!

Yes, they have a narrative structure and characters, but they’re all poems. Really long poems and most of the poems are grouped together. For instance, La Morte D’Arthur, the Arthurian tales are really a bunch of vignettes, or short stories, about the different people and events that surrounded Arthur and the Arthurian Court, the Tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one. They all come together to form a bigger picture of the legend of Arthur, his rise and his fall. But, yeah, every single story you can possibly think of as a tale, myth or folk tale was written as a poem. In fact, the prose version of storytelling (any kind of writing that isn’t a poem) is actually a really recent invention. The Iliad and the Odyssey? Yes. The Arthurian tales? Yup. The Arabian Nights? Those too. Grimm’s Fairy Tales? Probably (difficult to tell – they were only oral tales and the Grimms only collected from one source, but it’s very likely they were). But the story of Robin Hood, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, even everything Shakespeare (and his contemporaries) wrote all poetry.

The Song of Rig is also an example of one smaller tale fitted within the larger epic. It is a story within the Eddas which basically the story of Odin, Thor, Freya and the gang. We often read them as prose pieces, but that’s not how the reader (or rather back then, the listener) would hear them. They would be in verse. But the other thing that the tale would have is Form, because a poem requires structure that most prose stories do not (though I think that it is the best way to elevate one’s writing).

But what is Form and what is it about form that elevates a tale?

Let’s start with the first part of that question. According to X.J. Kennedy’s An Introduction to Poetry, 7th Edition, Form “as a general idea, is the design of a thing as a whole, the configuration of all its parts. No poem can escape having some kind of form, whether its lines area as various in length as broomstraws, or all in hexameter.” So, Form is the design of the thing, or rather, the physical structure of it. You could even call form the architecture or the structure of the poem, patterns within a story, repetitions and reflections of images and bookends – some type of action is started and then ended in a similar way.

In the Song of Rig we have those patterns on a couple levels, plot and language. Plot-wise Rig, or Heimdall, his actual name, repeats the same action over and over. He wanders the countryside, finds a couple in a hall, eats and sleeps with them (particularly the wife) and leaves after three days. Each time this creates a new society of people and this happens three times. The Norse really dug the number three. If this sounds a bit like a fairy tale, well, same continent different section.

Language-wise the repetitions happen when the teller makes the same pronouncements again and again. “Who can hear the sound of grass growing? The sound of wool on a sheep’s back? Who needs less sleep than a bird?” Lots of “who” questions, then the answer “Heimdall, Heimdall, Heimdall.” Then at the end of the story another character, Heimdall’s son who is given the title Rig by Heimdall is asked a series of “who” questions and the answer is “Dan the Danp, Dan the Danp, Dan the Danp.” Hmm, seems like the chorus to a song. Yes, songs repeat certain phrases.

In fact, between Heimdall’s departure and the birth of his children are the same exact interludes: “Every day the two stallions dragged the sun across the sky, and Day himself rode at ease round the world. But then Night tightened the reins of her mount, and each morning the face of the earth was dewy with foam from his bit.” Time passes with the exact same interlude. And then we get a list of the god’s children’s children.

Sure, they’re not sophisticated patterns, but it was kind of beautiful to see the repetitions build a story, and a story eventually build a legend, and legend build a culture.
And when I see a modern story find a way to artfully manipulate its images, metaphors, plot actions and language to create beautiful patterns and an entertaining story – not easy to do – it creates a feeling of the sublime in the reader, the same feeling the ancient audiences must have felt when listening to their favorite tales being handled deftly by an expert storyteller. No, wonder the Norse called storytelling a sublime gift of the gods.

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October 8th Ray Bradbury “The Man Upstairs” – the art of metaphor and subtext

It’s always a treat to delve into any of Ray Bradbury’s work. It’s imaginative, evocative and very literary. It’s easy to tell the diehard readers from the casual observers: the diehards read Bradbury and LOVE it. And get it.

I’ve noticed when I talk about the written word with some readers, there are those for whom the written word is just there to convey information. “Show me the scene and let me see what happens” they seem to be saying, and for those readers, a book is no different than an instruction manual for a blender. If the writing doesn’t say exactly what it means, then it must not be very good writing – for that reader.

Well, I’m hear to tell you, sorry, that’s not what fiction is.

I won’t argue that clarity isn’t necessary, of course it is, but fiction rides the fine line between conveying information and implying context or mood or an aesthetic. It uses metaphor and subtext to do this.

Ray Bradbury’s work is a perfect example of this. He is the master of metaphor and every action in his work happens in subtext – between the lines (or to be really, really clear you have to understand what the words are implying, not just saying). In his short piece “The Man Upstairs” he never tells you what anyone is feeling and it’s very rare to hear any character’s thought. Instead he shows their feelings and thoughts through their actions and their various comments and you, the reader, have to interpret what’s actually going on.

“The Man Upstairs” as a story that takes place in 1926. The point of view character is (as is often the case with Bradbury stories) a little boy about eight or nine years old. He lives with his grandparents in their boarding home. The grandmother runs the boarding home and the grandfather works as the chief editor at the local newspaper. One day a strange man arrives and takes a room upstairs. The little boy, Douglas, can’t explain why he doesn’t like him, he just doesn’t. Bradbury doesn’t go through much detail to explain why either or even how. All the text does is say that when Douglas sees the man he takes a step back (“he stepped away”).  That’s all that Bradbury felt he needed to say to convey to the reader that this stranger is not to be trusted. A young, innocent boy won’t trust to be near him, neither should you.

Douglas is pretty innocent. He obviously has a limited understanding of how the world works. He watches his grandmother in fascination as she guts a chicken and dresses it for dinner. He asks if everyone has the same stuff inside as the chicken and his grandmother explains that it basically the same, a bit larger and in different places. Then he brings up the woman down the street with the large belly like his grandfather.

The conversation goes something like this. Douglas(pointing to the chicken): “Grammy, am I like that inside?” Grandma: “Yes. A little more orderly and presentable, but just about the same…” Douglas: “And more of it!” (he rubs his belly, proud of his guts). Grandma: “Yes, more of it.” Douglas: “Grandpa has lot more’n me. His sticks out in front so he can rest his elbow on it.” (Grandma laughs and shakes her head.) Douglas: “What about Luce Williams down the street, she…” Grandma: “Hush child!” Douglas: “But she’s got…” Grandma: “Never you mind what she’s got! That’s different.”

That is all that is mentioned of the woman and her belly, but it’s easily implied that the grandmother is too embarrassed to explain that the woman is having a child outside of wedlock.

Where did I get that? In the subtext of course. I added that Douglas “rubbed his belly.” Instead Bradbury just wrote, “proud of his guts”, but it sounds like the boy is presenting his belly which can also be interpreted as guts (a good thesaurus and/or dictionary will tell that). Also when Douglas mentions that grandpa can rest an elbow on it, I think of the old expression of someone having a gut so large that it can be used as a shelf or a table, so it’s not a far leap to say that Luce Williams has a large gut too, even if Douglas never says so. She’s the next comparison to the chicken’s innards and Douglas’s belly. Grandma’s reaction to the child’s question, something she doesn’t want to talk about with him, tells me everything I need to know. Grandma thinks that this is an inappropriate topic for a child. The rest is elementary. All without mentioning the word pregnant, or any lecture on the topic which the grandmother wouldn’t be having with an eight year old anyways.

There is a moment in the story that I just call open magic where the boy sees his grandmother as more than just an elderly woman, or the manager of the boarding house, but as someone with magical power: “It was a wonder when Grandma brandished silver shakers over the bird, supposedly sprinkling showers of mummy-dust and pulverized Indian bones, muttering mystical verses under her toothless breath.”

The metaphor is on the inside being surrounded by the true thing as opposed to the opposite where it is the other way around.  When Douglas says: “Grandma is a witch”, he isn’t implying that she’s an elderly woman who does things that are so amazing that they seem to be magical. No, Douglas literally sees Grandma as a witch. This is an innocent child’s point of view of Grandma and how he feels about her. He can’t see her as a regular, powerless human, because she’s Grandma – all powerful and magical. She can transform a dead bird into delicious food. The subtext is superficial at this point, because we are only looking at the world through a child’s eyes, someone who doesn’t have a sophisticated understanding of the world. At least, not yet.

Subtext is Bradbury’s style. Almost nothing happens in the story and there’s very little to show the reader on the surface (those looking for blender instructions will be very disappointed in it). The story is as the title states an exploration of  “the Man Upstairs”. But it never says directly who he is. None of the characters when they meet him is sure who the stranger is or what about him makes them uneasy. Some character barely even notice their uneasiness.

For Douglas the stranger is frightening like lightening. (There’s a scene where the boy stands in the stranger’s room helping him and he reminds him of the fearful cold light that illuminated his room during a lightening storm.)

Bradbury uses his description of the stranger to tell us how Douglas feels about him. “Cold grey eyes…gloves rich and thick and grey on his thin fingers, and wore a horribly new straw hat.” It’s not just new, it’s horribly new as if deliberately chosen to blend in. When Douglas goes into the room that the stranger is leasing, he pauses at the threshold, “The room was changed oddly, simply because the stranger had been in it a moment.” How “oddly”? We don’t know, Douglas only says that it used to bright and flowery when the woman lived there. Even the stranger’s umbrella leaning against the bed is “like a dead bat with its dark wings folded.” But that’s as direct as the language gets. Bradbury never says who or what this stranger is, instead the language he surrounds him with not only makes us, the reader feel eerie about him, but gives us clues. Grey is his main coloring, not unlike a corpse. A dead bat hangs in his room. (No, not literally, remember metaphor? A thing that represents a thing.) Later, perhaps to be more overt, Bradbury has Douglas watching the stranger through a stained glass window as he arrives back at daybreak. Douglas watches him through the red portion. Hint, hint.

The word vampire gets mentioned by the boarders as they sup around the table, but it’s only superstitious conjecture about the women in town who have gone missing or found violently killed. We never see pointy teeth, or blood sucking or anyone skulking about vampire-like. Everything supernatural happens on a sub-textual level as if there was something magical underneath the surface of the text. The blender instructions are telling us one thing, but something else, something incredible is happening underneath them, something we merely have to imagine, something we have to dig deeper for in order to understand.

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September 24 Aisha Tyler: Self Inflicted Wounds – and a little bit C. Robert Cargill

I think I might be getting a little picky as I get older, but I found another book I just couldn’t keep reading. C. Robert Cargill’s Dreams and Shadows is an imaginative book with all sorts of magical creatures which are there for reasons I can’t quite fathom. A genie just pops up in Texas. Sure, why not, Texas a hot land, Genie is from old Persia, a desert-ish land. But I can’t stop contrasting that with the excellent book the Golem and the Jinni which actually traces the journeys of the various magical creatures explaining how exactly they got there (there bein, old New York) at a time when there was a wave of Eastern European (Russia for the Golem) and Middle Eastern (Syria for the Jinni) immigrants entering the United States, specifically New York. Or how about Neil Gaiman’s American Gods that explains that the gods who immigrated here came with the peoples who believed in them. Gods and magical beings are used as a metaphor for immigration, or being a foreigner in a new land and feeling out of place (feeling like less of a human, or a part of the crowd, and more of an other-worldly creature).

And D and S is a fun, little book but I have to say that my new rule of thumb is if I get to page 100 and shout at the book, “Where’s the storyline!” That’s the sign that I need to put the book down. (I got to 100 and still have no idea who the main character, out of the many characters the book keeps introducing me too. No, STILL keeps introducing me too. I mean, Dickens had a cast of a thousand, but at least he named his books after his main characters, so that you knew who to follow when they arrived on the scene. Except Great Expectations, but, come on, you meet Pip right away.)

So, that’s currently left me with no fiction that I’m reading at the moment, but I am reading a wonderful Biography – I think. Well, she, Aisha Tyler, claims that it’s just a book of comedy essays based off of her true life stories. Com-ography? Biomedy? I don’t know. They are all funny as hell. And painful. But it is a reminder that confession is good for the soul – and learning to laugh at yourself is EVEN BETTER!

The title of the book is Self-Inflicted Wounds: The Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation. And they are heart warming. And humiliating. Where St. Augustine in his confessions drowned in self-deprecation, Aisha swears and truths her way through and with footnotes. (Well, I think footnotes are funny.) For instance, in the prologue, she says that she really wrote this book to be funny more than anything else and if there was another point to perhaps let this tales of mishaps help the reader to come to terms with her own foibles, get past them and be brave – unafraid to screw up. You have to in order to get to your dreams anyways, so screw up big! But she does give the caveat that she is not a professional anything (other than comedian) and this shouldn’t be confused with medical advice. “Furthermore, it would be spectacularly futile to try and use this as an evidentiary document with which to convict or exonerate criminals, figure out what happened to the Lindberg baby, uncover the truth about the Kennedy assassination, or divine where  Jimmy Hoffa may be buried.” The footnote here reads, “This book may help you figure out where my yellow banana seat cruiser is. If you find it, please let me know. I really miss that bike.”

I think that if there is any literary lesson to learn here, it’s that she’s thoroughly nailed down the two great comedy essentials: honesty and pain (or rather, painful honesty). And those are great things to remember for those writing any kind of creative non-fiction or fiction. Being true to your characters – in Aisha’s case to herself. Letting your character admit that they aren’t the most wonderful, beautiful/handsome, toughest, smartest, most talented person on the planet – that they may, in fact be a nerd (or in Aisha’s case a blanerd: black nerd). Why create a character that is an asshole, an idiot or an incurable nerd? Because audiences can relate to that. Nobody knows what it’s like to be Superman. Everybody knows what it’s like to be Charley Brown. (And nobody fucking likes the perfect character. And nobody is jealous of the perfect character. NOBODY!!!) And the pain that is written about isn’t simply physical, that’s where the newbies make their mistake. If a writing teacher says “write your pain” and the writer starts thinking in terms of Slasher movies or torture porn, then NO!!! You’re wrong. If that’s all you can think of when someone tells you to write down your pain, just put down your pen (close up you laptop) and take a CPA class, you are not a writer.

We’re talking the kind of pain that lingers with you your entire life. The kind of pain that wakes you in the middle of the night and tells you what an asshole you are, even though the event is long, long past. So, don’t introduce us to characters in the beginning of your book (Dreams and Shadows), follow them for a certain distance, only to kill them off horribly at the end of the chapter (and the only character that is left is too young to remember – ug! okay, not talking about that any more).

Aisha, on the other hand, introduces us to pain that is so old that she can’t not laugh about it. The first essay is about her at five-years-old. The chapter is titled: “The Time I Cut Myself In Half”. Yes, she does physically stab herself and in a pretty funny way, but that isn’t what makes it painful (funny). The fact that she’d been told not to engage in the activity that cut her; the fact that she was certain that that was the sort of thing that happened to other people (ah! learning you’re mortal is scary!); and the fact that the activity happened in front of all of the neighborhood kids is truly the pain that she carries with her and that she laughs at. (And she wasn’t too young to remember what happened. Okay, last time, I promise.)

The pain she illustrates is usually humiliation, for instance the chapter: The Time I Peed All Over Myself. Humiliation is the funniest of pain, but there are others: alienation (being the only vegetarian in her school and trying to entice kids to trade Twinkies for carrot sticks), miscalculation (realizing that hot fryers can in fact burn down a house if turned up to high – whoops, not a perfect cook after all) and realizing that she wasn’t who she thought she was.

“I have always wanted to be hardcore. Incredibly disciplined, immovably resolute, unrelentingly focused.” [Just as a note to those who want to write comedy, note the hyperbole here – the over the top adverbs load down the verbs, something you normally avoid, but here is works to make it sound like too, too much which is her point.] “…I have always dreamed of being a badass. Like most human hopes, this desire is incongruous, unrealistic and completely inexplicable.” This is from the chapter “The Time I Peed on Myself and My Surroundings”, so you know where this is going. She’s about to discover what a badass she is not.

I think that the awkward and painful anecdotes of life should be carefully observed and saved as material for fiction. I used my awkward dad lunches to create a scene with my main character (also a divorced and alienated dad) which became a rich and unique scene that enhanced the story and gave it a fuller context without you wouldn’t see that he does have someone he cares about, someone he would sacrifice everything for. I wonder if Neil Gaiman used his real life wanderings about the frigid Minnesota winters (a life harrowing experience from what I’ve been told) to construct one of his main character Shadow’s scene where he wanders through a frozen, small Minnesota town. (I shudder to think what memories he plundered to explore his main character’s wife’s infidelity – sorry Neil!)

But Aisha’s book isn’t simply an exploration of the pain, it’s a confession. She says she did it and that she knew that she shouldn’t have. Where St. Augustine would say, “I will now live a better life”, she also extols the value of having tried something different and valiantly given it a try. At the very worst, it was a lesson learned: don’t do that.

That’s pretty much the point of the morality tale (where tricksters entice people to act on their worst instincts), so why not the comedy tale as well. Actually, if I take a step back, I realize they’re actually one and the same.

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September 10 Mark Tompkins – the Last Days of Magic

I started reading the Last Days of Magic by Mark Tompkins because I wanted to read a fantasy story that circled around Irish Celtic folklore, but the blurb on the back is a little misleading. I read it and thought that it was a tale set in contemporary times with maybe a few flashbacks to ancient times. And, indeed, the prologue and the epilogue are set entirely in the 21st Century, but the rest of the book takes place in the early middle ages.

Basically, all of the book is set in ancient times in other words.

There’s a praise from Diana Gabaldon on the cover which should have been my hint. Her books are also Fantasy and take place almost entirely in an earlier historical setting. Oops!

I was interested in this book also because I’m working on a long piece that borrows heavily from ancient Celtic lore (not simply Irish but English and some from the Continent as well), but it doesn’t take place in ancient times. It takes place in the far future, a future that feels like ancient medieval times, but has canons and cars and laser discs and radar and future technologies that even our 21st Century minds couldn’t quite fathom. Why not? (Okay, so there are some people in the story who are using ancient tech, just depends on which tribe of people you’re looking at.) But the story is unraveling much in the same manner as the ancient stories had unraveled, a sort of history repeating itself type of thing. My theme is: The past re-visits us over and over until we stop repeating it. I always think of folklore as a reflection of what we are doing and who we see ourselves as, but as interpreted by the subconscious mind and the ancient tales do this better than any of the others.

This is why I picked up this book. I wanted to see how someone put it into practice. But I thought that this was telling a tale influenced by ancient tales (as mine is) but it’s really a story re-interpreting the tales themselves. I suppose that that’s fine, but I’d rather just read the tales themselves. And to be honest this story is a little… boring.

There’s a lot of “info dump” (a LOT). Info dump is when the author explains the back story and/or the technical elements of the world that don’t exist in ours. Tompkins in one prologue and the first chapter loads the reader down with pages/hours of back story (wait, isn’t the prologue supposed to take the place of back story?) and partial paragraphs/minutes worth of foreground story. But the first few chapters should be the opposite. I want to become engaged in the story and engrossed with the characters’ lives first, then learn more about the world. If the story and the characters are engaging enough, I’ll put up with a little bit of confusion at first. In fact, I’ve found that if the confusion is done right (introduced as a mystery, or rather, a question either asked overtly or subliminally), it actually entices the reader to keep reading, to ask, “well, why are things this way?” or “how did the main character get into this mess?” or at the very least, “How in the hell is the main character get out of this one?”

I don’t think I’ll make it to the third chapter, especially since I got to the second and it turned out to be more of the same (and starts eighteen years earlier for…reasons). The fact that none of the chapters have any kind of transition, so that the next dramatic action is jarring (we start in contemporary times, then the mid thirteen hundreds, then next chapter we’re some place even earlier and I can’t fathom why – and want to know more about what happens next, not before). More on transitions later.

I guess I could take this as a lesson of what not to do. Every fantasy story takes place in a world that is not immediately familiar to the reader and so there will always be a need to explain what is going on. This might require that the author chooses third person to tell the tale which Tompkins did, but then the author has to resist the urge to info dump – “here let me tell you EVERYTHING I learned from my research! It’s really fascinating!!!” No, triple exclamation point, it’s not.

Also, the chapters have so far gone to an earlier time in which all of the action before has no impact, so the reader feels a little ripped off for investing all this time and emotional energy into the dramatic action before it and it’s difficult to understand why we’re suddenly somewhere earlier. You can say that I’m being a bit impatient, but I’m much less so than most contemporary readers, and, hey, I slogged through all of that prologue and first chapter back story to only be met – with more back story! (Going back in time can be considered back story.) Perhaps if I got a few more pages into chapter 2, I’d see that this was just a quick flashback and we’re heading back into the main story, but I’m already to the point where I’m don’t trust the story to move forward – or to stop info dumping (already!).

And, yes, there is such a thing as a story told backwards. I had a writing teacher that told me that it is very rarely successfully pulled off (in all his years of the MANY volumes he’s read – someone with an MFA – he’s only found two short stories that could do it). The movie Memento pulls it off by being very tactical in its story telling. The flashbacks are only minutes apart and each scene asks the question (that is in dire need of answering) what happened before to cause this? So, it’s best to avoid backwards story telling if you can.

I’d like to contrast this book with a short story. Yeah, yeah, apples and oranges, plus this short is actually literary fiction with fantastical elements in it, but bear with me here. It’s “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” by Karen Russell, a good example of how to introduce fantastical elements without loading the reader down with back story. This story takes place in a world just like ours, but with one different element. (Someone online was complaining that an author should NEVER do this – it’s the one thing that absolutely RUINS a story, and on and on with more and more pathos. To that person I say, read “St. Lucy’s” it breaks your rule and still remains an excellent story. No, really, HBO is even developing it as a t.v. series. The author has even won awards for being good at fiction writer. Sorry, anonymous internet rant-person. You’re wrong.) In this world there are, for better lack of a term, wolf-people or werewolves. They’re not quite wolves and they’re not quite humans. They don’t turn into wolves at night and are human during the day, they’re just wolf people. They live in caves, they don’t wear clothes or bathe, they pee to mark their territory, all the things that wolves do, but they’re human. They call themselves wolves and have wolf ceremonies (not very wolf-like but that’s how the story goes) and they call the canine wolves “natural wolves”. Humans feel bad for the wolf people and take in their children to be educated and raised by special school to teach them human ways. The parents allow this because they want a better life for their children.

The story never goes into the why of this world, because it’s literary fiction and only cares about the metaphor of wolf girls being raised by humans (what does this signify). More importantly the story doesn’t give a summary like I just did, it just starts. The main character starts talking about how she is now in this school for girls and how she misses home. Uh, oh, homesickness gives a perfect excuse for giving the reader some back story as homesickness naturally causes the character to reflect back to earlier times. Keep in mind this isn’t an info dump, we’ve just been introduced to the setting, St. Lucy’s School, and how the wolf girls interact with it, therefore all the character does is contrast the school in a couple of sentences and moves on. Not paragraphs and paragraphs of explaining the intricate hierarchies and the various daily practices of wolf people, just “when we lived in the woods, we got to do things we can’t do at St. Lucy’s.” Describe the things and done.

Throughout “St. Lucy’s” the same happens time and time again. We get the opposite of Last Days of Magic minutes worth of back story for hours worth of foreground story. A character will chip a tooth and cry and the main character will explain why by saying that teeth in wolf culture are prized over everything else. The wolf girls are confused as to why humans don’t prize them as much. And back to the main story.

Perhaps Last Days is just not for me. Diana Gabaldon liked it. Perhaps if I could get past the second chapter it would move at a faster clip. I don’t know. That’s question I’ll answer some other day.

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September 4th: David Mitchell Number9Dream

First off, I love, love, love David Mitchell. Well, his work, I mean. I don’t know the guy. He takes a fairly unknown – or rather well forgotten – song by John Lennon (he did write a couple extra songs beyond “Imagine”) and crafts it into a strange tale of longing for connection and the search for family.

I’m at the tale end of the book, last chapter, and it’s been a bit of a doozy for me. I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly, especially since nobody gets away with breaking the rules better than David Mitchell.

Rule number 1: Thou shall not write a character’s dreams. Not only does David Mitchell show you the character’s dreams, he goes through all of the various dream states: day dream, night dream, nightmare, hallucination, drug state, thought exercises. Tell David Mitchell he can’t show you a character’s dreams and he’ll say, “fuck that, I’m going to show all of them and you’re going to enjoy it!” And I did.

To those people who tell you that nobody likes hearing someone else’s dreams, I say this. That’s utter crap. I do. I LOVE it!!! It’s a deep dive into the essence of who that person is. It tells you about your origins, the basic core of who you are. How as writers can anyone NOT be fascinated by that? Neil Gaiman shows peoples dreams on a regular basis. Ray Bradbury says that he writes purely from the subconscious, the place that is more creative, wiser and way more fun than the stodgy old conscious. In fact, where else do stories come from – really – if not the subconscious? This is the origin of all myth and folk tale and definitely the root of all sacred tales.

I suppose if a writer is to use a dream in lieu of a good, logical progression in narrative (which Mitchell does not), then, yes, you should steer clear of using dreams in your narrative. A dream is used to highlight a supernatural element of a tale, or to show the character’s inner world, but it shouldn’t be used as a substitute for his or her outer world. In Mitchell’s case, the dreams are used to show how the main character’s expectations of what he can do in the world are unrealistic. He’s a young kid from a rural setting just entering the morass of a very urban Tokyo. He’s searching for the father he never met and dreams that he’ll just knock on a door and there his father will be. (He also has action hero dreams of knocking down the door that those in authority have sealed up against him.) It turns out that Reality has a few hard lessons for him to learn. But he doesn’t use a dream to substitute for a plot.

Yeah, but what about the movie Inception? You probably are asking. Good question. It’s an example of not only showing dreams, but using them as the subject matter. In this case, the director Christopher Nolan, is exploring what dreams really are. How they affect us and the waking world, their definition. He even breaks it down in very simple terms. But he does use waking world problems to propel his plot and, despite what most people say, there is a logical progression in that plot. Watch it again, you’ll see (it’ll be obvious once get over the Wow Factor of the special effects). It actual progresses in a kind of mechanical way, the characters are even a little too on-the-nose when they literally tell you what’s going to happen next.

Rule number 2: write only who you are. David Mitchell breaks this rule with great abandon. Bone Clocks is told mostly from a woman’s point of view and Cloud Atlas (which Dream quotes by the way) is multiple and varied view points. At this moment in our history, everyone in the literary world is being told that if you aren’t [insert race, gender, sexuality, culture, religion, ability here], then you aren’t allowed to write from that perspective. This is nonsense. You may do so, but do it with respect, and a TON of research. Yes, if you’re white and going to write from an African American point of view, talk to an African American (more than one or two would be really good) and read African American fiction, poetry, listen to the music, learn their history (the one that you DIDN’T see in your history book), perhaps there are clubs and associations you could talk to and learn their unique perspective as best you can – and remember they’re also Americans too, here right now with everybody else (so maybe your character really likes Taylor Swift and hates hip hop, unique people have unique tastes). The best book to check out for help with this research is Nissi Shawls Writing the Other. http://www.aqueductpress.com/books/978-1-933500-00-3.php

In the case of Number9dream, Mitchell writes from the point of view of a Japanese young adult (he’s just turning 20 at the start of the book). In some ways, the book does feel as if it’s a British perspective of Japanese culture, but in others it feels as if it’s working really hard to blow up the stereotypes that the West has of Japan. They don’t just live in paper houses out in the bamboo orchard, wear kimonos, write beautiful calligraphy and drink tea (which I’m uncertain many do at all). We have a kid who loves rock and roll and plays his guitar in his tiny, non-papery apartment while drinking beer and coffee. We have a bustling city as busy and impressive as New York with cars and cell phones, cafes and bars. We meet homeless people and criminals (of varying degrees). We even meet a Japanese hippy who’s going to make as a magician someday and smokes reefer.

It’s obvious from the descriptions of the street scenes and the rural locations that Mitchell has spent time in and traveled around Japan. He learned their popular folk tales, expressions and favorite pop idols. I spoke with a friend about Mitchell’s borrowing a culture and said that I worried that a British guy wouldn’t have a very good inside track into the Japanese mind, but my friend pointed out that sometimes outsiders (when they have become well enough acquainted with the culture) have a better view of that culture than those within do. Sometimes those inside it might have a stifled view of what it is. How many times did Americans utter the term Manifest Destiny believing America to be righteous and holy and deserving of anything that it took? The people saw themselves as saviors, not as conquerors. Britain once saw itself as ruler of the world. Seasons change and so do perspectives, but we’re not always who we think we are. So perhaps Mitchell’s stint in Japan showed him something that he was able to see that others (or more accurately many) weren’t able to see. Or not – maybe he had confidants who told him what it’s really like to live there.

I think that it’s more important to include perspectives that don’t get shown very often, than to sheepishly stick to only the one and leave all of those voice out or unheard. That’s not what the real world looks like.

There were elements of the book I found a bit jarring.

Some of it was surreal. The dreams aren’t announced, you just get immersed in them. There’s even a bit that reads like a writing exercise from a Fic Lit 101 class just sort of tucked in there for… reasons. And some of the experiences that the kid has, well, don’t feel real to me. I’m uncertain how likely some naïve kid is going to run into the Yakuza, but, hey, maybe. Other than that it is a beautiful tale about connection and coming to an understanding of what the world is really made of. The main character has certain expectations of the world and with all coming of age tales they are upset, but not always in terrible ways.

I really enjoyed that the author went to some unexpected places – or somewhat unexpected. Which leads me to….

Rule number 3: there is a logical progression to your plot – and, yes, your plot twists as well. This is a rule he followed and as he should. Every plot twist in the story does make sense. Mitchell sets up the possibility of things going a different way than expected by presenting the possibilities ahead of time to the audience much in the same way as a game show host presenting doors. There is door number 1 the character’s goal (but we don’t know what will happen when he reaches it), door number 2 where the character decides to go if he doesn’t happen to reach his goal (or if he does). And then door number 3 which we the audience know is a door, but the main character does not. I can’t say what those doors are, I’ll spoil the plot and you should enjoy this book too. But I can say that the outcome of the three doors does make sense in the end. To quote Lennon’s former bandmate Paul, it’s a long and winding road that takes the character back to this person’s path and at the end of the book you can trace it as it runs unnoticed by both audience and main character through the book which in my opinion is a masterful move by Mitchell. This is the reason that I think the twist ending ought to be abandoned for the logical, but unexpected ending.

Anyhow, hope you get a chance to read this book. It’s very entertaining and thoughtful. I still have ZERO idea what the song referred to means – if you’ve got any ideas, shoot them my way – or how it actually relates to the book. I love that Mitchell uses rock and roll, just because I believe music and fiction are so intertwined… and I just like rock.

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5/7/17 Russell – Magical Thinking Made Flesh or the Power of Allegory

In the short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” Karen Russell doesn’t bother with explanations of why things are the way they are. The girls are raised by people who are both wolf and human. Sometimes they have five digits, sometimes they’re covered in fur (perhaps both). They are described early on as werewolves, but not the kind that stay human in the day and turn wolf at night under the full moon, but instead they are half wolf, half human all the time just as the name “were (half) wolf” suggests.

The main plot of the story is about a group of werewolf children who are basically given to the School by their parents who want a better life for their children and they are lead to believe that this life is the life among humans as humans. Living life in the woods is a hard life, especially for those that aren’t “purebred” wolves. They parents see how humans live and automatically assume that their children’s lives will be better than theirs.

There are small indications throughout the story that life as a human does have its downsides. The girls are encouraged to stop thinking for the pack and start thinking for themselves. They ignore the pain of the individual, even taunt the girl who cannot seem to adapt – the one who refuses not to help her fellow sisters.

The girls are normalized and socialized to groom themselves and speak human and to dance, though they never quite get the hang of any of it and are doomed to forever stick out as foreign to the humans. They do however stop killing pigeons with their bare teeth and eat cooked meat.

The nuns are working with the girls at this strange finishing school to normalize the girls so they can become naturalized human citizens. Yup, that’s right this is a thinly disguised allegory for immigration.

The sections of story are even framed by instructions from a handbook telling the nuns how to guide the girls through the process much as an immigration agent would guide his or her clients through the citizenship process. The story works on many levels, it could also be seen as an allegory for growing up – going from a wild thing that is an enfant to a refined adult. But the talk of different of the journey from one culture to the next makes it clearly a story of an immigrant moving from one world to another. (It could also be the story of a student traversing from the world of ignorance to knowledge.)

The beauty of this story is that it is told purely from the point of view of those making this journey. The narrative is in first person of one of the wolf girls. When she looks back at her wolf people in shame it is not a judgement on the author’s part, purely this girl’s story. This is what it is like for this girl to make this journey. This is what happens to her.  She ends up living a half life between the humans and the wolves and not accepted by either, yet deeply ashamed of the wolf culture where she came from.

An explanation of why or how this werewolf culture came about is neither given nor necessary. It simply is. An explanation would be beyond the point. That’s not what the story is about and an explanation would only get in the way of that. There are those who would read this story and fret the entire time.

“Yeah, but, where do they come from?” they would ask, “Are they wolves are they humans?” And that would be all that type of reader would get out of the story. For this person the story would be empty of meaning. He wouldn’t get that those questions were beside the point. For him suspension of disbelief is given to him via google and Wikipedia. He needs everything to make sense for everything to be easily explained, despite the fact that that is not how life works.

The allegory and metaphor even the subtext are a sticky wicket for this reader. He wants a thorough explanation, even though that is what will ruin the story. For him even the memoir will prove difficult.

There are things that are difficult to understand like technical manuals, like math and science – they too require interpretation and even science will fall short of the amount of thorough explanation required by the literal minded reader. Sorry, science doesn’t know everything and, little secret, it may never do so.

When working with literature, dig a little bit deeper, investigate the language and the situation. What does this remind you of? what could this mean beyond what it is telling you on the surface? Don’t expect everything in the story to be served up to you on a platter. You’ll have to translate, just as you have to translate mathematics or science.

(When I run across readers who complain that a classic work just doesn’t make any sense, despite the fact that to me it’s obvious, I’m reminded of a Key and Peele sketch where Jaden Smith has to have words like “outside” (that stuff that passes by your limo) and “grocery shopping” (that stuff butlers do) and “choice” (when you can’t have both things – a concept foreign to Smith) explained to him.)

“Saint Lucy’s” takes the magic of the world and makes it real. The wolf girls investigate their world by smell and by bite. That is normal for them. Their allegory is more sophisticated than the medieval allegories where Everyman confronts the Dragon of Doubt and fights it with his Sword of Faith, but still you get the gist. And when they wobble on two legs and work to pronounce human words and when they get used to not smelling their scent on everything, the meaning of what they’re doing is obvious. They’re transitioning to a different state of being much as a child learns to be an adult. When the character goes back to her old cave and everything seems smaller, more quaint after she has graduated from her school (totally naturalized), it’s a reminder of what a person who has become used to another country feels when going back to her native land. No explanation is needed. The translation of allegory is clear.

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4/30/17 Packer – perspectives on social justice

I’m taking the English creative writing course where we read a lot of stories and make comments on them and the try to write in their style.

ZZ Packer’s “Brownies”, one of the first we’ve read, is set in a more informal “folk” setting as in, it’s more conversational and anecdotal as if someone is sitting with you telling you a story. It’s most useful if the author wants you to view the world from a certain perspective. In this case, it’s the perspective of a nine-year-old black girl. The story is trying to make clear the limitations of her world and the fact that it’s not straight forward. The other black girls in her story and in her world have very different perspectives and opinions of how the world works or ought to work, even though the share a similar background.

It’s a story about a troop of Brownies that decide that they’re going to beat up another troop because they are white and are therefore viewed as deserving of punishment by the black troop, the main character’s troop, that has made this decision. There are two camps of the thought (please excuse the pun) in this piece. One is that it’s okay to inflict pain on others, because it’s been done to us; the other is that two wrongs don’t make a right. The little girls never see the hypocrisy of inflicting pain not only on someone who they can’t prove did them wrong, but also on each other just to be mean. They can’t prove that the girl from the other troop used the N word, but they just infer guilt and move swiftly to punishment. Something they learned from their parents’ world? Though it turns out later that the little girl did use the N-word, but was only parroting her racist parent completely unaware of the word’s hateful meaning, nor meaning to offend. The author is cleverly complicating not only the idea of justice, but also of crime. We have to stop and think about whether the action that did, in fact, take place, but whether or not it can be defined as criminal. We are made to adjudicators in the little girls’ courtroom. But this is something the girls in their innocence are unable to do. We as the audience expect the grown-ups to make this clear to them, but they don’t (perhaps leaving the girls to puzzle through the situation instead of explaining it to them is a subtle way of showing part of the mechanism of the cycle of violence). The lead girl sees no unfairness in abusing her own as she moves to push one of their own into the river.

I loved the author’s technique of using foils to illustrate the theme of punitive justice (an eye for an eye) vs. merciful justice (generously doling out forgiveness). Mrs. Hedy fake admonishes the girls for being cruel, teaching that it is okay (even funny to do so). And the Mennonites painting the porch after being asked to which also subverts the children’s sense of justice in a world where it is more normal for white people to take advantage of black people and make them do hard and humiliating work for nothing and never thank you.

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