Stories begging to be told

Tell anyone you’re a writer and inevitably you hear these words—Oh do I have a story to tell! If only I knew how to get it all down. Maybe I could tell it to you and you could write it for me.

 “Writing isn’t particularly different from hibernation,” observes the polar bear/narrator in Yoko Tawada’s very inventive Memoirs of a Polar Bear. This is writing at its most artful, even playful, a story offering up both literary and social commentary, something to especially savor during this month in which we celebrate reading women in translation ((#WITMonth). The smaller the world seems, in terms of how we connect, the larger it gets. Diversity, in all its expression of form, feels more urgent than ever.

Some say it takes courage to write. For me it’s more surrender, not so much sweet as the kind that comes from all that quiet time spent wrestling with words/thoughts/worlds. Not that courage doesn’t play its part, especially when it comes to telling a story that’s been kept quiet for too long. Unless it’s journal writing, for your eyes only, to write is to imagine you have a story people just might want to read.

First comes a kind of liberation—there! I did it—but once it’s out, the same vulnerability that may have kept you from putting down the story in the first place exposes you now to a world that can be as forgiving as it can be harsh. Did that inner critic we thought so demanding mislead us? Did that muse who lit the fire dissolve in her own ashes?

More than courage, it’s humility that’s on my mind. Madeleine L’Engle expressed it so perfectly in A Circle of Quiet:

“I think that all artists, regardless of degree of talent, are a painful, paradoxical combination of certainty and uncertainty, of arrogance and humility, constantly in need of reassurance, and yet with a stubborn streak of faith in their validity, no matter what.” It’s not about pitting ourselves against the greats, she goes on to say. It’s about a way of looking at the universe.

We are a storytelling species, which means we all have stories to tell. Some are transcendent, some banal. Some are driven by the artful play of words, others by the raw power of the story.

Look anywhere, listen—really listen—to what people say, and a story idea is bound to take shape. The other side of that equation is the story that finds the writer, the one she is simply meant to tell.

Woman at Point Zero. Nawal El Saadawi is a feminist force of nature in her native Egypt and her novel was sparked by an encounter (in her role as psychiatrist) with a female prisoner condemned to be executed for murdering a man. Firdaus, the prisoner, entrusts her story of abuse, female genital circumcision, enslavement, and prostitution to El Saadawi, who shapes it into a compelling narrative that touches on issues that ultimately touch us all. El Saadawi may be the conduit but Firdaus is the hero who turns on its head the question of victimization.

Monkey’s Wedding. The time is 1953, the place Southern Rhodesia, the tensions between native populations and the white ruling class growing. Rossandra White spent part of her childhood in Zimbabwe, which makes it impossible not to see her in Elizabeth McKenzie, as spirited a young heroine as it gets. Central to the narrative is Elizabeth’s relationship with Turu, the son of a man who works for her family. And like the best of novels that straddle the YA/adult fiction fence, Monkey’s Wedding lets the wisdom of innocence ring through a complicated political and cultural scenario.

Veronica’s Grave. The opening pages of Barbara Donsky’s very moving memoir take us right into the mind of a young girl who can’t make heads or tails of her mother’s ‘disappearance.’ One day mommy is there, the next day she’s gone, no explanation. People are at her home, crying, still no explanation. And no mommy. A baby brother will surface soon enough, but still no mommy. Like all children, she will find ways to express the confusion, the pain, the anger, and Donsky does an especially skillful job of letting the narrator’s voice change as she herself is transformed.

All of which takes me full circle down a long and winding yellow brick road, with its twists and turns and archetypes and metaphors. Who hasn’t had at least one you’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore moment in his/her life? Who doesn’t need a little more courage, a little more heart, a little more wisdom sometimes, the secret of course being what that trio of beloved characters knows only too well: they’re nothing without each other. I don’t know if there’s no place like home in a world of displacement but I do know there’s no dearth of stories that begin or end there. Some need a little coaxing, others are simply begging to be told.

 

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The sound of one leaf falling

chipmunkThe transition from one season to the next is always a reminder of something fluid, even elusive. Sure you wake one day and the calendar tells you it’s autumn, this year’s arrival last week still in the afterglow of the Harvest Moon.  But it’s not as if you haven’t already sensed it, the shifting light, the shortening of days.  It’s a lot like the space between breaths that sometimes becomes the focal point during meditation. If you pay attention, breathing in can only become breathing out. And vice versa.

So it goes with the slipping of summer into autumn.  By late August there’s a diminished vibrancy to the lush green of the leaves; mid-September the ache kicks in, that fading to yellow, a reminder that leaves may be dying but we still have that riot of red and orange, yellow and brown against that seasonal golden light to look forward to.    A quote I came across the other day by the Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang sums up so eloquently the way I feel:

“I like spring, but it is too young. I like summer, but it is too proud. So I like best of all autumn, because its leaves are a little yellow, its tone mellower, its colors richer, and it is tinged a little with sorrow and a premonition of death. Its golden richness speaks not of the innocence of spring, nor of the power of summer, but of the mellowness and kindly wisdom of approaching age. It knows the limitations of life and is content. From a knowledge of those limitations and its richness of experience emerges a symphony of colors, richer than all, its green speaking of life and strength, its orange speaking of golden content and its purple of resignation and death.”

It’s a busy time for chipmunks and squirrels, I’ve noticed, a kind of rush hour as they scamper and scurry back and forth, in and out, so much to hoard. It’s a noisy season, too, lawnmowers still cutting the last bits of summer grass before the leaf blowers take over.  Who needs an alarm clock in the morning when you have crows?

A few weeks ago, Labor Day to be exact, I was sitting on my deck, early morning. Sipping coffee and reading.  Something made me stop.  Look up.

More often than not what distracts me is something I see or hear: a  squirrel doing acrobatics across tree branches. A majestic hawk circling the sky.  A woodpecker rat-tat-tatting.  Deer passing through my yard.  A tree being trimmed.

On that particular day, the memory still vivid, it was the complete absence of usual morning sounds that enveloped me.

Not a crow caw-caw-cawing.

Not a car thrumming down the road.

Not a dog barking.

Nada, when it came to sound.

That I could be so caught up in its absence was a curious reminder, ironic as it seems, that I’m not alone. “The world is too much with us,” wrote Wordsworth, and that was way before technology wreaked havoc on our neurology: Being present to the moment is a far cry from the beeping urgency of text messages.  The immediacy of sending e-mails brings an expectation of response in a timely fashion, the question being: whose time frame is it anyway?

Years ago I read A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle,  drawn to the title.  At the very beginning she writes:

“I like hanging sheets on lines under the apple trees—the birds like it, too. I enjoy going out to the incinerator after dark and watching the flames; my bad feelings burn away with the trash. But the house is still visible, and I can hear the sounds from within; often I need to get away completely, if only for a few minutes. My special place is a small brook in a green glade, a circle of quiet from which there is no visible sign of human beings.”

The quiet a writer needs to do her work was at the heart of a conversation between novelist/filmmaker/Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki and editor/novelist Carole DeSanti, hosted by WNBA-NYC.  “Real creative work comes from a quiet place,” said DeSanti.  We may need the noise, that “conversation with the world,” as Ozeki put it, at the start of a project.  “But at the end I need quiet to dig in.”

“Silence is an endangered species,” says acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton in an interview with Krista Tippett that begs to be listened to.  “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything,” he explains, taking listeners on a virtual hike through the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park to what he calls One Square Inch of Silence.  It’s through silence that we regain the power to listen.

“Now we will all count to twelve/and we will all keep still. . . .” begins a Pablo Neruda poem that Jewish-Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein is said to carry with her everywhere she goes. Listen to her recite it. Or read it here.

The poem, a favorite of mine, is called “Keeping Quiet.”