A story is like the wind: it comes from a far off place, and you feel it.
—proverb of the Kalahari Bushmen (one I first heard from Terry Tempest Williams)
What makes a story? I spent a lot of time as an undergrad trying to answer that question. I read epic poems, novels, myths…I probably should have spent some quality time with Joseph Campbell, but he was so much in the air that I was satisfied with the commonplaces. I read Bakhtin. I tried hard to learn from the “mistakes” of others—mostly the authors we read (and sometimes picked to pieces) in my literature seminars. I worried about how to tell stories right, rather than how to tell stories well. I felt a constant tension between what I knew about reading critically and what I knew about writing.
That tension is especially obvious in my honors project, The Storyteller, for narrator and orchestra. Musically, the piece has all the flaws one could ask of a first orchestral work: it’s over-written, full of bits that muddy the overall sound and make it occasionally impossible to hear the narrator. After hearing the orchestra read-through, it was obvious that I needed to dramatically strip down the score to fit it more smoothly with the text. That text, though? It has some great moments. It also has moments that make me cringe—bits of faux-beatnik and occasional flings with exoticism. I started with the idea of re-parsing epic poems. Now, we’d call it a mashup, but this was the early Aughts and YouTube didn’t exist yet. (One of the earliest images, for example, was Beowulf’s Grendel emerging from the Trojan Horse.) The poem ended up being about storytelling itself, about the anxiety of influence and how hard it felt to tell stories that hadn’t already been told. In my notes and brainstorming, there’s a constant back and forth between the academicism of my references and my desire to write from the gut.
I’m dealing with some of the same questions here: how do I balance commentary and storytelling? I have to remind myself of John Cage’s words: “Do not try to create and analyze at the same time. They are different processes.” In terms of storytelling, writing a blog can be like “writing” a TV reality show. So many of the things that happen every day aren’t that interesting to me, never mind to you. Some interesting things that happen still don’t fit here. This has become particularly true as a few of my posts—notably Of Dreams…—have been distributed around the internet by others. That’s cool. On the other hand, it’s forced me to consider my audience in ways that I hadn’t when planning this blog. How do I keep the analysis out of the creation?
And what makes a story for me, now? I think that the Kalahari proverb is probably the best answer I know. To keep you coming back—and, more importantly, to keep me coming back—I need to write things that we feel. This story, the story of Walking Ledges, isn’t out of its prologue yet. There is so much more to do and to write and to figure out. It is the story of leaving academia, but also the story of a 33 year-old taking a chance on a 16 year-old’s dreams. It’s the story of me letting myself dive back into the world of stories, to think again about how we write and read, how we tell. “Tell” is so much more vital than “write” or “say.” It’s a declaration, but also something that’s not entirely under one’s own control. A tell at the poker table is the unintentional betrayal of a secret. Good stories are the same way. They hint at secrets, tell us more than their plots and words do. I hope that the tells here will be worthwhile for all of us.
I could have picked a few different lines from The Storyteller to close with, but this is one from the middle of the piece that I particularly like:
“Tell the wind. Tell games. Tell journeys. Tell motion and tell the future. Never tell emptiness.”
You can find my honors project in the Macalester College library in St. Paul, Minnesota (http://macalester.worldcat.org/title/storyteller/oclc/52113087).
I’ve added the complete poetic text to the new “Works” page.