stories

Welcome to Wonderland

This is, more or less, the speech I gave to my Advanced Placement Literature and Composition students on the first day of school.

Today I want to tell you a story about moments, moments the world looks wonderful and strange and different.

I was lucky enough to go to school in Wales for two years. Over those two years, I had roommates from England, South Korea, Kenya, Italy, and Germany. I had the chance to travel—choir tour through France and Switzerland, and a five-week epic after I graduated. The trip I want to tell you about, though, was just a day trip, only as far as the Welsh border with England.

There’s a little town there called Hay-on-Wye. It’s a very English town name—Hay, on the Wye River, so Hay-on-Wye to distinguish it from the other towns called ‘Hay.’ It’s a small English town: grey and green except on those rare sunny days, at which time it is a lighter grey and a brighter green. There’s not much to recommend Hay-on-Wye…except for one thing. Hay-on-Wye is a mecca for books.

Aside from the plane ticket, I had two big expenses getting home from school in Wales. One was the bag that I left for five weeks at Heathrow. The other was shipping my used books home. There was one used bookstore in Llantwit (near school), and I haunted several others in Cardiff (which was a bus ride away), but Hay-on-Wye had more. It was probably for the best that I only went there once.

The streets were dotted with shelves for the book fairs. And the bookstores…there were all sorts of used bookstores there: the kind that are only open for a few hours a few days each week, with bars on the windows and rare books inside; the kind that are nearly a garage sale with boxes of unsorted books; and the many in between—more or less organized, more or less ready for exploration. Those were the ones I spent most of my day with—after a walk to see the mansion and the castle.

There was one store in particular that I went into in the afternoon. It was two stories, and narrow—like a hallway. Shelves stretched to the ceiling, some with boxes on top of them. It was cluttered enough that I couldn’t see all the way to the back. I went upstairs and out stepped a man. He was short, with graying, curly hair and a van dyck. He said to me, with absolute seriousness, “Welcome to Wonderland.”

And for a moment, just a sliver of a sliver of a second, I wondered whether there was a back to the bookstore, whether it went on and on to some other place. It was a superbly Neil Gaiman moment, even though I’d never even heard of Neil Gaiman at the time. I was one of those kids who was always trying to figure out which door would open to Narnia, whether there was a secret knock or some other trick that would whisk me away to somewhere more interesting. For that moment, I was there again.

Alas, the bookstore did in fact end. The short man was just a short man, not a leprechaun. I didn’t find any magic there more than the usual magic of books. That’s not the point.

The point is that, in that moment, my world shifted. In the blink of a mind, I saw possibilities that were hidden. Anything could happen. I had to see.

We don’t get those moments often. I can’t promise that you’ll have those moments in my class. Honestly, I don’t think I ever had one in class. What I want to do, though, is to give you the tools to find those moments yourselves. There are times when you’re reading, times when you’re studying a text, when the world opens up like that. You can’t force those moments, but the more you know, the more you can be ready for them when they come…

…And that’s the story of how I took a trip to Hay-on-Wye. That’s the way the story goes and it’s truth if you don’t believe and a lie if it makes you happy and it’s a story if it blew from a far off place and you felt it.

Okay. I stole that last sentence from my poem, The Storyteller, which I still like even after all these years.

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Missing Characters

I am juggling a good number of projects right now. Writing cover letters, tweaking resumes, writing for games, thoroughly reworking some old stories to get them ebookified as quickly as possible. It’s all taken time away from my novel (working title “The Fairworth Chronicles”). When I woke up this morning, I missed it. I missed the characters. I keep wondering what they’re up to, what they will be up to when I can get their activities out of my head and onto the page.

Missing fictional people is odd. If they’re other writers’ characters, they’re seldom farther than your bookshelf (or e-reader, if you swing that way). I’ve missed others’ characters sometimes, especially the ones who have grown and changed. Brust’s Vlad Taltos is a fun one to miss, because he’s easy to revisit at various points over his development. The Vlad books are also short enough to plow through one in an afternoon. Zelazny’s Corwin is much the same. Others take more work to visit: Gaiman’s Shadow, Le Guin’s Ged, Chabon’s Kavalier, even Moorcock’s Hawkmoon. They don’t live quite as close to the surface of their stories. (There might be something about first person narration lurking in there, although Gene Wolfe’s Arthur Ormsby is not the easiest to visit in spite of the way he colors the narration of The Knight and The Wizard.) At any rate, even if they don’t live next door, other writer’s characters live on familiar roads, and getting to them is more a matter of time than of work.

Missing your own fictional people is harder. Even if they’ve thoroughly established residence in your head, as Maedoc and Zahra have in mine, getting to them takes work. Oh, sometimes it’s easy. It feels like your characters are sitting right next door, with a full pot of coffee and an extra cup. Usually, though, it’s a cross-country hike. Often it is painfully uphill. Sometimes there are giants at the top, playing you for a pin in a game of downhill boulder bowling.

Regardless, it is exciting to get there. You’re not quite sure what the characters are going to do, whether they’re going to cooperate, whether they’re going take your story and run with it so hard you’ll have to chase it. Or maybe your characters don’t want to run at all. They just want to sit there and leave you feeling very much like you do trying to get your three year-old to put on her shoes so you can go grocery shopping. When it’s been a slog to even get to them, this is inordinately frustrating.

The hard thing is also the cool thing: you don’t know until you get there. That’s what makes missing your own characters more exciting than anything else. There’s risk. We know, all of us, that adventures do not always end happily. We also know that unhappy endings might better resemble a hospital waiting room than a rubble-strewn battlefield. When you miss your own characters and go looking for them, it’s an adventure. That’s the important thing to remember, even if other clutter is blocking your front door. Go out through a window if you have to. The adventure is worth it.

Stories+Tells=???

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.