I’ve been working a bit on my family history.  By pouring through old census records and city directories you can learn quite a bit about your ancestors.  You can discover their parents names, their occupations, with a bit of research you can imagine them in a context, how did people dress then?  What were the rituals of their church?  What were the big events in their communities?  If you’re really lucky you will find an obituary that notes something about the person’s life.

Yet as much as you discover, there is always a big hole in the center.  There is something vital, something that gets to the heart of who a person is, that never makes it into a genealogical database.

Yesterday I came across an old letter written from my great-uncle to his sister, my grandmother.  As I read his memories of his father, I realized what is missing from the records.  Everything that the person did not do. Their unrealized potential.

"Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it."

— Hannah Arendt (via taylorbooks)

When you think of history as a straight line there are only two ways to move, you can go forward (progress) or back (regress). Thus, if you are not always moving forward, you are falling behind. You must grow or perish.

This is a story that is told in one way or another all our lives. The book The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham talks about the value of the Alcoholics Anonymous storytelling style, which they define as “what we used to be like, what happened, and where we are now.”

The metaphor is of a journey out of darkness into which, presumably, we will not return. This is the same type of story we hear on every biography program. Here was the star’s rise, then the star had problems, but now he has recovered and, presumably, will live happily ever after.

I wonder, though, how we might deal with our ups and downs if we saw them not on a straight line but as recurring motifs in a symphony? Would we define success differently? Would it be easier to cope with hardships if we saw them as part of a cycle, like rising and falling tides that as something that blew us off horribly off our course?

The stories we tell are important.

The Purpose of Epigrams and L’Esprit de L’Escalier

A couple of days ago I had the pleasure of attending the Plymouth Book Club in Grand Rapids, Michigan at the Plymouth United Church of Christ.   I met some great people and we had a wonderful discussion of the novel Angel. 

One of the questions that I was asked had to do with the epigrams that begin each of Angel’s chapters.  Some people don’t like them and tend to skip them, which doesn’t bother me, and shouldn’t impact the understanding of the story much.

So why put them there?

I gave an answer to the question, but not a very good one.  Rather than explaining why they were there, I talked about the process of finding them and deciding which illustrations to use.  After the fact, I thought about this question a bit more and I have come up with a better answer.  

This phenomenon is called Treppenwitz in German and l’esprit de l’escalier in French.  Both expressions refer to finding the perfect rejoinder or answer the moment the other person has left the room.  Writers are the masters of Treppenwitz.  In fact, I have a theory that a large portion of literature is made up of the things writers thought of later and wished they had said at the time.  They have their characters say it instead.

(One such Treppenwitz of my own, which found its way into Angel, was Paul’s response to a woman who said that gays shouldn’t advertise their sexual orientation, which Bishop Craig Bergland mentioned in an article on his blog Engaged Spirituality.)

It can be difficult as a writer to articulate why you wrote something the way you did.  This is not because you don’t know why you did it.  Rather it is because finding the right words and style is more a matter of feeling than intellect. 

I put the epigrams there because I felt they belonged there.  That’s the short answer.

The longer answer, now that I have analyzed it, is this:

The novel Angel was inspired by Mount Rainier in Seattle.  The mountain provides the spiritual center of the story.  It was the image that I kept going back to in order to find the right feel for the events of the story.  In the book club meeting we talked about some of the things the mountain represents in Angel

It symbolizes the church and is tied into an internal church debate about whether or not to repair a crumbling steeple.  The steeple is a man made mountain, designed to remind us of our smallness and humility in relation to divine forces.

It is also a symbol of natural forces that are of a scope that does not allow them be controlled through human will (as is the attraction the character Paul feels toward Ian).

The mountain also symbolizes the relationship of the protagonists.  I consciously thought of Ian and Paul as being like the mountain, where heaven and earth meet, so Ian is earthy and Paul has his head a bit in the clouds.  This shaped the characters and what makes them compatible. 

The mountain symbolizes beauty and the fear that sometimes accompanies our experience of beauty.  (Our experience of the mountain is one of of “beauty and terror” as the author Bruce Barcott wrote.)  Thus as Paul discovers his attraction to Ian’s natural beauty, he is forced to face his fears.  And like the dormant volcano that is Mount Rainier, the relationship has the potential to be destructive in the future. 

The cycle of destruction and renewal that a volcano represents also ties into a theme of resurrection that is a subtext of the novel.  It comes into the novel through Paul’s discussion of the mass with Ian, Ian’s participation in communion, and the new life direction that each finds through his relation to the other.  (At the cost of the death of a previous way of existence.)

Finally, a volcano, so seemingly solid, is a reminder that everything beautiful is transitory and therefore we should remember to cherish it.

The mountain informed the story for me from the beginning and infuses every aspect of the story.  It is the breath of the story.  So I wanted it to remain a poetic presence.  In the body of the narrative itself, however, I did not want to constantly refer to the mountain.  Ian and Paul’s story is their story, not a metaphor. 

The epigrams at the beginning of the chapter, however, ask the reader to back up for a moment and view the intimate and personal events of the story in light of universal truths, the types of truths that are difficult to articulate, but which can be discovered and felt by contemplating nature.  It asks the reader to connect the specific to something that is, like Mount Rainier, larger than the story and its characters. 

This is what I would have said at the book club if I’d been able to go off in a corner and write my reply.  That might be a good way to interview authors in general, really.

"True storytellers ply their imaginations with a kind of self-questioning arrogance. They would reassert the authority of the single mind to render the world. They may not realize when they commit to the practice of fiction that they are ordained to contest the aggregate fictions of their societies. That, of course, is their redeeming value, bu also an indication of the risk they take. It can be a dangerous profession, storytelling. If actuarial figures of writers’ life spans worldwide were to be calculated, taking into account the jailings, the deportations, the executions, the disappearances, as well as the humdrum deaths from malnutrition and neglect, you would not want your son or daughter to become a writer. Apart from such hazards, there is an entropic cost to the calling: writing is not merely a matter of setting down words. A novel is written at the expense of the novelist’s being. Eventually, there is not much more to him that hasn’t been written away. It may be the peculiar fate of the writer that after a lifetime of writing he becomes mysterious to himself, his identity having dissolved into his books."

— E.L. Doctorow, Creationists

"The real danger poets represent lies not in their rejection of belief systems but in their indifference to them. Because they are not focused on disproving belief as such, they do not come with arguments. Poetry, it must be emphasized, does not translate into belief, or into rational thought of any kind."

— James P. Carse, The Religious Case Against Belief

"Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of by the folk."

— Henry Jenkins (via evewithanapple)

(Source: ladysaviours, via sociolab)

Chimamanda Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story.

“a professor… once told me that my novel was not ‘authentically African.’ Now, I was quite willing to contend that there were a number of things wrong with the novel, that it had failed in a number of places. But I had not quite imagined that it had failed at achieving something called African authenticity. In fact I did not know what African authenticity was. The professor told me that my characters were too much like him, an educated and middle-class man. My characters drove cars. They were not starving. Therefore they were not authentically African…

It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is nkali. It’s a noun that loosely translates to ‘to be greater than another.’

Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali. How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.  Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person..”

"The big break for me was I got tired of looking at stuff like The Dark Knight and Watchmen, which are wonderful and beautiful works, but for me the idea of taking our problems into the superhero world is ultimately a dead-end. When I was 25 or 26 it occurred to me that trying to make superheroes seem real was insane. They were not real in that way, but what really hit me was, “Well, in what way are they real?” They’re absolutely real in the form of paper, and so I wanted to go beyond that spurious realism of here’s what would happen if Batman got a run in his tights, or, “How does he go to the bathroom?” “Where does he keep his change?” Which I think are very dumb questions. In the book, one of the things I say is that people always believe kids don’t understand the difference between fact and fiction. But they do! A child can watch The Little Mermaid and they know the singing crabs on TV are very different from the real crabs on the beach. You give an adult a piece of fiction, and the adult cannot handle it. The adult begins to ask, “How can Batman afford to run a business and be Batman at night?” “How do the lasers come out of Superman’s eyes?” “Why does he wear those clothes?” And all you want to say is, “Because it’s not real!” It’s made up, and only in the made-up world can these things happen. I find that, in the last 10 years particularly, there’s this idea of grounding Superman, which just seems insane to me. And that’s what you always get from studio executives, is, “How do we ground this?”"

Grant Morrison, from an interview he gave with fellow scribe Neil Gaiman in July.

Read the full interview with these truly captivating authors here.

(via nocureforcuriosity)

(via nocureforcuriosity)