Do you believe in fairy tales?
Let’s write one together.
Once upon a time, there was a…
Now here’s where things get difficult. There was a what? A large prince? A yucky prince?
Once upon a time, there was a large yucky prince.
No good. Kids are going to love us but parents might panic and read no further. That sort of thing does happen, you know. Let’s take a lesson from the Murdock, and give people what they want, not what they need.
Once upon a time, there was a large yucky prince with fangs.
OK, OK, I smell a blockbuster here, and maybe even a movie franchise. Grown-ups are going to love this. And kids will, too–if we don’t give them anything better to read, I guess. Or maybe just because they like this sort of thing.
Problem is – we’re writing this together, right?
I don’t like it.
Once upon a time, there was a…
This could all end in tears. (Then at least we’d have a literary fairy tale, wouldn’t we?) I fuss fretfully at the keyboard. I could use my idea for another story–
Once upon a time there was a giant rat-like being that ate souls.
–but that’s another story.
Once upon a time there was a what?
Slightly panicked—or perhaps mildly peeved—I totter over to A Light Inside, usually a very good thing to have when seeking inspiration. I discover, expected but no less welcome, “Shouts of Earth, Echoes of Eternity,” Jenna St. Hilaire’s newest webisode in our blogalectic on writing and rules and other such worries.
Just the sound of the title is inspiring. And in paragraph six is the bright and golden adage that’s saved many a story and made many a writer—the subject, in fact, of Jenna’s brilliant post:
Write What You Know
Inspired, I return to our tale:
Once upon a time there was a writer, who couldn’t think of anything to write.
So he sat at his desk cussing quietly, until he decided he needed a drink of water.
He got up to get the water.
He put five ice cubes in it, because he always put five ice cubes in his water.
The writer sat down to write. He typed
Once Upon a Time, there was a
and realized he didn’t have his water. He was still thirsty.
He went to get his water and couldn’t find it anywhere.
So the writer poured himself another glass.
He sat down at his computer.
There was his first glass of water, on a coaster.
The writer thought something he wouldn’t have a nice character say, and checked his email
for forty-five minutes before remembering to drink either glass.
Writers are boring, really. I should know. This tale is going nowhere. I ponder the contour of the tale, and the principles of construction, and try to add some human interest.
Eventually the writer got so thirsty, he died.
Now the Inviolable Rule kicks in. Rule 17: Omit Needless Words. I edit the tale, and tell it again.
Once upon a time, there was a writer. He got so thirsty, he died.
But this scintillating slice of life isn’t a fairy tale, is it? Looks like we’re back to Once Upon a Time there was a what?
That adage always terrified me somewhat. (Hint: There may be some autobiography in the above attempt at a tale.) I saw it most starkly in the movie adaptations of Little Women, where Jo Marsh prudently lays aside her fantasy and her Gothic, and instead writes domestic novels that become Great Literature. Frankly, I always felt a thrill of excitement hearing about ‘The Phantom Hand’—and Jo was choking up when she read that story, so it looked pretty good. Since I’ve always loved reading and writing fantastic stories, the implication—that middle-class people should write stories about other middle-class people, and spies should write spy novels, and heaven knows who should write thrillers about serial killers—troubled me.
Jenna’s commentary on the adage reflects much the same difficulty:
It would be possible to take that in very literal, superficial terms: to write novels about conservative Christian white girls whose friends are all conservative Christian white girls because they live in a rural district where there are more donkeys than Democrats and the boys are all the strong silent type—or at least the silent type—and the only place to go besides the grocery is church. Or I could write about conservative Christian white girls who move to a liberal coastal college town where it’s open season year round on conservatives and if she happened to stick out an arm suddenly she’d be as likely to hit a practicing pagan as a Christian.
…but that’s not what I take that adage to mean. Not anymore.
‘Write What You Know,’ Jenna says, goes beyond knowledge of the day-to-day, the pragmatic experiences. Knowledge, after all, is spiritual as well as practical, and touches emotion and imagination.
Occasionally, our everyday lives do take the contours of Story. There are several months in my own life that, looking back, seem weirdly like a fairy tale. But that is not the tale I am writing now. I am not sure if I’ll ever write it. It’s not that kind of tale.
The question rests ultimately on what knowledge is. If knowledge is simply accumulation of data, the pursuit of empirical fact, then Tom Clancy is the greatest modern writer, and we’ve seriously undervalued Victorian travel literature and domestic novels. If, however, knowledge ‘begins in a place of passion in the human heart,’ to quote Parker Palmer again, then knowing touches that passion. That place of passion engulfs what we know.
If we write, as Jenna suggests, ‘in search of meaning,’ then ultimately I believe we search not just to know but to be known. What we know, then, is the move from being unknown to being known. The restless, longing reach from I to Thou, and the realization that the Thou has reached down already.
So I read Jenna’s post. I read the other post she links to, Donna’s intriguing comparison between Story and The Word, as theological terms. Tolkien made a similar comparison. (I try to comment as much, but Blogger hates me and eats the comment. So, a little shout-out to Donna—fascinating post!)
And I think about the tale we’re writing together.
Because we’re not yet. Not really. I’m sitting in the living room typing on my laptop, and you don’t even know I’m doing it. Furthermore, we lead different live and have different experiences. Theoretically, we ‘know’ different things. How can this be telling a tale together?
Yet the place of passion in the human heart looks, I think, much the same. In story, in telling a tale, we enter into knowing not just our own hearts, but the hearts of others. Not just our own era, but the eras of other. In writing a tale, we speak and we listen, entering the conversation and the singing and the tales of ages, spoken again each moment. We create a space where our voices may be heard, where tales and their tellers are welcomed. As regular commenter Joivre put it so eloquently at The Hog’s Head (@ 31):
Everything anyone has ever written is an accumulation of what one has read. One of the best ways one learns how to write is to read. And to read something other than your own works. It’s the same with music. Everything that has been composed contains the language of what has been composed before it.
People write like each other–and that’s as it should be. Sure, we all try to have our own voice, unique and special, but there is a common bond between us all, a shared history–that is passed down from one writer to the next. From one composer to the next.
If we’re not supposed to write like anyone else, then why study literature at all?
What do we know? What was there, once upon a time? What might there be?
Do we believe in fairy tales?
Once upon a time, there was a…