once upon a what?

Over the Hedge -- http://comics.com/over_the_hedge/2009-08-25/

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…

A what?

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…

Tell me.

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21 thoughts on “once upon a what?

  1. ROFL. Why is that story about writers so true? That’s my life. “Writers are boring, really. I should know.” I got a really good laugh out of that.

    As for the description of what it is to know (and be known), very, very well said. I loved the echo of 1 Corinthians 13 in there. (…but the other blogger’s name is Donna. 🙂 ) Also, I really liked the concept of storytelling as a conversation, and Joivre’s thoughts. Thanks. I am going to put some thought into this.

    Once upon a time there was a… frog who loved to read stories, and dreamed of being changed into a prince, only he was afraid he would become a large yucky prince…

  2. Thanks, Jenna. The echo is actually echoing Parker Palmer echoing St. Paul, but echo it is nonetheless.

    I’ve made the change. The change from Dorothy to Donna, that is (sorry, Donna!). Not the change from frog to yucky prince.

  3. Thank you for the shout out, Mr. Pond! I am sorry Blogger tripped you up in your attempt to comment on my post. (And, your mishap with my name has invoked images of me in the land of Oz, which is a pleasant fancy to have, so I should thank you for that!) 🙂

    I am commenting (as always) in the capacity of a reader of stories, as opposed to a writer. I think the tension between the deep knowledge we all possess, and the knowledge that is Other to us (a created world that is absolutely nothing like my day-to-day world, for instance), is really interesting. I find, as a reader, that the Othernesses (because Otherness takes many different shapes and forms–there are so many worlds out there, waiting to be discovered and written), these Othernesses somehow reveal the deep knowledge (or shall we say, truths?) that both I and the writer (of good stories) know. It’s that shared knowledge of what is beautiful, joy-creating, and holy. But it takes the fancy of Other to get me there, to that magical moment where the storyteller and I are suddenly writing the heart of the tale together.

    Lewis of course writes on this in his “On Other Worlds” (which I really should reread in detail, having only skimmed it for my post that is linked here). I’d be interested to hear what the two blogalectic participants might have by way of insight into why that Otherness we find in faerie stories helps and aids the process of telling those shared truths, which are deep down in all of us. Thoughts?

  4. By way of a follow-up, an observation about my own comment above: I wonder why I capitalized “Other” throughout, but not truths (Truth)… This stylistic choice (unconscious though it was) may have muddled my point. If so, please let me know and I’ll clarify. Or, you can just pretend you don’t see the capitalized Os. 😉

  5. Once upon a time there was a young prince who had a very large heart. A really big heart. I mean his heart was ten times bigger than any other human alive. It was huge. Gigantic. It was so big – people could hear his heart thumping as he came up the driveway, with the TV on. “Is that one of those cars that go boom?” someone would ask. “No – that’s the prince!” The prince had gotten used to his super heart, having lived with it for many years. In fact, he no longer heard the thump-THUMP coming out of his chest. When he was young though – he had asked his mother, the Queen, why he had such a giant heart. “So you can love more than anyone else,” she said. The prince took that to heart – and started a life filled with an outpouring of love for anyone who crossed his path. People who were suffering, or poor, or grieving, or alone – knew they had a friend in the Prince. And this made the Prince very happy. Happiness burst out of his fat heart like fireworks. But with the joy of having such a big heart – also came the pain of having to feel other’s pain. The discomfort was indescribably deep and though the prince didn’t like feeling other’s pain – because he loved so much – he took it on. He started to envy people who could look the other way. People who could shake it off like it was nothing. After awhile, the prince decided he did not want such a big heart. He wanted a normal sized heart.

    One day…

  6. I was quite taken by Rachelle Gardner’s thoughts a while back on “write what you know” (which I really never liked at all until I read her post). She takes it not as “write situations you’ve experienced” but “write what YOU know to be true in terms of real motivations, real conflicts, real depth, real emotions.” Here it is for further study.

  7. I think you know where I’m going with this fairy tale. He meets a wizard or witch that can “operate” on his heart by magic – making him normal. He finds out he misses his big heart and “Oh no! What have I done?” occurs – making the quest for his large heart, the journey of the tale. (He discovers though that the size of the heart does not matter – he can still love as much if he chooses to.)

    My mother used to prod me to write more, I would say I have nothing to write about. She would inevitable say write what you know. You are right in the adage is misleading. But not really – maybe the adage is like a fairy tale, somewhat cryptic. Maybe I do know what is in my heart. I know what is in the hearts of my friends. I know that Mr. Pond would slay a dragon for love. I know that Eric P. would write an Opera for Love. I know that they love. I know that I love. Write what I know? I know.

  8. @Joivre … he met a little old man in a funny suit. (The man used to be a cardiologist, then had become a lawyer, and was currently a self-help author who featured in TV specials.) The prince told the old man his problem.

    “I can help,” said the old man, “I’m a professional at this kind of thing. It’s a simple course of study. You start with something small, like seeing a picture of an oil-covered bird in a magazine and quickly flipping the page. Gradually you work your way up to flipping away from stories and pictures of people, and then you’ll get to ignore real people. It gets easier the more you practice.

    “We’ll also work on watching reality TV instead of documentaries, and getting you addicted to high-priced coffee so you’ll have some use for your money instead of wasting it on the homeless. I guarantee within a month you’ll be muttering awkwardly and looking embarrassed when you meet poor people on the street, and if you keep it up–well, some of my clients have gone on to become corporate lawyers, bank executives, and even the CEOs of multinational corporations. What do you say?”

    The prince said….

  9. Donna — welcome. I’m glad Oz is a happy place for you, so my misspeak wasn’t too awful!

    I like your thoughts about Other and Otherness–it seems like another way of expressing the I-Thou dialectic, and our experience of everything as other, learning to welcome the Other. To pursue a somewhat more theological line, I’d say that fantasy allows us to sub-create space where we can welcome the stranger and experience Otherness without the scaffolding and prejudices of our normal worlds–our sameness, if you will. So fantasy is an act of hospitality, and the writing of fantastic literature is an invitation into that hospitable space where we can know and be known. That, then, is the place where deep truth can be spoken and heard correctly–the deep truth that ultimately leads to capitalized Truth.

    This is pretty much a blatant and unashamed application on Henri Nouwen’s thought–filtered somewhat through Parker Palmer–to fantasy and fairy tale. I’d no actually thought of this subject in those terms before. And the next logical step (if you’re familiar with Nouwen’s logic) is to view sub-creation as a form of prayer, and as an act of peace.

    So this is essentially a starting point for reevaluating the work of fantasy as a spiritual art, perhaps. At least it’s got me thinking again! Thanks!

  10. Joivre — I love your stories! You have amazing stories to tell, true and fantastic alike. That’s such a blessing to have that, and a blessing to have such amazing parents as yours, who nurtured Story in you. I am so anxious to find out what happens to the Prince now.–brilliant concept. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have thought of developing the way you did, and that’s wonderful.

    Perfectly true, the adage is like a fairy tale–not all it seems on the surface. Knowledge of love is the best sort of knowing, I think. I admit, I prefer my dragons small–much smaller than the ones you’ve been facing so bravely–but I think to love is to stand up against dragons, as small as lice or as wide as the world.

    Eric–great idea–the wizard being a motivational counselor! As an editor, I must suggest that the operation follow the grand fairy tale tradition, and remove the prince’s heart from his chest for safekeeping elsewhere (safety vault?). Other than that, anything can happen.

    Let’s see how long we can keep this tale going…

  11. Eric! What a sweet idea! The percussionist would love you for that. Perhaps a kettle drum for the prince’s heart? Consider my concept a gift to you! I also loved the motivational speaker – including his suit. Very FUN!

    Mr. Pond – I love the idea of taking his heart out completely. Gross and cool! Yes, Love is a good thing to know. I can’t think of one story that does not have love as the driving force. Whether it is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Three Billy Goats Gruff (the troll loves to eat goats and the goats love to eat grass). Everybody loves someone, or something.

    Hey Eric P. – as a side note to you – I’ve got the Juilliard SQ coming in October. Got a string quartet for them to look at?

  12. Mr. Pond – It just occured to me – taking out the Prince’s heart is the opposite of Frankenstein. Turning the Human into the Creature. Kind of a cool idea.

  13. Joivre– My “Three Breton Dances” for SQ springs immediately to mind. Gosh, that’d be something to have it played by a group like that! Do you have my email?

    The more I think about your story idea, the more I like it. Thanks so much! Let’s see, now we need to dream up a libretto and find a good children’s opera company…

  14. Good choice Eric P. – make a copy of them in booklet form (2 pages per side back to back on 11×17 – unless they are already published, of course) folded with center staple and send them to me – you remember where I work, right? If you want to send a one page letter of introduction – a little about yourself and the composition – that would help. If not – no biggie – the beautiful music sings for itself. Also you can check out the rest of the season on our website, (click on Chamber Music once you get there) we also have the Carpe Diem Quartet and the Henschel Quartett coming. I can hand it off to all three quartets this year.

    Now, I’m interested in a once upon a time from Mr. Pond!

  15. Well, Joivre, I can’t really claim to have thought up that idea. It’s as old as the hills. There have been any number of folktales about giants and other menacing people who separate their hearts from their bodies. Interestingly, Anthony Minghella’s retelling cites much the same reason you gave: ‘all those giant feelings.’

    And, of course, George MacDonald retold the tale as well.

    Though I admit it’s a little disturbing to think that The Troll loved eating goats. Maybe he just loved his nice, clean bridge! (Which it wouldn’t be after three gruff billy goats ambled across.)

    I’ll just insert an interesting geek note into the classical discussion above (I love networking!)–Breton folk music is thought to be almost unchanged for the past 1000 years, a rare example of authentic Celtic music. As a folk musician, the demands of playing Breton music are very different than, say, Irish or Scottish. And it goes on forever–hypnotic!

  16. Joivre— Awesome. Thanks! Perhaps we should migrate this conversation to email; check yours shortly.

    Mr. Pond, somehow I never thought of the Troll as a tragic figure before, but really you could say all he wanted was to be left alone without trespassers trip-tropping over his bridge! Poor guy! Though, now I think of it, Neil Gaiman’s “Troll Bridge” provides a more haunting (and mature) twist on it, as well as tying it into the “get rid of your heart” idea. Linky.

  17. Cool – thanks for the links to those stories. I have never read either one of them and they were so fun. And Mr. Pond, I did not know that about the music of Breton! I will have to investigate further for my own education on the matter!

    Eric P. – I was just thinking about the heart and music. We walk around with a 3/4 rhythm in us! – boom, BOOM, rest – boom, BOOM, rest – etc. (of course if you are very fit, then you have a fermata on the rest) Very Bach-like trinity-ish.

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