Thursday, June 30, 2011

... sung real sweet

In my post about the passing of Anne Frank's birthday and the tragedy and criminality of her murder I quoted from Hone Tuwhare's poem about the death of Martin Luther King. The poem doesn't have just one sense. It's a crashing together of sorrow, anger, fatalism, irony, desparation and bleak rock n roll.

Out of respect to both of the late kaumatua I will quote the poem in its entirety.

Martin Luther King

In Vietnam they’re using a new rifle shell
that’s a real honey. It describes a tumbling
parabola that could punch a hole in you
a foot square, check?

But when that 30.06
made a bloody mash out of your jaw, it didn’t
stop there: kept ploughing right on through to
drain the marrow out of your dream.

That bullet wasn’t meant to grunt an apology,
the meanie. When you slumped down, mankind
was hurled back a billion years, to a

Let’s face it, King: when news of your death
came through, lovers all over the World
turned each other on, rolled over and turned
the radio off.

But you were hip. And you never did fancy
fancy-names like Uncle Tom or Handkerchief-head.
You really dug the scene, man. From Birmingham
on you stuck your neck out; opened your big
black beautiful mouth to protest about the high
cost of dying in Vietnam. And you marched

armed only with a dream: a dream held aloft
in your red-hot parable-picking hands. Hell,
your continued existence had become an untidy
question mark sloshed across the American
Declaration of Independence. Yeah: and that
is why they shot you, King.

Before your light was snuffed out, you asked
for a song sung real sweet: hell,
this ain’t much. Treacle in my veins: death-cart
rumble in my ears.

` Hone Tuwhare

Ghost Stories

The furore that has erupted this week, likely fueled by the source magazine itself as much as anyone, over the article and photograph in Newsweek of Princess Diana at 50 has brought out the issue of people having - and fighting to protect - their own image of famous people. The anger her fans, and even the casually interested have felt shows how important our icons become to us and how much we invest in them. Also how much of their narratives are in fact our creations.

Diana has become one of the great heroines of contemporary storytelling. Whatever we know of the real woman (likely nowhere near as much as we think) has long been overpowered by her legend. It wasn't at all inappropriate that Elton John resurrected his song about Marilyn Monroe to act as musical eulogy to Diana. The two women's individual identities have been lost. It's hard to compete with a legend.

Sometimes we create legend because the ideal of it addresses our yearning for perfection, for the romantic breaking free of the bounds of mundane reality. Sometimes we do it because it's preferable to the truth. Marilyn Monroe's legend cloaks the cold reality of a woman who was used, abused and spat out by men all her life, and her subsequent attainment of perfection and grace in legend has largely absolved those men (and all those who ogled) of their collective culpability. 

And sometimes we just need to create heroes to fill gaps. The fictional Princess Diana was theatre from the start, with the narrative of being an ordinary young woman swept away to marry a prince. She wasn't in fact, an ordinary young woman, not in the world most of us live in. Even her funeral was a masterpiece of theatre. The extent to which her story was fictionalised in the public mind though does not diminish the reality of the grief people felt at her passing. The grief was and is real.

The long running battle by Mohammad El Fayed to find a conspiracy that ended her life (and his son Dodi's) included fantastical elements not out of place in a Robert Ludlum thriller.

Diana, like Marilyn, is an ongoing testament to the power of storytelling, and the place it has in our lives. Also the danger of it, for those turned into largely fictional characters, and for our own collective honesty. Shame they couldn't just have been themselves, but I guess that's not how legend works.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Girl in the Window

A couple of years ago a film surfaced showing an ordinary scene, filmed in Amsterdam on July 22, 1941. A young woman is getting married and her friends gather to watch her emerge with her husband-to-be. In the window above, a young girl leans out, smiling, laughing.

That girl was Anne Frank, and this is the only known footage of her. She of course survives because her humble journal, later titled Diary of a Young Girl was posthumously famous, and one of the finest and most enduring narratives of honest struggle with both ordinary and enormous forces in all literature.

That it is literature is undeniable. Anne Frank was already a writer of skill and clarity and precision and that ability was destined to grace many works to come. Her death in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp is a permanent insult to everything we should be. Thinking of it reminds me of poet Hone Tuwhare's lines upon hearing of the death of Martin Luther King.

When you slumped down, mankind was hurled back a billion years to a jellyfish.  

Anne Frank would have turned 82 last week.

She should have.

The Horizontal and Vertical Axes of storytelling

One of my students today mentioned a problem she sees in her writing. She was narrating a passage where her character visits a park for a walk. She (the author) put in a sense of movement, both by the character against the landscape (the character walked up the path) and the landscape against the character (the breeze blew in her hair) which is sound writing policy. But then the character stopped while the author described a piece of lichen. This is the problem the student/author highlighted - her writing has too many 'stop and observe the lichen' moments. 

This led me to think about a principle of storytelling, maintaining the balance between the horizontal and vertical axis.

Imagine a matrix in the shape of a crossroad. The left-right horizontal axis and the up-down vertical axis. 

The horizontal axis contains some of the following storytelling elements

·         - Incident and event
·         - Character action in reaction to incident and event
·         - Plot development
·         - Background information (exposition)
·         - Narrative structure (within scenes and their sequels, also the meta-structure of the whole narrative of the short story/novel/film)
·         - Pace
·         - Build-up of physical excitement and tension
·         - Plot turning points
·         - Breather scenes
·         - Act and story climaxes
·         - Denouement
·         - Character development

The vertical axis includes the following storytelling elements

·         - Personal meaning and resonance
·         - connection
·         - Questions of/to character interiority, e.g: – why did he/she react that way, where does that reaction come from, what was its genesis - a moment in their past? How does/will that moment and its fallout affect her?
·         - Subtext
·         - Emotional backstory
·         - Psychological backstory
·         - Metaphorical significance
·         - Symbolism and motif
·         - Denouement
·         - Character development

(Yes, a story’s denouement and its character development appear on both axes.)

Now back to the ‘lichen’ moments. I have a recommendation for writers who find themselves discovering such moments in their stories.
  • Stop
  • Take stock. 
  • Why/how is this significant? Is it, or how can it be metaphoric of a situation or (interior) struggle the character is having?  

The writer’s mind is a powerful device that often throws ball bearings under our wheels, slowing us down when we want to keep plugging away along the horizontal axis.  In our desire to find out what should happen next it gives us reminders that (in a story of layered depth) we can only know that by knowing the characters and their story from the inside out.

Writing isn’t a matter of taking inventory, or reading a map with all the steps written out in advance. It’s emotional and psychological graft, reaching out in the dark. Or as Trisha puts it in her post exploring emotional time as opposed to chronological time  – quoting Kurt Vonnegut -  ‘writing is like crawling through a dark tunnel on your hands and knees with a crayon in your mouth.’   

In Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (noted in my post below) there is a moment when the adult character discovers a Mickey Mouse watch she’d dropped in the garden when a child. The author imbues that watch with metaphoric power, to the point it becomes a motif. At first glance it is a small moment, and I’ve always wondered at what point in the gestation of the story Mickey Mouse with his hands spread (forever) at ten-minutes-to-two appeared.

So when you come to a lichen moment – stop. Why are you dallying here? What can such moments in description reveal about the deeper story. You can find meaning in the seemingly mundane. The mundane or the ordinary is the best place to find meaning, as it lessens the risk of the author going for ever larger scope, which is the road to melodrama.

A wise writer would do well to bear in mind both the horizontal and the vertical axis. To what degree depends on you and your needs and expectations as an author and a human being, and also on the genre/context/audience expectations of your story.

Is there somewhere a guarantee that all such ‘Stop and observe the lichen’ moments carry metaphorical depth – no, there isn’t. But many do. And if you hasten to go past or around them, to get going or keep going on the horizontal axis, you run the risk of not only passing the lichen by without a second glance, but doing the same to the deeper aspects of your story.

Truman Capote

A new biography has been published about the American author Truman Capote, a complex man whose public flamboyance hid a secretive nature. I was surprised to find - many years after I read it - that he was the basis for the boy who comes to stay, in Harper Lee's great novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Here's a link to a review of the biography in The Weekly Standard.

A few years ago two films about the life of Capote, the better of which - Infamous - featured a powerful and nuanced performance by Toby Jones.

Capote was a master of the documentary novel, where non-fiction material is written with the same sense of creative layering as a piece of fiction. I recommend In Cold Blood, as a starting point.

The just-released biography is called a psycho-biography, which is a new term on me. Supposedly a biography written from a psychoanalytic perspective. An interesting concept, in terms of both fiction and non-fiction. Be interested to hear of other examples in this 'genre'.

Legacy Writing

In my earlier posts on the blog on folk music and the American Folklorist, Alan Lomax, I touched on the issue of preservation. Of leaving a trail for those who follow us, to say, this is me, this is who I was. Songs have filled that role for centuries, books too. One of the finest forms of preservation is photography, which has the added sense of always being in the now. A photograph is in permanent present tense. The image below is the first photograph ever taken, of a Paris street, that shows a human figure. Down in the left hand corner there is a man having his boots shined by a bootblack. The street beside them looks deserted but in fact it was full of horses and carts, horse-drawn taxis, people walking. Because of the very long exposure time required by the early cameras, anything moving couldn’t be captured. So the street traffic is rendered invisible and only the bootblack and his customer remain. 

Photographs not only capture subject and context but voice. They are in and of their time. 

I’ve become involved in a concept called Legacy Writing, where we become our own folklorists and photographers. Us, not just famous people, but all of us. Our stories are logged like the photograph, in the permanent ‘now.’ The field of Life Writing has been around for years, developing out of the class biography and autobiography, but it has always been from a point in our later life, looking back. So we’re reflecting, analyzing, sometimes justifying. Perhaps even seeking forgiveness. But what were our thoughts and motivations in the moment. The diary and journal has always been the format to capture that part of ourselves, and now social media tools (Facebook, Twitter, Blogging) and forms like digital storytelling and electronic scrapbooking allow us to log those moments and make them available to view. 

With the electronic media now available we have an opportunity to record ourselves in the now – a permanent now – in the way we’ve always done using photographs. The flared jeans, family gathered around the fondue set lit by the glow of the lava lamp, catching the subtleties of the orange and brown vinyl wallpaper. Masterpieces of style like the Schwarzenegger shoulders on your 1990 power-suit, the clean lines of the 1980’s mullet that puts Billy Ray Cyrus to shame.

One of the most useful tools with the new electronic media is the ability to link, to show viewpoints, creative works, story forms beyond your own, and ideas beyond your own. Large scale media forms like e-books allow this too. This gives us a unique chance to branch out beyond just our thoughts in biographical form and use the full range of our creativity. 

  • Digital stories (images with overlaid music and text)
  • Video (self filmed)
  • Audio clips we make ourselves
  • Linked images to audio and video clips
  • Poetry and Prose with images included
In Legacy Writing, written text lies at the heart of it all. The word. The use of point of view, voice, description, narrative style and structure. Written text is the glue. You don’t have to just use your own voice, or a documentary style. You can create characterizations depending on context, as fiction writers do all the time. We’re talking about a repository for all of you, including your storytelling in all its forms. It is a creative record, not just a chronicle. I’ve always had my doubts about Bill Bryson’s story of being roomless and freezing and sleeping on a park bench with his underwear over his head. But it could’ve happened, and even if it’s embellished, it’s still a vivid example of his creative voice, which is as legitimate a part of him as his factual history.

Give it some thought. Those bits and pieces you put on Facebook, where will they go, where will their life take them. Or those bits you never record anywhere, how will they be preserved. Will they be preserved. There is so much about my immediate family history that is lost, just a few fragments and snatches of anecdote. Modern technology gives us the ability to avoid that, and be creative. There's no need to be rendered like moving figures in that Paris street - unseen.

Give it some thought…

Arundhati Roy

Indian Writer Arundhati Roy, who won the Booker Prize in 1997 for The God of Small Things, has released a collection of essays about the tribal and political struggles in India. Here is a link to an article and interview from FT Magazine chronicling aspects of her life and detailing her leanings towards Maoist rebels (while serving mangoes brought out by the home help - irony perhaps?) and another from The Independent, less fulsome in its praise.

I've long waited for another fiction work from Roy, as I find her 1997 novel the pick of the Indian Renaissance novels of the last 30 years, above Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. It is a rare example of omniscient Point of View (POV) in modern literature, and in fact is a feast for students of manipulating POV and voice. I recall one review saying (paraphrasing) that 'a novel of real ambition should invent its own language,' which is interesting, though fraught with risk. If you haven't read it, I'd recommend it. If you can get through the omniscient narrator with its continual wordplay, the story within and beneath the text is compelling and moving. 

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the The God of Small Things is Roy's ability to use the mundane (an old Mickey Mouse watch, the smell of rusting metal, pink nail polish, a hull of a dinghy) and fill them with metaphoric and symbolic power. That is an ability any writer should work to develop and hone. It allows the reader to make the connections in their own head, enlisting them as part of the storytelling process, even if brought out via an omniscient POV, which in theory, gives the narrator all the power. We have a natural tendency to link, to empower symbols to speak of emotions and concepts, have the concrete represent aspects of ourselves buried deep, even unacknowledged.

Be good to see Roy writing fiction again.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

When real life rises beyond Hollywood story...

Was talking this morning about stereotyped storytelling, with character arcs mapped out for 'our hero' to vanquish the villain and return with the elixir (garbling several story structures from Campbell to Vogler - my apologies to both.)

Sometimes real life rises and falls beyond such formula.

One such example I've always found compelling is a guy named Matthew Saad Muhammad, who was abandoned on the median strip of a Philadelphia highway at the age of 5, to be found bloodied and wandering lost by a street cop who took him to an orphanage. He rose from that to become a professional boxing world champion and multi-millionaire, then blew and lost all his money on crooks and hangers on and ended up broke, destitute, to find relief in a homeless shelter. He is now an advocate for the homeless of his native city, using the one thing he has left - his name - to raise funds.

Here's a link to an article about him. I guess he doesn't fit the model of a Rocky, for Hollywood to come calling. Make a hell of a story though, but then it already is, even without a wordsmith.

Boxing has always been a vicious real life version of so many different kinds of narrative. Man overcomes the odds and obstacles, man seeks redemption, morality plays where man wins it all then blows it all. It gives its audience a chance to live and throw punches vicariously - and not have to worry about the cuts and bruises. It's a fact that more movies have been made about boxing than any other sport. And as so (the fantasy version) is open to so many romantic cliches. The reality is plainer, nastier, usually bereft of happy endings. A place where middle-aged men look like old men, their eyes puffy, their words slurred. A place where their fans live in a kind of time capsule with them, remembering only who they were, preferring the story of the past to the reality of the present.

Photo: Muhammad Ali and Matthew Saad Muhammad, 1980. Two men who lived the dream, such as it was.