The question is the story itself…

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance. But that was much later. In the beginning, there was simply the event and its consequences. Whether it might have turned out differently, or whether it was all predetermined with the first word that came from the stranger’s mouth, is not the question. The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell.

What an amazing first paragraph. I started Paul Auster’s, The New York Trilogy today and, once again, have been rendered completely useless by a good book.

Repetition and stories…

Because you’ve also lived–you’ve been living and reading for years, sometimes both at once–you are not suprised that people often repeat their most unpleasant experiences. It’s probably for the same reasons we tell the same stories over and over, with minor variations–“The Seven Ravens,” “The Seven Doves,” “The Twelve Ducks,” “The Six Swans.” It is cozy to have one’s expectations met, though there is also, always, the possibility–is this a happy thought or a sad one?–that things turn out differently this time.

The Swan Brothers, Shelley Jackson

In your line of work you must see it all the time, the way people continue to repeat the same story of themselves over and over, complete with the old mistakes.

The Great House, Nicole Krauss

The problem is that once upon a time they all began like that, all novels. There was somebody that went along a lonely street and saw something that attracted his attention, something that seemed to conceal a mystery, or a premonition, then he asked for explanations and they told him a long story.

If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italio Calvino

He tells the story over and over and over again when he is feeling unsure of himself. Why? Because there is a beginning a middle and an end. He is comforted by it–the structure–knowing there is an answer to the strange question being asked.

The Boy Detective Fails, Joe Meno

Stories that Weren’t Written On Paper

Once I met a guy at a bar and wrote him a story on the back of a coaster. The guy was sad and drinking alone. The story was about a girl who meets a guy at a bar and the two of them go to the beach, jump in the ocean, sink to the bottom, and live there forever along with the fish that glow in the dark. The guy didn’t ask me for my number, he was pretty drunk and had a hard time explaining himself, but he said my story was good. At the end of the night he left my coaster on the bar with his tip and I never saw him again. This made me feel pretty bad until the next time I went to the bar and my coaster story was hanging on the wall next to the cash register.

When I was in college, I worked at a park for a summer and one afternoon I found a story on a picnic table. The table was painted dark brown and the story was written with a black magic-marker. The story was about a boy who never had a family and how he fell in love with a little girl who gave him a penny. It was my job to wash the story off the table, but I couldn’t get it off with soap and water. I also tried the chemical solution we sometimes used to remove hard stains, called Graffiti X, but that didn’t work either. In the end, I couldn’t get the story off so I had to paint over it with the same color of dark brown that the table was. Sometimes I wonder if I was the only person to read that story, which makes me think the story is mine. Other times, I think that because I made the story unreadable that it will never belong to anyone. When I go back to the park I look at all the tables (there are six), the bathroom stalls, and the signposts. They are all the same dark brown. They make me wonder how many stories in the world are hidden under oil-based paint.

Another time, we were bored in the car and a friend of mine wrote a story on my arm while I drove. He used a black pen and he held my arm close to his body the whole time he was writing. The story was about a girl made of sunshine who starts every day by climbing the tallest tree she can find and making a secret wish. In the story people loved this girl the way they loved naps, good ideas, and grilled cheese sandwiches. And despite all this the girl cried every day. My friend said she cried because she loved the world so much, but I wondered if it was also because nobody wants to be loved like a grilled cheese sandwich.

A few months ago, I wrote a story and posted it on my blog. I included links to it on twitter, facebook, myspace, and in the footer of all the emails I sent out that day. The story was about a woman in a basement writing a story about a boy. The woman had two kids and a grandfather, and the boy had a friend who liked leaves and a love-interest who liked adventures. In the story the boy ends up going on an adventure with his love-interest and the woman writing about him stays in her basement alone. The blog let me track how many views the story got, which was zero. I could also see how many comments were made on the story, which was also zero. The last thing I could track was how many spam messages were posted on my story, and the story had three of those. The first message was from a robot selling Viagra, the next message was from a robot that wanted me to go to a website and fall in love with someone, and the last message was from a robot who had its email account hacked. None of my friends, family, or followers read my story, but three separate robots did and they all commented on it.

The Story of How I Become a Great Writer (a selection)

Luckily, this story begins not just with me but with my characters as well. Characters like Alfred, who you will undoubtedly fall in love with because Alfred is the type of character that people love.

Alfred is a young young man, and by that I mean a youngish man (he is 23) who is undeveloped in many ways. As you may imagine, this can be both a bad and a good thing. Bad because Alfred often finds himself in troublesome situations he could have avoided if it weren’t for his laziness and immaturity. Good because Alfred is able to look at life and see it for its beauties and possibilities without really knowing he is looking at life this way—in the way a young child or undeveloped 23-year old might.

In my story, I give concrete examples of this because though I don’t believe there are no ideas but in things, I do believe that things certainly help ideas hold onto the world. Also, I once heard that a good story is something you can hold in the palm of your hand and the phrase has since become one of my favorites. I like the image of it—of a hand opening and a story sitting there, resting in the palm, waiting for something. Or perhaps the story is not even waiting. Perhaps it is simply living and being.

Either way, I will open my hand now and give you a concrete example of the way Alfred looks at the world:

One day, while walking home from work through the campus, Alfred spots an old man in a blue coat. The old man bends over, picks up a leaf from the ground, twirls it between his fingers, smiles, and puts the leaf carefully into his pocket.

Many people would see this old man picking up this old leaf and think it was sweet. Many would leave it at that, or perhaps smile to themselves before moving on and going back their lives. But Alfred is not many people. Obviously because he is in this story. He is Alfred. He is my character. And my character Alfred walks up to the man and says,

“Pardon me sir, I don’t mean to disturb you, but I couldn’t help but notice as I was walking by that you picked up a leaf. I was wondering if I might look at it.”

And because the old man is nice (because he is in my story and I want him to be that way) he takes the leaf out of his pocket and shows it to Alfred.

And yes, it is a beautiful leaf. In fact, as far as Alfred is concerned, it is the most beautiful leaf he has ever seen .

“That is the most beautiful leaf I have ever seen,” Alfred tells the nice old man.

“It is pretty,” the nice old man tells him back, “but it’s probably only the fourteenth or fifteenth most beautiful leaf I’ve ever seen. I’d have to check to make sure.”

And then, obviously, Alfred asks the man what he means about checking and the man tells Alfred that he has been collecting fallen leafs since he retired in 1983. It has been twenty-six years now and after the seventh year the man started taking pictures of the leaves that were his favorites and saving them when he could. After very little conversation the two men decide to go back to the nice old man’s house to see his collection.

But by this point in the story, Alfred’s and mine, the nice old man isn’t just a nice old man anymore but a new character whose name is Thomas. Thomas, as it turns out, saves Alfred many times in many ways, and shows Alfred the most beautiful leaves the world has ever known.

Thomas, like the leaves he collects, blows through Alfred’s story. He weaves his way through it just like some other leaves I once read about that were called pestilence-stricken multitudes.  These leaves were the kinds of leaves that that were moved by things—wind, nature, and even time. These leaves spiraled, circulated, and traveled great distances before finally settling down somewhere they could be collected. Thomas’s thoughts and words are scattered in just this way throughout Alfred’s story. And Alfred, being who and what he is, listens to them—these scattered thoughts that move like leaves yet do not die, do not become stricken with pestilence, as long as there is someone to bend over, pick them up, twirl them between his fingers, and put them in his pocket.

This is precisely the type of thing that makes Alfred, Thomas, and this story so great.

Because Alfred doesn’t walk away after watching Thomas pick up that leaf. He doesn’t wait for Thomas to leave and then go look at the other leaves and search for a similar one—one that can give Alfred whatever it is that Thomas has that he does not. He doesn’t stand there after Thomas takes off and wonder what is it about a leaf that can make someone smile so. And he doesn’t even hold that memory with him years after, thinking about it, the simplicity of it—picking up a leaf. And yet the mystery of it too. Because, after all, why would someone pick up a leaf? And why that particular leaf? What sort of person picks up a leaf in that way? And what sort of life must that person have, that he can pick up a leaf and smile at it with such simple joy? Is the old man out of his mind or does he know something the rest of the world does not ? Is the old man stupid and simple or is the action? Or is it both?

Alfred does not think these things. That is not the sort of character Alfred is.

Instead, Alfred looks at the old man through his young young eyes and sees the possibilities, which are this:

  1. That the leaf is beautiful.
  2. That the leaf is ugly and the old man is beautiful for seeing the beauty in an ugly thing.
  3. That the leaf and the old man are both ugly, in which case the beauty is in two ugly things finding each other.

After seeing the possibilities Alfred decides to find out what the reality is. And, as it turns out, it isn’t any of the possibilities he came up with.  Yes, the leaf is beautiful (1) but the leaf is also more than that because the leaf is how Alfred and Thomas meet.  The beauty is in two things finding each other (which could be 3) but what types of things is harder to determine. And so you are left wondering what kinds of things just met—two ugly things or two beautiful things?

It’s the moments like this that make this story great. Because they are moments that do not get lost.

This is also how I become a great writer—by writing about great moments and maybe ugly, maybe beautiful characters like Alfred and Thomas. And also leaves.

Folktales, fairytales, folklore, fables… An aliterative title for a post on stories.

Sometimes my reading takes on unintentional themes and I go through, I dunno, I don’t want to call them literary stages because that sounds bigger than it is. But it’s more like a phase — a time when I’m particularly attracted to a certain “thing” like a style, a theme, a genre, a type of character, etc.

So lately I’ve been into this, I dunno what to call it because it really spans quite a few genres, but is “lore” a style? Can you call “tales” a literature genre? Whatever it is I’m way into folktales, fairytales, folklore, fables, and all kinds of “tale” type stories lately.

Here’s what I’ve been reading :

The Complete Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde by Oscar Wilde (duh)

The Book of the Unknown, Tales of the Thirty-Six by Jonathon Keats

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

McSweeney’s #28, the fables issue

Tales from Outer Suburbia, by Shaun Tan

McSweeney’s 28 was all about fables and had these great small books that “reinvent the idea of the fable.” AKA…they were fables written by contemporary authors. (My favorite was probably The Book and the Girl or maybe The Guy Who Kept Meeting Himself.) And the introduction by Jess Benjamin on the inside was really nice and touches/touched on some of the reasons why I’m attracted to these kinds of stories lately…

The power of the fable is in its ability to say what it means and mean what it says. Its messages are compelling because they are not hidden, elegant because they are uncluttered, timeless because they are honest. A fable does not discriminate, a fable loves everyone equally. It will bring us back to the center; that is its job. It will hold our hands through the story and then smack us at the end, gently, right between the eyes. The fable represents an alternative to the blind groping we confront on a daily basis. It reels us back in, reminds us that sometimes it’s okay to be handed a meaning in under five hundred words, that sometimes it’s okay to be taught a lesson again.

If anyone knows any other fairy tale/folklore collections that might go with this little theme of mine, let me know. There is something really fun about reading them and I feel like I’ve only just begun my exploration.

Here are some passages from some of my favorites…

This new world was painful to cope with. He had tried so hard. He had kept to his routines. He had counted so carefully. He had abided by the rules, but life had cheated. This world was not like the world of his stories. In that world, good was rewarded and evil was punished. If you kept to the path and stayed out of the forest, then you would be safe.  – The Book of Lost Things, John Connolly

The girl turned back to the book and tried to keep reading. But soon it was clear that there were too many smudged words, too many missing pages. The book didn’t know what he was saying, his story was no longer a story, and all of it was powerless against what was coming for them next. – The Book and the Girl, Brian Evenson

“If you want a red rose, “ said the Tree, “you must build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with your own heart’s blood. You must sing to me with your breast against a thorn. All night long you must sing to me, ,and the thorn must pierce your heart, and your life-blood must flow into my veins, and become mine.” –The Nightingale and the Rose, Oscar Wilde

Was it Echo? He had called to her once in the valley, and she had answered him word for word. Could she mock the eye, as she mocked the voice? Could she make a mimic world just like the real world? Could the shadow of things have colour and life and movement? – The Fisherman and His Soul, Oscar Wilde

It’s hard to explain the terrible things that happened out there. In fact the more I tell you, the less you will understand. Some things in life are like that. You have to find out for yourself. – Shaun Tan

What a remarkable, unnameable feeling it is, right at the moment of his leaping: something like sadness and regret, of suddenly wanting your gift back and held tight to your chest, knowing that you will certainly never see it again. And then there is the letting go as your muscles release, your lungs exhale, and the backwash of longing leaves behind this one image on the shore of memory: a huge reindeer on your roof, bowing down. –Shaun Tan

Who can say what makes a village change its ways? Of course, the thief was the first to see a difference. On market day, desire no longer radiated, as if an act of nature, from the town square. And if Dalet broke into the home of the cooper or the butcher, he often couldn’t distinguish one luxury from another: Objects didn’t quite lose their luster, but each gave a light so similar to the others that they might as well have been a line of yahrzeits. For a time, Dalet didn’t know what to steal. The tailor’s porcelain figurines? An emerald brooch from the tinker’s wife? Why bother? Folks didn’t care a farthing for such baubles anymore. – Dalet the Thief, Jonathan Keats

The prince tore away her sheet. The scholar sought her heart. Meir shook his head. There was no beat. In the shadow of the gallows, both men held her together and began to weep. As their tears touched her, Yod flowed away, a river of mud between their fingers. – Yod the Inhuman, Jonathan Keats

Megan’s wannabe literary week in review

The extremely organized system I use to gather my thoughts.

The extremely organized system I use to gather my thoughts.

“I have made up thousands of stories; I have filled innumerable notebooks with phrases to be used when I have found the true story, the one story to which all these phrases refer. But I have never yet found that story. And I begin to ask, Are there stories?” – The Waves Virginia Woolf

Yes! I love starting off a piece of writing with a dramatic quotation. I wish I could start off everything I write this way. Don’t you feel like I’m about to say something really profound now? Don’t you feel like the rest of my writing should somehow follow through on the deep sentiments introduced by this most beautiful and amazing of all quotations?

Well, sorry, it’s not. (Well, not much anyway.) I’m just going to do what a lot of other amateur blog authors do and talk about myself.

Lets get to that shall we…

So okay, the quote above is not completely unrelated, since this little post is about my phrases and stories (and/or the collective lack there of). You see, I do this thing where while I’m at work, or in the car, at home, or anywhere really I’ll write down random notes to myself about books, authors that sound interesting, phrases I found particularly fun, ideas for stories I’ll never actually write, etc. etc. etc. You get the idea.

Most of the time, I never use these notes in any constructive way (I currently have three notebooks filled with this stuff) so I thought I’d at least use them as creative fodder for blog posts. You know, to fill the time until I find my one true story to which all these notes refer–whatever that story may be. (With my luck it’s some lame chick lit novel or I dunno, a self-help book, or, worse than all that–maybe there IS no story at all in which case I will die a terribly lonely unnotable death.)

But until that day, I’ll console myself with the notes thing.

So here they are.  Above you will see a photo of this week’s accumulated notes. Below you will see (and hopefully enjoy) their actual content…

Books Found
My friend Laurie gave me Newsweek’s list of Fifty Books for Our Times at work this week so most of my book selections come from there.

  • A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor
  • The Bear, William Faulkner
  • Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
  • The Rehearsal, Elenor Catton
  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery

I saved The Elegance of the Hedgehog for last because it’s one of those books I’ve probably picked up at the bookstore about four or five times now but I’ve never bought it. (For whatever reason whenever I read the back jacket it just hasn’t sounded appealing enough to buy.)

But all that’s in the past. Because all this week, I kept seeing and hearing about this book everywhere–and by everywhere I mean in the real world, in the printed world, and on the internet (the web wide world?).

Places I saw this book:

  • On a table at the Bookshop Santa Cruz
  • In the hands of a woman at Sea Cliff State Beach. (I was running by and she was holding it, though not reading.)
  • Powell’s Book’s (online) bestseller list
  • In the Fifty Books of Our Time list given to me by Laurie
  • And I can’t remember where else but probably some review online or something.

So yes, I’m aware that seeing a bestselling novel around is not really all that weird. Especially if you tend to read a lot about books and frequent a lot of bookstores. But still… don’t you think it’s just a little weird? I mean, especially the beach one?

The last time this happened to me with a book it was The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss. I kept picking it up at the bookstore but I never actually took it home until Camille, another friend, actually photocopied a passage from it she thought I might like and gave it to me at work. And of course I loved it, because Camille knows my silly heart well, and I went out and bought it the next day. I think I read The History of Love in two mad nights where I ignored all my friends and social plans (or lack there of haha) to stay in and lose myself in other people’s sad beautiful lives. Ha, and now it’s one of my favorites.

I think it’s rather fitting the way I found the book though. I mean, it’s almost its own love story. Kind of like the ‘meet cute’ stories people tell about how they first met… “I kept seeing him around town but never really went to talk to him until one day a friend introduced us at a party…” It was like the book and I were meant to be. And as sad as it may be that I feel this way about books (the same way that I feel about people) I also secretly think it’s really cool.

Because you know what this means?! It means that maybe my most favorite of all books–my one, true, and only book–is right under my nose and I don’t even know it yet! It could be on my bookshelf right now. It could be sitting on my desk. Or, ooooh, maybe it could be The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

I dunno, I like the idea that there may be stories out there waiting for us to find them.  That there is some kind of weird book destiny that gives us the exact book we need to read at the exact moment we need to read it. Just like how we can meet the exact people we need to meet at exactly the right time.

And wow, it kind of ties in to the introductory quote huh? Because maybe there are stories waiting for us to write them as well. Maybe there are stories out there just just waiting to be told. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Authors Found
Or, in this week’s case, poets.

  • John Clare
  • Hugo Williams

Words or Phrases Found

  • “Poets are different from other people in that they remain inconsolable.”
  • “noetic and ineffable” and “epistemological profundity”
    (I thought these were just too silly. I love knowing that there are people in the world who actually talk this way.)
  • “And if I am singing, then loneliness has lost its shape, and this quiet is only quiet.”
  • “Children feel your pain.”

Stories Found
As in weird ideas for stories I will never write…

Preface
I write marketing copy for a living and every single time I turn something in for review I have to fight the urge to preface it with a long description of all the things I think are weak, the parts I don’t like, and the content I think could be tweaked to make it better. I dunno, it’s this weird desire I have not too look like an idiot. Some insecure writer part of me that wants to let people know, “Ya, I know this sucks, I’m not stupid, but I don’t know how to make this not suck so any suggestions you have would be great.”

 

Most of the time it’s not even bad, it’s actually pretty good. But there are always a few things I’m unsure about.

 

So I thought a fun story might be the notes someone adds to the beginning of a story or manuscript before turning it in. I could indulge in my own blatant insecurities while, hopefully, making people laugh. This is pretty much the bulk of the idea. I suppose I should have a character who I’ll make even crazier then me.  And, naturally, they will be incredibly desperate.

I don’t know why but I really enjoy writing about desperate people. I should probably not think about that too much.

What Happens to Pictures After They Burn
I was reading about a house fire earlier this week and I got to thinking about how what most people really regret losing is their photographs. How do you console these people? How do you confront the loss of these simple material things that so easily become more than simple material things? After all a photograph is an odd thing — it’s a piece of art and yet, like many pieces of art, it’s also sort of a piece of yourself. And maybe it’s just a memory, a memento. So how do you deal with the loss of such things?

You write a story about it I guess. Ha, but this is my answer to many of life’s questions — one of those non-answer answers. Kind of like how supercalifragilisticexpialodocious is what you say when you can’t think of anything to say.

But the story idea is this — while looking over the remains of her lost home a mother consoles her child’s (and in the process also her own) worries about what happens to pictures after they burn. She will, of course, do this by lying and telling outrageous stories.

Some of the things she will tell her worried child about the pictures and what happens to them:

 

 

 

 

  • One picture will turn into dust, get breathed in by a sleeping child, and become a dream.
  • Another picture will become a black square a woman will find while walking home. The woman will always wonder what that black square was a picture of and in this way the picture will become a mystery.
  • Yet another picture will turn into ashes which will float away in the wind, get stuck in a man’s eye at a particularly opportune moment, and become the catalyst for his tears–In this way the picture will become a release.

This story will, of course, be incredibly bittersweet like most stories that are built on beautiful lies.

Endings Found
So okay, I didn’t actually “find” an ending so I’m just making this one up instead.  Though the idea of a found ending does sound kind of creepy and fun.

Either way, hopefully these notes will one day turn into those great big cosmic stories of destiny (or will at least contribute to them somehow) but until then they can  just chill here.

Hm… like a purgatory of sorts. I like that for some reason. (Though maybe it’s just because I like all the hidden meanings I create for myself.)

Then again, maybe it’s that I can relate. Maybe it’s because I’m always waiting for something too.