The elements of story: earth

The elements of story # 2: earth

Earth is solid. It’s heavy. Thick. We can’t see through it. We stub our toes on it. We’re held to it by gravity.

There’s always something in a story that’s like this. A good story isn’t all on the surface. There’s some mysterious force that pulls us in and holds us. A good story might even make us stumble. And sometimes we have to do some digging to find its treasures.

Here’s a story made of earth:

No one wants to die, and the emperor was no exception. It wasn’t right -- that the most powerful man in the world was powerless to avoid that solitary journey into the darkness.

“If we must go, we will not go alone,” the emperor told his counselors, using the royal we. “We will take our people with us. On the day we die, ten thousand soldiers, officials, astrologers musicians, acrobats are to be killed and buried with us.”

The counselors knew that if word of this plan got out there would be an uprising and they would likely lose their heads, one way or another. With great tact and much obsequiousness they managed to convince the emperor to change his plans. Instead, ten thousand figures of men (and a thousand or so horses) would be fashioned of fired clay and placed in the emperor’s tomb with him.

And so it was done, because in that empire the more absurd and impossible an idea was the more likely it was to become a reality. Thousands of men worked for years on the project so that by the time the emperor died, the making of these thousands of clay warriors and other court personages had been completed, and an underground imperial city had been built to house them. The emperor was laid to rest in a silent palace surrounded by silent courtiers who would be loyal to him through eternity.

(Incidentally, no one knows how many workers died in the delving of this great city of the dead, just as no one knows how many died in the other impossible, childlike idea of building a wall around the empire.)

Grass grew over the tomb, and dynasties fell and rose and fell again. In time the kingdom forgot about the emperor’s subterranean army, until one day in the late twentieth century when a farmer digging in his field unearthed one of the clay men. Since then hundreds of men and horses and chariots made of baked earth have been released from their tombs and stand in ranks for all to see. This is the army that protected the people from their own emperor. From his fear of being alone after death.

The elements of story # 1: Water


What is a story made of? Most readers, writers and critics (or story gurus these days) would probably list things like plot, setting, character, conflict, resolution. Some might add theme, atmosphere, style…. 

When we think about what a story is made of, these and a handful of other concepts are what usually come to mind.

These elements are time-tested and useful. But what if we took the idea of an element back to one of its oldest meanings? That of the four fundamental constituents of the universe: 
earth, fire, water, and air.

What if we imagined a story was created out of these elements? What might we notice about stories that gets obscured by relying on the same old familiar terms?

1. Water

Look at waves rolling into the shore. What story do they seem to be telling?

Our bodies are mostly water. We’ve all heard this fact so often that we rarely stop to think about how strange it is. And when we do think about it, we usually imagine water as an inert substance that a living thing makes use of to, well, live. There’s a lot of water in me, okay, sure, but I am not water.

But if most of what constitutes this thing I call me is water, then really, I am water. I’m water with some other stuff coming along for the ride. And so are you. So is every living thing. Maybe we should classify living things as a means that water has found to circulate more widely and freely. And in human beings, water found a way to be creative, and reflect upon itself.

A story is something told by water.

So, if I’m not wading in too deep here, maybe the way to make a good story is to be as much like water as we can in the telling.

I find the Tao te ching useful for thinking about this (as it is useful for thinking about so many things).

This is from a version of Lao Tzu's timeless book by Ursula K. Le Guin, a writer who knows a few things about the flow of a good story:

True goodness
is like water.
Water is good
for everything.
It doesn’t compete.

It goes right
to the low loathsome places,
and so finds the way.

I thought I’d try putting some of these ancient ideas into story terms. Here's my version of some lines from the Tao:

A good story is like water,
which nourishes all things
without trying to.

It’s at home in the low places
that people disdain.

And yet water is powerful.
It can gather strength quietly
until it is able to move mountains.

In your storymaking, be like water.

In imagining, stay close to the earth.
In description, keep to the simple.
With your characters, do not take sides.
When plotting, don't try to control.

Let all things happen
when the time is right.

Next post: The elements of story # 2: Earth.

Quotation from Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Shambhala, 1998.

On being an Alberta writer

I have a complicated relationship with the place I live. I was born in northern Alberta, I’ve lived in one place or other in the province all my life, and I don’t really see myself moving elsewhere. But I’ve always felt out of place here, to some degree.

Growing up in the oil and gas boomtown of Grande Prairie, I knew almost no one else my age who really liked reading, let alone writing, and so I rarely talked about these interests of mine with anyone. I did have a few book-loving friends, like John, whose family had moved from England. One day I pulled a book from his shelf that I was curious about and flipped through its pages.
            “What’s a hobbit?” I asked.
            “You should read that,” he said. “It’s really good.”
            I did read it. He was right. I went on and read the rest of that author’s books. No, better to say I devoured them. Or they devoured me. New vistas of story opened up for me with Tolkien’s books. Here was a writer who had created an entire world, and I wanted more of that kind of thing. I wanted books that would overwhelm, challenge, and change me. That desire took me from fantasy and science fiction to Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Woolf, Orwell, Joyce, Calvino, Borges, Pynchon, Ondaatje …

Now I think it’s a good thing for a writer to be born in the wrong place. Maybe all writers are, or feel themselves to be, and that’s one of the reasons why we write. There’s a lot about the politics and culture of this province that makes me weep -- for what we’re throwing away, what we’re ignoring and destroying in our pathological stampede for wealth and power. 

But I love this place, too, and even though I don’t write about it directly a lot of the time (I write fantasy for the most part), I suspect that in all sorts of ways I don’t even notice, Alberta shows up in my work (come to think of it, there's a pathological stampede for power in my current fantasy trilogy...).

Our seasons. Our weather. Our landscapes. Our cityscapes. Our perceived remoteness, in other words our distance from the places where the supposedly important stuff happens. 

Even something like the kind of light we get here probably has more of an impact on the way I see the world than I realize.

Landscape with a woman

 As a kid I wondered why the painter had stuck this boring woman in front of one of the most mysterious, enticing landscapes I’d ever seen.

I first saw da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in a coffee table book about Western art that we had at home when I was a kid. I loved that book and poured over the famous paintings in it over and over again. I looked at the Mona Lisa many times, but I wasn’t really interested in the woman. To me she looked old. I didn’t know I was supposed to find her tepid half-smile fascinating and enigmatic. I thought her hands were kind of nice -- soft and gentle-looking -- but for the most part she bored me.

But that landscape behind her. It was odd. For one thing its left half didn’t really match its right half. I didn’t know about perspective and vanishing points back then but it seemed that the body of water on the right should have been lower down than it was, in order to “fit.” My eyes couldn’t make the two halves of the landscape come together properly, but I thought the flaw, if there was one, must be with my seeing, not with the painter’s skill, since this painting was in a book of famous art.

So the landscape bugged me. But it also drew me in and enchanted me. It was strange and otherworldly and it was a place I wanted to go to. It looked as much like a map as it did a landscape. I felt I had been there before, on that road winding up into those jagged blue mountains, like mountains on some alien planet. I drew my own pictures of mysterious mountainous landscape with roads winding up into the distance. I’ve even had dreams where I find myself walking in that landscape. In the dream I usually meet someone on the road. There’s a feeling of anticipation and danger, as in myths and fairy tales, where every encounter on a road is meaningful and opens up the next part of the story.

There’s something happening in the part of that landscape we can’t see because the woman is in the way. Maybe da Vinci painted it like this on purpose, to make us feel there is a riddle here, and an answer to the riddle, hidden behind the woman who is also a riddle. The answer to the question of how those two halves of the landscape really come together, perhaps. Or maybe something more.

I finally got to see the real painting many years later, when my wife and I took a trip to Paris. Wandering the halls of the Louvre as evening fell, we felt we were descending deeper and deeper into a dreamlike state in which the sculptures and paintings were numinous, beckoning presences. And then the Mona Lisa. It was a disappointment. I'd seen it too many times already in books, on TV, on coffee mugs.... 

The painting hanging in the Louvre was so astonishingly small (is this the real painting?). I couldn't get close enough to it to see anything I hadn't seen before. And the woman was still blocking my view.

The town and the wild

As a teenager living in Jasper I used to go for long solitary walks in the woods and surrounding hills. I never worried about bears in those days. It wasn’t until I grew up and had kids that I developed a real fear of meeting bears on the trail. Maybe because now I had someone else to stay alive for.

On those walks I used to wonder where the dividing point was, exactly, between the town of Jasper and the wilderness that surrounded it. I was sure there had to be such a boundary, though I was never sure when I had crossed it.

If you took even a few steps away from the paved streets, you were already heading into the wilderness, but when did you actually arrive there? The park had many well-used trails, and of course there were always nearby roads and power lines and warden stations and other markers of human presence. (And it always seemed odd to say that one was heading into the wild. As if the outside was somehow also an interior.) I liked to imagine that the boundary was the railroad track at the edge of town. It was a definitive line. The sight of it reassured you that you were still in the civilized world, where there was nothing that wanted to eat you. Once on the other side, all bets were off.

But in fact the wilderness never felt entirely wild, no matter how far or deep I went into it. For one thing I could never forget this was a national park, a fact that all by itself seemed to sap some of the “wild” out of one’s surroundings. This was a tended, guarded, in some ways controlled wilderness. It was a part of the rest of the world. Airplanes flew over it. Pollutants from elsewhere fell on its snowfields and trickled down into the rivers. People had colonized it, inhabited it, storied it.

But the town was never completely non-wild, either. Living in Jasper was a bit like living in a house with all the doors and windows wide open. Deer grazed on the streets, much to the delight of the tourists and the annoyance of anyone with a garden in their yard. Bears and coyotes prowled in the back alleys for garbage (heading home late at night from a friend’s place more than once I met a bear on the street. We both ran). One summer there was a mountain lion living under a house trailer and preying on neighbourhood dogs to feed her cubs. Then there was the time a black bear strolled into the lobby of one of the hotels. The panic that ensued was shared by both bear and hotel guests.

One night I was sitting at the kitchen table doing my homework when something tapped on the window. I looked up and shouted in terror: reaching toward the glass was an impossibly gigantic hand. An instant later I realized what I was seeing: the "hand" was the antler of an elk grazing peacefully at the side of our house. And that adrenaline pumping through my body after the scare I’d had: that was the wild in my genetic code, an animal response inherited from millions of years of evolution.

Maybe that's what we mean by the phrase into the wild. It's already there inside us.

Eventually I came to see that there was no boundary between the town and the wild. Or if there was, it was almost entirely a mental one manufactured by my human mind, always striving to put the messy world into neat, manageable, conceptual boxes. Living in Jasper had shown me the porous, semi-imaginary nature of all borders and boundaries, though it took me a while to learn the lesson. The deeper you look at anything to find the dividing line between it and something else, the harder it gets to find. It’s as true of oneself as of anything else. You can witness it happening every time you take a breath. 
And maybe that’s why, as a writer, I so often write about those moments when one thing becomes something else. When things change their skin and reveal themselves to be other, or more, than what they seemed to be. I look for a contrast, an edge, a border, a boundary, and I start writing there, and the boundary opens up and reveals a dynamic, fluid, constantly changing space I can only attempt to trace with words.

Never Give Up

One of the students in my class at Youthwrite camp last week asked me: “If you could give only one piece of advice to young writers, what would it be?”

My answer: Never give up.

Keep writing, no matter what. Write every day. Make a habit of it so strong that if a day goes by when you don’t get to write, you suffer withdrawal symptoms.

If you’re like me you probably started writing in the first place because it was fun. Then, when you get more serious about it, writing gets harder. Keep at it even when it isn’t fun, when you’d rather be doing something else. It will get fun again.

Most beginning writers think they’re better at it than they really are. An important moment in one’s writing life comes when you admit you’ve got a long way to go. When you face that daunting gap between the writing you’re capable of and the amazing work you want to accomplish. Many would-be writers give up at this point.

Keep at it.

If you stick with it, there are plenty of other hurdles. The days when you don’t feel like writing, or when other responsibilities and commitments eat up your writing time. Those creative dry spells when you feel like the worst writer in the world and you have nothing to write about anyhow.

Keep at it.

Sometimes you finish a piece and send it out and it gets rejected. This happens to every writer. It hurts. Sometimes your writing gets rejected over and over again before it finds a home. Sometimes it never does.

And when you do get something published, or publish it yourself, you may have to face criticism, misunderstanding, mockery. Maybe even hatred.

That is, if you can get someone’s attention. There will be times when you know you’ve written something worthwhile, something beautiful and valuable and true, and the world doesn’t notice. There are a lot of books out there, not to mention all the movies, games, television shows, websites…

Indifference might be the most toughest hurdle of them all: to keep writing when it seems that what matters to you matters to no one else.

Keep at it.

Don’t give up. Never give up. If you’re stuck or blocked, remember that hitting a wall is actually a necessary part of the creative process. Go do something else for a while, and while you’re taking a break, the part of your mind that you can’t consciously access will still be busy working on the problem and coming up with a solution. Trust that your mind will find the way. The ideas will flow again. They always do.

If you’re discouraged by rejection letters, or bad reviews, or no reviews at all, keep working. Keep sending your work out. Keep learning and improving. We all have creativity within us, but most people never know it’s there or make use of it. You’ve found that spark in you, and that is the real reason for all the hard work, not money or fame or the approval of others. The reward of writing is to grow that spark into your own unique vision, whether it reaches five people or five million.

Never give up.

Oh, and one other bit of advice: Read. Read everything. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry. Read outside your favourite genre. Far outside. Devour a good book and then go back and read it again, slowly, with a pen, making note of all those passages where you were amazed, moved, transported, where the writer had you in thrall, body and soul. How did she work that magic? Reading like a writer is as much a craft as writing like one.

Illustration: detail from Blizzard at Cape Denison, Antarctica, c. 1912.

Story shapes

For me, thinking about a story’s “shape” is a way of standing back from the story and seeing its broad outlines rather than the details. Is there a pattern here? Some sort of unexpected symmetry? Is anything missing?

You may have heard of Freytag’s pyramid: the classic story shape sketched out by the 19th-century novelist Gustav Freytag: a classic model of story structure that plots the way stories rise through moments of conflict to a peak at the point of crisis (the climax) and then descend into the “falling action” or denouement. Yes, it’s a structure that one can find in innumerable stories, and it’s a useful tool for thinking about how to put together your own plots, but it’s worth considering that this model was created in 1863. That’s right, 1863.

A plot might be something more -- or different -- than what the pyramid model allows us to see. What other shapes do stories reveal? What other shapes or patterns might your own story follow?

Exercise: sketch out a plot for a story based on one of the following shapes, or choose a shape of your own.

Top illustration: detail from Voyage d'Hermes by Moebius.


Paper people


Youthwrite camp, day four: creating characters:

We humans are incredibly social animals. We keep inventing new ways to communicate with one another. We are fascinated and obsessed with each other. We love to find out what others are doing, what they're up to, what secrets they might be hiding. So much so that we invent imaginary people and become interested in their lives as if they were real. Maybe sometimes we come to think of these paper people as even more real than the people around us. (Think of all the Joyce fans who spend June 16th in Dublin retracing the steps of Leopold Bloom, who only ever existed in the pages of Ulysses.) Even those who are shy and don’t like to be around other people will often spend their alone time reading about the adventures of imaginary people or watching them on TV.

As a writer, how do you create paper people who are interesting, surprising, and have some depth and believability? One way is to get to know as much about them as you can. For example, you can borrow personality traits from real people you know. Another way is to expand your knowledge of your character beyond the “window” of time that the story takes place in.

Exercise: let’s say your story takes place during a week in the life of your character (the most important week in this person’s life, let's hope). But what about all the other moments of your character’s life? 

Write the scene of your character’s birth, or death. 

Where does it take place? Who else is there? Was there anything unusual about the event?

Illustration: T Wharton

Transforming the World

Youthwrite camp, day 3: Transforming the World
In fantasy writing you’re probably going to be making up impossible stuff, like talking groundhogs and accountants with wings. Readers aren’t going to accept these wonders if they stay “unreal” (that is, if they remain only an idea unconnected to anything in their own experience). You have to make the unreal thing come to life in the reader’s mind. How? By grounding the impossible in believable details of the physical world. The world where we stub our toes and get pimples and have to go to the bathroom. It’s a safe bet this is the world your readers live in.
EXERCISE: write a short descriptive piece of a place you know very well. It can be a room, a building, an outdoor setting, as long as it’s somewhere other than where you are right now. Imagine yourself in that place and move around in it. Describe what you see. Pick up objects. Look in drawers, under rocks, behind furniture. Use all your senses in the description.

The power of words

Youthwrite camp, Day Two: 
The power (and magic) of words.

You can put all kinds of magical creatures or events into a story, but the most important kind of magic for a writer to keep in mind is the magic of language. 

As writers we need to think carefully and deeply about the words and sentences we use.That's where the power to enchant readers and hold their interest is going to come from.

Exercise: think of a word. Any word. 

Write it down. Don't tell anyone else in the class what your word is.

This is your “magic word” for the day. 

Now keep the word in your thoughts for a whole day. Ponder it. In conversation, use it in as many sentences as you can. 

At the end of the day, write a short piece (story, essay, descriptive passage, what have you) in which you don’t use the word. And yet your magic word should be at the heart of the piece, so that if anyone was to read it the word should come to mind for them.

Image: detail from "Method & Madness" by Gabe Wong at the Art Gallery of Alberta

Jumpstarting your creativity

This week I’m teaching a course on writing “fantastic fiction” at Youthwrite Edmonton. I thought I’d post some of the ideas and exercises that I’ll be sharing with the young writers at the camp.

Day One, today, is all about generating new ideas, or jumpstarting your creativity if you're stuck with your writing and don't know what to do next.

Here's an exercise the students will be doing today:

Come up with a fanciful origin for your first name. 

If you know your name’s real origin, don’t use it - invent one. Try to make it sound as plausible as possible. 

Or not -- make the explanation as ridiculous as you like.