March 15th, 2010

Fairytale (Tin Man)

Writing Fail and Fairy Tales

With the recent pet drama and various additional stresses, I've not been getting much done in Writing World.

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So, since I'm thinking about taking a trip to Romania (perhaps with, perhaps not with my Romanian cousin)--and in part because I feel this urge to see the place where the Romanian fairy tales come from--I've been thinking about other visits I've made to the places where my culture's fairy tales came from. I was trying to parse the places I've been that felt magical/not-magical, when I realized, no, that's not what I was trying to get at (though that's part of it). I more meant to be talking about the places where you could see the fairy tale happening.

The Loire Valley, for example... the fairy tales are so thick there, you trip over them on the way to the next chateau. The light itself seems to create more stories. (I always thought Ever After did a tremendous job of capturing the light of the valley.) The whole area reeks of Perrault. The forest of Paimpont, likewise, stinks of The Lais of Marie de France, and I kept thinking we were going to run into Bisclavret any second as we wandered the forest that is almost certainly Brocéliande.

What I think I'm working through, though, is not how place informs story. I know it does, of course, but that's not what I'm getting at. I was thinking more how story informs place. In learning French in junior high and high school, I was attracted to Mont St. Michel because of the dragon story associated with it. But I never became a dedicated francophile the way I was an anglophile because I did not care for the literature that was presented to me in French class. Camus? Ionesco? Sartre? Not exactly fairy tale makers, you know? I enjoyed Moliere, but let's be honest, he's difficult for a beginning French student, and we didn't get to him until too late. Cyrano de Bergerac won my heart to France a little tiny smidge. But The Phantom of the Opera, in spite of the story, is actually a slog of a book in any language. (Or so it seemed when I was 13.)

I only ever read Marie de France and Perrault in translation (Marie in college, Perrault as kids do, as bedtime stories), but they were the ones that woke in my brain when I traveled to France, that helped me connect to the country in a way that I could not connect otherwise. Paris was a bit of a cipher to me--I don't like cities anyway--and the only parts I loved (as is usual with me and cities) were my times inside museums and cathedrals. But nothing I'd ever read and loved took place in Paris, either.

Compare this to Britain, where a thousand things I've read and loved take place--even simulacrums of Britain--like fake Wales in Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, for example--well, I felt immediately like I'd opened a magic box when I set foot in Britain. So what if Sherwood Forest isn't much of a forest? There's Glastonbury Tor, Stonehenge, and the tiny little moat around the Mayor's House in Winchester. You can read so much of the landscape as something special, when you're steeped in the fairy tales and the literature of a place.

So, Romania next. I'm light on the literature there, but have been heavy on the fairy tales for the past two years. Let's hope the finances work out!

a sudden attack of memory

The one and only creative writing class I took in college was Creative Non-Fiction. I did not like the professor, to the detriment of my own grade, because I did not attend some of the mandatory office hours and skipped not a few classes, too. I'm not sure why I took such a sharp and sudden dislike to the woman, and I suspect she was probably a pretty good teacher, and I was just a bit of a know-it-all with an attitude.

(It was also, if I'm going to be honest, my semester of Least Performance. My only withdrawal and my only bad grade also show up on that same semester's transcript. I remember staying in bed and reading a lot. I now wonder if I wasn't somewhat depressed--winter depressed during my first low-sunlight winter, coming from North Carolina to live in Michigan; food depressed, because the food sucked; weight depressed, because I surpassed the freshman 15 and then some; creatively depressed, because I couldn't find the time and space to write, and the one play I auditioned for didn't even recruit me for tech... and so on and so on and so on.)

I also had a suspicion of creative writing classes, brought on by Madeleine L'Engle's sort of transparent authorial advice put into the mouths of one of her characters in A Ring of Endless Light. The suggestion was that creative writing classes stifle, and reading is the True Path. Nonetheless, I took the class because it seemed like an unusual premise--Creative Non-Fiction?--and my friends had all taken the professor's classes and found them rewarding. It was meant for things like biography writers, who take all these facts and have to assemble them into a narrative, and things like that.

Anyway, to get to the point of this entry: the sudden attack of memory was this. Our first assignment in the class was to write a short narrative description of yourself, physically. I whipped it out in ten minutes or something, didn't really think twice about it, and brought it in. We read them out loud--they were maybe two hundred words long. Afterward, the professor pointed out all the interesting word choices I'd made--referring to my green eyes as rebels, since Mom had blue and Dad had brown, referring to my hair as chaotic (the curls), and so forth. The subtext was clear, as soon as it was pointed out, and it looked like I'd labored over a nuanced portrayal of my character, layered in with my physical description. But I hadn't.

The professor asked, "Did you do that on purpose?"

Dumbly, I shook my head.

And she moved on.

That wasn't the first time, and wasn't the last. I find that whenever people find subtle nuances and little things like that in my work, 95% of the time, there was no conscious effort to put that stuff in. I worry about that, a bit. I worry that it means I'm not in control of my craft. I worry that it means I couldn't do it properly if I tried, that I only excel at writing when I'm unconscious about what I'm doing.

I don't like not knowing where that stuff comes from. It makes me feel that I lack mastery, that I lack control.

I feel it's related to all my other little disruptions of faith. Example: When I'm writing along and I can feel the future audience's disbelief pushing in on me, I throw up my hands and say, "They're all totally going to be able to tell that I just made all this up!" I'm pretty sure that one is only me; the other writers I've surveyed about that problem tend to blink at me and say, "But you are making it up, aren't you?" (I have recently decided that this is because as a writer, we lack the immediate audience feedback that an oral storyteller can rely on to figure out if they are heading precipitously off course; it may be a feedback signal that I-as-audience find the story unbelievable, but it might be me doubting myself, so who knows.)

Am I the only one who has such crises?