Tag: stories

The Spark of Life

There is something at the heart of every good story that makes it come alive. The flame in the lantern, the soul in the body, the crystal in an agate. A good story is like a child to its author–he made its existence possible, and to an extent he can predict what it will do, but it always goes to places he didn’t think it would go. It turns up in the kitchen, having drunk half a bottle of chocolate syrup, and then just grins at him. That’s the spark of life in a story; that taking off to an unexpected place is what makes a story come alive. Without the spark, it is only a collection of minerals arranged in a fine structure, with no faceted crystalline heart to make it lovely.

A good story is a beast. The author must approach it carefully, stalking with muffled feet and fistfuls of courage. It could leap up at any moment and bolt away, or do a jig, or spring for his throat. Some stories will consent to be tamed and go where the author leads. Others are bold and prefer to gallop this way and that as they please. Sometimes the author knows a story is too big for him, but he goes hunting it anyway. Other times he writes it because it seems easy, a tiny little thing–but the little things are always deceptively hard to catch.

Some stories don’t come into the world as beasts. They need to be coaxed to life by the author, who has just seen them as the faint and faded paintings that adorn the walls of ancient caves. At times life will come into the paintings of its own accord. They will begin to move and blink and step off the wall. The characters in the stories will look out at their authors and smile mysterious smiles. “We have hearts,” they’ll say, and the author, enchanted, must follow.

But at times the life doesn’t come. The author must find a way to put in the spark of life himself, not by singing into full bloom the seed that was already there, but by bringing it in from some outside source. This is very hard. There are many stories which are like a lantern, ornately carved by a fine craftsman, but which has no flame inside. A lantern, like a story, has a purpose, and without its flame that purpose will never come to fruition. How many stories have we all read which were like that lantern, with no life of their own and nothing to imprint themselves on our minds?

Still, there are certain things that the hunter after sparks may look for. These things bring the spark of life to a story: the enchanted air of the Perilous Realm, that breath of Faerie which comes out of the stories that touch on our deepest desires; the life and longings of another human being, unfolding before our eyes; the music of our deepest dreams, echoing from within the structure of the tale; the zest of relationships exuberantly lived on the page, as right and wrong unfold themselves in the lives of others. And there are many other things that bring life, but these are numerous and shadowy, defined only within the heart of each person who seeks solace in a story.

It is a powerful magic, to coax the life into a story. But if that is not done, if the author is weak or the story was never anything more than a bit of pigment smeared across a wall, then its only fate will be to fade off into the fog of unreality.

~ Jared

On Reading and Watching

Recently, I have been thinking about the difference between reading stories and watching them, and how our own inborn creativity takes part in our experience of story. There are two basic kinds of storytelling, which I will call picture-storytelling and word-storytelling. Picture-storytelling includes movies, TV shows, comic books, and anything else that tells a story through a primarily visual medium. Word-storytelling, on the other hand, consists of stories told without the aid of pictures, whether they are written down or verbalized. Both of these types of storytelling seem to be more or less as old as humanity. All you have to do is look at Stone Age cave paintings and take a few moments to consider our languages to realize that. Both types have their own place and their own advantages. However, I think that word-storytelling is the better of the two, and that picture-storytelling especially has fallen into decay in modern times. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not denying the value of movies and comics and the skill and creativity that goes into making them. I very much enjoy picture-storytelling and our world would be a poorer place without it. However, I don’t think it can be denied that stories which are told purely in words give our minds more work to do, especially when compared with the modern forms of picture-storytelling, which leave little or nothing to the imagination. Sight is our primary sense. Fill up that sense, and suddenly the brain has little left to create. Deny it, and the brain must manufacture an entire world.

 

The difference


 

Here is what I believe to be the fundamental difference between picture-stories and word-stories, and also between the Modern, and the Medieval or Ancient forms of picture-storytelling. Stories told in words (whether they be books or your grandfather’s tall tales) require audience participation–imagination–in order to work. Stories told in pictures do not. Let me give you an example to show what I mean. When a movie is playing, you really don’t have to pay much attention to it to absorb its story. Everything that you need to know is presented on-screen; the images to see are given you; the words to hear are all there and spoken by unique voices. The only thing lacking is smell and touch, and I’m sure that sometime in the relatively near future, virtual reality will have advanced enough to add those senses into picture-storytelling, as well. You do not have to participate in order to “take in” the story. It is all given to you.

Now consider a book. If you are to get anything out of a book, you must let yourself sink into it. You must actively use the words on the page to construct whatever they’re describing in your own mind. A book tells its story in collaboration with the reader. We don’t often think of this, because we’re so used to reading that we don’t stop to consider what we’re actually doing. But stop and consider it. You don’t have pictures of every character and setting. You don’t have different people speaking aloud all the dialog so that you can hear it. You must create all that in your mind–and a well-written book will also prompt you to create details of scent and touch (a thing which films very rarely do). Word-stories are like a game of telephone. The author must very carefully choose what to leave out and what to put in, in order to describe the scene which exists in his mind. Then he transfers it to the page or the empty air, and he must hope that he succeeded well enough, though most of the time he knows that he’s fallen short. Then you read or hear those words, and the scene is transferred once again, but this time into your own mind. Then you must must decode the author’s words and try to find his original vision of the scene. That is what we do when we read or listen to a story being told.

 

The importance of the difference


 

This decoding and re-creation of story is essential to its value. Storytellers need to embrace it. Of course, very often the reader will not be successful in properly decoding the author’s words. Some authors are afraid of their vision being distorted, and so they describe everything excessively in the hope that their readers will see exactly what they did. But that is a trap. It is precisely the uncertain aspect of word-storytelling, that it must be interpreted by the listener or reader, that is its beauty. That’s why reading is such a wonderful experience. Every story is different depending on who is reading it. Each reader brings his own background, his own understanding, his own context–his own way of seeing the world–and makes the story anew in his mind.

The human mind needs a creative outlet to be healthy. We are made in the image and likeness of God; as Tolkien would say, we are made to be sub-creators, modeling His great act of creation with our own smaller imitations. Not all of us have the skill to create great works of art, but anyone in full possession of his wits and senses can read or listen to a story and imagine it unfolding in his head. He can create it in his mind, using the words of another for a guide. Throughout our history we have told stories to each other, and through them we have been able to extend the ability to create to anyone willing to take it.

Recall how I said that the difference of participation exists also between Modern picture-storytelling, and Ancient or Medieval picture-storytelling. In the old days, the pictures were so greatly abstracted that they forced their viewers to use a good deal of imagination to understand their meaning. An iconographic painting is nearly as vague as a literary description, though the vagueness comes in a different way. When viewing this kind of story, the mind is turned not towards the pictures themselves, but towards what they represent. Now consider the Modern era. Picture storytelling has become incredibly widespread, and it has changed. No longer are the pictures abstract, stylized, and symbolic; now they are made to look real. More and more is shown, and less and less is left to the imagination. Another difference between now and the old days is that picture-storytelling has become most people’s primary exposure to story, whereas before, that exposure came predominantly from word-storytelling. There are people alive today who never read books! And it seems that we are mostly past the age when people would verbally tell each other myths and fairytales. Verbal storytelling today seems largely prosaic and lacking in the level of creativity which characterized it in the old days. Modern people still use stories as a lifeline when they have either no time to create art, or jobs which are oppressive and dehumanizing. But many of them only consume stories, in the form of movies and television, instead of participating in stories, in the form of novels and verbal tales. Modern picture-storytelling has largely lost the creative element that makes story an effective lifeline. For stories to truly be a lifeline, they must be of the sort that allows people to create through them, that allows people to exercise that vital creative part of their minds, instead of covering it with a blur of lights and noise.

 

Reclaiming imagination


 

We are at our most human when we are creating, when we are giving of ourselves, when we pour out our hearts and forget our personal pettiness. This is one reason why reading books and listening to tales can be so wholesome. Because word-storytelling is intrinsically creative when experienced by the reader or listener, it enables us to access that deeply creative part of ourselves. Consistent enjoyment of word-stories, therefor, can teach us how better to worship: for true, deep worship, where the heart and soul cry out to God and all else is forgotten, is a very creative thing. Word-storytelling trains up and strengthen our imaginations. Consider that God asks us to give our whole selves to Him–and that the whole self includes the imagination. An example of just one of the myriad ways in which worship can be creative is the Catholic tradition of contemplative prayer. This sort of prayer emphasizes (among other things) gazing into the eyes of Jesus, envisioning His Holy Face and basking in the love that radiates from it. How is that possible if we do not use our imaginations, as they are consecrated and strengthened when offered up to Our Lord? And how are we to make a good offering of our imaginations if they are atrophied from lack of use?

Thus, the fostering of imagination through word-storytelling is essential. It is fundamentally different from the fostering of imagination that happens even through good picture-storytelling that still gives us room for our own visions. It is of a higher order because it is so much more all-encompassing. It is harder to embrace, but better for the soul. Word-storytelling is good for the heart and good for the mind, in a way that picture-storytelling can never be, no matter how good the story is. And if we are to reclaim the power of our imaginations, and the potential for deep, creative worship contained therein, then we must never stop reading.

 

Peace!

~ Jared

What Writing Has Taught Me

Last night, a friend of mine posted a series of questions on Facebook, and one of them was the title to this post. It’s a very interesting question, and it was interesting to me to read the various answers that people gave. It seems that all the writers I know have learned a great deal from writing. It would seem that an author’s most extensive school, next to life itself, is his own writing. My own answer to the question was that I’ve learned how to better understand both myself and other people through writing. This is critical to telling a good story–an author must have a very solid understanding of humans and their nature in order to create memorable and convincing characters. An author’s daily exercise is (or should be) to imagine himself constantly in the shoes of others and to twist his mind around in order to think the way they think. This, combined with constant observation of other humans, is really fantastic for increasing understanding. But as I told my friend last night, that’s only the answer that was on the top of my head, and in order to fully answer the question, I’d probably need to write an essay. So, here I am, making a blog post about it.

 

It’s actually pretty difficult to sum up all that writing has taught me. Compared to many of my writing friends, I started late–though I’ve made up stories as long as I can remember, I only started writing them down when I was 15, and didn’t write more than forty or fifty pages during the next couple of years, until I was 17 and really started writing in earnest. Yet since then, writing (and the friends I’ve met through it) has had a huge impact on my life. I still think, after further reflection, that understanding, both of myself and others, has been the biggest thing that writing has taught me. Yet there are many other things that have come along with it. Writing has taught me to see the world in a way entirely different from the way I saw it before. Now I can see the threads of stories woven throughout the world, through the past and the present and extending into the future. I can see that each person is creating his own individual story, telling a tale of love and adventure with every new decision. I can see, if only in some small part, the way God tells His story of the world, and the infinite subtleties of His planning and foreshadowing (it is true, this realization is one that’s come more through study than through writing; but without writing, I wouldn’t have thought to find this conclusion in the midst of the things I’ve learned through study).

 

Writing has also taught me how to communicate my heart and soul, something which I had never known how to do before. I can still write better than I can speak, but writing has helped me to become a more confident speaker, to be better at finding words to say. This ability to communicate has been vital in helping me to understand and come to grips with my often violent emotions. Through writing, I’ve learned to find more joy and wonder in life, because it’s very hard to lose sight of the world’s beauty when you’re able to write an exciting and poetic description of the most mundane and prosaic thing. I’ve learned to see the way stories shape humans, and to find the threads of primal truth running through any tale. I think my writing has informed my life as much as my life has informed my writing. And the two become ever more entwined, because life is ingredients for writing, and writing is zest for life. Through writing and telling stories I’ve learned how to remake myself and my world, insofar as I’m able. I’ve learned to see how the forces of life shape a person and how a person can shape those forces. I’ve learned about truth, love, beauty, the heart, the soul. I have been able to see firsthand a microcosm, though a very imperfect one, it is true, of God in comparison with His creation. I think I’ve learned a little bit about pretty much everything through writing. It has been, along with the stories and other writings of certain authors, my friends and family, and the events of my life in general, a main thing that God has used to teach me.

 

I think I could go on. But that probably covers the most important stuff. I think everyone ought to write. It hardly matters if you can write well or if you’re particularly creative. Write poetry, anyway! Poetry is the song of the soul! Or write a story! Because stories are truth in symbols. At the very least write a journal, or write down your thoughts; it’s an ideal way to reflect and understand.

 

…well, there is my extremely biased opinion, anyway. Peace!

~ Jared

The Problem With Powerful Characters

Hello, internet! I think it’s time for another writing-related post. Now for… a pet peeve! Anyone who knows me well should know that I tend to get really annoyed by over-powered characters in stories. Most people shrug it off and don’t think it’s a big deal. I, however, see it as a major and pervasive problem, especially among the young and mostly unpublished writers who are my peers. What’s the big deal? people say. Really powerful characters are cool. And, sometimes, they are. There is something pretty cool about a character who can control storms and shoot lasers with his brain and bring the dead back to life and go for years without food. Does that character make for good storytelling? I really don’t think so, unless–and here’s the important part–unless everyone else in the story has a comparable level of power. The reason is that having a main character who is so much more powerful than most everyone else is a sure way to ruin conflict. If your character can get out of any trouble he’s in with one hand tied behind his back, then you have a serious problem. Such a powerful character usually results in a boring story, a story where there is no suspense because the reader is never in any doubt that the character will escape alive and mostly unscathed. It’s lazy. A character with brains instead of ultimate telekinetic powers is going to be a lot more interesting to watch, simply because he has to think a lot harder to get out of trouble.

 

What if the overpowered character is not the hero, but a side character? The best situation in that case is for the overpowered character to be a villain. Someone so dangerous that it seems there’s no chance the hero could ever win. Even then you have to be careful, because this can lead to lame cop-outs on the part of the author when the hero finally has to win the day. If the character isn’t a villain, then he usually doesn’t work as well. He can still keep everyone safe. The suspense is damaged because of that. It is especially frustrating when such a character chooses to interfere in conflicts between others and always tries to keep the peace. Given the power to enforce a busybody nature, he can be the most deadening influence on conflict imaginable. If the character doesn’t use his power to help the heroes, then you’re forced to wonder why he isn’t helping, and all too often the explanation is contrived or doesn’t make sense.

 

Finally, I often see issues with the way these characters are made. A more common problem is a really powerful character who doesn’t have a major flaw. By this I don’t mean a personality flaw or a scar or something like that. I mean a flaw in his power, a key to defeating him. If the only person who can take advantage of a weakness in the hero’s power is a demigod, then you have a problem. (this seems to happen a lot in anime) I don’t think the consequences of having that kind of power are usually explored very well, either. Such vast powers would have a huge affect on a person’s psychology. Power corrupts, which is an old maxim but one we can see in action every day.

 

I think that the best way to handle a character with huge powers is to treat the power as a curse. Explore its detrimental effects on the hero and don’t glorify it. Don’t treat it as “cool.”

 

There, my two cents. I think I might be able to explore this subject further  in the future, but for now, a simple overview of my issues with overpowered characters. Peace!

 

~ Jared

My Holy Grail

Well, one of them.

 

Lately I’ve been asking myself a question: why am I not writing a medieval fantasy story? Whenever I think of fantasy, Medieval fantasy is what I think of. Knights. Dragons. Elves. Goblins, wizards, magic rings, nobility and sacrifice and evil, adventures. Cliched as the genre has become, it, above all things, carries away my imagination. A medieval fantasy world is the world I long to live in. When I want to escape, when I want to lose myself in dreams of adventures and other places, that is the place I want  to escape to. I am still looking for a perfect medieval fantasy story which can fully satisfy that itch deep down inside me. Setting aside all speculations on whether that itch is not really an itch for some deep spiritual thing rather than a certain sort of story, this is the kind of story that I most love and, deep down, most want to write.

 

But I always run into this problem, which is that whenever I start developing an idea that’s going to be a medieval fantasy, I always get carried away with making it unique and original. I come up with really interesting stories and worlds, but by the time they’ve reached the point that I’m happy with them, they’ve passed beyond the point where they are recognizable as that quintessential Medieval fantasy. I don’t want to write a cliched story, but at the same time, work too hard at excising the cliches, and the story is no longer what I set out to write. It’s pretty frustrating.

 

As I was thinking about it earlier today, something that C.S. Lewis said sprang to mind.

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

So I’m thinking I would be better off if I simply try to tell the truth in a Medieval fantasy setting. Perhaps I should stop thinking about how to make my wizards unique and cool and think instead of what kind of truths I can tell about a wizard. If I treat the medieval fantasy world no differently than if I were writing a story in our own world–if I tell the truth about characters both startlingly familiar and decidedly strange, describe how beautiful the land is, bring up great questions like good literature always does, tell tales of heroism and nobility and evil, without stopping to think about how this is a world where dragons are daily occurrences and a giant could stomp on you around any corner, then maybe I will be able to write that quintessential fantasy that I’ve been looking for.

 

This particular quest is one which I’ve actually only just been awoken to. I get the feeling that it could  be a quest lasting years, maybe even a lifetime; but if so, then it will be a worthy quest.

 

~ Jared

The Value of Writing Fluff

Well, it’s been awhile since I last posted, hasn’t it? I’ve been a little bit busy, but mostly I just haven’t had anything to say. At any rate, I decided this morning that I ought to update my blog today, and after a little thought, I realized that I’d  come to a realization.

It’s completely okay to write fluffy, meaningless stories.

It’s just a waste of time, I always used to tell myself. And truly, I have often felt unproductive if I’m not working on a story that has, somewhere inside it, whether this is visible to anyone else or not, some  deeper meaning or truth or message. Don’t get me wrong. I want to write truth. I want to write things that make light. I want to write things with depth, that give people plenty to think about. But you can’t do that all the time, and it’s a lot of pressure to put yourself under. Of course I don’t think of it all the time when I’m writing a story. I well know that the most important thing is just to write, and if you worry too much about putting in a message, it’s likely to come out hackneyed and ineffective. But deep down, I still want it, and so I mostly try to write stories that I feel have the potential for depth and meaning.

But lately, I’ve been writing something that really seems like it will stay light and shallow throughout. It’s not a serious project. It’s something I’m writing just for fun, because I enjoy it, for no other purpose. And you know what? It’s coming out much more easily and naturally than my huge sci-fi epic that would be amazing and deep and beautiful if I could ever get it to come out properly on the page (that’s what I was working on before, a project which I have currently put on hold). And I’ve realized how much of a relief it is not to put myself under that pressure. Just to write. To sit there smiling at how ridiculous my main character is. It’s a happy thing. And I think sometimes, a writer needs that. And so, here is my advice to all other writers: take some time, especially if you are feeling very frustrated with your wonderful and deep literary idea, to write a fluffy story. It could be a novel. A couple of humorous short stories. Some silly poems. It seems to be quite refreshing. Eventually I’ll get back to my more serious stories, but for now, I’m quite happy to be writing something completely non-serious and fun.

~ Jared

Things I Would Like To Do

Lately, I’ve been thinking about stories, my own place as a storyteller, and what I’d like to do with my stories. These are very big questions to which the answers are often mutable and evanescent. There are so many things I could do with my stories; so many things I don’t want to do  or am not yet skilled enough to do. It used to be enough just to write stories because I enjoyed writing them. Is that always enough? I suppose that depends on who you are. There are people who love writing and telling stories but who never want that to be the focus of their lives. In that case, writing a story for any reason other than loving to write stories is probably  not a good idea. It would be silly to have what might be called “an agenda” for all of one’s hobbies and little enjoyments . I don’t play video games because I’m seeking enlightenment or higher truth or to change my world; I play them  because they’re fun. Likewise, the more casual writers–which here means writers who don’t write as their main point in life, as opposed to writers who simply don’t take writing seriously (a lot which shouldn’t really be writing)–write because writing is fun and often brings personal fulfillment. That isn’t to say that telling a story is not also very hard and at times very painful; but ultimately, it is a true joy.

 

But what about those who view creating stories to be the focus of their talents, their point in life, the thing that God has given them to do? Those sorts of people need more reasons than fun or joy; we need a goal, a purpose, a higher calling than story for story’s sake. So I’ve been asking myself what my stories mean and why I’m writing them. I feel as if I must have a noble goal; maybe this feeling is something that will fade, but at this time of my life, it is strong and I don’t think  I should ignore it. As an idealist, I care more about  how things should be than about how they are, and I firmly believe that storytelling  should have a noble purpose. Don’t misunderstand: I don’t think the lack of a purpose beyond the enjoyment of stories makes for a poor or false storyteller. But I do think that storytelling is not the best it can be without a higher purpose.

 

I don’t advocate preaching; I advocate having an ideal, some shining thing at which you grasp, the searching for which permeates every story you tell. It is something that goes far beyond a superficial message of the text or the words, and is in reality the depth and focus of the story.

 

And so, there are two things I would like to do with storytelling, though they are not the only things and I’m not sure of the reasons for why I would like to do them. The first thing is to revive the old-fashioned style of epic poetry, the style of works like Beowulf or The Illiad or Paradise Lost or any number of others, and make it popular once again in the present day. This  is a somewhat curious desire, as I have not read any of the great epic poems of old (a travesty which I am working to undo). I can’t entirely say why the idea fascinates me so, except that I put great value on old things and that I think the literary world has lost something by no longer creating poetry of that caliber. I would like  to write poetry of that style about subjects closer to the modern heart. Poetry is powerful and it moves the mind and heart in a way that prose can never quite achieve. Although I don’t fully understand this desire, I feel intrinsically that it is a worthy goal.

 

The other thing is a more recent thought and not one which I like quite so much. But it is the idea of  reviving old-fashioned oral storytelling, of bringing back the oral tradition of our ancestors. The art of telling a story out loud–not acting out a scene or reciting some dry anecdote, but telling a real, complicated story– is something which seems to have been largely lost in modern Western culture. Wouldn’t  it be wonderful if the village storyteller or the wandering bard became once more as important as he used to be? I think there is value in hearing a story from a person who lives and breathes right next to you. It’s so much more personal and powerful than the story told by a person in a movie  with no connection to yourself.

 

And so I’d like to start a dual movement of people reviving epic poetry and oral storytelling. I’m still trying to decide why, and to answer the greater question of why I want to tell any story. The answer is there, I’m sure, but I haven’t quite grasped it  yet.

 

~ Jared