Wednesday, February 08, 2006

When is a Story a Story or a Poem a Poem?

I'm posting the poem below due to a discussion stirred by the previous post on Emily Dickinson.

In preface, I will note that, at times, I have glanced at my discarded manuscripts with dismay. I have felt sorrow that my letters, words, sentences never grew to live a full and satisfying life. But I came to consider them from another angle. I remembered the immense pleasure I took in creating the now-discarded characters, and how they had been intimate and interesting companions to me, often diverting me with their (yes, unfinished) stories.

However, Ursula Le Guin writes: "The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story."

I wonder - is it possible for the Writer, herself, to be the Reader who breathes life into her own story? Or must stories be shared in order to grow beyond "little black marks."

This following poem is not an answer, but another examination of the relationship between the writer and her writing.

Sometimes the words are so close I am
more who I am when I'm down on paper
than anywhere else as if my life were
practicing for the real me I become
unbuttoned from the anecdotal and
unnecessary and unpressed down
to the figure of the poem, line by line,
the real text a child could understand.
Why do I get confused living it through?
Those of you, lost and yearning to be free,
who hear these words, take heart from me.
I was once in as many drafts as you.
But briefly, essentially, here I am...
Who touches this poem touches a woman.


By Julia Alvarez

20 repartee:

Anonymous Anonymous wrote...

I don't agree at all with Ms Le Guin! Stories are stories, and soemtimes better for not being untouched, since sometimes they're misunderstood and wrongly judged.

What about all the stories inside our heads that will never be put to paper? Are they no-stories? No, they are, and very much alive too.

Cristina.

2/08/2006 12:04 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Thank you for commenting, Cristina! Yes, you make such a good point about all those stories in our heads - :) And I agree with you on the “over-judging” of creativity in our society. Had Emily Dickinson been published during her lifetime, wouldn’t her subject matter (and possibly her style) have changed dramatically? Her "success" might have been our "loss" - who knows?

I also like Golgotha’s point about the act of writing as therapeutic. We may choose to write a story for ourselves alone - aren't we good enough? - ;)

On the other hand, Ursula Le Guin comes from a Native American background and I sense that she sees story-telling as a way of keeping a culture and community connected and alive.

If we held in all of our stories, we would miss out on so much of each other! So we mustn’t keep all our stories in our head! So I also see Art as a magical way for people to connect and understand each other and transcend differences.

2/08/2006 1:42 PM  
Blogger Panacea wrote...

That was a nice post. I’m not sure whether I agree with Ms Le Guin myself. A story doesn’t have to be read for it to be alive. What about the tories that are there in your head and you're just too self conscious to write them down or the stories that you wrote down just for yourself, they probably have a life too. Just because other people havnt read them doesn’t mean that they're black marks. Although I do agree that if you looked at it from her point of view and put it in context, it probably makes sense too.

I liked the poem by Julia Alavarez. Another poem that came to my kind when I read this was 'An Author to her Book' by Anne Bradstreet (Put it in google and you'll get the poem). It different from this one because it discusses her opinion on her own writing.

2/08/2006 2:11 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hello, Panacea! Thank you for tipping me off to Anne Bradstreet's poem. It's very funny (and unfortunately all-too-familiar)! I love the ending especially. For those of you who haven't read it, I'm putting it below.

The Author to Her Book
by Anne Bradstreet

Thou ill-form'd offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth did'st by my side remain,
Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad expos'd to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th' press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call.
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
Thy Visage was so irksome in my sight,
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I wash'd thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.
I stretcht thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run'st more hobbling than is meet.
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save home-spun Cloth, i' th' house I find.
In this array, 'mongst Vulgars mayst thou roam.
In Critics' hands, beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known.
If for thy Father askt, say, thou hadst none;
And for thy Mother, she alas is poor,
Which caus'd her thus to send thee out of door.

2/08/2006 2:48 PM  
Blogger actonbell wrote...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2/08/2006 6:27 PM  
Blogger actonbell wrote...

(oops, too many typos the first time)

I enjoyed both poems--the latter is funny! The Julia Alavarez poem is thought-provoking, and it really does seem to answer Ursula LeGuin; those "black marks" help an auther get in touch with who she is and what she means to say in a way that she often couldn't outloud, to others. Whether something is read or not, it's important to someone, part of the process of living.

2/08/2006 6:29 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

actonbell - yes, I think you put it very well in noting how writing can put us in touch with something we wouldn't otherwise discover about ourselves. And I'm glad you enjoyed Panacea's contribution. Me, too - ;)

2/08/2006 7:03 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

In defense of Ursula Le Guin, I want to echo Panacea who reminded me of "context" - and I regret that I don't, off-hand, have the context for Le Guin's quote. But I suspect as a writer, particularly a female science fiction author writing for a mainly male audience, Le Guin may have felt a great deal of frustration in getting her stories heard in the world.

So she may be speaking for herself, as a writer: she needs her stories to live in readers' minds to feel satisfied; to feel that her work has wings; has taken flight.

Also, so many innovative women science fiction writers from her era are out-of-print, and so, there is a story-gap, missing links, which I find tragic. And women’s voices and stories are often missing from the books of history. So...there may be another angle to this I haven’t explored.

2/08/2006 7:16 PM  
Anonymous Holly wrote...

Is a carefully prepared, delicious meal still a carefully prepared, delicious meal if no one eats it? Is a beautiful dress still a beautiful dress even if no one ever wears it?

I guess I agree with the spirit of Le Guin's statement at the same time I recognize that in some ways, by definitions, stories are still stories and poems are still poems even if they are never read by anyone but the reader.

But writing well--and cooking well, and sewing well--are difficult, and time-consuming. And any work we do beyond the utilitarian (food sufficient to keep body and soul together, clothes adequate to protect ourselves from the elements, language able to communicate basic necessary information) is, well, extra.

Why do we do the extra work? As I said in the comments on FG's Emily Dickinson post, I think literature is about communication. I think that if we're not communicating when we write, then we recognize we're not achieving all we want to do. It doesn't mean we shouldn't do it, but it does mean there's an element missing from the process.

2/09/2006 10:13 AM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi, Holly - I’ve been thinking a lot about our discussion of “fame” (which is defined as distinction and recognition – not just as celebrity or notoriety) and how my view is skewed by theatre. Theatre is by its very nature a communal and shared experience. Whereas writing a poem or a novel is a more solitary venture. So I do agree with Le Guin and you in the sense that some things are written with the very purpose of being shared; given over to the community so that the words may enlighten, provoke thought, stir conversation, etc. Perhaps it’s like preparing a feast for fifty and then, sitting at the table alone. It would not feel right at all (and might even lead to a belly-ache!).

2/09/2006 1:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous wrote...

You know, I was just reading and something related to this subject came up. It's in Spanish, so here's the rough translation:

"Tell me - why would we say things if not to believe them ourselves? Clearly the listener plays the secondary part, they don't matter as much. (...). I'm not sure I believe that story you just told me but hearing it has helped it be born as such a story, and has helped you believe it".

I hope the translation is not missing much from the original.

Oddly enough, this lines reminded me of the following poem by Emily Dickinson (!) somehow:

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

But I'm still not sure I agree with this. This would mean things don't happen to us until we tell them to others. And I don't like that.

Cristina.

2/09/2006 3:50 PM  
Blogger mysticgypsy wrote...

I agree Cristina.

On a rantom (or related) note, I wonder what "reality?" is. What is living? Is living merely feeling? Then does it follow that it doesn't matter who/what the cause of those feelings are, that as long as one has felt sensations, they have lived?

2/09/2006 4:41 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Cristina, thanks for sharing the translated piece as well as the Dickinson poem. I think they relate really well to this.

And I’m very glad to have your thoughts on this, MysticGypsy!

But I’m of two opinions now.

When I first posted the Le Guin quote, I was thinking particularly of unfinished stories – and I was taking a stance that unfinished stories need not be piles of shame, but rather, celebrated acts of creativity, and we, ourselves, might even be proud to have been a private audience to them. I was thinking of Emily Dickinson, and how, after failing to publish, she must have willed herself to be her own audience. (I don’t agree with some who believe she never cared at all for the outside world.) So I believe she was incredibly strong to say: If no one else reads this, I am enough.

However, because of all your thought-provoking comments, I’ve come to see Le Guin’s statement from various sides. I’ve also (belatedly) recalled that, in theatre, I’m very much from the Edward Albee school of thought. I believe plays must be thrown onto the stage, ready or not, here they come, because only on the stage, before an audience, do we know if our words will rise or fall, and I tell every aspiring playwright that they must hear their words spoken aloud by others (friends, relatives, if necessary) to learn the craft.

So what a strange place I find myself in - ;) Perhaps the word “story” itself is confusing? Story can mean so many things, and I agree with those of you who celebrate the stories we weave inside our heads to amuse, comfort and/or inspire us. But I also think that the spoken word and the published word has an incredible power (for better or for worse). Why do people blog? (Yes, I know that’s a whole topic in itself!) Then again, I also agree with Golgotha and the rest of you that writing in a private journal can empower us – So is this personal power versus public power?

In the end, I’ve decided that half of us must agree and half must disagree, and then, the world will be in balance! Yes, I’m taking the easy way out... :)

2/09/2006 6:31 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

mysticgypsy – The question of reality is a very interesting one to me because I’ve read (forgive my lack of sources) that the only difference between the "sane" and the "insane" is that the sane agree upon or accept a "shared reality," but whether or not this shared reality is honest, truthful, or even "real" is up for debate!

As for feelings, I would imagine that cause/effect are very important and tie into who we are. What might cause me to be upset might cause someone else to laugh. And so we would be living or experiencing a very different life.

But I might have strayed from your point… :)

2/09/2006 6:41 PM  
Blogger The Poodle's Friend wrote...

I completely agree with Holly on this one. Audience in my opinion is essential, especially on the practical level of enabling the author to better him/herself. Critique is possibly the most useful thing in the world, unless it's thoughtless and offensive, of course, in which case it just becomes useless, I guess.
Of course, that doesn't mean that something that only the creator enjoys is not worthy of being created in the first place. But really, isn't the reaction of the reader (or audience in the case of theatre, which, as you pointed out, frankengirl, is rather different) essential? I'm thinking of Thomas Hardy, for example (here I go again with Hardy), and his 'immoral' stories. He received so much criticism for his portrayal of society, so much so that he stopped writing novels, and I can't help but think of all the wonderful stories he must have had in his head... What are they without a readership? What do they give to the world, or to Hardy himself? I think as long as a story is written down, and as long as the effort is made to get it to a recipient audience, that's what makes it an actual story.
Oh dear, rambling much? frankengirl, were you intending to close the discussion with your beautifully diplomatic comment 'that half of us must agree and half must disagree'? Hehe. Sorry.

2/10/2006 12:44 PM  
Anonymous PE wrote...

I understand the need for an audience, but I do believe that when a work is completed then that is known regardless of feedback and that the audience need not be large to give the sense that the work has made the passage outside oneself.

2/11/2006 10:48 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi, Poodle’s Friend! These discussions are never closed - at least, in my ever-turning mind - ;).

I think it’s fascinating that you bring up Hardy, particularly how you mention that he “stopped writing novels” due to society’s criticism. What a Catch-22 you to bring to light! Because Hardy shared his stories with society, we can enjoy them today - BUT (at the same time) - because Hardy shared his stories with society, he stopped writing stories! What a bind! How mind-boggling! I wonder – if Hardy had shared his stories with only a small, supportive audience, would he have written more (or less) for us to read today? Oh, but it’s impossible to know what motivates (or blocks) a writer. If I remember correctly (and don’t hesitate to correct me), Hardy was very self-conscious about his education (or lack thereof) and so he may have been especially vulnerable to criticism.

Also, as much as I go on about Emily Dickinson writing without an “audience,” I’m forced to correct myself now. As PE has pointed out, an audience need not be large. And so, of course, Emily Dickinson DID have a very small audience, including her sister-in-law, and this is significant in our enjoyment of her work today.

So audience may be essential (*if we want our writing to have a “life” beyond ourselves, beyond the limits of our time), but size, itself, may not matter. The quality of this audience, however, may impact the writer’s output - as in Hardy’s case.

P.S. Thank you for giving this blog a life beyond "my time" - :)

2/12/2006 9:58 PM  
Blogger Golgotha_Tramp wrote...

I don't know, I disappear for like three days and you have a huge profound conversation without me...can't you talk about bagels while I'm gone that way I could catch up easier.

Loving the poem FG especially the last line 'Who touches this poem touches a woman' I think it conjures up this feeling of connection, it's almost and acknowledgement of the emotion the poem has passed on. So many times you read a poem or lyrics to a song or look at a piece of art and it moves you and you want to tell the artist, you want to track them down and throw your arms open and shout 'I feel it too!' But I often wonder, would they care. Does the 'tortured artist' wish to meet more tortured souls? But I think this line re-assures the reader that as much as the poem touches them the poet is touched by their reading?

Just my tuppence on the subject but had to chip in.

2/13/2006 6:52 AM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Golgotha – What a lovely review of Julia Alvarez's poem! I need say no more, because you've described it so wonderfully, but I want to shout: Y-e-s ! When I embrace a book (and my heart dances with joy), I do believe the writer has given me a priceless gift. "Who touches this poem touches a woman" is such a beautiful, line.

But Bagels! Now bagels are *very* profound, especially if you prefer a bagel well-done, crispy, even a bit burnt about the edges, but the guy behind the counter doesn't comprehend your bagel verbosity and offers you an anemic, half-baked bagel that cannot possibly satisfy! ;)

Thanks, as always, for your tuppence. Btw, a threepence is welcome too - hehe.

2/13/2006 7:33 AM  
Blogger Saurabi wrote...

Interesting, I didn't know how to difference them, but I have a question, have to see whether it is a story in a poem? I mean how to difference them if you want to tell a story in a poem and viceversa ?
Thanks
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