Monday, May 16, 2011

Monday's Quote: Paul St. Pierre On The Art of Story

"Art outlives us.

Storytelling, dancing, song, sculpture and painting are all essential parts of human existence, as I learned late.  For too much of my life I thought of them as merely frosting on life's cake.

Here, I confine my comments to the only art in which I can claim any expertise, the telling of stories.  Even that I once disdained and until quite late in life, after a few successes such as The Education of Phylistine and Breaking Smith's Quarter Horse, stories that remained in print and copyright longer than almost any other Canadian works in the last half of the twentieth century, I was still unsure as to whether they were worth anything and nagged by the suspicion that writing was no way for a grown man to earn a living.

Now I know otherwise.  Those two stories and perhaps a few others will outlive me by a generation or more.  Information about whether my mortgage was paid off, the size of my credit card bills and such stuff is less than a soup made from the shadow of the wing of a passing dove.  The arts live longer than anything else.  Of them all, the telling of stories is one of the greatest. and those who do not do this for their grandchildren neglect both a joy and a duty.  Every generation needs stories told by those who went before.

I offer an example, a classic great story. I wish I had told it but the author was an unknown Lakota who died a century or so ago. Out of a commonplace observation that men and dogs have a special relationship, he created a story that lives on as a masterpiece. This is the translation:
In the beginning, men and the other animals were the same and could speak with one another.  But the Great Spirit became angry with man and decided to separate them.  He called them all together on the floor of the desert, the man on one side, all of the other animals on the other side, and with his thumbnail he made a mark in the sand between them.
The mark he made grew deeper.  It went right down to the centre of the earth.  It grew wider and wider, man standing on one side, all other other animals on the other side.
Just when it seemed that man was going to be alone forever the dog made a tremendous jump and took his place beside the man.
This is no old man prattling, this is an inspired professional teller of stories.  All he has to offer is commonplace, that men and dogs are close.  There is nothing more, and everybody already knows it.  He could have told it all in one or two sentences:  "The Great Spirit decided to separate man from the other animals but the dog stayed with man."  But that's a narrative, not a story.

The difference is fundamental.  Narratives are valuable, we use them all the time:  they are an account, true or fictional, of a series of events.  It is the twist of the narrative that creates a story that excites our imagination, touches our heart and is remembered and retold during the dark nights of winter.

Observe this Lakota professional plying his trade.  First, he obtains what every storyteller needs, the willing suspension of disbelief.  Did you stop reading because some being cut the planet in half with his thumbnail?  The original author could have made the whole matter too easy and uneventful.  The dog could have simply stepped across the line with no risk when it was only a centimetre wide.  Instead he made the dog wait until the gap was almost unbridgeable.

But there is a factor more important than all the preceding.  It is the essence of the art of storytelling.  He made the audience take part in creating the story.  Any great storyteller  arouses questions he does not attempt to answer.  All who hear this story are left to write most of it themselves."

----from Paul St. Pierre's excellent book of essays, Old Enough To Know Better (2002)

In this essay, Paul St. Pierre continues to elaborate on just what it is that the listener must provide to complete this story.  This was aptly defined as "recalcitrance" by Austin Wright, who coined the literary sense of the word and used a novel to illustrate the concept in his brilliant study: Recalcitrance, Faulkner, and the Professors.

Eoin McManee, interviewed by Declan Burke at this link, says that a novel should be "an attempt to apprehend the transcendent."  I heartily agree.

"Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it." --Hannah Arendt 

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