The Art of Story

What is your favorite book or movie?

Why is it your favorite? Maybe you are into action stories with shoot ’em up scenes or exciting sword fights. Perhaps a good romance catches your fancy, you know, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl in the end. What about stories based on true events and real people? Is it tragedy, comedy, drama? Or is it the characters themselves you love exploring?

If you are anything like me, that is a difficult question. Too many books, movies, and plays have captured my heart and imagination for me to narrow the answer down to just one. I might be able to give you a top 20 list, but even that would be pushing it. I love everything from history to comedy, science fiction to fantasy, and lots more between. Well, if it isn’t the genre that sets a good story apart, then what is it? This idea of story has been on my mind lately; that happens when you put your hand to writing a novel.

Working to create a good story begs the question: what makes a good story in the first place?

There is a short scene from the movie Out of Africa that serves as one of my inspirations to write. In it, Karen, Denys, and Berkeley have just enjoyed supper together. Karen, known for her storytelling prowess, takes a line from Denys and proceeds to invent a story that enthralls her guests late into the night. First and foremost, then, a story must engage the reader, or, in this case, the listener. Stories are meant to entertain and capture the imagination. In Storyteller, by Kate Wilhelm, the author explains: “There are natural storytellers and there are wordsmiths, and their methods are quite different.” Chapter Heading: “Can Writing be Taught”, page 14. I am a wordsmith; storytelling doesn’t come as easily to me as it did to Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen, if you want to get technical).

I learned a long time ago that words have power, and I love words.

Words influence, they can create an emotional response in the reader or hearer; words can actually change people. Movies are nothing more than words come to life before our eyes and ears. I read like I’m watching a movie. A true artist has the ability to make the reader transform words on the page into images and sounds in the brain. I can still see the children sitting in their virtual reality playroom and hear the lions feasting on their parents. I read The Veldt, from The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury probably 35 years ago, but the images remain crystal clear today. Now that is some powerful writing!

Certainly, I don’t remember every book I’ve read the way I do Mr. Bradbury’s very short tale. In fact, I remember little of the rest of that collection of short stories. Why did The Veldt make such a lasting impression on me? Because it elicited an emotional response; Bradbury’s words combined with my personality type brought us together on an emotional level. In other words, his story touched me somewhere inside. I still remember it because emotions burn memories into the brain. That’s why you can smell something and experience a powerful memory laced with all the emotions that come with it – sometimes against your will. It’s also why you want to read some books or watch some movies over and over again – to recapture the emotional response – be it fear, happiness, anger, or love.

Walt Disney understood the makings of a beloved story. In the movie, Saving Mr. Banks he says something profound about human beings and storytelling:

George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.

Hope.

Now that is a powerful word, and the stories I love are chock full of it. Assuming Hollywood got it right (a big ask, perhaps), P.L. Travers (the creator of Mary Poppins) had a difficult (dare I call it ‘tragic’?) childhood. Here is a short exchange from the movie:

Walt Disney: I think life disappoints you, Ms. Travers. I think it’s done that a lot. And maybe Mary Poppins is the only person in your life who hasn’t.

P.L. Travers: Mary Poppins isn’t real.

Walt Disney: That’s not true. She was as real as can be to my daughters, and to thousands of other children – adults too. She’s been a nighttime comfort to a heck of a lot of people.

And there you have our obsession with story. It really is quite simple, isn’t it? Life disappoints, we want something (someone) that doesn’t, a “nighttime comfort” if you will. Even when we know it isn’t real. But, wait a minute, if it isn’t real, then it isn’t hope. What’s truly sad is that somewhere along the way we lost the meaning of the word ‘hope’ altogether. We have turned ‘hope’ into ‘wish’, but hope didn’t start out that way. Hope started out as ‘know’, something you could sink the teeth of your faith into. I believe the need for hope is universal, and hope as a theme makes good story no matter the form. What if we look for hope in a story (be it fiction/fantasy or history/reality) because we know instinctively that it represents something that is very real?

From The Shawshank Redemption, to Liar, Liar, to Seabiscuit, hope – the kind that anchors – is the draw.

I would like to share with you two of the most powerful images of hope I have ever encountered from a writer’s pen. There are probably hundreds of examples I could give from the millions of words I have read and heard, but these stand out. The first is a line from The Return of the King, book 3 of The Lord of the Rings. I will give it to you as the movie line and then from the book:

Pippin: I didn’t think it would end this way.
Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.
Pippin: What? Gandalf? See what?
Gandalf: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.
Pippin: Well, that isn’t so bad.
Gandalf: No. No, it isn’t.

In the last chapter, The Grey Havens, Frodo’s final journey:

“And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

The inevitability of death drives our need for hope

If everybody dies, is hope enough? Well, maybe that depends on what you are hoping for. There is only one object truly worthy of hope: redemption. Jonathan Safran Foer understood that. In the final chapter of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (please don’t waste your time on the movie – terrible; the book is phenomenal), Foer describes redemption as he sees it. People fall up, back into the Twin Towers; the bomb implodes and the planes fly backwards; and so on throughout history, until finally, Eve places the fruit back on the tree. As people stuck in forward, linear time, isn’t the only logical meaning of redemption the complete reversal of all the evil ever to exist in the history of the world? That is my hope.

But there is a more immediate need for hope than just believing there is life (and redemption) after death. It has been said that “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The capacity for evil in the human heart is more real than we like to admit. Ferguson, Isis, 9-11, these are proof of the evil escaping into the world from the hearts of ordinary men and women every day. We live in a scary place. We live in a world that forgets that
the love that binds us is more important than the power we wield. – Mordred, from Merlin, Season 5
But story can influence and even change the hearts of men. Consider the movie Cry Freedom. I had the privilege of watching it in a packed theater in 1987. The movie, recounting the true story of Donald Woods and Steve Biko during the dark days of apartheid in South Africa, had no happy ending. Biko did not live through his final beating. Woods did not expose or overcome the evil of his day (not by the end of the movie, at least). It is the only movie I’ve ever seen that while the credits ran, not one person moved. 200 or so people sat, stunned, while the credits rolled. No one spoke, no one stood up, no one could. Where was the message of redemption in Cry Freedom? In the ones who saw it or read it. The message was for the audience: “be the change that you wish to see in the world”, to borrow a good one from Ghandi. The movie left us asking ourselves if there was something we could do to make a difference half a world away. The movie inspired. And isn’t that what hope is all about: inspiration?

We need inspiration to believe in our own greatness

We need Harry to defeat Voldemort … Frodo to destroy the ring … the boy to get the girl … and Mr. Banks to be saved, because then we can believe that … the Hitlers of the world can be defeated … our addictions can be overcome … and love is worth giving up everything for.
I doubt I could write a story to capture hearts like The Lord of the Rings, I may not have the literary genius to create a character as universally loved as Mary Poppins, but I would like to tell a little story of redemption, of hope, of good triumphing over evil, of love winning, because that is not just the greatest story ever told, it is the only story worth telling.

Stranded in Time

Time is a funny thing. At any given moment I may feel like it’s standing still, like I have “all the time in the world.” Other times I can almost see time zooming by like the landscape outside my car window running past at 80 mph on a 14-hour trip home. I can’t imagine a more apropos image of time than sand moving through the middle of an hour glass. Like sand moving under ocean waves … utterly impossible to hold on to. Immediately upon our awareness of a moment, it is gone.

Looking hard at turning 50 means a lot of time has passed in front of my eyes, be they wide open or slammed shut. 50 years = 438,300 hours, 26,298,000 minutes, 1,577,880,000 seconds. Of course, the immensity of the number of seconds, minutes, even the 400k+ hours just makes my eyes cross. I’m not even sure how that kind of time translates into a life of days, months, and years.

And while I don’t think I’ve gone through life with my eyes closed, inattentive to its lessons, with 50 just around the corner, I begin to wonder. Where has all that time gone? What, if anything, have I managed to produce? What have I learned and have the lessons changed the way I live – who I am? Or as the saying goes, ‘What do I have to show for all that time?’ What about the time I have left? What exactly am I supposed to be using that for? What about today? Was the activity packed into the last 24 hours worth anything? Wonder what ocean all that sand is buried under.

StrandedInTime

Most of my life has been defined by my relationships; and, in a very real way, time itself has defined me. In my younger days I would have balked at such a statement. The very idea that anyone’s ‘stage’ in life defined them would have offended my determination to define myself apart from any constrictions like time or place or even other people. Age has taught me differently. And while I would like to believe that I have allowed my faith to define me, even that has become as elusive as the outgoing tide.

Truth be told, it all started with family, brothers, sister, and parents, that morphed into peers, then friends, then almost-as-close-as-family college relationships. Marriage and kids opened a whole new realm from in-laws to the people I met because our kids played together.

As much as I hate to admit it, forces outside myself have always managed to define me, for good or ill, making my current situation bewildering at best, terrifying at worst. You see, for the first time in my life, I can say that I feel truly alone, cut off from others in any tangible defining way. The sense of being lost has never been so real to me as it has the past 3 years. Not ‘lost’ in a Christian sense as in losing faith – my faith in God has never been stronger. More like ‘lost’ in terms of my place in the world, my purpose for living. This feeling, wondering what I’m doing ‘here’ has left me with a kind of hopelessness born out of a loneliness for real connectedness in some ways almost too painful to describe.

Moving 25 times has not helped matters. Certainly in early years my ability to quickly establish deep friendships sustained me through times of loss as I left family and friends behind. But all the moving has also taken its toll on my ability to find and establish deep relationships in the first place. Bottom line? I’m tired. Wore slap out, as we used to say down South. How does one go deep, tear apart, and then do it all over and over again, at the same time managing the guilt associated with having to let go in order to move on? The pain sometimes feels like an accumulation of sand at the bottom of the hour glass, heavy and oppressive. Makes me want to shut down to avoid going through the process again. But loneliness is its own kind of oppression for an extrovert who has been defined by relationships all of her life.

I find that my ‘stage’ also has a lot to do with the difficulty I’m having establishing new friendships. My eldest (girls) are grown and gone from home and my teenage son has no interest in any kind of deep relationship with his not-really-very-cool mother. Moving at almost-50 into a small community has left me wondering if there is anyone around me who isn’t already over-burdened with their own years of accumulated relationships – too burdened to want to invest in a new one with me. At the same time hearing my spouse say, “We still aren’t settled,” implying yet another move, does not endear me to the idea of putting in any roots now, knowing the pain that comes with the uprooting.

Having to work full-time for the first time in 23 years has opened my eyes to the difficulty of establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships amidst the demands of work, commuting, and continuing household chores. There are literally days when I wish I could find a way to stop – everything – even time itself. Other days time feels like a prison cell, and I can almost see myself hemmed in to a little box running inexorably on a time-line which I can’t for the life of me escape.

Finally, having spent the first 40 years of my life steeped in religion, I never knew how very difficult it is to find meaningful relationships outside the 4 walls of the structure we call church. For me there is no going back to that arena. It took me a long time to see the machine-like quality, the distance-keeping business as usual of that structure, but now that I can see it, it’s all I can see. No amount of loneliness could drive me back into the dry bones of that dying institution.

So where does all this leave me? Looking hard at 50, thinking about the confines of time itself, sometimes grieving the loss of it, sometimes grinding my teeth at the speed of it. Recently, I’ve begun to see forward, linear time as the true curse we have been given over to. All of life’s ills from sickness to sadness to death itself spring from the well of forward linear time. I often imagine what life would be like if we could go back and relive an experience. I’m not the only one. Pictures, video recordings, movies about time travel, even the fast pace of our technological connectedness all testify to the human desire to overcome time’s limitations.

Strangely enough, that truth – that we are ‘stuck’ in forward, linear time – has given me hope. The very fact that I understand time to be the ultimate restriction to who we are as God’s image-bearers tells me I was made for a life without it. If thirst proves the existence of water, then our desire to control time proves that there is an existence beyond its limits.

I read a book of fiction this year that has impacted my life probably more profoundly than any other book save the Bible. Written by Jonathan Safran Foer, the book explores the idea that true redemption means everything running backwards, thereby putting all to rights. I cannot over stress the impact this idea has made in my mind. When one of the characters imagined the full extent of this possibility – beginning with the plane moving backwards out of the World Trade Center building, culminating in Eve “unpicking” the fruit from the tree – I couldn’t stop crying. I have come to believe that this is what true justice – true redemption – looks like.

Think about it. In forward linear time …

… a raped teen can never have her virginity back;
… a bereaved parent can never receive his child back;
… a harsh word can never be taken back, while the scars of our hurts remain indelibly etched on our hearts for all time. No amount of forgiveness or repentance can ever completely undo a wrong.

But what if redemption is the actual rolling back of time? What if we are going to see our pain, all the world’s suffering, in reverse – being UNdone? While it boggles the mind, I also know in my bones it must be true. When the prison doors that keep us locked in time are finally opened, the possibilities are endless! Why not this one? Why not the restoration of every broken relationship? Why not the healing of every loved one? Why not the complete redemption of the kosmos? Why not?

Revelation 21:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”
 
And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”