The Power of Storytelling international conference in Bucharest just concluded its fifth edition this month, and thanks to conference founder Cristian Lupsa, editor of the nonfiction journal Decât o Revistă and a 2014 Nieman fellow, and his colleagues, Storyboard will bring you transcripts from some of the two-day conference’s sessions.
This year’s event had a theme guiding each keynote and panel: a sense of place. The speakers tackled the idea of place in a story and the way it is conveyed, depicted, researched, and understood. Some shared stories of places visited for research and work (Paterniti, Banaszynski, MacNaughton), while others spoke of places they grew up in and places that changed their perspective on life (Jones, Perjovschi, Bugan). Outside the conference hall, audience members were challenged to debate the idea of space through photo exhibits, but also by drawing, illustrating, or writing about important places in their lives.
Our second speaker is Michael Paterniti, bestselling author and GQ contributor
There was a bookstore in Rangoon, Burma, when I was there many years ago. It was a pretty remarkable place, anonymous among a row of ramshackle shops on Sule Pagoda Street. Every book in that cramped shop came in some shade of green: lime green, emerald green, fern green, olive drab, veridian. The covers of all the books were green; the bindings were green. Each one looked almost exactly like THIS [shows battered book, in green]. It could have been Faulkner; it could have been Tin Tin. Who could distinguish?
And here’s the amazing thing: If you asked for George Orwell or Norman Lewis, if you wanted Keats or Virginia Woolf, the bookstore owner—a man named U Ba Kyi, who was maybe 50, with hair sprouting from a mole on his chin, which was considered a sign of good luck in Burma—would instantly pluck it from the shelf. He knew exactly where each book was in the store, could summon the location as easily as he might reach for a bedside glass of water in the dark. Inside, the books were mimeographed, on thin paper. Lost books, wrapped in anonymous robes. Disguised but still living. When you opened them, the words smelled amazing, like cut grass. Or vanilla.
This place, for me, was a true curiosity. U Ba Kyi only had one copy of each book on the shelf, and when that one sold, he went back and mimeographed a new one. So he kept a secret library of the real books somewhere that wasn’t here. As the British empire faded from Burma in the late 1940’s, and democracy failed in the 1990’s, as the ruling junta became more and more oppressive and isolationist, and slugged themselves with the name SLORC (like something out of Orwell itself), the bookstore also became more and more dangerous. What U Ba Kyi had the audacity to do, what he’d brought himself to do—or elevated himself to do—was to harbor all the written words that had been banned. He was the word-protector, and the story-keeper. His shop was like a black box of the human psyche, some Spiritus Mundi. If certain books had been found out in his shop, he surely would have gone to prison.
At the time, in the mid-90’s, I’d come to Rangoon—renamed Yangon, as Burma had been renamed Myanmar (the fluidity of words, of names, of verbs, as Carmen said yesterday, are history itself, or the re-writing of it)—I’d come to talk to Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and pro-democracy leader who was under long-term house arrest. There was a civil war raging in the jungle (where I’d just been with the Karen troops), and the military kept the city in lockdown. Anyone suspected of subversion quietly disappeared. Repression was quick and violent. In fact, just weeks after I left one jungle village on the frontline, one whose inhabitants were primarily Muslim, I found out that the SLORC troops had taken all the men there and, one by one, lit their beards on fire. The populace, unless otherwise part of the corrupt machine, served as indentured slaves to the regime. Or were otherwise subjugated by this genocide. And yet there were pockets of resistance, pro-democracy activists spreading their whispered message in tea shops and tofu restaurants. In order to interview one, I was picked up on a street corner, driven around the city, and deposited at an empty mansion, on the edge of a cane field. His codename was Caesar… and in the second hour of our interview, in the stifling heat, he simply fell asleep. There was nothing in the instruction manual for how to deal with a sleeping interview subject, so I showed myself out, and walked back to the city.
At first, I didn’t understand anything in Burma. How could I? There was so much happening above my head, so much that seemed impenetrable, and frightening. And while I waited for my interview with Aung San Suu Kyi, the bookstore was the place I went every day, to try to find some comfort, some words that might trigger an idea, or an emotion, to define my own confusion. To see if anyone had ever felt this dislocation, caused by this country, and put it into perfect words. Every day I came through the door, U Ba Kyi looked up, eyes lifting from what he read, and, smiling, asked me in perfect British English: What is your pleasure today?
It’s the fine detail that the mind records as the mouth motors nonsensically…We are human beings having an actual/sensual experience first, and storytellers second.
By the third day, I asked him to just give me what he thought I might like. One of the books he picked from the green wall in that green room of words was a memoir called “Elephant Bill.” As it turned out, Elephant Bill was a Brit named James Williams who went to Burma in 1920 as a forest assistant for the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation, a company using 2,000 elephants to extract teak from the jungle, after which the trees were floated downriver to Rangoon or Mandalay. Fresh from the First World War, in which he’d been charged with taking care of camels in Africa, Williams was placed in charge of 70 elephants, and their oozies. And from first sight Elephant Bill fell in love with the animals. He loved their power and intelligence. He saw them as huge, hulking mysteries to unlock. He studied their habits and idiosyncracies. He respected their sensitivity, intelligence, and senses of humor. And when he wrote about elephants and elephant trainers with such generosity and granular detail, I couldn’t help but think he was writing about stories and writers. I took his every word in that dark country as a word of advice. As if he was speaking directly to me.
Early in the book, just after Elephant Bill has first arrived in the jungle, he meets his boss, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of elephants. Except much drunker, and ornery as hell. His name is Willie—and Elephant Bill can’t get anywhere with him, not one shred of respect. Until one night when they have a drink-off, each with their own bottles of Black Label. “If I never teach you anything else, I can tell you this,” says Willie at one point, “anything to do with the jungle, elephants and your work you can only learn by experience…. You’ll draw your pay for 10 years before you earn it.”
Then, he proceeds to pawn off four misfit elephants on Elephant Bill and order him to march them through the jungle to another hill station days away. When an ancient female elephant known as Ma Oh, or “the Old Lady” dies on the journey, it’s up to Elephant Bill to perform an autopsy. Here’s what Elephant Bill writes, by way of describing how he cut open the corpse of that dear 80-year-old elephant:
Tragedy soon turned to farce. The Old Lady was scarcely cold before I was literally inside her, with her arching ribs, sheltering me from the sun. I learned a good deal about elephant construction from her. Spare parts galore had been hauled out and arranged neatly in a row before tea-time. Her carcass proved to be a cave full of strange treasures, such as the heart, the gizzard, and the lungs. The only snag was that, do what I would, I could not find any kidneys, and I was almost tempted to conclude that she died from lack of them…
For me, reading the book at a streetside food stand, among a swirl of longyis swaying in the languid heat, gold dust called thanaka on the women’s faces, I clung to this passage—what Elephant Bill called his “Jonah journey”—as a sort of touchstone. I earmarked the page, and kept coming back to it. It wasn’t just Elephant Bill’s voice, funny and enthusiastic and astute. But it was the simple metaphor that the story of Elephant Bill’s march and subsequent post-mortem presented. For people like us, gathered here today, who love and try to understand the mechanics of narrative, the story really is an elephant. The story is always an elephant. And no matter what, in the end, we have to go inside to get it…. To humble ourselves, and learn. To find the cave full of strange treasures. To enter the hull of bones and bring out the innards, in hopes of writing the post-mortem, or a unified theory. To make a beginning, middle, and end of it, if we must. Our jungle journey includes taking the bus, getting on planes, walking through doors. [Or as Jackie said yesterday, crossing the lawn to the neighbors.] We enter the house or the hovel, the tukel or the hut. We say hello to the stranger, and by being there, concentrated in that one moment, together, we begin. We scalpel our way, question by question, into the secret place—to the place where the man is contemplating his own suicide perhaps, or grieving his lost wife; to where the woman wonders where her only child has gone or how she can redeem herself in the eyes of the one she loves—and suddenly we’re lost in this otherworld, slick and glimmering. What do we see there, and what do we make of it? How do we lay it out, to make a story, to make art or literature from it? And how do we go from the experience itself to words on a page, from the sensual encounter to the insentient markings on a page that re-conjures it all again in four dimensions? What is THAT alchemy?
I wish I knew. Because here’s the thing: I’ve been doing this for awhile. I write four or five long stories annually—and books, too—and each one seems to kill me in its own little way. Each leaves me knowing less, having learned more. Each depletes me, while filling me afresh, leaving me in a dynamic state of doubt. I call myself a reporter, and I proceed to ask stupid questions. I listen back to interviews while transcribing and I sound like a blithering idiot.
In fact, I have an unofficial contest going with some writer friends, to see who can ask the stupidest question EVER without meaning to, and I think I recently won. I was interviewing the chef Yotam Ottolenghi in London, and at the risk of never being asked to go on assignment again, I’m going to quote my question, verbatim:
So I’m just—butternut! Butternut squash, broccoli polenta, pearled lemon, that idea of, and sometimes this happens at the ridiculous high-end restaurant, the prawn did this, eat the whole flower, or whatever, just get that marrow, or whatever it is, up here, on the plate, all foamy, and this is what you’re doing without having to turn it into some sort of ridiculous cooky thing in these restaurants, like, maybe you could tell me: Why are we doing this!?
Seriously, how can you answer a question like this? And you know you’re in trouble when the response is, as it was in Ottolenghi’s case, a very long silence, a polite but quizzical expression usually reserved for the platypus tank at the zoo, and then, with pity: I think I know what you’re trying to say…
Anyway—it kills me a little, when I ask stupid questions. But I know, in the end, to keep asking, however stupid, because we are stumbling together toward the secret… and it’s always the response that matters. And it’s the fine detail that the mind records as the mouth motors nonsensically. It’s the memory bank of gestures and lightfall, the tastes and smells and visions—in Port au Prince after an earthquake, in the Sudan during a famine, on the Japanese coast after a tsunami. We are human beings having an actual/sensual experience first, and storytellers second. We accept the orange spilling its juice, the rice crawling with ants, the pain and joy given to us, or visited upon us. We let it in, allow for sedimentation, until it becomes ours, too, and then, we try to translate it.
But first comes the place, and the people in it. Our interaction with it, as we go inside, cut the tough skin to bones and organs. We hear our own voice met by another. We lay out the spare parts. We keep wondering where the damn kidneys went. Where did they go? We make our rough record of it. And then we leave.
Or do we?
I write plenty of crap, sloppy drafts, lame sentences…that’s where all the energy lives, and builds, and begins its shaping work. That’s where the true freedom of creativity orders all of this chaos of research, feeling, and thought into new structures and new ways of seeing stories
I’ve always had this feeling, looking out the plane or car window when leaving a place that I’m certain to return, certain to have a second life there. And soon enough it comes true, but not the way I thought.
Because soon enough you have to write the damn thing.
But, not yet. Not before the most confounding part of storymaking for me: I’ll call it the delay and obfuscation phase. What kills me a little, too, is that writers aren’t paid for, or measured by the greatness of their procrastination techniques, because mine—and perhaps many others in this room—can be of Nobel caliber. When I’m on that deadline, I want to drive the kids everywhere, show up at every game, volunteer for every field trip. I want to cook and go surfing. Do the laundry. I want to hike the White Mountains… and the Green Mountains… and the Alps. I Google elaborate itineraries for trips I’ll never take. I find out what bands are touring, just to see if they’re within 300 miles of me. I’m suddenly actually reading the jokes my dad sends via group email. Yes, I’m processing and percolating. I’m mediating and mind-sorting. But I’m also squandering time. And yet I take solace in the Emily Dickinson poem:
“To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.”
Meanwhile, I’m usually letting my editors know that “I’m on it.” That it’s going “really well.” That they should “probably expect a draft soon.” And then the clock keeps ticking, louder and louder. I sometimes wonder about this process of procrastination. Is it that I want to delay the dissatisfaction—or heartbreak—of my own impending failure? Is it that I want to sustain the illusion that it’s possible, for once, to make something ideal, that’s utterly pure of feeling, and clear of thought? Or is it that I’m prioritizing my facts and research, rummaging this body of evidence that I’m already unconsciously composing? I’m not sure—but eventually I can’t quite live with myself for all the foot-dragging. Failure seems like a better option. But that voice keeps saying: If you don’t write a word, then the story will remain infinite. By this line of thought, each word, and sentence, leads to a forking, a choice made but one more eliminated, a narrowing, a fear of finitude. But then, I know that the best stories, my favorite stories, have at their heart that reflection of the collective, the schisms that make us human, the energy of the infinite even as they get chipped to a diamond point.
So… For me, the making of a story typically moves through these three phases:
- The cutting through and going inside and gathering up (the experiential),
- The meditation over what’s been laid out (procrastination/percolation of all the fine, telling details), and
- The writing, or making sense of it in narrative form, in draft after draft, until it’s been stylized to some fine point of articulation.
In logistical terms, then, I try to start by writing early in the morning, before my brain has caught up with consciousness. (Make no mistake, even when fully procrastinating on one story, I’m writing something every morning.) After the first round of work, there are children to tend to: breakfast, packed lunches, off to school. This is as important as anything—and afterward, I go to a coffee shop, where people are really friendly but cluster to do their work, as well. The white noise, the smell of coffee (though I’m not a big coffee drinker), the ritual and routine—all of it somehow helps, triggers the track switch, keeps me suspended or separated, lost in this world of my own slow construction. I’ve been known to pull up my hoodie, too, and bury my head. My friends have been known to refer to me as the Unabomber.
During these first scratchings, I think the goal is to try our hardest not to think. I’ll play loud music on my headphones if necessary. I’ll do my best to avoid texts and email. I’ll beat back the inner critic with the inner Viking wielding cudgels and war hammers. Sometimes the words come flooding, sometimes they trickle. I try not to care, but focus on where I am, inside, with the story, word to word, sentence to sentence. Hook and purl. It becomes a molecular puzzle. And while there’s a geographical place you go to get your story, there’s also a psychic place you go to make your story.
Unscientifically, I think we write from a zone somewhere above the stomach and below the heart, and maybe based on a signal from Mars. You can begin to sound a little nutty talking about this, but we go to some other green room of words waiting inside us as well, to some collective unconscious. To summon sentences out of our thoughts and feelings, we fall into a kind of trembling awareness, an underwater murkiness, not a trance, not nothingness, but a liquid engagement that allows for the freedom to make associations/connections/ allusive logic rather than linear logic. What are the powerful images, metaphors, lines of dialogue?
We move toward them.
I have a relative who works in neuroscience and also writes poetry. When I asked him how he would describe the physiology of creativity, he sent me a lengthy and amazing email, using words like “supraliminal” and “phonological loop,” “visuo-spatial scratchpad” and “episodic buffer.” But what mattered most in what he wrote had to do with the necessity of shutting down certain sectors of the brain: that being creative is more about turning the brain off, than turning it on. Writing—good writing—comes from working, sometimes thoughtlessly. It comes from remembering and forgetting at the same time. (There’s a reason bills pile up, emails go unanswered, etc.) It comes from the discipline, and patience, to find inspiration, to the exclusion of all else. There’s a rich history of creators going to unusual lengths to find this creative space, to create distraction, to turn off the monkey brain.
We’re told that Steve Jobs had his best thoughts on the toilet. Flannery O’Connor tended to her pet peacocks. And even as the composer Philip Glass made avant-garde musical happenings in his 20’s and 30’s, he worked as a plumber.
Said Glass in a later interview: “While working, I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time magazine, staring at me in disbelief. ‘But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?’ It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher and I told him I would soon be finished. ‘But you are an artist,’ he protested. I explained that I was an artist but that I was sometimes a plumber as well and that he should go away and let me finish.”
The take-away: You have to be workman-like to be ethereal.
And even then, you can’t count on it. That is, it also kills me a little to call myself a writer, and yet each time I begin again I seem to know nothing. And I write plenty of crap, sloppy drafts, lame sentences. But if I write enough of them, if the words begin to gather, and I forgive myself long enough to experiment and make mistakes… that’s where all the energy lives, and builds, and begins its shaping work. That’s where the true freedom of creativity orders all of this chaos of research, feeling, and thought into new structures and new ways of seeing stories, or as Leslie had it yesterday, that’s how we allow other sources of light to illuminate our experience, draw our eye, bend the words.
This is the deep mystery of what we do when we write—the how of it—that I would argue isn’t so mysterious after all. Writing is everyday work. It’s a blue collar job with white collar aspirations. It’s turning wonder into words, with the materials at hand. Hours upon hours of compulsive obsessive gerrymandering, until your head and back hurts. We lose ourselves in the jungle, then return, as if after a long quest, shaggier and perhaps wiser. Doubt and hard work, that’s partly what writing is. Risk and faith, that is, too.
So, if you’re ready, it’s a bit of a pilgrim’s leap. It’s a Jonah journey; no one else can take it for you.
Old drunk Willy, the Obi-Wan of the jungle, told Elephant Bill that he would draw his pay for 10 years before earning it in the jungles of Burma. (And it turns out that Rilke, in his “Letters to a Young Poet,” warns that the writer’s apprenticeship may last the same amount of time.) But in the pages of “Elephant Bill,” we soon find Elephant Bill himself thrown smack into it, trying to control six savage elephants, realizing the intricacies of taming each with various “tricks.”
Doubt and hard work, that’s partly what writing is. Risk and faith, that is, too
“These tricks,” he writes, “were just the result of habitual methods employed by their riders. In some cases the approach had to be made from the near side, in other cases from the off, or from in front, or behind, or when the animal was sitting, or standing. The approach to each animal had to be learned separately.”
Each elephant is a different story, requiring separate ways of thinking, coaxing, taming. In trying to tell them, the pleasures are plenty, the mysteries vast, the compulsion deep. Steinbeck says:
A writer out of loneliness is trying to communicate like a distant star sending signals. He isn’t telling or teaching or ordering. Rather he seeks to establish a relationship of meaning, of feeling, of observing. We are lonesome animals. We spend all life trying to be less lonesome.
Eventually in Burma, I had my interview with Aung San Suu Kyi. She sat in her dead father’s empty house, its wooden bones creaking in a torrential downpour. She wore a white gardenia in her hair. Haggard and beautiful, strong and morose. That’s what I remember: the darkness of her mood, and the dripping of the water as it puddled on the teak floors.
And I remember when I left her, that I was going home, never to return to U Ba Kyi’s bookstore, or his accommodating smile again. Even now, I find myself wondering: What would possess someone to risk so much, to hide all of that literature in plain sight, mimeographed out of love and purpose, stuffed inside these handmade green bindings? And how is it that we—you, me, we—might write something so worthy as to grace those communal shelves? That U Ba Kyi would risk his life to protect all those stories still makes me believe it’s worth risking some small piece of ours to try to tell them.