1.14.2009

Seeing Between the Trees

I braved the frigid temperatures of Northeast Florida (45--brrrrrr! right?) today to sprint through the woods. Up and down dunes, through black hammock and cypress groves, over oyster-shell paths and mangrove roots. I ran and ruminated on the craft of storytelling.

As I navigated the Timicuan Trail, what seemed an appropriate comparison occurred to me. The totality of the trail is the story's plot. The things you glimpse between the trees are your subplots, your characterization, your setting, your art.

And it also occurred to me that sometimes we find ourselves in such a rush to complete the task that we forget to extract any real pleasure from it. Sure, it's nice to burn off some steam on a fast run and it's satisfying to get through the exercise quickly because, in our culture, we typically measure success with things like speed or strength. But what gets lost in that compulsion to finish?

The comparison applies to cooking as well. Why are more Americans now obese than are merely overweight? We put a premium on eating quickly and efficiently, tossing aside the obvious merit (and enjoyment) of making something from scratch. Did you know it takes days to make a great loaf of sourdough bread in your own home? The start itself needs twenty-four hours. Sure, you can get a loaf of sourdough bread at the supermarket for a couple of dollars. It'll look just like its buddies, all wrapped up and perfectly shaped in that shiny cellophane, probably some caricature of a baker stencilled on the front. But what about that misshapen loaf that strikes the perfect balance between tangy and rich--you know, the one that just came fresh from the oven in your own kitchen?

I think the same thing applies to storytelling. I hear grumblings among authors that publishers now purchase ideas, not stories. I hear complaints that it's trends that sell, not substance. I read articles declaring that we live in the second (moments are too long; and eras? don't get me started) of volume. If it's loud, if it's immense, if people can talk about it in a string of symbols (gr8, lol!), then it's bankable.

So what do we do?

Today, I turned off my radio. I listened to the birds in the trees, the rustle of things crashing around in the ferns. I stopped at the birding platform and watched fish jump, listened to the creak of oysters. I watched a great blue heron spear the water for its lunch.

I often tell my students to turn off the radio in their car, to set their cell phone on vibrate. I ask them to think about their lives in terms of comparisons, just for a short time each day. Sure, mixed metaphors and scattered similes can absolutely kill a decent piece of writing. That's true. But I think it's there, in the space between the trees, in those unique individual scenes that come together to comprise a longer work, that we find the best of these comparisons.

And that's how you add a layer of texture to your work. I've read that Orson Scott Card sometimes instructs writers to work with an ending already in mind. I envy that approach; I wish I could adopt it more frequently in my own work.

But part of the beauty of the work is in getting there. Always has been.

And as a reader, as much as I enjoy the satisfaction of finishing a good story, I often find the work all the more meaningful if a writer can show me the space between the trees along the way.

Card, by the way, is more than adept at communicating those things. His advice is sound because he understands the balance between completing the journey and describing what's in between all those trees.

That balance, I suppose, is a large part of what makes a story memorable and resonant.

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