Showing posts tagged stories

Rebecca Solnit: “A sentence is a road and reading is traveling”

This is what is behind the special relationship between tale and travel, and, perhaps, the reason why narrative writing is so closely bound up with walking. To write is to carve a new path in the terrain of the imagination, or to point out new features in a familiar route. To read is to travel through that terrain with the author as guide—a guide one may not always agree with or trust, but who can at least be counted upon to take one somewhere. I have often wished that my sentences could be written out as a single line running into the distance so that it would be clear that a sentence is likewise a road and reading is traveling…. Perhaps those Chinese scrolls one unrolls as one reads preserve something of this sense. The songlines of Australia’s aboriginal peoples are the most famous examples conflating landscape and narrative. The songlines are tools of navigation across the deep desert, while the landscape is a mnemonic device for remembering the stories: in other words, the story is a map, the landscape a narrative.

— from Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

All are chasing God

“The spiritual writer … acts in service to something higher, purer, truer than himself. In a sense, of course, everyone does; Eliade correctly observed that ‘even beneath its radically desacralized forms, Western culture camouflages magico-religious meanings that our contemporaries, with the exception of a few poets and artists, do not suspect.’ Don Juan chasing skirts, eccentric collectors chasing Lepidoptera, nuclear physicists chasing the quark: all are chasing God. This is true also of those who chase reality through the artistic manipulation of words. Every mystery novel points toward the mystery of existence; every erotic tale, the divine lover; every poem, the language of paradise. In spiritual writing, however, the implicit becomes explicit, eschatology lifts its veil, and—following Coleridge—ignorance gives birth, after a mighty labor, to adoration. Spiritual writing, whether storytelling, confession, exposition, memoir, manifesto, argument, scholarship, poetry, or any of its other myriad forms, becomes the literary equivalent of puja, of self-effacing devotion and service. This shared sense of service binds together the writings in this and every volume of the series. How could it be otherwise? In a thousand years, all the words we will write will be dust; only the good they may have done will continue to bear fruit.”

— from Philip Zaleski’s foreword to The Best American Spiritual Writing 2008, edited by Mr. Zaleski (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)

(Image by dabacahin.)

Telling stories about yourself

“Is the unexamined life worth living? Or Socrates’ great motto, Know thyself. […] I was probably forced by disposition and depression to examine myself at great length before I ever put anything to paper. It’s not like there was information I didn’t get into earlier drafts, but obviously immersion in such subject matter is cathartic. We remember through that filter of self, and to bring my fifty-plus-year-old body back to that time was edifying. Do I think everybody should do it? Yeah, I think we fall in love and become adults and become citizens in a way by writing stories about ourselves. We have one story when we’re living with our parents and they’re these Colossi, another story when we leave home, and then you’re thirty-something and it’s a different story. So telling stories about yourself, whether on a therapist’s couch, or in the arms of your beloved, or on paper, is one of the ways we become adults. We grow up by honing the narrative.”

Mary Karr, Lit (from the Huffington Post interview by Steve Ross)

(Photograph:  Albert Braun with Mirror, c. 1928, by Lotte Stam-Beese. Thank you, 1stdibs.)

“This is what I thought: for the most banal even to become an adventure, you must (and this is enough) begin to recount it. This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

“I live in the past. I take everything that has happened to me and arrange it. From a distance like that, it doesn’t do any harm, you’d almost let yourself be caught in it. Our whole story is fairly beautiful. I give it a few prods and it makes a whole string of perfect moments. Then I close my eyes and try to imagine that I’m still living inside it.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

“So in the end this is not a book about Che Guevara; it is a book about us. It is about what we—society in general—have created as Che. The icon is a repository for the collective pool of dreams, fears, beliefs, doubts, and desires that makes up the human condition. The true mark of Che’s durability throughout his tumultuous afterlife is that his icon has somehow been able to reconcile all these demands. Che functions as the site of a long-running bitter conflict, one that preceded his death and now succeeds it. This conflict is sustained by either side’s steadfast commitment to its own definitions of justice, liberty, equality, fairness, etc. It’s a debate that societies, political systems, and religions have tried to resolve for centuries without success. And whereas the convictions we all hold on these matters might simply reflect the reality of our material or social circumstances, the stories we use to explain them are often imbued with the more romantic and profound language of morality. Many of us conceive of our politics in spiritual terms.”

Michael Casey, Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image

There is no single, final story of the Che icon

"At first the elusiveness of the truth in the Che myth was frustrating. Then it became clear that my goal should be to somehow capture this ‘truthlessness.’ I can now come out and say it: There is no single, final story of the Che icon. There are many, indeed millions of different stories. And together they define it. Popular icons are by definition social constructs, which means they assimilate a range of inevitably contradictory ideas. And since Che is one of the most contested and politicized of all popular icons, the range of ideas contained within it is very broad indeed.

"I soon realized I would never have the time or resources to investigate and verify all these myths, versions of the truth, varying accounts, and competing narratives. But what, in any case, would be the point of doing so? The truth about the Che icon, wherever it lies, can exist only in such a way that it incorporates and reflects the great variety of these stories. This is not to say that self-serving lies haven’t been told in the construction of it—there are plenty on either side of the Florida Strait. But to deny one version of Che in favor of the other would be to exclude part of the whole."

— from Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image by Michael Casey (Vintage Books, 2009)

(Photograph by dabacahin. The Che image on the book’s cover is based on the 1960 photograph by Alberto Korda.)

Michael Casey on the Che Guevara brand and the idealized self

The gap between [Fidel] Castro’s socialism brand and its economic reality is too wide for me—especially since the country scores so poorly on freedom of expression, personal liberty, and other principles I regard as important. But a person who prioritizes social equality over individual freedom and property rights might see Cuba’s universal health care, the success of its free education system, and its low crime rates as legitimate reasons to prefer it over the alternative, Brand USA. What matters is that this package of constructed image and real facts fits their personal value system. Choosing a brand—much as choosing to display a loved one’s photo, to don a religious pendant or national flag pin, to wear a favorite team’s colors, or to declare our admiration for a political, artistic, or sporting hero—is a personal act. Brands, symbols, and images are incorporated into a person’s identity. They form part of the idealized self with which we define our place in the world.

This is why the Korda Che brand is so prevalent and so enduring: It feeds the soul. Far from fitting Cuban-American writer Humberto Fontova’s description of them as “useful idiots,” people are drawn to the Che image for reasons that will defy outsiders’ political characterizations. Very often what matters is a personal connection to the image itself, more so than the story of Ernesto Guevara. In fact, the brand is powerful because, quite independently of Che and his story, the icon that emerged from Alberto Korda’s photograph is independently capable of stirring the forces of human imagination and of tapping into deep-seated longings for a better world.

— from Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image by Michael Casey

José Rivera: “No piece of literature will ever be everyone’s Che Guevara”

[In 2005, Mr. Rivera became the first Puerto Rican screenwriter to receive an Oscar nomination: Best Adapted Screenplay for The Motorcycle Diaries.]

Lisa Garibay: [ … ] You said something about the difficult yet interesting process of having to fabricate dialogue based on two first-person accounts, based on diaries, and that whole question of not revisionist history but fictional history and memory as fact or fiction. I’m wondering what kind of dilemmas, maybe upon reading [Alberto] Granado’s account and upon reading Motorcycle Diaries, you encountered in terms of having to translate those into your traditional three-act dramatic piece. And fabricating or at least massaging… I seem to remember you using the word “fabricating” which struck me, because it’s like, “How dishonest!” But I mean, we writers all do it, you know? We have to make something out of nothing a lot of the times. But because it’s Che Guevara and there’s all that weight, did that ever inhibit you?

José Rivera: Well, it’s a great question because it really gets to one of the big challenges of the book, which was that we weren’t going to bow to the deification of Che — we just weren’t going to do it. This is a movie about Ernesto Guevara, long before Che Guevara ever existed. So we could not really either pay great homage or pander to the legendary person that everyone believes they know and very few people actually do. I think our challenge was, how do we tell the story of an adolescent coming of age into manhood on the road essentially? And that to me was our guiding principle. It’s funny — I don’t consider making up dialogue dishonest, you know? It’s sort of what you do as a screenwriter! [ … ]

LG: Yes. This question for me I think sprung from a process of acceptance that a lot of people are going to have to go through when the movie comes out or when they see it, especially if they’ve come to believe in this book as this sort of hallowed piece of literary canon, a very treasured biography that plays into that myth and that idolatry that you said you were trying to avoid. They’re separate and completely different entities, and the great genius of the film I think is that it does bring across that this is a coming of age story, it is a much more universal experience than the Che Guevara that you said a lot of people don’t really know, they could never know. But how many people go off and do what he did, but how many people have fallen in love or gone on a roadtrip with a friend or interacted with a best friend in these different sort of situations? So many!

JR: Exactly! And you know, no piece of literature will ever be everyone’s Che Guevara. And we weren’t trying to make a movie for everyone’s Ernesto Guevara, we just weren’t. We have a particular point of view, it’s very specific to both [director Walter Salles] and I as artists, and that’s what we sought to tell. And there will be — from the left, from the right, from north and south — every conceivable attack on the inaccuracy or on the soul of the movie. But I would say we got certain things right, because I think the third character in the movie is Latin America, and on any level I don’t think you could fault Walter as a cinematographer, as a filmmaker, on how he depicts the continent and the people. It does an absolutely brilliant job of that. And really the point is that Ernesto Guevara is just one more person in that tapestry.

— from the interview by Lisa Y. Garibay (Then It Must Be True)

Two lives

“This is not a story of heroic feats, or merely the narrative of a cynic; at least I do not mean it to be. It is a glimpse of two lives running parallel for a time, with similar hopes and convergent dreams. In nine months of a man’s life he can think a lot of things, from the loftiest meditations on philosophy to the most desperate longing for a bowl of soup — in total accord with the state of his stomach. And if, at the same time, he’s somewhat of an adventurer, he might live through episodes of interest to other people and his haphazard record might read something like these notes.”

— the first paragraph of The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto “Che” Guevara

(Image: Thank you, Biker eNews.)

A woman’s place

“When I leave home I take my quilt with me, even though mama objects. [My grandmother] Baba loves the world of the past and has no interest in the new but mama is obsessed with the new. And so she cannot understand my dragging this old thing. But I want it there to cover me, to be my constant reminder of who I am and where I am coming from. I am coming from a long line of fierce and brave country women who know what they need to do in this world and who know how to do it. I always wanted to be more of the kinda girl Baba could have taken to heart and called her own, a girl into making lye soap, wringing the necks of chickens, and sipping newly made wine or drinking large mugs of buttermilk with my corn bread. But she does not read or write and these are my worlds—the worlds I share with [my grandfather] Daddy Gus. Baba and I are in the same world when it comes to telling stories, wanting to surround ourselves with beauty, and believing we can create that beauty, that there is nothing a woman cannot do that a man can. Baba teaches me these things. Mama is more concerned that we know a woman’s place. I like it that Baba sees every place as a woman’s place.”

— from Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life by bell hooks

(Image: Pictorial quilt, circa 1886, by Harriet Powers. Thank you, Andrea Zuill.)

“The past is just a story we tell ourselves.”

— from Her, written and directed by Spike Jonze

The examined rose

Yes, the world is out there, over your head and under your nose, and it is real and it is knowable. To understand something about why a thing is as it is in no way detracts from its beauty and grandeur, nor does it reduce the observed to “just a bunch of”—chemicals, molecules, equations, specimens for a microscope. Scientists get annoyed at the hackneyed notion that their pursuit of knowledge diminishes the mystery or art or “holiness” of life. Let’s say you look at a red rose, said Brian Greene, and you understand a bit about the physics behind its lovely blood blush. You know that red is a certain wavelength of light, and that light is made of little particles called photons. You understand that photons representing all colors of the rainbow stream from the sun and strike the surface of the rose, but that, as a result of the molecular composition of pigments in the rose, it’s the red photons that bounce off its petals and up to your eyes, and so you see red.

“I like that picture,” said Greene. “I like the extra story line, which comes, by the way, from Richard Feynman. But I still have the same strong emotional response to a rose as anybody else. It’s not as though you become an automaton, dissecting things to death.” To the contrary. A rose is a rose is a rose; but the examined rose is a sonnet.

— from “Thinking Scientifically: An Out-of-Body Experience” in The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier

(Photograph by Elisabeth Montagnier. Thank you, Ms. Montagnier and 1stdibs.)

Every single story that nature tells is gorgeous

“The beauty of the natural world lies in the details, and most of those details are not the stuff of calendar art. I have made it a kind of hobby, almost a mission, to write about organisms that many people find repugnant: spiders, scorpions, parasites, worms, rattlesnakes, dung beetles, hyenas. I have done so both out of a perverse preference for subjects that other writers generally have ignored, and because I hope to inspire in readers an appreciation for diversity, for imagination, for the twisted, webbed, infinite possibility of the natural world. Every single story that nature tells is gorgeous. She is the original Scheherazade, always with one more surprise to shake down from her sleeve. Of course, I can record only a tiny fraction of those stories, but what I offer represents a larger plea, for all the stories that can be told, for the preservation of nature on her own terms, complete with the golums and creeps and ogres of the world, the roaches, the snakes, the bloodsuckers, the lowlifes and the brutes.”

Natalie Angier, from The Beauty of the Beastly: New Views of the Nature of Life

(Image: Arachnid (Arachnida), print by Ernst Haeckel, Kunstformen der Natur, 1898. Thank you, Paleontology Online, Eric Gjerde, and Flickr.)

“My dreaming mind is a child’s mind—sentimental, grandiose, rewriting stories so that their endings can be born.”

Natalie Angier, last sentence from the last essay in The Beauty of the Beastly