Puzzle Box


The trick is to open the puzzle box.

You turn it over in your hands. You tap it. Shake it. Squeeze it. You bang it against things (the woman in the shop said you could do what you liked to it -- nothing would harm the box). You speak at it -- hoping there might be some magic word that will open it.

It’s a cube of some nondescript grey material. Sometimes cold to the touch, sometimes warm. Sometimes it feels heavy in the hand, as if it’s completely solid. At other times it’s light, and at those moments you’re convinced it’s hollow and there might actually be something inside it. You’re almost certain you can hear something rattling around inside it. The woman at the shop hinted vaguely that there would be a reward for solving the puzzle. A substantial reward. Life-changing was the word she used.

The other disconcerting thing is that the box seems to be changing in size. When you brought it home from the novelty shop it was about the size of an orange, if oranges were grey and cube-shaped. You kept it on your bedside table at night in case you had a dream that revealed to you how to open the thing. Now the box is too big to rest on the bedside table. And you realize that it’s not a perfect cube, or maybe it never was. Maybe you just wanted to see it that way. Anyhow, it's shaped funny, isn't it? It’s taller up and down and narrower side to side than it seemed to be at first. And the sides are uneven. It doesn’t look like a box anymore but more like a chunk of rock. Something shaped by nature. 

It stands in the corner of your breakfast nook, where you glance at it obsessively in the morning while eating your breakfast. You can’t take the box to work with you now, it’s too big, but you suspect that while you’re away from home it opens, and then closes again just before you walk in the door at the end of the day, just to spite you.

One day you come home from your demanding, unfulfilling job and the box is open. One side has come open. It’s hollow, and big enough that you could walk in. Or through. The inside of the box seems to be a passageway. You can’t see the other end of it.

You look around you. This house. This city. This reality. You understand that you’re inside the puzzle box, and you always have been. What you thought was the box is really a door.

Illustration: Figure, 1974, by John Pangnark (1920 - 1980). Art Gallery of Ontario.

Making friends with boredom


In my last post I talked about the gadgets in our lives and how they provide a constant source of distraction from whatever might be bothering us. We never have to be bored, for example, not for a moment. That’s a loss for us, I believe. If we eradicate boredom from our lives, we choke off the flow of our own creativity. Constantly fleeing boredom, we end up always bored.

When I tell my son it’s time to stop playing video games, he’ll mope around for a while, complaining that he’s bored, that there’s nothing to do. I used to say the same thing when I was his age (long before video games), and my mom would tell me, “Well, if you’re looking for something to do, there are plenty of chores.” At which point I’d quickly find a game to play or something to read.

Over the years I’ve come to see boredom differently. When I feel that familiar restless urge to escape from now, where nothing enjoyable or interesting seems to be happening, I give in, and let boredom be. And what usually happens is that the mind starts to work. The gears of the imagination begin to turn. If it’s not getting any outside stimulus, the mind starts to make its own excitement. It starts to ponder, speculate, invent, play. These are the moments when new ideas are born. For me, the spark of a new story often happens here. Without the vacancy of boredom, there’s no space in the mind for creativity to grow in. (Maybe when we say "I'm bored out of my mind" we should turn it around and tell ourselves to go ahead and be bored into our minds. And then see what happens). 

Now, when my son tells me he’s bored, I say to him, “Really? What a wonderful opportunity this is for you. Go ahead and be bored for a while. Who knows what you might come up with. The human brain has evolved over millennia to seek stimulation from its environment and ….” Usually by this point he’s already left the room and found something else to do. There’s nothing more boring than Dad’s lecture on the value of boredom.

Behold Tom Thumb, the Amazing Texting Author!

A milestone of sorts: yesterday I wrote my first story by thumb.

I was coming home on the train when I had an idea for a story. Instead of rummaging in my backpack for pen and paper, I took out the new smartphone I got the other day (the first one I’ve ever owned) and started to text out a rough draft of the story using the note-taking app. It was slow and laborious (I’m not a practiced thumber) but I got the main ideas down before the train arrived at my stop.

As I was walking along the station platform it occurred to me I could keep working on the piece -- it would be easier to walk and text than it would be to walk and try to scribble with pen in a notebook. And I thought, with this gadget I could get a lot more writing done in a day! I could be writing while walking to and from the train, while on the train, while walking just about anywhere, eating dinner, shopping, sitting in a movie theatre, talking to friends … any of those times I’ve seen other people texting on their phones, I could be writing.

It was just a brief crazy thought. Writing is not something that works well with multitasking, at least not for me. And I remembered the gentle warning given by Robert Kroetsch in his talk about the future of story a couple of years ago. He saw a lot of promise for the renewal of story in social networking, but he also wondered what would happen to our ability to think if “the thumb replaces the mouth as our means of communication.”

Hmm. I don’t know. My thumb isn’t any less a part of me than my tongue. It’s attached to the hand, which has been busy making up stories ever since writing was invented. It’s just another means to reach out across the gap between people.

I’m not worried I’m going to become Tom Thumb, the texting author. But I notice more and more people these days who apparently can’t go a minute without using their phones, even when they’re with other people. If I’m going to have anything worthwhile to say with my stories, then I can’t be writing all the time. I have to take the time to notice, experience, and reflect. I can’t always be avoiding the boring, unpleasant, painful, perplexing moments of life. I have to be here for them. I have to live this life so that I can write about it.

I suppose that’s what Kroetsch was really getting at. The real danger of the gadget is that it will fill up every moment with distraction. It will allow us to escape from life, and each other. We’ll be so busy “communicating” that we won’t see and hear one another anymore.

(Illustration: "Portrait of the Artist as a Thumb" taken on my smartphone and emailed to myself.)

The end of storytelling


In 1936, the German writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin published an essay, “The Storyteller,” in which he lamented that the art of storytelling was dying out in his time, killed in part by an immense flood of information.

In 1936.

“Every morning brings us the news of the globe,” Benjamin wrote, “and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation.”

It’s hard to imagine what Benjamin would have thought of our time, when every instant makes available to us more news, facts, factoids, data, images, statistics, lies, and explanations than someone in 1936 could have gathered in a month. It’s astounding that I can carry the libraries and news media of the world around in my pocket, and access them whenever I want to. It’s a miraculous thing. But what happens to my ability to stop and reflect on any of it if I’m consuming information like potato chips, stuffing more of it in every moment?

We still tell each other stories. We still crave stories. The kind of storytelling Benjamin is talking about -- in which people gather around an experienced weaver of worlds, someone who crafts a spellbinding tale with his voice and hands and imagination -- is a rare thing, certainly. Do we still experience the kind of telling which isn’t “shot through with explanation”? The kind of story that keeps some of its secrets, that, as Benjamin beautifully and mysteriously describes it, “preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time.” 

Stories like this are surely still being told, in books and film and even by word of mouth. But how can we give them our whole attention when they get crowded out a moment later by more stories, more texts and facts and babble? How can a storytelling be a special event when countless stories are available, at our fingertips, whenever we want them? Are we still able, or willing, to let a powerful story live and grow in us slowly, over days, months, years? 

Maybe the problem isn't so much one of information, as Benjamin lamented, but one of too many stories.

Popular posts from the past: Ogre

Traveling in the Perilous Realm you’re likely, sooner or later, to meet ogres. They have become more and more familiar denizens of Story these days, no doubt largely as a result of computer and roleplaying games like World of Warcraft, in which they appear quite often. In these games, and the guidebooks and manuals that have spun off from them, ogres have been catalogued by way of various species, tribes, races, etc. You can, for example, encounter an “ogre mage,” which is surprising, given that ogres are traditionally thought of as brutish hateful creatures without much in the way of brains. Rarely (if ever) in stories does a hero go to consult a wise old ogre.

The word ogre itself is interesting. Looking into its etymology, one finds that the word first appears in French literature, in a 12th century poem about the Aruthurian knight Percival, where these lines appear:

et s'est escrit que il ert ancore
que toz li reaumes de Logres,
qui ja dis fu la terre as ogres,
ert destruite par cele lance …

Which translates roughly to something like: “and there will come a time / when the kingdom of Logres [England], / which was once the land of ogres / shall be destroyed by that spear …”

It almost seems likely the poet invented the word ogre in order to find something to rhyme with an odd word like Logres. From there, however, the word ogre shows up more and more frequently in poems and stories through the ages, usually to describe some sort of large, savage, nasty being, somewhere in size between a goblin and a giant. 

I used to wonder why there were no ogres in Tolkien’s books, only trolls, until I discovered that his word for goblin, orc, may have been derived from the Italian word for ogre, orco, which may itself come from a far older word for some sort of evil creature. So he didn't want both orcs and ogres in his stories if they're really the same thing, at least etymologically. As usual with Professor Tolkien, it was an interesting old word that sparked his imagination and led to the creation of a new creature. 

Sometimes that's how the realm of Story grows: the word comes first, then something has to be imagined to fit it.

Night fiction


Sometimes when people find out I’m a writer of fiction they say to me, “I can’t write.” Or “I can’t tell a story to save my life.”

When I hear that I sometimes like to remind people that we’re all storytellers. We all invent incredibly rich, fantastical tales … every night.

We all become storytellers when we dream.

Thanks to Freud and Joseph Campbell we’ve gotten used to the idea that a dream is about oneself.  That the characters in our dreams are really aspects of ourselves and that if a dream has any meaning at all, it’s a psychological or spiritual meaning about something going on within us.

There may be a lot of truth to that, but it obscures the equally interesting fact that dreams are also stories. Most dreams may be stories that don’t make a lot of rational sense, but when we wake up and remember them, we remember them as narratives. Rather than looking for the meaning in a dream (as students are taught to extract the theme from a work of literature), it might be worthwhile to just pay attention to the story itself. Where did my dream take place? Who were the characters? Did it have a beginning, or an ending? Was it like any other stories I know? Did I enjoy the story? Did it move me?

Before we go hunting for meaning we might ask ourselves: what kinds of stories do my dreams tell?

In our dreams we take the appearance and personality of people in our waking life, and we mix and remix these elements to create dream-people who are like the people we know. And yet they are also fictions, creations of our dreaming imagination. These dream-people live brief lives -- they’re woven into existence only for the few moments of the dreaming, and when the dream ends or we wake up, they’re unwoven again. They have only these brief, ghostly lives, but as the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer writes, “the dreamt-of people are more numerous than us.”

We weave these casts of characters, these novels, plays, fictions, poems, movies, every night. And then when we wake up, most of us go back to thinking that we aren’t creative in that way. That’s it up to someone else to be the storyteller.

A good night's story

The other day someone mentioned on Facebook that they were having trouble getting to sleep. They were going through the whole “lying in bed tossing and turning, thoughts going around in circles” thing.

My suggestion was this:

Before going to bed, tell yourself a story. It doesn’t have to be a long story, and it doesn’t have to be a great one. But it should have one thing: a satisfying resolution. You can write the story out, or speak it to yourself, that doesn’t matter. And it can be a story about pretty much anything, but it’s best if it’s not a story about you (because then the temptation will be to narrate whatever’s bothering you right now and may be the cause of your insomnia, which probably won’t help).

What I do is tell myself a traditional-style tale. “There once was a boy who set out to find the princess of the moon, for he heard she was very beautiful…” That sort of thing. I don’t have a plot in mind when I start. I just let the story unfold, out of all the traditional elements I’ve absorbed from other stories all my life. Encounters, mishaps, magical objects, threats … I don’t worry about whether it’s a good story that anyone else would want to hear. I just tell it, with one idea in mind: that eventually it will have to resolve into a satisfying ending.

If you’re not a writer or someone who tells stories, you’re probably thinking there’s no way you can do this. Actually, in my view, we’ve all got Story deep within us. We’re all storytellers. When we were little someone told us stories, and we continue to watch countless stories unfold on TV and in movies and books all our lives.

If you honestly don’t think you can tell yourself a story, or you’re just too tired to try at the end of the day, then trying reading a traditional tale (out loud is best) or watching a show with a satisfying resolution. Or you could even ask someone else to tell you a story.

The reasoning behind this insomnia cure (which has worked for me many times) is that the mind craves stories, and it craves resolution. Usually the reason we can’t get to sleep is that we feel there’s still something unfinished, something we haven’t completed, even if sometimes we don’t consciously acknowledge what that unfinished thing is. Instead of lying there ruminating over the day past and the day to come, give your mind the satisfaction of a story that has an ending.

This is why little kids beg for a story at the end of the day. They want to be taken on a journey from somewhere to somewhere. At the end of a rich, chaotic, busy day of being a kid, full of the usual random bombardment of experience and sensation, they want the world to fall into a neat orderly pattern that wraps it all up. And adults are really no different.

How J R R Tolkien ruined fantasy


How J R R Tolkien ruined fantasy

(What I learned from Tolkien, part 3)

Ruined it for me, I mean. For a good long while. After I read The Lord of the Rings at the age of eleven or twelve, I went looking for fantasy novels that could equal Tolkien’s great work in scope and quality of writing and convincingness.

There were none.

I wanted books that held entire worlds between their covers. Worlds so authentic and real and detailed that I could believe in them and inhabit them, at least in my imagination. I tried novels like Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara and found it, despite the lovely Tolkienesque artwork of the Brothers Hildebrandt gracing its pages, vastly inferior to the work it tried so desperately to emulate.

It’s ironic that the first ground-breaking work of contemporary genre fantasy was also the greatest example of it, and has remained unmatched by anyone since.

Eventually I found what I was looking for -- books that were entire worlds -- in Frank Herbert’s Dune series. And from there, still looking for that kind of depth and richness, I went on to read immense novels like War and Peace. It was a long time before I returned to reading fantasy, and when I did, I still read very little of it, because only very little of it seemed good to me anymore.

When I started working on my own fantasy trilogy, at my daughter’s request, I knew that I wanted the world I was creating to have depth and authenticity. So I began slowly, and for the first couple of years of the project, did little more than draw maps, and write histories of the realm I wanted to bring into being. That is, I didn’t start by writing a story but by creating a world for the story to happen in.

And that even included an attempt to create a language, called Arqan, based on a mingling of Finnish and Inuktitut, for one of the peoples in my imaginary world to speak. I abandoned that made-up language at a certain point, when it became clear that most of the the story wasn’t going to take place in the far north, as I’d originally thought. It was a very “northern” sounding language, at least to my ears, but there was no longer a character in the story to speak it. Well, I can save it for another book, perhaps.

Anyhow, Tolkien spoiled fantasy for me because his work taught me not to devour books one after another but to read them with care and love and attention, to demand a lot of them, more than most fantasy novels of the time could deliver. To challenge myself as a reader, and then as a writer, to push beyond what I knew and was comfortable with.

Illustration: detail from a painting by Cor Blok, showing Gandalf telling the story of his battle with the Balrog to Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. In Blok's inspired rendering, Gandalf's body becomes the mountain on which the battle and its aftermath (his rescue by the eagle) takes place.

Things not seen and places not visited


(What I learned from Tolkien, part 2)

I first read the Lord of the Rings when I was eleven or twelve, and like so many other readers, I didn’t just suspend disbelief, I actively believed. I lived and breathed Tolkien’s imaginary world. When I finished the book I didn’t want to leave it.

In my last post I talked about the importance of names in The Lord of the Rings. Most of the important people, places, and things in the book have more than one name, and this lends a greater sense of authenticity and “three-dimensionality” to the imaginary world.

Another key factor in creating the illusion of truth and depth is the mention of people we never meet, and places that never get visited. One much-discussed example is Saruman’s mention of the “five wizards” in The Two Towers. Up to that point we know only about the wizards Saruman and Gandalf, and now we’re told there are five (only five?). That’s all the detail we get about them in the book, but it’s one of the many moments in which a reader’s sense of this imaginary world expands just a tiny bit. There’s more here to know, it seems. There’s an entire world beyond the unfolding of the story. A world of places, characters, and events that we can only glimpse through these tantalizing hints, and which is thus left to our imagination to fill in and wonder about. We're drawn to explore in directions that the story itself doesn't go. More than just about any author, Tolkien grants our restless imagination the freedom to take these side-trips.

Tolkien employs a similar strategy with his dark lord, Sauron. We never actually see him, so that he remains for the reader a mysterious, shadowy figure of enormous menace. Again, we have to use our imaginations to fill in what isn’t told, and that is far more effective and convincing than being told and shown everything (which is why the appearance of Sauron in the film version of The Lord of the Rings as an armor-clad giant is so disappointing, and why so many horror movies are scary only until the moment the ghost or creature or whatever is shown to us).

In one brief passage, near the end of the book, when Frodo puts on the ring, Tolkien shifts the point of view of the story to Sauron himself. Here again, we don’t actually get to see the dark lord, but instead we get the deliciously ironic pleasure of seeing what he sees, which is that for all his power and cunning, he has been a complete fool:

“… the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung.”

It’s a brilliant moment because it gives us a look inside the mind of this shadowy figure, while still allowing him to remain vague and mysterious.

It’s a classic example of the truth that a writer needs to keep some secrets from the reader. I have a “talking stick” that I sometimes bring with me when I visit schools as a writer. It’s actually part of an old walking stick that broke and that I repurposed, adorning it with a number of objects that represent, to me, important truths about storytelling. Whoever’s turn it is to tell a story gets to hold the talking stick. One of these items on the stick is a small black pouch. “What’s inside it?” the kids sometimes ask me, but I don’t tell them. The bag represents all of the things that a storyteller doesn’t show or tell. What’s in the bag is half the secret of a story’s power.

Illustration: detail from "The Blue Wizards Journeying into the East" by Ted Nasmith