Monday, April 23, 2012

More on Natalie Goldberg

I have continued to read Natalie Goldberg and think about her writing practice. I may be working my way to a real insight, or I may be wasting my time. I do a fair amount of unproductive mulling.

I have a strong feeling that I don't write the way she describes writing. I am not sure a need for self-expression drives me. Instead, I love stories, and I love to tell stories. I told stories to my brother before I could read and write. I don't think I was motivated by a desire to understand and express my inner self at the age of five. I think I wanted to tell stories, because I loved hearing stories.

Obviously, writers draw from their own experiences and emotions. But they also draw from the huge, long history of tale-telling. Like a child imitating its parents, I imitate folk tales, fairy tales, legends, Icelandic sagas, English language novels, all the science fiction and fantasy I have read...

As far as I know, all human societies tell stories. Why? I suspect to understand the world. The modern-day interest in psychology and self-expression is not universal and may come from the individualism and alienation characteristic of bourgeois society.

Having said this, I remember there are some pretty interesting psychological portraits in the 13th and 14th century Icelandic sagas. The best portraits are of people you would not want as neighbors: the great outlaw Grettir Asmundarson and the great viking Egill Skallagrimsson. Fabulous characters, but not good members of society. As Njall said in the Njals saga: "By law the land is established and by lawlessness laid waste."

The great question of the sagas is not "who am I and why do I feel the way I do?" but "what happened to the Icelandic republic? Why has the society established by the settlement of Iceland been destroyed?" Part of the answer was people like Egill and Grettir. The sagas describe how the republic's legal system was broken by greed and arrogance, individualism and a primitive sense of the family loyalty. Njall, the great lawyer, struggled to maintain the rule of law; but even his own sons turned against him in this struggle.

Nowhere in the sagas do we get a good sense of the author. We think we know who wrote the Egils saga, though not because it's signed. None of the sagas are, and almost all of them have no known author. Their style is so impersonal that it was mistaken for history or folklore until fairly recently. I use the saga style in my hwarhath stories. Any time one of my stories begins "There was a man (or woman) named..." it is an imitation of the traditional opening of the sagas: "Mathr het... A man was named..."

In the end, story telling is about other people, the audience that listens and all the folks -- living and long gone -- who have told good stories. I feel far more comfortable with this than the idea that story telling is about me.


Blogger Foxessa said...

"I think I wanted to tell stories, because I loved hearing stories."

That was me as well.

When the exigencies of life made it so hard to write fiction I basically quit. That was because the joy for me in writing fiction was 'play,' descending into worlds I create, and acting out all the roles, living in it for days and weeks and even years at a time.

When I couldn't do that, I couldn't do it.

Shows what a pathetic weakling I am, of course, but some of us are that, and there's no getting around it.

Whereas with non-fiction, with history, it's different, because it's real, I guess.

Love, C.

10:16 AM  

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