In the Beginning…

 

The Storyteller by Sally Wiener Grotta
The Storyteller (c) by Sally Wiener Grotta

 

In the beginning…. How many tales start with those three words? In all languages, from every people who have ever walked this earth. Here is mine – or at least, my latest.

In the beginning, there was Story. Before Story, all was amorphous, unfathomable. Mysteries too profound and daunting to ever be knowable. Yet the human mind needs shape and form. We struggle to create it even in a dense, nebulous fog. We look up at the night sky with its chaotic multitude of stars and see creatures and gods staring down at us, maybe even watching us.

We are so small and insignificant, mere pebbles in the surf, tossed here and there by forces beyond our ken. Why? Who made it so? Questions formed in our minds and gave birth to Story. And with Story, we stepped up one more evolutionary level, becoming human.

Story gives shape and meaning. It’s how we learn to ask questions, to try to find answers.

The nature of Story is that it is as changeable as the world it seeks to understand, as varied as the many storytellers who weave the tales. With every retelling, new threads and new colors are added, as new answers try to reshape the questions, sometimes replacing the old.

I have been fascinated by Story as long as I can remember. At a very young age, I was privileged to be immersed in a wide ranging buffet of tales, all of which shaped my mind, my beliefs and eventually my own tellings. Greek mythology. Christian parables. Jewish, Asian, African and Native American folk tales and spiritual traditions. So similar in many ways to each other, as each human being is similar to others, especially in the nature of our questions. And yet, just as each person is unique, each tale came to me as an individual, with a personality shaped by its progenitors, birthplace and cultural milieu. Over the years, they have merged and morphed, becoming as much a part of me as my childhood memories – which are yet another series of stories I tell myself, a personal mythology that I use to try to understand who I am, where I came from, and why.

So, though I may not be able to pinpoint which influences came from which tale, I carry them within me. They taught me the important lessons of Story: that questions are what propel us, and that a good tale touches all of us, reaching through barriers as nothing else can.

That’s why storytelling is an integral component of all education and why in my novel The Winter Boy, it’s a primary vehicle used by the Alleshi (a cloistered society of widows) to train the young men entrusted to them. Tell a student a fact or idea, and it has a small chance of sticking, with more and more being forgotten as time passes. But give students a good, meaningful story that threads the ideas and facts into the fabric of all too human lives, and they will hold it within them until it becomes part of them, and they may even share it with their grandchildren. Thus the Alleshi have created a unified society out of diverse tribes and villages, using Story as a common language and social glue.

Yet, sometimes stories can throw up obstacles, too – often surprising the teller. I tell book discussion groups that the novel I write isn’t the novel they read. That’s because we all carry our histories and preconceptions with us, flavoring our reactions. But that’s true not only with reading but living. Even as we hear words and ideas, we reshape them as our personal predilections would have them be.

In my novel Jo Joe, Judith Ormand (a mixed-race Jewish woman raised by her white Christian grandparents) returns to her hometown, filled with anger and bitterness as she confronts people from her youth who hurt her, shunned her, or simply didn’t love her as she wanted/needed. It’s a story of prejudice and lost innocence, told from Judith’s first person view, created from within her, shaped by who she is and how she sees the world, until her history becomes a personal mythology on which she has built her life. She – and the people she has known — project misconceptions and expectations rather than see each other fully. I am pleased that Jo Joe is being used to fuel discussions about bridging the ethnic/racial divide.

Why did I choose to make Judith multi-racial (with a father who is French, Black and Jewish, while her mother is a white American from a Christian family)? It’s that subconscious I was talking about earlier. Judith was born in my mind fully formed, right down to her name, churned forth by Story so that she was who I needed her to be for the novel that evolved out of her. I’ll leave it to others to psychoanalyze me why I needed Judith, why I was compelled to write Jo Joe. All I can say is that Judith is a soul-deep part of me, just as Joe Anderson is (the white boy who cruelly broke her heart). As all the characters I write are. Even Wayne Anderson, Joe’s violent bully brother, who comes from my deepest nightmares.

Some might question the appropriateness of me writing in the first person of a mixed race woman. I would respond, until you know me, truly know me – and my writing – please don’t project your expectations on me. You might be surprised what you find under the first impression you might have of this white middle-aged middle-class Jewish woman.

Judith learned that lesson the hard way. I’m still learning it, though I believe that my multi-cultural upbringing has helped me to try to understand before projecting, to try to listen and ask questions before reacting to surface impressions. It’s a constant struggle for me, as it is for all of us. Shortcut stereotyping – or as CW would call it, profiling – is an easy default. When I see a stranger – or read a new author’s book – it’s much simpler to try to slot him or her into categories I recognize and feel comfortable responding to, either negatively or positively, based on my history with other “similar” folk. The more difficult, but much more interesting and rewarding path, is to try to see and read each person anew. That’s another and probably the most important lesson all those tales that I ingested as a child taught me.

From the beginning, Story gave us a wide diversity of voices, sung to different rhythms. Sometimes we haven’t understood each other’s words, actions or histories, but we have Story to guide us, to change us and help us grow until, if we’re lucky, we can learn to understand and appreciate each other.

The Novelist as Poet or Philosopher; Meditation Inspired by Samuel Delany’s The Atheist in the Attic

"The Atheist in the Attic" by Samuel R. DelanyMy short essay “Novelist as Poet or Philosopher; Meditation Inspired by Samuel Delany‘s The Atheist in the Attic” was recently published on the SFWA blog (Science Fiction & Fantasy Authors of America). 

The Atheist in the Attic is a “fictive reconstruction” of a meeting between the philosophers Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Baruch de Spinoza, told from Leibniz’s point of view. An intriguing read, it sent my mind in a variety of different direction. At one point, I took a discussion of the differences between a poet and a philosopher and considered how it might apply to different kinds of novelists. I’ve decided that I’m essentially a philosopher; no surprise there. As I wrote in the essay, “I write to understand. My characters and plots are formed in a subconscious that churns with confusion or concern about how the world functions (or fails to function). As I write the story my characters tell me, I find myself posing questions that [as Delany wrote in The Atheist in the Attic] “reflect and even explain the differences and forces that relate them all… hold them together… or tear them apart.” 

Please read the essay here, and let me know what you think. What kinds of authors do you prefer to read — poets or philosophers, as defined by Delany’s book? And if you’re a writer, are you a poet or philosopher… or something else?

Walking the Starry Path

“‘It’s up there in the sky for us all to see, a prayer every night.
A good story fill you up when you hungry, when you lonely.
A good song take the hurting out your spirit.
No harm believing in that.’ She gave him a wind-up music box.
‘Play this and think of the stars smiling on you.'”

from From Redwood and Wildfire
by Andrea Hairston

When I was a young child, my mother had two sure fire ways to get me to go to bed. My favorite was when she would read me to sleep. As I drifted off, riding the rhythms of her voice, I would often continue to weave the tale in my dreams. My dreamtales became so real to me that I was sometimes surprised when she read the same stories to me again and they finished in a different way than I remembered.

The other was to tune the radio to “fairie music.” (Looking back, I suppose it was the name I gave to classical orchestrations that purred rather than crashed.) Sometimes, Mother would be frustrated in trying to find a station playing just the right kind of sweet music I wanted. But when she did, it billowed through my mind, guiding me to see stars dancing and to feel the breeze of dreams. The music, like the stories, carried me to a place in my imagination that existed beyond the here and now.

When I speak to audiences about storytelling, I often say that it is hardwired into the human psyche. From the beginning of time, stories have been the way we teach and learn, how we communicate and think, the pattern we give to our questions about the world around us and the shape we try to give to our beliefs and attempts to understand.

But I must go one step further… Story is who and what I am, how I try to understand myself, my world, my uncertainties and my fears. How I try to make sense of love and hate, anger and sorrow.

I have never stopped attempting to finish my mother’s tales. It’s what drives me forward and burbles within my subconscious, flavoring my days and especially my nights.

I am a storyteller. It is my mother’s gift to me. And her curse. And the song her soul sings to me of what may come.

Sometimes, late at night when I can’t sleep, I lie there in bed, staring at the dark ceiling far above my head, and I hear the rhythm of new words, the tune of a fairie’s harp from far away, and it carries me away from the thoughts and fears that plague my mind. And I walk the starry path to another story to be dreamed.

Malleable Memory

Memory is malleable.

In my short story The Broken Bottle, I refer to Akira Kurosawa’s seminal movie Rashomon, in which each witness to a murder tells a different story of the crime – including the ghost of the victim. While Rashomon paints a scenario in which individuals may or may not be lying to us about their memory, I propose that our own memories lie to us. Often they tell us the stories we want to hear about ourselves. And what we want to hear changes as we move further and further away from the truth of the event. (Of course, “want” may be debatable. But I’ll leave that psychological discussion to another time.)

Johanna, the protagonist of The Broken Bottle says, “It’s as though the young woman I was back on that wet July night stands in the middle of a polygonal mirrored room. Though she is surrounded by the facts of the moment, all she can see are the distorted reflections, refracting through time.”

When I look back on my childhood, which I shared with my sister and my parents and an assortment of friends, family and pets, it’s an ethereal landscape. Sometimes shrouded in dense fog. Periodically illuminated, so that specific places or people stand out so clearly that I can taste the air, smell their perfume, feel the emotions in the pit of my stomach – especially the shock of embarrassment or great hurt or ecstasy. But mostly, everything and everyone in my past are Read More

I Can Do That! (Does Everyone Have the Creative Gene?)

Carol HIll sewing her quilt square by Sally Wiener Grotta“I just take hundreds of photos and then fix the best one in the computer,” the woman bragged.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard similar statements. But this particular occasion was during my gallery talk at one of my American Hands exhibit. The woman beamed with pride, identifying with my artistic endeavors and wanting to share something of her accomplishments with me.

One of my friends, a highly respected writer, has been known to answer these kinds of statements with the Infinite Monkey Theorem: “If an infinite number of monkeys bang on an infinite number of typewriters for an infinite number of years, eventually they’ll produce the complete works of Shakespeare. Does that make those chimps genius playwrights?”

I have a very different attitude about these accidental artists. I’m delighted when people explore their creativity, and identify with me as a photographer or writer. When someone is inspired by my presentations, pictures or stories, it makes the effort I put into them so very worthwhile. As I explain in my American Hands mission statementRead More

Carving a Sacred Place

Nate Favors from The American Hands Project by Sally Wiener GrottaToday, I will write.

Because it is time.

I’m not sure when I last wrote. At least a year. No, it was more like a year and a half, except maybe for a couple of essays and one or two very short poems. I’m not talking about the reviews and features that currently represent the bulk of my livelihood, but my core writing. The novels, stories, poems and essays that reach through my throat into my gut and haul out my voice through my heart.

I write because pouring myself out onto the keyboard is how I have always tried to make sense of a senseless world. I don’t understand the pain we cause each other, the hate, the distortion of love. War and tribalism. Walls between individuals, between tribes and nations, that are built up brick by brick over years of preconceptions and propaganda. So I create stories to try to help me find the right questions to ask that might yet explain the inexplicable. Perhaps, I can also use it to try to navigate my way through the morass of this new world that now envelops me.

I write because through words, through Story, I have long discovered myself. So I shall write with the hope of rediscovery, not of the woman I am or have been, but this new woman I am now forced to become. Without my compass, without the living breathing other soul who lived within me, by my side, facing each morning as a new adventure to be shared.

Where do I start? At the end? That’s one simple sentence. Three words. Daniel is dead. In my novel The Winter Boy, I wrote, “How people die shapes our world.” Read More

Is Obesity the New Obscenity?

 

Leonard Nimoy and Raphael
Leonard Nimoy’s photo and the Raphael inspiration

 

Facebook has decided that I post offensive material, and I have been warned to desist.

On Saturday morning, I logged into Facebook, expecting to spend a few minutes checking what my friends were up to, reposting some of their more interesting comments, pictures and links, and responding to messages. I also had links that I wanted to post about art, writing, grants and creativity – plus the usual humorous, heartwarming or meaningful pictures or videos I thought folks would enjoy. In other words, I planned a routine social visit on Facebook, before logging off to work on my current novel in progress.

But Facebook had other plans for me.

Instead of taking me directly to my FB page, a rather intimidating message popped up. It stated in no uncertain terms that I had posted an offensive nude photograph, which Facebook had excised from my page and feed (i.e. censored). Then I was shown my online albums, was commanded to remove any other pictures of naked people, and I had to confirm by checkmark that I had no such pictures left on Facebook. I didn’t think they were referring to the various Renoirs, Matisses, Goyas, Picassos and such that I’ve posted over the years. So I clicked the Agree button, and I was allowed to enter Facebook’s supposedly squeaky clean domain.

Of course, I knew immediately which photograph Facebook had found so offensive, and I’m convinced it wasn’t because it was of nude women, but because it was of obese nude women.

In fact, it was a picture from The Full Body Project, a book of photographs by Leonard Nimoy, which is Amazon’s number one best seller in Women’s Studies. What’s more, my posting wasn’t just of the photograph, but a link to a lovely tribute to Mr. Nimoy in the New York Observer My Friend Leonard Nimoy was a Fervent Feminist by Abby Ellin.

SO MUCH MORE THAN SPOCK

Like many millions of others, my fascination with Leonard Nimoy began with a young girl’s crush on Mr. Spock. But it was only as I learned more about the man behind the actor, that I began to admire him – as a thinker, author, artist and philanthropist. And then there was the phone call.Read More

Extremists Make Extremists of Us All

I am not Charlie.

I have been uncertain about writing that phrase ever since it came to my mind just hours after Wednesday’s horrific murder of twelve satirists in Paris.

I fear I may be opening myself to attack from friends and acquaintances – potentially from all sorts of strangers on the globe-circling Internet.

But it is the truth. I am not anything like Charlie Hebdo.

I do not ridicule or insult others’ heartfelt beliefs. I would no more draw Mohammed with his genitals hanging out than I would paint Jesus having sex with Mary Magdelen or a Jewish man with a humpback and an exaggerated hook nose (as the Nazis did).

I believe in building bridges between people, not throwing up unnecessary walls.

On the other hand, my faith rests not only in freedom of speech but also in the sanctity of expressing differing, even diametrically opposing opinions and ideas. Without that essential debate, our lauded freedoms are built on hollow ground.Read More

Spreading My Petals Wide

Spreading My Petals Wide by Sally Wiener Grotta

Our field is peppered with wildflowers, poking their heads through the grass and weeds, pushing upward and outward. Seeking. As buds, they are merely promises of what might be. Only when they spread wide their petals, so that they might attract and absorb sun, rain, the caress of a breeze, the attention of bees; only when they have every pore open to receive, do they become their full selves. A glory of colors, synthesizing all that comes their way into something that is uniquely their own.

Sometimes, I feel a bit like a vampire, because I take bites of everything I see and feel, of every person I meet, and mash them up into ideas that are new, or at least in new forms, and spew them out as story. But recently, I’ve been feeling like a wildflower.

The more I open myself to stimulation, to others’ ideas and laughter, to being touched by tears or a loving caress; the more I taste through the pores of my skin or inhale divergent currents, the richer my work becomes….

Please click here to read the rest of this essay which was recently published in When Women Waken, a Journal of Poetry, Prose and Images.

Pointing My Compass Toward Home

Pointing My Compass Toward Home by Sally Wiener GrottaIn early August, a yellow jacket hitched a ride on our windshield. I’m sure it was entirely by accident. He had landed on the glass, as a rest stop in his flight to and fro (from and to where, I’ll never know). Of course, we were parked at the time – at the vet’s picking up medicine for our dog Watson as the last stop in an afternoon of errands. So, you can imagine the wasp’s disconcertion when his resting place suddenly growled to life and started moving at the speed of wind. He hugged the glass, splaying his six legs as wide as possible, maximizing contact with the surface, holding on for dear life. (Why he didn’t just let go and fly away is another mystery to me.) We didn’t stop again, until we arrived home, about 15 miles over the mountain from where he first touched down. He remained on the windshield, while we unloaded the car. I didn’t see when he flew away.

I’ve been wondering ever since about that yellow jacket. Did he ever get back to his home turf? Could he survive away from his nest? Was he so traumatized by the experience that he no longer could function as a normal everyday, workaday wasp? Or do modern wasps take such disruptions in their routine in stride? (Or, should I say, in flight?) After all, our yard, cemeteries, field and stream are rich hunting grounds for wasps, bees, birds and all kinds of critters. Was the trip on our windshield therefore an easy relocation for him? If so, did he ever find a new nest, a new family, new friends, to help him redefine his sense of self within a place?Read More