Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

28 JANUARY, 2013

Science, Storytelling, and “Gut Churn”: Jad Abumrad on the Secrets of Creative Success

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On diving head-first into the unknown.

Since 2004, Radiolab has been sparking a singular kind of magic at the intersection of science and storytelling, redefining not only public radio but also the “role of scientific culture in modern society,” to borrow Richard Feynman’s words.

In this fantastic talk from The 99% Conference, Radiolab mastermind and MacArthur genius Jad Abumrad takes us behind the scenes to explore the tribulations and triumphs of building a novel paradigm from the ground up.

At the heart of it, he argues, is the notion of the “gut churn” — that scrambly, uncomfortable, anxious fight-or-flight feeling that comes with doing something uncontrollably new that could go uncontrollably wrong, at once an intensified version of Rilke’s comfortably philosophical notion of living the questions and a living testament to the idea that uncertainty is what fuels science.

Countering that — and sustaining the creative spirit through it — is the same kind of intuition about the right direction that guides great scientists. Staying the course requires constant creative rejuvenation — Jad recommends beloved graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister’s sabbatical strategy.

Listen and enjoy:

To whatever degree Radiolab represents change, we didn’t plan it. I don’t think change can be planned — I think it’s only something that can be recognized after the fact.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton for The 99%

Complement with Jad on sound, science, and mystery and his philosophy of “pointing arrows.” Radiolab, like Brain Pickings, is noncommercial and made possible by audience contributions — I proudly make mine monthly. Join me in supporting them with a donation.

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26 NOVEMBER, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories and Good News vs. Bad News

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“The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.”

This season has been ripe with Kurt Vonnegut releases, from the highly anticipated collection of his letters to his first and last works introduced by his daughter, shedding new light on the beloved author both as a complex character and a masterful storyteller. All the recent excitement reminded me of an old favorite, in which Vonnegut maps out the shapes of stories, with equal parts irreverence and perceptive insight, along the “G-I axis” of Good Fortune and Ill Fortune and the “B-E axis” of Beginning and Entropy. The below footage is an excerpt from a longer talk, the transcript of which was published in its entirety in Vonnegut’s almost-memoir A Man Without a Country (public library) under a section titled “Here is a lesson in creative writing,” featuring Vonnegut’s hand-drawn diagrams.

Now let me give you a marketing tip. The people who can afford to buy books and magazines and go to the movies don’t like to hear about people who are poor or sick, so start your story up here [indicates top of the G-I axis]. You will see this story over and over again. People love it, and it is not copyrighted. The story is ‘Man in Hole,’ but the story needn’t be about a man or a hole. It’s: somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again [draws line A]. It is not accidental that the line ends up higher than where it began. This is encouraging to readers.

Though the video ends after Cinderella, in A Man Without a Country Vonnegut goes on to sketch out a fourth plot, that of a typical Kafka story:

Now there’s a Franz Kafka story [begins line D toward bottom of G-I axis]. A young man is rather unattractive and not very personable. He has disagreeable relatives and has had a lot of jobs with no chance of promotion. He doesn’t get paid enough to take his girl dancing or to go to the beer hall to have a beer with a friend. One morning he wakes up, it’s time to go to work again, and he has turned into a cockroach [draws line downward and then infinity symbol]. It’s a pessimistic story.

He then moves on to Hamlet, delivering his signature blend of literary brilliance and existential philosophy:

The question is, does this system I’ve devised help us in the evaluation of literature? Perhaps a real masterpiece cannot be crucified on a cross of this design. How about Hamlet? It’s a pretty good piece of work I’d say. Is anybody going to argue that it isn’t? I don’t have to draw a new line, because Hamlet’s situation is the same as Cinderella’s, except that the sexes are reversed.

His father has just died. He’s despondent. And right away his mother went and married his uncle, who’s a bastard. So Hamlet is going along on the same level as Cinderella when his friend Horatio comes up to him and says, ‘Hamlet, listen, there’s this thing up in the parapet, I think maybe you’d better talk to it. It’s your dad.’ So Hamlet goes up and talks to this, you know, fairly substantial apparition there. And this thing says, ‘I’m your father, I was murdered, you gotta avenge me, it was your uncle did it, here’s how.’

Well, was this good news or bad news? To this day we don’t know if that ghost was really Hamlet’s father. If you have messed around with Ouija boards, you know there are malicious spirits floating around, liable to tell you anything, and you shouldn’t believe them. Madame Blavatsky, who knew more about the spirit world than anybody else, said you are a fool to take any apparition seriously, because they are often malicious and they are frequently the souls of people who were murdered, were suicides, or were terribly cheated in life in one way or another, and they are out for revenge.

So we don’t know whether this thing was really Hamlet’s father or if it was good news or bad news. And neither does Hamlet. But he says okay, I got a way to check this out. I’ll hire actors to act out the way the ghost said my father was murdered by my uncle, and I’ll put on this show and see what my uncle makes of it. So he puts on this show. And it’s not like Perry Mason. His uncle doesn’t go crazy and say, ‘I-I-you got me, you got me, I did it, I did it.’ It flops. Neither good news nor bad news. After this flop Hamlet ends up talking with his mother when the drapes move, so he thinks his uncle is back there and he says, ‘All right, I am so sick of being so damn indecisive,’ and he sticks his rapier through the drapery. Well, who falls out? This windbag, Polonius. This Rush Limbaugh. And Shakespeare regards him as a fool and quite disposable.

You know, dumb parents think that the advice that Polonius gave to his kids when they were going away was what parents should always tell their kids, and it’s the dumbest possible advice, and Shakespeare even thought it was hilarious.

‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be.’ But what else is life but endless lending and borrowing, give and take?

‘This above all, to thine own self be true.’ Be an egomaniac!

Neither good news nor bad news. Hamlet didn’t get arrested. He’s prince. He can kill anybody he wants. So he goes along, and finally he gets in a duel, and he’s killed. Well, did he go to heaven or did he go to hell? Quite a difference. Cinderella or Kafka’s cockroach? I don’t think Shakespeare believed in a heaven or hell any more than I do. And so we don’t know whether it’s good news or bad news.

I have just demonstrated to you that Shakespeare was as poor a storyteller as any Arapaho.

But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here [indicates blackboard]. The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.

And if I die — God forbid — I would like to go to heaven to ask somebody in charge up there, ‘Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?’

In the same section of A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut offers a delightfully dogmatic rule of writing:

First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

Complement with Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writing stories.

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20 NOVEMBER, 2012

Tiny Collaborative Stories

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A charmingly minimalist cross-pollination of word and image at the heart of being human.

Last year, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, better-known as RegularJOE in the hitRECord universe he created, asked thousands of contributors to submit tiny stories through words and images. He sifted through more than 8,000 submissions to cull 67 contributions, which were then collected in The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Volume 1. The hitRECord crew is now back with The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Volume 2 — a delightful compilation of 62 such tender, poignant, beautiful micro-narratives selected from nearly 15,000 submissions. All the stories are made collaboratively — a writer would submit a story to the site, then an artist who likes it would illustrate it, or vice-versa, then others would join in and remix the stories and artwork.

In a heartening twist on traditional publishing, hitRECord is splitting all proceeds from the book 50-50 with the contributing artists and writers.

The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Volume 2 will be followed by Volume 3 in 2013, for which submissions are already being accepted.

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09 NOVEMBER, 2012

Philip Pullman Reimagines the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

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“You have a positive duty to make the story your own. A fairy tale is not a text.”

For two hundred years, the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm have anchored generations of in the world of storytelling. They’ve inspired a wealth of gorgeous illustrations (including by the inimitable Edward Gorey), some delightfully minimalist takes, unexpected architectural analysis, and even irreverent infographic animation. But what remains at their heart, the blood that pumps across the centuries and generations, is the art of story — and what better way to celebrate that, as the tales turn 200, than with an exquisite retelling by one of modern history’s most celebrated literary titans? That’s exactly what Philip Pullman does in Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version (public library) — a collection of the 50 most memorable of the Grimms’ 210 tales, which Pullman regards, along with Arabian Nights, as “the most important and influential collections of folk tales ever published.” Each story is coupled with a short “biography” tracing its origin, evolution, and moral.

From Snow White to The Little Red Riding Hood to Cinderella and beyond, into the less familiar fringes of the Grimm legacy, Pullman sees the stories with eyes at once fresh and ancient, masterfully pulling out their essential storyness with equal parts piercing language (“No, no, my lord, it’s just my heart. When you were living in the well, when you were a frog, I suffered such great pain that I bound my heart with iron bands to stop it breaking, for iron is stronger than grief. But love is stronger than iron, and now you’re human again the iron bands are falling off.”) and keen insight (“…the finest of [the tales] have the quality that the great pianist Artur Schnabel attributed to the sonatas of Mozart: they are too easy for children and too difficult for adults.”)

He writes in the introduction:

[M]y main interest has always bee in how the tales worked as stories. All I set out to do in this book was tell the best and most interesting of them, clearing out of the way anything that would prevent them from running freely. I didn’t want to put them in modern settings, or produce personal interpretations or compose poetic variations on the originals; I just wanted to produce a version that was as clear as water. My guiding question has been: ‘How would I tell this story myself, if I’d heard it told by someone else and wanted to pass it on?’ Any changes I’ve made have been for the purpose of helping the story emerge more naturally in my voice. If, as happened occasionally, I thought an improvement was possible, I’ve either made a small change or two in the text itself or suggested a larger one in the note that follows the story.

Pullman zooms in on the flatness of fairy tale characters:

There is no psychology in a fairy tale. The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious. If people are good, they are good, and if bad, they’re bad. Even when the princess in ‘The Three Snake Leaves’ inexplicably and ungratefully turns against her husband, we know about it from the moment it happens. Nothing of that sort is concealed. The tremors and mysteries of human awareness, the whispers of memory, the promptings of half-understood regret or doubt or desire that are so much part of the subject matter of the modern novel are absent entirely. One might almost say that the characters in a fairy tale are not actually conscious.

[…]

The most fitting pictorial representation of fairy-tale characters seems to me to be found not in any of the beautifully illustrated editions of Grimm that have been published over the years, but in the little cardboard cut-out figures that come with the toy theater. They are flat, not round. Only one side of them is visible to the audience but that is the only side we need: the other side is blank. They are depicted in poses of intense activity or passion, so that their part in the drama can be easily read from a distance.

What makes this an asset rather than a detractor is the story’s pace:

Swiftness is a great virtue in the fairy tale. A good tale moves with a dreamlike speed from event to event, pausing only to say as much as is needed and no more.

[…]

The speed is exhilarating. You can only go that fast, however, if your’e travelling light; so none of the information you look for in a modern work of fiction — names, appearances, background, social context, etc. — is present. And that, of course, is part of the explanation for the flatness of the characters. The tale is far more interested in what happens to them, or in what they make happen, than in their individuality.

On imagery and description:

There is no imagery in fairy tales apart from the most obvious. As white as snow, as red as blood: that’s about it. Nor is there any close description of the natural world or of individuals. A forest is deep, the princess is beautiful, her hair is golden; there’s no need to say more. When what you want to know is what happens next, beautiful descriptive wordplay can only irritate.

On the constant flux and metamorphosis of art as revealed in fairy tales:

The fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration. To keep to one version or one translation alone is to put a robin redbreast in a cage. If you, the reader, want to tell any of the tales in this book, I hope you will feel free to be no more faithful than you want to be. You are at perfect liberty to invent other details than the ones I’ve passed on on, or invented, here. In fact you’re not only at liberty to do so: you have a positive duty to make the story your own. A fairy tale is not a text.

Before diving into the stories themselves, Pullman offers one final piece of whimsy:

Finally, I’d say to anyone who wants to tell these tales, don’t be afraid to be superstitious. If you have a lucky pen, use it. If you speak with more force and wit when wearing one red sock and one blue one, dress like that. When I’m at work I’m highly superstitious. My own superstition has to do with the voice in which the story comes out. I believe that every story is attended by its own sprite, whose voice we embody when we tell the tale, and that we tell it more successfully if we approach the sprite with a certain degree of respect and courtesy. These sprites are both old and young, male and female, sentimental and cynical, sceptical and credulous, and so on, and what’s more, they’re completely amoral: like the air-spirits who helped Strong Hans escape from the cave, the story-sprites are willing to serve whoever has the ring, whoever is telling the tale. To the accusation that this is nonsense, that all you need to tell a story is a human imagination, I reply, ‘Of course, and this is the way my imagination works.’

On a rant of an aside, as usual, the UK edition has a far more beautiful cover design, by Ohio-based designer Cheong-ah Hwang, and the much more imaginative title Grimm Tales: For Young and Old:

It even comes with a charming animated trailer:

Cover notwithstanding, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version is the perfect literary companion to Taschen’s visually stunning The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm , one of last year’s 11 best illustrated children’s books.

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