The speed of blogging and oral story-telling

I biked down to Hawthorne to have lunch with Jay Lake, so that he could sign the limited edition chapbooks of his story Christmas Season. The wind was pretty ferocious and it was like biking uphill the whole way there, which was frustrating, since that’s the downhill direction.

By the time I got home, two people IMed me, knowing that I had been at lunch with Jay. Granted, he was closer to the restaurant than me, but still. There’s something a little odd about having lunch with someone in the same town, and having the news be instantly on someone’s computer, across the country.

Anyway, the lunch, as he reports, was fun. This is the first time I’ve gotten to hang out with Jay outside of a con, and he’s even more frighteningly intelligent when not sleep deprived.

During the course of lunch, we were talking about written versus oral storytelling. I think it sprang up, because I was talking about the cultural difference between a writers’ convention and a puppeteers’ festival. At World Fantasy, I told my Sleeping Beauty story, which is the tale of a puppet show gone horribly, horribly wrong. It’s always a good story, but the reaction that I got at WFC was much, much bigger than anything I get among puppeteers. At first I thought that it was because the material is familiar to puppeteers and unexpected to writers, but, after going to a party with a bunch of theater friends, I think there’s more to it. I think it’s that writers aren’t used to people who know how to tell a story, as a performance. When I was at the theater party, we all seemed to take turns telling stories, like miniature plays. We all have repertoires of stories that we trot out when they seem appropriate. I tend to tell the Sleeping Beauty story, the Stolen Van story, the Hot Chocolate story and the Time I Hurt My Wrist story with most frequency.

They do have titles. I love it when Jodi tells the Jello Salad story. Or when Sam tells the Beauty and the Beast Vomit story. It’s true in other fields, clearly. Ken Scholes’s Orange Bicycle story, is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard.

But none of these are written stories. I could write down any of them, but it’s not the same as telling them. Have you read Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories? He wrote them specifically to be read aloud by parents to their children. They are full of asides like, “O Best Beloved”

So the Whale swam and swam to latitude Fifty North, longitude Forty West, as fast as he could swim, and on a raft, in the middle of the sea, with nothing to wear except a pair of blue canvas breeches, a pair of suspenders (you must particularly remember the suspenders, Best Beloved), and a jack-knife, he found one single, solitary shipwrecked Mariner, trailing his toes in the water. (He had his mummy’s leave to paddle, or else he would never have done it, because he was a man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity.)

It’s a very different style of writing. In fact, Gentle Reader, it makes me wonder if that’s why the direct address to the reader used to be in style. Was it a holdover from when stories were predominately an oral form?

I’ve sometimes wondered if the blog and audio books will bring direct address back into style. Certainly, I address you much more than I would if I were writing Fiction with a capital F. As readers become used to that, will it come back into style? The Algebraist, which I’m reading now, begins with direct address. I quite liked it. It was exciting to feel as if an author were speaking to me. It’s one of the reasons that I’ve always liked Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series; I always feel as if Vlad were sitting across the table talking to me.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but I think there are some ideas that are worth exploring. If nothing else, it will help me be more aware of my audience next time I’m telling a story.

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6 Responses

  1. Deanna Hoak

    I love direct address. I’ve started a book in that form, and I find it lovely to write in.

    The book, unfortunately, is a little too depressing for me to continue. But the writing was going well, anyway. 🙂

  2. momk

    Some authors do that I think, Mary…the direct address you describe. Louise Erdrich comes to mind. Perhaps she does so because she grew up listening to stories told aloud by Native Americans – (Ojibwe).

  3. Chris Billett

    You’re totally onto something there, and I agree. I think I was thinking along the same lines (but not quite getting there) earlier this year. I did two blog posts that touched on it, and although they’re not quite as on topic as I thought, it just took me half an hour to find them (heh) so I’ll quickly link ya in case you find ’em interesting. On The Constant Gardener and on Joss Whedon! (sorry, not sure if you like people linking in blog but these just sprang to mind – feel free to delete if they’re irrelevant!)

  4. Mary Robinette Kowal

    Momk, I’d agree that people who grow up in an oral tradition are probably more likely to parse words that way. In fact, one of the places that the conversation with Jay went was talking about Shakespeare, and whether the iambic pentameter was more accessible to an audience in his day than it is now. Which also lead to wondering if people could drop into verse during everyday speech then. I mean, freestyle rap still does this. The Vikings did this. While I doubt that nobles were always speaking in iambic pentameter verse, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were able to compose extemporaneous verses more easily than we do. I can see that a trip to the library is in my future.

    Always happy to see what other people are thinking about, Chris.

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