Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Story is Not a Story is Not a Story


In my intermediate narrative writing class, our professor asked us a very basic question this week, "What is a story?"

I of course went immediately to one of my favorite resources, my 1891 Webster dictionary; well first I went home then I pulled out the dinosaur of a dictionary. It's not exactly portable, taking a strong constitution and a hoyer lift to maneuver it, but it is a solid riot to page through.

Mr. Webster first defined story as it related to a building then he addresses the craft and wrote, "To tell in historical relation, a narration or recital of that which has occurred." He does not mention writing or specifically recording the events of a story, instead focusing on the telling, the "recital."  I have to wonder, was this definition speaking primarily of those who sat around the hearth in the midst of a small audience and recited their stories, accompanied by gestures, facial expressions, and voice variations? This definition reminded me of the stories my own father would tell us at bedtime or around the pile of burning leaves in the fall. He never read from a book or magazine; instead his stories were created as he went along, weaving us kids in and out of the paths woven spontaneously within his own head.

Fabulous ink drawings in Websters 1891 dictionary

We loved those stories, and although my father was probably not aware of the term, "seanachai" the ancient gaelic word for story teller, he certainly fit the description.

Webster's 124 year old definition was matter of fact. It mentions nothing about what the content of a story should include such as truth, fact or fiction; but instead, it focuses on the technique, "To tell in historical relation a narration or recital of that which has happened."

Apparently, in 1891, if someone told you a story, it was automatically deemed valid, accurate.

Compare that definition to Webster's revision as written in 1970. The book changes it's definition to, "The telling of a happening or connected series of happenings whether true or fictional. "Notice how part of the definition remains intact, "The telling..." focusing again on verbalization of events, but now it includes the possibility that the story may or may not be true. I remember last semester when the TA in my first narrative writing class told us that good liars make the best story tellers. I do agree with that statement but find it interesting that historically the two, liars and storytellers, were not always synonymous.

In 1993, Webster degrades (or is it elevates?) the craft further when story is defined as, "Account of events often fictitious, a lie." Take it one step further with todays internet description which defines story as: an account of incidents or events, a fictional narrative shorter than a novel, the intrigue or plot of a narrative work, a news article or broadcast, anecdote; especially an amusing one. They certainly want to cover all the bases don't they?

What is most interesting is that within that same definition they list the following words in bold capital letters: LIE, FALSEHOOD, LEGEND, ROMANCE.

My deduction from all of that is therefore all news reports, broadcasts and articles must therefore be purely fictional. Something I've suspected for years.

Taking all of that into consideration and reflecting upon the hundreds and hundreds of stories I've read, the handful of stories I've written, I say this. A story is a report of events wearing a pretty dress or an ugly suit or draped in torn blankets reeking of urine, age and garbage from the dumpster behind the apartment house on Ashland Avenue. A story must be better, (richer, sadder, happier, funnier, filthier) than a report, or why would we want to read it?

Thanks a million for reading. Now go write something. Comments are always appreciated.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Summer School at National University Ireland

In just 5 short months I intend to be sitting in a classroom at NUIG (National University Ireland Galway.) If all goes well I'll be taking two courses: Creative Writing: Fiction and Poetry as well as Gaelic Culture and Literature during a four week session.  I will also take a not for credit class in Irish Language. I've always wanted to learn more about the language of my ancestors besides the Pog Ma Thoin (kiss my arse) phrase I was taught by B and B owner Mary in Thurles circa 1999.

The process of getting to NUIG though has been intensive and time consuming. There were various applications to complete, including potential scholarships for funding, as well as reference letters to gather, a search for accommodation (going well due to an ad in the Galway Advertiser, thank you Lorna and Mona) deposits to make, etc...But this "mature student" is also an obsessive list maker and form creator so all should be well.

Before I was even accepted to UIUC (University of Illinois Champaign) about this time last year, I knew I wanted to study abroad in Ireland. I understand there are multitudes of excellent authors all over this planet and I will continue to read as many of them as I can in my lifetime, but the Irish writer tugs at my heart.

One of my sons made the comment, "You know you're just going for the sightseeing." Funny, how little he knows his mother. I have no desire to kiss the Blarney Stone again. Been there, done that, still wearing the Guinness stained t-shirt, no... this time will be different, better. I suppose in his defense he knows me as much as I knew my own mother. We offspring have this tendency to see our parents as we wish them to be or as they wish only to show themselves to us, so really; do we ever know them? Do we know anything of their heartaches? Their dreams? What they felt were their most momentous accomplishments or deepest, darkest regrets? Did they really like our paper mache ashtray we made them for Mother's day?

My parents Donald and Thelma O'Shaughnessy on their
wedding day in 1956 with my grandparents
Josephine and Thomas O'Shaughnessy
and their daughter Teresa

During my school break I have been sorting through old black and white photos of my parents and grandparents wishing desperately and regretting deeply that I did not ask the questions of them back then which I seek now, after they are dead of course, ashes well spread. Why did I not ask my grandfather about his father, George J. O'Shaughnessy, the one who first left Ireland in 1872?  Did he ever have contact with his family again? Where was he born? What did his parents do when he left? How did they survive that loss? Did they survive that loss? Did he ever make them a paper mache ash tray?

My grandfather was 83 when he died and I was 17. There was indeed time for me to ask these questions of him, to learn more about his father who braved the long voyage across the sea at the age of 14 with only his 12 year old younger brother for company. But I was instead wrapped up in so many other more important things: the next Foghat concert, my 1969 Nova, my ridiculous boyfriend with the bad imitation of Elvis hair. I am at times haunted by how fast my own life is careening past me. I feel driven to record my life, my parents life, my grandparents life so that the next generations, when they run head first into the middle age wall of reality, will have more information about their past.

Which is why I am going to NUIG. To learn about Irish writers FROM Irish writers, to immerse myself in that which fills me up; sky and sea, a stony burren, cold winds, warm rains, friendly familiar faces, pints in pubs instead of bars and of course, the written word.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

It's All Gary Cooper's Fault

I speak of Gary Cooper the poet, not the actor. It was his scrawl I found in the back of a journal I had kept as a class requirement back in 1981, which served as one of my motivations to return to school. The journal was a requirement of my Intro to Poetry course at Black Hills State College in Spearfish S.D.  I was 22, married and the mother of a newborn and a 14 month old.

I have never been a typical student.

Each day we were to write in this journal, anything at all, whatever we wanted, but we had to write; his purpose I assume was dedication to the craft. At the end of the semester after reading my whines about struggling to study while nursing one babe and keeping track of another, about working part time while being in school full time, about pure claptrap drivel related to meals cooked, judgmental in-laws, imperfect parents (my own) Mr. Cooper wrote the following in my journal:

He planted the seed that has sprouted, been stepped up, sprouted again, allowed to shrivel up and nearly die and then finally this past year, was resurrected. It proves once again the power of the written word. I've recently tried finding him online, to let him know that his efforts did indeed impact one of his students, but so far no luck.

I used to attend his class with a tiny (not really, he weighed over 10 pounds at birth) infant snoozing in a carrier parked next to my desk. I would nurse this child in my car, putting him to sleep, carry him inside and attend class. This oldest son of mine, child number two, was content to drowse and occasionally gurgle through readings of Dylan Thomas, Plath, Frost, and Yeats. Now at 33 this child is the most reflective of my four and the deepest in thought at times. But what can I expect? While other parents of the 80's were  exposing their wee babes to Sesame Street, mine literally listened to the soul wrenching work of Sylvia Plath as he drifted in and out of his breast milk coma.

No, he is not a poet now, instead he works in the financially secure world of electrical technician, but I did not recognize my own affinity for this art form until well into my 50's so perhaps his love for the genre will reemerge later down the road as well. Or not. Still, I am convinced that we are not born poets. We do not attend one class, read one book, or take a national poetry license exam to be deemed "POET."

Rather I believe it is a process and forgive if I throw in the overused sentimental term of "journey," but it applies. Two women in my family, my grandmother Josephine Conklin O'Shaughnessy and her mother Mary Ann Kirwan Conklin, were published poets so it might be argued that genetically I am predisposed to prose. Hmmm...Predisposed to Prose...Now that would make a cool t-shirt. Anyway, although I always enjoyed reading it, I only wrote  a smattering of poems in my teens and twenties, virtually none in my thirties and forties (too busy writing nursing policies, yawn) but now have jumped back in head and pen first in my fifties.

The timing is just right I suppose. I returned to school this past fall, taking my second intro to poetry class with a keen instructor and fellow classmate poets, and then a few weeks ago a cousin of mine sent me an amazing gift: the two original poetry books of my grandmother and great grandmother. One written in the 1950's and the other little blue one, in 1884.  Coincidence? Probably, but I plan to run with it anyway.

I'll focus on both those books later and give them the attention they deserve., but in the meantime; tell me about the poetry that moves you or doesn't and why you write it or don't. And if know Gary Cooper from BHSU,  tell him I said hello and thank you.