"The rhythms of prose—and repetition is the central means of achieving rhythm—are usually hidden or obscure, not obvious. They may be long and large, involving the whole shape of a story, the whole course of events in a novel: so large they're hard to see, like the shape of the mountains when you're driving on a mountain road. But the mountains are there." (from a chapter on Repetition in Steering the Craft)
"The beauty of a story may be intellectual, like the beauty of a mathematical proof or a crystalline structure; it may be aesthetic, the beauty of a well-made work; it may be human, emotional, moral; it is likely to be all three." (from the introduction to A Fisherman of the Inland Sea)
The brilliant potter and poet M.C. Richards writes about the innerness of vessels; how in throwing a pot you are really shaping empty space, not clay. How, long after the pot is broken, its interior space still remains, somehow made eternal by the shaping of its clay. Which makes me think of Rilke's "unusable space" built from the "tremulous music of stones": a temple (Sonnet X from Part Two of The Sonnets To Orpheus)
|Andrew Cornell Robinson|
Somehow the shaping of clay feels like a useful and important metaphor for the shaping of a story. Words are the clay, but a story is more than words, like a vessel is more than clay. The inner structure of the vessel must be able to carry the beauty of its exterior; they must be in balance, must match, must create an inner and an outer that together is a whole.
This is what Ursula Le Guin's writing does. This is why her novels satisfy on a deep profound level. Their prose, which is deceptively simple but in reality profoundly poetic, perfectly mirrors an inner narrative beauty, a strength of story, of psyche, of plot, of the things that make the rhythms of ancient myth last for thousands of years. Just read The Telling or Tehanu and you will see what I mean. It's an ineffable thing, but you know it when you read it, when you feel it in your bones.
So, my question is, how do you learn to shape a story like you would a vessel, its innerness shaping its outerness? I will be the first to admit that I tend toward the poetic, the lush, the (at times) overly dense. This has always come easily to me. What is more challenging for me as a writer is carrying plot, and yet this is what truly shapes the story. Its inner structure—the way humans, animals, plants, land interact through conflict and resolution. The way microcosms and macrocosms are evoked, repeated, sung... You see, I can hardly write about it in any clear way.
We all, of course, have our own ideas about what makes a beautiful story. It's very subjective. In the same way that we all have different ideas about what makes a beautiful vessel.
In the midst of all of this thinking about the inner and outer beauty of stories, I discovered the art of Japanese tea bowls, also known as chawan (thanks to my dear friend Catherine Sieck, who is an incredible potter). More to the point, I discovered something of the original philosophy behind these utterly feral vessels. It's the concept of wabi-sabi, one of those terms so overused and yet so generally misinterpreted that I at first balked and didn't even want to read about it. But my local library had a copy of Leonard Koren's classic Wabi-Sabi for Artist, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, and I read it in one sitting. Lucky for me. I'm not going to get into all the details here, as it's even harder to write about than the innerness of good stories.
In very brief, wabi-sabi is an aesthetic and spiritual system based on the impermanence, imperfection, and yet astonishing, deep, melancholic beauty found in nature, not so much in its glorious blossomings and epic mountain peaks, but in "the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral, things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to vulgar eyes," in the "moments of inception and subsiding" (page 50). Wabi-sabi honors the imperfect, the earthen, the processes of growth and decay and rebirth, the fluidity and also impermanence of all things. And, just a little bit more (it's delicious, isn't it?)-- "Wabi-sabi suggests the subtlest realms and all the mechanics and dynmacis of existence, way beyond what our ordinary sense can perceive. The primordial forces are evoked in everything wabi-sabi" (page 57).
Tea bowls made in this style, and sipped from with presence and stillness and attention to the here and now, are meant to create and evoke a unity of self and nature in all of its imperfect beauty. I wonder what a story built like this would look like. What kind of innerness, shaped to hold the tea properly but also the wild shapes of decay and unfurling both, might translate into story-making? How does a story shape itself around impermanence? And at the same time, how does a story grow like a natural thing, like a piece of granite in the earth or a head of kelp in the sea? How does it speak with authenticity, right up from the ground of the ground and of the soul, both in its words and in its structure, its innerness?
How might we leave space for stories in the world, stories that can be temples where stones sing, stories that have nothing to do with our own egos? Stories that are our gifts and our leavings, life offering vessels at the edge of the wood?
These are open-ended questions, a delicious exploration inspired by Ursula Le Guin and the pottery traditions of Japan. At first glance, I found this connection a bit unexpected. At second, I remembered that Le Guin has translated the Tao Te Ching and is a great student of Taoism, from which concepts of Wabi-sabi, tea ceremonies and chawan clay techniques have arisen. To fulfill that which is naturally so. A story and a vessel should feel like this: that they have grown like mushrooms up from the ground of themselves. That they could not be any other way. That there is always room for mystery.