Tuesday, April 19, 2016

How To Build A Story Like A Vessel

I've been reading a lot of Ursula Le Guin recently. I won't hesitate to call it an obsession. But maybe the better word is an apprenticeship, or a hunger, or both. I've apprenticed myself unconsciously to her words, because they are full of something I am hungry for, something I didn't know I was hungry for until I found it. For a while I couldn't articulate what "it" was. Only that the way she made worlds, and words, filled me up with a sense of both light and dark, a sense of rightness and of wonder, an astonishment at the breathtaking imaginings that humans are capable of, the strange familiarity of her planets and peoples. But it wasn't until I came across a few brief descriptions in Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew and the introduction to her short story collection A Fisherman of the Inland Sea that I understood what it was I was responding to. Naturally, Ursula needed to explain it to me.

Here are the two passages that, when read close together in time, brought with them a revelation—

"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) 

What she doesn't say outright, but what I took away from both of these tidbits, is this sense that a story's structure is meant to be as beautiful and sound as the language with which it is told. Structure can mean many things, but it isn't primarily about how you've ordered your paragraphs or the clever way you've fragmented your narrative. That's still surface stuff. Structure to me is primarily about the inherent rightness (be it moral, human, emotional, ecological) with which the story is constructed. The way its characters, landscapes and themes move and dance around each other. The pattern they make, which should be in some way harmonious, but never perfect. This is the innerness of the story, like the interior structure of a clay vessel thrown on a wheel or built by hand.

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. 

Akira Satake
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 dynmaics of existence, way beyond what our ordinary sense can perceive. The primordial forces are evoked in everything wabi-sabi" (page 57).

Akira Satake
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 up from the ground of themselves. That they could not be any other way. That there is always a crack left open for mystery.


  1. Also, stories like fungi sprout from decay. After a heap of terrible attempts some gem of a story springs up from a forgotten patch that had composted itself into something fecund, fertile, lush. Or during harsh times in life surrounded by external forces of deterioration...a story arises like a phoenix.

    1. I love this Abby, thank you. It is so true and such a good reminder! x

  2. Ursula has such wisdom, she is one of our greatest teachers. It is lovely to see that wisdom growing, flowering, changing into new beautiful shapes, within another writer who is obviously a kindred spirit to Ursula.

    Have you read Dancing At the Edge of the World? In it, she says something which I try to keep in my heart, although I will always be an apprentice at her feet, in her shadow - "I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us."

    Your post reminded me of this quote. You have shown me a new kind of medicine bundle in the tea bowl and made me think of where else I might find that holding, growing space.

    I personally believe the only real stories (the ones with souls of their own, rather than just an accumulation of words and grammar) do grow naturally, living outside of the writer and coming into a relationship with us rather than being made by us. They always know exactly how they want to be told, and what they want to say.

    1. I came back to reread, as I almost always do with your posts, and whereas the first time you stirred my thoughts, this time you touched my heart, and I had to be an irritant and comment again, to thank you for the wild and unique beauty of your language, and the generosity of your sharing.

    2. Oh my, yes, the carrier bag theory essay! I can't believe I forgot to include that concept in this essay, it fits perfectly! That was one of the first essays of Ursula's I read, and I just love it. Thank you so much for reminding me of it here. And absolutely, stories are their own creatures, not ours at all; they just come knocking, wanting to be told, and if we aren't quick to begin, or to listen, or to at least engage them, I think they drift on to other writers or artists, so that there is this collective body of story-beasts just waiting for us to turn and see them all the time, not for our egos to claim at all.

      Thank you for visiting as always Sarah! You can comment as much as you like, it is never an irritant but always a gift. xo S

  3. A beautiful post, Sylvia, and such a brilliant image—story as a vessel. I've been reading some of Ursula's work too over the last few months, revisiting Earthsea (only the first two books so far) and reading many of her short stories and essays. She is one of those writers who just seems unparalleled in her powers of imagination, insight and language, a true living treasure, her work a trove of beauty and wisdom and wholeness. I am inspired to keep on with my own reading, and to learn what I can from her. Thank you.

    1. Thank you Therese. I absolutely agree about Ursula, she is really just an astonishing mind and writer, such an inspiration I sometimes get a bit overwhelmed.

  4. Stunning Sylvia! I just re-found this post and have been at once emptied and filled in the sweetest, most burdock-rich way. I will revisit this time and time again. And for the record, I consider you an absolute master at shaping a story that sends ones spirit out to sip from the world of the unseen. You basically just described why I am so wholly devoted to everything you pen. Thank you dear one.

  5. ah, ursula---i have loved her work all my life. such a gift she has given in her writings. i didn't know that she had translated the tao te ching; but it makes perfect sense.

    i believe deeply in a world filled with stories. with spaces for stories, as you say. they let the mystery in, they bring us home to ourselves.