I have taken this week’s Illustration Friday topic and expanded it from the original “yarn” to the more colloquial “spin a yarn”. This term is kind of aphorism for storytelling in general, so what follows is a short discussion on storytelling.
“I’m telling an old myth in a new way. That’s how you pass down the meat and potatoes of your society to the next generation.”
George Lucas on creating Star Wars
Some Things Never Change
You don’t have to be modern to be a successful or influential writer. In fact, more often than not, it is the author than is able to keep one foot rooted in the past and one in the present, who succeeds in today’s contemporary, mad array of movies, flash fiction, ebooks, graphic novels and online videos.
Take for example George Lucas, who looked back through the eyes of Joseph Campbell’s, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, to create a popular, monumental, sci-fi epic, known as Star Wars. Not only did Lucas read from Joseph Campbell’s myriad of popular writings, but he also knew the gentleman personally and evidently learned a lot from his mentor.
For those who wish to view a short summary of the Hero’s Journey, this short animation by Iskander Krayenbosch says it all.
“The road to success isn’t paved with gold—99 percent of the time it isn’t paved at all.” by Chris Orwig
The School of Hard Knocks
Despite the abundance of MFA programs and other advanced literary degrees, the proverbial “school of hard knocks” might be the best education of all for writers. In the past, this proverbial place has produced some of the most legendary writing. For example, what would have Tolkien written without his time in the trenches of WWI. The same can be said for Samuel Clemens and his life on the Mississippi River or Jack London’s journey to the gold fields of the Klondike……And the list goes on and on, continuing well into the present.
Perhaps Sylvester Stallone summed this attitude up best, when he wrote this line for his most famous movie character, Rocky Balboa. “It ain’t about how hard you can hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”
“In the confrontation between the rock and the stream, the stream always wins – not through strength, but by perseverance.” H. Jackson Brown
It’s October again. So, when all is said and done, there is no denying it, it is a great month for sports fans. Pro hockey and basketball are just getting going, while football players have been involved in professional competition for over a month now. But the climax comes when the National and American League winners meet after a lengthy post season of elimination games. In the final meeting at the World Series, tens of thousands will attend each game, while millions more will watch the popular sporting event on TV.
The Humble Beginnings of Baseball
Most likely baseball began in settings similar to this prairie cornfield depicted in the popular baseball movie, Field of Dreams. The game was initiated in the 19th century and for years and years the sport attracted small crowds. As the sport became more popular, industrial and urban businesses often hosted teams and thus built playing fields and of course stands where spectators could come watch the game.
A Field of Dreams
If you want to rate the many movies that revolve around the world of baseball, both professional and amateur, a handful of films come to mind. These include Bull Durham, Bang the Drum Slowly, A League of Their Own, Damn Yankees and The Bad News Bears. Another baseball movie that continually receives high ratings is Field of Dreams. This is also the quintessential story that equates baseball with the writing profession, for in this story, one of the major characters is a man by the name of Terence Mann (played by James Earl Jones). Although Mr. Mann does not write about baseball, he agrees to attend a baseball game, after he is approached by the main character, Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner). This starts a liaison between the two characters that lasts for most of the movie.
Stage To Big Screen
Though Damn Yankees was a successful and popular Broadway play, the story was also developed into a popular and entertaining movie. The original story revolves around a timeless Faustian tale, where an avid Washington Senators fan makes a deal with the devil, so that his team can beat those “Damn Yankees” and win the American League pennant.
Not many baseball stories make it on to the NYC stage, but this popular tale about the Yankees ran for several years on the popular Manhattan venue. The subsequent movie followed closely to the stage production, including many of the same musical numbers. Reportedly, a new version of Damn Yankees is in the works, starring Jim Carrey and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Writing and Baseball
Nowadays, there are a large number of sports and athletic contests that either produce a host of enthusiastic participants and/or bring in many spectators to witness the event. Strangely enough, none of these gatherings seems to summon forth the storytelling instinct better than baseball. Why is that? Certainly, there are more action-packed sports, but a good story does not succeed on fast action alone. It needs a good setting, strong characters and perhaps most important of all, conflict. And then somehow that conflict must be resolved before the tale ends.
Perhaps it is the structure of baseball that attracts the writers. Everywhere you turn, the game is measured. A baseball game consists of nine innings, where each team gets a turn to bat. Three outs ends one teams turn to come to the plate, hit the ball and perhaps score runs. Each batter gets three strikes before he strikes out and four bad pitches before he might move to first base. All of this is fine and dandy, but I guess the real essence in the contest, turns on how small incidents can determine the final outcome, where one team is victorious over the other. Just a dropped ball, a stolen base or a timely double play can change victory into defeat or vice versa. And that, my friends, is also the essence of many a good story.
In case you don’t know who Jack London was, just go backtrack a few years to your American Lit class in any basic English course. Chances are you will come across a story about the Alaskan frontier titled, To Build a Fire. That story was written by Jack London, based on his adventures and prospecting up on the Klondike trail way back at the end of the 19th century.
But there was a lot more to Jack than that one short story, for the man from the West Coast was a well-rounded traveler, hobo and adventurer. Unfortunately, he was also a very accomplished drinker, for like too many great writers, alcohol consumption killed him at age 40. Still, in his short time on the planet, the author from Oakland, California left numerous novels and short story collections for readers to consume, long after he passed away in 1916. Some of Jack’s best know novels include Call of the Wild, White Fang and The Sea Wolf.
One of my my favorite Jack London books is his hobo memoir, called The Road. Here, he recollects his rough and tumble days of the early 1890s before he went north on the Klondike Trail in search of wealth and gold. In The Road, Jack recounts the hard times brought on by the financial crisis of 1893 and how he survived the difficult times by riding trains, begging for a meal and trying to stay clear of the police, who were always throwing bums in jail. (Jack actually landed himself in jail and fortunately he recounts his jail time in The Road.)
The Storyteller’s Art
From The Road comes this little gem of a quote. “I have often thought that to this training of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story-writer. In order to get food whereby I lived, I was compelled to tell tall tales that rang true. At the back door, out of inexorable necessity, is developed the convincingness and sincerity laid down by all authorities on the art of the short story.” In order words Jack often had to lie his butt off in order to keep from starving to death. Times must have been quite difficult in those days, before it became commonplace for charitable groups to provide food and shelter for those without a place to live or food to eat.
More Words of Wisdom
Incidentally, Mark Twain, who had his own share of mis-adventures and times on the street, said the same basic thing quite succinctly. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” So does this mean that to be a successful story-writer, you need to drop out of school and devoid yourself of all worldly goods. Of course not, though the life of asceticism could give you some memorable life experiences to write about. Then again you don’t want to end up like Christopher McCandless, where you end up as the subject of a book (Into The Wild) rather than an author. But even in these early decades of the 21st century, there is a lot to say for taking risks both in lifestyles and written content.
Before the internet came rolling around way back when, books were an important way of discovering strange worlds that were unknown to us in our day-to-day routines, which most of us lead. And as you go further back in time, before the TV network news, movies and the color photographs, you might find that the written word had an added importance in telling people about the strange worlds that existed across the seven seas and into the interior of some of the most isolated spots on the planet. Our world would have been a whole lot poorer, if it wasn’t for the likes of such writers as Jonathon Swift, Jules Vernes, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Shelley or William Shakespeare.
Cache Lake Country
For me, one of the most vivid books of my youth was Cache Lake Country, which was written by John J. Rowlands and illustrated by Henry B. Kane. I grew up in central Maryland where the winters were not so severe and not all too long. So to read about two men who spent an entire year in the North Woods of Ontario, Canada was spell-bounding to say the least. The most fascinating part of their tale was their life on snowshoes, which lasted approximately from December till April. The fact that no photographs are part of this book, only adds to the mystique of time and place, even though the manuscript was published in 1947, when cameras were well in fashion.
When I wrote Le Loup de Garou (see previous post), I borrowed from two parts of the Cache Lake book. One part of the short story is influenced by the account of a real-life lumberjack, who gets turned around on one of the coldest nights of the winter and spends most of the night outdoors attempting to gain his bearings. Finally, he comes across a lighted cabin, but not before developing a minor case of frostbite. And then there is the title, which comes from a French-Canadian legend in regards to a wolf-man type of creature that haunts the North Woods at night. So there it is in a nutshell, on how to be influenced by real life experiences, even though they might only appear in book form.
1. “There are two kinds of people who sit around all day thinking about killing people….mystery writers and serial killers. I’m the kind that pays better.” Richard Castle
2. “The best time for planning a book is while yo’re doing the dishes,” by Agatha Christie
3. “I think film had a terrible effect on horror fiction particularly in the 80s, with certain writers turning out stuff as slick and cliched as Hollywood movies.” Poppy Z. Brite
4. “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” Groucho Marx
5. “I prefer dead writers because you don’t run into them at parties.” Fran Lebowitz
6. “It’s a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word.” by Andrew Jackson
7. “A good many young writers make the mistake of enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, big enough for the manuscript to come back in. This is too much of a temptation to the editor.” by Ring Lardner
8. “A good novel tells us the truth about it’s hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” by Gilbert K. Chesterton
9. “Television has raised writing to a new low.” by Samuel Goldwyn
10. “Coleridge was a drug addict. Poe was an alcoholic. Marlowe was killed by a man whom he was treacherously trying to stab. Pope took money to keep a woman’s name out of a satire then wrote a piece so that she could still be recognized anyhow. Chatterton killed himself. Byron was accused of incest. Do you still want to a writer–and if so, why?” by Bennett Cerf
11. “If it has horses and swords in it, it’s a fantasy, unless it also has a rocketship in it, in which case it becomes science fiction. The only thing that’ll turn a story with a rocketship in it back into fantasy is the Holy Grail.” by Debra Doyle
Not too long around, I was hitching out of the Sangre de Christo Mountains in northern New Mexico. I got a ride from a gentleman from west Texas, who was returning to the Angel Fire area after a day of skiing on the western flanks of this most impressive mountain range. He had not had any problems with his his little condo, but a friend of his, who had just purchased an old miner’s cabin near the Enchanted Circle, had not been so lucky.
According to my newfound friend, this other person had just bought a mountain hut, right near the spot, where two desperados had been hung about the turn of the century. (For all you youngsters that’s about 1900, not 2000) Supposedly these two ne’er der waals had robbed a bank in Las Vegas, NM (not Nevada) and been caught red-handed with the loot. Instead, of taking the duo back to civilization, the local posse decided to hang the pair right then and there.
For the new property owner, the first night in the newly-purchased abode went without incident until way after midnight, when all of a sudden there was an incredibly loud banging on the side of the building. The owner rushed outside immediately, but not a soul could be seen. After a recurrance of this sequence of events, the new owner abandoned his property, vowing never to buy a haunted house again.
Do Ghosts Care About Their Appearance?
The advent of the camera has lead to increased specualation that there is a shadow world filled with spiritual beings that exists side-by-side with our own reality. Though no concrete proof has ever been proven, many people believe in communication with those who have departed the world of the living.
Ghost Stories Are Full of History Lessons
The Hammersmith ghost of London was so real that local residents set up patrols to watch out for the ghost, who was believed to have made several attacks on people walking down the sidewalk in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, a real person was mistaken for the ghost and shot to death. The shooter pleaded the case as an incident of mistaken identity, but the jury did not buy the story. In the end a plasterer returning home from work at night loss his life because he resembled an apparition.
Ghost Stories Are Everywhere
Walk into almost any bookstore and you will most likely find several versions of these intriguing tales. It doesn’t matter if you are in the remote mining country of the Wild West or the windswept beaches of the Atlantic; there are bound to be some spicy tales floating around the living realm of the local populace. All you have to is search out the tall tales……or maybe you will encounter your own supernatural apparition……and get a chance to write about that.