Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"Story" is a beautiful word

So it's decided. Each afternoon we shall all meet in a cafe to complain about writing, yes? (Note: to earn your right to complain, you must, in fact, do your writing :-) We'll change the location daily. Today was Morocco -- sorry if you missed it. The coffee was very, very dark, the tea was fragrant, and afterwards we all went and bought carpets and caftans in the souk. Splendid! Lucky me, I selected my carpet because it was pretty, but it turned out to be a flying carpet, and everyone was jealous and spat cherry pits at me as I gained altitude and left them behind with the donkeys.

Sigh. Wouldn't it be nice, if we far-flung writerly peoples could gather for the purpose of complaining about how hard writing is? What could be better? I'll tell you what could be better. Doing so in a castle in Ireland as some other crafty writers have just cooked up amongst themselves. I know: brilliant and totally jealous-making, noh? I emailed Stephanie the link, and she read it and I think it lit her brain on fire because she started castle-shopping at once. Behold this link she found. Behold and drool.

This is a very, very good idea, this exotic writers' retreat.

Of course, my mind these days has fastened itself on Morocco, and I would so love to convene there for the very important purposes of writing and drinking coffee and tea and shopping and of course, not to be left out: complaining about writing.
And I'll add another thing to the list: storytelling.

Isn't "story" a beautiful word? I think it likely that some day I will get it tattooed somewhere on my body. I like the idea of it on my wrist, like a bracelet. I've been thinking a lot about stories the past few days, not writing them, or reading them, which is where my mind usually goes when I think of stories, but telling them. Out loud. How magical! I come from a post-storytelling culture; my great-grandfather, as I understand it, was a storyteller, but he died when I was a toddler, and his stories -- tall tales from a genuine cowboy -- weren't really handed down. It's a shame.

I want campfires and ululating gypsies, guitar strummings and throat clearing and the jangle of a tambourine being tossed aside. A camel lazily listening from beyond the circle of the firelight as someone says, "Once upon a time," or "Maybe there was and maybe there wasn't," or otherwise opens some gateway into the world of stories. I want to lean back on my elbows on my magic carpet -- which maybe is hovering softly a few inches off the ground, to keep off the sand fleas -- and listen. Better yet, I want to be able to tell stories.

Do you remember Out of Africa at all? The only thing I remember about it -- and this is fuzzy and possibly recollected wrongly -- is that Meryl Streep asks someone to give her the starting points of a story, and someone does (Robert Redford?) -- just simple elements, and she takes them and, virtually without pause, spins them into a magical tale that holds everyone rapt. To be able to do that!!! Even to be able to recite tales from memory would be marvelous. To make people lean forward slightly, you know?

I've been reading Tahir Shah's In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams, the follow-up to The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca which I read recently and loved, part of my Morocco binge. The Caliph's House is a classic expat-buying-a-house-in-a-foreign-land book, with the added bonus of jinn and exorcisms and all kinds of wonderful superstitions. In Arabian Nights is a paean to storytelling. (I recommend reading them both, in order.) I'm only halfway through it, but it is making me tingle to tell stories and not just write them. Not that I want to become a performer, just that . . . I want to have children and tell them stories, by firelight, with camels and carpets, with flocks of colored birds swooping overhead. Pointing up at the stars and telling stories about them, too.

In the book, Tahir Shah tells of a story so powerful that, once you hear it, you are obliged to repeat it every Thursday night for the rest of your life or risk bringing terrible bad fortune on yourself (also, it can only be told on Thursdays). He also tells how his father gave him a beautiful mosaic box for his fifth birthday, but told him that the box itself was nothing; it was what was inside that was the treasure -- and inside was a story. When his own daughter turned five, he had a box handmade for her, and handed down the same story for her to cherish and keep safe. Isn't that beautiful? He writes about the Berber tradition of searching for the story in your heart, and he writes about how television is wiping out story culture.

I have a line in Blackbringer that goes like this: "So much has gone beyond retrieval. Memories have gone slack. Young minstrels disdain to learn the old songs and the notes pass away with the last old ears to hear them. So much has been forgotten." I feel so sad right now, thinking about it.

I don't have my own tradition of stories to pass on, but right now I'm just in love with the whole idea of storytelling. I have a thing for folklore books -- I buy them like candy. Perhaps I need to start selecting some favorite stories and learning them, in preparation for someday telling them to wee ones? I know it's not like keeping a particular tradition alive or anything, but it could be a family tradition at least. And then, I may like to make up my own too, because, you know, I can! And they will be full of lutes and saddled alligators and girl archers and shapeshifting and little meanies who gallop about on cats. Bareback, of course.

Any thoughts on storytelling?

[note: sometimes I have the best of intentions when it comes to reading nonfiction but find it hard to finish, but these two Tahir Shah books read like novels; they're marvelous. I will definitely be reading more of his books.]

UPDATE: Shelli has found us some properties in Morocco to rent. Thanks, Shelli! See you there later today?

This one's in Essaouira at the sea:

And this one is in Marrakesh:


Shelli (srjohannes) said...

check these place out :) Villa Allun or MARRAKECH. maybe we ca have coffee (or drinky poo) here tomorrow?


Stephanie Perkins said...

Now I have the PERFECT EXCUSE for you to come visit me. The National Storytelling Festival is only twenty minutes from my house. It's every October, and the town explodes with fat pumpkins and yellow mums, and it is BEAUTIFUL and MAGICAL and FUN, and the storytellers are the best, most award-winning in the entire country.

After all, storytelling is an art. So you need good teachers, right? Think of your future children! (Come visit me) for the children!

And *story* -- yes, even the word makes me tingle. Last night I was thinking about something I'd read recently that did NOT light my mind on fire, and I realized that the biggest reason was because the author took too long to get to the story. It was buried underneath so much "fancy" language, that it was practically nonexistant. And if there's no story, goodness, what is the point?

Another lovely post :)

And we are SO renting a castle. I'm serious. Deadly, deadly serious.

Deirdre said...

One of the many things on my life list is to learn storytelling. Telling a story that would make people lean in to listen is like making a bit of magic. (Which, by the way, you do very well Miss Laini.)

It's very sad that the tradition of storytelling seems to be dying. We've become so impatient and visual, not so interested in letting a story unwind with voice and gestures. I hope it doesn't die off completely.

Lisa Schroeder said...

When my kids were little, at bedtime my husband would say, tell me three things. And whatever three things they gave him, he would make up a story about them. I was more of a reader at bedtime, but he was a storyteller. And it was so much fun!!

S R Wood said...

Because there are no coincidences; because my work-in-progress has as its backbone the idea of Story; but mostly, I have to admit, because I can't resist: http://srwood.blogspot.com/2008/09/once-upon-time.html

My grandmother, a career children's librarian, was a bewitching storyteller. She collected stories the way some people collect movie quotes or bottle caps: helplessly, hungrily, reverently. And when she held a crowd of children in hushed, paralytic suspense, there was a magic in the room.

Stories are bigger than we are; when we tell, and hear them, we touch something rare. Plus they're so, so, so much fun. Tell! Write! Listen! Evoke!

Katie Anderson said...

anyone know the movie star that just named their baby, "Story?"

I remember thinking it was sweet.

And Laini, just reading about these places you discuss makes me happy!

Vivian Mahoney said...

I want to go to a castle for a writer's retreat! Just reading this post makes me feel like I've gone somewhere lovely.

Happy writing!

storyqueen said...

Dear Laini,

I love reading your blog. It is strange, but so many of your entries seem to find me in the exact place from which you are writing that day! (For example.....the reference to the hard work of writing....I'm really feeling it right now!)

Anyway, you follow it the next day with a beautiful post on the magic of story....and yes, it is magic. In addition to being an author, I am a storyteller as well. (Actually, my job has me working in a school, telling (not reading) stories to children....all day on most days!)

So, as a storyteller myself, I am really encouraging you to learn at least a handful of stories you can tell from memory.....your absolute favorites. You never know where or when you may need them. (I can remember, years ago, entertaining kids-gone-wild at a wedding, nestled under a table with a white flowing cloth.......we were in our own magic tent, millions of miles away, in Ireland with the faeries.....)

Take care....keep up the great posts!


P.S. I know...my blog is lame....I am too chicken to tell anyone I that I am blogging.....but I just told you, so maybe I am getting less chicken.

Lexi said...


Stories are my bread, butter, and dessert.

I like TV too, but it gets old quickly. Books don't.

Kat said...

Some of the best stories are the ones that are true. My grandma lived in Turkey when she was first married. I love listening to her tales. Her voice lights up like a candle when she talks about Istanbul and the Turkish countryside. Hmm, I think Turkey deserves a blog post...thanks for the inspiration!

Charlotte said...

viz telling stories to your children--I had envisioned enchanting them with tales of magic seas and fairie lands forlorn etc, but this did not happen. What I get, instead, are requests along these lines: "Mama, can you please tell me the story of Rachel Carson and DDT," or, even worse from a soothing bedtime point of view, "Mama, tell me again why you don't like Sarah Palin." Sigh.

Laini Taylor said...

Charlotte, ooooh, Sarah Palin bedtime stories!!! Anyone would have nightmares after that!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I just (mentally) checked in to to ALL of the photos above and am thoroughly enjoying myself!! I just want to highly second Laini's recommendation about The Caliph's House. Its one of the most enjoyable, funny, & interesting reads. I'm loving it!
Snoop Doggy Duggy

paris parfait said...

I'm a great fan of story-telling - it's an art and I'd venture to guess you are quite good at it. As for Tahir Shah's books, I recently wrote a piece about his work - such intriguing stories, one is drawn in...you're absolutely right. Of course the Middle East has long had a tradition of story-telling. The Arabs are brilliant at it, particularly in their flowery language.

Anonymous said...

I too love stories and storytelling: check out my book for suggestions for taking storytelling into all avenues of life. It's designed for preachers but can easily be transitioned!