My niece will read most anything she can get her hands on. When she was 7 or so her father brought her home an edition of Andersen’s Fairy Tales – red hardcover with golden letters on the front. My guess is she read it within the week.
“Do you remember reading The Little Mermaid?” I asked her as we sat on the front porch this past Mother’s Day. I recently read it myself for the first time and wanted to see what she thought of it.
“Ugh, do I remember,” she said. My niece also has a tremendous gift of memory. “The ending was hard to take. I don’t like tragedy. I don’t know why people write them.”
I mumbled some reply about life being full of tragedies and the necessary pattern of death to make way for life. But I was unsatisfied with my answer and returned to the thought this morning.
Was it a tragedy? Ultimately? And why do people write heart-wrenching stories?
If you had asked me a year ago, I probably would have told you I thought every story should have a happy ending. Every story should give hope, of course. Heaven is the ultimate end for those who believe, so let’s put happy endings everywhere. Happy, happy, happy.
But tragedies of a certain sort have strategy. Within the story we walk through stabbing, irreconcilable loss — painfully stabbing. They make our souls cry, “No, no! This should not be! This is not the way!” We beg the story to take it back. And there, in that experience of loss, there is exposed within the soul our innate hope that things should be different. A longing has been stirred.
“What if my greatest disappointments
or the aching of this life
is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy?”
– Blessings, Laura Story
A greater thirst. Not just any longing, this is a longing that points to beyond — to higher things, eternal things, the things that really matter. With tragedy we can be called out of our love of temporal happy endings and spurred on in our chasing of Thee Happy Ending – God our Dwelling. In that sense tragedies are hope giving; they help us shake off the shadows and embrace the Reality.
At the end of Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, the steadfast, sacrificing love of the mer-girl is unrequited. The Prince chooses another for a bride and the Little Mermaid is called instead to witness and celebrate in their joy, which is death to her.
But she rises.
She takes on a form more holy then the one before. She is welcomed into a new realm of love for others and progresses on her journey to Eternal Life. She’s not there yet, but what was death to her mortal self turns out to be the Mermaid’s course to greater existence.
Heart-wrenching? Yes. A tragedy? To be sure. But ultimately? Well, no, if we believe the pursuit of God is of value.
God the better Prince has promised not to forsake those who are devoted to Him. When Heaven’s day comes we will find in God the acknowledgement, union, love, and wholeness we crave. We will not be disappointed in His delight in us. To the Happy Ending in Him, God says “Abundantly, yes!” And Tragedy of the good sort says “Then let us chase Him.”
“…Thus out of the farm lands, out of my husband’s interests, out of the people and things about us, out of the accounts I read and the things I imagine, I put the mosaic together, creating a character whom I respected.”
– Elizabeth Coatsworth, Authors and Illustrators of Children’s Books, pg. 93
First drafts are wild things. I think I have a sense for the characters and how things are relating. Yet, every day I work on my draft its colors shift like a sunrise, and today I wonder if I have wandered too far from what I first sensed it to be. Do I reign it back in? Or let it run it’s course?
I revisit my material — those bits and pieces of my experience that have made a particular cluster in my mind. It is their story I’m trying to tell. Am I telling it? And I wonder at my mosaic. Am I being too choppy and rough? It is one story, but I am trying to tell it in a collection of ditties, poems, and vignettes. But maybe it’s a collection because I am not weaving my material as I should … I should integrate more, yes?
I recently discovered Victor Shklovsky’s essay Art as Technique. It had that wonderful effect that reads sometimes do of bringing my many rogue thoughts into an elegant ordered relation.
It goes like this: artists want their audiences to break out of the habit-hustle, to slow, so they can show them something. Therefore, artists use all sorts of speaking strange to hold and focus the reader’s attention. Yes, yes, my mind is full of notes on the purpose of art. And I have piles of design devices on hand. But with one simple stroke Shklovsky then tied all these together under one grand technique he calls defamiliarization. How very lovely.
How so? When I have before me the aim of trying to awaken my reader, I see my means is to recreate for them what the experience of what wonder is like. It is clumsy. It is foreign. It’s like seeing something for the first time. It is mooreeffoc. And so, write it that way.
My parents tell me when I was a little girl I hadn’t yet acquired the word for peas, so I called them bean-balls. But in calling them bean-balls they became so much more then peas. That’s a very helpful way for me to think about the way I write.
“I would start thinking of the small animal dignity that children and puppies and shy little horses struggle so hard to maintain; the wonder and surprise of the world of a kitten by itself for the first time … and stories would come.”
– Margaret Wise Brown, American Picturebooks: From Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within, pg. 258
“…a dominant form tends to attract to itself writers whose talents would have fitted them much better for work of some other kind.”
– C.S. Lewis, Allegory of Love, pg. 232
Fashion has a lure. It whispers to you acceptance — “come and serve the popular taste, and you will find the approval you crave”. But it is a trap! It pulls you away, like a swirling black hole, from the work that you are fitted for, made for. The work that no one else was to make but you.
The better way: Work within the limits of the grace you’ve been given. I mean work it! Tap that spring! Play and push. Squeeze to the last drop your dose of imagination, your realm of experience, your ration of talent. And say “bah!” to worldly success; let the chips fall where they may — God gives the growth as He sees fit.
Why do I always feel disoriented when I begin? From the start, I am hit with a head-on wave of confusion. Amnesia overwhelms me. I loose all memory of where I’ve been. I don’t know what next step to take. I panic. My puny soul squeaks “Help! Help! I am lost!” Surely something is wrong. Surely it’s not supposed to be this way.
But maybe it is, at least in part. Maybe I am supposed to sense my utter inferiority. So that I can reach out in dependence. And take hold of Help that is significantly stronger than I. What a thought – that the design of the task is that this would be my experience.
My task is designed to provide, to teach the realization that I am weak and God is strong and that his strength is made perfect in weakness … God in his mercy gives us something to do for which we know we are too small, too inexperienced, we lack.”
— Elisabeth Elliot, Faith and the Consciousness of Weakness. Gateway to Joy.
So, when I find welling up in me my sense of inadequacy, put on trust in God.
A work in progress quickly becomes feral … You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room.
-Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, pg. 52
I’ve been away from my writing for two weeks. No, three weeks. Has it been four? Maybe two and a half.
I tried to get back at it yesterday and found myself in a tense state of panic. Every good thought I ever had seemed as-good-as-snatched away. Spiders have taken up residence among the toppled chairs and dusty table of my inner work room. Weeds have completely overtaken the garden.
I’ve read writers’ warnings of this kind of neglect; the horrors that ensue even after one day’s absence. But my case — two weeks! No, three (I mean four). Is there any hope? Is it all a loss? I suppose one cannot know unless he tries.
So, I spent part of yesterday banging my head against the wall thinking maybe something would start to rattle. When that didn’t work, I closed my eyes and danced oh so freely to music thinking maybe I could feel it back. When that didn’t work I went childlike, belly to the floor, doodling on paper, hoping some line would come forward to meet me. No success. So I closed up shop, headed home to a late dinner, and read Dillard’s The Writing Life until bed.
And then, in the wee hours of this morning, a thought made a slight twitch in the corner of my mind. I was on the hunt yesterday, wrongly, for some new, fresh trail. But what this poor lost girl needs is not some whole new beginning, but to retrace her steps. To see if I can’t find the path I was already on, where I was already working. To catch a whiff of it, and proceed from there.
“O Blessed Notes!!” I remembered all of my 3×5 cards squirreled away, holding clues. There, there will be a good place start. I popped out of bed in a dreamy delight and perked a chipper cup of coffee, eager to reacquaint myself with the ol’ scribbles.
Sing praises to God, sing praises!
For God is the King of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm!
The aroma of picture books inside of me are like poems; they have a psalmic, hymn-like, quality about them. Ultimately I see them as love songs to my Savior – addressed first and foremost to Him, and secondarily inviting those who read my song to join me in my contemplation and delight. Almost like a missal.
“My heart overflows with a pleasing theme;
I address my verses to the king;
my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.”