Thursday, October 27, 2011

Within every story another story is hidden

"Within every story another story is hidden, autonomous and unfolding though scarcely noticed except now and then, inadvertently, when, just as with a slip of the tongue a woman exposes a bit of the turbulent life under way in her unconscious mind, a rat scurries through an open window with a doll’s head in its mouth, or a man shouts a couplet from a passing bus ('o queens of urbanity, kings of the crush / let’s sing of convenience, importance, and plush')." Lyn Hejinian • Conjunctions

I use this quote a lot when I'm marking student fiction. I love it. Award-winning writer Craig Cliff (Man Melting), when he talked to the Massey first year creative writing students this year, had another way to describe these slips in a story when another story peeks through. He talked about layers. Sadly, I missed his lecture but one alert student in my tutorial reported back to me what he said.

The idea of layers works well to understand what a story should do I think. I immediately visualised geological layers -- maybe because I walk alot and earth and what it does beneath the feet, interests me. There's the grass and earth at the surface, dig down and there may be clay or sand or stones - and on you go through all the various geological layers - each one differently formed with a unique history and holding evidence of the impact of man and animals and movements of climate and earth, then, if you're lucky, you may come upon shards of pottery and glass, a bone or two...

I said to my students, it's as if you're walking along inside a story, and beside the path, the surface is scraped away to show the darker earth beneath, nothing much, not enough to notice; and then there's a small hole, barely there, big enough for a tent pole. Easy to miss, but you register its presence without realising. Your attention is on the walk, and it's a lovely day out there. Still further on - there's a ragged hole where a dog has buried its bone and dug it up again and left it there for some reason. It nearly trips you up.  You can see the layer of clay under the earth, it's thick and yellow like plasticine. You stop and look at the bone, a little annoyed, briefly interested. What sort of bone is it?

A little further on, there is another scraping the size of a shoe showing the earth beneath the tussock grass. It puzzles you - didn't you see one of these before? What's made them? Puzzling, you continue on past a manhole with a man in it fixing the pipes underground. This gets your attention. You can hear him under there, see flashes of his torch, his tools hitting something - concrete? stone? You wonder, what would it be like to work underground like that? How deep he goes?

You keep walking. Another small hole for a tent pole. Strange. But you are almost upon the moat the children dug around a fort they were building in the school holidays. You remember them doing that, three boys and a dog, and all the wood they gathered from under the pines, you stop a moment and admire the collapsing fort and the depth of the muddy moat, think how wonderful that children are still building forts these days. Then you see it - stuck at the bottom of the moat, in a layer of dark stony earth, is a child's jandal. You wonder if you should fish it out and decide not to. It's muddy after all, you have nothing to wipe your hands on. And you must get on.

Finally, you reach a hole the size of a pond filled with water from the heavy rainfall the day before. You can't see the bottom because it's deep, and the water is murky with wet clay and soil and rotting plant life.  There's something floating there, though. It's pale and too big to be a stone or a shoe ...  It all comes back to you: the scrapes of earth, the holes, the hole with the bone, the man underground (was he working? or doing something else?), the moat and the jandal, and now this...

Which is only the beginning to the holes that must be dug and discovered and filled in and forgotten and found again to make all the layers of a story ... It's not easy work, but someone has to do it.


workbook : Helen Reynolds said...

Mary, this is lovely! I have talked to the landscpae architecture students about understanding the layers of the existing landscape, understanding the stories teh geology is telling, the stories the ecology is telling, the stories our inhabitation of the land is telling...and to think of their design as a narrative creation, enriching or revealing the layers in the landscape.
I love the circularity of this, coming to the same place from different directions, but building understanding as we move

Melissa Green said...

Dear Mary, this piece seem to so perfectly describe the way one walks through a well-made story with its clues and detours and layers that aren't exactly germane and may not go anywhere in particular, but all these diversions and dead-end trails are part of our world, clearly, and how wonderfully they enrich the life of a fictional world. Thank you for describing both so well, with both the casually ruminative and the deep. xo