Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Stories Like Tygers

On Monday, Debbie started a great discussion about the places we go to find story ideas. In the comments, Laura and Ariel said that for them, the little critters really do multiply like rabbits. But alas, not all survive their baby-bunnyhood.

So today, let's ask ourselves: How do we choose ideas worth writing about? We've all read stories that read like Sunday school nursery rhymes: Sweet and comforting. Predictable. Not always worth three hundred pages.

"The Lamb"
By William Blake

Little Lamb who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice:
Little Lamb who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb I'll tell thee,
Little Lamb I'll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Isn't that lovely? The untroubled familiarity of questions with answers - it's like a blanket you can wrap around your shoulders on a cold night. And there are authors out there who write stories just as comforting, that really are worth three hundred pages. Sometimes. On flannel-jammies, cream-of-wheat days. But to my mind, those authors are rare.

Most of the ones I love best seem to live in my world, and struggle with the same questions I do. That's why I love what John Truby says in
The Anatomy of Story, that when you sit at the keyboard, you should "write something that may change your life."

Such an air of adventure in that! Such freedom to ask questions for which I have no answers. Such a sense that I'm swimming in water I may drown in.

Yes, drown. Because if I ask a big question, there's no guarantee I'll find the answer. I may just find a bigger question.

Is that okay with you? It's fine with me, because I believe reality is bigger than I know. God's ways are not my ways, and if I think I understand him, then I am really and truly lost.
"The Tyger"
Also by William Blake

Tyger Tyger. burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes!
On what wings dare he aspire!
What the hand, dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger, Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
"Did he who made the Lamb make thee?" Isn't that a huge question? Isn't that a question big as God?

How do we ask things like that?

The best way I know is to give my character an inner quest (which is probably my own) embodied in an outer dilemma (which is hers alone) for which I have absolutely no good answer. I may end up wrestling with Tygers this way, but what a lot of energy I'll bring to the story! It may just propel me to a question big as God.

Now it's your turn: how do you know if an idea is worth writing about? Can you think of some "Lamb" stories you have loved? How about some "Tyger" stories? Which do you prefer?

We love to read what you have to say.


Wendy Paine Miller said...

I love that, "write something that may change your life." Such wisdom. I adored studying Blake in college.

I spend months building the story in my mind before I begin writing. It's a good test to see if I will be able to work with the characters for the duration.
~ Wendy

Latayne C Scott said...

Great, provocative post, Katy. I love Blake as much for his poetry as for the great illustrations.

One of the aftereffects of the kind of spiritual journey I've had is that, though I crave "Lamb" experiences with God, they've mainly been "Tyger." Thus my writing reflects that.

My WIP's protagonist wrestles with a Tyger God, or as I put it, "a mysterious and terrifying God of love." But I had not before your post thought of how Blake must have wrestled with that same thought.

Thank you, Katy.

Patti Hill said...

I'm wrestling a Tyger now. I worry that I may become the Tyger's lunch. I'm that consumed, that uncertain. And I am being changed. Oh boy. I'm changed.

Laura S. said...

William Blake is one of my favorite poets! And I love the John Truby quote; I've never heard that one before, but it's definitely something to remember when I sit down to write.

I spend time with a story idea for awhile in my head and scribble notes about it. That's how I know whether or not an idea is worth writing.

I'm wrestling a Tyger right now. It's a challenge, but I think I'll make it through (mostly) unscathed...

Nicole said...

Every now and then I love (and need) a good "Lamb" (Blue Heart Blessed; Jenna's Cowboy), but the Tyger holds my heart (Redeeming Love, Dogwood, Demon . . . a memoir).

I write the Tyger with a touch of the Lamb dealing with relationship between people and between people and the Lord.

Anonymous said...

Katy, I love what you said here: "The best way I know is to give my character an inner quest (which is probably my own) embodied in an outer dilemma (which is hers alone) for which I have absolutely no good answer." This is exactly the crux of every story I've written, especially the Tyger I'm wrestling now. The inner quest reflecting my own, embodied in an outer dilemma which is strictly my character's. There is absolutely no good answer, either to my dilemma or hers, it's bigger than both of us. God's ways truly are above our ways, and sometimes that's the only answer.

Kathleen Popa said...

For all you lovely tyger-wrestling novelists, I picked this video just for you:

Latayne C Scott said...

That video is a scream! (And I don't just mean the participants!)

Diane Marie Shaw said...

That video was a hoot.