Tiny Stories, Tiny Tales

On the Pleasures of Being a Writer

island park bridge

I took a little stroll by the river yesterday morning before the heat set in. Just as I came to a T in the trail, cigarette smoke wafted past in the breeze and I overheard an argument in progress. Two men stood at the intersection. One leaned over a sky-blue backpack and jerked out a grocery bag from its depths. A lit cigarette dangled from his lips and he articulated around it, his words loud but indistinct.

His friend paced around him with an easy swinging step. “You ain’t ever told me that. I never heard that. Don’t tell me that.”

Arguments happen on the trails, of course. Angry children yell at their parents in passing and disgruntled spouses huff out peevish retorts while flying by on bicycles. This argument was a little different, however. Two men were having it out over a backpack while all about them, people feverishly ran, biked and rollerbladed past. There were no pretenses to exercise in this argument. They were just two men on their way somewhere and paused to duke it out.

I had a decision to make at that point. I could turn left and dodge hissing geese guarding adorable goslings or I could swing right towards the park and march right through the disagreement. I didn’t want to walk past a public argument but I lectured myself that I was a writer and whatever was going on could make good material.

I took the right turn and swung past. The pacing friend paused in mid-argument flow.  He inquired, “How you doing?” to me. I replied, smiled in turn and their argument resumed as if I had never been there.

And that interaction was one of the huge pleasures of being a writer. By forcing myself out of my comfort zone and gliding past an argument, I saw a glimpse to another world. Two friends were comfortable enough to argue with each other at an intersection and they weren’t getting too heated up over it either. I’ll never know what that argument was about but I caught the roll of their words, the flinging of their heads and the easy way in which they disagreed.

As I walked away, I became so caught up in remembering their poses and looks that I forgot my own problems and worries. That tiny interaction pulled me right out of myself. It’s good to be outside and be an observer. And a writer.

 

Comments (2):

  1. Beth

    May 22, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    This was beautiful and brightened my day! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Catherine

    May 22, 2014 at 9:04 pm

    That’s my hope- it’ll bring a little joy to others. Thanks for sharing that, Beth. So glad you enjoyed.

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The Tale of Genji: A Timeless Novel of Messy Relationships

“Real things in the darkness seem no realer than dreams.”

Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji

I read through The Tale of Genji (源氏物語 Genji monogatari) by Murasaki Shikibu over the course of the summer and autumn, and I finally finished last week. I’d read it in the early morning with my first cup of tea and cat in my lap. The cat becomes upset and depressed if I don’t hold her for a little while in the morning so it was a good fit to settle in and read as much as I could from the 1200 page novel before moving into the rest of the day, accompanied by one happy cat. Now when I get up, blearily make myself a pot of tea and settle down, it’s a strange sensation not to reach out for the massive, multi-generational novel.

Set during the 11th century in Ancient Japan, The Tale of Genji spans three generations and is loaded with all sorts of characters, locations, and religious observances. It deals with the relationships between people, nature, the arts, and the gods. Emotions are celebrated in waka poetry, seasonal changes are closely noted and cherished, religious observations of Buddhism and Shintoism dominate daily life, and people’s lives change due to the current Emperor in power. At the center is the story of Hikaru Genji (Shining Genji) and later on in the novel, his descendants. Despite having a father as Emperor, his mother was a low-ranking consort and as such, he has commoner status– but for all that, lives a wealthy, fabulous life. Added on top of this is his intense, near-otherworldly beauty and grace, acknowledged by both men and women. Loaded with money and charm, he seduces and sleeps with many. Hundreds of pages are devoted to his thoughts and feelings on his lovers (to whom he sends piles of poetry and presents) and in turn, the thoughts and feelings of his lovers are revealed privately to the reader. Nearly every woman who comes in contact with him (and a few men) has deeply conflicted feelings about Genji and his behavior.

Noble women’s lives in the Heian Era are so delicately arranged that any mere whim of Genji’s can affect their futures deeply. The women live entirely at home, tucked into the deep recesses of their houses. They rarely even stand—though if a noblewoman does get up and walk, life is about to get spicy. To express their sadness and depression over Genji’s cavalier behavior, they watch the seasons change through a veil of tears, lie face down on the floor, refuse to talk to him, or can’t stop sending him messages. Whatever their behavior, they ultimately have accept his treatment of them. It is not an easy path to walk. They find consolation in the surrounding world: by reading, writing, playing music, observing the seasons, flowers, and birds, caring for their children, and talking to other women.

Seasons, religious observances, and rulers flow by and the main characters change too, from Genji and all the people surrounding him, to his grandsons and the women they love. There is a possibility that different author wrote the story of the grandsons, Kaoru and Niou. The style is different, somewhat smoother, and the characters’ thoughts and motives are revealed in more depth. I like to think that it was Shikibu’s work, a return to her great story after many decades of refining her craft.

“The world know it not; but you, Autumn, I confess it: your wind at night-fall stabs deep into my heart.”
Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji

The final third of the book centers on a succession of autumns, and a melancholy light flickers through the last few hundred pages. Genji is remembered but in passing—little of him is left except for his great house and his descendants. Kaoru, Niou, and three sisters that they love are on center stage. Genji’s grandchildren live in much the same way he did and though their personalities are different, their lives are just as fleeting and as frail. People make many of the same choices as the previous generation; the circle of life wheels around and around as the seasons flash by. The story has no neat conclusion: the book ends abruptly with protagonists still navigating their lives and affairs. I imagine Kaoru, Niou, and Ukifume out there in another dimension or time, wrestling with their lives, emotions, and circumstances, trying to make do with the choices available to them.

The Tale of Genji is an immersion into another life and era; it is an ancient gift that has survived for nearly a millennium. It is a book of shadows and barriers, a world that exists in lamplight.

“In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.”

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows

It is miracle that so massive a book, copied out by hand year after year, decade after decade, century after century, then at last into print, should survive into the modern era. Due to its venerable age and old language, many translations of The Tale of Genji have been written: Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s in Japanese and Edward Seidensticker’s in English are among the most well-known. I read Royall Tyler’s translation, occasionally dipping into Arthur Waley’s and Seidensticker’s earlier ones. What comes through strongly, regardless of the translation, is how incredibly easy The Tale of Genji is to read despite being nearly 1000 years old. Part of this is Shikibu’s very modern skill of weaving plot points in and out of characters’ motivations and thoughts. Shifting narrative perspectives and stream of consciousness prose both play a part; but an even bigger contributor to the story’s strength is its centering of relationships. If readers love anything, it’s hot, messy love affairs, tangled family and friendships, and all the accompanying emotions that go with them. Genji, full of tumult, even ghosts and possessions, is ultimately about human nature and all the triumphs, frailties, and failures that come with it.

The Light Changes: Books for the Autumn Equinox

Summer is coming to a close, as usual marked by heavy rain and fitful sunshine. I woke up to a downpour a few mornings ago. It took me awhile to fully wake due to the gloom-heavy atmosphere in the bedroom. When I finally got up and opened the bedroom door, the cats were waiting in the hallway, small triangle faces tilted and full of questions; they were unsure if it was breakfast time or not due to the strange murky light. It was so dim that even the street lamps were still on.

I padded with the cats out to the living room. Water was pouring down the western windows, giving the room a half-submerged effect as if it was about to give up and dissolve with the rain. The kitchen was a little better: I opened the eastern-facing window and a heavy, damp breeze rushed into the room, lifting napkins and papers and then setting them down again.

I set the kettle going and brewed a cup of green tea, sitting down at the kitchen table with the cat. She had gathered herself into the windowsill and we drank in the oxygen heavy air together. As the wind struck my face, the sensation of being sealed up alive in the house relented and I was able to breathe easier and drink the tea slowly, savoring the light, toasted flavor. The cat looked at me a few times as I drank but she inevitably returned to staring out the window, sniffing at smells I couldn’t detected but were utterly engrossing.

The loss of morning light in autumn makes the shortening days more noticeable. I love the night but hate early evenings and as sunrises comes later and the sunsets earlier, my fingers curl a little in my pockets. The long endless nights are coming. I’m not ready for summer to end but I attempt to reconcile myself by pulling out a few books.

As the light eases towards the darkness, I pull out the books that were once the spoken word, told during the long dark evenings to family members, friends, and the community; they’re usually called fairy tales or folk tales but “wonder tales” work just as well. I make a small pile: Franz Xaver von Schönwerth’s The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Tales, Zitkála-Šá’s American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men.

Schönwerth collected fairy tales in the 1850’s when he traveled around his beloved Bavarian homeland, listening to fairy tales and writing them down. The Grimm Brothers were recording fairy tales at this time too, racing to preserve stories that were disappearing as print culture was erasing the need for verbal storytelling. In the centuries that followed, much of Schönwerth’s recordings was preserved but many stories were lost. In 2009, Erika Eichenseer found 500 previously lost fairytales of Schönwerth’s in the municipal building of Regensburg, Bavaria. She found a fairy tale treasure. The stories were recently translated from English to German and stand alongside The Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault’s fairy tales.

Next to my copy of Schönwerth’s The Turnip Princess is Zitkála-Šá’s American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings. Zitkála-Šá was born during the Battle of Big Horn and was educated at a boarding school that enforced assimilation of First Nations’ peoples. Despite the school’s attempts to flatten her mind, body and spirit, Zitkala-Ša (Lakota for the cardinal bird) went on to be a political activist, writer, editor, translator, educator, and musician. She recorded Dakota Sioux legends, saving them for posterity. Many of them center on the trickster Iktomi, a spider fairy. I’ve included the beginning of a legend below.

Next to Zitkála-Šá’s folk tales is Zora Neal Hurston’s Mules and Men. Around the same time Zitkála-Šá was writing, Hurston was recording African-American folk stories that were fast disappearing. She recorded the stories she heard in her home of Eatonville, Florida and other nearby communities and logging camps. These stories often center on John Henry cleverly outwitting everyone, sometimes even the devil. Alongside the folk tales, Hurston recorded her experience learning hoodoo in New Orleans. It is not for the faint of heart.

These three books and the deep histories they invoke make the evenings richer, more bearable and in closing, I leave you with this opening of Zitkála-Šá’s retelling of “Iktomi and the Muskrat”:

Beside a white lake, beneath a large grown willow tree, sat Iktomi on the bare ground. The heap of smoldering ashes told of a recent open fire.  With ankles crossed together around a pot of soup, Iktomi bent over some delicious boiled fish.

Fast he dipped his black horn spoon into the soup,, for he was ravenous. Iktomi had no regular meal times.  Often when he was hungry he went without food.

Well hid between the lake and the wild rice, he looked nowhere save into the pot of fish.  Not knowing when the next meal would be, me meant to eat to enough now to last some time.

“How, how, my friend!” said a voice out of the wild rice. Iktomi started.  He almost choked with his soup.  He peered through the long reeds from where he sat with his long horn spoon in mid-air.

“How my friend!” said the voice again, this time close at his side. Iktomi turned and there stood a dripping muskrat who had just come out of the lake.

“Oh, it is my friend who startled me.  I wondered if among the wild rice some spirit voice was talking.  How, how, my friend!” said Iktomi.  The muskrat stood smiling.  On his lips hung a ready “Yes, my friend,” when Iktomi would ask, “My friend, will you sit down beside me and share my food?”

That was the custom of the plains people.  Yet Iktomi sat silent. He hummed an old dance-song and beat gently on the edge of the pot with his buffalo-horn spoon.  The muskrat began to feel awkward before such lack of hospitality and wished himself under the water.

The rest can be read in Zitkála-Šá’s American Indian Stories, Legends and Other Writings.

Please feel free to share your favorite fairy tale or folk tales in the comments section.