Lately I’ve been fascinated by the concept of oral storytelling.
About a month or two ago, a friend sent me a link to some spoken word poetry. It was fantastic. The words themselves were beautiful, but the passion and skill of the performers made it better. Around the same time, I listened to Neil Gaiman’s Worldbuilders readings of Jabberwocky and Green Eggs and Ham. Anyone can read those stories, but he took it out of monotonous rhythm and made it interesting. Plus, the accent. Then I started on epic poetry.
If you’re at a party and they start passing around the Homer, just say no.
Last week, I found myself with the smudgy draft of a short epic poem, at nearly midnight. It’s the short story equivalent of a real epic poem, and considering the inherent structure I’ve dissected and essayed upon since then, it’s doesn’t quite fall into all the parameters of epic poetry— but it has the basics. I wrote a short poem in unrhymed blank verse, set in my current storyworld, about a mythic hero’s last sacrifice. No, it doesn’t invoke the Muse. No, it doesn’t begin in medias res. Unfortunately, I skimped on both allegory and epic simile, because I haven’t created enough of this world to be that academic, and I still had a bit of a purple prose filter on. But still, I consider it epic.
Probably the biggest reason is this: it’s written to be performed.
They say Homer was most likely illiterate, speaking his poems and embellishing them each time he did. Eventually they were written down. Did he write them down? Did he actually create the stories, or even perfect them? We know almost nothing about Homer. He just happens to be the author of two of the greatest epic poems in history. But those stories weren’t meant to be read. They were meant to be heard, to be performed. That’s what appeals to me about epic poetry.
As I come to think of it, this isn’t a recent obsession. I used to listen to Brian Jacques perform his own audiobooks. All his books are written in his unique voice, and after hearing him speak you can imagine him reading any of his books— but his audiobooks in particular are spectacular. He and a cast read all the voices, he narrates, and the group of them perform each of the myriad songs included in each book. When I was a kid, even before I wanted to be a writer, I remember wanting to perform stories like that.
But what is it about oral storytelling that appeals to me so much? What’s the difference between writing for publication and writing for speaking?
I’m not exactly sure yet. All I know is that I tend to find writing for speaking easier than writing for publication. I write blog posts as if I’m speaking, rarely if ever going back to edit a post I’ve written. I write things down as I think of them, as if once they’re out of my fingers they’re unchangeable as sound. I write conversationally. And I know the words aren’t quite perfect, and the grammar could be improved (the ‘and’ beginning this sentence, for instance, could be adjusted, and if I were really proper I wouldn’t be using these parentheses, and contractions would be taboo for a more academic style), but I like it this way. I get to write as though I’m speaking, but with the chance to backspace if I start saying the wrong word, or rearrange a sentence without anyone noticing the long pause as I try to figure out how to say it. It’s a hybrid of oral and written that I enjoy.
And yet, increasing alarmingly over the past few months, the moment I try to write fiction, I freeze up. I try to write things perfectly the first time, as if I don’t get to go back and edit (probably because I’m afraid of editing, frankly, after some rather heinous mistakes I’ve made in second drafts). It’s almost too much of a performance art for me, when I try to write fiction, when I feel like I’d rather have everything be a performance art.
Because here I am, improvising on piano and sketching out comics and one-drafting short epic poetry for fun. I adore creation, and I adore making it a performance. I want to have an audience for what I do. (I’ve posted about that recently.) I love taking something and making more out of it every time I reuse it. I love performance art.
So… what happens? When I write, I prefer to one-draft everything. I’m given two entire weeks to write a 750-word essay for a literature class— I write it in an hour, often just before the deadline, and give it maybe a grammar read-through before handing it in. Fault? Probably. I write a short story and publish it within 24 hours because I don’t like to edit those either. But with novels… They’re so big, and so complicated, and no first draft is ever perfect— so I’m scared of it, and I try to write a perfect first draft with everything I know crammed into my fingers, and it never works. It’s exactly because first drafts are supposed to be bad that I can’t allow myself to write a bad first draft.
I think the word one uses in such a situation is Gah.
I need to get back to a place where I can practice freely. I need to get back to a place where I can write what I think, instead of thinking hard before I write a word. Yes, there’s a time for thinking hard about your words. It just doesn’t work now. Should I edit a past novel while I work my way back into the swing of things? No, I don’t think I can. I’ve obsessed a little too much recently.
So I’ll work on it. This took quite a turn from the topic of oral storytelling, although I do think there are some interesting things one can learn from that style. We’ll see how things go a little down the road.