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Unlike the many talented storytellers here this evening, I can’t tell a tale unless it’s written down. Actually, until very recently I would not have called myself much of a storyteller at all — out of respect for the term. A storyteller was someone with a generative, unlimited imagination, the kind of person who makes worlds: someone like CS Lewis, say, or Ursula K Le Guin. Imagine a world in a wardrobe or a planet in which gender is not a fixed state but a condition, changing season by season. Those are stories. My own writing seemed to me more prosaic. I don’t make up marvelous tales. I only try to express — as clearly as possible — the thoughts and feelings many people have. Often my subjects are the simplest things in the world: joy, family, the weather, houses, streets. Nothing fancy. And when I sit down with these subjects my aim is clarity. I’m really trying to clear some of the muddle from my own brain — my brain being a very muddled place indeed. Sometimes I think my whole professional life has been based on this hunch I had, early on, that many people feel just as muddled as I do, and might be happy to tag along with me on this search for clarity, for precision. I love that aspect of writing. Nothing makes me happier than to hear a reader say: that’s just what I’ve always felt, but you said it clearly. I feel then that I’ve achieved something useful. But that has often seemed far away from real story-telling, and in truth there have been times over the past decade when I have felt quite distant from stories and unsure how to tell them. I forgot — as the rappers like to say — why I got into this game in the first place.
Then I had kids. But what a boring story: “Then I had kids.” Still, I have to be truthful. And the truth is something happened when I had kids. I went from not being able to think of a single story to being unable to stop seeing stories pretty much every place I looked. Now, before anybody raises a hand to object, I am not a biological essentialist, nor one of these people who believe a gift for empathy arrives along with the placenta. The explanation, in my opinion, is less dramatic: storybooks. For the first time since childhood I am back in the realm of stories and storybooks — three stories read out loud to a four year old, every night, on pain of death — and this practice has reawakened in me something I thought I’d misplaced a long time ago, on book tour, perhaps, or in the back row of a university lecture hall. This feeling of narrative possibility and wonder — this idea that every person is a world. How could I have forgotten that? Did I really almost drift away, down that anemic, intellectual path where storytelling is considered vulgar and characters a stain on the purity of a sentence? Dear Lord — almost. I’m so grateful now to have the opportunity to reacquaint myself with stories like The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl. I lie in bed with my daughter, reading aloud this Kafkaesque tale of a family of duck hunters, who wake up one morning with wings where their arms should be, and it sends me back to my desk with an ease and fluidity I haven’t felt since my own childhood.
Which is all to say this lovely award has come at the right moment, just when I find myself falling back in love with stories and appreciating anew what an unprecedented privilege it is to make your living telling them. The unlikeliest story of my life is the one about the girl from Willesden who found readers in the United States, and not a little of the credit for that is due to my good friend — and one-time publicist — Kimberly Burns, who is here tonight. Thank you. And thanks to everyone at The Moth for giving me an opportunity to use this stage to say thank you in person to some of my American readers, for their unexpected generosity, for the gift of their attention and time.
Now, I have one more person to thank, but before that I want to tell a short story concerning my first conscious experience of story-telling. I think when it’s done you may better understand the root of my conflicted feelings toward the form. Here goes:
Once upon a time, I was nine. It was summer in England, the sky was blue but also full of clouds. I was not — how can I put this — overburdened with friends. It was warm, but school was still in session, and this presented the insolvable problem of break time, for there is only so long you can walk around a playground pretending to be looking for your playmates. To hide my isolation, I spent a lot of time looking at the clouds, and at a strange ivy-covered tower that stood next door to our school. In the attic of that building, I decided, a tragic young woman lived, the prisoner of a God who did not want this girl to marry her true love, Superman. It didn’t make sense, but it was a story, and I got good at telling it. In order to draw attention to myself, I started telling it to kids in the playground. It grew more elaborate each time I told it, and I always finished up by swearing on my mother’s life. I swear! I swear there’s a young woman up there, and she’s sending smoke signals into the sky — in the shape of clouds — so when you see one that looks like superman, put a tac in your shoe. The more people with tacs in their shoe, the louder it will sound when you walk, and the louder it sounds when you walk, the — Oh, I don’t remember. There must have been a logic to it, but I can’t recall now what it was. Anyway the takeaway was: tac in the shoe. I was hell bent on this tac-in-the-shoe business. You’ve got to put a tac in your shoe or the poor girl will die! It’s true! I swear on my mother’s life! It’s a miracle my mother survived that summer.
Well, people seemed to be into my story, everyone seemed into it, really, all except this one girl — her name was Anupma — who proved to be a sceptic. She was very smart, Anupma — that was part of the problem. She was not moved by rhetoric. She had a fundamental logical issue with the smoke signals/clouds/superman trifecta. And one day, apropos of nothing at all — she turned to me in the playing fields and said: “That story isn’t true. It’s a lie. And I’m going to tell everyone.” And she started to run towards our classrooms. Watching her go, I experienced the ten-year-old version of acute despair. Everything I’d built, all my new friends, indeed, my sense of my own value — all of it seemed dependent on this ridiculous story, and she was threatening to reveal it for what it was: a lie. I had to stop her from reaching that classroom. I ran after her. She was fast — it wasn’t easy. But just by the sandpit, I put my leg in front of hers like an Italian footballer and dragged her violently to the ground, where her knee promptly split open and bled all over the concrete. Crying, filthy, she lay defeated on the floor, and the look she gave me I have never forgotten. It was a horrified question: What kind of a person is this? The nurse came; Anupma was taken to the medical room to be patched up, and as far as I know she did not rat on me, neither concerning my lies nor my casual brutality. At least, I was allowed to pass unmolested on to class. I caught up with my classmates in the hall. “What is that noise?” asked the teacher as we shuffled into class. Tap tap tap. It took me a second to recognize it myself. Tacs in every shoe.
Tonight my husband is here, and he has heard that story many times. Having known each other 20 years there isn’t a story of mine he hasn’t heard many times and vice versa. He rolls his eyes at this one in particular because of the mix of humble-brag and pure ruthlessness it displays — but he’s a storyteller, too, and I think he knows what I mean by telling it. Storytelling is a magical, ruthless discipline. The people who tell stories are often tempted to create a hierarchy in their lives, in which stories come before everything else, including people. Part of my anxiety about storytelling is an awareness of that monomaniacal part of me that is willing to wrestle a little girl to the ground in order to preserve the integrity of a story. I know that part of me exists, but I really try to suppress it, because I want to find an accommodation between telling stories about life and living it well. In this accommodation, no one and no story can compare with Nick, who is every bit as ruthlessly dedicated to writing as I am, but who has besides a capacity for love and kindness that I know I will spend my lifetime trying to equal. Without you, I would not be telling stories all — I’d just be kicking little girls in the face. The luckiest thing that happened to me — besides becoming a professional storyteller — is marrying one, and as I don’t often get a chance to say thank you publically, I wanted to do so now. Thank you.
wrapping up life rewind 2013 with a list of must-reads. a combination of articles, essays, poetry & quotes all worth your time. check them out in the links below.
continuing on with life rewind, here’s a look back at my favorite video posts from 2013. while the clips cover a range of different topics and styles, they share a common capacity for stretching perspectives:
“in 1963, jim whittaker became the first american to climb to mt. everest. 50 years later, he linked up with director eric becker to discuss that experience and what it means to have a life well-lived. for whittaker, part of it is an appreciation for nature and living life on the edge:
“Being out on the edge, with everything at risk, is where you learn and grow the most.”
after watching the video, think about your own idea of a well-lived life. what are some characteristics that define it for you?”
“arsenio hall returned to late-night tv last month after an almost 20-year hiatus. his first run was in many ways groundbreaking, featuring moments like a soon-to-be president clinton playing the sax and in the video above, arsenio taking on members of the gay rights group queer nation. i just saw the latter for the first time recently. it was an interesting (and welcome) departure from the usual late-night show vibe. it also shows how some aspects of the gay rights convo have changed and while others have remained the same.”
“A short dance film, written and performed by David Bolger (choreographer and artistic director of CoisCéim Dance Theatre, Dublin) along with his 76-year-old mother, Madge Bolger. The film was shot in the Marian College swimming pool, where Madge worked as a swimming instructor for many years and where she taught David to swim.”
“a moment of happiness has the power to bring the world closer together
The “Small World Machines” provided a live communications portal linking strangers in two nations divided by more than just borders, with the hope of provoking happiness and promoting cultural understanding around the world. Coke and Leo Burnett used first-of-its-kind 3D touchscreen technology to project a streaming video feed onto the vending machine screen while simultaneously filming through the unit to capture a live emotional exchange. People from both countries and various walks of life were encouraged to complete a friendly task together – wave, touch hands, draw a peace sign or dance – before sharing a Coca-Cola.
while cynics might point out that sharing a coke isn’t the same thing as signing a peace treaty, even a symbolic gesture can have a great impact in changing a person’s outlook. also, the technology behind this is just cool on its own.”
“heineken decided to use a different approach to hire its next intern. in the video above called the candidate, the beer company put applicants through a series of tests not found in a normal interview. while some of these tests might seem weird for the setting (and maybe just weird in general), seeing how the potential employees handle unique situations could show more about their true character & abilities than a prescribed q&a would (not to mention, it might be more exciting/fun for both parties involved).”
“marc-antoine locatelli brings us a beautiful blend of art and technology in his video nuance. the film pairs up dancer lucas boirat with lights of various shapes and sizes. the way boirat & the different lights play off of each other’s movements coupled with locatelli’s sharp use of black-white contrast create a dazzling experience for viewers.”
“here’s a modern take on home building, spiced with ingenuity, persistence & brooklyn. background via science friday:
Michele Bertomen and David Boyle bought an empty 20-by-40-foot lot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They planned to build something traditional, but when the bid for the masonary envelope (the building without plumbing, electricity) came back at over $300,000, they re-evaluated. Inspired by Bertomen’s students at New York Institute of Technology, the couple decided to try building their home from shipping containers–which cost them about $50,000 for the building envelope. Bertomen, an architect, and Boyle, the general contractor, designed and oversaw construction of their home. We stopped by for a tour.“
“We’re all capable of a little more — a little faster, a little higher, a little stronger, a little more. And when we look at all of the little things we’ve done, we’ll see the big things we’re doing.
here’s yet another stellar ad from the folks at nike. this one celebrates the 25th anniversary of their iconic slogan “just do it” by showing what people are capable of when they keep pushing forward. the spot features star athletes including lebron james, serena williams, jon “bones” jones, andre ward &pique. bradley cooper narrates while “future starts slow” by the kills plays in the background.”
“the council of brunete in madrid teamed up with mccann to stop negligent pooper scoopers. the results are priceless”
“director célia rivière blends animation with live action in this excellent spot for chérie 25. the clip matches the buoyancy of elvis’ “spring fever” as it shows different parts of city life. it’s cool. it’s sharp. it’s all kinds of impressive. i only wish that the video was longer.”
“Throughout 2012, Richard Mosse and his collaborators Trevor Tweeten and Ben Frost travelled in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, infiltrating armed rebel groups in a war zone plagued by frequent ambushes, massacres and systematic sexual violence. The resulting installation, The Enclave, is the culmination of Mosse’s attempt to rethink war photography. It is a search for more adequate strategies to represent a forgotten African tragedy in which, according to the International Rescue Committee, at least 5.4 million people have died of war-related causes in eastern Congo since 1998.
The Enclave immerses the viewer in a challenging and sinister world, exploring aesthetics in a situation of profound human suffering. At the heart of the project, as Mosse states, is an attempt to bring “two counter-worlds into collision: art’s potential to represent narratives so painful that they exist beyond language, and photography’s capacity to document specific tragedies and communicate them to the world.”
“one of the happiest times in life is storytime. and not just when you read some maggie brown or maurice sendak to your son/niece/granddaughter, but also when the child comes up with a sprawling tale for you. to get lost in imagination and see things like monkeys having a picnic on the moon is great at any age & on either side of the story.
bianca giaever does an excellent job capturing this feeling in her short film “the scared is scared.” in it, she asks a 6-year old boy what her movie should be about and then brings his response, which includes animals at the pool & some wise beyond his years advice, to life.”
“i never got with the odd future wave. love what frank is doing on the r&b front, but most of what i heard/saw from their rappers (tyler, earl, hodgy, etc.) was mostly wack and/or weird. that said, i’m glad i gave tyler’s new video a shot. his song “ifhy” adds some color to the gray areas of love. visually, it reminds me of the imaginative stuff busta rhymes was doing out in the 90s (see here & here for examples & nostalgia). on both fronts, he does a good job negotiating that subjective line between weirdness and creativity.”
“foundations like make-a-wish do a great job making the dreams of terminally ill youth come true. in the case of nkaitole, a 4-year old boy from kenya, the urgency to accomplish his goals isn’t because of any specific life-threatening disease. instead, it’s due to water.
according to water is life, 20% of children won’t reach the age of 5 in part due to unsafe drinking water. with this in mind, the group helped nkaitole complete his bucket list. it’s cute to see him do things like play soccer at the national stadium & get his first kiss. however, this doesn’t come without a degree of sadness knowing that people’s lives are at risk for something that many of us take for granted every day.
“music painting” is a creative musical experience that taps into your ears, eyes and mind. as you listen to matteo negrin‘s rendition of “lacrime di giulietta”, watch the played notes bloom along the sheet music as you also follow a tale about man’s relationship with nature. the video was negrin’s idea put into action by alice ninni (director/painter), luca cattaneo (director/editor) & alberto filippini (editor). via soul pancake.
at the behest of the fdr administration & life magazine, alfred hitchcock directed a bit of wartime propaganda in the form of a photo essay. while doing a photo essay might seem like a diversion from hitchcock’s day job, the best directors often create still moments within their motion pictures that are worthy of being displayed at a museum. details via the july 1942 issue of life:
From Stephen Early, [White House press] secretary to President Roosevelt, recently came the suggestions that LIFE tell a picture story of wartime rumors and the damage they are liable to do. In accordance with this request, the editors asked Alfred Hitchcock, famed Hollywood movie director, to produce such a story, with LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon as his cameraman. When Mr. Hitchcock graciously agreed, a script was prepared, the director picked his characters from the ranks of movie professionals and LIFE’s Los Angeles staff, and shooting commenced in Hollywood.
Have You Heard? is the result of their cooperation in photo-dramatization. A simply sexless story, it shows how patriotic but talkative Americans pass along information, true or false, until finally deadly damage is done to their country’s war effort. One false rumor is silenced by a man who later is unwittingly responsible for starting a true rumor which ends in a great catastrophe. Moral: Keep your mouth shut.
check out “have you heard?” in the gallery below (click for captions + a closer look). compare the project to hitchcock’s films & note any similarities/differences in style & execution.
via open culture:
Here’s a rare recording from 1929 of the British author A.A. Milne reading a chapter of his beloved children’s book, Winnie-the-Pooh. Milne was a prolific writer of plays, novels and essays, but he was most widely known–much to his chagrin–as the creator of a simple and good-natured little bear.
Pooh was inspired by his son Christopher Robin’s favorite teddy bear. In Milne’s imagination, the stuffed bear comes alive and enters into little adventures (or one might say misadventures) with Christopher Robin and his other stuffed animals. The name “Winnie” was borrowed from a famous resident of the London Zoo: a black bear from Canada named for the city of Winnipeg. The young Christopher Robin liked visiting Winnie at the zoo. He also liked a graceful swan he saw swimming in a pond at Kensington Gardens, who he named “Pooh.” His father combined the two names to create one of the most popular characters in children’s literature.
listen to milne read the story “in which pooh and piglet go hunting and nearly catch a woozle” (you can follow along with the text after the jump). on a related note, pictured above are christopher robin milne’s original stuffed animals (l to r, eeyore, kanga, piglet, pooh, tigger) then housed at the new york public library. you can find more info on them here.
i love the cocaine 80s movement. artists coming together to make good music. not for pop radio or to sell light beer. just for the “pursuit of dopeness.” here’s the latest offering from the crew “congratulations.” on the song, common takes listeners through the story of his boy’s wedding. he’s backed up by vocals from jhene aiko & james fauntleroy as well as smooth production by no i.d. (spotted on his tumblr).
the uk’s channel 4 challenged people “to shoot a factual narrative within a day following ‘A Day in the Life’ of someone.” director jeremy cole responded by helping young (“six & a three-quarters” to be exact) shyheim foster describe his stepdad’s daily grind. check it out above (my childhood loves the superhero “s”).
my challenge to you: describe a day in the life of someone who you’re close with and have that person do the same for you. share with each other & analyze any discrepancies between perception and reality.
one of the happiest times in life is storytime. and not just when you read some maggie brown or maurice sendak to your son/niece/granddaughter, but also when the child comes up with a sprawling tale for you. to get lost in imagination and see things like monkeys having a picnic on the moon is great at any age & on either side of the story.
bianca giaever does an excellent job capturing this feeling in her short film “the scared is scared.” in it, she asks a 6-year old boy what her movie should be about and then brings his response, which includes animals at the pool & some wise beyond his years advice, to life. via joseph gordon-levitt.
what was your favorite story as a child? do you think it would make a good live-action film?