Saturday, November 11, 2006

Final Presentations

So our final presentations are scheduled for the 14th, 15th and 16th from 3 to 5 in the AV room. On Monday I'll be putting up on the AV Room door the names of people who'll speak on each day. There won't be a mike as it's more of a pain than a help in the tiny space, so be loud. Fans of WIP and general department people, please come to hear your friends tell stories. It should give us some welcome relief in the most hectic week of the semester. Unfortunately the final day clashes with the Food seminar (which I'll have to bunk in the afternoon) but that's just the usual JU madness.

People have been asking what I'm looking for, and whether it's possible to do a good presentation of a bad story. Well, up to a point it's not; unless the story's halfway decent even the best storyteller can't make it sizzle. But you can ruin a good story with bad telling, and you can rivet people with a good reading of an OK story. The most basic points are: 1. Read slow enough for people to assimilate and follow, ie much slower than usual, with lots of pauses, (but don't put 'em to sleep) 2. Be loud and clear, 3. Pause when transiting between speech and narration, 4. Vary your tone appropriately, but only change your pitch, not your volume, 5. Make eye contact when you can, 5. Be engaged with the story; don't read it like a seminar paper or a news report. This is similar to, but not the same as, reading a character in a play, beacuse here you have to be ALL the characters as well as the narrator.

Finally, what constitutes a good story? This is a question that authors, publishers and readers have tried to answer for generations, with no end to the search in sight (different ages answer it differently, with some results agreeing across time). Funnily enough, it's not a question that critics concern themselves with all that much. Critics are generally rather embarrassed at humanity's insistence on a story. Perhaps it's because stories enter our lives so early in life: an eighteen-month-old baby, otherwise unmanageable, will listen openmouthed to a story and swallow their pap without demur. But you can read Barthes till your eyes pop and never find out why.

Many modern writers have been half-nelsoned by critics to prove that the narrative is dead: look at Joyce, they yowl. Joyce was, however, a consummate storyteller; he just loved to OD on narrative. He's a stories-teller, in fact. The truth is, people who write novels (or even poems) without stories are forgotten by history. No one wants to read them over and over again and give them to their children, or buy them for their closest friend who's dying of cancer, or give to their parents on their seventieth wedding anniversary. But say that to any modern critic and they'll look at you like you've crawled out of a Mills and Boon. Or a Terry Pratchett.

Rather, read your stories to your sisters and brothers, and your parents, and to your domestic help if you can translate on the fly, and see how they react. Buttonhole friends who are NOT literature students and ask them. If there's one thing being an author has taught me, it's never to underestimate readers. They're the smartest people on the planet. Go to them, thou sluggard, consider their ways, and be wise.

So I'm looking for a kind of narrative honesty which goes beyond surfaces, which is rooted in reality but which makes us see things with fresh eyes. It's not made of statistical averages -- in fact it's just the opposite, it looks for the remarkable within the ordinary. Some of it only comes with experience, and I will of course allow for that. But the first rule of good writing is: don't be satisfied with easy stuff. The spontaneous good story is a rare treat, bless its little cotton socks. Most of the time, you have to slog for it (like another category of human endeavour which I will not name). So PLEASE read over your stuff as you have consistently failed to do throughout this course (sigh). And CHANGE stuff that doesn't work until it does.

Good luck!

1 comment:

Illusionary said...

the post itself was a delightful read! Its nice to read modern english again.Sigh.