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Hernan Pinera
By Flickr’s Hernán Piñera

You don’t write with your keyboard. You don’t write with your pen or your hands. You don’t write with your typewriter, your chisel, your audio transcriber, your fancy new app, gadget, or journal.

Most people find this strange since, for instance, the field goal kicker for the St. Louis Rams kicks primarily with his leg.

But not the storyteller. “Writing” is one of those rare more-than-actions for our more-than-physical world.

See this is the problem with most journalism about fiction writers. Journalists try so hard in interviews to get the story behind the story, to “see through” fiction rather than using fiction as a tool through which to see. They insult those of us who have spent years fantasizing and imagining and crafting another world from scratch. As Terry Pratchett would say, Fiction is a minor province in the world of Fantasy, not the other way around. Even the most Woolf-esque, heady literary fiction is fantasizing and, if it’s not, it’s little more than memoir.

That’s not to slight memoir.

That’s simply saying we fiction writers do something that nonfiction writers do not do.

We craft tales from scratch.

Recently at a writers’ enclave in Massachusetts, I considered leading a session in which I confiscated the phones, computers, typewriters, pens, and paper of every attendee. We would then take a simple writing prompt for a fairy tale or mythology and would write it together. Aloud. Without any recording device to bear witness. Then we’d retell the story, start to finish, patching it together. Then we’d elect a delegate—the best of us—to tell our community’s tale from start to finish.

And then we’d write our own longhand versions.

We’d type our own, personalized first drafts on the typewriters I brought.

And finally, we’d each write a full draft on our computers, revise, and share our various versions of the central tale that night. Some end results would be literary, others romantic and so on—just as the medievalists riffed off of Virgil and Homer and Arthur.

It’s a proof of concept. Since we received the gift of consciousness and history broke forth in a sudden dawn, we humans have told one another stories around the dying embers of campfires. See, most people misunderstand oral tradition. They think the ancients were terrified or superstitious of the written word. On the whole, that’s a cartful of horseshit. Socrates, for instance, wasn’t afraid of the written word. He simply thought it was insufficient. His argument—ironically recorded in Plato’s writings—goes something like this: you only know what you’ve internalized. If you have not internalized or memorized your text and narrative, you don’t know it. The ancient Jews had their children memorize the first five books of their sacred texts—one of which was Levitical law. Can you imagine an America (or Australia or Britania) in which every child graduated the eighth grade having memorized all of the primary legal codes used in American courts?

We’d have a lot fewer frivolous patent lawsuits, I’ll tell you that much right now.

Oral tradition is a both an outlining tradition and a memorizing tradition. And this is still true today. Some stories are kosher for everyone to tell—days of disaster like September 11th or days of joy like the birth of a brother. Other stories are for family heads to tell—bits of family mythology like the time the world’s largest hippo spray-shat on my Mimi Wiggins. Only Grandpa Deano Bubba can tell that story at family gatherings, but he’s teaching me to “tell it right.”

And then some stories can only be told by your wiseman, sage, or your nationhead. These are origin stories and law. They’re stories told by rabbis and shaman and priests. They’re the things your drill sergeant teaches you about life in the trenches. Things we “hand down and entrust to reliable men who will be able to teach others.”

They do this because the most important stories must be well-told. And if they have but one bad telling, the whole narrative identity of your people risks being thrown off for all of time.

It’s a craft—a way of telling.

Though your novel is capable of far more interior headspace than an oral tale or other external mediums like a film, you don’t write with your keyboard, your pen, or your paper.

As a teller, your tool is your mind. The narrative part of your brain.

You use your narrative mind in three ways:

  1. Memory
  2. Imagination
  3. Memorization (or “study”)

In order to fashion a good story, well-told, Talecraft wields the memory of your own human experience to craft voice, the imagination of your consciousness to craft world, and the memorization of both the ways in which your preferred stories are told and the materia that composes technical details related to setting and character. Not a pen for a tool, oh no. A shared empathy brought about by made-up characters and worlds that feel familiar. The wedding of foreign and familiar through fabricated or exaggerated narrative, that’s our craft.

I won’t have the space here to flesh those three out, so instead I’ll ask a very leading question and respond to you once you’ve populated the comments: how has your memory, your imagination, or your memorization of the memories and imaginations of others helped get you “unstuck” during a harder season of writing?

About Lance Schaubert [1]

Lancelot Schaubert [2] has sold his written work to markets like The New Haven Review, McSweeney’s, The Poet’s Market, Writer’s Digest (books and magazine), Poker Pro, Encounter, The Misty Review and many other similar markets. He reinvented the photonovel through Cold Brewed and was commissioned by the Missouri Tourism Board to create a second photonovel — The Joplin Undercurrent — that both fictionalizes and enchants the history and culture of Joplin, Missouri.