“The first sentence of every novel should be: ‘Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.’  Meander if you want to get to town.”

This is from Michael Ondaatje’s book, In The Skin Of A Lion, which I blogged about here.  When I first read this passage, years ago, I realized this is the kind of fiction I want to write, and this proclamation provides comfort.

There’s a beautiful feeling I sometimes get when I’m reading.  It’s the moment I realize I’m in the hands of a good storyteller.  I’ve had that feeling sometimes reading “great” books, and sometimes reading unpublished student work.  The feeling helps me relax and be along for the journey, and I crave it in everything that I read.  This is not to say that I want what I read to soothe me–on the contrary.  (As the fabulous Joy Williams wrote in her essay “Uncanny the Singing That Comes From Certain Husks,” “Good writing never soothes or comforts.  It is no prescription, neither is it diversionary, although it can and should enchant while it explodes in the reader’s face.”)  But that somewhat unnamable awareness that I’m in good hands as I read is always welcome.  It has to do, maybe, with an amount of confidence (and sincerity) in the writer, because I don’t get that feeling, usually, when I read an overly clever or cynical voice–a narrative stance that, to me, usually feels insincere.  I think the feeling I’m pondering can be called “trust.”  As I notice it, something changes in my body; I relax a little (even if the story is unsettling, exploding in my face) because I understand an agreement the writer is making with me, and I am making with the writer: I trust that she or he will uphold whatever rules and aesthetics the story (or poem) requires, and I trust that the writer’s choices were made in earnest, and with honor behind them.

I want to give that same feeling to my readers.  With my words, I want to craft a net, a web, or a hammock, to catch, or lull them into a place, a moment, a thought.  Myself I want to quiet down to what’s essential, and I want the reader to witness (with me) that silver drop of water on a leaf, or that strange knocking sound that’s just too far off to identify but too close to ignore.

4 thoughts on “The hands of a storyteller

  1. This is very interesting. We always read how important the first sentence of novel can be, but everyone always talks about the need for a “hook” to snare a reader. I like your concept better! The writer/reader relationship is sacred and requires a strong bond of trust.

    Great post! :-)

    1. Thanks, C.B. I think the idea of the hook has a lot more to do with marketing (and trying to sell ones book to a publisher or agent) than the experience of reading–but I’m sure that’s my tendency to not mind if a book takes its time, and a writer takes her time to orient me to how I should read her work, if that makes sense. My husband and I talk a lot about how important it is to orient the reader (through the prose, of course–how else?) to the work. Wow, that sounds REALLY high-falutin, which I don’t intend. But wouldn’t it be great if the market-istas would focus instead on things like this? (I can dream, right?) Thanks for stopping by and for the conversation!

  2. It’s interesting you talk about this, cause I have been struggling to describe that same feeling when explaining why I like the prose of a certain writer even if the story they tell is not exceptionally inspiring. But as always you did a much better job explaining it than I ever could.
    This feeling is turning into my main drive for reading novels. Recently, I am getting it in Paul Auster’s works. It’s like taking drugs, or lying on a sand beach in the summer sun: I can let go of myself.
    Also now I know better why I like every one of your posts so much: they have the same “lulling” effect as the summer sun..

    a secret admirer of your writing :-)

    1. Sara, I’m blushing–I’ve never had a secret admirer of my writing, and what a lovely thing to say! Nice to see you here again! :) I need to put Auster on my soon list. What would you recommend to start with?

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