Writing Our Stories

January 9, 2004 | 10 comments
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I welcome all this logistical talk about journals. I think the computer is the only way, because it establishes the text, but technology is such and computers are so disposable that a hard copy is essential and may be what lasts. Burning a CD is an interesting idea, but that technology may also be limited. I keep a month’s entries in a single computer file, adding to it each day. At the end of the month, I print the month out, punch holes, and put it in a binder, and I begin the next month. What to print it on is my current question. For several years I have used the back sides of the beautiful stationery my parents left, but I am now out of several reams of that. I may have to get some expensive rag, bond, archival paper to show that I value the project. Which I do, although I never go back to reread.

I avoided keeping a daily journal for years until I had an epiphany. I was driving from Delaware to Maryland to deliver a presentation to the people at an old folks’ home on the diary of Mary Chesnutt who was everywhere and knew everyone during the Civil War. Lightbulb! Here I was spending a couple of days preparing a presentation on this haphazard collection when my own busy life was unrecorded. She lives because she kept notes. I would disappear because I did not.

Someone questioned whether what I wrote was really a diary. But let us not be at the mercy of others to define our genres. A diary is a sort of daily record of events and observations. Everything is fair game. When people ask me what to write, I say whatever they want. Although today’s historians wring their hands about topics missing from past journals, we cannot know what hundreds of years hence that fickle group will wish we had written about. I sometimes suggest that people look at the lives of their grandparents and parents and write about themselves what they wish they knew about past family.

One good reason to write a journal is because it gives importance and shape to our lives. We can easily say that nothing ever happens to us and our lives are dull, but if we wrote two paragraphs a day, would there be nothing to say? What would be in those strangled entries? They might be more compelling than the pages of the voluble.

But enough about journals. I have another topic. Last night I went to an off-Broadway show Mysteries in its first preview presentation. The first act was stories from the Old Testament from the York, Wakefield, and Chester Mystery Play cycles, all adapted by Tony Harrison into elegant and comprehensible speech, and maybe for drama too. The familiar stories of the Creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Able, the flood, and Abraham and Isaac were just enthralling in their drama. The last vignette was as horrifyingly dramatized as I have ever seen it, with heart-breaking dialogue between father and son and a knife three feet long. But at the climactic moment, Jehovah stayed Abraham’s hand and provided his own sacrifice, a swaddled infant, His own Son! Richard tells me that that connection would have been common in the middle ages, but it has always been more distant, more intellectualized than that for me.

This was a terrific production with all kinds of great effects. The characters all wore heavy dark overcoats and mufflers–when they were wearing anything at all. In the second act they wore chinos, tank tops, suspenders, and tool belts. The floor of the central acting area was covered with straw and a few basic tables were pushed around. The Tree hung upside down in the center. The Arc was also hanging in the air. By the end of the first act the floor was covered with bushels of apples, and a blue plastic sheet with several gallons of water on it.

The second act was more difficult for me. The short dramas of modern writers Dario Fo, Borislav Pekic, and Mikhail Bulgakov subverted the stories of Lazarus, Pontius Pilate, and the Crucifixion into comedy and character studies which were painful to watch. Then the show finished with The Harrowing of Hell from the York Cycle to sort of bring it around to the earlier tone, and a recitation of some of the actual wisdom of Jesus from the Gospel of St. Thomas as found in Elaine Pagles’ book (and the Dead Sea Scrolls). It was all very Christian while also being produced and performed by a clearly Jewish group. Was this the colonization of Christianity, the appropriation of Jesus Christ as a wise leader for secular purposes? And finally, could we retell these stories for our purposes without sentimentalizing them or making them painfully didactic? What successful efforts have we made in this direction? I remember A Day, a Night, and a Day from some years ago. Is this effort worth attempting? Should we put our dramatists to work?

10 Responses to Writing Our Stories

  1. clark goble on January 9, 2004 at 3:04 pm

    I have found from sad experience that backups have to be multiple and have to be checked. Now the best backup is CDs *and* a nice external hard drive. (Fairly cheap now days) A general backup procedure is a good idea and (had I one) I’d keep a copy in a bank vault.

    The benefit of computers is that you can do this far more easily than with hard copy. Think of all the people who lost *all* their memories when photos, scrapbooks, and journal were destroyed in fire or flood.

  2. Kristine on January 9, 2004 at 3:19 pm

    I think maybe our church needs to double or triple in size before we are ready to “retell these stories for our purposes without sentimentalizing them or making them painfully didactic.” As long as all media presentations about, by, or for the church are so tightly correlated by centralized committees, I think any artistic vision that departs from the official script is likely to result in very painful clashes. Thus members who care about their church membership will find themselves in an impossible dilemma if their creative impulses have to be worked out on Mormon subjects. (Think Brian Evenson, Neil LaBute, Terry Tempest Williams, etc.)

    I hope I’m wrong!

  3. clark goble on January 9, 2004 at 3:26 pm

    I kind of lost sympathy for Neil LaBute when he started photographing for Playboy.

    I also think that the “sentimentalizing or being didactic” is a feature of LDS journals. Consider Nephi’s account and likening the scriptures unto us. What I like to do is see the same stories retold with different degrees of focus. I also want to go question my parents about their past. That’s not a journal per se, but because it is someone else asking the question it is probably a different approach to the stories.

  4. Kristine on January 9, 2004 at 3:29 pm

    I meant to say and forgot:

    It seems to me that drama is an even more highly charged arena for retelling official/received narratives than others. It’s easy enough to walk away from a canvas you don’t like; music is often too complicated to be really world-view shaking on first hearing, but the play’s the thing! It gets right inside and goes to work on the contents of the viewer’s imagination–it can quickly replace or seriously disturb whatever mental visuals one has created, as well as emphasizing themes, details, or lessons that differ wildly from the preconceptions the viewer brings to the work. Revisionist history may be scary to some, but revisionist drama has real power!

  5. Nate Oman on January 9, 2004 at 3:59 pm

    I am at a bit of a loss here. What could be more didactic that medieval mystery plays?

  6. sid on January 10, 2004 at 10:12 am

    When it comes to the mechanics of writing in a journal, I like to keep it simple – use a fountain pen on a hardbound artist’s sketchbook, which is made of archival quality paper. Though, as a backup, I have thought about scanning the pages in, and burning CD’s. Though, I wonder who might want to read my ramblings!!!! :):)

  7. Jim F. on January 10, 2004 at 11:49 am

    I don’t think that the backup problem is the biggest problem for computer diaries, but the formatting and readability problem. How will someone read your Word files 20 years from now? In addition, it isn’t clear just how long a CD will last, but good paper and ink properly cared for last for a very long time. And, though paper can burn or be lost, so can CDs, which have the additional volatility inherent to digital “things.” The printouts that Claudia is making are essential to preserving her journal.

  8. Jim F. on January 10, 2004 at 11:58 am

    About six years ago I went to the Procession of the Holy Blood in Brugge, a remaining medieval mystery play procession. It has been done up for tourists, of course, and I went as a tourist not expecting anything more than a good day for photographs. It rained so much that it wasn’t a good day for photographs, but we stayed and watched the procession from beginning to end, and I was moved by the procession and the short, didactic plays that were part of it. In fact, I was quite surprised at how moving it was.

    Though I am no playwright, I’ve long thought that the non-representational character of mystery plays offers an important way for religious playwrights to do theater. It sounds to me like Claudia has seen something from which we could learn.

  9. Clark Goble on January 10, 2004 at 3:28 pm

    If you are going to save them I’d suggest some public format like RTF, XML, or HTML. Word will save in all of those formats. I’d actually say that there are so many Word files out there that even 100 years from now finding something that will read them won’t be too big a problem.

  10. lyle on January 12, 2004 at 2:10 pm

    while i’m not a dramatist Claudia, i would like to see more scripturally based works of film, drama, etc. however, i tend to like official correlative control of this…even though it tends to ‘drown’ my work out. for example, i had to epublish (via cd using adobe) my ‘readers theater’ version of the Book of Mormon. While I used the original text, and have slightly more than broken even on the investment, Deseret Book/others didn’t want to publish it for some reason. I stick to the original text so that you, and everyone else that uses what I did, can be their own creative directors/led by the Spirit in reading scripture. See http://www.kenalford.com for a free sample (no plug intended)