“It is the responsibility of writers to listen to gossip and pass it on. It is the way all storytellers learn about life.”
— Grace Paley
Three great writers consider the concept of “truth” as it relates to the creative process:
“The hero of my tale – whom I love with all the power of my soul, whom I have tried to portray in all his beauty, who has been, is, and will be beautiful – is Truth.” — Tolstoy,”Sevastopol in May 1855″
“Truth is various; truth comes to us in different disguises; it is not with the intellect alone that we perceive it.” — Virginia Woolf, “On Not Knowing Greek”
“I shall try to tell the truth, but the result will be fiction.” — Katherine Anne Porter
“Endings are another matter. When I’ve shaped the story in my head, before starting to put it on paper, it has, of course, an ending. Often this ending will stay in place right through the first draft. Sometimes it stays in place for good. Sometimes not. The story, in the first draft, has put on rough but adequate clothes, it is “finished” and might be thought to need no more than a lot of technical adjustments, some tightening here and expanding there, and the slipping in of some telling dialogue and chopping away of flabby modifiers. It’s then, in fact, that the story is in the greatest danger of losing its life, of appearing so hopelessly misbegotten that my only relief comes from abandoning it. It doesn’t do enough. It does what I intended, but it turns out that my intention was all wrong. Quite often I decide to give up on it. (This was the point at which, in my early days as a writer, I did just chuck everything out and get started on something absolutely new.) And now that the story is free from my controlling hand a change in direction may occur. I can’t ever be sure this will happen, and there are bad times, though I should be used to them. I’m no good at letting go, I am thrifty and tenacious now, no spendthrift and addict of fresh starts as in my youth. I go around glum and preoccupied, trying to think of ways to fix the problem. Usually the right way pops up in the middle of this. A big relief, then. Renewed energy. Resurrection. Except that it isn’t the right way. Maybe a way to the right way. Now I write pages and pages I’ll have to discard. New angles are introduced, minor characters brought center stage, lively and satisfying scenes are written, and it’s all a mistake. Out they go. But by this time I’m on the track, there’s no backing out. I know so much more than I did, I know what I want to happen and where I want to end up and I just have to keep trying till I find the best way of getting there.”
From the Introduction to Selected Stories.
When I was growing up, the oldest of four girls in a small town in Maine, we didn’t have much money. My parents are both Southern – my mother is from North Carolina, my father from Georgia – and it was a long way to visit relatives. So we often spent Christmases on our own, far from extended family.
My father was a young professor, and until I was about 10 my mother stayed home with us. A skilled seamstress, she made ornaments out of felt from geometric patterns, and we girls made our own handmade contributions for the tree. Like many families, we gathered around the tree on Christmas Eve and read favorite stories, drank hot chocolate, and strung popcorn. But the most important part of our ritual was the reading of Dick Bruna’s Christmas.
On a dark night long ago, and in a faraway country, shepherds kept watch over their sheep. Suddenly a light so bright and beautiful shone upon them. The shepherds thought the new day was dawning. But that was not so. Bruno’s book pares the story down to its basics: Mary, Joseph, the baby, the barn, several sheep and shepherds, the wise men, some angels, and the North Star. Characterized by bright, simple, Scandinavian-inspired design – Christmas was originally published in 1963 in Amsterdam (and bought by my mother in England, where I was born, in 1964) – it’s probably the least overtly Christian rendering of the Nativity story you could imagine.
This simple book appealed to all of us in different ways. My baby sisters, Clara and Catherine, loved the brilliant colors. Cynthia and I liked the story. My parents appreciated the lack of dogma.
One year my father, who had learned carpentry as a teenager from his father, a house builder, decided to create a three-dimensional rendering of Bruna’s book. Closely adhering to the illustrations, my father built a crèche and all the figures out of wood. He and my mother lovingly sanded the rounded curves of the figures, the scalloped backs of the sheep, and then painted them in the vivid hues of the original, including the bright yellow North Star in a blue square of sky on the black interior of the barn. A white pipecleaner was the shepherd’s staff. Every year, this Nativity scene had pride of place on a table next to the Christmas tree.
One by one we daughters grew up and left home, eventually marrying and having families of our own. And over the past decade, my parents have been making Dick Bruna crèches for each daughter – near-exact replicas of the much-loved original.
The only problem was that we didn’t have copies of the book. It had gone out of print, and was completely unavailable (even on Ebay). And then, several holiday seasons ago, browsing in my local bookstore, I stumbled on a new edition. I couldn’t believe it: the familiar slim, long volume, about 11” x 6”, with its bright-yellow spine, the aqua cover with “Christmas” in white type and a white, line-drawn angel with yellow wings hovering above it, the crisp white paper saturated with color on one side. I ordered copies for all of us, so that each sister would have the story to go along with her crèche – including one for my parents, to display along with the tattered copy that had inspired our family ritual.
It is our children, now, who set up our crèches each year, play-acting with the figures and comparing the two-dimensional illustrations in the book to the figures on the table. And it is they who clamor for the annual tradition: When the story was finished, the wise man with the white beard said, ‘Now let us go. We have a long journey home.’ Quietly the wise men left. The shepherds went home, too. And Mary and Joseph waved until they were out of sight.
This essay, in a slightly different form, originally appeared on Bookreporter.com.
“There’s absolutely no reason for being rushed along with the rush. Everybody should be free to go very slow…. What you want, what you’re hanging around in the world waiting for, is for something to occur to you.” (March 21, 1954)
“But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.”
– Two Tramps in Mud Time, 1936