Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Day 89: A tale to tell


My earliest memories of a book or books that I chose to read that held my attention were the original Paddington Bear series - 'A Bear Called Paddington', 'More About Paddington', 'Paddington' At Large. I know that I was also reading the standard fare early text books from school and there were Ladybird Books (along with the Observer Book series, a staple of the English childhood reference diet) and of course the comic book and football annuals that came out at Christmas: The Beano, The Dandy, Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly and the like.

But thinking of a book that I longed to return to, it was either Paddington or AA Milne’s Winne The Pooh (I obviously had some sort of ‘bear’ fixation thing going on). Then the usual mixed bag of young boy/youth/lad/male works followed: 'The Hobbit', 'Lord of the Rings', Alistair McLean, Hammond Innes and Agatha Christie (a life in fictitious crime that began with the now-astonishingly titled ‘Ten Little Niggers’ [re-badged ‘And Then There Were None’]).

Reading then, was primarily for escape and entertainment, but mostly escape; was the world already looking such a daunting place of foreboding that anywhere else other than where I was, looked a good proposition, even on Mount Doom with Mister Frodo and Sam?

It still is much about escape for me. Only last week, I bumped into an accquaintance on the street who was up for a fireside-read type of book that would sweep him away over the coming winter nights. I’d like to say that I impregnated him with this idea “On what slender threads do life and fortune hang?” but I couldn’t summon those words to mind, instead sending him on his way with a seed of Dumas’s 'The Count of Monte Christo' now firmly sewn in his breast (from which that quote comes).

At 1243 pages long, it’s not a book that you’ll knock over in a couple of sittings but when, in the bookshop, I flipped to the notes on the back cover of the Penguin Classics edition, that I now own, and read “Thrown in prison for a crime he has not committed.....” my feet, without consulting my brain or wallet, headed to the counter. That’s not so long ago, maybe four of five years. Is the tale that begins with Edmund Dant├ęs’s wrongful imprisonment in the infamously grim Chateau D’If the greatest revenge story ever written? Possibly.

I’m enjoying catching up with many of those books that I could have read in my youth. I too have been to Hogwarts and let me say this: who in their right minds would want the sorting hat to put you in Gryffindor when you could be in Slitherin chatting about the weekkend’s quidditch results in Parseltongue?!

You might be glad to know that my reading menu is balanced, it wouldn’t be good if it were all swash, buckle and wizardry...or bears.

‘War & Peace’ is still in front of me, as is 'Anna Karenina', most of Zola’s ‘Rougon-Macquart’ cycle, ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ and ‘The Canterbury Tales’. Time or lack of it, is I guess the reader’s enemy and the World Cup has thrown me out of reading sync. I need to start something new, I’m beginning to want away from the rich feast of football that has bloated me; perhaps to Thomas Hardy’s earthy and passionate Wessex or maybe I should take to the “snot-green” high seas with Melville, Captain Ahab, Ishmael and the whale?

I still read to escape, but I also read to get my vocabulary up, to learn story craft, to educate myself and, possibly, most important, to identify with my fellow man. I sometimes wonder if all the self-help books on my shelf (and there are quite a few) can hold a candle to the novels and great works of fiction I’ve read, in their ability to have navigated me through some of life’s trickier waters?

Day #89 Tip: Listen to the listener
When I sit down with a friend (sometimes colleague) to tell them my story outline (gleaned from the 40-60 Index Cards, I have two objectives in mind: (1) to tell them a great story and (2) to monitor/guage their reaction and learn from it.

I’m a pretty good joke teller (it’s the long-ago Irish/Joyce thing in me) and it used to be - in my days frequenting taverns and inns - that I would have the same roster of jokes that I would pull out to amuse the assembled company. Each time I’d tell the same joke, I’d modify it or tweak it just a bit, knowing that I may get a better or longer laugh - I’m sure that this is standard stand-up craft? How I’d know or how I’d measure what to do would be by watching the audience that I was playing to, knowing when I was losing them and when I needed to hook them back in.

So it is with telling my story outline. That’s the point of having the story in my head so I don’t have to refer to notes in the telling; I can watch my audience and note when he or she drifts off. If I can think on my feet, I’ll improvise and add something, not much, just to get their attention back, or maybe I’ll skip over something if I sense that it’s going to lose them further. But whatever, I try and make a mental note that I lost them at that point and that my story is possible weak there. I’ve started to acquire well-honed instincts about these things now and know to remedy that point in the story before my next telling. This is why I do it.

If you’re brave and/or confident enough, two minutes from the end of your telling, you may pause and ask politely to use their bathroom (whethere you want to, need to or not). Hopefully, on yopur return you’ll hear this: “...well, get on with it, what happened to him, what did he do?!”. Alexandre Dumas would have replied, maybe with these words: “Edmund Dantes sat in his dark cell, forgotten by the world, knwoing that he had a choice: he could either succumb to his terrible plight and rot to his death or he could wreak the greatest revenge on his enemies, that they and the world had ever known.”

Right, I'm off for a mug of cocoa and a marmalade sandwich.

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