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Tell Me A Story

Raven and the First Men, sculptor Bill Reid. Photo credit: Meredith Arnold

"Tell me a story" still comprise four of the most powerful words in English, words that are intimately related to the complexity of history, the origins of language, the continuity of the species, the taproot of our humanity, our singularity, and art itself.

Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear. If the writing is good, then the result seems effortless and inevitable. But when you want to say something life-changing or ineffable in a single sentence, you face both the limitations of the sentence itself and the extent of your own talent. When you come close to succeeding, when the words pour out of you just right, you understnad that these sentences are all part of a river flowing out of your own distant, hidden ranges, and all words become the dissolving snow that feeds your bright mountain streams forever. The language locks itself in the icy slopes of our own high passes, and it is up to us, the writers, to melt the glaciers within us. When these glaciers calve and break off, we get to call them novels, the changelings of our burning spirits, our lifework.

- Pat Conroy, "Stories," from the anthology Why I Write, edited by Will Blythe

Reflections. Why I write. Why sometimes I wish I did not. Why it inevitably feels inevitable that I do. I've thought a good long time about this artistic precipice that is " raw talent." Why would anyone choose to work at something which they may ultimately not be good at? I absolutely understand the attraction at the heart of professions in academia and highly-specialized skill: They comprise undertakings that are a) challenging but learnable, and b) honed better by practice. One is ultimately only as good or bad as some degree of smarts and disciplined learning married to rigorous ethical practice. But the professions of art? They are by their very nature blunted by an unknowable absolute: The limits of talent.

I think it is brave, honestly, to embark upon any life's work that treads at the edge of personal futility or inefficacy. If the artist does the work with a whole being, he or she is relentless pushing the boundaries of better. And then, as the saying goes - You're good until you're not. Gaining momentum until effort hits the wall, that peak of diminishing return. The artist's most secret fear is that the end point of one's authentic creative talent lies but a few steps out the door. A journey of not a thousand steps, but nay, two. That dreams of creativity will die in immutable impoverishment, sown in a soil of insufficient talent.

Pat Conroy's description of writing, his celebration of the yeoman's labors that are the craft of writing, and his inner joy in "the painterly loveliness of the English language," capture the plainsong of what Conroy calls the "hunt for fabulous books that will change me utterly and for all time." Just that word - fabulous - says enough for me. Yes, Mr. Conroy, Great writing sticks to the soul.
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