This is a cross-post from my blog:
I have been reading Natalie Goldberg's books on how to become a writer. One of the things that amazes me is -- she describes how her writing students are driven to tell their personal stories, record their lives. I have always wanted to describe what doesn't exist. I can't imagine anything more boring than writing down my life. I mean, I'm living it. That's as much commitment as I want to make. But the possible or impossible -- those are enticing. Those open the mind...
I have a strong feeling that I don't write the way she describes writing. I am not sure a need for self-expression drives me. Instead, I love stories, and I love to tell stories. I told stories to my brother before I could read and write. I don't think I was motivated by a desire to understand and express my inner self at the age of five. I think I wanted to tell stories, because I loved hearing stories.
Obviously, writers draw from their own experiences and emotions. But they also draw from the huge, long history of tale-telling. Like a child imitating its parents, I imitate folk tales, fairy tales, legends, Icelandic sagas, English language novels, all the science fiction and fantasy I have read...
As far as I know, all human societies tell stories. Why? I suspect to understand the world. The modern-day interest in psychology and self-expression is not universal and may come from the individualism and alienation characteristic of bourgeois society.
Having said this, I remember there are some pretty interesting psychological portraits in the 13th and 14th century Icelandic sagas. The best portraits are of people you would not want as neighbors: the great outlaw Grettir Asmundarson and the great viking Egill Skallagrimsson. Fabulous characters, but not good members of society. As Njall said in the Njals saga: "By law the land is established and by lawlessness laid waste."
The great question of the sagas is not "who am I and why do I feel the way I do?" but "what happened to the Icelandic republic? Why has the society established by the settlement of Iceland been destroyed?" Part of the answer was people like Egill and Grettir. The sagas describe how the republic's legal system was broken by greed and arrogance, individualism and a primitive sense of the family loyalty. Njall, the great lawyer, struggled to maintain the rule of law; but even his own sons turned against him in this struggle.
Nowhere in the sagas do we get a good sense of the author. We think we know who wrote the Egils saga, though not because it's signed. None of the sagas are, and almost all of them have no known author. Their style is so impersonal that it was mistaken for history or folklore until fairly recently. I use the saga style in my hwarhath stories. Any time one of my stories begins "There was a man (or woman) named..." it is an imitation of the traditional opening of the sagas: "Mathr het... A man was named..."
In the end, story telling is about other people, the audience that listens and all the folks -- living and long gone -- who have told good stories. I feel far more comfortable with this than the idea that story telling is about me.