Jan. 12, 2007

The Art of Storytelling

by Louis Simpson

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Poem: "The Art of Storytelling" by Louis Simpson, from The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems 1940-2001. © BOA Editions, Ltd. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Art of Storytelling

Once upon a time there was a shocket,
that is, a kosher butcher,
who went for a walk.

He was standing by the harbor
admiring the ships, all painted white,
when up came three sailors, led by an officer.
"Filth," they said, "who gave you permission?"
and they seized and carried him off.

So he was taken into the navy.
It wasn't a bad life — nothing is.
He learned how to climb and sew,
and to shout "Glad to be of service, Your Excellency!"
He sailed all round the world,
Was twice shipwrecked, and had other adventures.
Finally, he made his way back to the village ...
whereupon he put on his apron, and picked up his knife,
and continued to be a shocket.

At this point, the person telling the story
would say, "This shocket-sailor
was one of our relatives, a distant cousin."

It was always so, they knew they could depend on it.
Even if the story made no sense,
the one in the story would be a relative —
a definite connection with the family.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Jack London, (books by this author) born Jack Chancy in San Francisco (1876). Growing up, Jack London fell in love with dime novels about adventure and exotic places, but when he was 13 years old, he had to get a job at a cannery to help support the family. The job was sheer drudgery, and London began dreaming of running away.

He borrowed money from his foster mother and bought a sloop named Razzle-Dazzle from an oyster pirate, and then Jack London became an oyster pirate himself. When his sloop became too damaged to sail, London took a job on a sealing schooner off the coast of Japan. But finally he came back to California, thinking that what he really needed was an education. He began reading books at a ferocious pace, on all subjects: philosophy, biology, history, and literature. When he heard about a special entrance exam to the University of California, he took the test and aced it, even though he hadn't even gone to high school.

But London only lasted one semester in college, because he couldn't fit in with the other more privileged students. Then, in the summer of 1897, he heard about the gold rush in the Alaskan Klondike, and off he went. He hauled his equipment over the Chilkoot Pass, and spent that winter in a shack, barely surviving the 50-below-zero temperatures. When spring came, he decided he'd had enough. He'd found no gold.

When he returned to California, he finally had some stories to write. His first big success was his novel The Call of the Wild (1903), about a dog named Buck who goes from living as a domestic pet to living on its own in the wilderness of Alaska. His most famous short story is "To Build a Fire" (1908), about a man struggling and failing to light a single fire in the snowy wilderness. It is one of the most widely anthologized and translated stories ever written by an American author.

It's the birthday of the mystery novelist Walter Mosley, (books by this author) born in the Watts section Los Angeles (1952). He was the product of an interracial marriage. His father was black and his mother came from a family of Russian Jews. When he was growing up, Mosley loved to listen to the stories his relatives told on both sides of the family. His mother's relatives talked about life in Russia, and his father's relatives talked about life in the South.

After riots erupted in his neighborhood, while he was still in high school, Mosley decided that he wanted to get as far away from Watts as he could. So he went to a small college in Vermont. He bounced around in a variety of jobs for a while, selling pottery and then working as a computer programmer. Then, in 1982, he read Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple. He later said, "I'd read a lot of the French [novelists] — Camus and all that — and I love their writing. But I couldn't write like that. Then, when I read Walker, I thought, 'Oh, I could do this.'"

So he began writing a novel about a character named Easy Rawlins, living in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, and the result was his book Devil in a Blue Dress (1990). It's the story of a black World War II veteran who's just been laid off from his job when a white man hires him to find a white woman who's known to frequent the black community. It became a best-seller, and Mosley has written several more novels featuring Easy Rawlins. But his most recent novels are about a detective named Fearless Jones. His novel Fear of the Dark came out in 2006.

It's the birthday of the novelist Haruki Murakami, (books by this author) born in Kyoto, Japan (1949). He's the author of Hear the Wind Sing (1979) and Norwegian Wood (1987).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
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  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
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