January 26, 2021

Is There A Book In You?


A few days ago I was invited with two other writers, Susan Tiberghien and Daniela Norris, to give a talk to the Geneva Women in Trade (GWIT) about writing and publishing. We each first gave an introduction and shared our own personal relationship to the title of the conference – Is there a book in you? Here is my text.


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Is There A Book In You?


“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills….” Karen Blixen’s first sentence in her novel Out Of Africa sounds like the beginning of a tale she might have told her friends, Denys Finch Hatton and Berkeley Cole, after an evening meal together. It echoes like “Once upon a time…”

Ever since the human race has existed we have narrated or sang stories. While listening, we feel the fluid movement of time. Over centuries, stories were embellished, but usually the storyteller remained faceless. But several hundred years ago, during the fifteenth century, this all changed when a mechanical devise called the printing press was invented. Mass-produced books, self-contained and unalterable, were neatly lined up on shelves. Writers developed names and reputations. This Printing Revolution changed our minds; we were no longer listeners but readers.

Some five hundred and sixty years later we find ourselves at the beginning of another revolution – the Electronic Revolution. Once again our mindset is changing. Our attention span is shortening because we constantly deal with several things at once, switch channels or press keys for continual change. We do not know yet what will happen to printed books. Like jet lag, which is only fifty years old, we are dealing with new phenomena.

And yet we still have stories to tell. Each of us has a story. Yes, I believe we all have a book inside us. But why do we have to tell stories? Doris Lessing has a good answer to that question. She thinks we have a pattern in our minds that obliges us to conform to, so we shape a tale which needs a beginning, a middle and an ending, just as our lives have a pattern – we are born, we grow older and then we die. We need to know what will happen next.I also believe we need to name things. We need to be specific.  Language does not belong to the abstract world but is close to the ground. Its base is broad and low and it is our connection to the earth. Or as someone said; God is in the details and we need this relationship.

So why did I choose to be a writer? I am convinced there were two decisive moments in my early life. The initial one was during my first year in school when I was five years old. My family had read Beatrix Potter’s books to me until I knew many by heart, but I could not understand the symbolism of letters. Although all my classmates were deciphering the alphabet I remained an angry, frustrated little girl, quite incapable of reading. One day I was given a page with a drawing of a bed frame – there was the headboard, the mattress and the footboard shown from the side. Next to it were three letters – bed – and suddenly I saw in those letters a bed.

This was a moment of great excitement. I had discovered a new and fabulous game. Reading. Words became a love story or as I can still say – this love was an endless story.

The second event happened a year or two later when I was sent to boarding school. The first day was one of anguish. During the recreation another girl, dressed just like me in a green tunic and striped tie, asked my name. I should have replied Jo Ann, but suddenly I was seized with a need greater than I have ever known and I blurted out, “Josephine Jane Elizabeth Anne.” What delight – my imagination had galloped to my rescue and I was no longer a lonely little uniformed schoolgirl, but a princess with a magical name. I had attuned myself to the hum of my universe. I followed up with much embellishment and my new friend and I spent many hours living in this kingdom. This then was my second love –storytelling, which I turned into the solitary task of writing stories.

Much later I came to understand that the supreme irony of writing is that though it starts out for yourself it is ultimately received by someone else.

The only other remark I would like to mention is one made by the American writer Ursula K. le Guin. She wrote that in the year 2000, “for the first time ever, we have kept the perceptions, ideas and judgments of women alive in consciousness as an active creative force of society for more that a generation.” This seems to me to be at least one good reason to keep on writing, reading and telling stories to one another.

Comments

  1. Eliane Rasch says:

    Hi Mum,

    I quickly wanted to share with you a writer a just discovered. Do you know Kapka Kassabova? http://www.kapka-kassabova.com

    Her book “Street Without A Name” is really good I heard but I haven’t read it yet.

    Let me know what you think of her website.

    Bisou
    Eli

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