Saturday, February 10, 2007

Philip Pullman on Narrative

You may recall that I mentioned recently that Philip Pullman would be giving the annual Richard Hillary Memorial Lecture, entitled "POCO A POCO: The Fundamental Particles of Narrative". (The lecture is given in memory of the heroic airman Richard Hillary, a Spitfire pilot, who died in the Second World War). The lecture was last night and a friend and I took ourselves through Oxford's snowy streets to hear Philip speak and it was worth it (of course !) The following is a verbatim account of Philip's talk, based on my notes - although as usual when I listen to Philip, I was listening more than writing !

Philip began with two extracts from Clockwork and I Was A Rat! (neither of which I've yet read, though I own a secondhand copy of the latter); both extracts included an instance of something being poured out of one vessel and into another. Philip explained that this act of pouring liquid from one vessel to another can be seen as a Fundamental Particle of Narrative - it happens in a multitude of contexts, yet we can always make sense of it, and it often conveys a lot more information than might immediately be supposed. To prove his point, Philip showed us a number of photos, cartoons and paintings that involved this simple act, and showed us what else we understood from the various images: such as a Charles Addams cartoon in which the Addams family are about to pour a large pan of something hot onto the heads of some unsuspecting carol singers below - our unconscious minds interpret the image we seem and make sense of its context from other contexts - the image of carol singers, the wisp of steam coming from the pan of liquid.

Stories are not made up of words, or language, as we might suppose, suggested Philip, but of events. Although both language and Time are important to storytelling, the Fundamental Particles of Narrative are events, they are abstract rather than concrete. We receive an enormous amount of information every day, most of it through our eyes, yet it never overwhelms us because our unconscious effortlessly processes the information we receive and fits it into contexts that allow us to make narrative sense of the information.

Fundamental Particles of Narrative are neutral, but they have a metaphorical charge that allows them to mean more than one thing, and this move from the literal to the metaphorical is what allows them to be used to make narrative sense of events. The Fundamental Particles of Narrative are grounded in actions, in our physical experiences. Philip said that the one thing he longs for readers to take away from reading the "His Dark Materials" series, is the value of bodily experiences, and he quoted Will telling Lyra (in The Amber Spyglass) that the Angels were jealous of the humans bodies, and that for an angel to possess a body would be an ecstasy of feeling and experiencing. He quoted from William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that calld Body is a portion of Soul discernd by the five Senses. the chief inlets of Soul in this age.

Philip also discussed inspiration, or what non-writers mean by inspiration, and said that it was not something he had ever discussed with another writer. He pointed out that it is perfectly possible to write without inspiration, but being inspired means that the curtain is twitched aside for a moment allowing light to illuminate the scene. Philip echoed something that Tolkien once said - that writing whilst inspired feels more like discovery than invention, and he noted that inspiration doesn't last long - but it doesn't have to, just long enough to offer encouragement and to cheer up the writer. Philip then talked about the idea of inspiration as a spring into which the writer can dip, an unlimited, generous source (unlike a well). He quoted from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan:

A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice!

After the talk, Philip answered questions from the audience, and said that all children need to read and sing nursery rhymes and to read fairy tales. He recommended that every school teacher has a stock of 30 - 40 stories (one for each week of the school year) in their heads which they can tell children - without reading from a book. He recommended that teachers (and parents) find the stories that suit them to tell to children, but said that it was very important for children to hear stories, as well as read them. He also observed that theories of literature don't show the reader what's not in the text, but instead act as a filer to highlight things the reader might not otherwise notice - just as a yellow filter on a black and white film, will highlight the blue of the sky and the white of clouds.

* * * * * *

This was a fascinating talk (I've never yet been to a dull one by Philip, it has to be said), but I think I wouldn't have found it quite as fascinating had I heard it a few weeks ago, than I did hearing it last night. So what difference does three weeks make ? Well in the last three weeks I've started "committing fiction" - I'm writing a spec fic story (with a historical slant). This is the first time, since the age of about 10, that I've succeeded in writing more than 3 pages of fiction. I'm not promising it's going to be great literature - but it's a story that has insisted on being written - to my complete astonishment; after all, I've been saying for the last 15 years, at least, that I didn't have the imagination to write fiction - but perhaps I just hadn't found the story I needed to tell? I don't know. I do know that it's taking up almost all my spare time - which is why you'll find fewer book reviews here of late! I've not stopped reading fiction, but a lot of it is Doctor Who fiction, for the simple reason that I'm writing a Doctor Who story. I'm also reading books about the historical period in which the story is set (both fiction and non-fiction), and until I get this story out of my head and firmly pinned on paper, you should expect to see a few less book reviews on my Blog (and more of them will be Doctor Who books when they do appear!).

Oh, and no, I don't plan to send my story to the BBC or to a publisher - I'm just writing it for my own satisfaction - and perhaps to prove that I can write fiction after all!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the notes on Philip's talk. And I'm glad to hear that the writing is going well!

Michele said...

You're welcome Jen.

Yes, the writing is going well - galloping along, in fact. I'm expecting to have the first draft done by the end of the week !

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this with me! I love the Tolkien part, :)

Michele said...

You're welcome Ana... I confess I threw the Tolkien reference in myself - Philip didn't mention him !

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing the wisdom of my favorite! Pullman is sometimes too good at narrative - I had to run to keep up with His Dark Materials, but he always makes it worth the effort!

Michele said...

You're welcome, Sonja !