It’s been a quiet week along the fjords. Students have been busy with a first-aid course and an immersive Model United Nations simulation. That left us teachers with a little time on our hands, and my husband and I took the opportunity for a few days’ sojourn south to Bergen. We found ourselves in the Kode art museum complex, and one exhibit surprised me by its strangeness, its beauty, and the thoughts that it inspired.
It was spoons. Hundreds of spoons. To be precise, it was three-hundred and sixty-five hand-carved wooden spoons created in one year by Oslo artist Stian Korntved Ruud . Take a look:
The Daily Spoon project (click the link to see closeups of each spoon) explores the myriad possibilities for this everyday, simple, yet so essential object. The spoons range from whimsical to unusable, conceptual to elegantly practical. I was pretty well entranced. These spoons also got me thinking about writing.
The spoon and the story
The characteristics, rhetorical devices, and style of our writing constitute the spoon with which we dole our stories out, and different spoons will produce a different impact on our readers. Let’s consider a couple of the ways the spoon might differ, and the experiences that might create:
When I write, I imagine a gradual release of information. A core element of storytelling is our pacing–the order and speed with which the tale unfolds. Too much too fast, and the most delicious story chokes. Too small a spoon, and the soup grows cold before we’ve eaten half.
We might think of pacing as the way we spoon our stories to our readers. A bit here and a bit there, and judging what spoon is appropriate when or for what dish–that is the writer’s art.
Visually on the page, fast-paced writing often manifests as short paragraphs and shorter sentences, hewing away of description and interior thought to give us action after action. Action and dialogue become the focus of fast-paced narrative. Take a look at this clip from Scott D. Pomfret’s zombie apocalypse story “When Customs Were Different”:
Anderson trudged through the darkness as if he had immunity not only against the plague but against all the forms of violence man could unleash. He and the homunculus made their way back to the squalid warehouse where Anderson’s family had dwelled in just three days and nights.
His wife was gone. His child was gone. Others had taken their places, among them his brother. Anderson suspected his brother had betrayed his wife and child and got a price, but he didn’t air his suspicions.
His brother, a doctor who had largely forgotten his arts when the disease took hold, said he hadn’t slept in days. Anderson understood his terror: Doctors had been the first to die or be killed by those who thought they hadn’t done enough to fight the disease.
After one look at Anderson’s injuries, the doctor promptly amputated his right arm.
Pomfret is shelling through material quickly, in four short paragraphs telling us what could be drawn out in a long, emotional scene. This is a big spoon, so much being shoveled into us at once that it creates a couple very interesting effects: First, the fast pace does not give room for emotional reactions, and we feel a peculiar coldness from the characters that captures beautifully the deadened mood of this story, where characters’ emotional range is stunted by the sustained trauma under which they live. Second, the fast pace makes us readers do a bit of a double-take. We probably say, “What?” when we read the last line, making sure we have read correctly. Yes, the amputation gets only one line of description. This adds to the otherworldly, surreal feel of the story as a whole.
Near the end of this dark story, Pomfret slows the pace:
The homunculus slipped behind Anderson and pushed his arm under Anderson’s stump. Anderson’s wife was delighted with the change. She danced a pirouette beneath the outstretched arm. She gave no notice to its shortness or its crookedness or its pocked hairlessness or the difference in color from its match. She kissed Anderson. She wouldn’t look at their child.
The lengthier (though truthfully still quite brief) description and the closer attention to individuals’ actions create an enduring image that stays in the reader’s mind. Here Pomfret has switched to a smaller spoon in order to let us savor (perhaps with horror) an image of this new world. The fast pacing that rocketed us here pulls back so that we can get a strong emotional reaction to the text.
To what extent should a writer’s language make itself visible and openly artistic? To what extent should we work to hide our language’s artifice in the simple transmission of a story, to make it as invisible as a windowpane? Writers answer this question differently, and thinking of our spoons, we can imagine a simple, utilitarian utensil or an ornamental vessel for our sustenance.
Let’s begin with Hemingway, whose unadorned, journalistic style calls little attention to itself. Here is a paragraph from The Old Man and the Sea:
They walked up the road together to the old man's shack and went in through its open door. The old man leaned the mast with its wrapped sail against the wall and the boy put the box and the other gear beside it. The mast was nearly as long as the one room of the shack. The shack was made of the tough bud-shields of the royal palm which are called guano and in it there was a bed, a table, one chair, and a place on the dirt floor to cook with charcoal. On the brown walls of the flattened, overlapping leaves of the sturdy fibered guano there was a picture in color of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and another of the Virgin of Cobre. These were relics of his wife. Once there had been a tinted photograph of his wife on the wall but he had taken it down because it made him too lonely to see it and it was on the shelf in the corner under his clean shirt.
Hemingway’s vocabulary here is straightforward, context-specific, and unconcerned with word repetition. Grammatically the sentences are simple, a few compound subjects and introductory phrases occurring sporadically. Compound sentences seem the only frequent adornment. There is almost no figurative language. I imagine a spoon like this:
At far odds with Hemingway might be a Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty.” Let’s let this sing:
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
The language here could scarcely stand out more–one must imagine as one reads, fathom out grammatical sense from the lines, visualize and hear the words. Hopkins’s language is beauty in itself, at the extremes of elaboration.
What spoon might represent Hopkins’s approach? I’ve picked this one:
Born with a silver spoon: representation of the ordinary
Ruud’s spoons were actually part of a larger tableware display, the Kode’s exhibit of silver pieces forged in the city over hundreds of years.
These spoons are ornate, high-class, expensive, old. They are a great reminder, I think, of the power of the ordinary, and the secret beauty we might find therein.
As writers, we have a unique power to explore aspects of ordinary life in novel ways, showing them to our readers in ways they have not before thought of. This might happen in speculative fiction as we show how the mundanities of today should perhaps not be taken for granted, as they might vanish or change in other circumstances. Realistic fiction too takes on this task: it shows us our recognizable world, but imbued with meaning, ideas, and significance. A spoon may be more than just a spoon. It may be silver, if we look hard enough.
Experiments with spoons: experimental writing
I don’t talk about this much, but I’ve tried a couple weird things with spoons in my day. I have photographic evidence:
Both part of my friend Kate’s and my yearly “New Things Month,” neither of these experiments went particularly well. I think I managed about three bites each time. That said, the spirit of experimentation, the preparedness to think about ordinary aspects of life in new ways, I think that is valuable.
For writing, that means continually adding to our writing toolboxes, whether through exploring other cultures’ ideas about good writing, expanding our blogospheres (see this post about character development by Yari Garcia) reading widely in and outside of our genres, reading about writing (see this advice from Tory Hunter), or experimenting. Write a story in a new format (like Kishōtenketsu). Incorporate a new device and see how it works. Some experiments won’t fly. Some will. All of them will teach you something.
Few objects are as ubiquitous as the spoon, that indispensable liquid-bearing tool. We may not think of them often, but without a spoon, we might go hungry. Without words, we might starve too.
Best wishes. Happy writing. Keep in touch.