Friday, November 16, 2012

In Which I Go Back To High School

I just got home from a whirlwind trip across the country to attend my grandfather's funeral. On Tuesday, my niece was working on an English assignment, and she asked me for some help. Her class is reading Frankenstein, and this was the assignment:
Mary Shelly writes in her introduction, “Everything must have a beginning, to speak in Sanchean phrase; and that beginning must be linked to something that went before. The Hindus give the world an elephant to support it, but they make the elephant stand upon a tortoise. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of a void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances but cannot bring into being the substance itself. In all matters of discovery and invention, even of those that appertain to the imagination, we are continually reminded of the story of Columbus and his egg. Invention consists of the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject and in the power of molding and fashioning ideas suggested by it.” Explain what she is saying. Do you agree or disagree with her? Support your thoughts with evidence and examples.
I found this quote and assignment so fascinating that I decided to turn my thoughts about it into my blog post this week.

The funny thing is, I'm pretty certain I'm not going to interpret this quote 100% correctly. I can think of at least one more likely interpretation than the one I'm going to use here. Part of me wonders if she is trying to explain where her own story ideas came from--that there is nothing truly new, but only things we pull out of chaos and make our own. When I try to backtrack and find out where my ideas came from, it does seem as though it is "turtles all the way down." Though fascinating to think about, this is not where I'm headed with this blog post.

The first time I read that quote, I was certain I knew what she was talking about before I'd even finished the first sentence. "She's writing about backstory," I thought to myself, and it wasn't until I had finished reading the whole quote that I realized I might be wrong. Such is the joy of not really being in high school though. This blog post can meander wherever I want it to.

The Great Paradox
Everything must have a beginning...And the beginning is hard. As we've lamented many times here on The Prosers, finding the right place to start your story is a treacherous endeavor. A book has to begin somewhere, but wherever your story begins, it's still right in the middle. It makes me think about the beginning of David Copperfield, when he said, "To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born..." Even trying so desperately to begin at the beginning, David Copperfield comes to realize that he is still a product of everything that happened before.

Instead of lamenting this fact, authors should rejoice in it. Revel in it. Use it to write thousands of pages and loads of sequels, prequels and companion novels!
This morning, after I dropped my kids off at school, I went swimming, which is something one of my characters loves to do. I thought about her as I swam, and I found myself wondering if she was the kind of person who would get up early in the morning to swim, if it was her only chance. I found myself inventing a whole story around the answer to that question. That story probably won't make it into the book. But I'm certain it will make the book better, nonetheless.

Thanks, Kayla, for giving me such a fun topic to write about this morning!

P.S. I'm the kind of person who can't stand not knowing something if I think I could find the answer on Google in 30 seconds or less. For your edification, this is what I googled today:

"To speak in Sanchean phrase" Sanchean phrase refers to Sancho Panza from Cervantes' Don Quixote, when he said "In this matter of government, everything depends upon the beginning." Apparently, Shelly was a big fan of Cervantes.

Columbus and the egg refers to a brilliant idea or discovery that seems simple or easy after the fact. There is a popular story about the time Christopher Columbus was told that discovering the Americas was no great accomplishment. The story is often alluded to when discussing creativity.
The Columbus story may have originated with Italian historian and traveler Girolamo Benzoni. In his book History of the New World,published in 1565,[2] he wrote:   
"Columbus was dining with many Spanish nobles when one of them said: 'Sir Christopher, even if your lordship had not discovered the Indies, there would have been, here in Spain which is a country abundant with great men knowledgeable in cosmography and literature, one who would have started a similar adventure with the same result.' Columbus did not respond to these words but asked for a whole egg to be brought to him. He placed it on the table and said:'My lords, I will lay a wager with any of you that you are unable to make this egg stand on its end like I will do without any kind of help or aid.' They all tried without success and when the egg returned to Columbus, he tapped it gently on the table breaking it slightly and, with this, the egg stood on its end. All those present were confounded and understood what he meant: that once the feat has been done, anyone knows how to do it."

The elephant and the tortoise: There are some very interesting modern-day discussions about the world being supported on the back of the elephant, who is standing on the back of a tortoise. Stephen Hawking, in A Brief History of Time, tells a story about a scientist wondering what the turtle is standing on. A little old woman tells him there are "turtles all the way down." Start looking this up on google, and you might be there all day, learning about infinite regress and Terry Pratchett's discworld. Fun, fun stuff.


  1. Your blog post about beginning reminded me of a fascinating book--Tristram Shandy. Tristram begins his story by saying that he's going to tell you the story of his life beginning with his birth. But then, he has to tell the reader something else first--for context, etc. The novel becomes an entire series of digressions. At the end of the novel Tristram is born, but by then you already know the story of his entire life. Extremely clever and witty--and the beginning is the end. :)

    1. I just looked it up on amazon, and ended up buying it for .99. It sounds very interesting, and I'm surprised I haven't heard of it before! Thanks.

  2. Melanie, what an interesting discussion. I definitely interpret the quote as being more about ideas piggybacking on existing ideas, but then again I've read far too many online debates (translation: rage-fests) about fan fiction lately so my mind is primed for that interpretation.

    But on to backstory: I struggle so much with backstory because every detail I invent brings up a new question, which brings up a new detail, which eventually leaves me wondering if I started my novel too late... by, like, a GENERATION. It can be turtles all the way to infinity if you keep looking :)

    1. Sarah that was my interpretation too. I thought it was about where ideas come from and how they all build on what has come before. In my nerdiness, I kind of see it as a conservation of mass applied to creativity. Ideas cannot be created or destroyed but can come together in different ways and change form. I think we've already established that I'm a huge nerd. :)

      But I can totally see how the quote can be applied to backstory too. If a story is to really have depth, there will always be something that happened before that lead to the story, and that can make figuring out the line where the story really starts problematic. And sometimes that stuff that came before starts seeming more interesting than the story you are writing, but that is another whole topic. :)

      Very interesting post, and thanks for doing all the googling for me. I've never heard of the Columbus and the egg story.

    2. I love it when a blog post gets such interesting comments! That's when I feel successful. Sarah--Having never read much about fan-fic, I hadn't thought about how this quote would fit there, and yet it makes total sense.

      I'm glad I'm not the only one who starts writing and realizes the backstory is the interesting part (by, like, a GENERATION. :) Or more.)

  3. MaryAnn--An equation about the conservation of mass applied to creativity would be brilliant! That could be a whole blog post all by itself. I love it!

  4. Isn't there a quote about how being a writer is like having homework every day for the rest of your life. Great post.


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