Friday, September 17, 2010

Telly, Telly, Telly

You know the Pens always have the coolest visitors, right?

Well, if you had any doubt about today's guest, Sean Ferrell, just read what Publisher's Weekly has to say about NUMB, which came out last month from Harper Perennial:

"In Ferrell's offbeat debut, an amnesiac joins a Texas circus where his inability to feel pain makes him a big-top hit and earns him the name Numb. After a haunting experience wrestling a lion, Numb and his best friend, Mal, give up the circus for life in New York, where they live in a crappy hotel and make a living as a lowrent one-man freak show. When Numb lands a talent agent and begins to move up through the layers of celebrity, he leaves Mal behind for a cast of characters including a blind artist girlfriend and bad news model Emilia. But in Numb's world, nothing hurts much at all, so Mal comes back and predictably turns things upside down..."

Is that a must-read or what? Sean is the author of prize-winning short fiction and lives in New York City. Read more here.

I have a friend who still gets mad at her sister when she recalls how, when she found out something my friend had done, something their mother wouldn't be pleased with, would stand across the room, point a finger, and whisper, “Telly, telly, telly.” My friend said it was all she needed to hear and she would lose her mind and run to her mother to reveal the deed herself.

Secrets have power. It takes effort to keep one inside. That effort charges the secret, making containment even more difficult, requiring more power, adding more power, and so on. An infinite feedback loop, one that promises to burst with revelation.

There is one way to cap the power of a secret permanently, to contain that energy with no hope of escape, to tap that energy and focus it in one tiny point, a singularity of interest. How to do this: Hint at the secret, write it down, and then—here's the hard part—walk away.

This is called “fiction.”

As a writer you may have an idea or a belief, a way of looking at the world. This is your truth. Your truth is your secret. If you were to blurt it out, walk around with it on a sandwich board, you might be listened to. Or you might be ignored. Or mocked. Or shunned. But if you hint at the secret, hint at your truth, write it down, and walk away...

Fiction that gives away the secret easily is, at best, a folktale; at worst, propaganda. Fiction that hints at the secret and then walks away is the fiction to which we return. Again, and again. Stories that point to a truth, but don't pin it down, are those stories that bend and shift as they get older. They aren't trite, they don't age. Stories that hint at the secrets they hold but don't plaster the walls with the answers are the ones that matter beyond their own era.

Was Hamlet mad, or faking it?

What does the white whale represent?

What is happiness? Truth? Wisdom? Reality? Innocence? Guilt?

A secret screamed from the rooftops is noise pollution. A secret hinted at is a lure. People go to great lengths to find out answers. They'll eavesdrop on conversations. They'll sneak through one another's correspondence. They'll read novels, stories, plays, poems, again and again and again. They know the story, but they want the secrets. The most successful stories are those that answer questions, but not all of them. The ones that give you most of what you looked for, that pull so many of the threads together that you can see the entire tapestry. But later, upon reflection, you realize that there is something the story is doing beyond the conclusion of plot, something beyond the character's needs and wants, something deeper.

The story is standing across the room, pointing a finger, whispering, “Telly, telly, telly.”


Rachael Herron said...

Oh, NICE. I've been doing revisions, and I'm worried I've been shouting. I shall go back and make sure I'm whispering.

Sophie Littlefield said...

I was thinking that anyone with a sibling could relate to this post. I told on mine every chance i got :)

Juliet Blackwell said...

Hello Sean -- thank you so much for stopping by the Pens today! I can't wait to read your novel, and am especially intrigued by whatever secret it might be keeping. You're right that those are the stories that stick with us, because when we provide the answer to the secret, we never know whether we're right. And yes, I had siblings who told on me constantly...telly telly telly!

Unknown said...

Sean--thanks for visiting the Pens! Really great post, I love your take on why we go back to certain stories again and again. :)

Elisabeth Black said...

Wow, great post.

Dustin said...

This is a must read. I'll testify. It's Kate DiCamillo for adults. Do not miss this book!

Sean Ferrell said...

Thank you everyone. Very nice to be welcomed so warmly. Makes me want to reveal a secret or two. Here's one: that is not me on the book cover. Okay, that's not much of a secret. How about: that is not Numb in the photo.

Brenda Hyde said...

Damn, that is amazing. Seriously, reading that really helped some things click in my head. I'm with Rachael-- I must make sure I whisper, not shout. Readers are not toddlers, they don't need stuff spelled out like they can't comprehend it. Wow. Thanks:)

S.P. Miskowski said...

Lovely! I am ready to send out query letters for my horror novel, and I was wondering if I have whispered too much. We get an awful lot of encouragement to shout, these days.

Thanks for this. I feel better.

Gigi Pandian said...

Your statement "the most successful stories are those that answer questions, but not all of them" -- sums up the best books perfectly :)

Patty Blount said...

Sean, where can I sign up to attend classes you teach? Seriously.