anghara (anghara) wrote,

The soul of a story, the heart of a writer

Writer Anil Menon, guest-blogging on Jeff VanDerMeer's "Ecstatic Days", just wrote a very interesting post".

I think what he is asking, amongst other things, is simply this: does a piece of writing have a soul? And what imparts that soul - and does the simple fact of a purely mechanical creation negate the very idea of that soul completely?

The thing that he has brought to my attention is this site - and here is what Anil says about it in his post:

"...a program based on Propp’s formalist theories.

The formalist, Vladimir Propp, had studied some hundred odd Russian folktales and found they all followed a story-line with a sequence of thirty-one events or “functions.” Not all of the events were necessarily present, but the order of the events was always the same. Brown University has an automatic story generator based on Propp’s scheme. You check the event boxes, click “generate,” and voila! there’s a story. I started with one such automatically generated story. It didn’t make much sense, but by adding four or five strategic lines and tweaking a few words, an interpretation became possible. "

So I tried the experiment. I went to the site, looked over the boxes available to be checked, decided on a few, and hit ENTER, and

When I turned around seeking an open pathway, I was surprised to find that the stream surrounded me on all sides. The serpent from across the way beckoned me with his tongue, unfurling it out over the water. The tongue almost touched my shoes "If you need to get across, walk over on this. But please walk gently, for if you don't you may slide and fall off, and no one will ever find you again."

"What weighs you down will make you drown," he said with a loud crescent shaped grin. I believed him. I may have been a fool but with my head thrown asunder by the crashing tides of water I took off my shoes and bag and threw them across the stream on the other bank.

The men of the earth hungered for my people's flesh. If I did not provide them with a sacrifice to abate their sorrows, they would take my body and walk amongst my people like one of the undead. They would find ways to sip their lives into their own empty souls.

I felt my legs lift from the ground and follow the white bird's path that trailed along the movements of air.

After I took the needle from its place, I pryed my father's bones from the floor and put them in my satchel.

When the people of the soil touched my feet they fell back into the ground with shrieks and cries. Now I could reach the top of the mountain without fear of falling down.

As I approached the top of the mountain a white spectacle blinded me for an instant. When I blinked again I saw a white dragon shifting over the mountain like a layer of foam riding ocean waves. I could tell by its movement that it was a territorial creature; I could tell that it would fight me before allowing me to press further.

I saw the familiar clearing with my father’s chopping block and the axe he used for splitting wood on the ground beside it. Home. I ran through the trees, the wind in my ears, my breath leaving my throat in heavy huffs, my feet slapping the earth beneath the trees of these woods, these woods that had stood between myself and my home for so long.

When I reached a house I knocked to ask for a cup of water to cool my senses. The lady, upon seeing my shoes, let me in.

A familiar gold and silken robe of dragon scales was placed in my hands on account of me killing the creature. For an odd reason I could not help but feel regret. The girl with the white hair and her foxlike sibling did not mean any real harm but only wanted to protect the mountain as the men of soil bade them do.

...Unh. Interesting imagery. Story...? Not so much. The thing feels as though I dragged a silver fish out of the story ocean and then left it to flap and gasp, flailing on the ground and slowly drowning in air, as I stood back dispassionately and took notes on the manner of its dying.

I don't know. I don't know that even the purest and most powerful AI we can come up with - even one that surpasses us in intelligence and reasoning power - will ever quite be able to duplicate the awe-inspiring, beautiful, rich chaos of human sensibility and imagination. And by that I don't mean the imagery itself - the story above puts paid to that, the imagery is there - but the ability to make SENSE out of that chaos so that other human beings can wander in the lush gardens of your own vision and actually make sense of what they are seeing, actually feel themselves affected by it, by a sense of poignancy, or power, or sorrow, or laughter, or understanding. A computer which understands story at its mos basic level cannot, yet, comprehend this added dimension - but does that added dimension equal a soul...? Is soul what a human hand, a human mind, a human heart adds to the mix of the story? Is the soul of a story part of the soul of its creator...?

Anything can be dissected and precisely understood in terms of its basic function, eventually. This is what Vladimir Propp's story program did - it analysed story, came up with component parts that seemed to be integral to story as a functional entity, and then stored those integral parts separately, allowing them to be mix-and-matched into another "story". But there is no hand on the helm. The resulting "story" is no more a living story than a collection of two arms, two legs, two eyes, a nose, a liver, a stomach, a couple of essential sphincters, a heart, and a head of hair make up a living human being.

This is what maps, in one sense, to that part of writing that cannot be TAUGHT. The craft can be, and people can be trained into the telling of most perfectly polished stories, glittering like precious stones fresh from the hands of a master cutter. But the stone itself, the raw thing that you begin with - that's not really teachable. All you can do in that context is begin to teach a willing apprentice where and when and how to look for those raw stones - but the finding of them, and the nature of them if they are found, are things that are beyond the control of either the teacher or the taught. The manner of telling a tale can be imparted, one to another. But the tale, ah, that is each true writer's own, only their own, and only they can give it life. Only they can give it... its soul.

Where do YOU think a soul of a story lies...?

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