March 8, 1962
Dear Edith Mirrielees:
I am delighted that your volume Story Writing is going into a paperback edition. It will reach a far larger audience, and that is a good thing. It may not teach the reader how to write a good story, but it will surely help him to recognize one when he reads it.
Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in your class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyed and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb from you the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories.
You canceled this illusion very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, you said, was to write a good short story. Only after it is written can it be taken apart to see how it was done. It is a most difficult form, you told us, and the proof lies in how very few great short stories there are in the world.
The basic rule you gave us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from writer to reader and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, you said, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and technique at all—so long as it was effective.
As a subhead to this rule, you maintained that it seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about. As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat of a story to one sentence, for only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three or six or ten thousand words.
So there went the magic formula, the secret ingredient. With no more than that you set us on the desolate lonely path of the writer. And we must have turned in some abysmally bad stories. If I had expected to be discovered in a full bloom of excellence, the grades you gave my efforts quickly disillusioned me. And if I felt unjustly criticized, the judgments of editors for many years afterwards upheld your side, not mine.
It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done, thanks to your training. Why could I not do it myself? Well, I couldn’t, and maybe it’s because no two stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.
If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes but by no means always find the way to do it.
It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who is not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.
I wonder whether you will remember one last piece of advice you gave me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic twenties and I was going out into that world to try to be a writer.
You said, “It’s going to take a long time, and you haven’t any money. Maybe it would be better if you could go to Europe.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful. I wonder whether or not you can stand the shame of being poor.”
It wasn’t too long afterwards that the depression came down. Then everyone was poor and it was no shame any more. And so I will never know whether or not I could have stood it. But surely you were right about one thing, Edith. It took a long time—a very long time. And it is still going on and it has never got easier. You told me it wouldn’t.
Posts tagged ‘magic’
by Don B. Wilmeth (1981)
If you’re like me and looking for jargon related to popular theatre and Broadway then you are also running into the wrong book. However, despite what this glossary doesn’t include it can be an excellent and thorough reference source for anybody writing or researching 19th and early 20th century American carnival, circus, magic and minstrel shows. Wilmeth’s glossary is not in a sophisticated package. It’s pretty much alphabetical listings of 3200 entries, no cross indexing. I love exploring reference books like this but then always find myself in a mobius when it comes to everyday use, if I knew what word I was looking for I wouldn’t need a glossary. Some categorization might have been a more practical format. Online you can find similar glossaries but entries are fewer, less researched and mostly the sites are weakly designed with limited search tools. Someday all books like this will get e-booked and send us right to what we’re looking for. Until then this is best effort out there in its subject matter. And frankly the subject matter is a fascinating historical record. Again the book is heavy on words related to carnival or circus but it also provides terms from magic, minstrel shows, vaudeville, burlesque, tent shows and Toby shows, medicine shows and pitchmen, early cinema and optical entertainment, fairs, puppetry, pantomime, and wild west shows.
There’s Still Money In The Mummy, Antiquities Smuggling 3rd Most Profitable Black Market After Narcotics and Weapons
NY Mummy Smugglers Reveal Vast Antiquities Black Market
|The illegal trafficking of mummies can destroy scientists’ chances of learning about ancient Egyptians. Here, the mummy Maiherpri resides in a sarcophagus after undergoing a scan to reveal the prevalence of heart disease at the time.
CREDIT: Dr. Michael Miyamoto.
The rescue of an ancient Egyptian mummy’s sarcophagus this month from alleged smugglers in New York — the first time authorities say an international artifacts’ smuggling ring was dismantled within the United States — sounds more like the plot of a movie than reality.
Amazingly, however, mummy smuggling not only still happens today, it was once so common that enough mummies were available to be ground up and sold as powder, archaeologists reveal.
“Mummy powder was something you could buy in pharmacies up to 1920, because people thought it was a type of medication,” said Egyptologist Regine Schulz, curator of ancient art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
Today’s black market for mummy and other antiquities is in the billions of dollars, though exact numbers aren’t known. Besides not having a clear bead on the breadth of trafficking in Egyptian artifacts, scientists and officials say it’s often difficult to protect the precious artifacts as the Egyptian desert is so vast. [Science as Art: A Gallery]
A long history of mummy dealings
The trafficking of mummies traces back to medieval times.
“When Christianity and Islam were rising, mummification was not really the main habit anymore, although we have some mummies of Christian bishops in Egypt that do date back to the seventh and eighth centuries A.D.,” Schulz said. “So from the Middle Ages on, mummies were a bit curious and strange.”
Nevertheless, so many mummies were made during ancient Egypt times that enough were available to make mummy powder, or mummia, whose pigment “one assumes was a dark brown,” said Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum.
“Mummification was not just something for pharaohs or the upper class — it was the normal thing in ancient Egypt for hundreds of years,” Schulz said. “My aunt lived for many years in Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s, and sandstorms would often reveal tiny remains of mummies — sometimes a little wrapping, sometimes a little bone.” [Top 10 Weird Ways We Deal With the Dead]
Given the way mummification helped preserve the body, people thought mummies had something to do with eternity, and, in turn that mummy powder could be used as medication, Schulz said.
As strange as grinding up ancient corpses for sale might be in modern times, “mummies were seen as objects back then, not people,” Schulz said. “There was nothing illegal about it.”
Nowadays, smuggling mummies and any other antiquities out of Egypt is strictly against the law.
“People began to say, ‘Wait a moment, this is a person that should be treated in a respectful way, not a thing,'” Schulz said.
Still, while traffic in mummies and Egyptian antiquities has fallen, a black market for them still exists, and the recent upheaval in Egypt may have made it easier for criminals to loot the country.
In the latest news in this front, on July 13 federal prosecutors announced they had busted an international antiquities smuggling ring, charging antiquities dealers in New York, Michigan and Dubai with conspiring with a collector in Virginia to smuggle Egyptian artifacts into the United States and launder money to further their crimes. The prizes in question include a Greco-Roman style Egyptian sarcophagus, a nesting set of three Egyptian sarcophagi, a set of Egyptian funerary boats and Egyptian limestone figures, a collection with an estimated market value of $2.5 million.
“This is a groundbreaking case for Homeland Security Investigations — it is the first time an alleged cultural property network has been dismantled within the United States,” said James Hayes, special agent-in-charge with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security Investigations. “In addition to smuggling cultural property, this case also focuses on significant money-laundering activity. This is notable because the illicit sale of cultural property is the third most profitable black market industry following narcotics and weapons trafficking.”
The specific numbers regarding art crime remain vague at best, due to the dearth of accurate statistics regarding it, but estimates have suggested it brings in $2 billion to $6 billion annually.
There is no doubt an illegal market for mummies — “people are still interested in buying them,” Schulz said. “But people are more interested in their coffins or maybe a nest of coffins, in what is around the mummy. The mummy itself is not the highest priority.”
A great deal remains unknown as to how much gets smuggled or what even gets stolen. The International Council of Museums is preparing a red list for Egypt — a catalog of archaeological objects and works of art in danger of getting stolen or sold. Still, in places in Egypt where families are poor and foreigners are offering a great deal of money, “it’s not surprising if there are people who excavate and sell things even if it is illegal,” Schulz said.
At the same time, the vast nature of the desert in Egypt makes it impossible to defend every possible site from looters.
There remains much scientists can learn about the past using mummies, even without unwrapping them. “We can now X-ray them to find out how old they were, what illnesses they had, what they ate and what might be inside the wrappings. We can learn a lot about the ancient Egyptians and also the individuals. If you are illegally dealing in mummies and looting tombs, you’re destroying what we can learn.”