Jan Surasky

Essays

Storytelling

According to almost everyone’s theory, storytelling has been around as long as humans have. There are, of course, many theories on why humans have a need to tell stories. One of the most touching, to me, is one that is attributed to the great editor Maxwell Perkins, the most famous and beloved editor of the early 20th century who worked with, encouraged, and published the beautiful works of Tom Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and many others. As depicted in the movie Genius, Perkins goes up with Tom Wolfe to the top of a Brooklyn building where Wolfe wrote when he first came to New York, a budding writer with no money but plenty of ambition and dedication.

As they stand on the rooftop of the shabby building overlooking the streets filled with people going so swiftly about their business, Wolfe shows Perkins the scene that inspired him to keep writing despite the numerous rejections. Perkins returns with an idea of his own. “When humans first were on Earth they retired into the darkness of their caves at night. And then someone spoke, and told a story, to keep the others from being afraid of the dark.”

It is possible that many stories keep us from being afraid of the dark, give us courage to go on, inspire us to do good for the world or improve our own lives, remember to be kind to someone else, or just plain give us a chance to dream.

There have been many forms of storytelling. In the beginning, it seems stories would have been shared orally, or depicted on a cave wall which might have been the beginnings of language, later the monks with their beautiful illuminated manuscripts, the printing press, and now technology. But, no matter the format, it seems humans have a need to tell stories. Stories handed down are a way for generations to communicate with each other, to point out that no generation is alone. Each generation feels the others’ happy times, struggles, accomplishments, and pain through stories.

So, when you meet a friend, and you have the urge to relate what happened to you today or the other day, please tell them. Or, when you share the joys and struggles of your day with a loved one or friend, or even a stranger, don’t hold back. For it is storytelling that binds us together, that leaves our voice on Earth for future generations, and leads us to that light that represents that beacon of hope for the future of our planet.

On Literary Trends

My books are not for those who want to be apprised of the latest trendy topic or to gather fodder to impress a particular social circle. There is nothing trendy about the human condition. It has been with us since the dawn of humankind. My books are for those who silently curl up with a book and get into the world of the characters and who love a good story. They are for the people who think they could be more like Jo in Little Women or Scarlett in Gone With the Wind.

I’m not like Scarlett O’Hara because I don’t think I was ever frivolous or dressed like she did to get the attention of all the young men around her. I’m not like Jo March who lived during the 1800s because I haven’t. But, I do know that I admired Scarlett’s resolve to be the strength of those around her during a bloody Civil War, to dig her soft white hands into the dirt to save Tara and those around her. I do know I admired Jo March’s resolve to save the March family, to save them from starvation though Marmee had too much pride to ask for help but Jo did because she loved Marmee so much. I know I always aspired to have that courage to stand up for what I think even though it might not have been popular at the time like Jo or to get my hands dirty to save those I loved like Scarlett.

The characters in the books we love might not be real but they are real in the writer’s imagination and they slowly creep into ours as we read their story and share their loves and even their grief along with them. They might not be real to begin with but they become real as we read their story and can be a beacon of light to carry on their mission or learn from their mistakes or even see the villain in real life as we might not have before.

Perhaps fiction can make us better people or at the very least let us become engrossed in someone’s life despite the fact that they’re not real, or at the very least create a distraction from our momentary problems and busy lives. Either way, we have shared something with the creator of that book. And, sharing is the start of a better world.

In Defense of Fairy Tales

The Cinderella Complex, a book written in the early eighties to support the women’s movement, was meant to dispel the idea often depicted in fairy tales, that women should wait for a handsome prince to rescue them from whatever disaster befell them.

Although I agree with the concept (after all, how many princes are there to go around?) I would like to take issue with using a favorite fairy tale, or any fairy tale, to illustrate this.

Fairy tales are meant to be metaphors and not non-fiction. Criticizing Cinderella for not leaving a bad situation is like criticizing a creature with only fins and no feet for not standing upright and walking on land like you. He/she would if he/she only knew how.

Cinderella was blocked from escaping by more than just the dimwittedness the author of The Cinderella Complex and her followers ascribe to her. She was blocked by the times she was born into (feminism was centuries away) and the lack of a profession to support herself should she flee. There was not a big demand for hearth sweepers in Cinderella’s time.

But, it is not true that you can’t dream of escaping your fate. And, even improving it. Dreams are the impetus to action because if you don’t know what you want to change you can’t change it. And, fairy tales are the impetus to dreams.

The world of fairy tales, full of joy and laughter, beauty and hope, is what inspires you to a better life. And, action abounds in fairy tales as readers of those gems already know. Handsome princes come to the rescue of princesses in distress and slay the menacing dragon. And, as a bonus, they marry and live happily ever after.

What else do we aspire to but personal achievement, happiness, and the satisfaction of achieving our own personal dreams. And, reaching even further, perhaps peace and the triumph of good over evil.

So, immerse yourself in the fantasy and wonder of fairy tales. Permit yourself to dream. And, if perchance, you run into a handsome prince, a damsel in distress, or even a dragon, you will know what to do.

On Genre

I am often asked what my books are “about.”

Of course, asking an author to sum up what their 365 page manuscript is “about” in one sentence, or even more quizzically, in a phrase, is often confounding, especially to the author. The response is often a tongue-tied blank stare.

Genres have been invented to hurry along that process, or more practically, to know where to shelve a book for commercial purposes.

But, that is not always a help to the author themself, since they have spent almost a lifetime trying to figure out how to reverse that process and turn what might be a phrase, a simple idea, or even an image, into a 365 page book.

They sit stumped before their computer, or an old typewriter, or even (goodness!) a piece of notebook paper with a pencil in their hand.

They must think about characters, plots, themes, settings, and, not least of all, how to get those out on that paper. How to string together a sentence so it says what the author wants it to say.

Coming together here are the first words the author has ever heard, to the teacher who corrected their grammar and made them realize that words are important, to everything they have ever observed or heard up to this point.

A one or two word “genre” cannot, of course, sum up what the author has spent years, often unknowingly, amassing, and is struggling to put onto paper. It cannot explain the process of getting lost in the world of a magical or almost unknown world of a manuscript for one or two years. Or, a few “key” words in the digital world explain a book. To me, every word in that manuscript is “key.”

But, I realize that I do have one word to explain all my books. It is not a word recognized in the commercial world of marketing to denote a book nor is it a recognized “genre.”

That one word is “love.”

My books all include romantic love, but they are not romances. They also include love of family, love of home, love of homeland, love of nature.

For what is more important in the world? If you answered “nothing” you would be correct.

“Love makes the world go round” is a saying handed down through so many generations that we often don’t pay attention any more as we hear it.

I am not an expert on the physics explanation of why the earth turns, or, to put it in simpler terms, what makes the world go round. But, I do know there must be love in there somewhere.