Found Materials

Leaf, feather, beak, stone

Leaf, feather, beak, stone

Most mornings, the dog and I go into the woods together, hunting for stories. Almost always, I come back with something in my hands. A bouquet of autumn leaves. A twist of grapevine, looped and curled. A horse chestnut, gleaming like a jewel. A bright blue feather.

These found treasures keep me company when I sit down to write. Usually, I clear them from my desk at the end of the day, but a few stay with me longer. I still have a piece of quartz broken from the bedrock of my family’s land in Vermont. The beak of a cardinal, found lying in the snow one winter, bright scarlet. And the skeleton leaf that spoke to me during one painful round of edits – I wanted to learn from the way it kept its shape, even with most of it gone.

I write to recycle another kind of found material. Forgotten stories, the ones that haven’t been told for so long they’re beginning to fall apart. I try to renovate them like houses, knocking down walls, prying away tired old ideas, patching leaks. Medieval stories weren’t built the way stories are today, and that’s both good and bad. I don’t aspire to be “authentic” so much as to recreate something useful. Something people might want to live in again.

“Being a writer” feels presumptuous to me. The alternative: being a redactor, medieval style. To wit:

  1. In medieval Occitan, poets were “troubadours”: finders. The things they “found” were words, phrases, images, poems.
  1. The writer’s material – the story-matter – is ancient, amorphous, vast. The task is to break off bits and struggle to impart shape to them, to make them “make sense.”
  1. Stories move over time. They grow and change. Not only the ones that are constantly retold: the neglected ones can change too, when no one is looking.
  1. To discover the truest version of a story, listen to it closely. It may be that everyone has always told the story wrong. There may be no evidence for this, beyond the story’s own complaint, its own demand to be told differently. Listen to the story, always.

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