Jerry Seinfeld used to joke that his popular comedy sitcom was about nothing. And so much of comedy is about what happens when the comedian pauses for breath and the members of the audience fill in the blanks to make the final magic happen: the funny strikes and we laugh. We enjoy those pauses. It’s as if we exhale, the magic happens, and then we inhale. With the inhale comes the beginning of a new joke.
What about stillness in stories? When the action stops and we are given description, how much patience do we have, or do we skip those bits? What’s the purpose of stillness in a story, especially if it doesn’t drive the narrative forward?
We might as well ask: what’s the purpose of time? Our experience of time is dependent on our mood, age, and activity. We use all sorts of metaphors to express what time is, mainly because nobody–not even your friendly neighborhood physicist–really knows. The only way to escape the relentless march of time is in conjuring stillness.
Fiction writers and storytellers are forced to be aware of time because they must make it flow. If the story takes place during 24 hours or several hundred years, time must flow at a pace that can be experienced by the reader or listener. In action-packed stories, time passes like the beating of a drum, fast and furious, steady…and it’s over. In stillness, something different is experienced, and time can nearly be stopped.
Think of the difference between Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and the Disney adaptation of the same. Grahame’s novel has meaningful, quiet moments shared between characters and a great deal of description, and something even more profound, with respect to stillness: a passage where time is irrelevant in the chapter called “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” Mole and Rat are overtired. The hour is late, but Otter’s little boy is missing and they decide to row on the lake.
“The line of the horizon was clear and hard against the sky, and in one particular quarter it showed black against a silvery climbing phosphorescence that grew and grew. At last, over the rim of the waiting earth the moon lifted with slow majesty till it swung clear of the horizon and rode off, free of moorings; and once more they began to see surfaces – meadows widespread, and quiet gardens, and the river itself from bank to bank, all softly disclosed, all washed clean of mystery and terror, all radiant again as by day, but with a difference that was tremendous. Their old haunts greeted them again in other raiment, as if they had slipped away and put on this pure new apparel and come quietly back, smiling as they shyly waited to see if they would be recognised again under it.” 1
Mole and Rat are under a spell and Grahame seems to be under one, too. He goes on for pages describing what is, for most of us with lesser talent, indescribable. Eventually, Mole and Rat see the demigod Pan, and Otter’s boy who is sleeping at the horned being’s side.
Disney’s version of The Wind in the Willows is fast-paced, think “Toad’s Wild Ride,” and there’s no hint of anything mystical beyond the gorgeously animated woods.
When we shy away from the stillness in a well-told tale, we miss out on the time-stopping power, the pure joy of the piece.
Research into happiness, what it is and how to find it, strikes the same note: whether we are happy or not becomes irrelevant when we do activities that make time stop. In life, that could mean knitting, playing a board game with loved ones, laughing your head off, walking your dog, reading a good story…
It isn’t really time’s flow that hurts, but those moments when we strike the bank and feel pain: accidents, illness, lay-offs, broken relationships, death.
Sometimes, the pain makes us feel alive. But there is a way to feel alive within stillness, whether it is stillness we have caused, has been imposed on us, or has been created for us in the guise of a poem, song, or story. These enchantments, at their best, transform us. New beginnings are wrought from these spells.
As in sleep, the Life/Death/Life nature in its most wildish form is as simple as a graceful exhalation (ending) and inhalation (beginning). The only trust required is to know that when there is one ending there will be another beginning. 2
When we are bored with stillness, we are bored with ourselves, or afraid.
In fairy tales, “Once upon a time” is an invitation to dip our toes in the waters of stillness and be transformed.
Stillness in story is not emptiness. There is a kind of action, but it is action that we co-create. The author spins a web of words, and we trace and retrace those silvery lines, conjuring images, feelings, thoughts. And time hangs like moss on a tree until the passage ends.
For me [Briar Rose] is about the shiver you feel, which any child feels—as the storyteller says, ‘The horses, too, went to sleep in the stable, the dogs in the yard, the pigeons on the roof, the flies on the wall; even the fire that was flaming on the hearth became quiet and slept, the roast meat left off frizzling, and the cook, who was just going to pull the hair of the scullery boy, because he had forgotten something, let him go and went to sleep.’3
Once upon a time there was stillness…
- Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (London: Harper Collins, 1995), 142.
- Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype (New York: Ballantine, 1992), 154.
- Katherine Langrish, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: Reflections on Fairy Tales (Oxfordshire: The Greystones Press, 2016 ), Kindle edition.