In her introduction to her anthology, Favorite Folktales of the World, Jane Yolen, a writer and storyteller herself, tells us that, as she researched and gathered tales,
I was reminded again and again how bits and pieces of stories—archetypal characters, situations, magical hats or sticks or rings—have been lifted from one teller’s quilt and sewn into another. The patchworking of Story is endless.
This patchworking process has also gone on as stories have moved back and forth between oral storytellers and writer-transcribers. When tales were written down, they were often changed in the telling, sometimes on purpose, sometimes by accident. And then the changed versions often made their way back into oral tradition. For instance, Yolen tells us, the first written version of Cinderella was made by a Frenchman, Charles Perrault. But when the story was first translated into English, the translator misread a word )—and the heroine’s foot fit perfectly into slippers, not of vair (fur) as in the original, but of verre (glass). And so, ever since, Cinderella has worn glass slippers!
The process of patchworking accelerates in the literary or art tale, a genre that has appealed to some writers ever since Homer. Such writers, Yolen points out, make use of settings, archetypal characters, or bits of magic that come from oral tradition, but they are modern in their themes. Authors such as Hans Christian Anderson, Washington Irving, Isak Dinesen, and Isaac Bashevis Singer are a few of the literary writers who have written art tales. Sadly, as Yolen observes,
Today most stories of this kind are marketed as nursery fare or as genre tales by children’s-book authors or science fiction/fantasy writers and exist in a narrow ghetto apart from mainstream literature, much to the reading public’s loss.
Oral, transcribed, or literary tale—what matters is whether it is a good story.
This process of “patchworking”—of selecting material and motifs and themes from different stories and then combining them—is a key skill for writers of stories. Inexperienced writers, drawing on their own lives for material, often are resistant to the process of patchworking; when it’s suggested to them that they could make a better story if they changed some of the material, they stubbornly insist, “But that’s the way it happened!”
These writers are confusing life and story—which are not the same at all. Story, unlike life, has shape, and one of the things writers must learn is how to best shape their materials. (We’ll get to that skill later on.) Often in order to make a story that really works as a story , we have to change and substitute material, or move elements around. If you have trouble doing this, then you need to devote lots of time to practicing “patchworking.” Here are some ways to do that:
PRACTICE: PATCHWORKING 1
Take a couple of short tales from oral tradition (fairy tales or folk tales) and make a list of the motifs or material they contain and their themes.
Do some reflecting: What gives these motifs or themes their power? Why do you think they recur in so many stories? Jot down any ideas you have about how you might use these materials in a story.
PRACTICE: PATCHWORKING 2
Now go through your collected materials from these stories (in the exercise you just did) and mark anything that stands out for you. Take the elements you’ve selected and use them to make a story.
The Importance of Collecting Material for Stories
To do a good job with patchworking, you need to have lots of materials to work with. So I encourage you to make a habit of working with the collecting practices on a regular basis.
Patchworking and the Story-Making Process
PRACTICE: USING SELECTED MATERIAL
First, read over all the material you have collected. Mark (check, circle, whatever you like) anything that stands out for you: these are your selected materials for making a story.
If you have selected a lot of material, you may want to copy it onto another page.
Now think about how you can use this material in a story. (You can, of course, add any other material you need.) Remember that this is just a practice in learning how to use collected material, so don’t worry about having to write something “great.” Instead, concentrate on fooling around with the material, thinking of different ways you might use it to tell a short, simple story.
Once you’re ready to write, see if you can tell the story on the page as if you’re talking it to someone else.
Afterwards, take some time to reflect: What did you notice in this process of selecting material and using it to write a story?
PRACTICE: WHAT MAKES A GOOD STORY?
Do some reflecting on this question.
The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need