Jacqueline West, Writer

Bestselling author of The Books of Elsewhere and Dreamers Often Lie

A condor, or a picture of a condor

October 7, 2012    Tags: , , ,   

I like to record things.  I write.  Preserving events and impressions and experiences in words is just what I feel compelled to do.  So I get the compulsion to record things in other ways–with phones, with cameras, with all those fancy and increasingly tiny gadgets.  But for the last few days, I’ve been thinking about the times when maybe recording isn’t quite enough.

Last week, we went to First Avenue for the final show of Amanda Palmer’s Theatre is Evil tour, which was packed with one amazing act on top of another.  And one of those amazing acts was Neil Gaiman, in person, telling a story. He’d just finished a storytelling tour, and that’s what this was: Not a reading, not a recital, but a meant-to-be-told-aloud-by-the-person-it-happened-to STORY.   In the car on the way home, we talked about the story–about how it was very, very different in style and structure from Neil’s written work, and about how dependent it was on the voice and inflection and charm of the teller, and the audience’s reaction, and Neil’s timing and facial expressions, and about how if you put those spoken words on paper they wouldn’t have quite the same life.   They might not work at all.

The funny thing was: All around us, people who were hearing this meant-to-be-told-aloud story were recording it.  They were watching it through screens, even though the real thing was happening ten feet in front of them.  They couldn’t clap, because their hands were busy.  After the storytelling was over, they compared the clarity of their shots and the timing of their starting points.

I wonder how many of them have gone home and watched that little video again.  I wonder if it has the same life.  I wonder if it works.

(WARNING: NORTHERN EXPOSURE DIGRESSION.) In one of my favorite episodes of Northern Exposure, “Things Become Extinct,” would-be filmmaker Ed starts to make a documentary about Ira Wingfeather, the only person around who remembers how to carve traditional wooden courting flutes.  But after filming, Ed realizes he doesn’t just want the living picture of the thing; he wants to preserve the thing itself.  He goes back to the old man and asks to learn how to carve the flutes.  When Ira wonders why, Ed asks him, “Would you rather see a picture of a condor, or a condor?”  and the old man answers, “A condor, no question.”

I don’t want condors to become extinct.  I don’t want photographers of condors to become extinct, either.  I’m not sure the real version of a thing is necessarily better than the recorded version of a thing.  My life revolves around recorded versions of things.  But I try to remind myself that sometimes it’s good to stop recording. It’s good to simply listen, and watch, and participate with your full consciousness, and let the moment end without attempting to preserve it.

Then again, here I am, recording all of this.



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