Amber Sparks on Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen

“What Isak Dinesen Taught Me About Storytelling”

Children don’t care about writing, or writers. Children don’t care about craft. Children care about stories, about the telling of tales, the spinning of yarns. When I was a child, I was no different; I read Hans Christian Andersen and the brothers Grimm and the fairy stories of George MacDonald and Charles Perrault.  And somehow I stumbled onto a copy, woefully mis-shelved in the school library, of Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Stories. These felt like fairy tales to me, though they were darker, drawn in more shades than I was used to in my stories. But still, they were tales, the kind you tell aloud, and filled with marvelous things and lands and animals and people, and often, they were written as a tale within a tale. I didn’t entirely understand them, and they frightened me a little. But I was also captivated, enthralled. Here were tales doing something more than I was used to, something more complex than I could capture in words. And yet they were tales as traditional, in some sense, as the very oldest stories: bound in sounds, spun out in suspense – pictures painted of the usual fall and loss of innocence that man must act out in every ancient story.

In the intervening years, I mostly forget about Dinesen the person – half-heartedly looking from time to time as an adult for books by a man named Isak. And at the same time, I started writing down the tales I’d been telling myself and anyone who would listen (usually the cats and younger siblings) since I was very small. Then once again I stumbled onto something (because in the stories, this is always how it happens, the happy accident): I was assigned to read Out of Africa for a class and came to realize this was the same storyteller I’d been captivated and mystified by when I was younger.  I read her memoir, then all of her short story collections.  And then I read all I could about her.

I read that she said “I am not a novelist, really not even a writer; I am a storyteller.” This is, of course, not entirely true. Certainly she is a writer – she was a painter, first, and you can see it in the careful images she chooses, in the highly descriptive language used to frame these stories. But there was something in that statement that rang true for me. It was exactly how I’d always felt, how I still feel—that under all the craft, there was the burning desire to tell stories.  And here was a serious person, saying the same thing, giving me permission to unchain myself from the pure purpose of craft, and to simply tell the stories I wanted to share. I’d been writing these dreadful poems full of allusion, because I wanted so much to be like Eliot and Pound, to be taken very seriously. And here was this stately storyteller, this Baroness, taken seriously herself, whose stories were filled with references to Norse mythology and ancient tales, who said she liked the writers no one reads anymore. She’d been trained up, it seemed, in those old bardic traditions, and then tweaked and labyrinthed them, given them a darkly ironic twist. Consider the beginning of one of her best tales, “The Deluge at Norderney:” “During the first quarter of the last century, seaside resorts became the fashion, even in those countries of Northern Europe within the minds of whose people the sea had hitherto held the role of the devil, the cold and voracious hereditary foe of humanity.”

Dinesen had been dead for a quarter of a century when I began writing, but the words on her pages felt both ancient and timeless. They helped me to understand how one can play with time, how one can write modern while writing old, without being too clever about it. Often her stories begin in one century and end in another, or circle back and swim through several ages. In a Paris Review interview, she said “So many novels that we think are contemporary in subject with their date of publication—think of Dickens or Faulkner or Tolstoy or Turgenev—are really set in an earlier period, a generation or so back. The present is always unsettled, no one has had time to contemplate it in tranquillity … . I was a painter before I was a writer … and a painter never wants the subject right under his nose; he wants to stand back and study a landscape with half-closed eyes.”

I’ve had other literary mothers (and fathers), but none quite so close to my own literary spirit. In Isak Dinesen, I found a teacher who took me back to the ancient beginnings of the story itself, and to my own childish beginnings: who showed me the fruitful place that all good stories spring from.


Amber Sparks is the author of the short story collection May We Shed These Human Bodies, and co-author (with Robert Kloss and Matt Kish) of the hybrid text novella The Desert Places, just published by Curbside Splendor. You can find her most days on Twitter at @ambernoelle, or read her work at ambernoellesparks.com.