Of Karl May and immersive writing

Yesterday’s edition of the ZDF nachtstudio, a cultural discussion program, features a critic, a scholar of German literature, a writer and a very well known comedian discussing Karl May and his work. The occasion is his 170th birthday and the centennial of his death. There was also a great article on Karl May in my local paper today, but unfortunately it’s not online.

In other news, Jeff Vandermeer has a good post on how living inside your story can be as important as getting the words down on paper.

Now I am a wordcount focused writer to a certain degree and have committed myself to writing a certain minimum number of words every day. If I didn’t set those goals, I would just disappear into the story and tell it to myself/live in it and never write any of it down. Which would be enjoyable to me, but not exactly conductive towards building a writing career.

But even though I concentrate on getting the words down, I still spend time living inside the story and getting to know the characters. I imagine myself into the story before falling asleep, while sitting there listening to music (music intensifies the reaction) and sometimes also while going about my day. Stepping into the story and seeing it unfold like a film in front of my mind’s eye is definitely an important part of the process for me. And sometimes, particularly with longer work, it takes a while for the story to come together and for me to get more than glimpses of scenes and characters. And since I always work on several projects at the same time, I can write another story while one is gestating.

I also agree with the value of writing longhand at times. I still do much of my brainstorming in longhand. Besides, I carry around a Moleskine notebook wherever I go, so I can use dead times to jot down story ideas or just continue writing my current project. That’s another advantage of living inside your story – it makes jumping into the story from one minute to the next so much easier. When I get home, I type the contents of the notebook into my computer. The result is cleaner prose than otherwise, because transferring the text from notebook to screen serves as a first editing pass.

As for what any of this has to do with Karl May – well, Karl May was a writer who certainly lived inside his stories. He lived so deeply inside his stories that he actually turned into his first person narrators and protagonists. Karl May literally became Old Shatterhand and Kara Ben Nemsi to the point that he claimed that his entirely imaginary adventure tales were true and that he himself had been the Saxon born adventurer known as Old Shatterhand in the Old West and as Kara Ben Nemsi in the Middle East. He even went as far as getting photographed dressed as Old Shatterhand and Kara Ben Nemsi. Never mind that the real Karl May was a former con man from Radebeul in Saxony who never left Germany until shortly before the end of his life.

Now Karl May was obviously a few bullets short of a full round. But his total immersion into his novels is probably responsible for the intense description that once made them so compelling (and puts off young readers in our more fast paced age). And his identification with his characters explains why Old Shatterhand and Kara Ben Nemsi are so similar and why they share so many biographical characteristics with Karl May himself, namely because they’re all the same person. Indeed, Old Shatterhand and Kara Ben Nemsi were even played by the same actor in the film adaptions of the 1960s, namely by Lex Barker. As a result, I keep picturing Karl May looking like Lex Barker, even though I know that they looked nothing alike.

By the way, I once wanted to marry Old Shatterhand, back when I was about 12. My best friend at the time was a huge Karl May fan and in love with Winnetou, the heroic Apache chief. Now pretty much everybody was in love with Winnetou – even Old Shatterhand, as the undeniably slashy subtext and recent parodies which play up that subtext suggest. But since my best friend was determined to marry Winnetou, I did not want to get in her way. So I decided that I would marry Old Shatterhand instead. Because Old Shatterhand was noble and heroic and almost as cool as Winnetou and quite handsome, too, considering that he was played by Lex Barker.

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10 Responses to Of Karl May and immersive writing

  1. Estara says:

    I wanted to marry Winnetou after a few exciting adventures of course – but MOST OF ALL!!!!!!11!!! I wanted to own Iltschi…. and then Rih… and then Syrr (sp?).

    • Estara says:

      Addendum: I could NOT go beyond the first two minutes because the moderator of that talk is SOOOOOOOOOOO BOOOOOOORING to listen to. Why didn’t they at least invite one woman – Uschi Glas, frex – to represent the film Winnetou stuff?

      • Cora says:

        I usually watch nachtstudio, while doing something else on the side, provided the subject is interesting. I agree that the moderator is boring and also out of touch with anything that happened after approx. 1970, but he has been hosting the show since forever.

        A woman or two would have been nice. If they could invite Jürgen von der Lippe (who didn’t even irritate me for once), then they could have invited Uschi Glas or Karin Dor. Besides, I would be very surprised if there wasn’t a female May scholar out there somewhere, considering how many teen girls wanted to marry Winnetou or Old Shatterhand.

    • Cora says:

      Well, Winnetou is still free, since my friend married a guy she met in the church choir and now has four kids. ;)

      I wasn’t that much of a horse person, so the horses did not hold that much appeal for me. Though they were damned cool.

      • Estara says:

        Winnetou is dead, canonically, – and considering the last letter Charlie reads when he returns to the US twenty or thirty years later with his wife, I personally think Winnetou loved Old Shatterhand a bit more than any woman.

        • Cora says:

          Which of course confirms the slashy subtext that at least contemporary readers have been seeing all along, though I suspect that Karl May would be baffled.

          • Estara says:

            Heee, probably. It’s in Winnetou’s Erben. I read ALL of Karl May because our church library had it and I liked a lot of it. Yes, even the autobiography.

            • Cora says:

              Even the sex manual that was one of his first works, published anonymously? The editors of the most recent Complete Karl May Edition actually unearthed the sex manual and dutifully republished it as part of the edition.

          • Estara says:

            No, our collection was Karl May Verlag stuff from the 70s and early 80s – at the time there were 71 books out.

            • Cora says:

              I think the Karl May sex manual was a fairly recent discovery, since it had been published anonymously. Though I find the idea of someone picking up the Complete Karl May Edition and finding a Victorian sex manual as the first or second volume quite amusing.

              All of the Karl May I read were volumes from the 1950s which had once belonged to my parents. I think this is how a lot of people found Karl May, because the books were on the shelves at home.

              Recently I was trying to explain to a neighbourhood kid with a new e-reader that he could download public domain classics for free. Like – thinking of something that might appeal to a 14-year-old – Karl May. Whereupon the boy’s mother said, “If he wants to read Karl May, his grandpa had the whole collection. And he never even looked at them once.”

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