For years I have been a writer, an editor and a teacher of creative writing. Now I want to share some of what I have learned along the way. Write On The Fringes is a blog about the dangers, the disappointments and the rewards of writing. It's a record of the writing of a novel, from the tantalising first inklings of an idea, through to the final draft. But above all it's an exploration of the art and the craft of writing and the nature of story, as well as a search for the essence of creativity and the complex nature of truth.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Telling Tales – Exploring Elements of the Fairy Story

'If you don't know the trees you may be lost in the forest, but if you don't know the stories you may be lost in life.'   Siberian Elder
Once upon a time. . .
These familiar words have such power. They evoke a stillness, a bating of breath, an eager air of expectation as we gather around them, waiting for their magic to transport our imaginations to far off worlds, and their wisdom to help us understand the world in which we live. In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim wrote, 'for those who immerse themselves in what the fairytale has to communicate, it becomes a deep, quiet pool which at first seems to reflect only our own image; but behind it we soon discover the inner turmoils of our soul – its depths, and ways to gain peace within ourselves and with the world, which is the reward for our struggles.' Fairy tales are timeless stories, traditionally passed down orally from one generation to the next. It is only relatively recently that they have been written down, reinterpreted  through the moral filters of those who recorded them, and consequently changed, sometimes almost beyond recognition.

Myth and fairytale are a rich source of material for authors and their form and content resonate with readers; both adults and children. Some writers, such as Angela Carter, have rewritten existing fairy tales applying their own personal interpretations. Recently in Bitter Greens, Kate Forsyth rewrote the Rapunzel story, enriching it with a historical setting and vivid characters. Other writers take elements from fairy tales and/or write their own tales that mirror the structure of older stories. This is what I have done in Flight in which there are a number of references to both myth and fairy tale, most of which were not consciously intended on my part, only recognised by me when they appeared, revealing that like most of us, my personal history is steeped in the stories and religion of my childhood. In the first draft of Flight, I signaled the use of these references as they arose but during a later edit, decided it would be better to cut out these signals, allowing the reader to identify the references themselves. As I write Falling Between Worlds, I can seen that fairy tale and myth will also play a role in this novel, though I seem to be incapable of planning the inclusion of these elements or planning the structure of my stories. Instead I ask questions and leave myself open to whatever answers arise, letting them find their place on the page and within the story.  For me and for many writers, asking questions is an important part of the process of writing. In so doing we discover what our story is and why we are writing it. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes says, 'asking the proper question is the central action of transformation – in fairy tales, in analysis and in individuation. Questions are the keys that cause the secret doors of the psyche to swing open.'

Initiation is a common element in both myths and fairy tales and a major part of novels which we call 'coming of age'. Jones writes that in the myth, the initiation is a spiritual one, whilst in the fairytale, the initiation is 'into a greater awareness of ones own desires and fears'. I'm not sure it's necessary to distinguish between them in this way, as the fairytale initiation is a necessary part of the spiritual initiation. In Flight, Fern must face her fears in order to be initiated into the spiritual world. And indeed, Bettleheim writes that myths and fairy tales 'derive from or give symbolic expression to initiation rites or other rites de passage such as a metaphoric death of an old, inadequate self, in order to be born on a higher plane of existence'. In Flight, Fern is undergoing an initiation as she is forced to let go of her old way of being, in a sense dying to her old self, in order to find a new way of living. This is an initiation of the soul but it can also be read as simply a rite of passage from one stage of life to the next, a coming of age or perhaps a 'coming to self'.

In The Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers, Marina Warner writes that 'shape shifting is one of fairy tale's dominant and characteristic wonders'. There is much slippage between fairy tale and myth where shape shifting is a common element, the gods and goddesses frequently shifting form in order to confuse and dazzle humanity. Shape shifting is also an integral part of shamanism, with shamans sometimes transforming themselves into creatures in order to traverse the underworld. Shape shifting plays a role in Flight, with Fern at one stage slipping inside the skin of a bear, then later, growing wings and perceiving herself flying. The novel also contains shape shifting in the form of slippage between lifetimes, with both Fern and Eric maintaining their essence and their enmity whilst regularly shifting costumes.

Aside from these general themes of initiation and shape shifting, there are also references to some well known fairy tales. There are some parallels between Fern and Rapunzel. Fern is a reluctant soul, not wishing to inhabit her body or this world, so in a sense, the tower, or attic in her case, is Fern's attempt to escape. Paradoxically, Fern is also a prisoner. She might have chosen to stay in the attic but she is still trapped, held prisoner by herself. Rapunzel must literally let her hair down in order to find a new life. Fern is chased from her attic but she too must embrace life, and it is Adam, her true prince, who helps ground Fern and teaches her to live. In a sense, Adam too is blinded in the novel. He can't see what Fern can see, he can't look into minds or enter her dreams. Instead he must trust her and his own role in the story.

In Fern's penchant for sleep, there is a reference to Perrault's 'Sleeping Beauty'. Bettelheim writes that Sleeping Beauty is the classic coming of age story, reminding us 'that a long period of quiescence, of contemplation, of concentration on the self, can and often does lead to the highest achievement'. In our modern world this has largely been forgotten and withdrawal from life is viewed with suspicion. After spending months in solitude, Fern prematurely re-enters the world only to be forced into solitude again, this time in the psychiatric ward where she has been placed because her mother and society in general, misguidedly interpret her symptoms as an illness that must be treated, rather than as the welcome first steps in an initiatory process. Sleeping Beauty is a tale of sexual awakening, while Flight is a tale of awakening. Fern has been asleep all her life and her awakening doesn't come at puberty but when she is called to an adventure. Fern must reawaken sexually, as she does with Adam, but it is her whole libido that must awaken, not just its sexual aspect. It isn't a man that Fern needs to bring her back to life, but it is the masculine. Fern is out of balance, overtaken by the shadow side of her feminine aspect and terrified of the masculine. Her journey is to seek balance. In a sense the prince is simply a part of herself, the active masculine side that she must embrace.

There are other, more minor references to fairy tales in the novel. Early in the story, Fern falls down some steps and descends into the underworld, just as the shamans do in order to retrieve souls, and as Lewis Carroll's Alice did when she fell down a rabbit hole and found herself in Wonderland. Like Alice, Fern finds that this world is very different from her own, with a new set of rules that are not entirely rational and which she must learn in order to find her way. Later there's a  reference to Cinderella when Fern is dressing for dinner in her father's house and slips on the stiletto shoes her father has selected for her. I have used the shoe as a symbol of power, the power of a man over a woman. Fern tries the shoes on and to her surprise they fit almost perfectly. This suggests that Fern's father, Eric is her prince, something that almost becomes the case, when he later attempts to seduce her. Fern obediently wears the shoes but can hardly walk in them. The stiletto heels are crippling for her, sending her off balance, which is exactly what Eric hopes to achieve. Later, after rejecting her father, Fern kicks the shoes off and frees herself from his influence.

In our writing we can make specific references to known fairy tales and myths, we can mirror their structure (something I will explore in a later post), and we can also draw on their themes which are often powerful explorations of life and its necessary transitions. According to Steven Swann Jones in The Fairytale: The Magic Mirror of Imagination, 'the objective of the myth is oneness with the divine . . .The objective of the legendary quest is social harmony. . . and the objective of the fairytale quest is personal happiness'. So if, on one level, myths are the mega stories that societies tell about themselves, then fairy tales are the micro stories. Fairy tales address everyday problems in a fantastical way, giving a nudge to a child unwilling to move on to the next stage of life, providing guidelines for understanding the dangers one faces in life (Red Riding Hood) and exploring notions of good and evil. With their emphasis on moral behaviour and rewards, fairy tales both define the world and hint at the possibilities of breaking free of those definitions. Characters, such as Bluebeard's wife are both punished and rewarded for breaking the rules. Warner writes that fairy tales 'offer a way of putting questions, of testing the structure as well as guaranteeing its safety, of thinking up alternatives as well as living daily reality in an examined way'. Perhaps then, fairy tales are a way for us to understand and accept the paradoxes of life; pointers to the lessons which are able to be learned through myth. As Hans Christian Anderson once said, 'life itself is the most wonderful fairytale of them all'.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website:

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Writing Myth

'A myth is a story that is true on the inside but not the outside.'
Joseph Campbell

As my new novel begins to form I'm wondering how I might use myth to enrich the story and deepen the themes - something I did extensively in my previous novel, Flight. This has inspired me to consider once again what it is about myth that is so fundamental to humanity and whether or not it is still relevant in our world today. It is myth that forms the basis of most cultures' storytelling, so it has a number of functions that are above and beyond simple entertainment. Myth is an intuitive way of interpreting the world around us but to a large extent it has now been superseded by the current rational method of understanding and measuring reality. For me, myth contains vital truths and yet in our modern world, it has come to be defined as something untrue, as seen in our phrase, 'exploding the myth'. As Karen Armstrong writes, 'we have developed a scientific view of history; we are concerned with what actually happened. But in the pre-modern world, when people wrote about the past they were more concerned with what an event had meant.' So it seems to me that in our modern tendency to confuse fact with truth we are in danger of losing meaning. 'A myth is true,' says Armstrong, 'because it is effective, not because it gives us factual information. If it does not give us new insight into the deeper meaning of life, it has failed.'

Jung wrote that 'myth is more individual and expresses life more precisely than does science.'  In The Mythic Journey, Jungian psychologists, Liz Greene and Juliet Sharman-Burke wrote that 'myths have the mysterious capacity to contain and communicate paradoxes, allowing us to see through, around and over the dilemma to the heart of the matter.' Mythologist, Joseph Campbell wrote that 'myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.' While Christopher Vogler applied definitions of myth to contemporary stories, insisting that all stories are sacred, all have the capacity to heal and all mirror the structure of their larger counterparts, the mythic heroic stories.

In The Artists Way, Julie Cameron writes that 'creativity cannot be comfortably quantified in intellectual terms', while Catherine Ann Jones believes that 'to write from one part of your self, the logical mind, results in a fragmented story as well as a fragmented life'. Certainly for me the writing of Flight was not an simply an intellectual process but one which intuitively drew upon the mystery behind creativity. A few years ago as I was writing Flight, I found to my surprise, that I had been unconsciously using mythic elements, drawing from both the content and the patterns of ancient stories. Once I had recognised that this was happening I was able to make the process conscious and develop certain elements in order to explore the themes that were important to me. In the end it was myth that gave shape and depth to my novel and it was myth that helped me to understand what I was writing about and why I needed to write it. Consequently, Flight is heavily laden with references to myth and fairytale; from Sleeping Beauty to the myth of Cassandra, something I will explore more further in a later post. It's themes and plot were drawn from common elements in myth such as the curse or prophecy, mirroring in many ways the classic patterns of heroic myth as identified by Otto Rank. Fern is born to a powerful man, her birth is accompanied by a prophecy, she is abandoned and brought up by strangers, unaware of her identity. As an adult she must seek her father and confront him, potentially bringing about his death in order for the natural cycles of change to continue unimpeded. And finally, the structure of Flight mirrors in many ways the stages of story that Joseph Campbell identified, something I discuss briefly below but will explore further in a later post.

Campbell not only identified a common pattern in the structure of mythic stories but also interpreted what this pattern meant, socially, psychologically and to a certain extent, spiritually. Of all stories, Campbell believes it is the myth that speaks to us most strongly. And of all myths it is the universal story of the quest to find the essence of self, that appeals most to a modern day humanity in search of meaning in a world where meaning and identity has moved its focus from the group to the individual. In the past, and primarily for survival purposes, the individual was first and foremost a part of society. Exile was a life-threatening break with existence and therefore the worst possible punishment. Yet exile (physical or psychological), is also the necessary first step on the heroic quest, a breaking free of the known or ordinary world and a stepping into the unknown. In the opening to Flight, Fern has unknowingly taken the first step in the quest, exiling herself from family and society 

The reward for this quest is self-knowledge, but the true hero will also ultimately return to society bringing back that which he/she has learned, and thus enriching the community. However, unlike fairy tales, which almost invariably finish with a version of 'and they lived happily ever after', myths embrace the possibility of tragedy and change. In myth, endings are not fixed and new quests are often necessary, the hero may die on his quest, or like Gilgamesh, return triumphant from the Underworld, only to have the elixir for eternal life slip through his fingers. Sometimes the hero may find that the metaphorical gold he or she found, has turned to dust, or like Buddha, he or she may return with their treasure, only to be faced with the difficult task of telling a story that is beyond words. In Flight, Fern is given information, allies and tools that she must integrate and begin to use, in order to overcome the obstacles and dangers. In the end, Fern uses these rewards well and returns to society carrying this metaphorical gold.

Campbell emphasised the importance of metaphoric and poetic readings of myth, which allow for psychological and metaphysical interpretations that help us to map our development. Purely literal or rational interpretations of story create a dangerous black and white world in which dogma rules. So do our contemporary stories fill the spaces that myth once filled or have they lost something fundamental? Is it the stories that are depleted or simply the way that we read (see Reading Between The Lines)?  I don't know the answers to these questions but I do know that if we simply skate over the surface of stories we will forget how to measure them in anything but rational terms – the terms of logos. It is in the depths of story that the true lessons lie and it us up to us as writers to include the hidden truths of mythos in our stories in order to feed our readers and our selves on living stories that speak to us on many levels.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website:

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Where Truth Lies: Fact versus Fiction

'Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.'
Francis Bacon

In a novel, the reader is often interested in how much is true, while in a memoir, the reader wants to know how much is untrue. The line between fact and fiction is much finer than we imagine. When we assert the factual validity of our memories we often discover that a sibling, a friend or a parent remembers the same event quite differently. A few years ago, a mother and her adult daughter enrolled in one of my life writing classes in order to write a memoir about the daughter's turbulent teenage years. Both described the same events but from a different perspective. At one stage the daughter referred to a formative experience that had occurred in her early childhood when her mother had left her. The mother was shocked, because in reality she had only been away for one night, but in the daughter's mind it was an eternity. Of course, factually it is correct to call it one night, but the emotional truth lies elsewhere. There's a world of difference between truth and fact,' writes Maya Angelou. 'Fact tells us the data. . . but facts can obscure the truth'.

Psychotherapists also recognise the complexities of truth. In Other Lives, Other Selves, Roger Woolger states that 'for the therapist there is another kind of truth, psychic truth: that which is real for the patient.' Jung also maintained that clinical material does not have to be historically true so long as it is subjectively true and filled with meaning for the patient. For Jung, harmony is not achieved by realigning an individual to society, which is itself a human construct, but instead from realigning them to their self and hence, to life. It is in the inner or psychological journeys that we take and on which we send our characters, that an emotional, and perhaps a universal truth can be found.

In his memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung writes about his his inner experiences, including his dreams and visions, referring to his life as one that he could only map or understand through recording its 'inner happenings', his encounters with the unconscious. 'In the end,' he says, 'the only events in my life worth telling are those when the imperishable world irrupted into this transitory one.' Like Jung, when I sat down to write, I discovered that I had embarked on my own inner journey, a journey of the soul. As I worked on my novel, I was surprised to discover that I was unconsciously writing about myself, drawing on my own past, my dreams and my numinous experiences and weaving them into a plot-driven fictional story.

John Singleton, in The Creative Writing Handbook, explores the relationship between memory and imagination and between autobiography and fiction. The autobiography he says, 'only translates the past' while fiction 'transforms' it. 'The vital force in this re-creative process is the imagination.' Autobiography, 'describes the self as already known, or explains the self as presently understood. While fiction, on the other hand explores the self as yet hidden, in the dark. . . Something secret is hitherto revealed which you sense you've known unconsciously all the time.' Transformation, then, is made more possible by stepping into fiction, if only because the writer then gives their imagination permission to work with memory and transform it, thereby allowing true self reflection, that which comes as a revelation and not simply an intellectual construct.

'All fiction is autobiography in disguise', wrote Catherine Anne Jones, in The Way of Story. This is certainly the case with Flight, though if I had written it as a memoir I would not have been able to grant myself permission to explore my own past and thus transform it, at least not with the freedom I found in fiction. It is difficult to say exactly how much of Flight is true in the factual sense of the word. Like Fern, I was born in Adelaide and adopted by a religious couple. The house I grew up in is the same as I depict in the novel. The adopted father, Richard, is almost identical to my own adopted father. I too lived in Sydney in an attic room and toyed with the idea of studying fashion design. The house Fern visits in Kettering, Tasmania, is a house I lived in for six years. These are factual truths and easily identified by those who know. There are other true events in the story that are not so easily identified as fact. The memories of childhood that I give Fern are all my own, as are the dreams and visions she has. Otherwise, the characters and events are fictional. Although fact and fiction are woven together throughout Flight, the themes are personal to me, as is Fern's psychological and spiritual journey. These are my truths, but they are also universal truths, referring back to a long tradition of storytelling that begins with humanity's first storytellers, the unnamed shamans, as well as to ancient myth, to Dante's Inferno, Goethe's Faust, Hesse's, Steppenwolf, Le Guin's Earthsea novels and Murakami's Kafka On The Shore, to name but a few.

In The Western Dreaming, John Carroll, in asking what truth is, looks at the roots of the word. 'When the Greeks designated truth by their word aleitheia, they built in a narrative. Truth is that which is a-lethe, not lethe, Lethe being the place of oblivion or forgetfulnes, and later the river running through the underworld. To drink the waters of this river was to extinguish memory. Oblivion is thus the natural human state, one in which individuals have forgotten what they know.' Carroll then makes a further connection, one that is vital in an age where post-modernism would deny the validity of truth. 'Moreover,' he writes, 'as English has picked up, to be without Truth is lethal, death in life, its condition that of lethargy, a weariness of spirit in which all vitality has drained away.' This is the condition of Fern as my novel, Flight opens. She has forgotten so much and lost so much of herself, that there is very little vitality left and she is told: 'If you do not take this journey you will die,'

A post modernist might say that it isn't possible to define truth, or at least that there are multiple truths. That truth is not fixed, but instead changes according to who is telling it and the context in which it is told. It changes too, according to the unique collection of filters each individual applies to their reading of a text. As Walter Truett-Anderson writes in The Truth About Truth, 'truth is made rather than found.' Yet below this slippery world of relative readings, I believe, like Joseph Campbell, that there is another world, a more stable one of universal truths and themes. Not tribal or dogmatic 'truths' that are socially constructed and create divisions but truths which are beyond divisions, beyond polarities. This, for me, is where truth lies. As a writer I can only approach it through metaphor, story itself being a metaphor for the journey of the soul, the journey to that truth which is beyond language. It is a journey that must be taken over and over. Factual truth has little bearing on this journey, which involves a seeing through of ideology, as well as the acceptance and subsequent release of constructed psychological truths, in order to receive a remembering of something deeper and more sustaining.

If there are truths which are absolute, there are also an indefinite number and colourful variety of paths to these truths. As Campbell warned, it is dangerous to believe in the paths as truths in themselves, creating dogmatic 'isms' that limit our perception and more often than not, cause great divisions. Dogma insists that the path itself is the only way to an inaccessible truth, establishing twists and turns and dead ends to keep the masses away from this profound realisation that the path is constructed, it is a map, not the truth itself. In contrast, the journey of the soul is an individual and a universal journey, each person finding their own way, with their own unique signposts to guide them. The path is not important, as Fern discovers in Flight. Fern's journey is not one any other character could take because like each of us, she has her own individual stories to deconstruct; stories that have arisen from a multitude of factors: genetic, experiential, environmental, historical and cultural. At the end of her journey, Fern is able to step beyond constructed truths and perceive once again a vital universal truth that enables connection and harmony and the innate knowledge that everything is one.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website: