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.

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 Myth is an intuitive way of interpreting the world around us but to a large extent it has now been superseded by the current rational method of understanding and measuring reality.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:

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