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, July 22, 2012

Breaking The Curse: Making Myth Our Own

'All we can do is keep telling the stories, hoping that someone will hear. Hoping that in the noisy echoing nightmare of endlessly breaking news and celebrity gossip, other voices might be heard, speaking of the life of the mind and the soul's journey.'
Jeanette Winterson, Weight

In previous posts I have discussed the ways in which myth enables us to reconnect with a different form of knowing, one that is more intuitive and that embraces mystery rather than fact. Using mythic tools/elements in our writing helps us to create timeless and universal stories, living stories that are steeped in authenticity and that encourage us to grow into individuals. In this post I want to look more specifically at ways myth might be used in story, by rewriting old stories, taking specific elements from myth or even simply using the themes that are predominant in myth.

We can use myth overtly in story by taking the structure and storyline of ancient myth and translating it into a contemporary setting or even a different point of view. In the Myth series Margaret Atwood wrote Penelopoid, the story of Odysseus from the perspective of Penelope and her maids, Alexander McCall Smith rewrote a Celtic myth in Dream Angus and Jeanette Winterson wrote Weight, her own version of the Atlas myth. In the introduction, Winterson wrote, 'the Myth series is a marvelous way of telling stories, re-telling stories for their own sakes, and finding in them permanent truths about human nature.' Winterson wrote Weight from her own situation, stating that 'there is no other way'. So Weight became a 'personal story broken against the bigger story of the myth we know'. When we rewrite myth in this way, we inevitably make it ours and we also see how easily any story can carry the timeless themes of myth. The ancient stories of the battles amongst the Norse Gods might be translated into contemporary stories about the battles between the heads of powerful corporations, or the story of Theseus entering the labyrinth to kill the minotaur can be written as a modern day story set in war torn Vietnam where Captain Willard is given the assignment to journey deep into the jungle (psyche) and capture Kurtz (a renegade Colonel). This is of course, Apocalypse Now, a story that was drawn from Conrad's, earlier novel, Heart of Darkness, but whose themes reflect the mythic journey of Theseus to kill the beast.

While Flight is not based on a single myth, it does contain a number of mythic references: to Theseus slaying the Minotaur in the labyrinth; to Orpheus returning from the underworld with Eurydice but unable to resist looking back; to the Babylonian myth of Gilgamesh and Enkidu; to the Greek myth of Cassandra. . . The characters Cassie and Hector represent Cassandra and her twin brother Helenus who as children were left overnight at Apollo's temple, where serpents licked their ears, endowing them with the power of prophecy. Cursed by Apollo for not returning his love, Cassandra found that although her prophecies were true, they were not believed. Cassandra and Helenus share the power of prophecy, but their skills and methods are different. For Cassandra the prophecy is received intuitively, while Helenus reads signs and portents in the things around him in the natural world, for example, the shape of clouds or the flight of a bird. In Flight, Cassie (like her namesake) is overcome by the knowledge she receives intuitively and is disbelieved by others, whilst Hector is a meteorologist, using computers and satellites to forecast the weather. In a sense, Cassie and Hector represent the extremes of the right and left brain modes, or intuitive and intellectual thought. Together they maintain a vital balance.

Curses, or inherited patterns of behaviour are themes that appear in all three of my novels, and again and again in ancient myth. In Nowhere Man, Ivan is psychologically trapped within patterns that he unconsciously repeats over and over. In Gathering Storm, four generations of women have been trapped by a Romany curse, though in actual terms they are trapped in inherited patterns of behaviour. In Flight, the idea of the curse is explored in mythic terms, in relation to the classic pattern of heroic myths, identified by Otto Rank (see Writing Myth). I did not set out with the idea of writing about a curse, instead it arose about halfway through the novel when I stopped what I was writing and wrote the prologue in a different voice and with an explanation of Fern's origins. 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. Myths such as Oedipus and Perseus explore the journey of the child to the father. This is generally an arduous journey, involving great dangers, but the greatest danger lies in the meeting with the father, who may or may not deem the child fit to accept. In myth, the child, if ready for the confrontation, generally brings about the death of the father, often without being aware of their father's identity. This is retribution for the father's unnatural desire to halt change. It is only natural for the child to step into the father's shoes in adulthood, or on a cultural scale, for a new king to step into the shoes of the old king. When this potential is denied by the father then the cycles of life have been denied and stagnation sets in. It is the child's role to force change.

For the most part, Flight follows Ranks pattern of heroic myth. In the opening pages, Simple Simon, a gardener in the Botanical Gardens, utters a prophecy, saying that Fern would cause the death of her father. The prophecy quickly becomes a curse as Fern's father, Eric, responds by trying unsuccessfully to kill his unborn daughter, the prophecy 'eating away at him, turning him into its slave'. Although the curse is delivered to Fern and her mother, it is directed at the father. Fern is the arrow, charged with delivering the curse. Eric is a powerful man, born with great gifts, but he has abused these gifts and this is a crime for which he must pay. There is no humility in Eric, no respect for life, no compassion and no humanity. But there is pride. As always it is hubris which activates the curse.

Psychologist, Liz Greene identifies a number of features that appear consistently in myths about family curses. According to her, the curse is usually linked with the abuse of children in a pattern that repeats itself through generations. 'Each generation has the opportunity to reverse or transform the curse by perceiving and acknowledging the pattern of destructiveness and transcending it, but fails to do so because the individual cannot resist indulging in fear, greed, anger, or the desire for personal vengeance'. Instead, the individual responds instinctively, refusing to acknowledge the pattern or take responsibility and transform it. So, as Greene states, a curse can run its patterns through generations, both inherited genetically and taught through the behaviour of the parents. This is something I had already explored in Gathering Storm, but in Flight I looked at patterns of behaviour that have been repeated through many lives, ideas that are expounded by Jungian psychotherapist, Roger Woolger, who suggests that childbirth triggers karmic residue and the choice of parents reinforces the patterns from one life to the next until the person is finally able to break free of that pattern.. This is exactly what happens to Fern who finds herself abandoned at birth, threatened fundamentally by her birth father and psychologically abused by her adopted father, so that she carries a heavy burden of guilt and grief that parallels the burdens she carries from past lives.

Woolger wrote of 'patterns in remembered lives', explaining that they can become compounded into a repetitive cycle of hatred and revenge, the players 'drawn to each other karmicly' in roles from which they cannot escape'. Fern and Eric are caught in a destructive pattern that has persisted for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, and which always involves an abuse of power and some form of injury to a child. In this life, Fern is once again given the opportunity to break free of that pattern. Through the course of the story, Fern is forced to face memories from a number of lives, but it is not the stories of these lives that are important for Fern's transformation. As the Bear Handler tells her, 'only the patterns matter, for it is in those that you will see the places that you are caught, repeating yourself, lifetime after lifetime'.

A good friend and editor, Teresita White, surprised me by pointing out the parallels between Greene's analysis of the family curse and the events in Flight. 'Paradoxically,' she wrote, 'any attempt to cheat the prophecy usually results in its fulfilment'. Eric tries to destroy his own daughter, which results in her mother hiding Fern from him, by having her adopted and not putting his name on her birth certificate. His violent attempt to kill Fern, results in the shutting down of her psyche, so she does not know who she really is. When Eric seeks Fern out he unwittingly awakens her spirit and bit by bit, her memory. When he attempts to frighten her, he awakens her courage. When he draws Fern to himself he unwittingly invites destruction into what he believes is impregnable. When Eric shows contempt for Adam and his qualities, he sabotages his seduction of Fern. And when he causes another's death, believing he can sabotage the prophecy, he provokes the final confrontation in which he is destroyed. Although Eric does not die, he is left hovering on the border of life and death and his power is spent. In the end, following Ranks patterns of heroic myth, Eric is crushed and Fern is liberated.

Myths remind us that life is all about change, that the wheel of fortune turns and we must flow with it. For Eric the prophecy is a warning. He has become corrupted by power and he must let go of it in order to restore the natural flow of life. Instead, he holds onto his power and the result is a living death. For Fern, the prophecy is a blessing as it gives her an opportunity to free herself from a pattern of behaviour she has become enmeshed in, to find the courage to become a fully conscious individual and rediscover the gifts she had turned away from. But myths also remind us that there are no 'happy ever after endings'. Whatever position we find ourselves in, it is wise to remember that 'this too shall pass', that at any moment the wheel may turn and we will be called yet again, to adventure.

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:

Monday, July 9, 2012

Seeking The Paradox Within Story

'Most fables contain at least some truth, and they often enable people to absorb ideas which the ordinary patterns of their thinking would prevent them from digesting.'
Idries Shah, The Sufis

As I have mentioned in other posts on this blog, I am fascinated by the fundamental paradox that I see within story, in that while it encourages us to conform to society, it also encourages us to become true individuals by shedding mindless conformity. And it is this aspect of story that I keep returning to, asking myself how a narrative can enable us to evolve as individuals. I believe there is an alternative knowledge structure deeply embedded within story, a structure that enables and encourages personal transformation, and that echoes thousands of years back to the first stories of the shamans and the ancient myths of indigenous peoples around the world, as well as being evident in many contemporary narratives. People write, read and listen to stories, not because they wish to escape from themselves, but because they wish to find themselves. So perhaps then, a key to self transformation is embedded within story.

The idea that stories might contain hidden meanings is not a new one, stretching back to the interpretation of early religious texts across many faiths and persisting to the current day through continued scholarly analysis of literature. These theories are also rooted in mystical knowledge associated with Sufism and other esoteric groups, some of this knowledge dating back thousands of years. The ancient Aesops Fables which are popular in the West, are an example of stories that are designed to jolt us out of the boundaries that restrict our thinking. In his book, The Sufis, Idries Shah writes that the popular and humorous Nasrudin Stories which date from around the thirteenth century, 'may be understood at any one of many depths. . . and the experiencing of each story will contribute towards the 'homecoming' of the mystic'. Perhaps then, rather than reinforcing blind acceptance of society's constructed realities, stories might use hidden meanings in order to innately question them. Idries Shah goes on to explain the use of humour in the Nasrudin tales, saying that 'humour cannot be prevented from spreading: it has a way of slipping through the patterns of thought which are imposed upon mankind by pattern and design.' While humour is not a strong element in my writing at present, I agree that it has great power, encouraging us to question and laugh at what we hold sacred or simply take for granted.

Much of our interpretation of a text relies on how we read. Joseph Campbell emphasised the importance of poetic interpretation, as compared to literal reading, warning that 'wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history or science, it is killed.' Karen Armstrong too, wrote passionately of the need to re-engage with story, using 'intuitive, mythical modes of thought' instead of the 'more pragmatic, logical spirit of scientific rationality.' When I was writing Flight, I began to wonder how I could layer the story in order to encourage different interpretations on the part of the reader. I wanted my readers to read intuitively, to find a story a that spoke to them in unexpected ways. In the end though I found myself unable to plan a novel in this way and decided instead to trust my unconscious to do this for me through the use of symbols and metaphor, as well as through the way in which the story structure formed itself around the character arc.

While it is clear that stories can and do contain hidden meanings, Campbell went further than this in his analysis of heroic myth, by suggesting that the very structure of story has a hidden meaning, that it is a metaphor for Jung's individuation process or the journey to self. Now that Flight is complete and published, and there has been time to receive reader feedback, it has become clear that the novel does act on a number of levels: as entertainment, as a psychological study and as a document of a spiritual journey, one in which readers can find themselves. I have always felt strongly that in my writing I am holding a mirror up to readers and helping them remember who they are, perhaps because this is what I seek from my own reading. However, my motives are not entirely altruistic, because first and foremost it is myself I am finding, both through the process of writing and through the mysteries of the unfolding story. It is my own past I am exploring and my own scars I am acknowledging and releasing, as I seek to uncover the treasure within me, the essence of self, by breaking down my fixed thinking patterns. Perhaps ultimately this is what stories are for.

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:

Monday, July 2, 2012

Writing Character: Uncovering The Wound

'To release the full potential of the treasure, the wound must be uncovered, delved into, healed to some degree, as if coated with loving layers of lustrous deposits.'
Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft

Earlier this year an astrologer friend looked at my birth chart and winced. When I asked, she explained that my year was full of major transits, meaning major upheavals. Well she wasn't wrong. Until a few weeks ago I thought I'd been through enough upheavals for a year a significant birthday, awarded a PhD, a new novel published. . . but no, there was more to come in the form of an interview in Wales for a position as Creative Writing Fellow at Aberystwyth University. When I was offered the position, I gulped and said yes, then sat down suddenly and began to consider the implications. Moving from Hobart in Tasmania, across the world to Aberystwyth in Wales is a major upheaval, paling all else that has happened this year into insignificance. A new home, new schools, a new job, a new country to become familiar with. . . there's no doubt these are exciting times. Exciting, but frightening too, because like many of us, I am afraid of change.

Change is something we tend to yearn for and then fear as it approaches. It's a natural part of life but not easy to allow. Change is also the major catalyst for story, in fact without it we wouldn't have story, or at least our stories would be extremely dull. Major upheavals tend to signal those moments when a new story begins and are often linked to characters who are afraid to embrace this change - the reluctant Hero, as Vogler calls them. The nature of the change tends to depend on what wounds our characters (or ourselves) are carrying, as often the unfolding drama involves a healing of those wounds.

We all love wounded characters. A wound adds mystery, back story, tension and most importantly, the potential for healing, for as psychologist Jean Houston writes, a wound can be 'an invitation to our renaissance'. A character's wound may be a physical one in the form of a scar or a limp perhaps. Or it may be a psychological wound, a memory of an event that has isolated the character from the world, making him or her an outsider; perhaps the loss of a child or a spouse or some other injustice that is indigestible. This is something that is often evident in the cowboy story or detective genre where the protagonists are outsiders, running on the edge of law, isolated from society and family, and generally carrying a heavy chip on their shoulders. The isolation and pain is revealed through a bad habit, perhaps a drinking problem or perhaps an abrupt manner towards other characters. In more complex stories that carry a good deal of psychological exploration, the wound may be less clear, revealing itself through a number of memories fused together, the scar tissue creating a filter between the character and the world so that each action a character takes is really only a programmed reaction to the past. In story, the character arc often provides an opportunity to change or unravel one or more of these programmed reactions, and if not, it generally reveals the tragedy that occurs when we are unable to do this.

'In many cases in psychiatry,' wrote Jung, 'the patient who comes to us has a story that is not told, and which as a rule no one knows of. To my mind, therapy only really begins after the investigation of that wholly personal story. It is the patient's secret, the rock against which he is shattered. If I know his secret story, I have a key to the treatment.' The story that Jung refers to is one that even the patient may not be consciously aware of. It often resides deep in the unconscious, buried under layers of scar tissue. The process of uncovering this wound can be long and arduous, but it is necessary, for it is the clue, or as Jung says, 'the key' to psychic health. In Soulcraft, psychologist, Bill Plotkin writes that 'the wound does not necessarily stem from a single traumatic incident. Often, the wound consists of a pattern of hurtful events or a disturbing dynamic or theme in one or more important relationships.' This is the case with the two main characters in Flight which explores complex psychological patterns within the main character, Fern, and the man she learns to love, Adam.

For Adam, one aspect of his wound lies in the birth of his brother and the guilt Adam feels for being normal. Another aspect lies in the death of the father and the guilt Adam feels for his part in that tragedy, as well as the loss he felt, growing up without a father. Both of these wounds have created a series of reactions in Adam, sending him away from Tasmania and into the army, where he has tried to follow in his father's footsteps. And it is in the army that Adam wounds himself so deeply he can only withdraw from society and from his family, hiding in a basement in Sydney and attempting to drink himself into oblivion.

Adam's healing begins when he meets Fern who takes his attention away from himself. The healing continues with his return to Tasmania and his family, and then with his return to nature. Adam is of the earth, the wilderness feeds his soul and it is only in the wilderness when he has been brought back from the brink of death by Fern, that he can tell his story. In the telling, Adam makes it conscious and begins to live again, bit by bit, releasing the guilt that he is holding.

Fern's wounds are even more deeply layered. The story opens with her having retreated to an attic room where, like Adam, she is hiding from life. Fern is damaged by her childhood, by the callous treatment of her adoptive family and by the guilt she feels at being accused of trying to kill her father. Through the course of the story, Fern also uncovers pre-verbal wounds that occurred while she was in the womb and just after birth, the trauma of her birth father's violence towards her in his two attempts to kill her, and also the trauma of being abandoned by her birth mother. Then, as the story unfolds, Fern discovers that she has another connection to her birth father, one that reaches back through many past lives and involves a repeating pattern of abuse.

Psychologist and physical healer, Jean Achterberg, writes that 'in traditional shamanic cultures, healing bears little relationship to the remission of physical symptoms. It refers, rather, to becoming whole or in harmony with the community, the planet and certainly ones private circumstances.' This attitude differs greatly from allopathic medicine, where symptoms are almost always treated before causes, and for which healing generally means, a 'return to normal where normal is culturally defined by some measuring standard created by society's members.' Achterberg cites a remark made by an Indian Medicine Man: 'With white man's medicine you only get back to the way you were before; with Indian medicine, you can get even better.' In a sense then, the writing of Flight was an exploration of Indian medicine, an attempt to truly heal a condition (Fern's depression), rather than treat the symptoms.

At the beginning of the novel, Fern has lost most of her self, something that in shamanic tradition is considered a serious illness, leading eventually to depression, damage to the immune system, cancer and many other disorders. Soul retrieval is a major element in shamanic healing. In order to retrieve a fragment of the soul, shamans must travel into the upper world or underworld with the help of their power animal/s and find it, sometimes having to coax it back, sometimes having to fight for it. These fragments may have left the soul in shock at a violent action or been taken by another person. As the story progresses, Fern is able to retrieve a number of parts of her self, and in the process realises how much she had lost.

In Greek myth, the wise and gentle Chiron the centaur is a wounded healer. When he is wounded by a poisoned arrow he is forced to live the rest of his life in great pain. Because of this he studies the healing arts, finding many remedies that heal others but none that take away his own suffering. In shamanic culture, prospective shamans generally become very ill, and then must agree to become shamans before they can heal. It is only in experiencing pain that we are able to heal others. Joan Halifax writes that 'the true attainment of the shaman's vocation as healer, seer, and visionary comes about through the experience of self-wounding, death and rebirth.' This is the process that Fern must undergo. In the novel, Shamesh tells Fern about the initiation process, which is a process of clearing the dense parts of the self. When Fern asks why the process is so slow he tells her that she will become a healer but must first experience the process herself. Fern only accepts the possibility of becoming a healer towards the end of the story, when she uses her hands to heal Adam and remembers that she had done this before. Towards the end of Flight, Fern studies homeopathy and herbalism, 'trying to understand the patterns of illness, trying to see its source which is so often beyond the physical'. She says, 'I have understood that true healing is not something you can do with a closed heart. It must reach deep into the spirit and work its magic from within. True healing changes a person, clears scar tissue and the patterns of reaction that have formed their character. It is not an easy path to choose.

According to Houston, we must be 'willing to release our old stories and to become the vehicles through which the new story may emerge into time.' When Fern tries to tell her story to Adam, she realises that each story is linked to another and she feels weighed down by back stories, wishing she could sever them all. Through the course of Flight, both Fern and Adam reluctantly and painfully release their own stories. By the end of the novel, they are creating a new story, both together and individually. Accepting change provides us with the opportunity to let go of an old story and create something new. It enables us to learn something new, integrate that knowledge, and in the process heal an old wound or wounds. No doubt I will need to repeatedly remind myself of this over the next few months, as change picks me (and my family) up and hurls us across the world to beautiful Wales and to a new story.

For other posts on characterisation see:
And there is more on The Wound in Story as Therapy: Healing the Wound

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: