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.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Alchemy of Story: Initiation, Transformation, Revelation

'The journey into the Underworld is nothing less than a voyage into the heart of Being.’
Peter Marshall, The Philosopher’s Stone

 When I finished my PhD last year, along with the expected sense of completion, came a building excitement because already I could feel the tug of future journeys; new directions in my research were piling up, luring me to explore ever more widely and deeply.  I felt as if I had only just begun my research journey and this is a feeling I still carry with me; constant and tantalizing it speaks of knowledge just out of my reach, of further personal journeys I must take in my writing and my life, revelations that will transform my perceptions and my self. For the knowledge gained through reading isn’t enough. It must also be ‘realised’ in some way, taken in and understood in our hearts and through experience. Research is a fusion of reading and experience, it is something we must live. As Paolo Coehlo wrote in The Alchemist, ‘There is only one way to learn. . . It’s through action. Everything you need to know you have learned through your journey.’ Each of us is on a personal journey that links to but doesn’t follow exactly, the paths of those who have come before.  And each journey is an initiation of sorts, the plunging into darkness that is necessary in order to find the light.

 I have been reading Lindsay Clarke’s The Water Theatre, a beautiful and profound novel that explores this initiatory process. In it, Clarke refers to the Way of the Fool, a way that is sometimes hard and dangerous because it is a spiritual quest undertaken ‘without the protection and discipline that comes from membership of an order’. ‘On such a way one can get lost very easily. One can come to harm,’ warns a priest in the novel. Despite the difficulties and dangers of this path, for many of us this is the only way. With this choice comes an understanding that there is never just one journey, that each initiation leads us to another place from which we must plunge again into the depths as we seek the light. As Clarke writes, ‘though the journey is always inward, the outer journey – down and through and out again – is indispensable, for it is down there, in the darkness of the underworld that the sun at midnight shines.’

 Although I’ve already mentioned this in some of my earlier posts, I want to explore a little further the way in which mystical initiation can be mirrored in the structure of story and the inner journey of character. Initially it was my interest in the therapeutic nature of story that led me to explore the roots of and nature of shamanism. Unexpectedly, threads of my research began to appear in my novel in the form of references to shamanism and to the process of initiation that candidates are forced to undertake in order to become shamans. However, it wasn't until much later that I began to understand the shamanic journey as a metaphor for something that was reflected in the very shape of Flight, as well as in my own personal journey during the writing of it.

 According to Jungian analyst, Donald F Sandner in Sacred Heritage: The Influence of Shamanism on Analytical Psychology, 'the basic shamanic pattern is not a manifestation of a certain culture but rather an archetype, a constant and universal part of the human psyche'. Anthropologist, Joan Halifax refers to shamanic initiation as a metaphysical voyage, while Jung saw the patterns in shamanism as a metaphor for the process of individuation. These patterns are implicit in the structure of most stories: the symbolism of death and mystical resurrection, descent to the underworld, followed by magical flight. It is a turning away from what is known and a stepping into the unknown. It is a call to change and to adventure. To deny the opportunity for adventure is to deny life and in so doing to restrict the growth of the soul. 

 Religious historian Mercea Eliade, studied shamanism and myth and drew strong parallels across many cultures, parallels which are useful for exploring the relationship between shamanism and story. Of particular interest is his map of the structure of the shaman's world and the way in which shamanic journeying mirrors the structure of narrative. In shamanism there is usually an upper, middle and lower world, which mirrors the selves or the layers of the psyche. The middle world is the world we recognise, the world of ordinary events. The lower world or underworld is associated with death and shadow, as well as dangerous spirits and in Christianity is generally considered hell. The upper world is associated with light and ascension, it is 'the realm of transcendent consciousness' a realm that Christianity refers to as heaven. Crucially, however, one can only access the higher world through the lower world. We cannot ignore or bury what lurks in our depths without becoming weighed down, too heavy for the required ascent.  It is possible then, to extend this idea of an upper, middle and lower world to the structure of narrative, with the protagonist beginning in the middle world, journeying into the underworld, then, if the necessary lessons are learned, ascending to the upper world, before returning once again to the middle world to share his or her rewards.

 In Flight, Fern's journey is an initiation. I used the term shamanism and indeed, Fern's initiation pattern is very similar: a sickening, followed by a loss of self, then a journey into the underworld to face one's demons, followed by a regaining of power and flight. However, this is the journey of the soul and does not need to be labelled as a shamanic journey. When Fern expresses a discomfort about shamanism, Cassie tells her that it is just one of many paths, all of which bring you to the same place, your self. 'A shaman,' she says, 'is just someone who has healed themselves and because of this, they can heal others.'

 Following my instincts and the needs of the novel I am currently writing, my research has led me to begin exploring mystical initiation through the ages, in particular alchemy which can be interpreted on both a literal (physical) level and a metaphorical (spiritual) level. In The Philosopher’s Stone, Peter Marshall explains that ‘first and foremost alchemy is the art of transformation’ and goes on to describe the alchemical process as mirroring ‘the stages of the integration and realisation of the self’, something which Jung identified in his own studies of the art of alchemy. The parallels between shamanism and alchemy were immediately clear, as were the parallels between alchemy and story. In story, the external plot mirrors the inward transformation of character; in alchemy ‘the transmutation of external matter mirrors the inward transformation of the soul.’

 Initiation, Transformation, Revelation is a fundamental part of the alchemical process and something that is repeated again and again in our lives and our stories. The writing of a novel can also be an initiation of sorts, changing us fundamentally, as has happened to me with each of my books. In the preface to his novel, The Chymical Wedding, Lindsay Clarke describes the writing process as a discovery that a book about alchemy also needed to be a ‘work of alchemy’.  He writes, ‘I soon found myself getting lost again and again, like the alchemists before me, inside a bewildering labyrinth of images, as both the book and the author underwent a sometimes gruelling process of transformation.’ There are many ways to self, just as there are many paths to writing a novel. For each there are a multitude of guides, mentors and techniques acting as the threads to help us find our way blindly through the labyrinth, following the Way of the Fool in order to become ourselves.

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