A good story somehow gets inside your brain. A good story tells you something you already know, but more than telling you what you already know, a good story also makes you feel. If you, the writer, don’t feel the story, your reader won’t feel it. To make the reader feel, we have to use the tricks storytellers have known for centuries. One of the tricks storytellers use is to build a story on a myth base.
The language of a good story draws you past the language into its myth base. A good story that hooks you into a myth base feels familiar even while it is brand new to you. Even while you read Cold Mountain, example, you feel that it is a deep story, that there is more to it than the journey of a solder home from the American Civil War. It is a story about Getting Home. It is the Odyssey, the Aeneid, it is Everyman who has ever been lost and looking for a place to rest. That is the myth base working in you.
As language draws you into the story’s myth base, you, as a reader, don’t know until it happens, so there is a bit of a mystery there, while you, the writer need to know how to put the myth base under the language so your reader can feel it. To do that, you have to get inside the story. To get inside a story as a writer, you want to look at story sources.
The way we see it, there have been three horizon events that shape European and American story telling:
- Biblical: The Fall of Rome which led to the infusion of Judeo-Christian Biblical writing as a source for story.
- Classical Antiquity: The Renaissance rediscovery of classical (Greek and Roman) myth brought a second source of writing.
- Psychological and evolutionary insights arising from the work of Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung: Survival of the Fittest, The Freudian Slip, The Archetype.
Getting inside the Source
From the fall of Rome in 410 AD until the 15th century (about the same time gunpowder is introduced into western warfare), there was essentially one source for metaphor. As a common source, the Bible gave us its characters, its events and situations; it gave us its heroes and villains.
Because the Bible was a foundation text, a writer might choose to tell a story about a strong man. To make the story understandable, he might hook his story to Samson. He might refer to being shorn as a loss of strength, to lose his hair turns him into a lamb. Because the writer hooked his story to a common myth base, the story required no explanation. Everyone knew what it meant and everyone knew what the writer was talking about.
In the story of David and Goliath, the sling shot becomes an object whose meaning is understood because all readers and listeners (the Middle Ages were, at their peak an oral period in the history of western writing) knew the reference and they knew the moral significance of it.
As a source for allusion (things and events the writer referred to) and as a source for story, the Bible was not just mandatory (no one knew anything else after a manner of speaking) it was the only possible way to connect to the audience. (We use connection as short hand for meaning). All listeners to the story about a boy who slays a giant understood the story, and a skillful writer could turn that story into a morality play where the lesson was quite simply—get too big for your britches and the little guy will pull you down. The allegory of Joseph and his coat of many colors was equally understood while Dante’s Divine Comedy, the foundation text built on the great Biblical foundation text, can be understood only in the context of biblical allusion.
Allusion, as a literary device, and story depended almost exclusively on the Bible, its Hagiography, and its Apocrypha.
The lives of the Saints, the Hagiographic texts, became important sources of moral literature. Saint Francis, Saint Sebastian, Saint Eulalia, Saint Perpetua all taught moral lessons about the Christian life and devotion to Christ. In such grand pieces as the mysteries (the mysteries are medieval dramas based on scriptural events—especially the Incarnation, Passion, Crucifixion, or Resurrection, of particular importance for redemption) the Christian passion was re-enacted for all to see. In Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ became not only a source book but a model for living the exemplary life.
Until the 15th Century, the Bible had a long run and, in its overlays on Celtic and Nordic story telling, nearly exterminated the pagan myths that lay there, and so, for example, the Romances which had correlates in Celtic or Germanic myth, became under the Biblical/Christian influence, models of not just the perfect knight, but the perfect Christian knight. It is not by chance that the Cross on the shield supplanted the animal totems that adorned the shields of Celtic warriors.
In the 15th century, when the great texts of the classical world came back into vogue in the Western consciousness, it was through Latin, Arabic, or Hebrew because all the classical writing had been taken into the Arabic-Muslim libraries in Spain and from there, in Latin translation (the lingua franca of Western Europe) spread to the rest of the continent and with them came the sudden infusion of the second Great Story Source: Classical myth.
The Renaissance was a time of syncretism wherein the Bible as a source of allusion stood toe to toe with classical myth for a period of time, but yielded, finally, in the 16th century to the classical. Jerusalem Delivered and Orlando Furioso bring an end to the great biblical themes and their overt and easily understood allusions. There is no more Divine Comedy but now the writing is loaded with allusions to different gods and heroes – Herakles, Zeus, Demeter, Persephone, Oedipus as the classical world was reborn in writers who abandoned the biblical in favor of the classical myth and now any allusion to the Sun has to be cast in terms of Sol or Phoebus, and any battle is couched in terms of Herakles the great warrior, and any journey is told as an allusion to the Odyssey and Homer’s two epic poems became the source of story instead of either Hagiography or the Bible.
In the 17th century, Milton’s epics Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained work the biblical vein at its richest, but even there Milton is completely aware of the Homeric epics. Milton, of course, read both Greek and Latin, and knew by heart all the great classical works available to him as a student of that world.
The classical world reached its zenith in the early 19th century when the Romantic poets began to look beyond myth into nature, but still used classical myth and theme as a source and so Keats still writes his Odes on Greek themes and Matthew Arnold still alludes to the classics and all this because it was a common language, the result of the classical education. It is the common language and the common source that allows the writers to compose in shorthand. The Fall no longer means solely original sin and the Garden of Eden, but can allude to aspirations that reach too high as Icarus falls. Still understood, the Biblical allusions have less currency and in the end, are vestigial and finally come to an end as the driving force shaping western writing.
As Classical myth supplanted biblical allusion, another, the third great source floods onto the world stage: In 1859, the middle of the century, Charles Darwin publishes The Origin of Species.
Darwin introduces and plays on a theme of radical change through time. In one book, he destroys the foundations of western writing because now, there is nothing immutable, nothing lasts, the 18th Century materialists were right, the whole world is in flux. With Darwin, it is a world unseen that gives us the third shift in allusion and from Darwin’s insight it is a short 50 years to Freud and the Unconscious.
With the blossoming of the Unconscious Mind into western ideology, the Third Source has broken out and drives full blown into the writing world.
Writers no longer find satisfaction or inspiration in the high flying Icarus or the muscular Herakles or the Peripatetic Odysseus. Now the allusion is to an inner world of dark places without names and the journey is not to Hell as it was with Dante, nor is it to Ithaca as it was with Odysseus, but now the journey is into the Unconscious where all of our life is coded and so we now write in the Third level of allusion that is as perfectly understood to the educated 21st century reader as was the Biblical allusion to the listener in 1200 AD.
But, the problem for the contemporary writer is one of Metaphor. If there is no common language for the code, how do you make any connection to your readers? If you can’t write about the Fall or the Descent into the Purgatory and if your readers do not understand the coded message of the Argo and the Argonauts (but think they might be a professional football team) how do you connect?
Because there is no common literary document and no common body of metaphors that all educated readers understand, writers have to build with a new set of tools that happens to be as old as the human mind: Subtext. Lacking a common set of metaphors leaves the writer free to discover structure in order to create temporalized metaphor (grand language for putting your characters in modern garb and placing them in a modern context that your audience can relate to. (See CG Jung and Erich Neumann)
How is it done?
To do this writers discover archetypal patterns stripped of metaphoric allusions – in short, your have to build the thing you refer to. The writer cannot allude to that common language, so must build the metaphors of his or her writing from the ground up. The construction site, as always in the time of the Third Source, is subtext. Cold Mountain, for example, is the story of a long and arduous return home from a bloody war. It is an Odyssey that doesn’t allude to Odysseus. E.T., Spielberg’s film, is the story of a voyager who wants to get home. He is a modern Odysseus, lost in time and space. In these works, the writers build the archetypal pattern and then cloak the archetypal characters in metaphor that connects to their audiences.
Clint Eastwood’s A Fistful of Dollars is a retelling of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, while Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres is a retelling of King Lear. The writers don’t write the way Kurosawa did and they don’t write the way Shakespeare did by alluding to classical (or Celtic themes) but prefer instead to discover the unconscious story pattern and then write in the language of our day.
One way the writer in the 21st century can tap into the subtext of the unconscious mind is to rediscover the great cycle of Life-Death-Resurrection. In this structure, Jesus Christ, Attis, Adonis, Osiris and The Terminator are all metaphors for the great pattern—The Return. The Return of the Repressed. Resurrection is a metaphor for things emerging from the Unconscious.
To write in the 21st Century is to connect to the unconscious pattern and then to build on it. You take the pattern, and you put new clothes on it. You take the archetypal pattern and bring it into a time that your readers can connect to.
Rediscovering the Vegetation Cycle
We urge you to dig into the essential elements of storytelling to find the archetypal patterns that underpin all good stories. You start with the basics: death and resurrection as your primal structure. To help you get a handle on this important structure, take a look at the mythic dynamo. (figure 1.)
Commentary: You can save yourself and you can save the culture. When language is debased, when the writer doesn’t take responsibility for the language, then meaning skips away and confusion is the result.
Sample Text: Beginner’s Mind and the Blank Page
Natalie Goldberg wrote Writing Down the Bones using writing practice: “One of the aims of writing practice,” writes Goldberg, “is to learn to trust your own mind and body; to grow patient and non-aggressive….Writing practice embraces your whole life….”
Writing Under the Clock to Free up the Creative Mind
We encourage the writers to adopt timed writing as a discipline. Timed writing is a sure-fire way to discipline because when writing under the timer (the discipline is in three parts: a) selecting a fiction problem, 2) setting the timer for five, ten, fifteen or more minutes; 3) finishing what you start. Natalie Goldberg says it very simply: “Keep your hand moving until the time is up.” This essential discipline—finishing what you start is the foundation of craft. Timed writing frees up your creative mind by putting your internal editor to work watching the clock while you roam the fields of fiction unfettered to finish what you start without the internal editor bothering you about the small things.
For the writer who has never experienced timed writing, we strongly suggest buying and reading Natalie Goldberg’s foundation book, Writing Down The Bones. Writing under the clock (what Natalie Goldberg calls “writing practice”) opens you up to all kinds of writing—poetry, fiction, sketch, dramatic writing, and essay. In this book we use writing practice to assist the writer in creating progressive segments of timed writing which build stamina, strength, insight, flexibility, and writerly self-awareness.
Writing practice strengthens the writer’s craft by extending writing times on topic that take writers deep into their creative unconscious to break through the emotional barriers that block creativity.
Every new work starts with a blank page. In the lore of world writing it’s said of Thomas Mann— author of Dr. Faustus, The Magic Mountain, Death in Venice, and The Confessions of Felix Krull—that when he finished a work, he immediately rolled a blank sheet of paper into his typewriter and wrote the title of the new work.
Beginner’s Mind is the writer’s way past the blank page because it allows you to start small. Starting small means just that. Write about character, create the settings. Let characters and setting develop into scenes. Let the characters in their scenes tell the story.
- In Beginner’s Mind, you don’t cross out when you write because then you mix up the editor and the creator. The internal editor is guardian of the jewels. The closer you get to the jewels the louder editor mind shouts at you that you’re not worthy of the jewels.
- In Beginner’s Mind, you write specific detail – it’s not a “car”, but a “Cadillac.” Not just a Cadillac, but “a Cadillac El Dorado”; not just a Cadillac El Dorado, but a “gun-metal gray Cadillac El Dorado with a New Mexico license plate.
- In Beginner’s Mind, the writer first writes say, about a piece of fruit, but that piece of fruit becomes an apple and going deeper the apple becomes a Braeburn the color of a Chinese robe….
- In Beginner’s Mind, you don’t think, but you lose control. If the writing gets scary, that’s where you go. You follow your mind.
- In Beginner’s Mind you let go of what you know so that you are free to take what comes.
- In Beginner’s Mind, you want the crossing of emotion and detail. You want to be in the writing without being present in the writing.
- And finally, in Beginner’s Mind, you already know the book. It is in you. You just have to let it out.
© 2012 All Rights Reserved. Jack Remick and Robert J. Ray.