© 2010 by Jack Remick & Robert J. Ray

Bob sez:

Jack wrote this essay on ritual when we taught a 3-term memoir course at University of Washington Extension. He defined ritual for writers as “the quantum physics of narrative.”

For writers, there are four useful rituals:

  • barter – “here’s five bucks, gimme a beer”
  • threshold crossing – “I drove through the door and smelled….”
  • language lesson – “repeat after me” or “that’s not what I meant at all”
  • trio: transformation (tattoo at 16), incorporation (joining the marines at 19), and separation (divorce, death, discharge)

Jack’s essay grew out of a memoir by Lauren Slater called Lying. In the book, Slater crossed thresholds, she bartered, she took language lessons and gave some back, she went through the trio of transformation, incorporation, and separation – while she explored the ritual that controlled her existence – Lying.

This essay shows writers how to use ritual in their writing. At first, ritual appears after you have written a scene. Later on, you’ll be more aware of ritual:

“I smelled blood in the dust as the bull charged, my arms raised above my head, my sweaty hands gripping the bullfighter’s sword, staring into the red eye of the bull who charged me, his nose snorting, and…..

Jack sez:

At the center of the memoir moment there is ritual. At its root, ritual is the quantum physics of narrative.  In the ritual, a character changes states or conditions–say from Impure to Pure; from Innocent to Knowing; from Girl to Woman. Here’s how it works:

One of the inhabitants in your memoir is discovered at a certain moment in time and in a certain state of mind or at a critical moment of change and, through a series of acts, some of them first acts, the inhabitant changes. For example, in Lauren Slater’s Lying, the narrator begins unaware her illness, but through a series of acts, she changes until she becomes aware of the illness in her. That is ritual change.

Slater changes again when she experiences yet another series of First events—First Vacation, First time on an airplane, First Bikini with dots on it, First time she sees her parents in bed, First time she sees her mother without her mother face—and as she witnesses these events, she changes from child into adolescent.

Ritual is the dynamo that drives change in your writing. To get to it, you look at the structure of ritual.

In its schematic, simplest form, ritual is a three part structure. At the beginning, the inhabitant lives in one state, but, following an event or an act, changes into a second state.

At its deepest, the states in the ritual dynamo are visceral: Hungry, the hunter kills, he eats what he kills, he is no longer hungry.

This sequence is what we can call the “ritual of immediate gratification.” Only when the hunt itself becomes ceremonial does the ritual lose its immediacy, but even there, the ritual is about survival.

At the opposite pole are rituals of “delayed gratification”. An inhabitant comes into your memoir in one state, let’s say Unmarried and through a series events such as proposal, trial living together, wedding ceremony, changes to a second or new state, Married. This sequence might last for months.

For example, the hungry farmer plants seed, fertilizes it, waits as the seed grows, reaps the harvest, grinds the grain into flour that turns into dough that becomes bread and then the farmer eats and is no longer hungry.

In between the polar extremes of Hungry-Not Hungry, the acts of transition become rituals of change– to plant becomes a ceremony blessed by priests, to reap becomes a ceremony of celebration or Thanksgiving, to grind becomes a sacred event, to make the dough in the proper proportions expresses a secret, while the baking itself might belong to a cult or guild, leading finally the cutting of the bread. All are rituals on the curve of delayed gratification.

How does it work in Memoir?

As I look closer to home, I see that the middle ground of ritual doesn’t need such a long cycle – for example, when you use the common or standard rituals to measure time in your memoir, you build the story on a solid foundation of common cultural witnessing.

The social rituals—bonding, marriage, initiation into a club or trial leading to incorporation into a team—are powerful acts ending in change of state. You use them to mark the development of your inhabitants through time.

For example, writer X writes a memoir moment where, in a cooking ritual, Mother and Daughter make a traditional bread. The surface ritual is the sequence of events and acts that begin when X buys a slab of marble for rolling out the dough and it ends when the dough is cooked and finally eaten.

The deeper ritual is one of incorporation through instruction where the Mother teaches the Daughter  about the massacres in 1915 and 1921. Here, the daughter learns about the death of Family and what it means to be a survivor in America. The passing of knowledge from Mother to Daughter through a cooking ritual is a complex and layered ritual at three levels:

  • 1) a cooking ritual—making bread, a traditional dish.
  • 2) a teaching ritual—passing information about a horrible event in the past that echoes into the present and shapes the inhabitants all linked to preparation of food.
  • 3) a rite of passage in which the daughter loses her innocence when the mother reveals the truth.

Here, however, the moment can last no longer than the surface cooking ritual and so the inhabitants, while working with ingredients, are working at a deeper level building a cultural and social bond through memory. The cooking ritual acts as a trigger for the secondary learning/teaching ritual.

Not all rituals need to be so complex. When you link a ritual to an object, you automatically layer the ritual by adding a time component. Here’s how it works:

In a bonding ceremony called a “Wedding”, the ritual act of ring exchange (the primary object) takes place in a limited place within a limited and fixed amount of time, the time it takes the ecclesiastical power to consummate the bond—usually a few minutes.

Let’s look at the secondary object in the wedding ceremony—the Dress.
The ritual of marriage itself is simple:
State 1-Unmarried
Ritual act-Exchange of Vows and Rings.
State 2-Married.
So simple, yet so complex for the subtext it contains.
The dress is another matter. The wedding dress—white, pink or yellow—is the last in a series of dresses that prime the inhabitant for the ceremony of the ring and for the ceremonial act of bonding.

The dress is an index to an emotional condition called “love.” What does the inhabitant who wears the dress want? and what does she have to do to get it? What does it cost. This is the Memoir Syllogism. Not a true syllogism of course.

Looking back, we track the wedding dress through time to another ritual—the evening out when the groom proposes. Here, the bride to be wears a gown and high heels. Back farther, we see another ritual in the chain of rituals, this one at the prom where the prom goer wears a strapless gown and dancing shoes, and farther back still we see another ritual of First day at school and a young girl in a yellow dress with a bow in back and sensible shoes and farther back yet still we see the bride to be in a white pinafore and black Mary Janes and she is complete in her innocence.

Through a series of rituals of separation—First day at school, first date, first Prom, First ball gown, First Wedding Dress, we see objects linked to the emotional and psychological states of the inhabitant—of course the absolute final ritual of separation, death, leads to the final dress of black mourning cloth.

But that is still in the future.

Rituals are about changing states. You use rituals in memoir and in fiction as time markers and as indexes to the emotional life and social conditions of your inhabitants and characters. Rituals, at their most basic, are simple, involving two, sometimes three characters , and rituals  have the power of an explosive charge for the change they bring.

Recommended reading: The Rites of Passage by Arnold van Gennep and The Ritual Process by Victor Turner.