Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Stranger than Fiction

If you’ve read previous posts here, you’ve heard about my Nanowrimo experience.  One of the perks of such an online endeavor — beyond the solace of knowing that thousands are struggling right along with you, engaged in the same mad attempt, maybe chewing the end of a pencil like a trapped animal gnaws off its own leg to escape, or staring blindly at a computer screen, in either case despairing of ever writing another readable word — is the series of pep talks by published novelists.

Towards the end of the Nano-month, author Janet Fitch posted one such talk which I’ve copied and saved — both for my own benefit and for the writing classes I teach.  As I was re-reading it recently, it struck me as peculiarly applicable to our own lives.  You probably suspected we’re all just characters in somebody’s novel — it’s not a new idea.  But this should be no surprise in any case — we tell stories constantly.  Why shouldn’t storytelling advice also bear some connection to living IRL?

Here’s Fitch writing about “getting stuck” with a character, and what to do about it:

So you have these options, but which one to go for? When in doubt, make trouble for your character. Don’t let her stand on the edge of the pool, dipping her toe. Come up behind her and give her a good hard shove. That’s my advice to you now. Make trouble for your character. In life we try to avoid trouble. We chew on our choices endlessly. We go to shrinks, we talk to our friends. In fiction, this is deadly. Protagonists need to screw up, act impulsively, have enemies, get into TROUBLE.

The difficulty is that we create protagonists we love. And we love them like our children. We want to protect them from harm, keep them safe, make sure they won’t get hurt, or not so bad. Maybe a skinned knee. Certainly not a car wreck. But the essence of fiction writing is creating a character you love and, frankly, torturing him. You are both sadist and savior. Find the thing he loves most and take it away from him. Find the thing he fears and shove him shoulder deep into it. Find the person who is absolutely worst for him and have him delivered into that character’s hands. Having him make a choice which is absolutely wrong.

You’ll find the story will take on an energy of its own, like a wound-up spring, and then you’ll just have to follow it, like a fox hunt, over hill, over dale.

Imagine this as the rule of thumb that God (fill in your favorite entity to blame — corporations aren’t exempt, now that they’re people too) follows with us, and our lives may start to make a lot more sense.  If it’s true that all the growth is in the hassle, maybe we should seek out a moderate degree of hassle from time to time, rather than letting it back up and accumulate and swell until it spills over and clobbers us when we’re least expecting it.  Instead, take it on in smaller doses.  But whatever we do, you’ll have noticed that we end up in relationships with people who manage to uncover our weaknesses with uncanny accuracy and poke and prod them in their most sensitive spots, as well as with people who will love us regardless — quirks, warts, fetishes and all.  And we provide the same service to others.

As we become more fully conscious, and assume at least some of the responsibility for the characters we play, we even get to revise them.  Meanwhile, when you think your life’s a disaster, it may just be going through some heavy rewriting behind the scenes.  Whole chapters get chucked.  Motivations get rearranged.  You’re on your way to a normal daily ordinary even humdrum lunch, and something changes in your life forever.  Or, on the other hand, if nothing is happening and nothing just keeps on happening in your life, maybe the show is on a commercial break, or mid-season hiatus.  Don’t change the channel yet — stay tuned for the next episode.

Writer and AODA Archdruid John Michael Greer observes in a 1/11/12 blog post:

As human beings, we think with stories as inevitably as we eat with mouths and walk with feet; the stories we tell ourselves about the world define the way we make sense of the “blooming, buzzing confusion,” in William James’ phrase,  that the world out there throws at our sense organs. In what we are pleased to call “primitive societies,” a rich body of mythology and legend provides each person with a range of narratives that can be applied to any given situation and make sense of it. Learning the stories, and learning how to apply them to life’s events, is the core of a child’s education in these societies, and a learned person is very often distinguished, more than anything else, by the number of traditional stories he or she knows by heart.

In one very real sense, then, Druidry is “merely” a rich source of stories that provide alternative ways of understanding our existence and experience.  The important thing is to have, ready at hand and from a tried and wise source, an ample supply of story alternatives that teach us and help us and entertain us as they do so.  The “single story” of much modern life just isn’t enough.  I’ll be talking more about this in a coming post.

Keys to Druidry in Story

Those inclined to criticize contemporary Druidry have made much about how the specific practices and beliefs of ancient Druids are forever lost to us simply because they left no written records, and because the references to Druids in the works of classical Greek and Roman authors are mostly based on secondhand accounts and sometimes markedly biased. Without such historical continuity, they claim, it is impossible to be a “real” Druid today, and thus all contemporary Druidry is a kind of whistling in the wind, at best a version of dress-up for adults.  But what such writers and speakers often forget is the surviving body of legend, myth, teaching and wisdom in Celtic literature.  Here is Druidry in compact and literary form, meant to be preserved as story, a link-up with the perennial wisdom that never dies.

To pick just one example, the stories from the Mabinogion, the Welsh collection of myth, legend and teaching have wonderful relevance and serve as a storehouse of much Druid teaching. Sustained meditation on these stories will reveal much of use and value to the aspirant after a Druidry that is authentic simply because it is grounded in knowledge and practice.  As a pragmatist more than a reconstructionist, I’m much more interested in what works than in what may be historically accurate.  The former leads one to inner discoveries.  The latter is engaging as a worthwhile scholarly endeavor first, and only as a possible source of spiritual insight second.  And that is as it should be.  History is not spirituality, though it can inform it.  But even if we can accurately deduce from an always incomplete archaeological record what a Bronze Age Druid may have done, it’s still not automatically fit and appropriate for a contemporary 21st century person to adopt.  That’s a decision we must make apart from the reconstruction, which cannot guide us by itself.  Stories, however, though formed in a particular culture, often reach toward universals far better than physical objects and actions.

The story of Taliesin (this link is to a public domain text — more modern and well annotated versions are available) in the Mabinogion moves us into a world of myth and initiation.  In the tale, the boy Gwion passes through ordeals and transformations, becoming at length the poet and sage Taliesin, whose name means “shining brow” — one who has a “fire in the head” and is alive with wisdom and poetic inspiration.  As with figures from other traditions whose heads are encircled with halos, or shining with an otherworldly brightness, Taliesin belongs to the company of the “twice-born,” who have fulfilled their humanity by making the most of it.  In my next post, I’ll talk about the first key in the story — persistence.

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First image is a triskele or triskelion, a pan-European symbol associated with the Celts.

Second image is of Taliesin from Caitlin and John Matthews’ Arthurian Tarot.

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Updated 9 September 2013

Nano Finale

Did it! Amazing experience, helped by the online Nanowrimo forum, with 200,000 other people doing the same thing all around the world.  Dutch high-schoolers and Malaysian retirees and New Zealand farmers, Singapore lawyers and Hong Kong engineers.  Everyone talking about it as they’re doing it. Egging each other on.  Telling funny stories.  Making and soliciting suggestions.  Cries for help.  Competitions.  Excerpts for critiquing.  How-to’s for people writing about medieval French history, chameleons, murder by deuterium, dragon mating, the proper warping and beaming of looms, the spices in chicken tikka, etc.  Writing Buddies.  The online support videos and posts from published authors. The sense of an immense online community engaged in huge set of magical creative hopeful acts against the naysayers and wannabes and critics, and our own doubts and inner censors and resistance and procrastination and  sloth.

Word by word.  And now, 50,260 words of the first draft of a fantasy novel.  Or 106 pages in a Word document.  A month of writing.  Virtually no editing whatsover, beyond what spell-check does in true robot fashion.

Haven’t looked back at it.  Not sure I want to.  In any case I need to spend some time away from it.  Catch up on this blog, on laundry, dishes.

Free at last!  No, not free at all:  finished with the first step.  Let down a bit, to tell the truth.  Adrenaline and all.  Time to rest up, pull back from writing for a week, so the first symptoms of carpal tunnel subside (mostly my left arm).

Most productive day — over 5000 words. Had about five of those during the month.  Nice to know I can do it.  Wow.  OK, onward.  Get a fire built later (it’s sunny and in the 40s outside), shave, take a shower, write a letter, pay bills. Take a walk.  Breathe.

Thank you, Powers of the Worlds, human and incorporeal. Wife, friends, the earth, the gods.  And you, my readers, for all good thoughts. (It feels good to thank, to be grateful.  An annual holiday for it isn’t often enough, of course.  Daily.)

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Posted 30 November 2011 by adruidway in blessing, creativity, Druidry, fiction, nanowrimo, writing

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Nano Home Stretch

With just under two thousand words to get down tomorrow, I can finally see the finish line and the completion of a month of Nano writing.  I started with a character-driven story, knowing that with a vivid enough character, things would start to happen, and she was strong enough to make things happen herself.  Now plot detail has been flowing in abundance, complexities I hadn’t foreseen or imagined, backstory and unusual motivations and sacred mathematics and a dream sequence that foreshadows all hell about to break loose.

Posted 29 November 2011 by adruidway in creativity, fiction, nanowrimo, writing

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Interim

A singe grosbeak inspects our feeder, and as I look out through the living room picture window at the bird plumped against the cold, there’s a reflection in the glass of flames from the woodstove inside.  In its orange vigor, my fire faces west, Druidically inappropriate, but very welcome on this grade A gray day.

In the northern U.S. that’s an image of this time of year: reflections, of heat inside, of life still proceeding outdoors and in, of the time of year itself.

The interval between Thanksgiving and the December holidays can be a delicious space, a “meanwhile” or middle-time for re-tooling and starting to close up shop on the current year.  To feel that it’s often too busy, or merely filled with worsening weather forecasts, as though that is all it has to offer, is to miss something profoundly meditative about these days.  What’s the opposite of miss?  Attend, intercept, catch, be there.  Whatever it is, that’s what I want to do.

There is as well in November and early December a late-autumnal melancholy, it’s true.  The peak of Thanksgiving has passed, and some may see the next months as a pretty solid trudge through the valleys (in our boots, scarves and gloves, and hauling snow-shovels) until the climb to the next holiday.

So when I can take a look from this end of the year at a season at the other side of summer, I do. Off to that start of spring transience which mirrors something in us now as well. I followed a link from an article in today’s NY Times and there on the page was the sudden pure pleasure of “Sakura Park,” a poem by the late Rachel Wetzsteon (pronounced “wet-stone”). Take a visit to late spring, six months ago, or six months to come. The cherry trees (the sakura of the title) are in bloom …

Sakura Park

The park admits the wind,
the petals lift and scatter
like versions of myself I was on the verge
of becoming; and ten years on
and ten blocks down I still can’t tell
whether this dispersal resembles
a fist unclenching or waving goodbye.
But the petals scatter faster,
seeking the rose, the cigarette vendor,
and at least I’ve got by pumping heart
some rules of conduct: refuse to choose
between turning pages and turning heads
though the stubborn dine alone. Get over
“getting over”: dark clouds don’t fade
but drift with ever deeper colors.
Give up on rooted happiness
(the stolid trees on fire!) and sweet reprieve
(a poor park but my own) will follow.
There is still a chance the empty gazebo
will draw crowds from the greater world.
And meanwhile, meanwhile’s far from nothing:
the humming moment, the rustle of cherry trees.

Yes, that’s a poet for you — insisting on a connection between cherry petals and the growth of self, when all the cherry need do is be a self beautifully ready to attract bees, produce fruit and fulfill its cherry-tree-ness.

And yes, there’s a whiff of early middle-aged cynicism creeping in here (Wetzsteon died at 42), the dry rot that afflicts so many who tell themselves to be content with meanwhiles.  “Give up on rooted happiness!” she urges.  There is still green chance and raw luck and sweet grace in the world, but until they salvage something greater than what’s at hand, be content with meanwhiles, the poet advises, the “far from nothing” moments that hum with possibility even now.  So it’s back to trees, where maybe we should have remained.

Too often we are literally “self-important.”  We worry about the self like a barefoot child abandoned in a parking lot, or an opened can of tuna that will spoil unless we eat or cook or refrigerate it.  The cherry tree sends out blossoms unworried about November.  Not because November won’t come, but because it’s not November when it’s April.  And when November comes, the tree will be a cherry in November, awaiting the next humming moment.

And yes, if I meditate among the swaying branches and crackling leaves this time of year (trying to fluff myself against the cold like an outsized bird, so I can sit or kneel a few minutes without shivering and breaking my focus), the “stolid tree on fire” matters more than it did before, and my own concerns matter less.  Restoration that we seek, visit all who long for it.  Find it in the silent witnesses of trees.  We who listen for “a voice that will save us” forget what burns in front of us, the fire in the stove in the living room, this day passing with us into “later” and darkness and tomorrow, the trees wintering, summering and wintering again, the air itself, with its metallic crispness on the tongue and in the nose, the fire that burns in all things.

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The 50,000-word deadline this Wednesday 11/30 at midnight looms before us “wrimos,” and I’m finally within range.   Woo-hah!  The Nanowrimo site obligingly lets participants grab icons of progress — anything to keep us writing.  Much of what I’m drafting now is detail, filling in missing scenes, background, snatches of dialog with disembodied characters, pieces of Harhanu physiology and psychology — and I suppose, not surprisingly, a brand-new and potentially primary character — because of course what I expressly did not need at this point is a strong new presence telling me “when you are done, you are not done, for I have more” — to paraphrase Omar Khayyam in his Rubaiyat.  He already has a name (Tehengin) which he obligingly repeated to me till I got it right.  But, probably, I do need him — in some way which I’m sure he’ll inform me about.  In detail.

So anyway, here I dance at 44212 words, taking a break to blog, before I return to dance some more.  Wish me well in this home stretch.

Nano Update

With the Thanksgiving holiday, travel to my in-laws in FL, and nano-ing, it’s been a busy week.  I’m in the home stretch as far as writing, with 38,177 words completed.  Huzzah!! 5000 words came through yesterday, including a draft of the ending, while I was tucked away and mostly out of earshot of happily noisy relatives.

Back to regular (full) blog posts soon!

Posted 25 November 2011 by adruidway in fiction, nanowrimo, writing

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What’s freedom for? (Part 1)

[Part 1 | 2 | 3 ]

With so much attention to freedom these days, both freedom from and freedom to (they can feel like — and amount to — very different things), it’s strange there’s so little discussion of what to do with it once we get it.  We’re supposed to know intuitively, like eating or breathing.  Let me “do my own thing,” “don’t fence me in,” “don’t tread on me,” “a man’s home is his castle,” “do what you want,” and countless other phrases and proverbs and old saws and aphorisms to capture that sense of a supposedly “inalienable right” to do — what?  Along with life and the often asymptotic* happiness we’re supposedly in pursuit of, this third leg of the American Independence tripod got declared and delivered to us and we haven’t done a paternity test to see whether it’s our baby.  Liberty.  As in “see Statue of.”  As in Patrick Henry, who gave himself and his audience only two choices (“liberty or death”), proving he was definitely not a true American, because as we all know, Americans love their choices.  “Have it your way,” goes the old Burger King advertizing jingle.  OK, my way.  But once I get it, how do I know I have it?  Is it like a lottery ticket — changing in value by the day, and up to me to claim it if I won it?  And then what?  What’s freedom for?

More to come in Part II.

*An asymptote, if the Wikipedia definition above doesn’t do it for you, is a curve that keeps edging ever closer to a line, but never actually arrives.  (Unless you want to count infinity.)  Think of it as a geometric tease.

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Passing the halfway mark of 25,000 words a couple of days ago felt as big this year as reaching 10K last year did — a milestone. Inevitably I’ve fallen behind — this time by about 5000 words.  Got nothing written at all on Monday, and Tuesday was little better.  Today’s quota is 30K. I’ve gotten down 3000 words so far, in a burst of catching up, and hope for another few hundred by day’s end, which will bring me within striking distance.  I’m at 28,125 as I write this.  (Yes, my break from writing a novel is writing a blog entry.)  Definitely some interesting material has come through.  I’ve put my poor succubus Alza in a number of implausible, erotic, challenging, historical and dangerous situations, just to see what sticks.

I’ve also found out that in order for an important historical meeting to occur, she needs to be about a century older than I’d made her.  Not sure how she feels about that.  Will no doubt find out.  And I’ve gotten down a description of her original appearance that she has just discovered, the “face she had before she was born,” as the Zen masters like to say — before she shape-shifted the first time in her life among humans.  That discovery seems to give her a stability and sense of self nothing else has.  Here’s a striking image I found online and used for inspiration as Alza.  It comes, both appropriately and ironically at once, from an Australian evangelical website, in the form of a pamphlet providing counsel to victims of Incubi and Succubi.

Goddess and Human

As editor of a collection of essays, The Rebirth of Druidry, OBOD‘s Chosen Chief Philip Carr-Gomm attempts to characterize something of the appeal of the spirit of Druidry in human terms.  I quote his article at length because in its effect it is all of a piece, and because it provides a suitable introduction to some things I want to say about the Goddess:

Druidry is the perfect lover. You fall in love with her so easily because she is so romantic.  She whispers to you of the magic and mystery of the turning stars and seasons.  She loves trees and Nature above all things, and you yearn for these too.  She tells you stories of Gods and Goddesses, the Otherworld and fairies, dragons and giants.  She promises secret lore — of sacred trees and animals, of herbs and plants.  She points deep into the past, and ahead towards a future which is lived in harmony with the natural world.   But just when you are convinced you will marry her, because she is so beautiful, so tantalizing, so romantic, she turns around and there she is, with rotten teeth and hideous face, cackling and shrieking at your naivety.  And she disappears, leaving you with just her tattered cloak, made up of a few strands:  some lines from the classical authors, whose accounts are probably inaccurate anyway, a few inferences drawn from linguistic and archaeological research, which could be wrong, with the rest of the cloth woven from material written from the eighteenth century onwards, replete with speculation, forgery and fantasy.

You feel a fool.  You don’t tell your friends about your lover.  You feel tricked and defrauded, and decide to follow something more authentic, more established, more substantial — like Buddhism, or Christianity, or Sufism, or Taoism — something serious.  But then you go out walking.  You follow the old trackways, you come to the old places.  You see the chalk gods and stone circles.  You pause and open yourself to the Land, and there She is again.  But this time she is even more enchanting because you can see that she is not just a beautiful woman, full of romance and seduction, you can see that she is also a wise woman, who will provoke as well as seduce you, who will make you think as well as make you feel.  And then you suddenly know why she has been the object of fascination for so many through the ages.  She is the Muse, the Goddess behind Druidry, the bestower of Awen, of inspiration.

Obviously the imagery here from a male author conveys part of how a man may first encounter the “Goddess behind Druidry”; it may not appeal to women, who find their own powerful ways of connecting with Her.  In mythic terms, however, this account very much reflects the changeability of the Goddess — what has inaccurately been called her fickleness, and which has caused many accustomed to meeting deity in a single, invariant form to confuse variety with unreliability or untrustworthiness.  Westerners in particular have largely been cut off from experience with aspectual deity, which the Goddess so clearly manifests.  Rather than manifesting a loving and compassionate presence, “[t]he deity may appear in wrathful or challenging forms, but these should not be considered hostile.  She is the kernel of truth at the heart of everything, and if she appears in challenging forms to you, look more deeply, considering why this may be so,” suggests Caitlin Matthews in her slim but potent book, The Elements of the Goddess.  “Many of those who venerate the Goddess are unhappy with her supposedly dark aspects because they associate ‘dark’ with ‘evil.’  In order to save her child about to do something dangerous or silly, a mother will get angry, shout or scream, but this doesn’t mean to say she loves her child any less.”

My first encounter with the Goddess came unbidden, unsought, when I was 25.  (You need to know: I’m not especially sensitive  or psychic.  Friends who are say anyone who wants to reach me has to raise quite a ruckus to get my attention. If you’d asked me then I’d say — still would probably, even today — that half of what people experience in such situations is imagination.  But now by “imagination” I mean something considerably larger and more potent than I did then.  More about that later.) It was a frosty autumn day, and I was wandering the fields and scattered woods of a farm my father had recently bought in western New York, south of Rochester.  I paused in a swampy grove of trees, with several fallen and decaying trunks to sit on.  A mood or atmosphere of autumn pervaded the place, almost palpable.  The air lay perfectly still.  The musty-sweet smell of dried dead leaves filled the air, along with a tang of rot and manure from a nearby field, and a hint of woodsmoke.  Over the hills from a distance came the faint roar of some town maintenance vehicle — they were always patching roads in the area.  But distant sounds simply deepened the stillness by contrast.  As this meditative silence spread and enveloped me, I became aware of a presence that filled the grove and towered over me, fifty, sixty feet tall.  Immense.  One face of the Goddess. Conscious encounter.  Her.

She didn’t knock me on my ass, though that might have been useful too, given how dense I can be.  But though I describe it here in mild enough terms, the experience was unforgettable, not for any one detail, but for its undeniable — and familiar — quality.  This was someone I knew.  Not someone or something alien, or to be feared, or a matter of belief, any more than I need to believe in the tree-trunk I sat on.  It was like finding a limb which, when you found it, you knew had always been a part of you all along.  You just hadn’t been aware of it.  As if it had been asleep, but for its waking you finally twitched a muscle in it, and in feeling it respond you felt it.

So what’s the big deal, you say?  “He met the Goddess, in some ways it was an anticlimax though also somehow memorable, he got over it, it was years ago.  So?”

A year later I was in the throes of my first love affair (can anyone say “late bloomer”?), a tumultuous relationship in which I did get knocked on my ass.  Among all the other things this Goddess encounter was, it was preparation, or warning.  I needed greater emotional experience, insight, maturity.  I was about to get it.

In between the divine and human realms is an archetypal one — a place, often, of dream and vision, and the idealized images of Others for men and women which “haunt our imagination and often make our love-lives incredibly tortuous until we realize that these daimons will never become physical realities.  They are messengers between the divine realms and the human levels of our experience” (Matthews, 13).  This was part of what I needed to learn firsthand. No book knowledge this time.  It was an initiation of its own.

So this fall at OBOD’s East Coast Gathering, in a meditation involving an encounter with the Goddess in her guise as Cerridwen, I felt a surge of panic — again.  “Cerridwen is bad. She tricked Gwion Bach in the old Welsh tale.” But it was old programming.  Incomplete knowledge.  Fear of that “fickleness”  I mentioned earlier.  “The old, outworn, dualistic concept of the Goddess as cruel and capricious must be viewed for what it is:  a reflection of our shadow-side, a terrible polarization of social responsibility with which women have been burdened as a sex” (Matthews, 24).   But now I had more tools to begin to deal with it.  At Samhain I did specific work with the Goddess.  I needed to.  Is it any wonder I also spent 15 years working in a freshman girls dorm as a house parent?  Training up close and personal.  “The Goddess stands at the heart of life, death and further existence and she will assume the forms which are most appropriate in her dealings with our world” (Matthews, 24).  Or as a teacher in the other path I follow related, when he talked about his own experiences with inner and outer realities, “They had to get me to stop bowing every time they appeared, so they could actually work with me and get some work out of me.”

Matthews continues, in ways particularly useful for a male bard like me.  “Men experience the Goddess through their creative side.  She makes manifest their ideas by animating their dormant creativity.  There is a strong sense of ebb and flow about these energies which give men an experience of the cyclical nature of the feminine menstrual cycle.   This kind of relationship is rarely recognized for what it is, yet all men can discover and welcome this experience.  Although the effect of a Goddess upon a man is less immediately physical than in a woman, it is nonetheless potent” (15).

There is much misunderstanding of gender and sexuality, and what constitutes the self and its connection to the world, perhaps nowhere more so than in the West, with its addiction to pornography, its fear of homosexuality, its violence against women, and its frequent indifference to children.  I’ll let Matthews have her last word here.  “Every human being is a child of the Goddess … The way of the Goddess is one of natural law and natural wisdom … It is primarily the people of the West who are orphans of the Goddess.  The social and political reasons for this desolation have been documented in many books … Both women and men need to find their Mother, relating to her and her creation in fresh and balanced ways, for every one of us needs to drink of her wisdom and realign ourselves with her natural laws.”  This is not a matter of belief but of incarnation — our own — to live fully, gratefully and passionately in this world, until we leave it.

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Nano update time.  Is it any wonder, in light of this post, that I’m writing about a succubus?!  And sympathetically — as a main character?!  Must be some sort of assignment from the Goddess.  Further training.  God knows if it’s publishable.  (Goddess may know, but if she does, she ain’t tellin’.)  Reached 17,804 words:  over 1/3 of the way there.  Need to hit 20,000 today to be fully caught up, including today’s work.  Should be able to do it.  Major scene yesterday, in which Alza connected with the man she needs for her magical work, showed him her nature in a brief feed and reversal of energies to restore him, bypassing the mental level altogether, where the idea of a succubus would have completely flipped him, and left him with a medallion magically linked to her — ongoing physical contact to reinforce the dynamic.  The resulting reactions when he deals mentally and emotionally with what he already knows will be interesting to capture, but the heavy lifting for that scene is done.

I’d been including more fire imagery in description and action, since Alza’s succubus nature seemed increasingly to resemble that of a fire demon.  And then, as a break yesterday, doing some research on demons and succubi in other cultures, I happened on this quotation from the Qur’an:  “And the jinn, We created aforetime from the smokeless flame of fire” (Al-Hijr, 15:27).  And in an email yesterday from the university where I’m taking a seminar, advertising a weekend workshop for men:  “FRIDAY, 11/11/11 – SUNDAY, 11/13/11 – ON THE EDGE OF FIRE:  A MEN’S SPIRITUALITY RETREAT.” Right between the eyes — the kind of serendipity and synchronicity and happy accident one hopes for in writing.  So I’m on some kind of track.  I’m just still discovering what it is.  And that’s much of the deep pleasure of this verbal marathon.

Essential

“We are many sets of eyes staring out at each other from the same living body” — Freeman House, Totem Salmon

We are many sets of eyes, staring out
at each other from the same living body.
We are ears listening to each other
across valleys of skin.
Heat of the other’s blood
warming the air we breathe,
air that filled the other’s lungs
not long before, and will again,
ruffling our hair, rippling this field
of frost-gray grass.

We touch earth that touches each other,
life-print curling at our fingertips and lips,
world (a piece of it) digesting in our bellies,
swept along in blood and spit,
spice of it in our marrow,
essential you in everything
I eat and love and do,
essential me in you.

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So there’s a poem provoked (I say “provoked” rather than “inspired” because that’s the sensation — I encounter a piece of language not my own that becomes the grain around which oyster tries to form a pearl.  It won’t let go until I respond, and try to shape the sensation into something in words.)

Nano update: I’m catching up at 13,527 words and counting, but still a little more behind than I’d like. We’ll see what 2 and 1/2 cups of coffee this morning helps me accomplish. I don’t usually drink it, since I’m hypersensitive to caffeine and it keeps me up most of the night following the day I drink it, but I was cold this morning, and the smell! … well, anyway, I’m caffeinated and writing.

Found an interesting passage in a medieval author yesterday, Walter de Mapis.  (If you’re gonna procrastinate, I say, why not procrastinate tangentially? I researched historical refs to succubi.) So now I know something about rumors surrounding Pope Silvester.  The pontiff flourished around the year 1000, and his legacy includes the story of a certain succubus, who was said to give him advice, and who was reputed to be his lover.  Supposedly he repented on his deathbed.  Traitor.  I’m expecting my succubus main character Alza will have something to say about that.  Who knows — maybe she was there. Maybe she was the succubus …

Just discovered she has a mantra or prayer or verbal talisman she recites frequently.  Maria, one of her worshippers (from her “cult” phase), overheard her this morning talking quietly to herself, and asked about it.  Here are the words Alza said (part of the charm is to speak about oneself in third person):

Alzakh ne utayal gashem muk dafa.
May Alzakh grow in this surrounding fire,
may Fire know her for its own,
may Fire fill her in all she does,
burning away what blocks her,
burning toward what is native to her,
what is or will become or has been Fire,
time the Fire that moves all things into being.

Always fun to get a piece of the original in Harhanu.  You need to know:  among my other odd hobbies is conlanging.  So I hear bits of languages, like I imagine musicians and songwriters hear snatches of songs and musical phrases.  Here are the italicized words phonetically, as I heard them from Alza’s mouth:  ahl-zahkh NEH oo-tah-YAHL gah-SHEM mook dah-FAH.  [Literally, Alza this surrounding fire-in grow-imperative.]

Alza’s name in Harhanu is actually Alzakh, with the kh the raspy sound in loch and Bach — a voiceless velar fricative, to be all linguistic-y and precise about it.  Alza’s name got truncated over the years, to match what people thought they heard, or thought it should be. Much as men around Alza imagine the woman they want, which she can then use to seduce them.  Most men are, frankly, pretty seducible, she learns.  So that part’s easy.

You want Druidry? Find it here, or go bother somebody else. (Now maybe you have some idea why I don’t overdo the caffeine. It makes me all cranky-creative and snarky and stuff.)

Living in Real Worlds

“Don’t get me wrong, I like your reality; it’s way more interesting than mine. It’s just that mine seems to be the one everyone else is in.” Courtesy of ivebecomemyparents.com

When I was in my teens, conversations with my mother about the future usually ended with her saying, “You have to live in the real world.”  This usually amused me, and sometimes annoyed me.  How little I knew at the time that her statement was loaded, that stuff was hanging off it and dripping into the reality overflow collection vat at the bottom of the psychic stairs.

1) She never once claimed that she lived in a real world.  But I had to.  Why was this?  The question isn’t as naive as it sounds.  And how could she tell I wasn’t already in the — or a — real world?  “It takes one to know one,” as we used to say. What was the give-away, I wonder?

2) Where did the compulsion to live in a real world come from?  Only from parents?  “You have to live there.”  Funny — if I hadn’t been living there, then I’d already disproved such a claim.  I didn’t have to live there, which was clear because I’d been living someplace else.  But she wanted me too.  Probably “for my own good,” which is along the lines of “this hurts me more than it hurts you.” (To their credit, my parents never said that to me.)

3) What is a real world?  How do you tell the difference between a real and an unreal world?  Is there more than one world, as this statement implies?  Sure seems like it. Then what’s the other world like?  How did she know?  And how did she decide or discover that this one is more real?  Simple majority vote?  “We live in this world, you — a single person — live in that one.  We win.”

4) Is it a whole world?  (Sometimes life seems like jumping from one to another of a subset of all possible worlds.)  There could be and probably are worlds far better, worse, uglier, stranger and more comfortable than this one.  Then again, maybe not.

It feels like we do live in several worlds, all of them real on their own terms.  Like we shift worlds all day long, moving from one to another with such ease we forget, we don’t notice, we assume reality is unitive and discrete, rather than a series of interpenetrating planes and grades and places.  Waking.  Fully awake.  Deeply focused.  Spacing in front of a video.  Lost in music.  Making love.  Eating.  Daydreaming.  Sleeping.  Dreaming. Tell me those are all identical states of consciousness, identical worlds!  I’ve had flying dreams, felt the wind rushing by around me.  Last I looked, trying to fly in this world lands you six feet under, or heavily medicated.

Judy Cannato in her book Radical Amazement observes that it’s always time for transformation.  To delay just makes the need for change more imperative and harder to ignore (though we’re pretty good at that).  Our widespread sense of dis-ease and general “stuckness” and malaise and dis-spiritedness arise from discernible causes and have discernible solutions:

Our attitudes and behaviors are rooted in a way of thinking that is no longer reflective of the real.  So much of the time we are stuck in the dualistic, hierarchical, either-or thinking that has created the very problems that threaten us.  We are not mechanisms with separate parts, but interconnected holons that are mutually dependent.  Yet far too often we cling to the individualism and dysfunctional systems that have “parented” us, molding obedient offspring carrying on the “family” tradition in a way that continues to devastate all life, others’ as well as our own.  Shifting to a new paradigm takes commitment and hard work.  It requires gut-wrenching honesty and the willingness to give up fear-filled control.  We al know what a difficult undertaking this is, but we are capable of the challenge and perhaps more ready than we think. (14)

For me one key here is that this is inner work as much as anything else.  I can start it, and I can start working on myself.  In fact, that’s the only place any of us will find a lasting and satisfying solution.  “Be the change you wish to see in the world” is not wishful thinking or unrealistic.  It’s in the copy of Life: An Owner’s Manual that was tied to my umbilical cord when I dropped in, a little over five decades ago.  Have you checked your copy recently?

/|\ /|\ /|\

Nanorimo update!  Speaking of real and unreal:  I’ve cleared 11,000 words — over one fifth of the way there!  With 2800 words today, I’m catching up, but today’s goal is 13336, so I need to get another thousand down by day’s end to be in the ballpark and be able to catch up in another day or so.  I now find myself writing some semi-detached scenes — backstory for my FMC — Nano-speak, I learned, for “female main character.”

Her name is Alza, and she’s a Harhanu — a succubus.  Why a succubus?  I’m finding out as I write, and I’ll let you know if I arrive at a definitive answer.  Right now, though, it seems to have something to do with desire and empathy and our capacity for both deluding ourselves into disaster and enchanting ourselves into freedom and discovery. Oh, and she’s 947 years old.  But she can be really hot when she chooses.  Like when she’s hungry.  Her most recent feed was from a German tourist named Konstant.  He’s one of two humans who know her real nature.  Their relationship is reciprocal.  Sort of.  Do I believe in succubi?  I do when I’m writing Alza’s voice, when she’s draining a victim, when she searches like we all do for meaning and purpose.  In some ways she’s the most human of my characters.  Which may be a problem I’ll need to work on.

That number (of people who know her) is about to change.  She’s made an entirely accidental (hah! so she thinks!) connection with a younger man (everyone is younger when you’re 947) named Nick who she’s discovering is crucial to her plans for living. And dying. Both of which she’s seriously considering.  She’s also seduced a priest or two in her long life, and once allowed a cult to form around her.  Now she’s more interested in laughing at Cosmo and Playboy and figuring out why one human should so dominate her thoughts when she’s used to doing the dominating.  Or at least getting what she wants.  Which is what men think they’re getting from her.  OK, some of this is pretty self-indulgent.  It’s also indicative of the space you get into when you’ve been writing all day!

So how does this connect with Druidry?  Who knows?!  I started writing on Nov. 1 with the small cluster of ideas that came to me, about three days before Nanowrimo began.  You go with what you get.  Years ago I started a historical novel set in Pre-Roman Etruria.  But that’s not what came calling this time, saying “write me!”  Hence, my current work.

Look long enough

Sunlit November trees.
A scarf of woodsmoke curls between the mountains.

Look long enough at beauty, someone says.
You’ll begin to see more things as they are.

/|\  /|\  /|\

So, Nano writing update:  was out of town at a conference yesterday, and got no writing done.  That means today’s a triple push:  tomorrow I have a class, a car appointment, and a (late) Samhain celebration with a friend, so there’ll be less time to write.  And catch up from yesterday, along with today’s 1667 words.

I’m grateful they keep coming.  You know a story is launched — and this says nothing about its quality, only about whether it’s alive for the author, at least — when characters invade your dreams and begin telling you stuff about themselves.  And while exercising this morning on our secondhand treadmill in our breezeway (45 degrees, but warmer than outside), I got another piece of plot.  Rather, more a set of questions to ask (and answer), and a couple of flashes of image-ideas.  By the end of today, I should be at least at the 10,000 word mark if I’m to stay on track.

My main character has retreated to her house in Santa Fe to take stock.  (Why Santa Fe?  I’ve no idea.  Never been there.  Would like to, yes.  Have to do some research, to see how I might use the locale.)  Now to avoid merely lengthy exposition and instead make things happen.  I might be able to get away with some flashback, dramatize bits of the past that are now relevant.  I keep picking up the stray question here and there that won’t let go, and it generates backstory — in some cases, gobs of backstory.  But no stopping to worry about whether the story should begin somewhere else.  That’s for a revision. Right now the point is to keep going, keep seeing new pieces I wouldn’t encounter any other way.  In that way it’s like any creative process.  The road rises to meet your feet as you keep walking.

Maybe you’ve had the dream version:  you’re dreaming, you come to a cliff, you’re aware enough to say, “It’s a dream — I can jump and nothing will happen!  Woo-hoo!”  So you toss yourself in complete abandon, enjoying the thrill of that reckless plunge you would never take awake, but  just as the cliff edge spins away above and behind you, you terrify yourself by asking:  what if it’s NOT a dream?!

With luck, at this point, you don’t wake yourself up, heart pounding, breathing hard.  Instead, you watch to see how you will land, and where, whether you will sprout wings and fly someplace else, etc.  In other words, you’re hungry to know what will happen next?!  Don’t let me wake up yet!

Curiosity’s one of the best tools I know.

Nanowrimo update 11/3/11

Just the promised update on my progress:  I’m now at 4614 words, just four hundred shy of the total of 5000 for the third day.  A tenth of the way toward the month’s goal.

Still writing — I’ve just begun a crucial scene.  My two main characters finally meet, though they’ve been circling each other, and in one way or another aware of each other, for a few days of story time.  A decent amount of backstory has gotten filled in, through interactions with other characters, so their meeting should matter.  Always a good thing to ask when you’ve got characters doing anything:  does it matter?  It’s a version of that cruel and very necessary question:  So what?!

Since the novel straddles the supernatural/erotic divide (at least right now — who knows where this draft will go next?), I’m hoping for a tense, revealing encounter.  OK, enough procrastination.  I do laundry during breaks when I’m writing.  It always needs doing, so it doesn’t feel procrastinatory?  procrastinational? procrastinative? — and it gets me up and stretching, going up and down stairs.  And usually a new idea will arrive while I’m separating whites and colors, or measuring detergent.  So, up to sort and measure and start, then back to work.

Posted 3 November 2011 by adruidway in creativity, fiction, nanowrimo, writing

Altar and Prayer

In her blog, Alison Leigh Lily writes beautifully about the human body as a holy thing, an altar:

So, too, my body is the altar in the nemeton [sacred grove–ADW] of my soul — that small, solid piece of world that settles down like a stone into my awareness. And that awareness in turn is carved by the spiraling torrents of the sacred world, the sun that crafts the seasons out of mud and wind, the moon that pushes the sea to its extremes, the stars that draw the eye into the great distances that yawn open between us, the deer, the jay, the badger, the rustling oak and every being and body that dances through its longing, hunger, fear, curiosity and sleep. All these things turn about the sculpted edge of my nemeton, the sanctuary my soul has made of itself, the self that calls itself “I” and reaches out into the world to touch the chaos that has given birth to it. Sitting in the center of that nemeton is my body, all surface, the appearance of skin and hair and angles and soft curves of fat and loose muscle. Like a ladder that reaches into the dark. A spine, a wellspring, a single tree, a tongue of flame. My body is the altar around which my spirit gathers itself into stillness. Not a temple, but only a simple, useful table where I sit down to do my work.

And some of the work we are called to do is to recognize that altar.  In the Bible I read, “I will go up into the altar of God” — introibo ad altare dei in Latin.  I use it as a mantra, a chant, to be mindful of the altar as a place to ascend to.  For it feels like we do actually rise up, into the body, out of thought, out of waking, out of the distractions and worries and daily obsessions, the small news that passes for important events that other people call “headlines,” but which are mostly just footnotes — out of the image and into the reality, into this body that is part of the world, not a thought or an idea or a remove from the thing itself, but the place where we experience a universe.

I strive to occupy this body, this world, as fully as I can, to be fully incarnate.  Not to forsake this great, unheralded, impossibly large opportunity to know, to dare, to will and to be silent, to listen for the voices of the Others who move all around me, chickadee at the feeder, crows scavenging a dead squirrel on the road early this morning as my wife and I drove through the dark and the fog to her weaving apprenticeship.

And Tom, who introduced himself yesterday afternoon — a neighbor, out chopping wood.  He paused from his work and called to my wife and me, walking slowly over to where we were unloading our car.  “It’s something I can still do, and it needs doing,” he said to us, as he stood before us, dressed in blue sweat pants, a gray sweatshirt, a blue hoodie, pieces of leaves and bark plastered to this clothes.  “I was just recovering  from knee surgery when I had a stroke.  And I was recovering from the stroke when I lost my job.  But I can still chop wood, as long as I don’t have to bend my legs too much.”  So I touch that friendliness, and something of the spirit in him, that brought him to our doorstep to chat in the fading afternoon light of a day in early November. Is any song more wonderful?

“Sanctuary my soul has made of itself,” Alison says — a poem, a song, a prayer for this life, this world.

“Prayer is about being hopeful,” says Sister Alice Martin. “It is not a phone call to God’s hotline. It’s not about waiting around for an answer you like, especially since sometimes the answer you’re going to get is NO!”  And she continues, “If you are going to pray, then don’t worry. And if you are going to worry, then don’t bother praying. You can’t be doing both.”  I know which one I want to choose, often as I can, prayer at this altar of my body.

How to ride an elephant

So once again I’ve signed up with National Novel Writing Month — Nanowrimo to the online community of the literarily hopeful and the creatively insane.  The goal is 1667 words per day, enough that by month’s end, you have a first draft of 50,000 words.  A decent goal, and a manageable one, provided you don’t spook yourself, or find excuses more enjoyable than writing.  Last year, working full time, I wrote 10,000 words of a novel — a solid opening week.  Then I lost it.  Teaching draws on many of the same energies as writing, and I simply didn’t have the energy to do it all.  Now, on leave and still healing, I find, a year and more out from follow-up radiation after cancer surgery two years ago this month, I’m back at it.

I’m posting this here to give myself added reason to finish this year:  peer pressure!  You’ll know just how I’m doing, because I’m letting you in on the mess and marvel of it all.

As I’ve learned repeatedly, whenever I write, I discover something worthwhile. So in one way it doesn’t matter if I “finish” because I’ll still have material to work with.  Not an excuse for not meeting the Nanowrimo challenge, but a none too shabby side benefit of committing to, and following through on, getting words on the page.

The novel I’m working on is VERY “drafty” — beyond an unusual main character, I don’t have much more than a couple of plot ideas, not enough — yet — to hang an entire novel on.  But I’m not worried.  I have an opening scene completed this morning that already introduces two characters I hadn’t anticipated. And that gave me some stuff to hang a piece of plot on that came into view as a result of the scene.  So, progress!

I’ll update you on my word count every time I post here, and let you know how it all turns out — maybe even post a couple of excerpts from time to time, as it takes shape.  Right now I’m at 676 words.  I need another thousand just to make the daily average.  So far so good!

Now to make good on the inwardness and creativity released on Samhain.  Suddenly, no surprise, I have several other things to write as well:  birthday cards to my uncle and first cousin, a thank-you note and a full length letter to colleagues, incidental email, and a monthly initiate’s report for another path I follow.

Oh, and about the elephant of the title?  Maybe it’s a symbol for writing.  Or not.  Just a title, perhaps.   Or something about memory and size and sheer bulk.  Or solidarity among writers.  Or herd instinct.  Whatever the case, since you’ve been patient, here are not one but several elephants for your pachyderm viewing pleasure:

Here‘s the URL.

Posted 1 November 2011 by adruidway in creativity, elephant, fiction, tools, writing

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