A couple of years ago, or maybe three, I was in my comfy chair about ready to go to bed when a scene appeared in my head. I had no idea what it was — just two people in a dark, dank place afraid to talk in a normal voice. So I wrote what I saw, wrote what I felt on a notepad I always keep handy. I thought about it as I fell asleep, but don’t remember finding its meaning or purpose. But it was written down, so I’d return to it later.
I would’ve, but by the next time it tickled my imagination, I couldn’t find it. It should be noted here that I often write longhand in the evenings as scenes or dialogue come to me. So I have a lot of lined notebooks, most clearly marked with a title. Suffice it to say, I looked for that paragraph, on and off, for the next couple of years. I was intrigued with the situation and I wanted to know who these people are and what they’re doing in such an awful place. When I was looking for some notes for a completely different project, I found the paragraph in all its pristine glory, so I immediately typed it into a file on the computer so I wouldn’t lose it again. But what to name the file so I could remember this fragment? After way too much dithering, I came up with a name, saved it and closed it.
I went back to what I had been working on: #5 of the McCrumb County series (entitled Spirit Like Water) and finished the first draft. Following my normal practice, I started on the next book in the series. Do I ever know the whole story when I start writing? No. I may have a rough idea of what themes I want to include, maybe an idea of main movements in the novel, but I write to find out what happens. It’s been that way since I started writing fiction. I trust my characters to tell the story. It had always worked for me, mainly because I think I’m a good listener. I was about 15,000 words into #6 when Win decided she wanted to go on vacation to the mountains. Sarah said, “Be patient, she’ll be back — in her own time.”
So I said okay and flipped to this opening paragraph I’d written a couple of years ago. I added details as they came to me. And then BOOM! The whole story came to me! The characters, the twists and turns of the plot, the ending. This has never happened to me before. So I began writing it, still sans title. I was about 10,000 words into this Work In Progress when Win tapped me on the shoulder and told me she was back and had some really important stuff for my other WIP. And I did what anybody would do: told her to wait. She said she couldn’t. I told her she’d lost her turn. She said, “Absolutely NOT!”
The upshot is, I now am working on two WIPs, switching between them as they tug on my shirttail. And though the count varies day by day, I’m between 30,000 and 35,000 words into both. For me, this is not just new, but a remarkable experience listening to two different sets of characters, being in two different settings, writing two very different stories. I’m enjoying the process, though I’m really glad I know Win and Sarah as well as I do. I think the two stories are keeping one another fresh, if that makes sense. But I will admit, when I sit down in the morning, turn on the computer, I wonder who’s going to show up that day!
The paragraph that shoved me into this journey? This, still in draft form:
The silence penetrated, burrowed into the subterranean streams of her consciousness. Too much, way too much. Angel cleared her dry throat and felt a hand grab her arm. The thumb caressed her wrist, slowly, a circular motion around the bone that calmed her.
The silence seemed to soothe Drew, as if whispers or breath or light was too corrosive for this utter blackness. Too much, way too much.
You’ll have to wait to find out who they are and what happens. Just like me.
While reading Sandra Moran’s Nudge (Bedazzzled Ink, 2014), I was moved to look again at creation stories in general and one Native American in particular. Paula Gunn Allen tells a version the Pueblo as the prologue to the novel The Woman Who Owned the Shadows (Spinsters Ink, 1983). The beginning is as follows:
“In the beginning was the Spider. She divided the world. She made it. Thinking thus she made the world. She drew lines that crossed each other. Thus were the quadrants. Thus the solstices. Thus were the seasons. Thus was woman. Within these lines placed she two small medicine bundles. Singing, she placed them. In the sacred way she played them. There were no others then but the Spider who sang.
“In the center of the universe she sang. In the midst of the waters she sang. In the midst of heaven she sang. In the center she sang. Her singing made all the worlds. The worlds of the spirits. The worlds of the people. The worlds of the creatures. The worlds of the gods. In this way she separated the quarters. Singing, she separated. Upon the face of heaven she placed her song. Upon the face of water she placed her song. Thus she placed her song. Thus she placed her will. Thus wove she her design. Thus sang the Spider. Thus she thought.”
Imagine, the world created with a song. A song so ancient, so pervasive, it existed before Spider and with Spider and all around Spider so that she heard it. And she thought it and she sang it. And thus, everything we know came into being. i just heard a piece on NPR about relativity and string theory (no, I’m not going to try to explain). Though not an exact quote, the scientist said, “Imagine a giant harp, only without the harp, and each string is vibrating at a slightly different rate, but all are in harmony. They create the song of the universe which is ongoing.” He also used the word “multiverse,” which I first read in an essay by Paula Gunn Allen. So to her and the First People, ho! I think those folk who listen for the song (which requires silence) and for the harmony are the fortunate ones. The song is always there. Listen.
Another early creation story comes from Hesiod in the Theogony. “From Chaos, came Gaia, and when Gaia and Eros united, everything else followed.” (not a direct quote, just the best I can pull from memory) Today, we seem to be declaring war on chaos — this awful thing that disrupts the even flow of our lives. Get organized! Well, I for one, honor chaos as that from which everything comes. And in this context, Eros doesn’t carry the connotations we give it today — the sexual ones only. I think in the original sense, Eros represented the creative spark, that which pushes us to to seek new and unique solutions to whatever problems we face. Sometimes it’s a hot spark that pushes us into a new relationship — with a lover or the world. Other times, it’s a smoldering fire that won’t leave us alone for days or years. It too harkens change in relationship. I wish we wouldn’t fear Chaos or Eros so much, for they are the way of the world.
Perhaps some may find Genesis much more comforting because it’s so linear (this happened and then this happened, and God was in charge of it all). But the problem I have come to see with this story is that it has evolved to bestow not order, but value. What God created last must have taken the most thought and therefore, must be the most important. And if most important, then the rest of creation must be less. We developed a top-down view of our world where we as humans got the nod for domination.
And from this attitude of the pyramid of power also comes the Table of Opposites which Aristotle promoted. The Table originated with Pythagoras, who didn’t approach it as opposites, but complements. In other words, to Pythagoras, light couldn’t exist without darkness; to Aristotle, light was a valued entity and darkness devalued (read that as something awful to be feared). In other words, he changed the notion from complements to dichotomies, polar opposites, where one was good and the other bad. In the West, we’ve used this way of thinking without thought. One example is the fight between environmentalists and corporations who want to exploit natural resources. We always hear some version of tree-huggers versus jobs and the economy. Whether discussing pipelines or owls, it’s always couched in terms of one or the other. Never complementary, never how both could co-exist. Right?
So the point is: the creation story you invest in forms your worldview. Your weltanschauung, as German philosophers called it. Normally, it’s defined as the cognitive orientation of an individual and/or society. But i would argue there’s an emotional component, that which comes from belief and the investment in that belief. These creation stories become woven into the society, into the culture, and we forget that they provide the horizons of our world. Whatever exists outside those horizons can be darkness, can be scary because it’s so unknown.
So I’m asking you to think about your creation story, whichever you believe in, and examine how that story forms you place in the world you see. I think, in some ways, that was what Sandra is asking in Nudge.
And . . . can you give a thought to Grandmother Spider and the song she is singing?
Perhaps it’s the time of the year (All Hallows Eve and Day of the Dead) or the terminal diagnosis of a friend who’s a wonderful author and way too young to end her Earthwalk, but I’d like to tell you three stories, two from the past.
The first story is about Frances, a close friend many years ago. She was a brilliant theologian of the liberation variety and a colleague who argued passionately over dinner and acted her beliefs. She made it through one battle with breast cancer, but the second diagnosis was not good news. She spent a couple of months in the hospital undergoing treatment and I was fortunate enough to live down the street and visit her, if not every day after classes, multiple times during the week. I’d rub her feet, something she relished because it wasn’t a nurse doing a blood draw. Sometimes, another friend, Chamu, would accompany me and we’d read to her from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, not a strange choice because it’s really about living and Chamu could handle pronouncing the names. I was probably the last friend to see her before she slipped into a coma. Her last words to me: “Blanket. Cold.” Broke my heart.
I’d scheduled a workshop for teachers at another college in northern Ohio for two days about how to form a Core Curriculum that emphasized interdisciplinary learning, something Frances and I were passionate about. I thought about cancelling, but decided to do it for Frances and asked that i could communicate her passion to these educators. As I was driving back to western Pennsylvania, the clouds over broad plains were incredible. I saw a foot, a big fluffy foot floating in the sky, tailing me all the way home. After her funeral on a cold day, at least I remember being cold, the college hosted a wake and I ended up talking to one of her good friends who’d flown down from Toronto. She said, “I don’t know why I’m telling you this, except you look like you won’t laugh at me. On the flight, I was looking out the window and I swear I saw a cloud that was the head of Frances and she smiled.” And I told her about the foot.
The second story is Chamu’s. Another brilliant woman who held two Ph.D.s, one from the University of Madras on Eastern philosophy and one from Ohio State in Western philosophy. We argued philosophy too, but quietly and with deep probing. She was also diagnosed with breast cancer, and it was back to the same hospital, the same ward, after classes were finished for the day. One day I walked into her room and found Gandhi incarnate. She’d cut her beautiful, long hair and then gotten the barber to take the rest. Bald, same round glasses, same sense of peace. We laughed the deep belly laugh of old friends. But lordy, I missed her beautiful hair.
She survived, went back to teaching and I ended up in New Mexico. We stayed in contact by email, but when she received another diagnosis, she returned to India and I lost contact. I’d built a prayer pole on my land, a tall sapling topped with colors of the directions and surrounded by large rocks that represented people I was praying for. Chamu had one, a deep lavender with a straight white line through it. One day, a couple of months later, I moved her rock a little bit and discovered a neon green snake looking up at me. And I knew Chamu had passed to the next level of her evolution.
The third story is mine. These two women are not the only close friends I’ve lost over the years, but somehow, I never tell their stories. A story seems so tenuous. While Frances was always a burning fire to me, Chamu was the river she’d told me about that flowed beneath the Ganges. They are also a cloud-foot and a neon green snake. I wish I could draw some conclusions, give you a satisfying ending to these three stories — but I can’t. Heaven or Nirvana? One-shot life or reincarnation? I’ve no idea. To me, life and death are mysteries, not ones I need to solve. My own lesson from these extraordinary women? To carry in my own spirit, the flame and the flow.
“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” Jonathon Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.
Think of the “prehistoric” cave paintings. We say “prehistoric” because the time was before written language. We used images to tell our stories — stories of creation, stories of our family, our band, our journeys and prayers. It occurs to me that graphic novels have simply returned to those ancient days — except graphic novelists use words.
Try turning the sound off of your television, or stream, or whatever. How much of the story will you understand? It’s much more difficult to follow the story line when all you see are a series of edits between closeups of two actors.
Today we rely on words, on language, to tell our stories. It’s best that we use the best we can find. Eh?
As writers, we worry about all sorts of stuff: plot, pacing, description, tension, characters . . . ad infinitum. Sometimes we get so concerned about craft, we forget we’re telling stories.
Imagine you’re sitting around a campfire, lames bright against the dark. Maybe it’s an eon ago, maybe tonight. The night sky stretches above you an inky black, except for the stars flung across the void.
We’ve been finding patterns in them since the first humans looked up at the infinity. The ancients tracked their course across the skies, across time. The Big Dipper, Ursa Major, Sirius, Orion, the Pleiades. Some call the Milky Way, others the Road of the Dead, Raven’s Snowshoe Tracks, Sky Backbone or the Tree of Life. All these titles, given over the centuries, explain not only the stars in the night sky, but our world, its creation and us. What our society values, behaviors best avoided.
The story-teller’s bones are the urges to share our understanding of the world and us. Yes, then and now. And for any vertebrate, the bones are necessary. Those “other” things of craft allow us to exercise our muscles as writers. They’re important, but always the most important is the story.
So, sit down, take a look at the sky, add a log to the fire. And think about the story you want to share.