Archive for the ‘Culture’ category

Beta Reader Exchange?

July 21, 2022

I’ve finished a second science-fiction novel. This one is set just ahead of us in the middle of this century, which is rather daring given the speed of change.

I like to put characters in science-fictionish environments and explore what might happen with them. This second novel is part of a trilogy I’m calling The Three Eras. The first was set way in the future, in the Third Era. This one is in the First Era, and the next is in the Second. The stories are all in the same universe but each stands alone with only historical connections.

You might think that it would make sense to write them in chronological order, but my mind has worked itself out differently. It may have something to do with ease of writing. The third novel, of the Second Era, promises to be the most difficult. I’m going to have to do a lot of research, which I’ve already started, on such matters as space elevators and genetic manipulation.

But for the just completed novel set in the relatively near future (third draft or so) let me give you the pitch for it:

“What if an intellectual, even spiritual genius, like a young combined Einstein and Simone Weil, appeared as a young girl? In the middle of the 21st century, in the midst of societal decay, climate disruption and technological change, a young investigator searches for a brilliant girl who has gone missing. This is a novel about a young man still suffering from the suicidal death of his sister who makes it his mission to rescue a genius girl who wants to save humanity. He must overcome an international crime cartel, local corruption, and social and environmental disruption, to find her and keep her safe.”

Voluntary first readers?

Before I get serious with sending it out to literary agents, I would like a beta-reader or two to give it the once over. For those unfamiliar with the term, a beta-reader is a voluntary first reader who gives the writer their reactions.

I propose that if anyone has their own novel work-in-progress who also needs a beta-reader then we could exchange first chapters or synopses to see if we still want to proceed. My throw-away email for this is: 5cfstkof5osg@opayq.com .

There are beta-reader groups and services available on-line. One I’ve found which I’ve signed up for is the Critters Writers Workshop. It is “home to several on-line critique groups (aka workshops) for professional and professionally aspiring writers, artists, and creators in any endeavor.” It is free (donations welcome) and one pays for being read by reading others and writing critiques. Originally it was set up as a science-fiction and fantasy workshop, but now there are groups for all types of writing.

It is a hangover from the old internet when coming together in creative ways was the prime mover rather than the exciting possibilities of monetization, branding and Meta. The interface is a little old-fashioned, run by a guy who hearkens back to the old days. It can be hard sometimes to find the exact information you’re looking for, but I like the atmosphere of it.

So we’ll see how this goes….

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Recently Found Tools For Writing Novels

July 14, 2022

I’ve just finished writing a second novel. I wanted to share a few of the tools I’ve found that helped me get it done, and will aid me in the future as I start on the third one.

By ‘tools’ I mean books on the craft of writing, and software.

There is a large industry devoted to selling advice on how to write novels to would-be authors. Not just books of course, but websites and software of all description. It’s hard to lift out the nutritious kernels from the dirt and leaves.

As time goes on, and I slowly become more experienced, I’m much less enamoured of those books which pretend to offer a surefire scheme based on arbitrary models of how novels should be structured. I’m thinking particularly of those books and authors who insist you must figure out three acts with certain obligatory ‘beats’. It all comes to seem so artificial and destined to bleed the life out of one’s writing. (And editors supposedly can spot the artificiality right away.)

Monetization and writing advice

I’ve understood that this is a means to sell how-to books and for monetization in general. If you’ve got yourself set up as a writing authority online, such as for just one example, the writer K.M. Weiland, then promoting a lot of bogus technique becomes necessary. It’s about the continual need for something to sell. (I don’t mean to pick on Weiland too much, it’s just I find her attitude about these matters annoying. She does have good instructive information on some topics.)

So I find myself better informed by books like Steven James’ Story Trumps Structure or John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story or Stephen Harrod Buhner’s Ensouling Language. But I’ve written about those books here before. I will come back with some new (to me) titles that I found helpful recently.

Obsidian

But first to the software end of things. I am becoming a fan of the free note-taking and personal information management (PIM) program called Obsidian. I’ve just discovered it in the last few months and it is becoming an important part of my note-taking and thinking about the novels I’m writing.

I’ve always been on the look-out for note-taking applications that can accept my helter-skelter thoughts and intuitions, and later help me use them in the writing. Previously I found NoteStormTW which I still think useful, but Obsidian seems more comprehensive.

Obsidian is a Markdown file reader. It sits on top of any relevant files in a designated folder or vault and enables users to write, edit and interlink their notes. I don’t know much about Markdown or PIM but apparently, these features make it an object of near cult-like reverence in some quarters. (You can find in-depth discussions for instance of Obsidian’s relevance for Zettelkästen and other esoteric matters.)

I like it because it’s not online, you don’t have to sign up for an account, and it seems incredibly flexible. You download it, install, review a YouTube video or two, maybe a written tutorial, and you’re away.

It’s even promoted as a ‘second brain.’ You build systems of bi-directional links between your notes, and there are even graphical plug-ins that enable you to better visualize what you’ve got. The exciting part is to perhaps discover links you haven’t noticed before. (An excellent overview of the application is at Sitepoint.)

The writer Vanessa Glau gives a good description of how she applies Obsidian in her fiction writing. She’s much more organized than I am, but she outlines an interesting process.

Freewriting

I’ve decided to come back to more freewriting as a method to incubate or brainstorm ideas for the next science fiction novel I plan to write. (I’ve previously written about freewriting in About Freewriting: Notes of a Pencil Sharpener, Part II.)

Freewriting, to return to originator Peter Elbow’s insightful thoughts on the practice is about “… a transaction with words whereby you free yourself from what you presently think, feel and perceive.”

The process can be something like this: Set aside 10 minutes. Start writing. Don’t stop for anything. Don’t rush but don’t stop. Never look back, do not cross out, do not muse about word choice, just go. If you get stuck, it’s fine to write things like, “I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write,” or repeat the last word over and over until something catches. The only requirement is that you do not stop until time is up.

A useful application which allows you to work with this is the simple writing program Q10 . It provides a distraction free writing environment with a timer. It only produces .txt files though, so you may have to open and save in some other program to get a format you want.

Now on to several books. After I finished the first draft of the novel I’ve been working on, I ran into my usual issue of not quite having a handle on how to revise.

Story Grid… Eh

Initially I found Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne to be a reasonable guide for my revision. There are a lot of useful insights into the state of the publishing business. But he starts to spend too much time on this for my taste before he gets to his method.

The heart of it are six questions one needs to keep asking about the novel. These include what are the protagonist’s objects of desire and what are the Beginning Hook, the Middle Build, and Ending Payoff? Worthwhile questions for a draft. But then he goes on to elaborate the beginning simplicity into increasingly complex and prescriptive spreadsheets and templates. If you go online, you see the method turned into another one of these writing craft merchandising schemes. Here’s the secret sauce you need!

Book Architecture

Then I found the book Blueprint Your Bestseller by Stuart Horwitz which became my guide this time for the overall revision of my manuscript. For the first novel, I’d done an Excel spreadsheet of all my scenes, with columns trying to incorporate the best advice about important points and characters.

Horwitz’s book laid out a similar method, which he calls Book Architecture, without the spreadsheet. As he puts it: “The basic premise of the Book Architecture Method is this: Your book has ninety-nine scenes. If you find your scenes and put them in the right order, you will be all set.” Well, it could be seventy-nine or a hundred-and-nine, but you get the idea. Finding and ordering scenes, and connecting them to the tentative theme you find in the work is the gist of it.

Once found each scene is named in a brief informative way and then listed without looking at the manuscript(!). This helps to understand what stands out for you about what you’ve written. (Presumably by this time you will have read your draft a few times.)

I won’t go on with all the details, but one concept he introduces I found unusual and interesting is that of series. A series can be seen as integrating a narrative element across a number of scenes.

Using the fable of The Ugly Duckling to show what he means, he picks out a series of scenes about “ugliness” and outlines their variations and how their sequence builds.

Another book I’ve been reading is Nancy Kress’s Dynamic Characters. She’s a science-fiction author who writes very well about the craft of writing, especially characterization and plotting. For instance: “Leaving out description results in characters subtly unconnected to their surroundings.” Of course, it is easy to put in too much. A fine line.

And finally, I’ve been reading an old book on writing by Dean R. Koontz, How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, which dates back to those prehistoric times before the internet. He’s a good, even great, fiction writer, although sometimes for me his writing is too over-wrought and jam-packed with dramatic crises and emotions.

A universal plot?

But I was struck by this description (mostly in his words) of what might be described as the ‘universal plot.’

1) A hero (or heroine) is introduced who has just been or is about to be plunged into terrible trouble.

2) The hero attempts to solve his problem but only slips into deeper trouble.

3) As the hero works to climb out of the hole he’s in, complications arise, each more terrible than the one before. It seems as if his situation could not possibly be blacker or more hopeless than it is — and then one final, unthinkable complication makes matters even worse. In most cases, these complications arise from mistakes or misjudgments the hero makes while struggling to solve his problems, which result from the interaction of the faults and virtues that make him a unique character.

4) At last, deeply affected and changed by his awful experiences and by his intolerable circumstances, the hero learns something about himself or about the human condition in general, a Truth of which he was previously ignorant. Having learned this lesson, he understands what he must do to get out of the dangerous situation in which he has wound up.

Perhaps a little simplistic for all circumstances, but this is a pattern which many great writers have used.

And, finally, one bit of I writing advice which I actually did this time: reading out loud the entire novel. This was a later stage effort after already doing a lot of line to line revision.

Reading the words out loud lets you find awkward rhythms and phrasing, or sentences that go on way too long for one breath. Although a really long sentence might be alright once in awhile, I tend to write sentences that should often be broken up. And reading out loud informs you of other subtleties that make a difference.

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Writing Lessons From The Walking Dead

June 12, 2022

There’s a lot of dark shit on television, and I’m not talking just about the news.

Many of us choose to entertain ourselves watching all manner of unpleasant fictional situations and people, many of them quite horrific. That’s curious to me, and yet I am in that group.

After I recently, for example, finished watching the penultimate season of the long-running TV series The Walking Dead, I cast about for another series that might be equally gripping on Canadian Netflix. It didn’t have to be a horror show. Ozark and Dark were two series that came highly recommended.

Ozark, a crime drama, began with the main character watching porn while he’s at work talking to customers. In Dark, more in the science fiction vein apparently, the series opens with some major characters treating each other poorly in the midst of sexual betrayal.

Give Me Characters I Can Admire

I realized that I didn’t want to spend even a few minutes with these people. Give me a character I can admire or at least respect, and I will go along with the show for a long time. (I did finally settle on Prison Break, where at least the lead character is trying to save his innocent brother from execution. Lots of dark events in that show too, though.)

There’s the first lesson about writing before I even get to The Walking Dead. Give the reader characters he or she can feel sympathy or respect for.

walking_dead_poster-296458221

I’m not a horror movie buff nor one normally interested in zombies or other such boogeymen. I’ve even written about my bemusement at the entire notion of zombies (see Why Zombies?).

Yet I have found The Walking Dead (TWD), an apocalyptic story about zombies and a few survivors, utterly compelling.

It’s definitely not a show for the squeamish. Its depiction of zombies in all their mutilated and tattered glory, the necessity of killing them for keeps by piercing their nasty-looking skulls, the slavering gore of their successful attacks upon the living… well, at times the show overdoes it. But it does put into high relief the dire straits the survivors find themselves in.

The premise, for those few who haven’t encountered the show, is that a worldwide apocalypse of zombie infection has destroyed civilization. The zombies, known as ‘walkers’ to the core group of survivors we become invested in, shuffle around looking for fresh meat. Easily dispatched singly, as they become attracted by noise and commotion, hordes of them show up, and you really want to have an exit plan. An added dimension to the terror for the characters is that anyone who dies for any reason automatically becomes a zombie too, and must be put out of their misery before they take a bite out of the living.

Intensity

This was the popular television series in the early 2010s before Game of Thrones came into full prominence. It has been discussed a lot. People become very involved with the ensemble cast of characters, as I have been. The unpredictable and usually awful deaths of the occasional major character somehow adds to the involvement, a mechanism the Game of Thrones also utilized. And the show is still going on, with the final season to be completed this year.

The writing, the production, the actors have uncannily combined to launch the viewer into a world where everything is broken. With the rise of nasty living villains in the chaos, the characters are often forced to decide whether keeping alive will still allow them their humanity and a sense of hope. It’s a believable world, once you accept the admittedly way-out-there premise of zombies.

I don’t want so much to explore individual characters and the meaning they have for the plot. What fascinates me is how compelling the characters are made to be. What is the craft behind this, from the very talented bunch of writers? (I will tend to speak of this from the point of view of readers, rather than saying ‘viewers’ always but it is the same thing usually.)

High Stakes

One part of this are the stakes. A zombie apocalypse allows the writers to heighten this factor, but even if we write about less extreme situations, there is a lesson. Make the stakes crucial for the characters, and they become so by extension for the reader.

By stakes, I mean obstacles to overcome that matter. If they aren’t overcome, then somebody will die or lose love forever or life’s meaning will flee. High stakes mean reader involvement with the characters, and that is a lot of what makes TWD so enthralling. We care about what happens to these people.

The ensemble nature of the characters is also important. People react so differently to the same stresses and events. To make the situation come alive for the reader, we need to see a variety of characters, acting well and badly, and ideally in conflict, on many different levels, with each other.

Some of the people lose their sanity, some become stronger, others give up. In these dire situations, the reader or viewer is constantly, without necessarily realizing it, asking themselves: What would I do in these circumstances? If you can get this to happen in the mind of the reader, than you are well along the road of success for your story.

Suffering

Tied to the matter of stakes is that of suffering. Although we may be gentle souls in our daily life, if we want to tell an involving story, we must make our characters suffer. The type of suffering can be psychologically nuanced or physically damaging, but it must be there. And the suffering, to be successful in delineating the character, cannot be merely the occasional conflicts that the plot might logically throw up now and again. No, the suffering must be great, and tailored to the stakes and the fibre of that particular character. Craft books recommend devising severe specific trouble that puts the character’s future and desires at ultimate risk. This can be tough to do.

To briefly return to Prison Break, this is done with great skill for the main character striving to escape from prison with his brother. Time after time, the worst possible turn of events arises to challenge him, and the writers fearlessly put him through that, and somehow find a way forward for him and the story.

In The Walking Dead this is also skillfully done, but often on a larger scale for the community of survivors led by the former sheriff’s deputy, Rick Grimes. Whenever they find themselves almost secure for a time, then the next terrible turn of events can be expected to arrive. We become entrained with the survivors as they singly and together strive to meet the disasters that befall them. They don’t always succeed, and that too is a lesson for the would-be story writer.

Community

Commentators on TWD have often noted that, in the show and probably real life, communities are the source of survival after the apocalypse. In these circumstances of murderous fellow survivors and implacable blood-thirsty zombies, it is clear that rugged individualists will not last long. You can only survive in a group, and that group needs a direction after the most basic survival needs are met.

Eventually Rick’s group aspires to a re-kindling of civilization, in the midst of more vicious collections of people only aspiring to dominate each other or to create a cult around some strong, sick personality.

The reality of the need for community, and the other assemblages of people also fighting off the zombies, provides another layer of interaction and conflict in the background world going through its cycles, while in the foreground we live through what Rick’s community has to deal with. In James Bonnet’s book about writing, Stealing Fire from the Gods, he says:

“The study of the Golden Paradigm is the study of the structures, dimensions, and dynamics of this larger, whole story (frame or backstory) while the study of the story focus is the study of the structures, dimensions, and dynamics of the smaller, foreground story itself. … A single value has been isolated and is being examined in great detail which adds enormous clarity, meaning and power to the story and makes this value an important unifying force.”

He also goes on to say about the parallels between community and individual:

“Because the human group shares these similarities in organization and function with the human psyche, the human group is an excellent metaphor for the human psyche. You can see this important pattern operating in many great stories and successful films.”

So in Rick’s group we find characters embodying different functions, of cowardice, fear, boldness, loyalty, caring, ruthlessness and so on.

And as writer Tonya Thompson says in a post about TWD, audiences respond to weak characters becoming strong. For instance, in Rick’s motley crew of survivors, Carol early in the series is a submissive, abused housewife, who eventually grows into one of the show’s strongest and most complex characters.

A Moral Dimension

There is a moral dimension to TWD highlighted by the depraved actions of some of its humans, who can be far more wicked than the mindless zombies. This is especially notable in the darkness of some of the later seasons’ episodes, where any shred of kindness and compassion is proclaimed and shown to be weakness. The characters of Rick’s community must struggle with this, as do we all in lesser or greater ways. But in the end (as of season 10), most want to live by values that allow them to work towards a better life for their children and their community.

I would argue that The Walking Dead, at its best, takes on the virtues of real art. In novelist John Gardner’s book, On Moral Fiction, he writes:

“True art is by its nature moral. We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values. … Moral art tests values and rouses trustworthy feelings about the better and the worse in human action.”

The show definitely does that.


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Three Books for the Writer Self – 2) The Winged Life

January 17, 2022

In the second book of this series of posts, we have The Winged Life: The Poetic Voice of Henry David Thoreau, by poet and rogue shaman Robert Bly, published in 1992 (HarperPerennial).

It is especially fitting to discuss this book now since Bly died just last November in his nineties after sadly being afflicted with dementia.

Reading several of Bly’s obituaries, I realized more fully how influential he became as an American poet. And not just a poet. He was famously opposed to the Vietnam War. And after his 1990 book Iron John: A Book About Men (which called, the New York Times obit notes, for “a restoration of primal male audacity”), he was catapulted to cultural prominence.

As Tony Hoagland writes in his 2011 essay about Bly: “From that time on, Bly’s true companions would largely not be other American poets, but cultural thinkers.”

It makes sense that Bly would write this commentary on Thoreau, for he had many of the same values and ways of seeing that moved both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau. Bly continued the tradition, if we may call it that, of the Transcendentalists, of not needing any intermediary for spiritual insight.

The structure of the book consists primarily of five parts, each one introduced with a commentary by Bly and followed by excerpts from the variety of Thoreau’s writing. (The wonderful woodcuts by Michael McCurdy add greatly to the contemplative tone of the book.)

“Part One – The Bug in the Table” sets the stage for this series of meditations on who Thoreau was as a man, and how he perceived himself and the world around him in those times of the 1840s. How different the world was then! Yet Bly lets us see how relevant much of what concerned the man of Concord still is today.

Transparent Eyeball

As noted in the introductory post, Bly highlights, at the very beginning, these sentences by Thoreau’s friend and mentor, Emerson:

“Standing on the bare ground, – my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball.” This book is an exploration of how this kind of experience pervades Thoreau’s life. Nature is the inspiration of his entire outlook.

In Bly’s words now: “Many young men and women want to marry nature for vision, not possession. …The soul truth assures the young man or woman … that in human growth the road of development goes through nature, not around it.”

He excerpts from Thoreau’s Walden the story of “the strange and beautiful bug” which came out from an old table made from apple-tree wood, which had been in a farmer’s kitchen for a lifetime, but its egg must have been deposited in the original tree while it still existed. It was heard gnawing its way out of the table for some time, no doubt awakened by the heat of an urn or other contrivance.

Thoreau says: “Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society… may unexpectedly come forth….”

Bly comments: “This is a marvelous tale…. The story suggests that there is an unhatched abundance inside us that we ourselves have not prepared. Our psyche at birth was not a schoolchild’s slate with nothing written on it, but rather an apple-wood table full of eggs. We receive at birth the residual remains of a billion lives before us.”

In this Part One there are nineteen texts, comprised of poems, Journal passages and excerpts from Walden. This organization is similar in each of the following Parts.

Thoreau was remarkable for his rambles, his long walks in the woods almost every day. As one other selection of his writing from this Part puts it:

“I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they really are, grand and beautiful. I have told many that I walk every day about half the daylight, but I think they do not believe it. … It is as if I always met in those places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, though invisible, companion, and walked with him.”

So As Not to Live Meanly

Part Two is called “The Habit of Living Meanly.” In Bly’s commentary, he notes that Thoreau observed how many of the people around him took on that habit. Living meanly to Thoreau meant living without sincerity, living to other’s standards, living like a kind of human ant occupied with small burdens. “The ancient metaphor for living meanly is sleep,” Bly says.

Thoreau sought a deeper life, which to every person must be at least partially different. Bly remembers that the first sentence of Thoreau’s that he ever memorized was:

“Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me.”

Thoreau feels grief for the life wasted about him. In that famous quote from Walden given here:

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.”

Part Three is entitled “Going the Long Way Round.” As Bly says, Thoreau’s major life decision was his resolution to live what he understood to be a sincere life. “Thoreau wanted greatness, and he wanted to live greatly, but most of all he wanted not to live meanly.”

The Importance of Moratoriums

The young Thoreau insisted on taking a moratorium, a pause in the designs of the world upon him. Bly says, “I feel that Thoreau’s declaration of the need for a moratorium is his greatest gift to the young.”

In Thoreau’s case his moratorium, in the years before he published Walden, may have gone on too long. He resigned himself to not being at home in either male or female company.

Thoreau wrote in his journal: “By my intimacy with nature I find myself withdrawn from man. My interest in the sun and the moon, in the morning and the evening, compels me to solitude.”

His pursuit of solitude is further illustrated by one of his Journal entries: “By poverty, i.e. simplicity of life and fewness of incidents, I am solidified and crystallized, as a vapor or liquid by cold. It is a singular concentration of strength and energy and flavor.”

In Part Four, “Seeing What is Before Us,” Bly momentarily revisits Emerson for his description of what it was like to walk with Thoreau: “It was a pleasure and a privilege to walk with him. He knew the country like a fox or a bird, and passed through it by paths of his own.” Emerson recounts how detailed and patient Thoreau was in his observations of nature, taking with him an old book to flatten flowers in, a diary and pencil, a spy-glass for birds, a hand-held microscope, a jackknife and twine. Thoreau knew to the day when each type of wildflower would bloom.

Faculties of the Soul

Thoreau read widely, everything from Eastern spiritual books to Goethe and Schelling. These perspectives informed his detailed descriptions of the nature around him. He seemed to take to heart Coleridge’s advice that “each object rightly seen unlocks a new faculty of the Soul.” Thoreau asserted in his Journal, against our separation from nature, that “I am made to love the pond and the meadow….”

At the end of this section, after a brief discussion of Thoreau’s ability to also know darkness, Bly writes: “We feel in Thoreau’s life the presence of a fierce and long-lived discipline, and one reward of that discipline was his grasp of the wildness in nature.”

Walden Pond

In the final Part Five, “In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World,” Bly notes that Thoreau was certain that the civilizations of Greece, Rome and England have been sustained by the primitive forests that surround them, and “that these same nations have died and will end when the forests end.”

Bly suggests that Thoreau was one of the first writers in America to accept the ancient idea that nature is not a fallen world, but instead a veil for the divine world.

Refreshed by Nature

In Thoreau’s words:

“We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”

Bly concludes his book with an insightful brief biography of Thoreau, who died in his forty-fourth year of tuberculosis.

Bly does a good job of presenting the man to us. Thoreau had his greatness, and his limitations — there is much more depth in Bly’s examination then I am able to touch on here. But what might we take from all this?

It would be wise, I think, for us as writers, and as human beings, to take long walks in wild places. And pay attention to what we see and feel. There is no good substitute.

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Notes

This is the second book considered in this series of posts after:

Three Books for the Writer Self – Introduction

Three Books for the Writer Self – 1) The Soul’s Code

For my own encounters with Thoreau and Emerson, there are the posts A Walk With Hank, and Chant the Beauty of the Good.

Three Books for the Writer Self – 1) The Soul’s Code

December 31, 2021

Meaning is invisible, but the invisible is not contradictory of the visible:
the visible itself has an invisible inner framework, and the invisible is
the secret counterpart of the visible.

—M. Merleau-Ponty, Working Notes

The full name of the book The Soul’s Code by famed depth psychologist James Hillman is The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. It might simply have been called The Acorn. The reason will become more obvious as we go on.

But first I want to refer to an image this book arouses, which it nowhere mentions: the medicine bag.

I like the Wikipedia definition, which is all that online resource says about it: “A medicine bag is usually a small pouch, worn by some Indigenous peoples of the Americas, that contains sacred items. A personal medicine bag may contain objects that symbolize personal well-being and tribal identity. Traditionally, medicine bags are worn under the clothing. Their contents are private, and often of a personal and religious nature.”

My medicine bag, so to speak, is not worn under my clothes, but lined up on the edge of the desktop computer case near where I write. I won’t go into the intricate details and significance of all the little items arrayed there, but I will mention a couple so as to illustrate what this image means to me.

The first is a brass-cased compass which belonged to my father. It looks like a small pocket watch, with the stem acting as a clasp release for the cover. On the outside of that cover is inscribed “C.S. Bristol” for my father Charles Stephen. It must have been given to him as a gift some time in his younger life.

The compass rose

Opened, the compass rose and the shivering needle are quite pleasant to look at. A compass can be, to me especially as a former surveyor, quite a symbolic object. And it connects me to my father, whom I never really knew, as a reminder of that mystery and all the metaphorical directions our lives have taken.

The second is a simple acorn, nicely formed, which I picked out of the dirt in a neglected street area under small oak trees. (This was long before I read Hillman’s book.)

I like to hold it, weigh it in my hand, and think about its invisible power – its potential to grow into a mighty oak.

And that brings us back to Hillman and his book. The Merleau-Ponty quote above comes from what Hillman calls “Epigraphs in Lieu of a Preface.”

The very first chapter is entitled “In a Nutshell: The Acorn Theory and the Redemption of Psychology.” As someone who took on a degree in psychology in my university years, I may be more sensitive than some about the extent to which Hillman proposes overturning accepted knowledge, and cultural assumptions, about the nature of our beings.

My interest in this book took on two aspects. The first was the possibility of better insight into creating characters for the novels I’m writing. I’ve been disappointed in many of the formulations in writing craft books about that. The second snuck up on me, and became equal and maybe more than the first: what patterns can I discern, make sense of, in my own life at 70 years of age.

An innate image

To put it most succinctly, what Hillman claims is this: We have within us an “innate image.”

“That innate image can’t be found, however, until we have a psychological theory that grants primary psychological reality to the call of fate.”

He says that otherwise we are robbed of our true biography, the destiny written into our acorn.

Of course this raises many questions and objections, and we can take a look below at how Hillman meets some of them.

James Hillman

But one feature of this perspective that rings true off the top is:

“Today’s main paradigm for understanding a human life, the interplay of genetics and environment, omits something essential—the particularity you feel to be you. … The more my life is accounted for by what already occurred in my chromosomes, by what my parents did or didn’t do, and by my early years now long past, the more my biography is the story of a victim.”

To summarize in Hillman’s words:

“This book is about calling, about fate, about character, about innate image. Together they make up the ‘acorn theory,’ which holds that each person bears a uniqueness that asks to be lived and that is already present before it can be lived.”

Hillman traces this idea back to Plato and Plotinus. The Romans spoke of one’s genius, the Greeks, of the daimon.

Where did that genius go, anyway?

Until the late 1800s anyway, this kind of understanding was active in what would eventually become our own culture. Ralph Waldo Emerson often wrote of a person’s genius, as in:

“Ah, that our Genius were a little more of a genius! A man must thank his defects and stand in some terror of his talents.”

But this whole notion, even of a soul, has fallen into disfavour in psychology and philosophy. When, outside of religious institutions where old words are mouthed, does the concept “soul” come up seriously any more?

As Hillman notes:

“The concept of this individualized soul-image has a long, complicated history; its appearance in cultures is diverse and widespread and the names for it are legion. Only our contemporary psychology and psychiatry omit it from their textbooks.”

It is sobering to consider how much of our lives are invisible. Our relationships constantly cope with the unseen realities of the other. Everything that matters, really, is embedded in the invisible: the interaction between people creating music, the force that brings out the new green in the spring, the internal fountain out of which come our dreams, the space between the feeling and the word written.

But in our culture, the invisibles tend to be marginalized and overlooked.

Hillman’s claim is that this idea of our fate as acorn, as inborn pattern, is a kind of myth, which like all myths, rests in these invisibles.

Embedded in a mythical reality

“The acorn is not embedded in me, like a pacemaker in my heart, but rather I am embedded in a mythical reality of which the acorn is but my particular and very small portion.”

Hillman argues for an essence beyond either nature or nurture, these categories which are the comfortable habit of our minds, of how we’ve been taught. Anything else in our mechanistic world view is just about inconceivable.

“The remarkable singularity of individuals, the differences among the billions of persons, even between newborn babies, siblings, identical twins, as well as those raised in the same circumstances and subject to the same influences—these facts ask for answers to the question of uniqueness.”

He discusses in considerable detail the limitations of nature and nurture, and what else there might be. But this is the gist of it.

He gives many examples of extraordinary people whose unique acorn developed into greatness. For one, he gives the example of the philosopher John Stuart Mill. He never attended school. Educated at home by his father, he began learning Greek at three and Latin at eight, and by fourteen had read most of the major ancient texts in the original.

As another, he describes the case of journalist Dorothy Thompson from the early part of the 1900s.

The juvenile Thompson, after slapping her sister, was locked by her minister father in a closet and forced eventually to memorize great chunks of literature, including the sonnets of Shakespeare, entire chapters of the Bible, much of Wordsworth’s Leaves of Grass, and the entire U.S. Constitution.

How Hillman describes this gives a good sense of his outlook. His view is that the acorn develops in its idiosyncratic way as a result of the conflicts and imposed limitations of the family and a person’s environment, and is not caused by them.

“The kind of punishment, though decreed by her father and decidedly cruel and unusual by today’s educational standards, seems to have been chosen by her own protective daimon, who had, of course, anyway selected that particularly literary father. The memorizing of texts fit the pattern of her life of writing….”

The parental fallacy

He particularly dissects what he calls the “parental fallacy” as the source of blame for our psychological conflicts, reactions and churnings.

“The parental fallacy, with all its accompanying jargon about bad double-binding mothers or seductive smothering mothers, and also about absent or possessive and punitive fathers, so rules the explanations of eminence that its jargon determines the way we tell the stories of our own lives.”

He asks, “What is the connection, if any, between the parental imagination—by “parent” I always mean the immediate, intimate caretaker of a child—and the child’s acorn? How do the parents imagine the child?”

He claims that the child’s acorn needs the parents’ fantasy about who they are and will become, if only to form itself by reacting against it.

“The family fantasy that has a child typed and pinned and wriggling on the wall forces fateful choices on the heart, choices to find another kind of fantasy, anywhere.”

Ok, so how bound by this “acorn” are we? We naturally resent anything that seeks to bind us, and this idea of a fated pattern for our life seems to do so.

Hillman quotes Plotinus:

“But if the soul chooses its daimon and chooses its life, how have we still any power of decision?”

How fatalistic should we be?

But Hillman’s idea of fate does not require the ideology of fatalism.

“So it is better to imagine fate as a momentary ‘intervening variable.’ The Germans use the term Augenblicksgott for a minor divinity that passes in the blink of an eye and has a momentary effect. The religious might speak of an intercessionary angel. Rather than a constant companion who walks with you and talks with you and holds your hand through all the crises of the day, fate intervenes at odd and unexpected junctions, gives a sly wink or big shove.”

Later, he says:

“The acorn acts less as a personal guide with a sure long-term direction than as a moving style, an inner dynamic that gives the feeling of purpose to occasions. You get the feeling of importance: This supposedly trivial moment is significant, while this supposedly major event doesn’t matter that much.”

The Bad Seed

Hillman devotes an entire chapter to “The Bad Seed,” when the daimonic turns demonic. This is shorthand for the pathologies of some people, ranging from serial killers to those figures who incite whole populations to evil. He spends a lot of time examining Hitler, and reflecting on the nature of that man’s disastrous genius.

Character is fate. Hillman notes the facets of Hitler’s character that helped lead to his rise: a cold heart, a fascination with the destructive nature of fire (think of night marches with fiery torches), identification with wolf symbology, anality (for one, constantly giving himself enemas), attraction to self-destructive women (six of whom either attempted or successfully committed suicide), attraction to freaks (the misshapen, the disfigured and the abnormal), and a complete lack of a sense of humour.

And then, absolute certainty and utter conviction.

Hillman asks the important question: If Hitler monstrously exemplifies the Bad Seed, could future Hitlers be prevented?

“Without a profound sense of psychopathy and a strong conviction that the demonic is always among us—and not only in its extreme criminal forms—we hide in denial and wide-eyed innocence, that openness which also opens wide the gate to the worst.”

His remedy:

“So thwarting the Bad Seed begins with a theory that gives it full recognition. That’s what this chapter, this book, is all about. So long as our theories deny the daimon as instigator of human personality, and instead insist upon brain construction, societal conditions, behavioral mechanisms, genetic endowment, the daimon will not go gently into obscurity. It drives toward the light; it will be seen; it asks for its place in the sun.”

A call to mediocrity

Hillman also examines mediocrity, a subject which brings a lot of his book closer to my ken, and my reality.

“Let’s first acknowledge that snobbish prejudices are packed into the term ‘mediocre.'” But to Hillman, no soul is mediocre, rightly understood.

“Many are called, few are chosen; many have talent, few have the character that can realize the talent. Character is the mystery, and it is individual.” He cites the interviews of Studs Terkel, who found uniqueness in those likely deemed among the mediocre and common by society.

Is there a call to mediocrity? Hillman gives four possible answers: 1) No, only stars have angels, 2) Yes, most of us have missed our true magnificent calling due to outside influences blocking us, 3) Yes, the acorn developed into a corn on our feet, a sore point: one has stumbled around, never quite finding the true path. But:

4) “For many the call is to keep the light under a bushel, to be in service to the middle way, to join the rank-and-file. It is the call to human harmony. It refuses to identify individuality with eccentricity. The calling stays through life and guides it in subtle ways and into less dramatic forms than we witness in exemplary figures such as those presented in this book. All are called; never mind the chosen few.”

Hillman is most interested in this fourth way of looking at this question. “Character forms a life regardless of how obscurely that life is lived and how little light falls on it from the stars.”

He goes on: “Calling becomes a calling to life, rather than imagined in conflict with life. Calling to honesty rather than to success, to caring and mating, to service and struggle for the sake of living. This view …offers another idea of calling altogether, in which life is the work.”

Lightly touched

I’ve lightly touched on some of the thought-provoking ideas provided in this book. It certainly challenges our normal view of the nature of people and ourselves. Some of what Hillman says I struggle with, but it all bears reflection. I think that sometimes even he is not quite sure how to best articulate his vision of the acorn.

On the two matters that brought me to this book in the first place, I found it fruitful.

For thinking about deep characterization in novel writing, his viewpoint allows for thinking about the characters I devise in ways well beyond the superficial. I need to show about them what they love, what they’ve lost, what they fear, and what their calling may be, even unknown to themselves.

For myself, examining the pattern of my own life, I come to no firm conclusion, but to reflect upon it may be this book’s main gift to me. I feel called to write, in the forms I can manage. That’s all I can say.

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Note: This is the first of three posts following Three Books for the Writer Self – Introduction.