Posted tagged ‘writing’

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 – 3) Ensouling Language

February 6, 2022

It was feeling that brought you to writing, you know. Something in the books you read touched you, something in you wants to create writing that will touch others similarly, some deep feeling has driven you on.
— Stephen Harrod Buhner

A couple of the more popular posts on this site are the two I wrote way back in 2007 about Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler’s book of lectures on fiction writing, From Where You Dream. Butler is adamant that real writing, true writing can only come from the unconscious, from our intuition and our capacity to “induce” a writerly “trance.” This seems to mean making line to line contact with sensual imagery which makes up the voice of the unconscious and of your fictional characters.

And although he describes some of the ways that he uses to get to that place where the truth of what you are writing wells up, I’ve always been left with questions about that process. Oh, I’ve come up with my own haphazard ways of trying to get at that for writing of novels. But I’m always on the lookout, as many other writers must also be, for a clearer way of understanding how to do that.

In the third of this series about books that the writer self can plumb for meaning, Stephen Harrod Buhner provides that clarity, in Ensouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer’s Life (Inner Traditions, 2010).

Buhner has written a wide range of non-fiction books on plants, herbalism and environmental philosophy, including The Lost Language of Plants, a BBC Environmental Book of the Year. This explains the reference to nonfiction in the subtitle, and he does include sections about that. However all kinds of writing come within his scope.

My primary interest, as an unpublished novelist of course, is fiction, and much of what he says about writing hits home there just as much.

A Current of Feeling

There is a current of feeling within us which often willy-nilly determines the direction of our lives, and, often unrecognized, is the core of ourselves. Part of it is a faculty of feeling which is capable of perceiving extreme subtleties, a kind of perception we are not used to developing or putting into words.

Buhner writes: “One of the tasks that lies before us as writers is this reclamation of ourselves, this ecological restoration of our interior world, this restoration of our capacity to feel.”

People use the word “feeling” to mean different things. Buhner wants to focus not so much on emotional perception, although that can be a result, but on what he calls environmental perception.

He calls it a non-physical form of kinesthetic touching. A physical form would be touching a hot stove; a non-physical form would be the sensation of coming home to an empty house. “How does it feel?” That is his repeated catchphrase for taking in the world, and people, around us.

“It is your passions and your deep feelings that are the key to your writing ensouled communication, to inhabited language. As Garcia Lorca put it, you ‘must awaken the duende in the remotest mansions of the blood.’ This can only occur if you reclaim your capacity to feel deeply and keenly.”

Duende

‘Duende’ means those unusual moments, big or small, when something is deeply recognized and makes one tremble. Buhner goes to considerable lengths to try to give the quality of this experience. He quotes the poet Robert Bly about a long floating leap at the heart of the most moving work, “a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.”

It is one thing to describe these leaps, and another to do them. Sorry to say, I am not always a-tremble with the ecstasy of life, able to delve at will into the well of the unconscious. I wish I was more often.

Fortunately, Buhner takes up the challenge of trying to tell us what the process of feeling deeply through our writing could be. He calls it following the “golden threads,” a term he borrows from William Blake.

Taking hold of a golden thread means to be attentive in our feeling to any meaning we may encounter, and focus on it entirely so that we may follow where it goes. This is what happens with writing capable of catching the heart of the reader. This can be a very delicate and tentative pursuit, easily fumbled, so we must bring our complete focus.

A Golden Thread

Buhner explains: “To the alert person, a golden thread may emerge from any ordinary thing and open a doorway into the imaginal, and through it, the mythic. Because no one can know when or where or from what it will emerge, the writer remains attentive to everything that is encountered, always paying close attention to how everything, even the tiniest little thing, feels.”

Stephen Harrod Buhner

He goes on: “You can begin to follow it then, if you wish, by simply writing down, as concretely as you can what you are experiencing, what you are feeling, what you are seeing, hearing, sensing. Bly describes this, brilliantly, as ‘following the tiny impulses through the meadow of language.’ It must be done slowly. Carefully. Feeling your way. Tiny movement by tiny movement. It is the feeling equivalent of catching the hint of an elusive scent. … You write a line, perhaps several, then you stop and begin to compare what you have written to the feeling that has demanded your attention.”

He provides some simple exercises to illustrate and develop this, and he takes it to the point of asking “How does it feel” of even inanimate objects, which I found particularly interesting. To me, the book is worth it just for this discussion of “golden threads” which is considerably more detailed than what I’m able to recount here.

But think of poetry which is particularly meaningful to you. Poetry is the most concentrated form of this way of approaching writing. As an example, he quotes the following from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado:

It is good knowing that glasses
are to drink from;
the bad thing


is to not know what thirst is for.

This is a duende, a long floating leap, as Buhner says: “The long trembling moment, and then the silence.”

Buhner writes:

“Mostly we feel only what we have been taught to feel, not what we truly feel. With the attentive noticing of the soul, we step away from our programming and what we think we know. We feel something and then we stop and genuinely look, identifying what has caught our attention. Then we begin to really see it, noticing whatever it is as if for the first time. The senses begin to bring us tidings of invisible things, all of them filled with meaning.”

He is careful to point out that these experiences are not only for those of us who write and feel compelled to describe our experience, but for all who want to live an “inhabited life.”

I would encourage anyone who is interested in these matters to read Buhner’s book, whether or not you accept all that he says. The essence of it is inspiring. And there is much more to it than I have recounted here, especially in a large section called “Dreaming and the Journey to the Imaginal.”

In conclusion, I keep returning to a quote attributed to the poet Paul Eluard. It’s one you take in with intuitive feeling right away, and then you’re not sure whether it makes any sense, and then you realize that maybe it does, and your mind makes that leap back and forth:

“There is another world but it is this one.”

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Notes

This is the last book considered in a series of posts:

Three Books for the Writer Self – Introduction

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

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

Three Books for the Writer Self – Introduction

November 21, 2021

The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, by James Hillman, Ballantine Books, 1996
The Winged Life: The Poetic Voice of Henry David Thoreau, by Robert Bly, Sierra Club Books, 1986, republished by Harper Collins, 1992
Ensouling Language: On the Art of Non-Fiction and the Writer’s Life, by Stephen Harrod Buhner, Inner Traditions, 2010
____________________________

I often have the sense that the part of me that struggles with writing is a self different than the everyday one that goes grocery shopping or the self that tries to charm my wife.  (This latter effort usually fails and all my selves, and hers, have a good laugh about it.)

I think of that crazy man and mystic G.I. Gurdjieff in this connection.  Gurdjieff, of Armenian and Greek descent, was born in what was Russia at the time.  He became a philosopher, a mystic, a composer, and a wanderer both geographical and spiritual.   As a spiritual teacher, he used methods including shock, music, dance, and hard labor to induce self-confrontation in his followers.  Although he died just after WWII, his writings and students continued to have influence.  There’s an interesting article from 1979 worth looking at in The New York Times upon the occasion of a preview of the feature film Meetings with Remarkable Men, about his life.  It gives the flavor of the man and his teachings.

Here is a relevant quote from Gurdjieff:

“One of man’s most important mistakes, one which must be remembered, is his illusion in regard to his I. … Try to understand that what you usually call ‘I’ is not I; there are many ‘I’s’ and each ‘I’ has a different wish.”

The writer Buster Benson makes a similar observation.  “We are better understood as a collection of minds in a single body rather than having one mind per body.”

(If you want to explore even more down this weird road, into one of the odder varieties of human consciousness, check out the “tulpamancers” described in an article in the journal Narratively.)

So to return to Gurdjieff’s formulation, the wish of my writing self is to conjure with words the closest, truest representations of the world and my experience of it that I can manage.  This is something I inarticulately feel strongly I have to attempt.  The act of trying to do so sets it apart from the rest of my selves, and it becomes a kind of identity.

These three books, each in its own way, have made this aspect of me sit up and take notice. I intend to write a post – part reflection, part review – on each of them after this introduction.

The first, The Soul’s Code by James Hillman, is a book I often came across, years ago, browsing in bookshops, but never really felt attracted to until recently.  Hillman, who died in 2011, was lauded as the most important American psychologist since William James

Deeply influenced by the psychology of Carl Jung, he went beyond it in incisive ways.  He founded a movement called archetypal psychology which, as others have pointed out, would be more accurately described as imaginal psychology, due to the importance he places on the imagination in the formation of our human reality.  His ideas are actually quite subversive to the usual run of thinking about our place in the world.  In The Soul’s Code, he proclaims the primacy in our lives of the “acorn” — all people already hold the potential for the unique possibilities inside themselves, much as an acorn holds the pattern for an oak tree.

The second book, The Winged Life, by the poet Robert Bly, is a commentary and examination of the writings of transcendentalist and naturalist Henry David Thoreau.  “He believed that the young man or young woman should give up tending the machine of civilization and instead farm the soul.”

Bly also refers to Ralph Waldo Emerson, that older fellow traveler of Thoreau’s, and his understanding: “…All mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eyeball.”  Bly follows Thoreau’s poetic and wide-ranging investigations around the meaning of this metaphor.

The third book, Ensouling Language, by non-fiction author and poet Stephen Buhner, is the one most directly concerned with writing, and what makes it good.  Although the subtitle emphasizes “the art of non-fiction”, the book’s discussion, about how to follow the hints from the deepest parts of ourselves, can apply to any kind of writing, including and especially fiction.

In Buhner’s own words:

“I am and always have been interested in the invisibles of life, those meanings and communications that touch us from the heart of Earth and let us know that we are surrounded by more intelligence, mystery, and caring than our American culture admits of….”

The most common thread uniting the intent and meaning of these books is that of the poet Robert Bly himself.  The author of the book on Thoreau, he is also cited in the other two books, especially that of Buhner’s.  I was fortunate to take in one of Bly’s presentations many years ago, which had an impact that I recounted in a post on “The Shadow,” one of Bly’s preoccupations.  Hillman and Bly both approached psychology from a Jungian perspective (in the broadest sense) and they gave workshops together during the height of the “men’s movement” of the 1980s.

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Robert Bly

A little of his outlook can be gleaned from his statement: “It’s so horrible in high school when they say, ‘What’s the interpretation of this poem?’” He wanted to shake off the intellectualism of “modernism”, as noted by the poet Elizabeth Hoover, in favor of the passion of Spanish poets like Federico García Lorca.

It is sad to know that Bly, now in his mid-90s, is suffering in the last stages of Alzheimer’s (recounted on Buhner’s blog).  As Buhner observes:

“He is greatly missed . . . even by himself. After the Alzheimer’s had taken hold, he once said, after watching a video of himself with his family, ‘I think I would have liked him.’

So, in the near future I will work through these three books in separate posts about what I found meaningful to the writer in me in each one.

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