Writing Exercise of the Month: Bibliomancy as a Random Input Strategy for Writer’s Block

Salamander_from_The_Story_of_Alchemy_and_the_Beginnings_of_Chemistry

Alchemical image in the public domain (Wikipedia Commons)

Bibliomancy is an old oracular practice using passages of texts at random to divine something.

Random Input (see here) is a general creativity technique of seeking random images, words, etc. as sparks to solve creative problems.

Why not combine these ideas as a writer’s aid? I’m a great believer in random input and intrigued by the idea of bibliomancy, so it seems like a fun writing exercise to try.

Here’s the situation: I’ve been working off and on with this story of mine about a sort of ugly duckling character and am stuck regarding how to proceed. If I had to describe the difficulties behind this stuck-ness, I would say that: 1. I’m not sure what he wants. He is not, as I’ve written him so far, overly upset by his condition—maybe I’ve written myself into a hole here?; and 2. I want to incorporate a kind of bizarre element, as I think it will make the story fresh, and would keep it truer to the dream inspiration on which the story is based, but I’m unsure of exactly how to do so effectively. O.K., I’m going to go off to my bookshelf to pick three books at random, and from each book I will then pick one passage at random that will tell me something about these difficulties, or others I’m not aware of right now. (I know it’s not real time as you’re reading this, but let’s pretend.) Somewhat arbitrarily, I’ll say that:

  1. The first passage will give me insight about why the story is stuck.
  2. The second passage will give me clues about what is most important about my story.
  3. The third passage will give hints as to how to proceed.

Note: I’m totally making this up right now, but have in mind how oracles like the Tarot, runes, etc. are supposed to operate as “spreads.” Ready? Here I go. (Note to reader: imagine minutes passing while anticipatory clock is ticking.)

Here we are:

1. From Alchemy by Marie-Louise von Franz: “Thus you would interpret sulphur as drivenness, a state of being driven. It would not be right to speak of the drive itself; it is rather the state or quality of being driven or overwhelmed. If you look at it from a certain religious angle, that would naturally be the devil… Sulphur is the active part of the psyche, the part which has a definite goal…To get to the bottom of someone’s problem it is necessary first to find the make-up of such drives. We all have them in us and until we bring them up and face them, we have a hidden corner where they live autonomously.” (pp. 126-127)

2. From Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us by John Rowan: “. . . the ‘totalitarian ego,’ characterized by egocentricity, beneffectance (the tendency for self to be perceived as effective in achieving desirable ends while avoiding undesirable ones), and cognitive conservatism.” (p. 177)

3. From The Secret History of Dreaming by Robert Moss: “In his later years, Mark Twain wrote of journeys into nanoworlds, such as a world inside a stone, or a society of microbes inside a human cell…In August 1898, Mark Twain noted a dream that gave him the idea for one of his most intriguing later stories…In ‘The Great Dark,’ he creates a world inside a drop of water on a glass slide under a microscope. The traveler gets inside it, with an appropriate ship and crew, with the aid of a person identified as the Superintendent of Dreams, who appears by his side while he is musing on a sofa. Once inside the waterworld, it becomes hard to know whether it is this world or the one with the sofa that is real; the traveler’s shipmates know no other reality than the ship and the sea. Mark Twain is playing with a favorite theme, Which is the dream?: the world we inhabit  when we think we are awake, or the one we know when we think we are dreaming?” (p. 207)

Note: I picked the first two quickly, without forethought, trying to subvert conscious choosing, but found myself starting to be deliberate with the third. So I closed my eyes, ran my hand along the book spines, and got around myself that way.

First thoughts:

At first glance, I am feeling pleased that the passages seem to echo and approve of where I was going with my “bizarre element” which I envisioned as my main character meeting up with a seemingly imaginary figure, and I’ve thought of having the so called “imaginary” figure tell my main character that he is the real one, while my main character is imaginary. I do really love the which is the dream? theme! In relation to that theme I like the idea of having a literal superintendent character who assists my main character as a kind of psychopomp. That could be really interesting. I’m also pleased that Mark Twain made creative use of his dreams—seems I’m in very good company!

With regard to 2, I have put my character at odds with the superficiality of his culture, which does amount to a rather stifling conservatism. As I’ve written him, he rejects those values and lives somewhat free of restriction, not caring much what others think but 1, the idea of the sulphur gurgling away behind the scenes, gives me the idea that he really DOES mind, that what he wants is to be seen, acknowledged, even acclaimed, even if he doesn’t know it yet. I certainly want that for him.

I think as a follow up, I’m going to read the Mark Twain story. I found it here on Google Books. 

Something overwhelming needs to happen to my character to awaken this sulphuric action, to ignite his desire and his quest. That’s what I need to dwell on at the moment I think. Then I can think more deeply about the rest of my divinatory input.

Thanks for being witness to my process here. Do you think such a method would be helpful to you? Do you employ a similar exercise yourself? Any ideas for tweaking it?

Inspiration of the Month: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Feathertop”

feathertopbowsSteveMorrison

Illustration (used with permission) by Steve Morrison. Here’s his Web site: and here’s his blog 

Read the story “Feathertop” by Nathaniel Hawthorne here

Before bed each night I’ve started reading a selection from The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales. I seem to always like titles starting with The Oxford Book of—I could probably get some enjoyment out of The Oxford Book of Mushrooms or even The Oxford book of Tax Accounting—I think it simply comes down to stellar editing. Anyway, I can tell already that I’m going to like this volume a lot as I found the second story in the collection, which I’ve just finished, quite delightful: it’s Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Feathertop,” in which an inventive witch decides to animate, via the smoke of a bewitched pipe, a scarecrow she’s just assembled and send it off to romance the town justice’s daughter, Polly. Explaining Hawthorne’s motivation for the story, Tom Quirk (how cool a name is that?) in his book Nothing Abstract: Investigations in the American Literary Imagination says that “in the grotesque figure of Feathertop he purposely fashioned a fit emblem to represent his distaste for the contrived characters of popular fiction.” (p. 72) This meta-level idea is interesting, but I think one can safely take his depreciating depiction of the character’s “illusory magnificence” as a comment about superficial and conventional values in general. The witch herself, when deciding on what to do with her creation muses: “What if I should let him take his chance among the other men of straw and empty fellows who go bustling about the world?” She is not talking about other enchanted scarecrows here!

The outcome of the tale seems to me a warning against trying to breathe life into an inherently lifeless persona, as there is something inherently grotesque in doing so. But grotesque or not, I have some sympathy for the character, who, after all, did not ask to be created, and who finally makes a stand for authenticity when he destroys himself after seeing his true reflection in a well-polished mirror at Polly’s mansion. Am I the only one to feel this way about poor Feathertop? I’d say not: certainly Feathertop’s creator has “motherly affection” for him, and maybe Hawthorne has a little affection for him too:

“To say the truth, whether it were chance, or skill, or downright witchcraft, there was something wonderfully human in this ridiculous shape, bedizened with its tattered finery; and as for the countenance, it appeared to shrivel its yellow surface into a grin–a funny kind of expression betwixt scorn and merriment, as if it understood itself to be a jest at mankind.”

I probably feel for the ungainly Feathertop because I myself have written a story about a strange creature that is living within an illusory world. Don’t we all wonder sometimes if we are not somehow living in the same condition, metaphysically speaking?

Leaving aside whatever the message of the tale might be, style-wise, the comedic tone of “Feathertop” is appealing, and I enjoy the presence of the narrator, who seems apologetic and incredulous about the story he’s telling: “Upon my word, if the legend were not one which I heard on my grandmother’s knee, and which had established its place among things credible before my childish judgment could analyze its probability, I question whether I should have the face to tell it now.”

I also relish the details of the story: the invisible servant “Dickon” who fills and lights the enchanted pipe, the animated “party of demons” that dance around the bowl of said pipe, the eponymous rooster feather in the scarecrow’s hat and the faded embroidery on his waistcoat. Fun!

Plot-wise, I’m also intrigued by the fact that Polly’s father, Master Gookin, knows what Feathertop really is, but is beholden somehow to the witch who created him, and therefore too frightened to alert his gullible daughter about what she’s getting into:

“Gladly would poor Master Gookin have thrust his dangerous guest into the street; but there was a constraint and terror within him. This respectable old gentleman, we fear, at an earlier period of life, had given some pledge or other to the evil principle, and perhaps was now to redeem it by the sacrifice of his daughter.”

It is left to our imaginations what this pledge may have been, which I think is a clever move on Hawthorne’s part; it would, however, be an interesting exercise to write another version of the story starring Master Gookin and his mysterious “pledge.” Hmm . . .

Review of “Defiance,” (The T.V. Show): 4 out of 10 for Unremitting Predictability and Cookie Cutter Characters

Defiance_Logo_Tv_Show

I’ll admit that in my own way I am kind of a film and T.V. show snob. OK, not kind of: Some would argue that I’m picky as hell. Not that I’m terribly sophisticated or anything. Really I’ve decided that my snobbishness when it comes to any kind of drama boils down to three factors: 1. how easily I can predict what’s going to happen; 2. how complex and interesting the characters are and finally; 3. whether or not there is any viable comic relief.  I can forgive some implausibility, less-than-clever dialogue, goofy costumes or makeup, oversights in continuity, etc. if a show or movie succeeds on at least two of these counts, or hits it out of the park with at least one.

Unfortunately “Defiance” failed for me on all three parameters with its premiere.  Let’s start with 3, and move backwards. I think the comedy was supposed to come mainly from the smart-ass alien doctor, but for me she wasn’t smart-ass enough, just uniformly cranky, and her complaints (“damned dead-beats,” or whatever she called Joshua and Irisa when they couldn’t pay her) and admonishments (“rush me and we all go BOOM!”) were not funny. I did find the beer-bellied wookie-like alien bodyguard chasing after his Jack Russell puppy somewhat amusingly bizarre, but I’m not sure that was what was intended.  Maybe Nolan’s half-hearted chauvinism towards the mayor is supposed to be funny, but it doesn’t work for me, not because I’m some sort of hyper PC watchdog, but because it helps to pigeon-hole the character into the ceaselessly copied Han-Solo type. Not that I didn’t appreciate Han-Solo. That’s just the point: no Han-Solo type I’ve encountered has ever come close to Harrison Ford’s Han-Solo, so show me something different already!

Which really brings us to 2. Sad to say but I feel like I’ve seen all these characters before, but done better: Irisa reminds me of Faith from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” but she doesn’t appear to have the unflinching edge that made that character so compelling. The happy prostitute character Kenya harkens to Inara of “Firefly,” but she has none of the classy exotic flair, sophistication, or mystery of that character. The cranky doctor I suppose could be compared to Dr. Bones of Star Trek fame, but I’m guessing she will not live up to his level of sardonic cantankerousness. The hot-headed, work-obsessed, daughter over-protecting rich guy of the mining owner McCawley: yep, seen him before. The devious siren woman-behind-the-man of the Stahma character: ditto. The Mayor? She’s the familiar earnest, tough, but lacking-in-confidence leader that such shows like to employ. One of the better examples of this type was president Roslin from Battlestar Galactica, but whereas that character displayed interesting extremes of toughness and weakness, and was eminently intelligent, moral, and fallible, I’m getting the sense Defiance’s mayor Amanda is going to remain much more of an ingénue, who therefore won’t catch on to her mentor’s deceit until well into the series, when it’s predictably almost, but not quite, too late.

(Sidebar: Speaking of stuff we’ve seen before, why are so many alien alcoholic drinks neon blue??)

So that brings us to 1. Let me say this: To his alleged consternation, I have enjoined my fiancée in the sport of making in-progress movie and T.V. show predictions (he used to complain when I stopped a streaming show or movie, or whispered in his ear at the movie theatre to make a prediction; now he’s doing it himself. Ha!) and he made some great ones, including the type of little shaming speech that the Mayor would make to the rogue/vagabond/thief-with-a-heart-of-gold lead character Joshua Nolan when he was packing up to make his requisite callous exit before the grand battle. I think my newfound protégé’s predicted version of the speech was actually snappier than Amanda’s actual lackluster one, by the way.

The bottom line is that the two of us were predicting the whole way along: the just-add-water instant burgeoning romances, the inevitability of both Joshua and Irisa returning to help Defiance fight the Volge, the fact that the mayor’s assistant would turn out to be up to no good, and likewise the former Mayor, the fact that Nolan would, with reluctance of course, of necessity become new “lawkeeper” in town, the fact that the expensive orb Joshua and Irisa had scavenged would save the day. And the list goes on. Unlike what some other critics have proposed, for me this level of predictability does not amount to a pleasant familiarity that makes the unfamiliar setting more palatable: it just bores me, and no amount of oh-that’s-interesting alien aesthetics or politics, or unexplained backstory about what’s happened to earth will keep me watching if I know, essentially, just what’s going to happen, and if I can’t connect in a meaningful way with the characters.

By contrast, much as I’m neither really a zombie-horror fan, nor a fan of gore in general, I have a deep fealty for “The Walking Dead” because: 1. I can predict very little, specifically, about what will happen, other than, forgive my language, BAD SHIT! And; 2. The characters are, for me, as interestingly complex as real people are, and their actions, reactions, decisions and dilemmas reflect this without compromise. Throwing those characters into an apocalyptic scenario (any would probably suffice–the fact that it’s a zombie plague seems almost incidental) makes for one hell of a compelling show. I don’t think a lot of comic relief is appropriate given the nature of the show, so I don’t dock the writing on that count. Instead what we get are some little moments of tension relief when the characters share moments of reflection, affection, lust, grief and so on in the midst of chaos. Brilliant!

So maybe, come to think of it, 2 is more important than 1, because if you have as a foundation of a drama complex characters (i.e. multi-dimensional, somewhat ambiguous, imperfectly good or bad, morally conflicted, consistent yet harboring contradictions), it should not be that easy to predict what will happen, regardless of the specific genre of the show or film.

In sum, I’m going to give “Defiance” a few more tries, just in case it might be able to surprise me. I might want to at least find out what’s up with Datak’s bleached out steam-punk garb, or what sorts of alien sex might be bartered at the brothel. As you can tell I’m not holding out much hope, but I want to play fair. Meanwhile I’ll be on the lookout for any other prospects to satisfy my snobbish criteria for “worthwhile drama.” (Especially since “Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” are done for the season.) Suggestions welcomed!

Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children? Part One: Confronting Darkness

arthur-rackham-hansel-and-gretelImage by Arthur Rackham, in the public domain

As a writer who is in the process of publishing a collection of fairy or wonder tales, an article I ran across in Slate caught my attention rather keenly. It’s titled “Are Fairy Tales Out of Fashion?”  In it, Libby Copeland states more or less categorically that fairy tales (the authentic kind) are not suitable for young children, and that she refuses to read them to her young daughter. (She doesn’t like the Disney fairy tale versions either, for other reasons.)

Many commenters objected to this notion, and someone amongst them was astute enough to point out that when selecting fairy tales to read to younger children the age of the protagonists of the story may provide somewhat of a guide to determining what might be appropriate. Steven Swan makes this point in The Fairy Tale: The Magic Mirror of the Imagination. But bear in mind that appropriateness here does not mean necessarily censoring out the disturbing elements if the child is younger: it just means that the concerns and anxieties represented in the tale are those typically faced by individuals of a certain age. Of “Hansel and Gretel” Swan says that “[t]he problem they face is that there is not enough food at home to feed the entire family. The lack of food may be read as a metaphor for there not being enough love at home. In essence, the children feel unloved and unwanted, as reflected in their stepmother’s desire to abandon them.” (p. 23) I think the point here is that young children are very dependent beings and thus naturally face anxieties about not being loved and protected, even if they are, for the most part, loved and protected.

So does that mean “Little Red Riding Hood” or “Hansel and Gretel” are good stories for all little children to hear? No, not necessarily. I do think Copeland may be prudent in censoring some of the more brutal or scary fairy tales from her very young daughter, depending on circumstances. I’m remembering that the wolfish evil called “The Nothing” in the Neverending Story film gave my little brother nightmares for months after he watched it. (I’m not sure if reading the book, or having it read to him, would have produced the same effect; perhaps having to depict “The Nothing” with his own imagination would have triggered a buffering action in his young psyche. But I suppose the converse might also have been true.)

So, discretion may be a virtue when it comes to a certain age group or temperament. But to categorically banish all non-sanitized fairy tales completely from childhood? In my opinion that is a form of psychic hygiene that is unhealthy, and ultimately untenable. Unhealthy, because darkness is better acknowledged and confronted, not denied; untenable, because it will come out anyway, one way or another, in dreams, most likely, and fantasy-play. Copeland herself admits to being attracted to gruesome fairy tales at about age 9 or 10, and to hoping that when her daughter is considerably older “and possessed of that child’s fascination with darkness” that she reads the original, unsanitized versions of tales like Cinderella. There is ambivalence in her attitude, then, for despite all her discomfort with the supposed anachronistic violence of the fairy tale in general, at the same time she seems to be conceding the point that darkness with have its due. Consider this quote by in Tremendous Trifles by Gilbert Keith Chesterton:

I find that there really are human beings who think fairy tales bad for children. . . . All this kind of talk is based on that complete forgetting of what a child is like which has been the firm foundation of so many educational schemes. If you kept bogies and goblins away from children they would make them up for themselves. One small child in the dark can invent more hells than Swedenborg. One small child can imagine monsters too big and black to get into any picture, and give them names too unearthly and cacophonous to have occurred in the cries of any lunatic. The child, to begin with, commonly likes horrors, and he continues to indulge in them even when he does not like them. . . . The fear does not come from fairy tales; the fear comes from the universe of the soul. (pp. 129-130)

If you refuse the reality of this “universe of the soul” to begin with, or insist on characterizing it as a light-filled paradise of benign cherubs (real angels can be scary too), schmaltzy poetry, or cutesy baby animals, I guess Chesterton’s argument falls flat, but if you concede that the “universe of the soul” is anything but this simplistic or banal, then it is hard to argue with him. So in this vein I suggest that fairy tales are “bad” for children, not in the sense of causing them harm; rather they convey “badness” and “horrors,” as well as wonder, delight, and joy in the service of children’s (and adults’) own souls, to give them an outward reflection and make them, therefore, possible to relate to in a potentially fruitful way. Which tales to select for one’s child at a given stage in their childhood (assuming that fairy tales appeal to them in the first place), is another matter, and there are no parenting rules to help us here: only our intuition can be of service, as well, as, perhaps, taking a cue from what we observe about their fantasy play and their dreams, if we are fortunate enough to hear about them.

Stay tuned for Part Two of “Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children?”. . .

The Only Writing Advice that Truly Matters: Write What You Love

In this early and hopefully theme-setting blog post I would like to champion this most useful idea, raising it several levels above the more commonly heard advice to “write what you know.”

I feel I’ve spent, and sometimes wasted, much of my limited time in this life in the “writing what you know” and/or “writing what seems easy, lucrative, or respectable” camp. Why? I’m not sure. I guess it’s like settling for the wrong, but acceptable, mate: it’s a road more travelled and supposedly more secure. But that road doesn’t lead anywhere interesting or important, and ultimately you (and I) arrive at the wrong place.

So I guess that brings me to what exactly I mean by the potentially trite word “love.” I don’t mean a surface kind of approval, like loving ice cream or silk blouses. When you truly love a piece of writing you’re working on, or have written, it is more like loving a person, and thus it has to go beyond the infatuation phase to come out right. Just as when you really love a person, the relationship isn’t always going to be easy or enjoyable—effort, struggle, disappointment, and sacrifice will invariably be involved. But you hang in there and do the work and spend the time because it’s worth it, because it feels meaningful, important, and deeply gratifying to you.

And often it is the “not knowing” or mysterious element in the work (or the person!) that makes it so worth pursuing. For me this comes in wonderfully strange dream or daydream images, a certain ineffable mood or drifting melody or rhythm that overtakes me, or an idea, usually in the form of a question, that will parade around me, gesticulating like a boisterous child until I pay attention to it.

Not that “writing what you know” and “writing what you love” are mutually exclusive approaches: particularly in non-fiction writing, people tend to research and know a lot about topics that are intensely interesting or dear to them. But even so it’s my contention that if  you have too much “knowing” when you start a writing project, any writing project, what comes out of it is going to be stale. I think the sort of love we need as writers necessitates a quality of genuine unknowing, or what researcher and writer Rosemary Anderson calls “auspicious bewilderment.” This writerly love embodies curiosity, fascination, and respect for the place from which the rich, unexpected material arises, which is not the confined quarters of the everyday conscious mind but the other, expansive realm of mind parallel to it, the one depth psychologists in their more staid language call “the unconscious” and in their more fanciful turns of phrase call “the imaginal.” Fiction and poetry writers probably draw more from that region, but all writers must rely on it to a great extent.

So let this be the season of Writing What We Love, as an end in itself, and Loving What We Write as a brave act of devotion (not narcissism). Carry on!

A Fool’s Blog Space: Let’s Jump off the Cliff Together . . .

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Welcome to The Lilting Tree, a blog devoted to my own set of quirky interests, most of them related in some way to the imagination: dreams, fantasy, writing, music, film, television, literature, symbolism, mythology, folklore, fairy tales, depth psychology and all things fascinating, artful, off-beat, quirky, mysterious, and weird.

I thought April 1st* would be an auspicious day to begin the effort, since it is a day for good-natured mischief and caprice. I would like to see this day and what it stands for elevated in status, as I think we all need a bonafide vacation from mundanity and predictability. But then again, fools and tricksters are liminal and therefore marginal characters by nature, so maybe their day should fly low under the radar as well. How else would it sneak up on you?

Still, I proclaim that The Fool is no trivial personage. My glancing familiarity with the Tarot informs me that The Fool is a figure who, for better or worse, is not terribly bound by consensual, seemingly “concrete” reality, nor simply floating in a vaporous netherworld; he (or she) is somewhere in between in a free-flowing, organic reality of ripening potentials. It’s a nice place to hang out, and I’m hoping you’ll enjoy spending some time with me in this neither-here-nor-there ephemeral-but-grounded space.

Next week I will start the blog in earnest but for now, here’s a great little tale featuring “Ivan the Fool,” a common figure in Russian fairy tales. It’s called “Sivka Burka”: Read it here.

You won’t read it? Well, at least take in this highlight, advice from Ivan’s dead dad:

“Now go out into the open field and call: ‘Sivka-Burka, dun horse, magic horse, come when I call you.’ A horse will come galloping up to you. Crawl into its right ear and out its left, and you will be turned into a handsome young man. Mount the horse and ride it.”

Who knew the path to transformation lay in the ear canal of a dun horse?

* I actually posted on another blog platform on April Fools, and then switched, in case you’re wondering.