Reflections on Writer’s Procrastination

 maliciounata___the_time_thief_by_restlessd-d5rg0dj

Image “Maliciounata, the Time Thief” by artist Rhonda Strickland, used with permission. Please visit her here.

Writer’s Procrastination, Part One: On Putting Oneself to Sleep

Procrastination: what is this beast anyway? If it were a mythological critter, it would have the body of a tortoise, the head of a sloth. If it were a person, it would be that tiresome cousin who calls you when you have infinitely more important things to do than gab, and won’t let you off the phone. So here’s the thing then: the critter and the person are just boring, aren’t they? How do they manage to get the better of us? I think it’s because in reality procrastination is more sinister: the critter has a scorpion’s tail with which to paralyze us, and the needy cousin, a metaphor for our own internal distracter, is suffering from something like a Munchausen syndrome by proxy, slowly poisoning us, a little bit at a time, with seemingly innocuous chatter.

Recently I read a book by Marion Woodman and Robert Bly called The Maiden King: The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine, which analyzes the Russian folktale “The Maiden King” or “The Maiden Tsar.” In the story, the hero Ivan is sabotaged by his stepmother and his tutor into falling asleep each time the princess of his dreams, his beloved, his betrothed, the maiden tsar, draws near in her ship. The weapon of choice here is a pin, swiftly, secretly and viciously thrust into the prince’s neck by the conspiratorial tutor at the behest of his jealous step-mom:

“[S]he gave him a pin and said: ‘Tomorrow, when the ships begin to sail toward you, stick this pin into Ivan’s tunic.’ The tutor promised to carry out her order. Next morning Ivan arose and went fishing. As soon as his tutor beheld the ships in the distance, he stuck the pin into Ivan’s tunic. ‘Ah, I feel so sleepy,” said the merchant’s son.” (Bly and Woodman, p. 248)

That is what procrastination feels like to me, when I have the psychological wherewithal to notice it: like a sabotaging, soporific pinprick of doom. In Your Own Worst Enemy: Understanding the Paradox of Self-Defeating Behavior, the authors state:

Although the modern fascination with self-destruction tends to invoke dramatic images of sweeping catastrophes and sinister motives, leading to the permanent devastation of careers and families, the everyday reality of self-defeat is often mundane, pathetic, and even laughable. (Berglas & Baumeister, 1993, p. 8)

Such a little thing, it seems, to put off writing (or any other soul-affirming activity) today—I’ll get to it tomorrow, and in fact, I’ll make up for not working today and do lots of writing tomorrow, and it’s better to wait because . . . but tomorrow another pinprick will come again, as it does for Ivan, and then another and just like in the fairytale, soon enough I will miss the boat for good, the ship of my self-actualizing, vital life will have sailed off without me.

What’s so sinister here is that I, like Ivan, think it is only natural that I’m sleepy. What’s wrong with taking a break, after all? Both of us think it is we who are consciously deciding to go unconscious, to turn our back on what is most important to us just for a little while, because we don’t at first recognize the sabotage or the saboteur, who’s masquerading as tutor, i.e. someone, or an element of ourselves, who presumably helps, shepherds, mentors, guides, advises, educates us in order to benefit us in some way. But as Bly states, the tutor in his/her worst aspect is the destroyer of imagination. Here he is also the destroyer of initiative and follow-through in bringing our imaginings into being.

Ken Robinson, education reformer, emphatically states that currently our education systems are designed to put children to sleep, anesthetize them, and thwart their imaginations, curtail their initiatives, and discourage their innovations. C. G. Jung agrees that “we have to be careful that the school does not destroy the natural functioning of the psyche.” (Jung, Children’s Dreams, p. 133). It need not be this way, as Robinson argues. Teachers could instead act in the best interests of their student’s imaginations, encouraging and nurturing their creative potentials and innovative ideas so they take root and flower in the world (he likes organic versus mechanistic metaphors). Likewise, the inner “tutor” could help us steer our boat towards the gleaming fleet of our deepest values, helping us be steadfast in the work it takes to express them. So what goes awry when this does not happen?

The answer in the tale is that the tutor is the first to be “put to sleep” with alcohol and false promises, by Ivan’s step-mother. So, the tale tells us it is she who dwells, entangled, at the root of the problem, whoever and whatever she is inside us. It will behoove us, then, to examine this character in Part Two. For now I invite you to notice the ways you put yourself to sleep through procrastination. More specifically, what is “the pin” for you?

Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children? Part Three: The Promise of Redemption

800px-Mikalojus_Konstantinas_Ciurlionis_-_FAIRY_TALE_(CASTLE_FAIRY_TALE)_-_1909

Image by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, in the public domain (see Wikimedia Commons)

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality. (J.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”)

Ultimately, many traditional fairy tales, if not offering straightforward “happy endings” do frequently embody in their outcomes the themes of restoration, transformation, and redemption, and while perhaps complex themes for children to absorb, they are, psychically and spiritually speaking, indispensable ones that foreshadow the individuation struggles to come. Marie-Louise von Franz says that “[i]n fairy tales redemption refers specifically to a condition where someone has been cursed or bewitched and through certain happenings or events in the story is redeemed.” (Psychological Meaning of Redemption Motifs in Fairy Tales, p. 7) Why does this matter? Because all of us are bound to become doomed, cursed or “bewitched”—in other words, held back, distorted and tormented by something in our own psyches. Fairy tales dramatize this in a spare, elegant, but powerful way, and generally provide certain formulas for overcoming this predicament, and achieving redemption.

In the process of getting to that outcome, it seems to me that the message (not moral!) is usually that: 1. Things will not be easy or fair; 2. Being brave and bold, even a little foolhardy, is necessary to overcome this; 3. At the same time one should be humble, compassionate, observant, attentive and trusting (this is normally how to gain favor with the helper or “donor” character); 4. Things will not resolve right away, and one normally must fail multiple times (usually at least twice) in one’s goal. I think these messages can be taken as guidance for both outer and inner life, and are useful for both children and adults.

Not all fairy or wonder tales are of this caliber, though. Some promote values of obedience, conformity and punish intrepid characters for their initiative and curiosity. These are the sorts of tales (along with the overly “cleaned up” cutesy fairy tales that swamp us today) that I find more objectionable from a psychological point of view. I believe they may pose a different but significant sort of danger to children, because they undermine values of individuality, initiative, ingenuity, and choice. I tend to agree with Guillermo Del Toro when he says, “I don’t like fairy tales that have a moral teaching at the end; I like them with a more subversive teaching.” (Read more here.)

I will, for one, indubitably be reading fairy tales to my children, and to myself, and will probably continue to write them as well.

Let me leave you with Neil Gaiman’s Instructions, which does a better job than I have in expressing what is essential and life-affirming about fairy tales, for children and adults both:

Wintry Poem in Springtime: “Chronology”

Martin_Johnson_Heade_-_Two_Owls_at_Sunset

Image by Martin Johnson Heade, in the Public Domain

Many a year ago this poem was published in a now-defunct (from what I can tell) journal called RIM Magazine. I still like it, so I thought I’d dust it off and share it with you. Might be a little at odds with the season, but then again, one can have a wintry mood, even in spring.

 Chronology

© Lisa E. Coté

When I was seven years and seven days
the owl of time with beatless wings
flew down, sunk its talons
into my shadow’s heart,
and made me an old woman.

See the ivory tower past the ridge
of soft pink granite, by the foaming
mouth of the sea? It’s made of a
giant’s tooth, carved by a dwarf,
polished by wind and water.

The old woman lives there,
looking out for signals.
She sits by the westward window,
knitting the night.

She takes a hedgehog’s bristle, rowan’s
berries; a lock of hair from the infant,
a plait of the old man’s beard.
She wraps them all in a white shawl,
talisman against bitter weather;
splint for the lame white hare.

When I am seven ages gone,
pull my body from the
sunless bog; make from my skin
a set of traveler’s boots, a saddle
for a black mare, a pouch
for silver coin. Stretch the rest of me
into a kettle drum.

Grind my bones and drink them as a tea;
then I’ll live another age in my own skin,
and you’ll live another age in me,
and know how to winnow grain and speak to crows,
and make friends with winter.

Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children? Part Two: The Wonders of the Fairy Tale Helper or Donor

Image

“Dreaming of Snow White,” by Franz Schrotzberg, in the Public Domain

Tolkien states in his essay, “On Fairy-Stories” (read it here) that fairy tales are not more suited to children than adults, particularly, and that ”

in fact only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them; and when they have it, it is not exclusive, nor even necessarily dominant. It is a taste, too, that would not appear, I think, very early in childhood without artificial stimulus; it is certainly one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.”

I think he’s right. Personally speaking, I don’t remember being read fairy tales as a child—I rather came across them on my own, and then sought them out myself throughout grade school. I would say that from about age 8 through 12 years old I was somewhat obsessed with them, reading the Grimm’s tales and the whole gamut of Andrew Lang’s colored fairy books, as well as books about Greek, Roman and Norse mythology.

Short film versions of “The Happy Prince,” and “The Little Mermaid” (original story!) were shown on Canadian television every year around Christmas when I was a girl, and they held great sway over me: it’s impossible to articulate what a profound effect they exerted on my young soul. Had they been sanitized—e.g., the little mermaid is never faced with her dilemma of either killing the prince or being obliterated herself; the swallow in the Happy Prince makes it to Egypt and all is well in the Prince’s city—these stories would have meant nothing to me. (Even as a child I was not big on the moralizing about good and naughty children at the end of Anderson’s tale, although I did love the idea of “the daughters of the air”—they just should have been left as mysterious beings.)

Here’s the rub: children face difficulties, and heartaches, however we strive to protect them, and must make sense of a world teeming with loss, suffering, unfairness, immense challenges, and yes, also tragedy, cruelty and death. And it’s important to acknowledge that the reality of dark forces is both external and internal (the original “Star Wars” series captures this idea very well): some of the great minds of psychology have emphasized the intrapsychic nature of such stories, the fact that they symbolize universal aspects of the psyche and the particular internal dynamics within individuals:

Children feel anger and hostility, violent emotion and feelings of helplessness and fairy-stories enable them to realize that they are not alone, that others have such feelings and living involves a struggle between good and bad, fortune and misfortune. Fairy tales appeal to both sides of reality and help children deal with their own deep inner conflicts. Often dreams have a fairy tale quality about them and you can help children work through nightmares by making this connection. (Dream Time with Children: Learning to Dream, Dreaming to Learn by Brenda Mallon, p. 70)

I find fairy tales gratifying because they are for the most part balanced, incorporating dark, evil, or ignorant characters or elements as well as those who are eminently good-hearted, wise and brave. Usually, although not always, the latter types of characters prevail. More often than not they do so with the aid of some sort of magical helper, e.g. the little doll in “Vasalisa the Brave,” the grey wolf in the Russian story “The Firebird,” the spirit of a dead thief in the Norse tale “The Companion,” the kind and mysterious old woman in the German tale “The True Bride.”

I’ll write more about this element of fairy tales in a subsequent post. For now I will say that this element was probably one of the most important to me, psychologically, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. How comforting to have help from a magical “other” at your service, in your time of great need? (This is probably a variety of the “religious impulse” of the psyche at work.) When you are older, more academically-minded perhaps, you can understand these others as “just” or “only” aspects of yourself. But at the time that you read them, imagine them, or dream them, they are potently real, autonomous, mysterious, and a little spooky: anything but “just” or “only.” And I’m guessing that for young children this potency is not yet diluted, lucky for them. (Not because they can’t distinguish reality from make-believe, but because for them make-believe has not yet been dismissed as unimportant.) This helper or donor element of fairy tales is anything but “bad” for children, in the sense of polluting their young minds; it is rather a source of awe and a beacon of hope and trust in the midst of an inherently dangerous world, both inside the metaphorical world of the tale, and in the outside world of literal realities.

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