Sense and Music–Gifts of the Daimon: “The Piper and the Puca”


“Pooka” Copyright Emese, used with permission. See:


What to do when you’ve hit a rut in your life? Get tipsy, find yourself a little bridge to cross, and wait for this guy (above)! This month’s folktale is called “The Piper and the Puca,” and it’s from Fairy and  Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry,  edited and selected by W. B. Yeats. It’s in the public domain, so I’ve pasted it below. Give it a read, and then see what you think of my interpretation, which follows.


Croagh Patrick, from Wikimedia Commons




Translated literally from the Irish of the Leabhar Sgeulaigheachta.

In the old times, there was a half fool living in Dunmore, in the county Galway, and although he was excessively fond of music, he was unable to learn more than one tune, and that was the “Black Rogue.” He used to get a good deal of money from the gentlemen, for they used to get sport out of him. One night the piper was coming home from a house where there had been a dance, and he half drunk. When he came to a little bridge that was up by his mother’s house, he squeezed the pipes on, and began playing the “Black Rogue” (an rógaire dubh). The Púca came behind him, and flung him up on his own back. There were long horns on the Púca, and the piper got a good grip of them, and then he said——

“Destruction on you, you nasty beast, let me home. I have a ten-penny piece in my pocket for my mother, and she wants snuff.”

“Never mind your mother,” said the Púca, “but keep your hold. If you fall, you will break your neck and your pipes.” Then the Púca said to him, “Play up for me the ‘Shan Van Vocht’ (an t-seann-bhean bhocht).”

“I don’t know it,” said the piper.

“Never mind whether you do or you don’t,” said the Púca. “Play up, and I’ll make you know.”

The piper put wind in his bag, and he played such music as made himself wonder.

“Upon my word, you’re a fine music-master,” says the piper then; “but tell me where you’re for bringing me.”

“There’s a great feast in the house of the Banshee, on the top of Croagh Patric to-night,” says the Púca, “and I’m for bringing you there to play music, and, take my word, you’ll get the price of your trouble.”

“By my word, you’ll save me a journey, then,” says the piper, “for Father William put a journey to Croagh Patric on me, because I stole the white gander from him last Martinmas.”

The Púca rushed him across hills and bogs and rough places, till he brought him to the top of Croagh Patric. Then the Púca struck three blows with his foot, and a great door opened, and they passed in together, into a fine room.

The piper saw a golden table in the middle of the room, and hundreds of old women (cailleacha) sitting round about it. The old women rose up, and said, “A hundred thousand welcomes to you, you Púca of November (na Samhna). Who is this you have with you?”

“The best piper in Ireland,” says the Púca.

One of the old women struck a blow on the ground, and a door opened in the side of the wall, and what should the piper see coming out but the white gander which he had stolen from Father William.

“By my conscience, then,” says the piper, “myself and my mother ate every taste of that gander, only one wing, and I gave that to Moy-rua (Red Mary), and it’s she told the priest I stole his gander.”

The gander cleaned the table, and carried it away, and the Púca said, “Play up music for these ladies.”

The piper played up, and the old women began dancing, and they were dancing till they were tired. Then the Púca said to pay the piper, and every old woman drew out a gold piece, and gave it to him.

“By the tooth of Patric,” said he, “I’m as rich as the son of a lord.”

“Come with me,” says the Púca, “and I’ll bring you home.”

They went out then, and just as he was going to ride on the Púca, the gander came up to him, and gave him a new set of pipes. The Púca was not long until he brought him to Dunmore, and he threw the piper off at the little bridge, and then he told him to go home, and says to him, “You have two things now that you never had before—you have sense and music (ciall agus ceól).”

The piper went home, and he knocked at his mother’s door, saying, “Let me in, I’m as rich as a lord, and I’m the best piper in Ireland.”

“You’re drunk,” said the mother.

“No, indeed,” says the piper, “I haven’t drunk a drop.”

The mother let him in, and he gave her the gold pieces, and, “Wait now,” says he, “till you hear the music I’ll play.”

He buckled on the pipes, but instead of music, there came a sound as if all the geese and ganders in Ireland were screeching together. He wakened the neighbours, and they were all mocking him, until he put on the old pipes, and then he played melodious music for them; and after that he told them all he had gone through that night.

The next morning, when his mother went to look at the gold pieces, there was nothing there but the leaves of a plant.

The piper went to the priest, and told him his story, but the priest would not believe a word from him, until he put the pipes on him, and then the screeching of the ganders and geese began.

“Leave my sight, you thief,” says the priest.

But nothing would do the piper till he would put the old pipes on him to show the priest that his story was true.

He buckled on the old pipes, and he played melodious music, and from that day till the day of his death, there was never a piper in the county Galway was as good as he was.


“Self Portrait as Bagpiper” by Jacob Jordaens, 1644


“The Piper and the Puca”: Interpretation 

Encounter with the Daimon

I believe this tale describes, in the character of the seemingly untalented and unsophisticated “half fool” piper, an attitude that constitutes a precondition for creative inspiration, but one that is insufficient in itself for artistic and psychological growth: enter the Puca. The Puca, in my view, is a fearsome but no-nonsense version of a genius or daimon, who bestows on our piper tremendous gifts. “You have two things now that you never had before,” says the Puca to the piper at the end of their adventure together, “you have sense and music (ciall agus ceól).”

Elizabeth Gilbert has given a tantalizing TED talk about this entity, and argues for adopting the idea of the daimon or genius that is connected to, but separate from ourselves. My favorite part of the talk is her illustration of the idea via the very visceral experience of poet Ruth Stone, who may have had her own encounter with a Puca:

[W]hen she was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields, and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. And she said it was like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, “run like hell.” And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem,and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she’d be running and running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it “for another poet.”

Who is this devilish being who rushes at us when we are least expecting it, yet somehow ready? “The ‘genius-daimon’ is that incorporeal, imperishable spirit of a place or person, possessing an inimitable character all its own,” says Stephen A. Diamond in Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence (p. 263) And William Desmond tells us:

The daimon is not a quaint exotism we find among unenlightened primitives. It may be the true word that describes the tutelary powers that aid us to become and be ourselves . . . We are in the care of something other, and greater. Transcending is not in our power, but our powers are in the power of transcending. The daimon must be with us, or we with the daimon, for our power of being to come into its flourishing. (Ethics and the Between, p. 205)

As an archetypal being, the daimon has many manifestations, but there is always a compelling or demanding aspect to contend with–not answering the call, not doing what one is called to is grounds for punishment. The Puca of our story, depicted as an anthropomorphised animal of some kind, perhaps part horse and part goat, is certainly not a comforting figure. He commands the piper, and makes no bones about the risk involved in going with him. Paradoxically, it seems, there needs to be an encounter with this “other” in order for a person to develop fully into their own selfness. If you take a depth psychological view, this makes sense, as under this view, the ego, the everyday going-about-our business mode of consciousness we spend most of our time in is very limited. According to depth psychology, without access to the larger and deeper structures of the psyche, and with only social adaptation to shape (and potentially warp) us, we end up, like the piper, playing the same tune over and over, treading the same path with stultifying predictability. But there is always this other force underneath, compelling us in one way or another, and giving us access to a different dimension of consciousness, and of life:

The daimon motivates. It protects. It invents and persists with stubborn fidelity. It resists compromising  reasonableness and often forces deviance and oddity upon its keeper, especially when it is neglected or opposed . . . it is out of step with time, finding all sorts of faults, gaps, and knots in the flow of life–and it prefers them. (The Soul’s Code, p. 39)

Fairies such as the Puca are shape-shifting, time-and-space bending entities who come from a psycho-cosmological place much vaster, more complex and more fluid than our own, and can be our living energetic connection, a psychopomp, to that wider domain. The force they embody is formidable, and like the piper we had better hang on tight, keep our egos open but intact.

But we might ask: how does the meager ego get access to these larger, richer structures, these bigger, more complex energies in the first place? Or, in the context of our tale, we may wonder: why does the Puca even bother with the piper, who is merely going about his business, playing his one tune incessantly, collecting his gold, and taking it home to mother in infantile fashion?

Creative Naivety 

There are two clues in the tale to the attitude needed, I think, to facilitate an encounter with the Puca/Daimon/Genius, two qualities or conditions that open the way, and these are foolishness and drunkenness. Drunkenness lowers consciousness, allowing unconscious material to rise. At its best it can be initiatory and loosen rigid boundaries. Foolishness, often a corollary to drunkenness, can embody a certain creative naivete, a willingness to do as one pleases, to be daring, or just plain odd, without care for the consequences or the judgements of others. It is key, I believe, that our piper has both of these qualities in half-measure, for if he were fully drunk and completely foolish, he would not have been enough of a match for the Puca. But had he been too sober and too proper–not drunk and foolish enough–the Puca would have had no entree with him.

So the piper has just the right disposition for a meeting with the Puca. But there are plenty of half-drunk, half-fools out there. What would make the Puca think of testing him, of giving him the opportunity to earn his gifts? The Puca sees in the piper, apparently, underneath the veneer of the silly, unambitious, mama’s boy tinkerer a gifted, mature musician and man. The sense and music were there all along, but the particular force, energy, and otherworldly knowledge of the Puca was needed to bring them out. The piper is also at the right place: a bridge, or place of crossing. The Puca himself is another kind of bridge, bridging the human and fairy worlds.

How did the Puca know of the piper’s potential, and see fit to unleash it? The answer, perhaps, is in this strange connection to the stealing and eating of the priest’s gander, presumably close to a year earlier. According to The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan, geese, either domestic or wild were extremely important symbolically to the Celts: “So strong was the identification of Celtic people with the goose that it was a taboo food among the Britons, used for divination, and eaten only on ritual occasions. Some fairy beings could change by shape-shifting into geese . . . ” (p. 224) Perhaps we have a clue here, and may assume the gander to be a fairy being as well. So the consumption (integration) of the priest’s gander, we may conjecture, has a ritualistic aspect, and rituals, as we know, tend also to lower consciousness and draw out the divine or supernatural forces. The thievery, here, is also important, as acts of theft usually are in myths and fairy tales.

Stealing the gander seems in thematic terms to be the instigating action of the story. In psychological terms the piper stealing the priest’s gander likely represents the shift of energy or libido from a restrictive but ordered attitude (priest) to a more liberal, open one. Since there is no father in the story, and based on the authority the priest exerts over the piper, the priest can be slotted, in Jungian terms, as the father/father complex stand-in. The piper shares this stolen bounty with his mother, and gives a wing to “Red Mary,” likely a fairy-in-disguise and anima figure (female aspect of the male psyche) who repays him by tattling to the priest. (A whole other line of interpretation could be taken up around this peripheral yet key character of the story, but we’ll set it aside for now.)

The priest and the Puca, though opposites, are tied together symbolically: both hold a kind of otherworldly authority and power, and both, we should remember, require the piper to go to Croagh Patric, but with very different aims: the priest wants him to atone, restoring order and hierarchy, while the Puca wants him to shake off his restrictions and transform. To do this he must enter an underworld realm, and while there entertain, and pay respect toward, the wise old (grand)mother, who in this case manifests as a collective of faerie women living beneath Croagh Patric, in “The House of the Banshee.” Isn’t the Banshee a harbinger of death? Robert Moss has written recently of her, and reminds us that besides taking the form of the hag, she can assume the form of a beautiful young woman, and that she has a more complex role:

Above all, she comes to invite us or escort us on the Otherworld journey: not only the journey that follows physical death, but on journeys beyond the physical world from which we may return to the body with magic and power. (

Still, the visit to her realm is not without its dangers: Desmond goes on to warn that the daimon too is not only connected with creation, but also, necessarily, to destruction. It is is “connected to death. There is a demonic side the daimon, relative to the nihilating powers that rear up in us as creatures, that shadow all transcending.”

Marie Louise Von Franz reminds us that “demonism and creativity are psychologically very close to each other. Nothing in the psyche is more destructive than unrealized, unconscious creative impulses.” (Projection and Recollection in Jungian Psychology: Reflections of the Soul, p. 106)

That bears repeating: Nothing in the psyche is more destructive than unrealized, unconscious creative impulses.

We can assume our piper becomes sufficiently conscious of his creative impulses to ensure his daimon becomes a helpful force, and what’s known in fairy tale analysis as a “donor”–a figure who gives the hero some sort of magical assistance or bestows upon him or her some power. In return for becoming more conscious and giving something of himself to the underworld powers, the “hundreds of old women” whom he serves (an interesting contrast/parallel to his familiar mother and home), he receives the power of maturation, an accelerated ripening of his inborn potentials. The gold he receives, the real gold as opposed the illusory gold so often proffered by the fairies, is repeated access to inspiration, and the skill that evolves from having taken a path of “hills and bogs and rough places” instead of the familiar path, risking the difficult piece instead of the easy, well-worn tune.

So, in light of the wisdom embodied in this tale, here are some takeaways I’ve gleaned, things to tell myself:

  • Steal a gander: Be subversive to your “thou shalt” conventional thinking and sacrifice time and energy to feed the irrational forces
  • Sense (orderedness, thinking, rationality) and music (playfulness, emotionality, irrationality) are both necessary for growth and maturation of the personality and the development of one’s art, whatever form it may take.
  • Be half-drunk and half-foolish: Lower consciousness (daydream, but in an attentive way) and be willing to risk failure. If you do these things, the Puca, or rather, your own version of a daimon, will catch your scent and consider visiting you.
  • Be brave, trust the daimon and go with him or her: Inspiration can be frightening as well as vivifying, but when you are called, you need to answer. Opportunities for inspiration must be seized, and to do so we must trust the foreign-feeling energy enough to ride it, acknowledging that it knows better than us where to go.
  • Play up! Don’t think about it or doubt yourself. Just do that thing you feel you’re meant to do, even if you don’t think you can.
  • The warning from Von Franz: Nothing in the psyche is more destructive than unrealized, unconscious creative impulses.

Before I leave off, I want to bring up the oddness of the revivified gander, who, although eaten, is living with the wise women under Croagh Patric, and who gives the piper the unmelodious squawking pipes. Of course, if we know anything of fairies, we expected the gold to turn to leaves, but I for one did expect that the set of fairy pipes would be superior to the piper’s old set. But instead they sound atrocious. Why is that?

In terms of why the gander is still around, remembering the goose’s significance to the Celts and other peoples, perhaps this is an element of psyche that cannot be integrated, a mysterious fundamental energy that exists on multiple planes. In relation to the gander specifically and Hindu thought:

The cosmic gander (the divine presence in the universe) reveals itself through song, which is thought of as the breathing of the supreme being, the rhythm of inhaling and exhaling. (Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, p. 460)

The conscious rhythm of inhaling and exhaling is quite important to pipers, so having this particular instrument in the story makes symbolic sense. But why the horrid sounds coming from the faerie pipes? Perhaps the divine element gives the squawking pipes to our lad to keep him grounded, to balance his newfound powers and prevent an inflation. (Maybe this is why his gold pieces must not survive as well.) Don’t we all have times in our creative lives, and our lives in general that feel awkward, frustrating and stymied, as well as times where things are beautiful and flowing? That is what human life is meant to be, it seems, and since we know from mythic and folkloric wisdom that we can’t stay in the nether realms indefinitely without penalty, we had better be willing to play the squawking pipes on occasion, so that our real music, when it arrives, sounds that much more melodious.

More to explore:

If you haven’t watched Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk pertaining to the daimon or genius, here it is:

NaNoWriMo Angst: Get Behind Me, Perfectionism!


Good Lord, what have I gotten myself into? I know what you’re going to say: “If you’re signed up for NaNoWriMo, what the *&^% are you doing writing blog posts? Get thee back to thy novel!”

Well, that’s a good point, but I’m trying for a little catharsis here about all the anxieties and insecurities this commitment is bringing up. Here’s a sampling of the self-sabotaging thoughts coming up for me:

  • I haven’t done enough research.
  • I haven’t done enough world building.
  • I haven’t done enough character building.
  • I’m not talented enough to pull off a decent novel.
  • I’ve made this thing way too complicated.
  • I don’t have an outline.
  • It’s selfish to work on this when I have a baby at home. It takes too much of my time and mental energy away from her.
  • I’m behind.
  • What I wrote last night is straight-out crap!
  • I’ll never make the word count.

In looking at these, aside from the guilty thought about my daughter, which does not hold up to reality-testing scrutiny, since I would of course drop everything if she really needed me, I can see that all the other thoughts really amount to the belief: “I’m no good.” Or maybe more specifically: “I’m not perfect, therefore I’m no good, therefore it’s better not to try.”

Well, F you, perfectionism! I hereby give myself permission to:

  • Explore through writing the story.
  • Write crappy stuff.
  • Not make the word count, as long as I complete at least four pomodoros of writing each day, or two on Saturday and Sunday.
  • Be a mom who takes care of her own needs and wants as well as her daughter’s.
  • And oh the unthinkable: Enjoy myself!

One last thing I’ll note before getting back to those pomodoros (if you don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, see here) is that I was going to blame my internal editor for stalling me, and pronounce, “Get Behind Me, Editor.” And yes, my editor is wanting to stop after every other sentence and revise, which is part of why I’m doing NaNoWriMo, to get out of this habit or at least be able to write in a different way. But the my editor likes to edit, and for him (it feels like a him, although I’m a her) to edit, I have to write; thus it’s not my editor who is really holding me back, stopping me from even starting. It’s this bee-otch Queen Perfectionism inside me who wants to rot my soul with inaction. Down with her, I say again, and back to the real writing at hand . . . fellow WriMos: who’s with me??

Who Loves Supernatural Horror?

IncubusCharlesWalker1870Image by Charles Walker, in public domain. See Wikimedia Commons.

I do–I love supernatural horror! Granted, it’s hard to find stellar films and T.V. shows in this horror category, but there are still some greats that stand out for me, such as the fairly recent foreign films “Let the Right One In” (I have yet to see the remake) and “The Orphanage.” As for T.V. I enjoyed “Hemlock Grove,” a Netflix original, and I have grown to like “Grimm,” although I prefer less CGI and more costume/makeup, or better yet, leave-it-to-the-imagination type effects. I think “American Horror Story” is brilliant, although I couldn’t finish watching this past season, because although I can stomach all manner of demons, monsters, aliens, etc., serial killer stories give me a serious case of psychic indigestion. So sadly, I had to give up watching. But I loved the first season, and am looking forward to the witch-themed new season about to start.

I suppose my love of supernatural horror began as a child: I loved borrowing books at the library about vampires and other spooks, and read collections of ghost and macabre stories all summer long, when I could stay up late and take pleasure in scaring myself. Later I read a lot of Stephen King–my favorites of his were Misery and Pet Cemetery. It’s been a while since I’ve read straight out horror fiction, however, so I can’t comment on what’s out there now. If anyone has suggestions, I’d appreciate hearing them.

Anyway, I thought I’d do a little tribute poem, seeing as it is October and all, and proclaim Supernatural Horror as our October theme.

I got the idea for this piece from The Writer’s Portable Mentor, by Priscilla Long which has a chapter on form that assigns an “abecedarium” in which you use the alphabet to develop a themed list. I went beyond that to compose a piece in verse that contains a list of some common but evocative elements from the supernatural horror genre. This extra constraint made the exercise harder, of course,  but  it was a lot of fun to compose, and a great brain teaser.

It would be even more fun to annotate the composition with references, e.g. the use of “hounds of hell” in the T.V. show “Supernatural,” killing by fire in the novel (and film) “Carrie,” the La Llorona story used for an episode of “Grimm.” What’s your favorite (or least favorite) possessed puppet or doll story? Recognize any of your favorite tropes, themes, motifs?

On a technical note, you’ll notice I had to go back to “A” and “B” at the end to complete the last verse, but I think it worked out well. I started with just a plain old ABC list, brainstorming elements off the top of my head, but a lot of those changed as I went along.

Here you go: 

October Ode to the Odious: An Abecedarium of Supernatural Horror

© Lisa E. Coté

Apparitions, fleeting, formless,
Barrows with a secret tomb;
Cryptic signs, perplexing warnings,
Disembodied demons loom.

Elementals raised by magic,
Fear, foreboding, hounds of hell;
Gothic castles, grisly golems,
Hands of glory light the spell.

Incubuses, sordid nightmares,
Jilted lovers’ ghosts prevail;
Killings, both by fire and water,
La Llorona’s guilty wail.

Missing memories, hapless monsters,
Necromancers raise the dead;
Ouija luring naïve seekers,
Puppets pulling strings of dread.

Queerly quiet forest clearings,
Reckless hero’s hopeless quest;
Secret sects with sacrifices,
Tortured souls who cannot rest.

Unseen forces, unctuous odors,
Vampires, voodoo, vanity
Wendigo with raging hunger
Xenophobe insanity.

Yeti stalking frozen wastelands,
Zero hour in zombie zoo;
Apocalypse foretold by seers:
Beelzebub is after you!

Three Keys to Creativity: Wisdom from John Cleese, Ian McCaig and Amanda Palmer



Español: Versión recortada. Graffiti de John C...

Español: Versión recortada. Graffiti de John Cleese en Lisboa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



What are the keys to unlocking our creative potential?

For this post, my chosen allies in exploring some keys to creativity are John Cleese, Ian McCaig, and Amanda Palmer, whose talks provided me with lots of brain food on this topic. Each of these highly creative individuals is a writer, but not necessarily first or foremost such. I wasn’t setting out to include folks who were also performers, artists, musicians, but the fact that I ended up with them is instructive to me personally: at different times in my life I have been more into drawing and/or singing than I have been writing, but have not pursued these activities with any dedication because I suppose I have felt like I am just “adequate” at them, whereas I’ve come to think of writing as my creative forté. Yet I can, when I listen to these luminaries, see the folly in dropping these outlets from my life. I’m certain that having multiple media to work with, and perspectives to work from can only enhance one’s writing. In fact, I’m guessing that engaging in multiple disciplines may be rather like cross-training for one’s creative muscles.

To begin pondering the core aspects or principles of creativity, which I think are ultimately more important than particular techniques, let’s look at John Cleese’s 1991 lecture on the matter.

The Key to Creativity is Openness

The core of John Cleese’s lecture is the idea of the “open mode” versus the “closed mode” of thinking and operating. And the key here is that the open mode rests on an attitude of play: authentic play, not the half-assed, messing around wasting time sort of occupation that tries to pass for it, nor the mode in which you might relax an iota, enough to “think outside the box” for a few minutes to show how right-brained you can be on cue. He means the sort of dive-into-it play that children engage in with an utter lack of self-consciousness or concrete purpose, i.e. expansive thinking infused with curiosity, abandon, and delight. True play, he says, is experimenting, with no fear of making mistakes: “You’re either free to play or you’re not . . . any drivel might lead to the breakthrough.” Confidence, for Cleese, is exercising this freedom, that is, being completely unconcerned with getting it right and happy to entertain any and all ideas.

Besides confidence, he offers us four other elements that increase the likelihood of entering the open mode: Space, Time, (Pondering) Time, and Humor. The first two are basically the standard advice about creating a boundary between everyday life and activities and creative free play: you ideally want a designated place and allotted time (he recommends 1 1/2 hour chunks) to be openly creative. Why do we need this boundary? He reminds:

As we all know it’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent, than it is to do important things that are not urgent, like thinking, and it’s also easier to do little things we know we can do than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.

The second aspect of time involves deferring creative decisions, sticking with the problem for a longer period, as long as you can. In his experience (and according to research on the matter) this leads to more inspired, higher quality work in the long run. Interestingly, I just watched a YouTube video about the Myers-Briggs functions of perceiving/judging that seems to align with Cleese’s open and closed modes. In this video, the presenter explains that the judging function is about planning, whereas the perceiving function is about receptivity. For Cleese, it should be noted, you do need the closed mode to follow through on what you came up with in the open mode. But first you need to play!

What exactly are we doing when we take our playful time? Keep bringing your mind to rest against the subject at hand when in open mode, he advises. In this way he says you’ll be rewarded by the unconscious, “if you’ve put in the pondering time first.”

Not surprisingly humor is also critical to Cleese. He is emphatic about humor not being the antithesis of seriousness; in fact, in its ability to create meaning by connecting different frames of reference in novel ways, humor is actually a quite serious tool for creative people. The enemy of humor for Cleese is solemnity, which he is downright allergic to!

There is much more to this brilliant and riveting lecture, including an abundance of light bulb jokes that underline what he’s saying about the value of humor and irreverence. Watch John Cleese’s “Lecture on Creativity”:






By the way, I was once attending a James Hillman talk in Santa Barbara and whispered to my friend and classmate: “That guy looks like John Cleese!” Guess why it looked so much like him? Yep, it was him. Seems he was a fan of the late Hillman, a complex thinker who originated archetypal psychology. I’d love to ask him what appeals to him in Hillman’s opus.

The Key to Creativity is Devotion: Ian McCaig

The interview with Ian McCaig is much less structured than Cleese’s lecture, but I gleaned from what he said and more importantly the zeal with which he said it, that devotion is for him the key to creativity and productivity both. My favorite quote:

It’s all about serving the story. I love stories almost more than anything. A good story can change your life, can make you transform as a person. You can pack your entire moral code into a story and live by it and it reminds you . . . it’s like a piece of music: you listen to it, and you’re reset, you’re suddenly you again.

True, isn’t it? This attitude of devotion to and love of story (an attitude lacking in Hollywood’s big budget “fun park” movies, as he explains later) appears to inoculate him against the fear of failure that is the usurper of Cleese’s open mode, and the undoing of so many would-be creatives. When the interviewer asks him where he gets his “resilience to how life beats us around” through failure and rejection he winces and says:

It’s perception I guess because I don’t see life beating me. I don’t feel like I’m resilient to it. The many hundreds of drawings I did for the Darth Mauls that didn’t get approved are still my drawings. They’re still done. I judge whether they’re good or bad. George Lucas’ opinion of that will simply tell me which one was right for his film. But the other ones were all right in their own ways. And it doesn’t matter what other people think, it matters what you think. So life feels more like a giant candy store, and all this opportunity, all these things you can do . . . I can’t imagine getting tired of that, ever!

This sounds like a guy who knows how to play, right? In fact, play seems like his chief M.O., although at the start of the interview he describes learning to draw through tireless repetition. With McCaig, the energy for all this play and all this practice comes from this deep affection for story, character, image, music, and his flagrant love affair with possibility.

On the practical side, he describes some great techniques and tools that are designed to foster originality and depth. In particular I loved the discussion about physical theater, and how it can be used for character building–I can see this being totally applicable to fiction writing (non-fiction too, I suppose) where we want to show a character’s personality through posture, gesture, and movement.

I plan on re-watching this interview when I need a reviving shot of enthusiasm for the creative life, and a reminder about the point of working creatively: to serve the story, to devote oneself to it, and to have a boatload of fun while doing so. Watch Ian McCaig on “The Art of Visual Storytelling”:





The Key to Creativity is Connection: Amanda Palmer

Watching this TED talk by Amanda Palmer was for me like getting a swift kick in the mindset. I’ve been researching how to market self-published books online, immersing myself in instructions that are essentially about, as Palmer says, how to make people pay for creative products. For her this is the wrong approach: she now looks for ways to let people pay. Thus she uses crowd sourcing venues like Kickstarter to fund projects, and gives away a lot of stuff, of course getting flack for it from the traditionally-minded. But her rationale for her approach, I think, is both heart-centered and sensible: the change from make to let is a huge one, since making someone do something for you is inherently setting up an uneven, adversarial relationship between creator and consumer, while letting someone do something for you is just the opposite–it’s about real connection through equal exchange. I love this anecdote of Palmer’s about “just asking” for help:

I once tweeted where in Melbourne could I find a neti pot, and a nurse from a hospital drove one right at that moment to the café I was in and I bought her a smoothie and we sat there talking about nursing and death. I love this kind of random closeness.

Beyond or behind the desire to make money at making art, and alongside the devotion to make art for its own sake, which was so vividly championed in McCaig’s interview, I think most of us who are writing, making music, painting etc. want to touch other people and connect with them through our work. I remember reading a story of mine to a group of about fifteen other people at a workshop and having someone come up to me with tears in her eyes afterwards, thanking me for it because of how it had resonated with her. This made a profound impression on me, and I thought to myself that even if no one else in the world saw any value in it, the fact that my story was so meaningful to her meant it was worth writing and worth sharing. So it’s not, after all, about having a broad audience and appealing to everyone–touching one other person is enough for me!

What Palmer is talking about is an outward-focused openness and trust that is the counterpart to Cleese’s inward-focused receptivity to ideas. As a died-in-the-wool introvert, the outward connection piece feels tougher for me, even though I need it. I won’t be crashing at any strangers’ houses anytime soon! Nonetheless I do want to give serious thought about freely giving things away, and asking for help and support. I’m guessing a lot of what I write will have a fairly narrow audience, and I’m jazzed that as publishing and marketing paradigms radically shift, this may very well work out fine:

For most of human history, musicians, artists, they’ve been part of the community, connectors and openers, not untouchable stars. Celebrity is about a lot of people loving you from a distance, but the internet and the content we’re freely able to share on it are taking us back. It’s about a few people loving you up close, and about those people being enough.

Watch Amanda Palmer’s “The Art of Asking” video:





The Soul of Creativity

I think these three keys to creativity help to unlock the soul of creativity. Openness, devotion (or passion) and connection are all things we seek to make us feel more alive, more authentically ourselves. When we make use of these keys we are awake and aware observers and creators of meaning, not our usual sleepwalker selves going about our mindless routines. Trust is a big part of using these keys: Cleese teaches us to trust the inner creator of the unconscious, McCaig invites us to trust our judgment about the value of what we create, and Palmer gives us permission to trust the other people who make up our “audience” and, perhaps, to trust that the soul of creativity and the business of it may be brought into harmony.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this rather long post. In the spirit of just asking, I would love some feedback and discussion around it, so please comment!



Pursuit of Spirit in “The Golden Bird”


Image by znodden, a.k.a. Susanna. Visit her here.

For this month’s inspiration I’ve selected the fairy tale, “The Golden Bird,” (read it here, so I don’t have to summarize!) a story collected by the Grimm brothers and falling under the category of “supernatural helper” in the Aarne-Thompson classification system. The helper is not the golden bird of the title, but rather a speaking fox, who deserves the supernatural helper award of merit for his patience with the hero, who ignores his advice more often than he heeds it, and thereby gets himself into some very bad scrapes. Through the course of these predicaments, many other motifs arise as well, including the seeking of a princess and betrayal of the hero by his siblings.

One of the motifs I have focused on before in my post about “The Maiden Tsar” is falling asleep. In “The Golden Bird,” the youngest brother (son of the king’s gardener, not the king himself, which is interesting) is the only one of his siblings who can stay awake overnight to witness who is stealing the apples from the king’s “pleasure garden.” It turns out to be the radiant golden bird:

The gardener set his eldest son to watch; but about twelve o’clock he fell asleep, and in the morning another of the apples was missing. Then the second son was ordered to watch; and at midnight he too fell asleep, and in the morning another apple was gone. Then the third son offered to keep watch; but the gardener at first would not let him, for fear some harm should come to him: however, at last he consented, and the young man laid himself under the tree to watch. As the clock struck twelve he heard a rustling noise in the air, and a bird came flying that was of pure gold; and as it was snapping at one of the apples with its beak, the gardener’s son jumped up and shot an arrow at it. But the arrow did the bird no harm; only it dropped a golden feather from its tail, and then flew away. The golden feather was brought to the king in the morning, and all the council was called together. Everyone agreed that it was worth more than all the wealth of the kingdom: but the king said, ‘One feather is of no use to me, I must have the whole bird.’ (“The Golden Bird”)

Much later in the tale, when the hero is compelled to accomplish yet another impossible task, he must not stay awake and work to overcome the problem, but instead must sleep and let the trusty fox do the work. I would call this kind of helpful symbolic sleep, “the sleep of trust,” versus the harmful “sleep of carelessness” the hero avoided at the start of the tale. There is a time, suggests the story, for the ego-mind to be watchful, attentive and active, and a time for it to step aside and let another aspect of mind take charge. Creatively speaking, there is a time to stay sharp and do one’s work, however grueling it may seem, and a time to rest and incubate, secure in the fact that your inner storyteller, painter, poet, etc. is working with you and for you on the problem/project.

Coming back to the start, the psychological key to the story appears to be this golden feather, which is “worth more than all the wealth of the kingdom.” It represents, I think, a brush, a tickle of transcendence, a token of a psychic state or inner dimension of the psyche or soul that is unfettered, complete in itself, and indestructible. Those touched by this feather–for example, those who’ve had “near death experiences” or transcendent interludes during meditation, drug use, etc.–often value their experience, however fleeting, above all else. They too typically long for “the whole bird,” i.e. a way back to the experience, and a way to deepen it and integrate it into everyday life. In a bit of a different vein, taken as a metaphor for creativity, we might consider the feather as a glimpse of inspiration, with the golden bird representing a full-fledged gift of the muse. Whatever its precise meaning, as it is with spiritual things in general, the glorious bird is difficult to access and retain, and therefore its brief appearance precipitates a difficult quest involving many tests, for those who are willing.

Another theme in the story I’d like to highlight is the idea of shabbiness, that is, the quality of being well-worn, ordinary,  plain, mundane, cheap, perhaps even ugly. In the story the fox alerts the hero that he must enter the “shabby” inn rather than the bright and slick one, stick with the wooden cage for the golden bird (not the gold one), and the leather saddle for the golden horse (again, not the gold one). Inevitably the hero does not listen, and complications ensue.

This “embracing the shabby” instruction is, I would say, some good advice about grounding one’s spiritual impulses, aspirations or insights in the everyday, and not letting the gold one has found lead to pretentiousness, or becoming too “precious” for the actual lived world. Creatively, down-to-earth detail, disorder, and rough edges of different kinds are often what make a work of art sublimely interesting, rather than boringly perfect. Simply gilding the lily will not do, for as the alchemist Gerhard Dorn said, “our gold is not the ordinary gold.” It’s of a higher order, and conversely, it must have some muck in it. After all, what really begins our tale, if you think about it? It’s the earth from which the trees grew that bore the apples, which attracted the golden bird. And I’ll bet the gardener who dug in the earth and fathered the hero looked a bit shabby.

Finally, dismemberment figures in the tale, as it does in others, and often, as it is with the indispensable fox in our story, it is the supernatural helper who requests being slain and cut to pieces:

Then the fox came, and said, ‘Pray kill me, and cut off my head and my feet.’ But the young man refused to do it: so the fox said, ‘I will at any rate give you good counsel: beware of two things; ransom no one from the gallows, and sit down by the side of no river.’ (“The Golden Bird”)

It seems the hero’s refusal leads to the fox becoming more cryptic in his advice, which had previously been quite direct. For although it is repugnant to the hero, he must concede to dismembering his friend and companion. But why?

Dismemberment is a mythopoetic rendering of the process of fragmentation and dissolution, which may lead to differentiation and renewal . . . Surviving dismemberment  initiates one into the intimacy between sacrifice and creation, suffering and transformation. (The Book of Symbols, ed.s Ami Ronnberg & Kathleen Martin, 2010)

Putting things in psychological terms again, why would one consent to dissolve or fragment the very element of one’s psyche that has so enriched one’s life? The fairy tale’s answer is that it must be done to break a spell or curse, free the princess’ brother. Through dismemberment, the helper is not obliterated but humanized; what was before a wise, instinctive factor working mainly unconsciously or semi-consciously now enters full consciousness, in integrated fashion. Instead of lamenting and hoping the fox will show up to save the day, presumably our hero can now easily consult his brother-in-law before there is cause to lament. Psychologically speaking, with integration comes the possibility of consulting our own wisdom, or creative intuition, before taking action, rather than waiting for insight or inspiration to visit out of the blue.

Of course there are always those characters and animals running loose and wild in the forest of our stories and dreams who have no desire for full integration or humanizing, and it’s probably best to let them be, stay respectful, and heed their advice when it’s granted. Some of them may not be as patient as the helpful fox!

Reflections on Writer’s Procrastination


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?

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


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?