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

the_pooka_by_fiszike-d6dpjdu

“Pooka” Copyright Emese, used with permission. See: http://fiszike.deviantart.com/

 

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.


Croaghpatrick

Croagh Patrick, from Wikimedia Commons

 

THE PIPER AND THE PUCA

DOUGLAS HYDE.

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.


bagpiper-1644.jpg!xlMedium

“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. (http://mossdreams.blogspot.com/)

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:

Angry Poem for October: “The One”

Henry_Meynell_Rheam_-_The_Sorceress_1898

“The Sorceress” Image by Henry Meynell Rheam, 1898, in the public domain

The One

© Lisa E. Coté

Now, when the battle sounds
In the blank recesses of fury,

Who will know me?

And when the devils rise
Out of the cracks between your skin’s dark armor,

Who will name them?

You wanted power, you wanted to be crowned
With more than leaves and feathers:
Blood and pain made a wreath around you,
And you stood in the center like a sorceress,
Tongue as black as poison,
Spitting your curses on the world and heaven.

You would rip their hearts out with your fingers,
Barely a mark left on them,
And bury them with shame.

But who will raise them?

Into the world you charmed your blurry wisdom,
Slippery as an oiled snake on the Tree of Knowledge,
But all the apples rotted on the branch.

Now who will eat them?

I am the one you seek but cannot fathom,
I am the one you love and loathe, together;
I am the one who rattles in your dungeon,
I am the penitence you will not mention
I am the answer and the question
I am the rage that burns itself to heaven
I am the maker and the great un-doer,
And all your paths will lead you all around me:

Stop for a moment,
and I may come to you;

Stop for a moment,
and you may walk through me.

Musings on “The Song of the Morrow” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Gustave_Courbet_-_Autumn_Sea_-_Google_Art_ProjectPainting “Autumn Sea” by Gustave Courbet, in the public domain. See Wikimedia Commons

Here’s another inspiration entry that comes out of The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales. It was originally published in a collection of Stevenson’s called Fables, in 1902, and since it is in the public domain, and a quick read, I’ve reprinted it below for your convenience.

I could find precious little about this story online (there’s no Wikipedia page for it, nor for the collection). I did discover that a U.K. director called Digby Rumsey has turned the “fable” into a short film, but all I could find was this short clip online. I’d love to watch the whole thing.

As for the tale in question, it’s hard to even describe what happens plot-wise in the story, as it’s more abstract strangeness and inscrutable dream logic than sensible plot moves. What I can tell you: There’s an inexplicably solitary princess living in a forlorn seaside castle, a smiting crone, a lamenting nurse, a dubious piper, and a hauntingly odd refrain about having “no care for the morrow, and no power upon the hour, after the manner of simple men” that implants itself in the princess, leading to her doom–you’ll see. I find the story delightfully creepy in a pleasingly subtle way, and thus deemed it appropriate for our “supernatural horror” October theme. It’s short, so I hope you take the time to read it, and comment.

There are a few sources out there that allude to the influence of Stevenson’s Fables, and this particular story, on Jorge Luis Borges: an interesting connection. And I did find a reference to “The Song of the Morrow” in Alexander Japp’s (2009) book Robert Louis Stevenson, where he asserts the “feeling for symbol,” and “Celtic strain” of this and other tales in the collection. The effect, he says is “as though moonshine, disguising and transfiguring, was laid over all real things, and the secret of the world and life was in its glamour.” (p. 86) Poetically stated, and accurate, I would say.

Indeed, there are lots of symbolic elements, repetition, and a queer symmetry in the tale that works well with the theme of time as an all-powerful usurper and paradoxically, a potential liberator. See what you think . . .

THE SONG OF THE MORROW

The King of Duntrine had a daughter when he was old, and she was the
fairest King’s daughter between two seas; her hair was like spun gold,
and her eyes like pools in a river; and the King gave her a castle upon
the sea beach, with a terrace, and a court of the hewn stone, and four
towers at the four corners. Here she dwelt and grew up, and had no care
for the morrow, and no power upon the hour, after the manner of simple
men.

It befell that she walked one day by the beach of the sea when it was
autumn, and the wind blew from the place of rains; and upon the one hand
of her the sea beat, and upon the other the dead leaves ran. This was
the loneliest beach between two seas, and strange things had been done
there in the ancient ages. Now the King’s daughter was aware of a crone
that sat upon the beach. The sea-foam ran to her feet, and the dead
leaves swarmed about her back, and the rags blew about her face in the
blowing of the wind.

“Now,” said the King’s daughter, and she named a holy name, “this is the
most unhappy old crone between two seas.”

“Daughter of a King,” said the crone, “you dwell in a stone house, and
your hair is like the gold: but what is your profit? Life is not long,
nor lives strong; and you live after the way of simple men, and have no
thought for the morrow and no power upon the hour.”

“Thought for the morrow, that I have,” said the King’s daughter; “but
power upon the hour, that have I not.” And she mused with herself.

Then the crone smote her lean hands one within the other, and laughed
like a sea-gull. “Home!” cried she. “O daughter of a King, home to your
stone house; for the longing is come upon you now, nor can you live any
more after the manner of simple men. Home, and toil and suffer, till the
gift come that will make you bare, and till the man come that will bring
you care.”

The King’s daughter made no more ado, but she turned about and went home
to her house in silence. And when she was come into her chamber she
called for her nurse.

“Nurse,” said the King’s daughter, “thought is come upon me for the
morrow, so that I can live no more after the manner of simple men. Tell
me what I must do that I may have power upon the hour.”

Then the nurse moaned like a snow wind. “Alas!” said she, “that this
thing should be; but the thought is gone into your marrow, nor is there
any cure against the thought. Be it so, then, even as you will; though
power is less than weakness, power shall you have; and though the
thought is colder than winter, yet shall you think it to an end.”

So the King’s daughter sat in her vaulted chamber in the masoned house,
and she thought upon the thought. Nine years she sat; and the sea beat
upon the terrace, and the gulls cried about the turrets, and wind
crooned in the chimneys of the house. Nine years she came not abroad,
nor tasted the clean air, neither saw God’s sky. Nine years she sat and
looked neither to the right nor to the left, nor heard speech of any
one, but thought upon the thought of the morrow. And her nurse fed her
in silence, and she took of the food with her left hand, and ate it
without grace.

Now when the nine years were out, it fell dusk in the autumn, and there
came a sound in the wind like a sound of piping. At that the nurse
lifted up her finger in the vaulted house.

“I hear a sound in the wind,” said she, “that is like the sound of
piping.”

“It is but a little sound,” said the King’s daughter, “but yet it is
sound enough for me.”

So they went down in the dusk to the doors of the house, and along the
beach of the sea. And the waves beat upon the one hand, and upon the
other the dead leaves ran; and the clouds raced in the sky, and the
gulls flew widdershins. And when they came to that part of the beach
where strange things had been done in the ancient ages, lo! there was
the crone, and she was dancing widdershins.

“What makes you dance widdershins, old crone?” said the King’s daughter;
“here upon the bleak beach, between the waves and the dead leaves?”

“I hear a sound in the wind that is like a sound of piping,” quoth she.
“And it is for that that I dance widdershins. For the gift comes that
will make you bare, and the man comes that must bring you care. But for
me the morrow is come that I have thought upon, and the hour of my
power.”

“How comes it, crone,” said the King’s daughter, “that you waver like a
rag, and pale like a dead leaf before my eyes?”

“Because the morrow has come that I have thought upon, and the hour of
my power,” said the crone; and she fell on the beach, and, lo! she was
but stalks of the sea tangle, and dust of the sea sand, and the
sand-lice hopped upon the place of her.

“This is the strangest thing that befell between two seas,” said the
King’s daughter of Duntrine.

But the nurse broke out and moaned like an autumn gale. “I am weary of
the wind,” quoth she; and she bewailed her day.

The King’s daughter was aware of a man upon the beach; he went hooded so
that none might perceive his face, and a pipe was underneath his arm.
The sound of his pipe was like singing wasps, and like the wind that
sings in windlestraw; and it took hold upon men’s ears like the crying
of gulls.

“Are you the comer?” quoth the King’s daughter of Duntrine.

“I am the comer,” said he, “and these are the pipes that a man may hear,
and I have power upon the hour, and this is the song of the morrow.” And
he piped the song of the morrow, and it was as long as years; and the
nurse wept out aloud at the hearing of it.

“This is true,” said the King’s daughter, “that you pipe the song of the
morrow; but that ye have power upon the hour, how may I know that? Show
me a marvel here upon the beach, between the waves and the dead leaves.”

And the man said, “Upon whom?”

“Here is my nurse,” quoth the King’s daughter. “She is weary of the
wind. Show me a good marvel upon her.”

And, lo! the nurse fell upon the beach as it were two handfuls of dead
leaves, and the wind whirled them widdershins, and the sand-lice hopped
between.

“It is true,” said the King’s daughter of Duntrine; “you are the comer,
and you have power upon the hour. Come with me to my stone house.”

So they went by the sea margin, and the man piped the song of the
morrow, and the leaves followed behind them as they went. Then they sat
down together; and the sea beat on the terrace, and the gulls cried
about the towers, and the wind crooned in the chimneys of the house.
Nine years they sat, and every year when it fell autumn, the man said,
“This is the hour, and I have power in it”; and the daughter of the King
said, “Nay, but pipe me the song of the morrow.” And he piped it, and it
was long like years.

Now when the nine years were gone, the King’s daughter of Duntrine got
her to her feet, like one that remembers; and she looked about her in
the masoned house; and all her servants were gone; only the man that
piped sat upon the terrace with the hood upon his face; and as he piped
the leaves ran about the terrace and the sea beat along the wall. Then
she cried to him with a great voice, “This is the hour, and let me see
the power in it.” And with that the wind blew off the hood from the
man’s face, and, lo! there was no man there, only the clothes and the
hood and the pipes tumbled one upon another in a corner of the terrace,
and the dead leaves ran over them.

And the King’s daughter of Duntrine got her to that part of the beach
where strange things had been done in the ancient ages; and there she
sat her down. The sea-foam ran to her feet, and the dead leaves swarmed
about her back, and the veil blew about her face in the blowing of the
wind. And when she lifted up her eyes, there was the daughter of a King
come walking on the beach. Her hair was like the spun gold, and her eyes
like pools in a river, and she had no thought for the morrow and no
power upon the hour, after the manner of simple men.

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!

 

 

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?