shattered windshield, digital photography, www.carolineallen.com
Last night, after a long and stressful trip, I needed to veg out. I hit the button on my remote that shows you a list of what’s on cable television. Do you ever have those moments when you’re so hyper aware that you see through everything? Nothing seems normal, everything is a metaphor. Well, it’s what happens to me often and I think has something to do with why I’m an artist.
At any rate, I scrolled through the offerings. I couldn’t believe what I saw. I scrolled and scrolled. In front of me was a society mired in its own darkness, rolling happily around in its own sewage. Dead Zone. Crime Scene Investigation. Special Victims Unit. Trauma in the E.R. The list of brutal and ugly shows went on and on, and on and on and on.
Every show focused on negatives. On blackness. On hate and crime. I’m not a purist; I don’t expect some smiling happy pretty list of shows, but EVERY show? As a writer, I don’t have a problem with television. I know a lot of writers/artists disdain it because it’s so low-brow. I don’t. I think of television as the most pervasive form of storytelling worldwide today. I think the stories have a profound impact, not just on Carrie in Boston, but on Etsuko in Tokyo and Josue in Costa Rica. And I love a good story. Even a half hour light comedy. It’s all storytelling.
But the pervasive negativity got to me. I watched and felt ugly. Finally, I turned it off and decided to read.
The experience got me to thinking, about Eckhart Tolle’s The New Earth, about Joseph Campbell’s view on artists, and about the writing of fiction. It got me pondering what I long ago dubbed “addiction fiction”.
Tolle’s The New Earth warns against watching such television for the dark place it puts the mind, the soul and the psyche. He says we enter a kind of false reality, a mind trap. We focus too much on things that spiritually are of no importance whatsoever…even focusing on death as the scariest thing that could ever happen is just spiritually wrong. It’s a natural part of being alive, for god sake.
From earlier readings of Joseph Campbell’s work, I had always been struck by his views of artists. He says in The Hero’s Journey: “Now the problem of the contemporary artists would be to recognize in the conditions of contemporary life the possibility of transparency to transcendence through those conditions. The artist’s function is to render the forms of the world in which we live, and the social actions we engage in, render them transparent to the transcendant: turn them into transparencies.”
When I coach writers and in my own writing, I am fascinated by what I call “addiction fiction” vs “transcendental fiction”. The television was full of addiction fiction, storytelling that kept you trapped within your own fears, plots that kept you tethered to life as horrific and scary, something to fight.
I help a lot of writers write about trauma. As we discuss family addiction, abuse, violence, I’m always interested in how to best stay in the light. Sometimes as writers we can get so into the trauma that happened to us that we’re almost getting off on it. We’re strangely addicted to it. I have been as much to blame as anyone in this. We feel a certain loyalty to our trauma and relive it in our writing, over and over and over.
So, how to turn that writing into a transcendental experience. How to go beyond the trauma, not necessarily into “healing”, which to me seems too politically correct, but into a place where we transcend it and we hopefully help our readers transcend it . How do we turn our story into myth, because it is in mythology that we hit a universal chord and we speak to everyone, everywhere in every time and every place…
I see the process of shifting from addiction fiction to transcendental fiction as one where we as writers must go from our individual experience to a universal one. I see this process as going from “my pain” to “the pain.” Not just about me, but about all pain everywhere. How can I explain this?
First, as a writer, you must not try to be universal. It’s a storytelling killer. You must tell only your story in the most vivid specific details you can muster. But as you do this, start to understand that every person in your story is an archetype, a mythological character. Let me give you an example.
In 1999, I got repetitive strain injury, thoracic outlet syndrome. Both of my arms went dead from typing. It took a lot of physical therapy to get to a place where I could function. Still, the condition is chronic and will always be with me. When I finally was able to see my disability within a larger context of a society that can sometimes work its employees until they are sick, a society that doesn’t take into account the physical needs of a healthy human being, when I could see I had the “black lung” of the corporate world, when I understood it was not just MY pain but SOCIETY’S pain, I was able to make a quantum leap forward in my healing. I don’t suffer it any more. I still have the chronic condition, but I do not suffer it anymore.
The same can be said if you’re writing a novel or memoir where you’re focusing on the brutality of a mother or father. If you understand your pain as the pain, if you see the pain as part of a larger societal issue, if you understand that many many people worldwide have suffered the same thing, if not worse, if you openly join that community with compassion and love, it will release your writing from one of a bitter recounting to something sublime.
For a long time, women have had to deal with having their voices squelched. If you’re writing about a jealous mother, understand she fits into a larger context, a society that did this to many women. You are not the only daughter suffering. Can you understand that mother, whether she’s a fictitious mother or a real one, and have compassion for what she went through? This will release the work, allow some air in, turn it into myth. We can do this with every character, every situation.
I think this is what Campbell and Tolle mean. I know it is my goal with my own novels.