Why Myths Still Matter

On a topic that has enduring interest for me, Laura Miller has this piece in Salon on "Why Myths Still Matter." Includes some discussion of Margaret Atwood's latest work, The Penelopiad, which I was fortunate enough to hear her speak of, in part, at the Chicago Humanities Fest a few weekends ago.

November 27, 2005 in narrative designs | Permalink


Thoughts Like Slippery Silk

I was reading AS Byatt's intro to the 1991 reissue of her first novel The Shadow of the Sun, and my brain caught fire with recognition.

Byatt talks of the influence--both positive and negative--of her mother (curious in the context of a novel about a young writer in the shadow of her father). Byatt wrote the novel at a time when my own mother was experiencing an almost identical conflict -- hungering for the life of the mind and a literary/academic career on the cusp of the sexual revolution. So, I think, I must pass this book on to Mom, she'll see herself in it. As, of course, I was seeing myself in it.

Then I'm struck by Byatt's talking of all the metaphor and myths that form a sort of jacquard weave in her writing: the Raleigh excerpt she uses for her title, the hint of Yeats: silver apples of the moon, golden apples of the sun -- and all through her commentary, an awareness and irritation with the traditional motifs of moon and sun as feminine and masculine forms of creativity.

Byatt writes, "The sun has no shadow, that is the point. You have to be the sun or nothing." She expresses great conflict over the image of woman's creativity as the colder, reflected light of the moon:

...I was afraid that my light was a lesser one, a cold one, that could only mildly illuminate, however hauntingly. But I did go on from there, to Queen Elizabeth as Corn Goddess [in The Virgin in the Garden], to van Gogh's Death the Reaper working happily [in Still Life], to a poem in Possession by Randolph Henry Ash about the Norse Creation myth, in which the light that gives life....is a female sun. And in his poetry, too, Ash accepts that the 'golden apples' of the underworld dark goddess Persephone, are, according to Vico, the corn that springs from the furrow. It is interesting to reflect, looking back at those first suns, moons and corn how instinctively they were found, how long, although I had all the material for doing so, they took to understand and work out. [my emphasis]

This last bit reaches back to something she says at the beginning of the essay: "I didn't want to write a 'me-novel' as we scornfully labelled them then, literary sophisticates, inexperienced human beings. But I had the first novelist's problem. I didn't know anything--about life at least."

Whether you are young or old or middle-aged, like I am, I suspect this must ring true for you, if you yearn to be a writer. This a fiber of the most snarled-up writing thread: "Write what you know." The experienced writers say this to the less experienced ones because it is true, to a certain extent, that, as Flannery O'Connor put it: "...anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days." This notion that one already has enough "material" to write from is the thing that young writers most dread hearing. It squashes all their grand plans and contradicts one of the best impulses of writing: to write what you wish you knew.

But, I digress from what I meant to say originally, and that's good, because part of what I meant to say has to do with the slippery, flighty nature of what we think, when something excites our minds. (I assume this happens to everybody, not just the children of the mood- and attention-disordered.) Tracking a new idea is like trying to sew straight on silk; the fabric itself constantly slips under the presser foot and a seam that started neatly joined can double up on itself or separate entirely.

Hmm. Pretty image, but yet another digression. Here's where I repair the seam:

Reading Byatt's description of her influences and accrued meanings made me think about mine. There. That's no so difficult. Where she has the Corn Goddess I have the triple goddess and Lady Ragnell and many tales of transformation and misleading appearances. (In my notes I go on to explain some of these "influences and accrued meanings" but as that is more or less the reason behind 'Wild Keys' I will leave those notes for now.)

I was saying yesterday to some wonderful writers [on a closed list I won't reference] that I am ever interested in "the stories we tell over and over." I mean by this both the myths and fairy tales and adaptations and remakes that we as a species keep re-spinning, but also the tendency of a particular artist to retell the same story over and over in different ways. (Think of Robin McKinley and her Beauty and Rose Daughter ....) In this context, telling a story over and over is a good thing, not a sign of being in a rut or lacking in some sort of creative breadth. Returning again, perhaps with a different emphasis, even a different judgment or conclusion, to certain motifs, or situations, or structures, is a good thing in a writer. Too often we damage ourselves by resisting this tendency to revisit and rework.

Too often we don't emerge as writers at all out of fear of our own tropes betraying something embarrassing or--gasp--human about us.

August 23, 2003 in narrative designs | Permalink


A Few Words with the McCourts

"Welcome to Ireland," Frank McCourt said wryly to the assembled company at the Choate Rosemary Hall 2003 Commencement. (To say it was pouring would be sissifying the rain that lashed away at us.) "I can't even see you. All I can see is the prairie of umbrellas."

"This is good," he added in conspiratorial whisper to the graduates, "You need a little adversity in your lives after the luxury of the past four years."

Of course, McCourt, famous for the miserable childhood he chronicled in Angela's Ashes, appreciates the value of adversity. And, as expected, his entertaining remarks lessened the discomfort of his sodden audience.

The night before, a small group of Choate faculty shared dinner and drink with McCourt and his wife, Ellen. I had attended with the mild hope that I could pick Frank's brains about his writerly experiences. I gleaned that he is working on a new book, "about teaching," that even established writers feel a pinch of envy at the abilities of their fellows (McCourt admires William Trevor), and that the youngest McCourt brother, who owns a pub in California, has said he will only write a book, "when you fuckers [meaning Malachy and Frank] are all dead."

Mostly, though, I talked with Ellen McCourt about our dogs and their training (both of us agreeing that Animal Planet is a great source of information), about the McCourt's neighborhood of writers in Roxbury (William Trevor, William Styron, and others live there), and just generally aborbed what a companionable, interesting life it must be with this sharp, funny Californian who is more than able to hold her own even in the face of Frank's enormous Irish charm.

June 3, 2003 in narrative designs | Permalink