On Writing and the Mythic Self

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Neil Gaiman, legendary storyteller of the contemporary world, states that stories ‘are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.’ This is a train of thought I have often advocated in my own writing. Writing allows us to open the door to creativity, and in the process, to create ourselves. Stories, like humans, are a life-form which follow the same fundamentals of genesis, recreation, and survival. Life includes the capacity for growth and ongoing change until the very moment of death, which in essence is the same life which stories live out. Stories mature, grow, change, and reproduce with the use of people as vectors. They inspire other stories, and if these in turn can reproduce, then the story itself will never die. Is this not the same as our own human spirit? The gene for the soul? Escapist fiction is a magical form of writing, and only our creative selves can fully engage with and appreciate it. Susan Sontag mused that, ‘writing is a little door… some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won’t come through.’ This suggests that writing can never fully capture our imagination and creative self, at least on paper. Yet by expressing this creativity, and endeavouring to bring stories to life, we are creating ourselves – and this is a door which is always open. Good stories change a person, just as people can change stories and themselves. There is a difference, of course, between stories and books. Writing takes the form of a book, eventually, but it is the metaphorical writing of our creative self which can transform existence. Books are only one mechanism in which stories are stored; people are the other.

We are vessels of stories, time capsules of memories, a pastiche of written words which can never be encapsulated on a page. Alone, as individuals, we are one self, vulnerable and exposed. With the accumulation of human knowledge through stories and processes of information transferred over millennia, we can connect the dots. Life is not about collecting the dots, but connecting them. At the end of life, what matters is not how many dots you store in your repertoire, but how many of them you managed to connect – to form your true self, and to contribute to your fleeting moment of existence in the universe. Creativity does not necessitate fiction, although I believe that fiction allows us to look at the world through the lens of a secondary, imaginary world. Even in this non-existent realm, we are reminded that we exist as part of a web of stories, each one informing the next, just as we are all connected as human beings in our existential search for self and meaning. There is a symbiotic relationship between us and our stories, and we are the byproduct of stories we both read and breed. Neil Gaiman further comments, ‘it’s the stories that are the life-form — they are older than us, they are smarter than us, they keep going.’ Yet they need humans to survive and reproduce, and they continue to give back across generations. We use stories to become more than one person, to become any person. Through our stories we communicate essential values and attitudes of the current cultural, political, religious, philosophical, and ethical climate. They allow us to advance.

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Stories are the genes of the soul, and writing allows us to form a sense of belonging, to inhabit our own identity. However, this quest for creativity and creating the self should not be chased to the point of unhappiness. French writer Amin Maalouf explores the ambiguous creation of personhood, critiquing the commonalities of human experience and our fears of the divisive Otherness in culture. We have multiple identities, and seeking to create one through stories and writing is a nihilistic endeavour. He suggests we have many allegiances, all equally strong, and all components of our personality – individually, they may exist in many people, but the specific collection is entirely unique. As we create, as we change our stories, as we formulate our own myths, our personal identity undergoes an enigmatic evolution, which is the mystery of connection between our present self and our childhood self – we are the same person, a spiritual embryo. Maalouf calls it the crucible of our identity, stating that a person ‘is not himself from the outset; nor does he just ‘grow aware’ of what he is; he becomes what he is. He doesn’t merely ‘grow aware’ of his identity; he acquires it step by step.’ I ponder whether this is a simple acquisition which occurs inevitably, just as an egg in boiling water will cook even if we pray it never does, or whether it must be an active process of creation. I would like to think that by engaging with my imagination and creative self, I can choose the myth I unravel and the words I write. My identity is tightly stretched pattern on parchment, to touch just one part of it will send a ripple effect across my entire being. I am not an assemblage of separate parts or a mismatched patchwork quilt, but rather a complete whole. Linking the concept of engaging with self and connecting with the world, Maalouf also notes, ‘I no more believe in simplistic solutions than I do in simplistic identities. The world is a complex machine that can’t be dismantled with a screwdriver. But that shouldn’t prevent us from observing, from trying to understand, from discussing, and sometimes suggesting a subject for reflection.’

Further, we have a sense that it is our obligation to create an identity, to tell a story worth sharing and remembering, and perhaps this places undue pressure on us as growing, evolving souls. Of course we have the capacity to create, but we must never confuse our acts – what we do, for our essence – what we truly are. The blind pursuit of creativity may indeed be damaging to our inner self, leading us to manufacture identities founded on mythical aspirations, rather than stories we choose to write. We may be subconsciously affecting our happiness simply by adhering to modern myths of identity creation which do not permit a conflicted concept of identity. Jerome Bruner muses over the myth of identity and creation, defining myth as, ‘at once an external reality and the resonance of the internal vicissitudes of man.’ Yet he advises against confusing ‘the grammar of experience and the grammar of myth,’ as they are complementary, not opposing. Myth is a projection, much like the stories we write and share. We externalise our myths to engage with the external world and better understand our internal self. These myths represent a pre-written narrative, a cast of protagonists with set identities. Only by writing our own, by creating an imaginary realm wherein our personal stories can be written, will be find our true self. It is the internal clash of identities, our own stories and those of others, which can threaten our happiness and ability to express ourselves creatively.

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I suggest that our society is indeed no longer shaped around traditional myths of good, evil, religion, culture and politics, but rather a plethora of realities, a conglomerate of the stories we share, write and rewrite. There is an idealisation of creative wholeness, yet this wholeness is never truly attained – and why should it be? The process of creation, like the stores we write, is ongoing. As humans, we continuously evolve and wholeness is a Sisyphean endeavour. Perhaps we can create a myth and emulate it spontaneously, like some historical literary characters. However, I prefer to think that we are ageless, endless, and always creating, each of us with our own unique capacity to express our imaginations creatively. Bruner comments that, ‘It is as if, given the demise of the myths of creation and their replacement by a scientific cosmogony that for all its formal beauty lacks metaphoric force, the theme of creating becomes internalized, creating anguish rather than, as in the externalized myths, providing a basis for psychic relief and sharing… All that is certain is that we live in a period of mythic confusion that may provide the occasion for a new growth of myth, myth more suitable for our times.’ I wonder whether we are all in a state of confusion, as Bruner suggests. Or perhaps it is only some of us who seek wholeness and lack the desire to continually evolve. For me, and hopefully for you, there is no state of mythic confusion, but a series of moments which shape who we become. Life is a constant journey into uncertainty, and we cannot see the future even as we write our stories and imagine a secondary world for our characters. We settle into the fog, not confined to a mental prison, but adventuring fearlessly on our narratives, not attempting to be the marionette, but engaging with the moments which define us and leave our legacy in writing.

In contrast, Parker Palmer advocates the opposite – that we as humans should all seek wholeness, to wilfully pursue a story rather than write our own, to let your life speak rather than ignoring our calling, which may indeed be an act of violence towards our true self. Palmer says, ‘the life I am living is not the same as the life that wants to live in me,’ and that ‘before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.’ I find this concept perplexing – perhaps I see a conflict between waiting to see if your life will ever actively speak to you, and engaging with the world to create your own life and tell yourself which story you will write. While I would never adhere to ideas of what I am ‘supposed’ to do with values, attitudes, philosophy and my own story, and do not support a form of moralism which reduces an ethical life to a check-list, I would similarly never wait for life to speak to me. I will honour the truth of my self, but perhaps I must create this self in order to even discover its truth. Palmer does seem to touch on this, however, stating that, ‘I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live – but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.’ Who knows how or when, if ever, our life might speak to us, if we do not speak to it first. I must choose to love all of myself, my strengths and my shadows, to gather information about my human soul and choose how to respond to what I learn. Palmer uses the metaphor of a wild animal: ‘The soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.’ This creates a beautiful image of the search for the self, but if it were me, I would rather crash through the wilderness, stampeding my own path, and choose my own journey while accepting that my identity is not a wild, mythical creature – it is a constant creation. I set my own limits and boundaries, and I define who I am. I do not live in a space of whispers and waiting, of validation and approval. I exist in my creativity, my authenticity, the stories I conjure and the words I write. As T. F. Hodge said, ‘the sky is not my limit… I am.’ I choose to be limitless.

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As a writer, as the Author of this life, I must choose the pen which speaks to me – it begins as a test, to see what kind of writer I am. When I finally choose the writing device which resonates with my heart, the time has come to take on the most important role in both the imaginary worlds and the real – to release myself from the trap of the pages, and use the pen to write my story in the sky. Quill and ink can only recall the story it has created, and the memories cannot be adjusted. We write a new world to rewire a past I would rather not remember, to write a new one where I can become the hero by the end, while assessing the true meaning of the fairytale words ‘the end’. Neil Gaiman said, ‘As a storyteller I keep craving shape. I want to give things shape. I want to make things feel like they make sense. Which is, of course, the beautiful illusion of fiction, that everything makes sense and that there was a purpose, that there was a point to it all. And that’s the best possible lie because it may even be true.’ Perhaps nothing is a lie, though, and instead what we believe can indeed become true, in the ceaseless creation of our mythic selves. In our hyper-rational world, it sounds wishful to say that sometimes we must believe it in order to see it, rather than the reverse. What if our goal is to see the world as it could be, rather than as it is? It is impossible to innovate in this world or our own lives if we stand with folded arms and are reluctant to grow. The art of the possible is the essence of fertilising the human imagination. This impulse to create meaning from nothing, to build something new, often begins in a tunnel of silence, and each piece of writing breaks this silence with a new song.

The role of mapping our own narratives translates to a broader responsibility as writers to remind society that art is a form of truth, and that we can make contemporary language the equivalent of contemporary fact. The poet Adrienne Rich writes that, ‘our past is seeded in our present and is trying to become our future,’ yet that in our increasingly troubled society, there is the problem of ‘unnamed harm to human relationships, the blockage of inquiry, the oblique contempt with which we are depicted to ourselves and to others, in prevailing image making; a malnourishment that extends from the body to the imagination itself.’ In our capitalist, consumerist society, the freedom of writing and creating a mythic self, an imaginary world and projecting this utopia into reality, is feared and demonised, resulting in contempt and self-contempt. The world seeks to stifle this creativity, to reduce, not expand, humanity’s intellect, expressiveness, and authentic rebellion through creation. The relative creative freedom of any writer now depends on the condition of society and current worldviews. But what if we could transcend this? To quote Rich again, ‘For what are we, anyway, at our best, but one small, persistent cluster in a greater ferment of human activity – still and forever turning toward, tuned for, the possible, the unrealized and irrepressible design?’ This is what we search for as writers, creators of our own myths and narratives – the power and freedom through forming, shaping, telling and naming the as yet unimaginable. By removing ourselves from the noise of society, by studying the silence, we can realise that is missing both in ourselves and culture, that which has been rendered unspeakable or unthinkable. Writing makes its way through these invisible holes, for the authentic whispers of ourselves, for the repressed, for the disempowered, the fearful, the rebels, the revolutionaries. The question we ask in poetry, for instance, as Rich comments, is ‘what kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken?’ I have learned not to be afraid of the silence, or the voices which emerge from it – only to have the courage to write my stories and create the fantasy worlds within which my mythic self can thrive.

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As Elizabeth Gilbert asks in her manifesto on creativity, ‘Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?’ Courage is not the absence of fear, I must always remind myself – it is instead acting in the face of fear, vulnerability, and doubt. This is the power of possibility, the progressive potential of writing our own narratives, and its pursuit is a lifelong commitment to creating a story within which we can thrive and develop. The mythic self requires courage to pursue, to go on the hunt for the words which resonate with your narrative. It is the journey, where we are Joseph Campbell’s hero of a thousand faces, all diffused into one essence, which is creative living. It is being brave enough to realise our own capacities, to live beyond the limits of culture, society, politics, religion, and the escalating violence of reality, to shape a vision of a future we can enact in our story and in the lives of others. This is why above all I do not emphasise teaching how to write, but rather why to write – because composing your own symphony of words, your own story and self, is the joy of living. Fear is a barren wasteland, a boneyard where our dreams a scorched and desiccated under the fires of doubt. Writing, becoming, evolving, daring to enact a reality we may have believed was a myth, that is courage.

This life is loud. It is amplified. It is expanded beyond possibility. Fear and doubt have one volume, and only chant one word; their song is unchanging and those dangerous sirens draw us away from our potential. We must realise that while our story may not matter to others, it is part of a web of narratives shaping who we are and what the world can become. I am not suggesting we need not be afraid on our path to create our mythic self – indeed, fearless people are few and far between. Fear is part of survival, and necessary to ensure we continue to thrive. As Elizabeth Gilbert writes of nature, ‘If you pass your hand over a petri dish containing a tadpole, the tadpole will flinch beneath your shadow. That tadpole cannot write poetry, and it cannot sing, and it will never know love or jealousy or triumph, and it has a brain the size of a punctuation mark, but it damn sure knows how to be afraid of the unknown.’ Like Gilbert, I am a tireless advocate of overcoming fear of the unknown. I believe the bravery to journey into the unknown, to conjure from silence and existential questioning a narrative of our mythic self which we can project into reality, that is truly living. Amanda Palmer, in her ode for the creative life, writes, ‘when you’re an artist, nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand.’ The creation of your self is up to you. The pen with which you choose to write your story is waiting, a reflection of your true self, and as you hold it as the Author, it will illuminate the paper with your words.

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Ps. As part of my Master of Teaching degree, I’ve started another blog on ICT in the classroom – weekly updates. Feel free to visit here: www.missbrittlit.edublogs.org

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