Friday, July 27, 2012
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
—Adrienne Rich from “Diving the Wreck”
I’ve been away from the outside world. Or at least trying to be. Diving deep into the imaginal realms.
That is what I do.
When I was young, I didn’t want an ordinary life. I don’t think I understood what the reality of that would mean.
For one thing, I still wanted all the accoutrements that went with an ordinary life: a house, home, land, enough wealth to be comfortable, good health, a partner.
I drew pictures when I was in elementary school. When I was five, I won first prize for my age group for drawing the Man in the Moon. I was impressed with the prize. I liked being the best. I liked being noticed for my talents, but I never tried to be the best at anything. I didn’t work at it. In my mind, that was akin to cheating. Let everyone just be themselves and then let the best girl win.
Or something like that.
I loved to draw. But I loved stories more. When I was five, I created my first book. On each page was a drawing. Put all the drawings together in a sequence and they told a story.
At some point when I was quite young--still in elementary school--I decided I couldn’t make a living as an artist. I’d have a better shot as a writer.
I laugh whenever I remember this.
What was I thinking?
This was the life I chose. This is the life I wanted. It is different from what I expected, but it is my life. I am fortunate in so many ways that I can’t even articulate.
What is it to live a life dedicated to art?
Yes, that’s what I do. Storytelling is an art.
I have friends, other writer friends, who would laugh at the idea that writing is an art: It is a business, period. I have other friends who would laugh at the idea that what I do is art because they believe I am writing for the masses: I am merely a peddler.
I don’t care what they think or why other people write or create art. I know I do it because I am drawn to it, called to it, because it is what I do best in the world.
Lately, it is almost all I want to do.
Perhaps I am no longer a visitor to the imaginal worlds. Maybe that’s where I live.
I never wanted to be one of those reclusive writers who couldn’t bear to be in the world. I wanted to be a contributing member of my community. And I was, for the most part. I was an environmental and social justice activist for most of my adult life.
Most of the time I felt as though I was butting my head up against a brick wall.
Lately, I can’t make myself step into the fray. Too much shouting. Too many people with their heads in the sand, pretending nothing is wrong.
Now all I can do is dive deep into the imaginal realms and see what stories there are to tell.
Maybe that will help.
Storytelling is all about truth-telling, isn’t it?
A way for people to see the truth?
All of art is about the truth. Truth and beauty.
Or are they the same?
Lately, I feel raw.
Maybe since I was born.
My friend Stephanie Lillegard says that “good creative effort is always spiritually exfoliating--and so it's our raw selves with no skins we take out into the world then.”
I dive deep every time I write. I am listening, communing, becoming. I am finding the place, the sweet spot, where I can trust the creative flow, be the creative flow. I just am, while my fingers move, translating what I hear, see, feel, recollect.
I used to write a book a year. I’d write it, and then the rest of the year, I lived an ordinary life, doing what everyone does. Or doesn’t.
Now I have times when I cannot stop writing.
Sometimes it hurts.
This fast way of writing began about eleven years ago. I went to Michigan to visit my father who was ill at the time. It was an awful visit in ways that I don’t need to delineate here. Suffice to say, by the time I returned to the Pacific Northwest, I felt as though I have been emotionally flayed.
For the first time, I decided to write a novel based on my experiences--a roman à clef. For a little more than two weeks, the novel poured out of me. The words came so fast that some days I wept as I wrote it. I was writing longhand and I could barely read my own writing.
Not long after that, I began writing Swans in Winter. Again, it flowed from me so quickly that it was physically draining. I wrote all day for seventeen days. Some of those days, I wept from sheer exhaustion. But I had a novel at the end of it.
I knew I couldn’t sustain that pace. It didn’t feel healthy. I didn’t like it, actually.
I wrote my next few novels at a slower, more sustainable pace. But I was still writing quickly. Something had opened up in me, and I had to figure out how to go with it.
In the meanwhile, I got physically healthier. I also got a laptop. I wrote nearly all of Mercy, Unbound on the computer. This was new for me. After a lifetime of writing my first drafts on a yellow legal pad, I was now writing while I sat at the computer.
I started writing all of my novels on the computer. And then we began spending part of our winters in Tucson. In the second year we were there, I wrote Church of the Old Mermaids in less than a month.
I loved every minute of it.
This last winter, I wrote two and a half novels during our month in Tucson.
It was fun. It was exciting.
And it was exhausting. Once again, I had opened up those creative floodgates a little too wide.
It has taken me quite a few months to come back from that.
Does it mean I dove too deep?
Or did I work too hard?
Is it the job of every creative person to figure out how much is too much?
Lately I have been struggling with my own demons which seem to crawl out of my own private woodwork whenever I stop writing for a time.
When I work, when I create, when I tell stories, perhaps I “subdue the demons with splendor,” as the old Tibetan Buddhism texts say.
Or maybe I’m like Shahrazad, telling stories night after night to save my life.
A few days ago, I began putting together The Old Mermaids Book of Days and Nights. I’m collecting quotes from my novels--mostly those novels in the Old Mermaids universe. I have one quote per day of the year. I love doing this. I feel like I am in the Old Mermaids Sanctuary, and beyond, and all is well in the world. I’m not certain if I started to feel better and then I was able to begin this project, or if when I began this project, I subdued the demons with the splendor of the Old Mermaids.
This is my life. Sometimes it is a slog. Sometimes it is wondrous.
Do you remember the Irish fairy tale sometimes called "The Enchanted Heart?" A young woman has left her home and is traveling the countryside, looking for adventure. She stops one night in a village where the villagers are mourning the loss of a young man. The villagers are very hospitable to her. They give her food and invite her to stay. She asks if she can do anything to help. The parents and community members are tired from their grief. So they ask if she could sit with the body of the young man for a while so that they can get some sleep.
She agrees. They put a chair for her near the body. She can see the man’s face in the torch light, and she’s sorry for his death. He’s a handsome man, and he looks like he was a good-hearted soul.
Around midnight, the young woman is startled when the young man suddenly sits up and says, “I’m not dead! I’m under an enchantment. Can you help me?”
“What can I do?”
“If you will agree to go over the quaking bog, through the burning forest, and into the raging sea with me, I will be released from this enchantment.”
“Of course,” she says. “I will go with you.”
They clasp hands and immediately a whirlwind comes and carries them away and drops them down onto a quaking bog. They have no magic to help them. They only have each other. They make the perilous journey across the bog, somehow not falling in and drowning.
Next they are face to face with a wall of fire. They have no idea how they are going to traverse the burning forest. Then they see a stag running through, so they follow his trail. They barely make it out of the burning forest, but they come out of it and are standing at the edge of a cliff. Below them is a storm-tossed sea. They don’t know what to do. It seems impossible, but they hold hands and jump into the ocean.
Once in the icy water, they see a green light beneath the ocean waves. They swim toward the light--even as their limbs begin to freeze up, they swim toward the green light. They finally reach the green light, which is part of fairy land, and the enchantment is instantly broken. The whirlwind returns and takes them back to the man’s house. The young man and young woman fall in love and marry. The entire village celebrates at their wedding. The couple live long and happy lives together.
I often think of this story as a template for the life of a creative person.
Or maybe I think of it as a story of my own life.
The young woman leaving home on an adventure is the young creative person following the call of the wild. She soon enough meets someone in trouble. Maybe it’s the part of herself that is enchanted or dead to the world. Can any of us create if part of us is dead?
Or when she clasps the young man’s hand, is this when she truly begins her life as an artist? She has stepped out of the mainstream. She will go where the story takes her. She will go any place to awaken that which is dead. She will go anywhere to follow her heart’s desire.
And finally, they have to dive deep to release the enchantment. That is the most difficult part of the journey. They have to swim deep into the ocean to that green light.
I decided long ago to go on this journey. I clasped the young man’s hand. I agreed to do whatever it took to release the enchantment--to live a heartfelt life, a creative life.
But some days I feel bogged down.
Other days, I feel like I’m trapped in the fire. Will I ever find a way out?
Other days, I am in the icy ocean and I’ve lost sight of my true love and my goals.
I’ve lost sight of the green light.
But wait, there it is.
The light at the beginning of the fairy tale.
The connection to the divine creative flow.
Some days I feel close to the green light. Some days I am in the green light and any moment, the whirlwind will come and take me back to my community. Once there, I can celebrate and be a part of that world again.
Until then, I am diving.
I am diving toward that which is calling to me: the words are purposes, the words are maps, taking me to the story ready to be told.
I am not diving for the wreck. Especially if that wreck is me. I am diving for the divine. For creation.
Photograph taken at night (by me) by the Old Mermaids pool at the retreat in Tucson.