THE END – Knowing When to Stop

By Cynthia Ray

Sometimes knowing when a story or piece of art is finished and “just right” is not easy nor obvious.  A writer can fall into a rabbit hole like Alice, writing in circles, while the story balloons into a monster, or growing smaller and smaller, tight and stilted, until it can be difficult to find the way out again.

There is danger in the sticky plotting stage, mulling over characters, deciding whether to add another subplot, or theme, and changing the ending (again!).  Once the writing commences in earnest, some writers craft each sentence as a masterpiece, considering each word, trying all the thesaurus possibilities, to find the perfect and exact expression of an idea, before getting to the end of the paragraph, let alone the chapter or the book.

Yet others make it all the way through the first draft but end up in an editing labyrinth–redoing chapters, endless line edits, questioning everything about the work until all perspective is lost and perhaps the work is given up as lost.

The self-doubt, the inner demons that whisper ‘failure’ to us and the misguided desire to deliver only perfection keeps many wonderful stories from the world.  Don’t let it be one of yours!  Stephen King tells the story of working on a novel, but in despair, he tossed his manuscript into the trash can. His lovely wife found the discarded manuscript, read it, and made him reconsider. “Carrie” is one of his best works.

When is it finished?  Truman Capote expressed it perfectly:

“Since each story presents its own technical problems, obviously one can’t generalize about them on a two-times-two-equals-four basis. Finding the right form for your story is simply to realize the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer has defined the natural shape of his story is just this: After reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.”

Recently, I finally finished a painting I worked on for over two years.  My end product is more emotional than any earlier version and more meaningful to me.  However, I could have ended on another version, and it might have been okay, but it would not have been the ORANGE.  I nearly tossed it into the trash on various occasions, and those whispering demons of failure nibbled at the edges of my canvas.   Here is part of the progression of this art.  Wishing you courage, perseverance and inspiration in your work.

IMG_1480IMG_1977fullsizeoutput_181e

Tarot and the Craft of Writing

By Cynthia Ray

The Tarot is a symbolical, archetypical, pictorial description of the way things work.  It is both personal and universal.  The Tarot also outlines the ins and outs of creating and writing a story, the experience of writing, and the required tools and competencies. There are 21 major trump and here I will briefly illustrate their connection to the creative process of the writer.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 001 The Fool #0

0.  Writing a novel is a path that only a fool would begin, and only a fool could     complete.  The Fool is an androgynous figure setting out on the journey of creating a story and carries a bag of past experience to draw from. The dog represents the companion muse who will accompany this Fool on his/her journey, but the Fool has their attention upon the higher goal, not paying attention to the whopping big cliff s/he is about to step off of.  Here we go!

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 002 The Magician #1

  1. To begin anything, and especially a novel, one must have desire and will.  Almost like magic, what one chooses to focus on and put attention upon, fueled by desire, is that which grows, represented by the Magicians garden of roses and lilies.  Bringing focused attention and concentration to bear on the task is the gift of the Magician.  The writers’ tools sit upon the table.  The wand is will, the cup is imagination, the sword is action, while the coin represents the final form.   It will take a strong will, fueled by imagination to take the necessary actions to bring ideas into a completed story that is perfect and beautifully formed.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 013 High Priestess #2

  1. The High Priestess is the door to the great subconscious, both the personal and the collective, universal subconscious that Jung speaks of, from which all ideas and inspirations arise. The water from her gown flows through all the cards, ever present, and informs, shapes and nourishes every word that pours from the writers’ pen.  The moons that crown her hair stand for the waxing and waning and rhythm of the creative process.  Expect ups and downs.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 016 The Empress #3

  1. The pregnant Empress is the writers’ wonderful, weird, creative Imagination. She takes the tiny seeds planted by the Magician and brings forth a riot of form and ideas in her wild garden.  The mind of the writer produces many various and sundry ideas for the novel, many complex characters with which to people it, and revels in the pure audacity of the potential and possibilities.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 017 The Emperor #4

  1. The Emperor stand for reason, order and form. Here the writer begins to organize potential plots into an outline, and even writers who are outline adverse, must conceive of an orderly progression of the story that will lead to a satisfactory conclusion.  The Emperor is associated with vision and sight, and every writer needs a coherent vision and line of sight to where the story is going, and how to get there.  The Emperor is a visionary map maker.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 018 The Teacher #5

  1. The Teacher is the writers own inner voice. The key to this step is finding and listening to that voice.  Critique groups are helpful and necessary, advice from the well-known authors and craft books are a good foundation, and practice and study all lend themselves to mastery of the craft of writing, but the only true guide is the writers own unique VOICE that must come through the story, told in his or her own unique way.  The path to finding that voice is trial and error and ever-vigilant practice of listening.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 019 The Lovers #6

  1. The letter Zain associated with this card means sword, and here the writer must begin the process of cutting away anything that does not lead the story forward. This cutting away requires a willingness to remove, without regret, whatever does not serve the higher purpose of the story.  The Lovers also stand for discrimination, which is related to the sense of smell.  The writer must sniff out the true core and essential elements of the story, versus the “fluff’, sometimes referred to as the writers’ “darlings”, that must be jettisoned.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 020 The Chariot #7

  1. The Chariot stands for Victory, and the conquest of illusion. The war a writer wages is an inner struggle, wrestling with inner demons and voices that tell the writer they are not good enough, that the story is valueless, and to surrender, to give up. The Charioteer is our inner Self, who hold the reins of mind and emotions and leads us over a rough and difficult road to triumph over those illusions-a victory that allows the writer to continue on the quest, tapping into the desire and will.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 021 Strength #8

  1. Strength of Purpose. This lion is not a docile, submissive force, but a wild and powerful energy that must be tamed and harnessed, and its power is the writers’ potential creativity.  This creativity must be channeled through the application of consistent, habitual effort.  Just as the physical body builds strength by the habit of daily exercise, consistent patterns and writing practices are required to produce meaningful results.  A strong writer is a consistent writer.  This process is represented by the many leaves and roses draped around the neck of the lion.  The infinity symbol shows that the work of writing is accomplished hour by hour, day by day, month by month, although ideas and inspirations arise outside of time.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 022 The Hermit #9.jpg

  1. Writing is a solitary activity, and often feels like a solitary climb up a steep mountain. The writer must take time, and create space, to withdraw from the world and write. The Hermit stands alone on a dark mountain, showing the way, and represents all the writers that have gone before, accomplished a work, and all the wonderful stories that shine their light into the world.  The stories that inspired the writer to add to the treasures that we turn to when we are lost, when we are grieving, when we are curious.  The Hermit is also the writer her/himself at the end of every chapter, looking forward, looking back.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 003 Wheel of Fortune #10

  1. The Wheel of Fortune is movement, rotation, involution and evolution. In this stage, the writer is  fully engaged  in the story as it evolves and changes and emerges from the mind of the writer.  The novel is on its way to manifesting through its many phases.  There are re-writes, and re-thinking of plot lines, and characters motivations.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 004 Justice #11

  1. All the mistakes of plotting, character development, writing style will show up her to be judged and elements either found wanting, directed back for another spin of the wheel, or shown to be worthy.  Another meaning of this card is action, and for each action there is always an equal reaction – it is cause and effect.  Either the actions and descriptions and responses of the characters work or they don’t. Here the writer weighs her story on the scales, looking for wholeness in the way all of the parts fit together, assuring that the story is balanced, and that it draws the reader into its heart, and evokes response.  There is no punishment or damnation this analytical weighing of the story and its parts.  It is time once again to use the sword of discernment that we first took up in the Lovers card, only at a higher level.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 005 Suspended Man #12

  1. The state associated with the Hanged Man or Suspended Man is Silence. All previous ways of thinking are suspended in this quietness as we pause and leave judgement behind.  In this suspension of judgement and everything the writer thought about the book before, there is clarity.  Clarity of the deeper themes, purposes and connections that lift the writer up out of the words on the pages in order to see, feel, and know the soul of the book.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 006 Transition #13

  1. The real meaning of Transition (Death) is change, motion and transformation. The end of one cycle is the beginning of another.  The revelations, new connections and ideas that were revealed in the suspended state lead the writer to further transformation of the book.  It might mean that the writer rearranges major parts of the novel, or even starts over but is ultimately able to bring their story to completion.  With a completed first draft in hand, the writer has indeed accomplished much, which has brought him/her to bare bones of themselves, poured out into the chapters.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 007 Temperance #14.jpg

  1. Metal is tempered with fire and water, to make it stronger. Here, testing and trials prove the worth of the writers’ words and insights bring further refinements.  There are many ways to test the and temper the book; beta readers, critique groups and the necessary and helpful editor.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 008 The Deceiver #15

  1. The Deceiver (Devil) is a form of self-doubt, and the inner voices which bedevil the writer with half-truths, deceptions and lies. The same inner demons and illusions were faced earlier, but they return as the writer begins to receive feedback from editors and readers.  If the writer turns their attention and locus outward, instead of following their own inner compass they will find themselves lost and unable to move forward.  The figures in the card have chains around their necks, but when they choose to, they can simply lift them off and walk away from their self-imposed bondage.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 009 The Tower #16

  1. The flash of lightening that strikes the Tower comes from the Hermits Lantern, bringing inspiration that topple old ideas and concepts. The toppled figures are also the inner demons of the previous card, which are vanquished by the flash of truth and dispelling of illusion. The card is associated with Awakening and exciting intelligence.  The writer experiences the excitement of discovering a hidden theme, or a new way of expressing an idea, the discovery of a vein to mine in the book that was previously hidden, and heady freedom from the chains of the past.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 010 The Star #17

  1. The Star is linked with Meditation and Revelation. At this point, after many iterations, the writer is working on a final draft of their book.  The book is part of the writer’s consciousness and both the conscious and subconscious are working on it day and night.  Even when the writer is not writing, the work continues to percolate, and in the rest, the in-between times, even in sleep, gifts of insight are given.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 011 The Moon #18

  1. The Moon represents Organization. Organization has been at play all along as the story unfolded, but now the final changes to the book are made. The Moon also represents rhythm and cycles, and the ups and downs that are always at play in the writing process.   The final version of the book is nearly complete.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 012 The Sun #19

  1. The Sun shines it light upon the writer here. The intelligence associated with the Sun is Collective intelligence, which mean to bring together, to combine to unify and synthesize. It brings all the lessons of all the cards together in this final form. The writer experiences joy and satisfaction as the book is brought to conclusion.  There should be dancing.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 014 Judgement #20.jpg

  1. Judgement implies completion, termination. Here the final edits are made in preparation for publication and all is made ready for the books release into the world.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 015 The World #21.jpg

  1. Publication! At last the book enters the World as a published book!  The letter of this card means signature, and the story and its unique signature takes its place among all of the stories that have been told, to enter the mind and hearts of mankind.  There may be tours and promotions and blogs, but eventually the journey begins again as the writer sets pen to the next volume.

 

For those interested in delving into the deeper meanings of the Tarot, you may be interested in my ongoing virtual classes on the topic.  Find out more here:

This website is also a great resource for exploring more about the Tarot.

 

Just Read!

By Cynthia Ray

Last week on the Shadowspinners blog, Elizabeth Engstrom said, “What’s better than receiving a good book for Christmas? Nothing. Seriously. There’s nothing better.”

reading2=

Only one thing could be better than receiving a book, and that is reading the book.  It is not the book itself, but the story contained therein that is the true gift.  READING.  I can open my kindle app  or pull out a paperback,anytime, anywhere,  and immediately be immersed in other worlds and other times.

People that love to read always find time to indulge in this activity.  While idling in line at the post office, or in the dentists waiting room, in the bathroom, on the beach, and every night before sleep, during coffee and lunch breaks, sitting on the bus, or in a lawn chair in the backyard-weeding be damned!

My love affiar with reading began as a child–books transported me into other worlds. I read the same stories over and over. Books like Heidi, Black Beauty, Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, and all the volumes of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Anderson. The characters were my friends and I loved them.

I live with messy piles of books around my bed, and shelves crammed with eclectic volumes on a wide range of topics  For a while, I co-owned a small bookstore in a small town called “The Passport”.  Books are a passport to a thousand places, and do not require a reservation, or any outlay of cash.  Emily Dickensen felt the same way and says it well:

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry—
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll—
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human soul.

This week, I am in the middle of moving, and in the midst of boxes, things to do, and the general chaos of dismantling my life in one place and re-creating it in another.  My hard cover books and paperbacks are packed up and ready to be opened and loved like the old friends they are, but I still take time to read—not a day goes by that I do not read.  I sit down in a corner with my kindle and away I go, to whatever world or story the author has crafted for me.

Reading is entertainment and pleasure. Reading is transformatave, dangerous and radical. Reading can be frightening. Reading hurts.  Reading is life.

reading

Immortal’s Penance Release Day – Interview with L.A. Alber

Happy Halloween. Today on Shadowspinners, I have the privilege of interviewing author Lisa Alber on the release of her fourth novel, Immortal’s Penance, the latest in the Labyrinth of Souls novels.

IP Ebook Cover.jpg

The story takes place on the remote Isle of Man, where archaeologist Malone Wolfe has made a discovery that will ensure his reputation for years to come: a bog man of gigantic proportions. Buried in peat for millennia, the ancient man—or creature?—also comes with warnings from the locals not to disturb the faery tree that guards the site. Malone scoffs at the local lore until he is dragged into the other world of Celtic legend and condemned to a treacherous journey through a realm where faeries sting, trolls talk in riddles, bloodsuckers seduce, and nothing is what it seems.

Battered, tortured, and hunted by the bog man, Malone must face his dark past and make a harrowing choice if he hopes to survive.  Little does he know that even if he passes the four trials of the Immortals, his reward may be worse than the punishment.

Congratulations, Lisa!  This is a marvelously dark and mysterious tale.  It immerses us in a mythic place where we meet Celtic goddesses and magical creatures—and not all of them are friendly to humankind.  I was familiar with some of them, but some were new to me.  Where did you get the idea for this novel?

The idea developed organically.  I have always loved Celtic mythology and as part of my research for my mysteries, which are set in Ireland, I read up on Irish mythology. I was excited when I realized how perfectly that research could weave into and inform this novel.  I knew that I wanted to have my protagonist, Malone, endure Odysseusean-style trials in the underworld. As luck would have it, pieces of the Celtic myths seamlessly wove into the story I wanted to tell. The trials provided a great structure upon which to hang my story.

I loved the ending, by the way. It was very satisfying and totally unexpected. 

The brain is a mysterious thing. When I began, I didn’t know the exact ending, but somehow by the end, I achieved the inevitable ending—the only possible ending for Malone. That’s such a good feeling and hard to achieve.  I have a natural inclination towards mystery, and in this story, as in most mysteries, there’s a twist at the end.  When I write mysteries, I’m more interested in the “why” done it than the “who” done it, and that is true in this story too.  We don’t know why Malone is going through the trials until the very end.  I can’t get away from my mystery-writing roots, I guess!

I was fascinated by how you integrated the Tarot cards from the Labyrinth of Souls game with the Celtic mythology. It made perfect sense in the context of the story. 

Thanks! I love symbols—might go along with a love of mythology, I don’t know—and the Labyrinth of Souls cards are rife with meaning and symbology. I thought about how the four trials that Malone suffers could be symbolized by cards. The Wheel of Fortune, for example, is all about fate and this fit in perfectly with one of the trials. The Moon was another one—symbolic of the female. Malone has trouble with females in my rendition of the labyrinth, hehe.

Malone is a complex character. I like how you slowly reveal his past.

When I start the story development process, the first thing I do is develop the characters.  I want to know everything about them—understand their pasts, their motivations, what they love, what they hate, and how they respond under stress.  Then when I know the character inside and out, I am able to reveal these elements gradually as the story progresses.

You write mysteries, as you’ve mentioned. Was it challenging to write in an unfamiliar genre?

Oh, heck yeah! I learned so much. There’s definitely a difference between mystery and fantasy.  I had to learn new rules.  My experience with mysteries helped with crafting how the story ends and in bringing out the background slowly over the course of the novel, but in the first drafts the beginning was too opaque.  You want to be opaque in a mystery and not tell the reader what is really going on, but in this story, the purpose and rules of the game Malone is forced to play have to be explicit so that the readers know what’s at stake for him.

Were there other challenges?

This novella is shorter than what I usually write—less than half of my normal novel length—and I wasn’t sure how to do that when it came to the pacing. I ended up rushing the beginning and had to go back to slow it way down so that readers can get to know and care about Malone.

Another problem arose in the middle of the story, during the second trial. That trial was a puzzle and challenging because of the nature of the creature involved: a shape-shifting hobgoblin with a nasty temper and a tendency to lie. For me, stories are easy to start and easy-ish to end, but I often get caught in a muddle in the middle. There’s no real solution to that except to push through even if you know what you’re writing is dreck. You can revise later.

What a great adventure.  Thank you, Lisa and congratulations on the release of this book! Immortal’s Penance is available here.

About the Author

L.A. Alber is the author of three previous novels— Kilmoon, nominated for a Rosebud Award for best first novel; Whispers in the Mist; and Path Into Darkness, a finalist for the Spotted Owl Award. Winner of an Elizabeth George Foundation writing grant and a Walden Fellow- ship, and a Push Cart Prize nominee, you’ll most often find her lounging in bistros with red wine, laptop, and a tiny terrier at her feet. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Discover more Labyrinth of Souls Novels here.

FROZEN

By Cynthia Ray

Cory Doctorow, author and journalist, said that “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you make the whole trip that way”.  But what if the headlights go out?

For me, writing is visceral, organic, profound, easy, difficult and sometimes impossible. I started a novella, as part of the Labyrinth of Souls novel series.  For those that are unfamiliar with the series, Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls is a fantasy game for tarot cards, written by Matthew Lowes and Illustrated by Josephe Vandel. In the game you defeat monsters, disarm traps, open doors, and explore mazes as you delve the depths of a dangerous dungeon. Along the way you collect treasure and magic items, gain skills, and gather companions. ShadowSpinners Press is publishing novels inspired by the game. Each Labyrinth of Souls novel features a journey into a unique vision of the underworld. You can find more here.

My story turned too dark, too sad, and too difficult, so I abandoned it and started a new one. Because I want my stories to have feeling, and meaning, I tap deep into my inner depths. But once again, I wrote myself into a dark corner with no way out.  After spending a great deal of time in the labyrinth I created, in the dark, I simply quit writing.  My protagonist is still trapped, always there in the back of my mind.  I don’t want to leave my poor heroine in an impossible situation, and yet I have no desire to return to free her.  I considered starting a new story, but in my bones, I knew that it too, would end up in the same place-that place.

shadow

You have heard the phrase, frozen in terror, but have you ever actually experienced terror so profound that your body was paralyzed, unable to move, teeth chattering, in a cold sweat?  Perhaps in a dream, or you woke from a nightmare and could not move?  I have, and it leaves a place in you that needs a light.

Last week, I spoke to a friend about the dilemma, and about the feeling of terror that seemed to emanate from wherever I was going in the story.  She said that there is no escape, only acceptance.  That night I dreamed.

Cynthia’s dream
My companion and I are being pursued by evil beings.  We run but my companion is captured.  Later, I am captured too, and taken to my friend. They have operated on her and altered her appearance with a beastly mask.  They have also pierced her chest with holes to drag her around with chains.

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 3.12.54 PM.png

Toko-Pa Turner, author of Belonging, Remembering Ourselves Home, says, “What I’ve learned again and again, is that we must love the dream we’re given.  We must cradle it and trust that it contains the first step. The step from here to where we want to be is always to welcome it, to be curious about it, even (and especially) when it contains painful or threatening imagery.

When you drop your judgement against the not-beauty of your dream, it is allowed under the roof of your belonging. And so often it becomes beautiful there, unexpectedly, in the nurturing glow of your attention.”

Of course, everyone in a dream is just a part of ourselves, and I asked the evil pursuers what message they had for me.  They just looked at me, and I became aware that the terror I had experienced was over, and the causes of it were gone, but I had taken on the role of terrorizer and continued to terrorize myself,

The chains of the past could drag me around, or I could choose to remove the mask that had been artificially placed on me, and the false view of myself, and make friends with the “evil” ones.  They were not bad at all, but trying to assist me in confronting the false nature of the outer-imposed mask.  I removed the chains, the ugly mask and exposed the gentle, lovely being that had been hidden under those suffocating layers of imposed concepts.  The dream was a gift.

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 3.11.11 PM

Art by Took-Pa Turner

Transformation works both ways as we creatively change ourselves based on our experiences, our thoughts and our dreams.    The transformation of the beautiful into the ugly and false is accomplished by terror and fear.  The transformation of the ugly to the beautiful is accomplished through love and acceptance.  My friend’s wisdom made sense.

Perhaps one cannot write what they have not yet processed internally, or perhaps writing is one way of processing.  Whether or not the story is ever finished, it is a part of a personal journey through the labyrinth.  I will let you know how it goes.

The Full Moon, Fractals and Aufheben

by Cynthia Ray

Did you see that gorgeous full moon last night?  Most of us live in cities, and spend a good deal of time in front of computers and televisions.  Our connection with the skies, with nature and with each other is mediated, one step removed, unless we take time to notice, to connect, to look deeper.

Screen Shot 2018-05-30 at 6.05.34 PM

Lately, I’ve been marveling at the intricacy of the universe we live in.  In fact, my fascination with the geometry of the universe could be called an obsession.  The Golden Mean, or Fibanacci Sequence is everywhere.  From the spinning galaxies, to the whorl of our fingerprints, to the tiny shell lying on a beach.

nature spirals

The cycles, the spirals, the movements of the planets and the patterns they create draw me into their centers and back out again.Not only does nothing stand still, but everything moves in complex geometric patterns of amazing beauty.  We all fit into these cosmic patterns, but the patterns are bigger than we are and we may not always perceive our place in them.

Events, processes, and stories move in spirals, and in fractal designs.  And yet, we tend to expect things to move linearly from a beginning point, along a line called progress to an end point.  We expect everything to go according to plan. Thanks heavens few things ever do!

Screen Shot 2018-05-30 at 6.15.29 PM

While we are in the middle of our life, it seems chaotic and messy, but if we could rise up 10 thousand feet and look at the patterns of our interactions with one another, of our experiences, perhaps we would see an exquisite, perfect design being woven.

What does all of this have to do with writing?  Everything.  Stories that progress linearly and predictably from point A to point B put us to sleep.  Stories that move in spirals and fractal unfoldment fascinate us.  Think of flashbacks, stories that begin at the end and then move to the beginning, stories where actions of one character change the course of another character, who changes the course of another and so on, the structure becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Another way to describe, or visualize the hero’s journey is Aufheben or Aufhebung.  It is a German word with several seemingly contradictory meanings, including “to lift up”, “to abolish”, “cancel” or “suspend”, or “to sublate”. The term has also been defined as “abolish”, “preserve”, and “transcend”.  Here we see the heros journey presented as a spiraling to resolution.   The multiple meanings of the word, offer many different approaches to how the story may progress. In fact, fractal storytelling describes a process where there are acts within acts, within acts and the structure of the story cascades into an unending pattern.

aufheben

Mike Bonifer, describes fractal storytelling in this way: “Fractals define and connect the story elements in a network. They do not, however, CHANGE the story, and change is where participation is most powerful. So to be effective as human beings and organizations, we need to understand the nature of fractals AND the phenomena of their changing, and of how new fractals, new patterns, emerge. Fractals are helpful for the growth and expansion of the networked narrative. They do not, however, account for the change in the narrative, i.e. when and why the pattern breaks and becomes a new pattern. i.e. No fractal can explain or account for the existence of another fractal, any more than Lolita can explain the existence of Phantom of the Opera. And yet, there is a scenario out there in the universe of possibilities, where Lolita and the Phantom fall in love and make music of their own. So we need more than narrative fractals, along with nodes and influencers, to define what’s happening and where, in the network, are the opportunities for anything but bigness and expansion. We need Exploration and Newness, too. This means new stories, or at least new fractals composed of old ones.”

This different way of thinking about storytelling has given me the courage to venture into some unexplored writing territory.  I hope it sparks some inspiration for you as well.  If you are as intrigued as I am, you can find out more about it here .

And I will leave you with a picture of Broccolli, because even Broccoli grows in fractal spirals-and it is delicious.

fractalbrocoli

 

Understanding Personality and Character Through the Enneagram

Many writers use tools like astrology and mythology to explore and develop character and personality. For those not familiar with it, I would like to introduce the Enneagram, a rich source of material to understand and develop character.  The enneagram is an ancient framework that delves into the structure of character in real life, and in fiction.  It has the unique ability to surface unresolved issues and conflicts within a personality, and the ways in which people express and manage them, for better or worse.

To delve into this resource, I would like to introduce Dale Rhodes, founder of Enneagram Portland.  Dale shared the Enneagram model with me several years ago, and it continues to be a source of revelation, and a lens through which I come to understand behaviour and motivation on a much deeper level.

enneagramsymbol

Dale, What is Enneagram Portland?

Enneagram Portland was founded in 2002 as the city’s primary resource for people to explore and experience the Enneagram. I work with people individually as a mentor and spiritual director; generally, with folks who are interested in finding out who they really are and what is really going on beneath the surface.

When I discovered the Enneagram in my spiritual director’s formation program, I knew I had found the tool and the framework that would help me journey with others who are interested in personal and spiritual growth as well as personality and character development— in life, on the page or on the screen, or all three.

Would you provide a brief overview of the Enneagram?
The system has its recorded roots with early Christian contemplatives in Alexandria who were trying to have a direct experience of Presence, and they noted that there seemed to be 9 Ways that people blocked themselves from Being and Presence.

As Pythagoreans, they believed there was meaning in systems of numbers; and they were also influenced by the Jewish Kabbalah and pre-historical wisdom from the Egyptians, along with their own self-observations as contemplatives.

This material was later declared heretical by Roman Church leadership (still is) but was kept alive by spiritual directors in various traditions, matching with Dante’s Seven Vices/Virtues.  It is a rich topic that requires more explanation elsewhere.

I just know this: The Enneagram is a useful key to understanding how we really are made and how the world is really working. It is the best tool I have found yet; and it gives directional paths for growth and development that are often expressed in the content of good literature and film.

The Enneagram describes Nine Personality Styles, each bringing their attention habitually and preferentially to one of nine arenas. We use all these placements of attention, but we often over rely on one of them, which brings both gifts and challenges:

The Idealist: error, perfection, standards and order

The Connector: needs, connecting and relationships

The Performer:  tasks and success

The Romantic:  what is missing and what is beauty

The Observer:  conserving energy, experiencing omniscience

The Loyal Skeptic: worst cases, safety and finding allies

The Epicure: options, freedom, joy and potential

The Protector: force, injustice, strength and power

The Mediator: comfort, harmony, union and consensus

enneagram

If you’re curious about the 9 Types, meet them here:

What made you decide to explore the Enneagram in literature and film?
I have always been an avid reader and my partner is wild about cinema. We have always had fun discussions about which personality styles do book or film characters seem to be emanating. It became clear that this is a viable way to expand the community of people who talk type when author Judith Searle presented to Enneagram Portland her workshop on “9 Personalities in Literature and Film.”

Portland is filled with writers and readers, and I assembled curricula for folks to read a book or watch a film each month, along with personality type descriptions, and the groups filled overnight.  Currently, I have three groups of ten running and will offer four more next year.  Writers tell me that they really benefit from exploring the arcs of character development (and disintegration) that these universal types and storylines present.

Tell us more about how the Enneagram helps us understand and develop character, personality and conflicts.
Everyone has had the experience of examining a character in a film or book and said, “I know this person.”  The Enneagram shows you that there is a map to character content tha you already know. It is not the territory, but it is a very helpful map to guiding you, (as a human, a writer or both!), through the land of understanding character motivations:  What is the person’s primary value? What is the person capable of?  What would be the arc of character tensions under stress and in ease and fullness?  As a writer and as a human who must interact well with others, this is invaluable.

In my course called “Understanding the 9 Types in Literature, Film and Community”  and in it, we have the delightful experience of reading great novels and dissecting and digesting them through the lens of personality.  We all find ourselves in all of these types and characters! We might prefer one personality style’s orientation, but we have them all.  Writers find this universal information enables their ability to develop multi-dimensional characters.

For example, think of the personality type I call The Idealist/Perfectionist. There is something universal in the portrayal of Dr. Jekyll as an upstanding and good man probably run by his super-ego/inner-critic, so of course we must meet his avoided opposite motivations: his shadow, the id/pleasure-drive of Mr. Hyde.

A quiet, insightful, male screenwriter, (a Protector) took my class because his girlfriend paid for it. He weathered some literature that he might not have picked up on his own, but his understanding of the system came alive because of reading an old classic.  My choice for the personality style called The Performer was Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, a novel that exemplifies what psychologist Erich Fromm would call “The Marketing Personality,” the quintessential American salesman.

This type is interested in tasks, success, marketing success, inspiring others (whether through truth or just using what works) and avoiding failure. For example Oprah, Bill Clinton, Sean Spicer, Tony Robbins, Sarah Palin and Jerry McGuire are folks who are oriented towards success, away from failure, and in the mix just might just believe their own press releases.

You already know these characters, and if you are a writer you can know them from the inside out through easily understandable models about motivation that the Enneagram explains in everyday language. That is why the system is so attractive to me— it’s universal, easily understood by all kinds of folks, it’s not vague psychobabble from a therapist or a guru, and it’s verifiably true.

Could you give some more examples of characters in books and their enneagram type?
My own personality style, the Romantic, is concerned with what is missing and how one is a creator of beauty. This theme can be found in a disintegrated form through Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, who has found herself increasingly limited in her own personal ability to create a beautiful life, so she begins meddling in others’ lives with disastrous consequences. Like Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, these women are two of my favorite train wrecks; probably because I know that this could be me if I ever go off my morning coffee.

The positively developed Romantic with an orientation to beauty is found in Thea Kronberg from Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark, the story of a girl who has the natural resources as to accept her own identity as an artist, and to literally find her own voice as an opera singer.

In My Ántonia, Willa Cather addresses another style of character, The Protector. So much in that book and the main character attends to what Protectors care about–the vulnerabilities of immigrants, women and the land, abuses of power, responses to injustice, strength itself. I read it every year and I’m usually crying with its vivid descriptions of landscapes— harsh and beautiful Nebraska and harsh and beautiful inner character.

In Norma Rae you’ll see a Loyal Skeptic character, one who is concerned with divided loyalties: to what or two whom should I be loyal? to myself? to my parents/spouse? to the powers that be?  to the oppositions? and at what cost?  You’ll find the same issues alive and well in the teen novel about choosing a personality style and tribe: Divergent by Veronica Roth. Do these latter themes also sound like themes in Hamlet?  You’d be correct in saying so, as he lived in a mad world where he didn’t know who to trust.

The Connector’s shadow themes of manipulation, flattery, tyranny and misaligned service for the greater good can be found in King Lear and Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. Watch the mother in The Manchurian Candidate (very timely) and you’ll see the same. Yet main character Flora Post in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm uses her Connector’s abilities to make loving helpful connections and to support a delightful kind world that no one would ever want to end.

Thank you, Dale for sharing this knowledge with us, and with the Portland community.  Here are some opportunities for people to learn more:

Upcoming classes on literary and movie character analysis
Understanding the 9 Points of View in Literature, Film and Community: Monthly Session September 2018-June 2019

Find out more about the Enneagram:
A brief and entertaining introduction to each of the Enneagram’s Nine Types can be found in these student youtube videos. Find out who you and your characters are:

An Introduction to The Enneagram, May 5th, 2018

Recommended Books:
The Enneagram in Love and Work by Helen Palmer
The Literary Enneagram-Characters from the Inside Out by Judith Seattle
The Essential Enneagram by Virginia Price and David Daniels, M.D.

 

Find Dale Rhodes and all programs at EnneagramPortland.com