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.

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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

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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

How a Writer Might Live Forever

By Cynthia Ray

The world is fascinated with creativity and how it works, perhaps because it has an almost magical quality to it, where ideas and inspiration seem to arise out of nowhere.  Science continues to study, research and even map the brains of creative people, uncovering new and amazing things about creative expression.

Research has validated what many cultures throughout time have known, that creative expression can make a powerful contribution to health, well-being and healing.

That making art and participating in creative endeavors, whether it is photography, collage, music, dancing, painting or writing has mental and physical health benefits is now accepted as a scientific realty.  Creating art and music enhances health and wellness, and specifically, expressive writing is linked with improved immune system response.

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One does not have to be especially creative or artistic to reap the benefits.  Anyone can journal.  Writing is an excellent choice because it doesn’t require any special equipment to begin, all you have to do is open the computer, or pick up a pen and piece of paper and let it flow.

In addition to positive changes in our mental and emotional states, creative expression and expressive writing effect actual physical changes in the body, enhancing immune response and speeding healing from trauma and injury.

This excert from an article titled Make More Art-the Health Benefits of Creativity illustrates the effect.

“The act of writing actually impacted the cells inside the patient’s body and improved their immune system. In other words, the process of creating art doesn’t just make you feel better, it also creates real, physical changes inside your body.”

Another scholarly article documents how one experiment with expressive writing worked, and the amazing positive results.

“The researcher had students write about their deepest thoughts and feelings on an important emotional issue, with the only rule being that “once you begin writing, continue to do so until your [15- to 30-minute] time is up.”  Dozens of replications of these types of studies have demonstrated that emotional writing can influence frequency of physician visits, immune function, stress hormones, blood pressure, and a number of social, academic, and cognitive variables. These effects have been shown to hold across cultures, age groups, and diverse samples.

There are only a few examples, and here a couple of additional articles to puruse if you are interested in learning more about Writing to Heal and the health benefits of expressive writing.

Since I work in healthcare, I receive notifications of interesting health topics almost daily, and last week, I was sent a link to a study where researchers identified the top 10 things that contribute to an individuals likelihood to live longer.  They were surprised to discover that the top two contributors to reduced mortality were having a close friend or person upon whom you could rely, and talk to, and connection with others in a real way. the NY times article says:

“In a study of 7,000 men and women in Alameda County, Calif., begun in 1965, Lisa F. Berkman and S. Leonard Syme found that “people who were disconnected from others were roughly three times more likely to die during the nine-year study than people with strong social ties,” John Robbins recounted in his marvelous book on health and longevity, “Healthy at 100.”

This major difference in survival occurred regardless of people’s age, gender, health practices or physical health status. In fact, the researchers found that “those with close social ties and unhealthful lifestyles (such as smoking, obesity and lack of exercise) actually lived longer than those with poor social ties but more healthful living habits,” Mr. Robbins wrote. However, he quickly added, “Needless to say, people with both healthful lifestyles and close social ties lived the longest of all.”

 Writing is magic, and so is loving connection-the combination is potent.  My take away is this:  Writers could live almost forever if they spend part of the day writing, and the other part connecting with real live humans.

writing quote

 

A Turning of the Wheel

By Cynthia Ray
We have come once again to the end of the year, the turning of the Great Wheel, a new

cycle of life1cycle. There is the sowing, the reaping and the resting. During this time of rest, we can choose to look back at our experiences, the fruits of our labors, our life and determine what we would like to continue, to discard what did not serve us, or what new things we would like to plant in the new year.

Questions I ask myself:  Did I create to the full extent that I wanted to, or that I could? Did I procrastinate or put aside my true calling in service to some idea of “should”?  Did I sacrifice joy on the altar of worry, perseveration or illusion?  Did I spend time with those that I wished to spend time with–the people I love and care about?  When I spent time with them did I show them how much they meant to me?   Did I do things that took me in a direction I did not want to go?  How did I respond to the trials and tribulations of life?  Did I see the gifts in every moment?

Do you remember Marley’s ghost in the Christmas Carol? He wore miles of heavy chains that he had forged in his lifetime. These chains were forged with his thoughts, his actions and deeds of both commission and omission.

marleyschains

Perhaps we are also dragging around chains of bondage that we ourselves have created – but the whole point of Dickens story is that our past does not have to dictate our future. It is the choices we make right now in the present that change our future. Scrooge, when confronted with possible futures being created based on his current actions, chose to change.

In the Tarots Deceiver (Devil) card two figure stand draped with chains. The chains, however have no lock and key, are not bound tightly. All they need to do is choose to lift them off, and their self-imposed bondage is over. It is always our choice, in this very moment to abandon old patterns, old ways of being and step into something different. It all comes down to free will, choice and our own will and desire for aligning ourselves with our highest possible strivings.

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

Scrooge was helped by intervention outside himself and so are we. There are friends, books, inspiration of others, mentors, teachers that have gone before us, or surround us now that we can turn to for guidance.   There is our own inner voice that constantly whispers to us, if only we choose to listen.

So, I wish you in this new year, the joy and strength of breaking old patterns, of putting aside chains of bondage that no longer serve you, and doing that which gives you joy.

breaking the chains

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

scarecrow on fire(image source sanniely istockphoto)

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

by Eric Witchey

I write fiction, and I teach fiction writers. In fact, I teach a lot. One of the recurring frustrations I have is that students talk about their long-form manuscripts under development in terms of chapters.

“Well, Chapter 7 is about how she stands up to the bully in her gym class…”

As a teacher, I have two problems with statements like this. First, it is an event-driven description of the story content. That’s a topic for another time. Second, and this is the point today, the student is describing their story in terms of chapters rather than dramatics.

Chapters aren’t really part of the development of a story. They are part of the final polish, and a sharp writer will use them for pacing by placing the chapter breaks carefully at spots that will force the reader to keep reading.

Given the student’s desire to improve by discussing their story and the above statement, the frustrated teacher me must start asking a long string of questions about character, premise, psychology, sociology, emotional arcs, intermediate emotional states, opposition of will, and on and on and on in order to figure out what dramatic story elements are in play at the moment under discussion.

So, this essay is a bit of self-defense. While it doesn’t describe the myriad issues implied or named above, it does take a look at just exactly what chapter breaks do.

Writers who write enough come to realize that the dramatic scene is the building block of all stories. I’m not going to go into all the variants and exceptions here because that’s not what this essay is about. Rather, I’m going to talk about how story questions and chapter placement influence the reader’s immersion and need to keep reading.

Before I go there, I want to define what I said above. A classic, dramatic scene transforms character emotion through conflict. The Point of View Character (POVC) or Main Character (MC) enter the scene carrying an emotional state and a personal agenda of some kind. Note that I said “or.” The POVC may or may not also be the MC. That’s a topic for another day, but think in terms of the narrative difference between Hunger Games and Sherlock Holmes. Hunger Games is in first person, present tense from the POV of Katniss. She is both POVC and MC. Sherlock Holmes is Watson telling the stories of Homes. Watson is the POVC. Holmes is the MC.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Ignoring the POVC vs. MC difference for now, the POVC enters the scene with an emotional state and an agenda. They then proceed to encounter opposition to their agenda. Like any normal human being, the have an emotional shift because of opposition.

Think about what it’s like to be having a good day on vacation until you try to pay for lunch and discover that your debit card has been cancelled because the bank thinks your lunch in another state is unusual activity. Emotional response to opposition of your agenda, yes?

Okay, so the POVC goes through a few attempts to get what they want. They try some different tactics. Their emotions change. They might succeed. They might fail. However, they leave the scene with a new emotional state (or the same emotional state for different reasons).

All good. However, a scene is not a chapter. A scene is just a dramatic unit in which character change is caused. Sometimes, a scene is a whole story. Sometimes 70 scenes make up the whole story. That’s one of the differences between flash fiction and a novel.

So, why is it that most of the time the first scene of a novel is not able to stand alone as a short story? Emotion happened. Conflict happened. Change happened. New emotion came out of it.

There are a number of reasons a first scene probably doesn’t stand alone. I won’t address them all here. Here, I’ll say that the first scene of a novel includes material that causes the reader to feel a sense of curiosity or urgency about what will come in the next and subsequence scenes. The text installs “dramatic story questions” in the heart/mind of the reader.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll define dramatic story questions types as 1, 2, and 3. They are, respectively, 1) short-term, 2) mid-term, and 3) long-term.

Long-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader very early in the story. They will not be answered until the end of the story. “Will Dorothy ever get home from Oz?”

Mid-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in any scene in the story. They will be answered in some subsequent scene. “Will Dorothy make it from the Munchkin village to the Emerald City?”

Short-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in a scene. They will be answered in that same scene. “Will the Cowardly Lion eat Toto?”

The scene is the dramatic building block. It changes character emotionally and psychologically.

The story questions keep the reader reading (assuming many other things have also been done well).

Assuming the POVC and MC are the same character, as they quite often are, their path through the story is scene-to-scene. Each scene generates questions. The first questions generated will be very short-term. “Why is Dorothy worried for Toto when she gets home?”

Before that question is answered, a mid-term question is launched. “Why are there storm clouds on the horizon?”

Before or at the moment the short-term question gets answered, a new one is launched. Before or at the moment the mid-term question is answered, a new one gets launched.

Now, here is the very important bit. If at any time all the short-term and mid-term questions have been answered at once, the reader will leave the story. Mind you, they might come back and pick it up to see how the long-term question comes out. However, that’s not a good bet.

Here’s where the chapter problem arises. Writers who talk about their books in terms of chapters tend to place their chapter breaks at the moments where several short-term and at least one mid-term story question have just been answered. It’s like they are placing their chapter breaks in the best possible way to release the reader from the story.

Placing the chapter breaks after the story is completely finished allows the writer to choose the moments just after a new story question has been launched. In other words, the writer will set the Scarecrow on fire and end the chapter.

Consider a reader who is in bed reading and has decided, “Well, I’m up too late. I’ll just read another three pages—just to the end of the chapter.” In the last page of the chapter, the Scarecrow is set on fire. Chapter ends. New chapter opens with the battle to put out the fire. Essentially, the chapter ended right smack in the middle of a scene. It ended right after a powerful story question was installed in the heart/mind of the reader. However, the climax of the scene is only a page away.

The reader justifies: “One. Little. Page. More.”

By the time that fire is out, a mid-term question has been launched. “Can Dorothy and her friends overcome and malice of the Wicked Witch of the West?”

The reader turns another page and decides that they will just read to the end of this chapter. It’s only seven more pages.

Okay, the example I used here is a classic sort of cliff-hanger, but the concept is not at all limited to cliff-hanging. Social and psychological story questions are often more compelling than such action-oriented, life-threatening story questions. It’s just easier and more fun to set the Scarecrow on fire in this essay than it would be to describe the deeper identity dissonance of a character’s realizations about themselves and whether they will take responsibility for damage to the fragile psychology of a child under their care.

Chapter breaks are pacing tools. They are not dramatic units.

-End-

Interview Series: Interview with author Mary E. Lowd

By Cynthia Ray

The creative process has always fascinated me, and especially how it works for individual artists and writers.  I’ll be delving into this in a series of interviews with authors near and far.   In the first of this series, we meet Mary E. Lowd.  I met Mary in a writing group in Oregon, and I was immediately drawn to her quirky humor, and her warm, insightful stories.   She’s had three novels and more than eighty short stories published so far. Her fiction has won an Ursa Major Award and two Cóyotl Awards. Meanwhile, she’s collected a husband, daughter, son, bevy of cats and dogs, and the occasional fish.

Mary_Lowd_author-pic-sq

Mary, what can you tell us about your work, and yourself as an author?
I write science-fiction and furry fiction.  That means spaceships and talking animals.  I have been known to write the occasional piece of contemporary science-fiction, and some of the animals I write about can’t talk.  But mostly, I like to write stories that have spaceships and talking animals.  So, it should come as no surprise that the novel series I’ve been working on for the last decade is called Otters In Space.

I self-published the first Otters In Space novel in 2010.  Then I discovered the furry fandom, and I spent the next year tirelessly trying to sell my self-published novel to an actual furry publisher.  In 2012, Otters In Space was re-released by FurPlanet, and I could not have been prouder of that swirly emblem with two paw-prints emblazoned on the back cover of my book, pronouncing it a FurPlanet book.  Since then, I’ve had two more novels published by FurPlanet, a collection of short stories, and I’ve become the editor for their annual anthology ROAR.  The third Otters In Space novel is in the final editing phases now and will hopefully come out later this year or early next year.

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That’s good to hear.  I’ve been waiting for that book to come out.  It’s themes are very relevant to the environment that we find ourselves in today.  So, why do you write?
I write because I have to.  It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life.  Even before I could read, my mom encouraged me to tell stories, and she’d write them down for me.  Two of my earliest works were “Sally Cat and the Six Magic Balls” and “Salamander.”  One was a fantasy story about a cat (so, the kind of thing that I still write) and the other was a personal narrative of the day that I caught a salamander.

Once I could actually write the words down myself, writing became my escape.  Why would you spend a day in middle school when you could use the notebook paper in front of you to escape to the Serengeti where a poodle is trying to steal the throne from a blind lion?  (I believe that story was heavily influenced by Gary Larson’s The Far Side.)  I spent most of middle school surrounded by the cheerful woodland creatures of Great Oak Abbey, a place which bore a striking resemblance to Brian Jacques’ Redwall Abbey.  Then after reading C.J. Cherryh’s The Pride of Chanur, I moved to outer space with a crew of tiger-like aliens and spent all of high school on their spaceship with them.

These days, why would I live in a country that failed to elect its first woman president this fall when I could instead hang out in deep space with all kinds of animal-like aliens?  At this point, I’ve spent so much of my life writing that I get twitchy if I go very long without doing it.  Writing is something that I have to do, so I may as well make use of it.

I like your idea of hanging out in deep space.  I’ve heard they have a woman president on Mars.  But seriously, what does Creative Process mean to you?  What is yours?
There are a lot of ways to go about writing, and a strategy that works for you at one time may be a complete dead-end later.  So, I guess I believe that creative processes are always evolving.  As such, I’ll tell you about a strategy that’s worked out really well for me this year.

Last summer, I’d been stuck trying to finish Otters In Space 3 for so long — tying up loose threads and managing continuity with three previously published novels in the same world — that I was sick to death of writing a long work.  I wanted the freedom of writing something much shorter.  So I started playing something I call The Flash Fiction Game.

I got three decks of cards — two story-telling decks from a toy store (one fairy tale themed, the other robot themed) and a deck of animal guide cards.  In the morning, I’d draw a card from each deck, and by the end of the day, I had to finish a complete piece of flash fiction inspired by those three cards.  Animal + robot element + fairy tale element added up to furry space opera for me, so I wrote several dozen pieces of flash fiction set in my Crossroads Station universe by the end of the fall.  Some days, the cards clicked with each other, and it was easy.  Other days, I’d stare at those cards at a complete loss, and every word was a struggle.  But I’d still finish something resembling a complete piece of flash fiction, and finishing a complete story is a huge rush.

So, overall, I ended up with a bunch of stories — some mediocre, but some surprisingly excellent (five of them have been accepted by Daily Science Fiction) — and a huge boost to my confidence.  If you find yourself feeling lost or stuck, it’s a strategy I’d highly recommend giving a try.  Though, it won’t work for everybody.  That’s the thing about creative processes — they’re unique to each person, and even for a single person they’re always evolving.

Yes, the process is unique for each person; thats what makes it so interesting, but there are similarities, aren’t there?   Let me ask you another question.  What is the hardest thing you have worked through?
I nearly died when my daughter was born — if I’d lived in Jane Austen times, I’m sure I would have.  The recovery was brutal — both physically for myself and emotionally for my family, as my husband was deeply scarred by almost losing me.  Human reproduction is a cruel joke.  Of course, I’ve used those feelings to inspire stories.  One of my most successful stories — “Foreknowledge” (http://www.apex-magazine.com/foreknowledge/) — remixed many of my actual feelings into a fictional scenario.  It’s the story I’ve been most often told is my best; it also makes a lot of people cry.  I couldn’t have given it the same immediacy and power without mining my own experiences for kernels of truth.

Thank you for sharing that experience.  What a positive way to work through it.  What is the most revealing thing you have learned about yourself by writing?

I’m a cat who wishes she were a dog.  Or an otter.  I actually didn’t realize this directly from my writing; although, it was right there on the page, staring at me.  Even so, it took a fan coming up to me at a furry convention and telling me that he loved my novel because he’s a cat who wishes he were an otter too.  The main character in each of my novels so far is a cat who wishes she were a dog or otter.  If you don’t speak the language of animal archetypes, this means that I’m particular and persnickety, but I aspire to be care-free and fun-loving.  Though, I think it’s much more elegant and carries far greater nuance in the language of furries:  I’m a cat who wishes she were a dog.

And finally, if you were going to tell aspiring authors one thing, what would it be?
It will be hard.  It will get easier.   Write about animals — they’re fun to write, and people like to read about them.

Learn more at www.marylowd.com, or read much of her short fiction at www.deepskyanchor.com.

https://www.amazon.com/Otters-In-Space-Search-Havana/dp/1614500436
https://www.amazon.com/Otters-Space-Jupiter-Deadly-Volume/dp/1614501181
https://www.amazon.com/Dogs-World-Mary-E-Lowd/dp/1614502374
https://www.amazon.com/Necromouser-Other-Magical-Cats/dp/1614502838/

 

 

 

 

 

Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

Label_Developed

Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

Human survival depends on how we manage our relationship with four, fundamental variables. The variables aren’t really in dispute, but the amount of time we have in which to change our relationship to them is. Simply put, the four variables are as follows:

  1. We live in a fragile, closed system, a little blue marble called Earth.
  2. Earth has finite resources: biodiversity, air, water, minerals, fossil fuels, etc.
  3. We have unchecked population growth.
  4. We rely on growth-based economies.

Yes, yes… I know. Solar radiation enters the system. There’s some hope there. However, we aren’t making new materials. We aren’t adding iron ore to our planet. We aren’t increasing the amount of natural gas and oil in the ground. We aren’t somehow magically manufacturing more water to add to the poisoned water and water ecosystems in a way that will fundamentally change the direction of the deterioration arrow.

The four variables stand, but we argue endlessly about what we should do to lengthen the time we have before those four variables result in an extinction level crash.

Note that I say extinction level crash and not the end of the world. As my astute Physicist brother once told me, “Human beings aren’t going to end the world. We will only end ourselves. The planet was here long before we were, and it will be here long after we are gone.”

And now you’re wondering how the four variables relate to writing.

Well, it’s like this. Telling stories is an ancient tradition that goes all the way back to the beginnings of language use. We erect monkeys have always told stories. We tell them to ourselves to justify stealing bananas from one another. We tell them to our friends and family to create bonding in social systems. We tell them to one another to make sure mistakes aren’t repeated and to ensure that our tribe thrives. One of the most common themes in the stories we have told throughout time is the theme of our village being better than their village. Every hero has a nemesis.

Want to see that theme playing out in a modern social context in America? Go to any Friday or Saturday night high school football game in the country. Observe the cheering, the colors, and the parking lot fights.

Harmless, right? Maybe. The value of team sports debate isn’t what this little blog is about. The point is that the “us vs. them” story is there to see. You can even observe the symbolic battle over land resources playing out on the field.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I love a good game. That’s really not the point. The purpose and value of story is the point.

Story telling is the easiest thing we do. It is also the most complex thing we do as human beings. Putting together a solid narrative, especially on paper, has more in common with interacting wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean than it does with the linear, deceptive advice given to creative writing students. We put the little black squiggles in a row, and that creates an illusion of linear activity; however, the squiggles are just the medium of transfer for the story. The story in one mind is transferred through the little black squiggles into the mind of another person. Minds, unfortunately, are not so linear. They are messy places. They are endless impulses layered and ever changing, arranging, and rearranging into patterns that somehow magically become mind—thought, personality, memory, dreams, hopes, beliefs, learning, and maybe even soul.

Okay, I’m not all that sure about the last one. I have some opinions on what soul is, but I won’t go there in this blog entry. Maybe another time.

Story is, however, the human mind generating a dream-like experience based on sensory input. No two people read the same story quite the same way. No two people write a story quite the same way. Let’s just set aside the fact that no two people have the same life experiences. That, by itself, is enough to prove the last point. However, the endless shifts in levels of neurotransmitters, the organization of dendritic networks, the infinitesimal distances between axons and dendrites, the hormonal and electrical potentials, and the endless layering of all of these things and many more means that it is impossible for each of us to experience what any other person is experiencing when we hear or read a story.

Yes, we all tell stories. We all know that stories are essential to our survival. We all know that we are alive today because someone, somewhere way back in the dim past figured out how to tell a story that included the idea that a sharp stick held at the dull end can keep you alive a little longer than no stick at all.

We told stories to keep our families alive. We told stories to keep our tribes alive. We told stories to make sure everyone in our tribe knew how to behave to ensure that we would thrive. We told stories to explain things that made us uncomfortable because worrying too much about the bright lights in the sky meant we weren’t planting and reaping and breeding. We told stories to make sure that members of our tribe didn’t kill other members of our tribe, but it was totally okay to kill members of any other tribe trying to kill our mammoths.

These stories are part of who we are. They must change if we want to survive.

Every person on Earth lives in a closed system with finite resources, unchecked population growth, and growth-based economies. Any decision, personal or political, that does not mitigate or eliminate one or more of those four variables is a tacit agreement to genocide.

Sadly, we still tell ourselves stories that reinforce tribal behaviors like breeding means healthy tribes, acquisition of resources means more for us, control of territory means we are strong, and us vs. them.

Yet, as there has always been, there is some hope because of story tellers, shamans of the written word, wizards of the wave form and the mind.

If a corporation, government, or individual is telling a story that supports the use of growth-based economy in an ever-shrinking world, they are telling a story that asks millions of people to sacrifice their futures for short-term profit. If any organization tells a tale of policy that will increase population growth without providing compensating increases in resources for the new human beings, they are telling a tale of death for others. If we see a story on the news or on our feeds and it talks of the terrible crimes of protestors attempting to stop pollution, then we are seeing mercenary story-tellers attempt to shorten the time of humanity on this little rock.

For those of us who tell stories for entertainment and edification, fiction writers, we have an obligation to create stories that become viral in a way that suggests new modes of survival.

Heroism has at times been described as the successful search for the grail, and the grail has always been associated with healing and abundance. The stories of today, no less than the stick-holding stories of ten thousand years ago, are about creating visions for survival of the tribe. The only real difference is that the tribe is larger and more complex than it has ever been. We are one tribe that spans the entire Earth.

Story telling and story receiving are more complex than the interaction of wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean. However, human beings have always been built to do this amazing thing—to share tales that will help us all survive. Those of us who tell the tales must step up and tell the stories that lead the imaginations of the members of our tribe to an understanding that holding the blunt end of the new pointy stick means having the ability to embrace people who don’t, and physiologically should never be expected to, think the way we do. We must tell the tales that show that every drop of water on this planet is sacred, that every hole we dig hurts us, that every child we force into the world must be fed, and that taking in order to have more means hurting people who will, by direct causal effect, have less.

Look carefully at every story produced and presented. Find the four variables in each tale. Does that story help slow population growth? Does that story reduce our dependence on the market growth that drives economies? Does that story slow the rate of use of nonrenewable resources? Does that story open the world to distant horizons so that our system, and the minds within it, are no longer closed?

-End-

Finding Pine Martens, by Eric Witchey

Which way is up, says the pine marten

Finding Pine Martens, by Eric Witchey

 

This is text. As writers, we manipulate text. We fiddle it. We rearrange it. We edit it. We proofread it. We test it and rearrange it again. We do this until we believe that the text matches the story living in our hearts and minds.

While engaged in this nearly obsessive focus on forcing the text to match up with the story, we sometimes forget why we engage in this insane effort to make the little black squiggles on a contrasting background line up in pleasing orders.

We do it to cause an expansive, revelatory emotional experience in the mind and heart of the reader.

Consequently, I think of myself as a reader advocate. I am not a writer advocate, nor am I an agent advocate, an editor advocate, a market advocate, a sell it to New York advocate, or a hit the Amazon number one slot in my sub-subgenre advocate.

As a reader advocate, I don’t give a rat’s ass if the story matches my vision. I only care whether the story causes the reader to have a vision and an experience that is emotionally powerful and satisfying to them—to that individual reader—to each individual reader.

As a writer and human being, that means that I am willing to give up my vision if I can see a path through the story that will give the reader a better experience. It means that sometimes the patterns of text that interact to allow the reader’s possible extracted or projected meanings can be manipulated in ways that allow the reader to experience something I did not plan but that I can bring to light.

It’s like the moment when we are looking for an eagle high in the canopy of the Northwest rain forest. We peer upward into the tangled canopy and only see the crossing of the branches, the fluttering of leaves, the intermittent release of rays of sunlight through the foliage… Then, as if the entire moment were structured to give us the gift of a vision, our minds resolve a pattern—the voracious elfin face of a pine marten peering down at us from the crook between two branches. Certainly, we weren’t looking for a pine marten. In fact, we hadn’t considered at all that we might see a pine marten because they are so rare and so elusive. However, that moment sweeps away all thought of an eagle because the weasel-cat-squirrel face of the pine marten is so much more immediately interesting and exciting.

Working with the patterns of text and the minds of readers who will interpret those patterns requires more than an understanding of grammar, punctuation, and the linear events of the story we plan to tell. It requires the mental agility to know when the patterns that we are creating can suddenly reveal a pine marten instead of the eagle we planned on. It requires a willingness to look at what is possible and release what is intended. It also requires the ability to reinterpret all of what has been done in favor of new, richer possibilities.

When I was in grade school, I became angry at a girl who often wore dirty clothes to school. She smelled funny. She always seemed dull and stupid. I tried to tell my father how stupid she was and how wrong it was for her to be in my class. My father became quite angry. He took me by the shoulders, knelt, made direct eye contact, and almost whispered these words: “Eric, righteousness is a crutch you use to avoid understanding.”

All thanks to my father for that moment of insight and understanding. My father was a reader advocate. No. Not quite. He wasn’t a writer, but he was a perceiver advocate. He wanted me to see more complex patterns of truth than my imposed judgments and expectations allowed. He wanted me to see facets and reflections and possibilities instead of falling back on small-minded, rigid patterns of righteousness. He was a good man, my father.

I did not understand that I had been looking for an eagle instead of seeing that the girl was a pine marten. I did not understand that she was from a very poor family—poor because their father had been taken from the family livelihood in the steel mill and then from the family by cancer, poor because they had lost their health insurance, because the widowed mother was very sick with what we all now think of as trauma-induced depression. I didn’t understand that the girl’s uncle had come to live with and help them and liked to have his niece sit on his lap a little too much. I didn’t understand that the only clothes the girl had were from their church charity bins. I didn’t want to understand. I wanted the world to fit my desires, expectations, and ideals. More than that, I wanted the girl to be lower in some way than me.

She was certainly not an eagle. Yet, she was the pine marten.

By releasing my righteousness, my desire to have her conform to my desire for simple, easily understood and imposed hierarchy and correctness, I came to understand the much more complex, more powerful story of her family and its universal connection to the struggle of all families.

Our stories are often like that. In our minds, our stories are clean and simple. We fiddle the text. We fix the text in an endless effort to get them to conform to our expectations, our sense of how they should be—of how they must be if we want to sell them. However, when we release our sense of what the story should be, we discover that what could be is much more wonderful and powerful.

Every story is a long line of little black squiggles in a row. That’s all it is. We, as creators, fiddle and fix and rearrange the squiggles. We, as human beings, can sometimes release our righteousness and step back and see what is possible. Sometimes, just every so often, we can stop looking for the eagle just long enough to see the pine marten and realize that our simplistic sense of what should be is the righteous crutch we use to avoid understanding the possible—the deeper, richer, more powerful truths that our readers could pull from our text, could find in our patterns, or could bring from their experiences and project into our words.

End