Possession of even a small piece of history can bring us power, whether it’s personal history or cultural history. Such possession can give us context for current situations, and a deeper understanding of motives and patterns of behavior.
I’ve been outraged to see so many people shocked at the government’s cruel treatment of children at America’s southern border. As if children have never been abused here. Please.
Children have always been the least powerful among us and they have always – in every country’s history – been subject to shameful cruelty and exploitation.
Writing poems and essays is one way I try to understand others and myself and to communicate my concerns. My poem, “Moloch upon Awakening,” recently published in the lovely Parentheses Journal, is an attempt to communicate the horror of both child sacrifice, and the very human complicity that makes it possible.
Since childhood, I’ve had occasional vivid dreams — the kind that are so weird, or colorful, or fantastic that they woke me up. When I started writing poetry (also as a kid), I thought those dreams and their images belonged in poems. They seemed so meaningful to me. So I wrote.
Later, more than one poetry teacher told me to ditch the dream poems — they didn’t mean anything to anyone but me. The teachers were right: without a context, dream images don’t translate very well for an audience. Of course, if you’re writing only for yourself, that’s different.
But dreams can work well for an audience in fiction and in creative nonfiction writing. They work as long as we make clear that they are, in fact dreams, and connect them to our stories and the people in our stories. I’m not a dream-interpreter, but when people reveal their dreams to me in real life, I feel as if I’ve gotten inside their heads a little. I feel I know them better.
Readers of both fiction and nonfiction want to know the people — or characters — in the stories they read. Reading a good book, we actually cravethat knowledge, especially knowledge of a character’s motivations and how those motivations interact with plot. It’s why we stay up past our bedtimes and keep reading. We’re trying to figure out what will happen next.
Some literary theorists believe we read fiction to exercise the part of our brains that guess at motivations, and that our brains have been programmed by evolution to want to guess at motivations.
Lisa Zunshine, in her book, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, applies this idea specifically to novels, although I believe it can apply to any kind of writing that includes characters. She argues that understanding motivations, and then predicting behavior was an adaptive strategy for early humans seeking to survive and reproduce.
Zunshine’s theory is similar to Finnish psychologist Antti Revonsuo’s theory of dreams. Revonsuo believed that dreams were resulted from the brain practicing for flight-or-flight situations. In other words, our dreams are simulations of stressful situations we might face in real life.
Human beings have long believed dreams are powerful, either as predictors of the future, as revelations of past mysteries, as expressions of repressed wishes. They seem to come with a built-in significance.
For a writer of memoir or nonfiction, relating a dream can help to communicate something about motivation, or obsession, or desire. Instead of telling the reader “I felt trapped in my lifestyle,” I can show the reader how it felt by describing a dream related to that trapped feeling. Here’s an excerpt from one of my essays that attempts to do this:
Night after night, I dreamed of walking under streetlights in Boston, after the bars have closed, when the streets are deserted. I have trouble walking, but not the kind of trouble I had in the dreams of my twenties. In those dreams, my feet were as rigid and heavy as flatirons, and I couldn’t lift them to run away. In these new dreams, I’m drunk and wobbling. The busses have stopped running, and I stumble and curse, desperate to find a way out of Boston that will take me to the North Shore. I have to pee badly. I’m under the Southeast Expressway, surrounded by concrete Jersey barriers and I-beam steel, and there is no one to ask for directions, no taxis, no traffic. The city is silent. Should I walk up onto the expressway if I can find a ramp? Can I walk over the Mystic River Bridge because there are no cars? In the dream, I’m angry that the city is so hard to leave, and I never find the bridge.
In the context of the essay, this dream excerpt demonstrates, perhaps more vividly than reality could, how trapped I felt, and how frustrated. The dream itself may sound familiar to you — dreams about being lost and trying to find a way out of somewhere are common, as are dreams of trying to run with heavy feet. Perhaps they signal some common fear we share as human beings of being stuck in place.
What are some of your favorite examples of dreams in fiction or nonfiction? And what do you think about using dreams in your writing?
You can be the hero of your own memoir. Maybe you already are.
Joseph Campbell, and other analysts of the hero’s journey, tell us that the hero’s job is to accept a quest, go on a journey, and return with something of value to his or her community.
Often, the hero resists the call to action initially. And often, some taboo is broken in the process.
Bonus points, by the way, if you grew up with one or more substitute parents: adoptive parents, step parents, foster parents. Being raised in a single parent home counts too.
All the best heroes in all of our stories share the substitute parent trope. Think Moses, Jesus, Luke Skywalker, Superman, Batman and Robin and Batgirl, Jane Eyre, and Frodo. All the Marvel characters I can think of. All the young characters in The Force Awakens. And then there’s Harry Potter.
By “best” I don’t mean “nicest.” Think Oedipus, Heathcliff, Darth Vader, Hellboy, Dexter, Loki.
Maybe this trope exists because it’s easier to break taboos, to rebel against a script written by your substitute parents, than it is to break away from a script written by your true and loving parents. And rebellion makes for such an interesting story.
But you don’t need to have substitute parents to be the hero of your own memoir. All you need is a journey and a few monsters to overcome, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz or Ulysses in The Odyssey.
The hero’s journey can be external or internal. The most interesting are perhaps both internal and external.
Some recent memoirs that align with the heroic journey archetype are Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.
Similarly, the monsters or obstacles can be internal or external. The late Caroline Knapp’s memoir of recovery from alcoholism, Drinking: A Love Story, is an eloquent inner journey about dealing with internal monsters.
At the end of the heroic journey, the hero comes home — but that can be an internal home. Or it can be a new home if the original home has been blown up, or the story doesn’t take the hero back to his or her original home for another reason.
If you’re looking for a pattern of organization for your memoir, studying the structure of the heroic archetype through careful attention to one or more of your favorite heroic tales might be a fruitful exercise. And, of course, you can Google “Heroic archetype” for much more information.
Meanwhile, here are some writing prompts to help you identify elements of your own heroic memoir:
What forces or ideas did you rebel against?
What internal or external journeys are part of your story?
What thresholds did you cross to begin the journey?
What monsters did you face?
What barriers did you overcome?
Who were your mentors, guides, or allies?
What did home look like when you completed your journey?
It sounds so boorish, so self-aggrandizing, but some psychologists (and novelists) say we all do it. Carl Jung, who wrote exhaustively about the function of myth in the human psyche, generated a host of followers who expanded this idea.
The arts can be one way to access or untangle our personal mythologies — the tales we tell ourselves, the stories that help us make sense of chaos and then survive through difficult times, the ones that also, sadly, encourage us to make the same mistakes over and over again.
Writers including Diane Wakowski have written treatises on using the personal mythology in creative endeavors, and poets including Albert Goldbarth have written poems titled “Personal Mythologies.”
A little introspection can help us see at least an outline of our personal myths. The story patterns will sound familiar: the rags-to-riches waif, the loyal but jilted lover, the abandoned child, the powerful but tender man.
Our lives can resonate with more than one myth. I see myself as the abandoned child, but I also see myself as the survivor.
Some poets use astrology or tarot to locate their personal myths. Others use literature or film, or meditation, or hypnosis.
Here’s a poem where I critique some of my personal mythologies — in the context of a fungal disease. Occasionally, I get quite tired of those old myths of mine. The poem was originally published in Mezzo Cammin.
Effective measures don’t exist to treat
this malady attacking hardwood trees.
Prevention by avoiding injuries
can minimize the harm, but not defeat
the possibility. Twice this week
a fallen tree has blocked my way. The first
one shocked a city street, the second burst
in view more secretly beside a creek,
and cut across my path’s trajectory.
My mind suggests these trees are messages
for me; here come the hackneyed images
that feed my personal mythology:
abusers, festering with wrongs they did
to me, and still my memories forbid
free passage. Such is metaphor’s temptation.
I learn that healthy trees wall off decay
in tissues injured on the wounding day,
and grow around the rot, and rarely will
uninjured wood fall prey to fungi. Still,
it’s hard to see which limbs were scraped or mauled,
and harder still to tell which heart holds walled-
off rot behind some calloused acclimation.
So many poems make use of classical mythology, it’s hard to choose examples. And, of course, the ancients themselves often wrote about their myths in poems.
One contemporary poet whose use of myth I very much admire is A.E. Stallings. She’s an American classics scholar who now lives in Athens, Greece. One of her poems centered on ancient Greek mythology is “Actaeon.” Her sonnet “Fairy Tale Logic,” which refers to more modern myths, is one of my favorites, but she’s written many, many fine poems.
Myths often explore the relationship between the individual and the larger community. And, they are often modulated to better fit changing times. The myth of Pandora, for example, is one that’s undergone changes.
Originally, the myth’s story was that Zeus gave a jar (later called a box) to Pandora and told her it was full of gifts for the humans she loved.But Zeus was lying — in fact, the jar was full of demons.Over the years, Pandora changed from a woman who’d been fooled by the ruler of the gods to a woman who was stigmatized because her nosy, disobedient nature compelled her to open a box she knew was dangerous.
Back in 2004, I was diagnosed with hepatitis C, and the stigma surrounding the disease soon became apparent to me. Ultimately, I wrote a lot of poems about this, many in the form of conversations between the stigmatized individual and the virus, and between the individual and the community. The poems, including the sonnet below, were published in an audio chapbook, Virus Conversations, which streams for free on Bandcamp and other platforms.