From time to time I stop and marvel at the fact that I keep writing this book. And that there are people out there who keep reading it.
As my good friend and fellow writer P.M. "Peg" Woods has pointed out any number of times (and always laughing that raucous laugh of hers when she does), the biggest mystery about Sister Mysteries is why I've spent 16 and a half long, long years writing it -- first pouring it out on reams of paper, and then, pouring it out here on this and the Castenata blog.
Why writers write what they write is an endlessly interesting topic, at least it is to most writers I know.
Eugene Garber, an award-winning fiction writer, author of a marvelous new novel called O Amazonas Escuro and one of my best teachers ever in grad school at SUNY Albany, explained it to me one day in one word: "displacement."
He probably won't even remember this conversation, but we once were chatting about a novel that he had recently completed. I recall him saying that he gazed at the great stack of paper that was his finished manuscript, and began to realize that within that stack of pages was a whole world of wild and crazy ideas and images that had poured forth from his brain (I'm sure he said this with much more grace and style.)
Anyway, what he was saying is that all of the sometimes dark and disturbing ideas and energy contained in his novel might have driven him mad, had he not chosen instead to displace it all onto paper in the form of a novel.
I guess I'm now ready to face up to the fact that, as Gene Garber suggests, my writing, like his, is displaced craziness (my word, not his.)
Why would someone invent such a character?
There is a relatively simple answer, or at least one that makes a lot of sense to me. It involves a rather famous French anthropologist named Claude Lévi-Strauss, who was once described in the New York Times as "a towering intellectual" who "transformed the West's understanding of what was once called 'primitive man.'"
One thing Lévi-Strauss did, and it was no small achievement, was undertake a study of the myths of indigenous (or so-called "primitive") peoples all over the world. What he discovered was what he called an "astounding similarity between myths collected in widely different regions" of the world. Indeed, Lévi-Strass found that myths had underlying them a kind of universal "binary" structure, that is, in plain language, the myths all were fundamentally stories about pairs of opposites: love and hate, life and death, good and evil, black and white, female and male, large and small.
What's more, he discovered through his wide-ranging and exhaustive study of myths (including stories like the Oedipus tale), that "mythical thought always progresses from the awareness of oppositions toward their resolution," which in plain language means simply
a story or myth seeks to, in one way or another, make peace between the binaries it presents.
This was one brilliant insight. And I have, through my own experience as a writer, and my experience as a reader, I have come to believe that Lévi-Strauss was right. There is no question in my mind that stories do exactly what Lévi-Strauss suggests. Stories, which often emerge out of deep archetypal images in the subconscious, tend to present binaries, opposite forces, forces that the author is trying to resolve in his or her psyche.
It isn't such a surprise then that myths should all resemble each other, because, after all, each and every one of them was produced by a human mind facing the same kind of challenges in surviving.
It is fair to say that the job of a story is to find a resolution, though language and imagery, for whatever binary forces the author is juggling. We writers are at the steering wheel, but most of us feel that we aren't really in control of that vehicle that happens to be our story. The language and images and especially, the characters, have a life of their own, and at some point, they really do just take over.
In my first novel, Dreaming Maples, the binary forces that fueled the work were two competing roles for women: women as artists and women as mothers. In simple terms, a woman as an artist should be supremely selfish. As a mother, a woman should be supremely self-less. It is no wonder that most of the women in my novel abandoned their children. (This you might say was me safely displacing my urge to do the same thing.)
By the time I had finished writing and editing that book, I had figured out a kind of compromise in my competing roles as mother and writer/artist.
I have a set of photos that will help tell the story underneath the story.
As a picture is worth at a thousand words, two pictures are surely worth at least twice that. These images are both from my childhood.
The first one is of me, at perhaps age six or seven. It was taken at Saint Anthony's Catholic School, in Bristol, Connecticut, a school that was ruled by nuns, and a priest.
I now see that there may be a reason that I named Renata's oppressive cousin...Antonie.
The second photo is of me as a flamenco dancer. I am about ten or eleven, judging by the ironing-board shape of my chest.
Well, so, lately I've begun to actively deconstruct the binary forces underlying this book. I've begun to consider the various "narrative selves" that gave rise to this story. In some sense I've become more interested in the underlying narratives than the one I've toiled so long to tell. (Well, so I have written 44 chapters, and we're running close to the end.) I wonder if perhaps I fear that the book will end before I'm finished with it.
Does that make sense?
If you think about it, a book might be considered a kind of collage of interconnected stories, one superimposed on another.
In this complex collage, the author is representing in words a character or characters. But the author is also representing his or her "self" or selves.
There is the story or stories being presented. But just like this painting, the book has embedded in it layers of other stories. You could say that each story contains within in it, hidden if you will, a set of stories of the narrative "selves" underlying the book. You could say that these narrative selves are responsible for giving rise to the book. You could argue that an author imprints or displaces her narrative selves, in layer upon layer, into her story.
More on this as we go forward. But for now, these thoughts:
It is quite a miracle, storytelling. It is quite a miracle, the act of writing.