Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Shamanic Art of Writing

I just spent an hour reading (re-reading) a novel so compelling that it pulled me entirely inside its own world building, so that I lost track of my own world, and my own self. This is what I call immersive reading. You become an active participant in the story, not merely a detached observer. When I emerged from the book after an hour of reading, I felt like I had lived an entire lifetime, and yet it was still the same bright morning. I found myself blinking in the light as though I had just woken from a very long night of dreaming.

For awhile, that other world seemed more real than this one, which also happens after particularly lucid and involving dreams. A week should have gone by in the world, while I was absent, but it was still Sunday, only Sunday, leaving me all the rest of future time to inhabit, even though I had just spent a lifetime in another universe. It is a strange sensation of two kinds of time overlapping, a lifetime's experience lived, and yet it wasn't yet tomorrow, as if time in the outer world had flowed much more slowly, had barely advanced. As if you have already lived a full lifetime, yet still have a full lifetime left to live.

(At least this is what happens for me. I've heard from some writers that they can never lose their sense of self when reading, never get wholly immersed in the worldbuilding of what they're reading, never turn off their inner editor and observer, never lose that part of their mind that sits in judgment, that edits, that comments on the writing as they go along. I struggle not to pity that lack of loss of self, because judging others is not a good game, yet I can't help feel sad for some writer who can't allow herself to fall into a book headfirst and inhabit that world, and that world alone, for the duration of the reading.)

Emerging from the other world, as if from a long dream, that sense of doubled time lasts for awhile. You only slowly begin to return to inhabit so-called normative time. Which is consensus time, really. Even so, one of the mysteries of consciousness is that time does change its rate of flow, both subjectively in terms of how we inhabit our lives, and objectively in terms of Einsteinian relativity. Most people think time is steady and constant—but it's not. Time is lumpy and uneven. It clumps. It takes longer to go around some objects in its flow than it does others. Space warps time; a heavy gravity field slows time down relative to its flow elsewhere.

And delightfully, when you lose your sense of self, in reading or in meditation, you lose your sense of time, and inhabit only the present Now. Physicists and experienced meditators agree about this: time is never as fixed as we think it is. Consciousness itself is time-binding; the ability to bind time into linear flow is in fact one definition of consciousness. And as Einstein said, The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once. So it's no wonder that time goes away when the sense of self goes away, too. Consciousness is time, in this sense. Self-conscious self-awareness can become hell if we bind ourselves too tightly to time.

Sources tumble onto my table next to my writing desk, sometimes it seems of their own volition. Or I have been slowly gathering them, finding books and articles here and there over a period of time, not really consciously, till of a sudden a pattern emerges. When a pattern reveals itself, or takes shape, or suddenly becomes obvious, I am sometimes tempted to berate myself for not noticing the obvious earlier. But I've learned not to do that; instead, I remind myself that we all are much broader and deeper in mind than we usually realize, or admit to, and once again, the smarter, deeper, silent, unknown, more-tuned-in part of myself has been working behind the scenes until it was ready to dump realization on my doorstep once again, and bring me to my knees. I used to get annoyed, and resist. These days, even if I get annoyed, which is mostly annoyance at the timing, I accept affairs more readily, and just roll with it. That kind of acceptance comes with practice, with experience, with repetition. You learn to understand your own process, and accept its working habits. You learn to give up trying to mold your process into some idea of what you think it should be—"should" is a very coercive concept—and just let it unfold in its own time and manner.

And that's how I most often operate, creatively. I've learned that forcing the process never yields a good outcome: it either ends in a stubborn block, or I produce crap I wouldn't want to share with anyone, anyway. So my job is usually just to be prepared for whenever the process happens.

On the other hand, I've learned that I can coax and cajole, invite and hope. I can encourage that larger, smarter self that's responsible for most of my best work to come forward. I can invite in the wild things. i can leave the door open, and let the wolves wander through. I can open wide the windows inside my own soul, and let the wind and the silence move through, and blow away the accumulating dust.

All I have to work with are metaphors (wolves, windows) and analogies. This is too big and too mysterious a theme to write about definitively, or fully. I keep circling back to it, as part of my own process. I can only dip in and out, and hope each time I contemplate it to learn a little more, go a little deeper.

So here are few small aspects, in unreal order:

1. Because writing creates new worlds to inhabit, because it is worldbuilding, and travel between worlds, it is shamanic. Or at least it has the potential to be. Writing can activate its shamanic potential through content, style, and context of presentation. Traveling between your ordinary world and another one, invented or real, is what a shaman (or wizard) does. This isn't escapism, though; more on that later.

2. Sometimes we write to understand, rather than to describe or explain. Sometimes we don't what we think or fell until we write it out. The process of writing is the process of revelation, of becoming. The creative process is a process of self-discovery, but since we are all One, self-discovery also means discovery for others. The shamanic artist makes art in part to share the fruits of the journey of discovery. Traditionally, the shaman took a journey to the other worlds for the sake of healing the person, or the community: the knowledge brought back for healing was meant to be shared publicly, not kept privately. (Of course there are always confidences and secrets whose privacy one maintains.) If writing is shamanic, then it have that effect on readers.

3. The artist is a shaman in the sense that he or she goes into the other worlds via imagination, intuition, vision, and brings back the archetypal gold of new truth, new beauty. Shamans are divers of the deep waters of the self, who dare to explore the hidden and invisible world of the psyche. What knowledge and wisdom is brought back aids in coping with what is. Thus writing is not escapism, it is completion and conjoining. Context matters.

4. Art, in whatever medium, when it is shamanic in nature and function, can be identified by its liminality and numinosity. Its effects on the reader (viewer, audience, etc.) can be traced by the event of personal transformation, no matter how large or small, either in the moment of art, or later on after contemplation. Art can change lives. One way that we recognize great art is that it does indeed have that kind of effect on people. Shamanic art also disturbs. It can be uncomfortable to confront.

5. In order for writing to become shamanic, the shadow, the darkness, the wolf at the door, must be allowed to enter. You have to let the outside night in. You have to give control over to the unconscious, to the inner forces, to that larger, smarter self. You have to let go of the ego-personality's need to be in charge, in control, to consciously direct art-making. You have to allow for unpredictability and chaos. You have to be willing to tell the hard truthful stories, the difficult ones that most people turn away from because the content disturbs them. You also have to be willing to tell the stories that transcend experience, that are almost impossible to fit into words, short of the exultant poetry of ecstatic praise. Don't stint. And don't censor yourself. Be a prophet. Be a voice crying in the wilderness.

6. Shamanic writing is about process, about change, about reorganizing the kernel of the word into a new, hopefully shape. The contents of the story matter less than that the story is told. The story must be told. The process of telling is essential to your own process of internal change. Don't censor yourself: write whatever it is that you must write.

7. If you assume there is only one reason to write, you kill a million universes in which other reasons are even more essential. Writing can be therapeutic, but the end-product of writing, the written poem or essay, etc., is not itself therapy, it is only the record of therapy, or the product of art therapy. No matter how attached to it you become, because writing it was therapeutic, don't assume it's good art. Making art can be cathartic, to both the maker and the viewer, but art is not inherently a catharsis. Don't confuse the process with the product or the purpose.

8. The archetypal stories are the oldest stories, and have been with us the longest. The narratives of shamanism, or myth, of deep psychological roleplay, all recycle the same stories. So don't fret about originality. If anything, if we write a numinous, evocative story it will evoke the oldest resonances in the psyche, and trigger the archetypes. That feeling you get when the small hairs on the back of your neck stand up. That feeling of standing on the threshold of a brave new world, about to take a first step into the unknown. So don't worry if your story isn't the most modern, the most ironically postmodern, the most original: let the old resonances in, let the oldest echoes ring through. That's how you get at the journey to the other worlds, by remembering you've already been there.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Someone asked me a couple of days ago the name of any book I’d cried to. The answer was: none. And that’s not because I’m a bloke and it’s not cool to cry because I’ve cried watching films (Billy Liar was the last one and I must have seen it three or four times) and music (believe it or not the Billy Connolly song ‘I Was Born in Glasgow’ can reduce me to tears and I’m not especially nationalistic) but not books. I’ve had people cry reading my books but I simply don’t get as involved in reading as you obviously did with this book. I have a good imagination but I struggle trying to visualise what I’m reading, not that I try very hard. I’m like a blind man being read to, a man who has never seen an internment camp or the starship Enterprise. Was I upset when George shot Lenny in Of Mice and Men or when Piggy was killed in Lord of the Flies? I don’t think I was. A part of me is a little embarrassed to own up to this but I’m also embarrassed because I’m not the voracious reader that all ‘real’ writers are supposed to be. I definitely have some limitations.

7:33 AM  
Blogger Danish dog said...

Nice post, Art! (And nice comment , Jim!) Writing about writing is writing. I've started my own blog, and you two have been inspiring bloggers on that score.

I'm working on a short piece, that could become a bit longer, only I've set myself a deadline for Friday, where I say something about autobiographical writing and touch upon the therapeutic aspect. I did a search and came across an interesting guy. Stanley Cavell. Have either of you heard of him? The two pieces I've found are here:


9:24 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Cavell's connection to Wittgenstein on how the ordinary is actually extraordinary and uncanny is what leaps out at me here. It reminds me too of Virginia Woolf's similar comments that there are no ordinary moments, that each moment is quite wonderful and special.

Sato's ideas about autobiography make me think of nothing so much as Caroline Myss' comments about how people these days bond through their wounds. Everybody has to have something dysfunctional, or some form of therapy, through which to find common ground with a stranger. Oh, you were molested, so was I! That sort of thing.

The problem with autobiography as therapy is that it stops short of becoming transcendent. There's a lot of wallowing in the past, in past grief and suffering. I find myself less and less willing to wallow, because my own present moment has suffering enough in it—sufficient unto the day enough are the troubles therein.

One reason I love Woolf's "To the Lighthouse," which is a book very much about art, and how artists try to live in the world, is that she takes all that suffering and turns it into something luminous and healing, in a way that transcends mere therapy, but becomes sublime and universal. I suppose in some ways that's the difference between how a great artist transforms their suffering into great art, and how the rest of us who are artists but maybe not on that great level struggle to do the same.

I just keep coming back to the desire to transcend the narrative and its limitations. To find the uncanniness of the ordinary. Uncanny is another word like liminal, touching on some of the same terrain.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Danish dog said...

Oh, I don't see Cavell as someone bonding through wounds at all! He seems to be much more interested in existential questions.

We seem to lack words for writing that merely attends to one's well-being and spritual development: "therapy" implies illness, "catharsis" blockage. Why don't we have any good words to describe writing that is merely beneficial for one's mental health?

10:38 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Fair enough.

I think we have words for well-being and spiritual development, but our culture right now is and has been focused on pathology. This has been going on for awhile. I've run into lots of articles that talk about a nation of addicts, and how the language of therapy and recovery had so permeated the culture that people use it without even thinking about it. But equally thoughtlessly, they mostly use the pathological words. There have been critiques of the general psychologizing of everyday language even by psychologists. Freud has a lot to answer for.

One of the best books I've ever read on this subject is "We've Had a Hundred of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse," by Michael Ventura and James Hillman. An amazing book that i encourage you to explore.

I mean, face it, in literary circles you can't be "sincere" without people smirking their postmodern irony. Irony is the new intimacy. Dysfunction is assumed to be normal in literary fiction just as it is in life. Addiction, dysfunction, whatever, those are the baseline ways that people define themselves in literary postmodern urban malaise. Personally, I'm sick of it, which is one reason I don't read much literary fiction anymore. Haven't we spent enough time exploring the wounds? How about we spend some time restoring our mental health? Which is exactly why I wrote about writing and shamanism today. It's a first step.

But it's an unpopular one. Seriously, the first time I posted about Abraham Maslow's positive psychology of peak experiences on this blog I got viciously attacked! It's THAT unpopular in these apocalyptic times to be positive, sincere, unironic, and emphasize the beneficial and healthy. Maslow was brilliant, but most therapists still don't read him. Go figure.

Yet "catharsis" does not imply blockage for me. It implies release, but not necessarily from being blocked. I use it in more in the ancient Greek sense of the word, which is how I also tend to use "eros" and "ekstasis." As states of mind, states of being. And each of these words has theological implications as well. So catharsis, eros, and ecstasy are also part of the psychology of health.

11:44 AM  
Blogger Danish dog said...

You're making good sense, Art!Yeah, I agree about catharsis. Thanks to its ancient origins it can perhaps remain uncontaminated by the pathologizing of modern society.

My pet hate is the term, "closure". It is a mean, life-denying concept that wants us to be social machines functioning optimally.

I'm relatively new to your blog, Art, so there's some back-reading for me to do. For example, I'd appreciate a link to your Maslow piece.

The word "Years" was missing from the title of the Ventura/Hillman book, but I found it, and I've added it to my wish list on Amazon.


1:49 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

The Maslow post in question is at:

I deleted the original offending post, but left the replies in place, as a case study.

Also, you can just use the Search function at the top of the blog page.

Closure. Hmn. In some contexts I think that concept has some value. There are some wounds that really do need to be closed up, and moved on away from, rather than letting them continue to fester forever.

But I take your point about how many people want us to be perfectly-functioning social machines. People do use words like "closure" to bully others into finishing their grieving processes, which is convenient for the bully but might be harmful for the grieving one. People also words like "should" as behavioral bludgeons. It's a nasty thing to do, and very self-centered, to try to force someone's process just because you want it to be over before they're ready to end it.

6:24 PM  
Blogger Danish dog said...

Thanks for your link, Art. That was a great post, and I'll be linking it in my next post.

I hadn't seen
the search machine.

I agree closure can be necessary, but it's like I get the sense that closure has become such a by-word that people are almost being programmed to run ahead of themselves and are missing out on the stuff of life.

Living in the now

1:20 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, Duncan.

I don't disagree that closure can become a buzzword forcing people to move ahead of their own process. I think it mostly becomes that way when people try to impose it on others from the outside. When it's generated from within, it's a lot more meaningful, and goes deeper, i think.

10:37 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Jim, I just realized I hadn't replied to your comment. Sorry to have overlooked that.

I know that reading a lot makes for better writing. But I don't think you need to feel embarrassed about not reading as much as some other writers do. Honestly, there are genres I read nothing at all in. I think one can get a sense of things sometimes from reading a few key books, and not have their thousands of imitators. I definitely am glad that I've read so much Beckett, but I know lots of folks who have only seen the plays, not read them. So maybe there are multiple roads.

10:40 PM  

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