Andre Dubus III
In On Becoming a Novelist — one of my favorite books about writing — John Gardner emphasizes the centrality of the “fictive dream,” the mental-imaginal movie that novelists are tasked with entering as deeply as possible so that they can channel it onto the page and thus recreate it in the imagination of the reader. “Every writer,” Gardner says, “has experienced at least moments of this strange, magical state. . . . But it is not all magic. Once one knows by experience the ‘feel’ of the state one is after, there are things one can do to encourage its onset. (Some writers, with practice, become able to drop into the creative state at any moment; others have difficulty all their lives.) Every writer must figure out for himself, if he can, how he personally works best.”
I was reminded of these words recently when I read an interview with Andre Dubus III, published last October at The Atlantic, and saw him describing an approach to writing that, as noted by his interviewer, sounds positively shamanistic. Dubus starts from a piece of advice given by novelist Richard Bausch, which he (Dubus) claims as a kind of presiding mantra for his own writing: “Do not think, dream.” (This comes, by the way, from the anthology Letters to a Fiction Writer — another book that has long occupied an important place in my own authorial life, and that I heartily recommend.) He then shares some profound insights drawn from his own practice of writing in this mode:
We’re all born with an imagination. Everybody gets one. And I really believe — this is just from years of daily writing — that good fiction comes from the same place as our dreams. I think the desire to step into someone else’s dream world, is a universal impulse that’s shared by us all. That’s what fiction is.
. . . . [D]uring my very early writing, certainly before I’d published, I began to learn characters will come alive if you back the fuck off. It was exciting, and even a little terrifying. If you allow them to do what they’re going to do, think and feel what they’re going to think and feel, things start to happen on their own. It’s a beautiful and exciting alchemy. And all these years later, that’s the thrill I write to get: to feel things start to happen on their own.
. . . It’s very difficult to achieve this dream state, and it requires a lot of courage. And I don’t think it’s going to happen unless you can cultivate two qualities in yourself, which William Stafford, the poet, taught me when he said “The poet must put himself in a state of receptivity before writing.” Stafford said you know you’re being receptive when a) you’re willing to accept anything that comes, no matter what it is, and b) you’re willing to fail. But Americans are very impatient with failure. I think one of the many reasons people don’t end up living their authentic lives is because they’re afraid of failing — they don’t take chances. And I understand it. This is very risky, terrifying territory writing this way. But it’s the only way I can do it. Frankly, I just feel so alive when I write that way.
. . . I really wrestle with religious faith, but I don’t wrestle with this. I used to think I had no religious faith of any kind. I’ve been a father of three for years, and I never prayed until I became a father for the first time at the age of 33. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in something: Something’s out there. And the main reason I believe that something’s out there—something mysterious and invisible but real—largely has come from my daily practice of writing. There’s a great line from an ancient anonymous Chinese poet: We poets knock upon the silence for an answering music. The way I write, the way I encourage people I work with to try to write is exactly this: Trust your imagination. Free fall into it. See where it brings you to.
. . . I do not ever think about career when I’m in my writing cave. I do not. I try not to think; I dream. It’s my mantra. I just get in there and try to be these people. It’s not so I can write a book and get paid and have another book tour — though those are good problems to have. It’s because I feel an almost sacred obligation to these spirits who came before: to sit with them and write their tale.
(Incidentally, the quote from William Stafford, coming on the heels of the line from Bausch, makes me wonder if Dubus has somehow been sneaking into my house and snatching books off my shelf.)
Full story: “The Case for Writing a Story Before Knowing How It Ends“
Image by Wes Washington (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Last week I was led to quote one of Bradbury’s famous bits of life advice — of which there are many — to one of those students. It was his line about leaping off cliffs and then building your wings on the way down. Afterward, I got curious about the provenance of this quote, and this led me on an Internet search for its source or sources. Eventually I was led to an excellent 23-year-old interview with Bradbury in South Carolina’s Spartanburg Herald-Journal, obtained by them from the New York Times news service, and presently readable thanks to Google’s news archive.
The title is “Learning is solitary pursuit for Bradbury.” The journalist is Luaine Lee. The date is October 17, 1990. And the interview shows Bradbury offering some really lovely articulations of ideas, insights, and anecdotes (many of them familiar but all of them neverendingly fascinating) from his personal mythic journey. Read the rest of this entry
The first appears at Pacific Standard and comes from the pen of independent journalist Brandon Sneed. Its title gets right to the point: “The Muse: True Inspiration or Total Nonsense?” It was published on August 23, and its accompanying teaser states the writer’s conclusion in a nutshell: “Your muse might actually be real, but it doesn’t descend from the heavens. Instead, it’s sitting inside your skull.” The article itself shows Mr. Sneed summarizing the concept of the muse in its ancient and modern guises, with references to and quotations from Homer, Ray Bradbury, and Steven Pressfield, and then observing that there is a running disagreement among many modern-day writers, some of whom subscribe to something like a belief in a real muse and others of whom dismiss such an idea in favor of an approach based on hard work and professional discipline.
In the end, Mr. Sneed comes down on the side of the too-simplistic and too-hasty conclusion summarized at the outset. Don’t misunderstand me: the article itself is interesting and worth reading, and it attempts some minor nuance by giving a pro forma acknowledgement that the “real muse” idea can’t be absolutely ruled out in principle. But Mr. Sneed comes down too easily, automatically, and unquestioningly on the side of a reductionist brain-based theory of creativity (and also consciousness itself) for my taste. This position always begs an infinite number of questions and drains away the power — not to mention the reality — of the mystery inherent in the fact of being alive and awake.
The second such article — meaning the second one that I encountered; it was actually published two days earlier, on August 21 — comes from literary author Laura Valeri, from her self-titled blog. The article’s title is “The Biology of Writing (Or Not Writing) Creatively,” and the subject is this very same disagreement between two different creative-theoretical camps. She terms them (quite effectively, in my view) “Behaviorists” and “Daemonicists,” and then uses this distinction as preface to a succinct and able exploration of the biology of creativity, with brief comments on the “flow” state, aphasia (the inability to write), epilepsy, depression, the structure of the brain, neuroscience, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s now-legendary TED Talk on the “classical” experience of creative inspiration by a muse or genius. Read the rest of this entry
(Click the cover or the linked title below to download the PDF)
Where does creativity come from? Why do ideas and inspiration feel as if they come from “outside,” from an external source that’s separate from us but able to whisper directly into the mind? Why have so many writers throughout history — and also composers, painters, philosophers, mystics, and scientists — spoken of being guided, accompanied, and even haunted by a force or presence that not only serves as the deep source of their creative work but that exerts a kind of profound and inexorable gravitational pull on the shape of their lives?
These are all questions addressed by A Course in Demonic Creativity: A Writer’s Guide to the Inner Genius. The book’s starting point is the proposition that we all possess a higher or deeper intelligence than the everyday mind, and that learning to live and work harmoniously and energetically with this intelligence is the irreducible core of a successful artistic life. We can call this inner force the unconscious mind or the silent partner. We can call it the id or the secret self. But muse, daimon, and genius are so much more effective at conveying its subversive and electrifying emotional charge, and also its experiential reality.
Your unconscious mind truly is your genius in the ancient sense of the word, the sense that was universal before it was fatefully altered several centuries ago by historical-cultural forces. Befriending it as such, and interacting with it as if it really is a separate, collaborating presence in your psyche, puts you in a position to receive its gifts, and it in the position to give them to you.
A brief note about the history of this book
In 2009 I founded the blog Demon Muse, devoted to the subject of inspired creativity. A Course in Demonic Creativity was developed from material that I published there from 2009 to 2011. I shut the site down permanently in 2013 after repeated hacks (in the form of bot attacks, I assume) had finally tried my patience and technical skills to their limit. But that left no home for this book, so I decided to make it available here at The Teeming Brain due to people’s continued interest in it.
When I closed Demon Muse, downloads of the book were nearing four thousand. It has gained several thousand more readers here at The Teeming Brain. Additionally, various people have taken advantage of the Creative Commons license under which I published it to make it available elsewhere. I’ve been gratified and humbled to read people’s praise for A Course in Demonic Creativity over the years, and to witness how it keeps finding its way to individuals who grasp, appreciate, and resonate with its viewpoint and message.
Last year I provided an introduction to Joe’s surreal horror fiction collection Portraits of Ruin (Hippocampus Press, 2012), and as I explained here when I shared an excerpt from that introduction , the writing of it actually represented a record of my struggle in learning how to understand the book, which I presented in hopes of helping the reader learn to do the same.
Thomas Ligotti provided a blurb for the book, and when he read my contribution he commented that it could actually serve as an effective introduction to any type of poetic work. So here, as provoked by my recent engagement with Kerouac and Co., and bearing the official blessing of Hippocampus Press and Joe himself, is the full text of that intro. Maybe it will convince you to buy Portraits of Ruin and help you unlock its dark delights. Maybe it will provide you with some useful advice for approaching other works written in an unconventional style whose goal is to speak both to and from the non-rational side of consciousness.
In any case, I hope you find that it somehow speaks to the inspired madman lurking within the depths of your conventionally sane self. Read the rest of this entry
Dr. Angela Voss is an expert in mythology, astrology, and Western esotericism. She’s also one of the two editors of Daimonic Imagination: Uncanny Intelligence, whose imminent publication I recently talked about here. In conjunction with that post, she has asked me to help spread the word about an exciting new graduate program in these subjects that she has helped to create in the UK. Conveniently, this is a request that plays right into my already-existing plans, since I was planning to mention the new graduate program at some point anyway! In the past few months I’ve seen various announcements and updates about its development and planned launch in January 2014, and have thought the whole thing looks and sounds quite fascinating.
As you’ll see from the following description, the program also lands right in the middle of the same territory explored not only by the Daimonic Imagination book but by portions of this very blog. I urge you to click through the title link below to the program’s page at the Canterbury Christ Church University site, where you can read more details on the specific subjects to be covered. Items that leap out at me personally include “”The nature of mythopoeic thought: symbol and metaphor,” “Renaissance art and theurgic magic,” “Jung, Corbin and Hillman on active imagination,” “The return to the gods in transpersonal psychology,” and “Subliminal mind and the unconscious.”
Maybe somebody among The Teeming Brain’s audience will find that this is just the thing they’ve been looking for.
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Announcing a new Masters programme in Canterbury, UK:
This interdisciplinary Masters programme draws on studies in psychology, anthropology, theology, esoteric philosophy, a range of wisdom traditions and the arts. It offers a discerning investigation into seemingly non-rational modes of knowing, exploring the cosmological sense of the sacred, the widespread practices of symbol-interpretation and divination, and the cultural role of the creative imagination. The programme will appeal to all those seeking to enrich their lives through the study of the history, philosophy and rituals of Western sacred and esoteric traditions, and will be of particular interest to teachers, practitioners and therapists in the fields of contemporary spirituality and well-being who would like to engage more deeply with the foundations of their work. Students will be required to submit four essays, a creative portfolio and review, extracts from an ongoing reflective Learning Journal and a dissertation. The MA is taught at alternate weekends Jan-June, with additional Wednesday mornings for full-time students. The second half of the year consists of supervised research with a presentation weekend in September. Students will be required to submit four essays, a creative portfolio and review, extracts from an ongoing reflective Learning Journal and a dissertation.
For the student handbook and all admin information (including fees) contact Michelle Childs email@example.com, 01227 863458. For information regarding course content, contact Angela Voss firstname.lastname@example.org
We also welcome enquiries for M.Phil and Ph.D research in related areas.
I’m pleased to report that the publication of the book Daimonic Imagination: Uncanny Intelligence, which will feature my essay/paper “In Search of Higher Intelligence: The Daemonic Muse(s) of Aleister Crowley, Timothy Leary, and Robert Anton Wilson,” is imminent. The book is edited by Angela Voss and William Rowlandson, former co-directors of the Centre for the Study of Myth at the University of Kent. It consists mostly of papers presented at the 2011 conference they convened at the university under the same name as the book title. With my enduring interest in daimonic matters, I was quite disappointed when I heard and read about the conference a couple of years ago and knew that I wouldn’t be able to make the trip across the Atlantic to attend and participate. So it was a pleasure when Angela contacted me afterward with a request to include my paper, which was then going through the peer review process for publication in Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal, in the forthcoming book.
Today she sent a note to contributors letting us know that the book’s publication is right around the corner, perhaps as early as this month. Here are its description and contents. It looks like a rich feast indeed, and I’m proud to be aboard (and am raring to read the whole thing).
From the artistic genius to the tarot reader, a sense of communication with another order of reality is commonly attested; this “other” may be termed god, angel, spirit, muse, daimon or alien, or it may be seen as an aspect of the human imagination or the “unconscious” in a psychological sense. This volume of essays celebrates the daimonic presence in a diversity of manifestations, presenting new insights into inspired creativity and human beings’ relationship with mysterious and numinous dimensions of reality. In art and literature, many visual and poetic forms have been given to the daimonic intelligence, and in the realm of new age practices, encounters with spirit beings are facilitated through an increasing variety of methods including shamanism, hypnotherapy, mediumship and psychedelics. The contributors to this book are not concerned with “proving” or “disproving” the existence of such beings. Rather, they paint a broad canvas with many colours, evoking the daimon through the perspectives of history, literature, encounter and performance, and showing how it informs, and has always informed, human experience.
Preface (Geoffrey Cornelius)
Introduction (Angela Voss and William Rowlandson)
Part I: Daimonic History
1. When Spirit Possession is Sexual Encounter: The Case for a Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece (Marguerite Rigoglioso)
2. Encounters at the Tomb: Visualizing the Invisible in Attic Vase Painting (Diana Rodríguez Pérez)
3. Parodying the Divine: Exploring the Iconography of the Cult of the Kabeiroi in the Ancient Greek World (Kirsten M. Bedigan)
4. Of Cosmocrators and Cosmic Gods: The Place of the Archons in De mysteriis (Christopher A. Plaisance)
5. “Showeth Herself all Naked”: Madimi in John Dee’s Conversations with Spirits (Stephanie Spoto)
6. Burke’s Aesthetics of the Spirit (Simon Wilson)
7. Uncanny Intelligence in Psychoanalysis and Divination (Maggie Hyde)
8. The Scientific Approach of F. W. H. Myers to the Study of Mystical Experiences, Divination and Psi, and its Value to Psychology (Terence J. Palmer )
Part II: Daimonic Literature
9. Definitive Demons: Frankenstein and Dracula as Ultimate Representations of the “Monstrous Other” (Vered Weiss)
10. Sceptical Scepticism: Reason and Uncanny Experience in Scottish Fiction (Kenneth Keir )
11. The Daimonic in W. B. Yeats (Chiara Reghellin)
12. But Who is That on the Other Side of You? The Daimonic Sources of Consciousness in Literature and Dreams (Wojciech Owczarski )
13. “Necessary Monsters”: Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings and the Ontology of the Daimonic (William Rowlandson)
14. Privileging the “Other”: Illicit Forms of Knowledge in the Detective Fiction of Reginald Hill (Hilary A. Goldsmith)
Part III: Daimonic Encounter
15. Fireflies and Shooting Stars: Visual Narratives of Daimonic Intelligence (Angela Voss )
16. In Search of Higher Intelligence: The Daimonic Muse(s) of Aleister Crowley, Timothy Leary, and Robert Anton Wilson (Matt Cardin)
17. So long as you’ve got your Elf: Death, DMT and Discarnate Entities (David Luke)
18. C. G. Jung, Tibetan Tantra and the Great Goddess: An Exploration of Sacred Entities and Archetypes (Judson Davis)
19. Cultural Variation of the Feminine in Psychedelic Personification (Cameron Adams)
20. Daimonic Ecologies: An Inquiry into the Relationships between the Human and Nonphysical Species (Alex Rachel )
Part IV: Daimonic Performance
21. Seeing Voices: Elucidating the Unconscious via Tarot Hermeneutic with Jung and Deleuze (Inna Semetsky )
22. Imaginal Inquiry: Meetings with the Imaginative Intelligence (Marie Angelo)
23. Imaginal Doorway: Seeking a Daimonic Theatre using Dramatherapy (Toby Chown)
24. Numinous Conversations: Performance and Manifestation of Spirits in Spirit Possession Practices (Jack Hunter)
25. The Call of the Spirit: The Training and Practice of Sangomas in Relation to an Astrologer’s Vocation (Darby Costello)
26. Spirit and Shaman: Altered Consciousness and the Development of Creativity (Zoë Brân)
There’s a nifty interview with Stephen King in last weekend’s edition of that bastion of substantive journalism, Parade magazine. It’s actually the cover feature, which knocks the usually fluff-filled magazine up a notch in my (probably immaterial) estimation.
Among the highlights are the following points of interest:
King explains why he’s not a horror writer:
Interviewer Ken Tucker: [Your new novel] Joyland has supernatural elements, but it isn’t a horror novel.
Stephen King: I’ve been typed as a horror writer, and I’ve always said to people, “I don’t care what you call me as long as the checks don’t bounce and the family gets fed.” But I never saw myself that way. I just saw myself as a novelist.
King explains the mysterious fact of inner guidance in the act of writing:
I’m a situational writer. You give me a situation, like a writer gets in a car crash, breaks his leg, is kidnapped by his number-one fan, and is kept in a cabin and forced to write a book — everything else springs from there. You really don’t have to work once you’ve had the idea. All you have to do is kind of take dictation from something inside.
King describes his uneasiness about the future of reading in a screen-dominated culture:
Tucker: Do you think that reading occupies the same importance for kids today?
King: No, absolutely not. I think it’s because they’re so screen-oriented [TVs, computers, smartphones]. They do read — girls in particular read a lot. They have a tendency to go toward the paranormal, romances, Twilight and stuff like that. And then it starts to taper off because other things take precedence, like the Kardashian sisters. I did a couple of writing seminars in Canada last year with high school kids. These were the bright kids, Ken; they all have computers, but they can’t spell. Because spell-check won’t [help] you if you don’t know “through” from “threw.” I told them, “If you can read in the 21st century, you own the world.” Because you learn to write from reading. But there are so many other byways for the consciousness to go down now; it makes me uneasy.
Note that in addition to reading the interview, you can listen to portions of King’s actual conversation with the interviewer, and also watch him posing for a Parade photo shoot, in this brief “Behind the Scenes” video:
From a recent blog post by psychologist and author Thomas Moore, in which he elucidates one of the key insights from his mentor in depth psychology, the late, great James Hillman:
“An axiom of depth psychology asserts that what is not admitted into awareness irrupts in ungainly obsessive, literalistic ways, affecting consciousness with precisely the qualities it strives to exclude. Personifying not allowed as a metaphorical vision returns in concrete form: we seize upon people, we cling to other persons.” — James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology, p. 46.
James Hillman always spoke of the Greek gods as if they were present, not literal but real. Years ago I read Karl Kerenyi’s idea that religion begins in the atmosphere of a place or situation. I thought of Artemis, a spirit I feel strongly in play in my life, and I imagined feeling her presence as she is depicted in classical poetry, as the atmosphere you sense when you are in a pristine forest, far from civilization. I can imagine that same “atmosphere” within myself, some place so pristine and uncontaminated that is has the qualities associated with Artemis. So I can speak of Artemis in me and in the world without being naive or simplistic.
An image for Hillman is not an intellectual abstraction but a presence, again, one that is real but not literal. The Mona Lisa, Hamlet, and Sherlock Holmes have become so real in some people’s imagination that they relate to the figures as real presences, though they know they are fictions. Seeing the astrological conditions of an ordinary day may be another way of taking certain images seriously without turning them into abstract ideas or confusing them with actual persons.
. . . If I don’t treat the images of dream and the stories of life as powerful and serious fictions, therapy itself becomes personalistic. I get involved in my own pet ideas and agendas, and I try to influence the person I’m trying to help rather than care for the soul. Therapy becomes life management based on personal prejudices or on the wishes of the client.
And so, it’s important to read fiction and poetry and drama; to contemplate paintings and movies; to listen closely to music and to make interesting photographs — all to keep imagination alive, to serve what Hillman calls “the metaphorical persons,” the gods and characters and personalities of fiction, because fiction is more important than we could ever imagine. Wallace Stevens wrote: “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else.”
More: “Real Presences“
When The Power of Myth, the six-part PBS television series featuring Bill Moyers interviewing Joseph Campbell, first broke upon the unsuspecting American public in 1988, it became an instant sensation and Campbell became an instant celebrity (I mean in a pop cultural sense, beyond and in addition to the substantial academic fame he had already achieved for his groundbreaking work in the scholarship of comparative mythology). The series became the most widely viewed program in the history of American public broadcasting, and it uncovered a massive television audience made up mostly of middle-class, educated individuals who were hungry for information and conversation about mythological, philosophical, psychological, religious, and spiritual matters. Ironically, Campbell himself never got to see this, because he died in 1987, shortly after his interviews with Moyers were completed but before the television series was put together.
Campbell’s work has also had a massive impact on popular culture. Star Wars is only the most famous instance of his monomyth of “the hero’s journey” being employed by filmmakers. The same storytelling pattern was also the direct basis for Disney’s Aladdin and The Lion King. The Wachowski brothers channeled it into the Matrix mythos. It influenced the 2007 I Am Legend adaptation and Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. It even shows up in the Rambo franchise; as David Morrell explains in The Successful Novelist, his thoroughly wonderful book about the art, craft, and business of writing, he consciously employed the Campbellian monomyth when charting John Rambo’s character arc and relationship to Sheriff Teasle in First Blood. Read the rest of this entry