A great animator-cartoonist once asked: “Can you remember, or care to remember, the plot of any great comedy? Chaplin? Woody Allen? The Marx Brothers? It’s all about character. Personality is everything.”
Mark Twain wrote: “The writer merely has some people in his mind, and an incident or two, also a locality. He knows the selected locality, and he trusts he can plunge those people into incidents with interesting results.”
For me, and I suspect for all writers who’ve come into their own (although not necessarily into money or critical acclaim), this is exactly how it is. Someone, a character, a personality, enters my head and starts talking. Sometimes a place comes first, or a time in history. What does NOT come first is story, a plot, a structure. I’m suddenly filled with a personality seemingly not my own who wants to act out her or his own story. And I follow, often blindly, but I follow, always in the dark.
I’ve read writers who tell you that you can’t know your tale unless you know your ending. They mean a goal. Writing means reaching that goal. I’ve read writers who tell you before you write a word you must write a detailed outline of all that will happen. When I was young and had not come into my own, this kind of thing seemed true. And I despaired. I never know my ending. As for an outline, well, one always dislikes a thing one cannot do. I cannot write an outline because for me story is not a mechanism, a Lego structure, a feat of engineering. A story is organic and it flows from the personality of my main character. He or she knows what she wants. I write as I’m told by some inner voice whispering as I go, trying to keep up. I make wrong turns when I don’t listen, when I impose “me” on my character. Hypatia of Alexandria fought back. I knew I’d lost the story when I felt her struggle with me. But when I stopped messing with Hypatia’s one true voice, the story once more wrote itself.
I have no idea if the advice I heard when I was young works for anyone. All I know is that it doesn’t work for me and it’s lovely to know it didn’t work for Twain or for the man who created some of the world’s most iconic cartoon characters.
If it doesn’t work for you, stop doing it. Sit in front your computer, your typewriter, your pad of real paper, and just listen. Someone will begin speaking to you. Write down what they say. And word by word, day by day, they will tell you a tale no one else has ever told before.
A writer, if they’re lucky, doesn’t know what time it is. A writer, if they’re lucky, doesn’t know which day of the week it is. Hours, days, weeks, months, are nothing more than Now… and Now is anytime. It’s any place the work is.
As Mary Magdalene, I studied in the Great Library of Alexandria. And when I was done filling my head with the knowledge of the world, I walked the land of what Rome called Palestine with Jesus. I was his teacher. I was his Beloved Companion. And we talked to all who would listen as I worked for seven years on The Secret Magdalene.
I was born during the last part of the fourth century to Alexandria’s leading mathematician breathing the air of of Rome’s Egypt as Hypatia . In my time, I was exalted beyond all women and most men, and then, still young, still fair, still revered by thousands, I was cruelly brought down by a few in a way hard to comprehend. And when that was done, the world tried to forget me.
I was pampered and rich, white and foolish in the city of San Francisco. It was the Roaring Twenties and I fell in love with a man forbidden to me, a man I destroyed in China Blues.
I was a writer, a woman who destroyed herself in a small town in a sweet slice of green called Vermont… or perhaps I recreated myself? Running from what I had done, I found a haunted hotel to die in. Or to live in forever. As I wrote Houdini Heart, I did not plan or plot or scheme. The work simply came with barely a change of word when it was finished. I don’t know if my hotel was haunted. I don’t know if everything is haunted, but I suspect it is.
Over my own years, the years I live as Ki, these things come to me. They are almost easy now. But only because I prepared for their coming. I learned how to write by reading. I learned how to write by writing. I took no course. I followed no rules but those that seemed mine. They were never mine. Story telling is ancient and all who listen know when a story is right and when it is wrong. They did not get taught this. Humans are born to tell stories or to hear them.
If the life you live seems pale to you, uneventful, unimportant, all that can change with a word. Even better, with thousands of words. Read them or write them. Better, do both. And you too will forget what time it is and your life will seemingly last forever.
To speak of freedom, one usually means freedom from the physical oppression of one’s fellow man (or woman…once us females get the chance and if we take it). Here I speak of a much more insidious lack of freedom, or slavery to come closer to the truth. To be burdened by something like our new corporate state is bad enough, but to be controlled by a system of belief is crippling. In Flow Down Like Silver, my true-life heroine, Hypatia of Alexandria, struggles against the blind beliefs of her students in the hope she can open their eyes to a broader deeper truth.
You and I, we all of us come dragging behind us as much “belief baggage,” and are weighted down with as many chains of unquestioned assumptions, as Jacob Marley’s ghost. We have to be. We’re human. And no human alive lives without a set of beliefs firmly embedded in their psyche, maybe even encoded in their DNA. Not only were we taught these belief-truths from the moment we opened our brand new eyes on this gorgeous world, we had them hard-wired in as a means to survival. Our assumptions about “truth” are the glue of our personal reality.
Come to Earth as humans, we all share human beliefs about reality–but modified if we are born, say, a Hindu. In other words, if born to Hindus, we should be Hindus. If born to Jews or to Muslims or to Christians or to atheists, we should all almost certainly be as they are. Arriving in a clutch of Born-Agains, we go through hell on earth–and pray for the Rapture to get us the heck out of here. Even born to the once-lovely Hippies, we come into this world trailing yards and yards of gauzy wide-eyed belief.
Unless we learn to ask questions.
Most of us have much to thank our parents for. Quite a few have a lot to complain about. As for me, I have really only this (which is both gift and curse): my parents taught me nothing. I missed out on the usual indoctrination. I can’t recall a single conversation about religion. Or one about social status, ie: racism. Or politics. Come to think, where the hell were my parents when I was growing up? Not parenting, that’s for sure. When they were around, I remember gossip. I recall fights. They weren’t exactly drunks, but the smell of liquor still makes me ill. There was always the television, and they certainly watched that. While they were doing all this, I was reading books. Even so, I had a roof over my head, and food more often than not. I had clothes and toys and whatever else a child needs to stay alive. What I did not have was cherishing. Or instruction.
All this became part of Houdini Heart, a book of supernatural horror heavily based on my youth.
As I said, this is a curse. But it’s also a blessing. I did not have to unlearn what was taught me as “truths.” I did not have to struggle to rid myself of my parent’s beliefs. I did not have to free myself from church or mosque or temple or even nude dancing in the woods. I held fast to no social dictum. I was born free of these things. And that includes the freedom to embrace any of them all by myself should they ever appeal. None of them have.
Which means I was born free to create myself out of nothing but my own thoughts and reactions to the Grand Mass Illusion I’d opened my illusory eyes on.
I paid a heavy price for this, but it was worth every anguish along the way.