‘In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted – knowingly or unknowingly – in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.’
Ben Okri, A Way of Being Free
A few months ago I gave a paper, entitled New Stories for Old, at a conference here in Aberystwyth, in which I explored the need for new stories and the role fiction writers might play in their creation. I’m currently adapting that paper for publication but in the meantime I thought I’d summarise some of the ideas it explores and clarify that a discussion of new stories should not dismiss myths or fables, or the stories of ancient spiritual traditions, for many of these are timeless teaching stories which carry within them the threads of the ‘new’. When I speak of casting out the old, I mean those stories which condition us, trapping us within their conforming limitations. When I speak of new stories, I mean those stories which help to liberate us from our conditioning, enabling us to see through the ideological constructs that imprison our thinking.
We live in a world in which humanity is struggling to find a way through a range of crises, a world in which the old stories are leading us deeper and deeper into inequity, a world in which corporations rule governments and countries. This is an Orwellian world of heavy surveillance, where Doublethink is rife and Newspeak is restricting our ability to think outside of the box. It is a world where ‘whistle blowers’ are persecuted and tax dodger companies rewarded. This is the old world – the result of stories we have come to accept as given. A consensus if you like, a reality created by communal acceptance, and a reality that is normalised in our media day after day. To change that reality requires more than just a re-costuming of the old ways, for as Idries Shah points out in his book, Sufism, ‘enlightenment cannot come through a rearrangement of familiar ideas, but through a recognition of the limitations of ordinary thinking’. Shah’s view is echoed in Sacred Economics, by writer, speaker and ‘degrowth’ activist, Charles Eisenstein who writes, ‘In all realms, from money to ecological healing to politics to technology to medicine, we need solutions that exceed the present bounds of the possible.’ And it is echoed again by novelist and poet, Ben Okri, who, in response to the crushing realities of the old world, writes that ‘the only hope is in the creation of alternative values, alternative realities . . . Which is to say that in some way or another we breach and confound the accepted frontier of things.’
There is an increasing call for new stories. People from all walks of life, in all careers are seeking new ways of living: alternative biologists, economists, sociologists, social entrepreneurs . . . all advocating that we step outside of the socially constructed boundaries to our thinking in order to create lasting change. There are a growing number of voices, calling for and creating possible new stories and suggesting ways in which these stories might be applied. People such as Eisenstein are imagining and working towards creating, a more equitable society, through new approaches to politics, law, economics, food technology, medicine, business and ecology . . . They are publishing books, giving talks and working through global internet communities to help rebuild local communities, and the results are already becoming evident. These voices are gaining traction and becoming a force for change.
The Power of Writing
‘It is only recently that I have come to understand that writers are not marginal to our society, that they, in fact, do all our thinking for us, that we are writing myths and our myths are believed, and that old myths are believed until someone writes a new one. ‘
Kurt Vonnegut, in Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, ed by William Rodney Allen
While it is evident that writers do not ‘do all our thinking for us’, there is no doubt that writers, like artists of all kinds have a power that some governments and religious organisations fear. In countries with restrictive governments, we have seen how dangerous it can be for writers. In 1995, the Nigerian writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed, for criticising the Nigerian government and for leading a non-violent campaign against the petroleum companies destroying his country. Today there are many writers held in captivity around the world but in our society writers are rarely, if ever, imprisoned for their works or their opinions. We have freedom of speech and we call ourselves free. There is little overt censorship, there is no evident punishment for writers who question the system or who advocate individual expression. However, as Noam Chomsky writes in his book The Common Good, ‘The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.’ Censorship comes in many forms and in a sense a country in which we think ourselves free can be more inhibiting to freedom of thought than one in which our freedom is restricted by external laws – simply because we are unable to see the internal restrictions we apply to ourselves. There are many ways to ‘limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion’ and some of these ways are so subtle that we may not even be aware this is what is happening.
In our increasingly secular world it is no longer solely the church that defines what orthodoxy is. The pendulum has swung from the dogma of the church to the dogma of science. Science makes an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the world and to our quality of life, but its spirit of inquiry and discovery is in danger of being replaced by corporate led orthodoxy. Over time the spirit of scientific rationalism has permeated all of society and in the process has defined what is orthodox and what is heretical. Where Galileo was once accused of heresy and punished by the church for suggesting the sun rather than the earth sat in the centre of the solar system, modern scientists who step outside the status quo and challenge current orthodoxies are punished with public ridicule, funding cuts and bans from scientific journals. The witch hunts of old with the resulting torture and burnings have been replaced by ridicule and social isolation. Now ideas that sit outside of convention are simply dismissed and therefore stripped of their power. We sneer at what is immeasurable or illogical, labelling it New Age, light weight, wacky . . . So while we believe our minds are free, we are all to varying degrees, caught within Chomsky’s ‘limited spectrum of acceptable opinion’, unconsciously censoring ourselves and of course our writing.
The Responsibility of the Writer
‘Storytelling, practised with full consciousness and an oxygenated sense of responsibility is one of the most dangerous and liberating of human activities.’
Ben Okri, A Way of Being Free
In my undergraduate degree I was taught that writers no longer carried responsibility for their creations. In the wake of Barthes, theory of the ‘Death of the Author’ the responsibility had been laid squarely on the shoulders of the reader – it was the reader who created or completed the story. While it is clear that each reader brings a unique personal, cultural and historical context to a story, which means in a sense that the reader ‘completes’ the story and enriches it with his or her own interpretation, it is also clear to me that writers play a large role in the construction of their stories, imbuing them with their beliefs.
According to EB White, in a 1969 Paris Review interview, ‘Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.’ He went on to say that a writer ‘must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge . . .’ Whatever our intention, fiction writers do help to shape the world in which we live. But does this mean that we carry a responsibility for our creations and a responsibility to our readers, to society or to the earth? I believe we do. If we accept that responsibility then the next logical question becomes: What sort of world do we wish to help shape?
As Jonathon Black writes in The Secret History, ‘Imagination is the key.’ Our imagination is an extraordinary gift that has no boundaries. We are free to do with it what we wish, but we should perhaps remember that the imagination holds power. How we use our imagination determines in part the life that we live and the society we create. Fiction is a space for speculation, a space where we can potentially think outside of the box, where our experience, our knowledge and our beliefs come together and are transformed through our imaginations. In fiction we can be playful. In fiction we can ask the crucial question, What If? And in fiction we can attempt to answer that question.
‘Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.’
In his book, Creativity, Osho wrote, ‘If you want to create you have to get rid of all conditionings; otherwise your creativity will be nothing but copying, it will be just a carbon copy. You can be creative only if you are an individual, you cannot create as part of a mob psychology.’ So if we accept that as writers we inevitably play a part in shaping the world, we also carry a responsibility to ensure that our thinking is free of conditioning in order to shape it well. According to psychologist, Rollo May, creativity involves the ‘discovery of new forms, new symbols, new patterns on which society can be built.’ This includes the discovery of new stories which have the power to break free of our social and psychological conditioning. However, in a sense, before we can say something new or even make conscious our creations we must unravel or at least understand, the limitations of the old and how it works to blinker our vision and to hold us in place: globally, culturally, socially and individually.
It takes courage to ‘see through’ in this way, because we risk exposing ourselves as heretics and because it means taking the same heroic journey that we send our characters on. The ‘seeing through’ is necessary if we are to break free of stagnation and develop further, both individually and socially. As May says, ‘In human beings courage is necessary to make being and becoming possible.’
We are formed by what we are taught, what we mimic, what we accept as given, what we experience and of course by our fears . . . which means that each person must take a different path to understanding. There is no single path or formula. This is an individual journey, each person seeking their own way, with their own unique signposts to guide them as they unravel the stories within them that have arisen from a multitude of factors: genetic, experiential, environmental, historical and cultural.
In A Perfumed Scorpion, Sufi, Idries Shah describes three preparatory points for breaking free of conditioning: Firstly we must ‘be aware that circumstances alter cases, and that things considered to be absolute for some purposes are only relative for others.’ Secondly, we must ‘be able to see things from more than one point of view.’ And thirdly we must be able to question and examine one’s assumptions.’ So in order to begin breaking free of conditioning and see more clearly, we must first come to the realisation that much of what we consider objective is actually subjective. The world is not black and white, but rather exists in various shades of grey all of which represent different perspectives. Nothing is fixed, including our own assumptions.
Osho also suggests that you can only be truly creative if you are an individual. In order to consider this point it’s important to first differentiate individualism from individuality. According to the Webster Dictionary, individualism is: ‘the belief that the needs of each person are more important than the needs of the whole society or group’ and it is also ‘the actions or attitudes of a person who does things without being concerned about what other people will think.’ As Rollo May writes, ‘the creative artist and poet and saint must fight the actual (as contrasted to the ideal) gods of our society – the god of conformism as well as the gods of apathy, material success and exploitative power.’ We live in a society that worships the hollow god of individualism while perpetuating conditioned thinking. Our society celebrates and rewards psychotic behaviour – greed, selfishness, lack of empathy, lack of consideration of the greater good – the very qualities, we are assured, of a successful banker! This is individualism at its worst. Where rather than seeking a balance between the two, the needs of the individual are considered more important than the needs of society.
On the other hand individuality represents a step towards liberation from conditioned thinking. It is a state in which we become our essential selves, indivisible, rather than comprised of many conflicting selves. And it is a state in which we have shed the ‘thou shalts’ of society whilst maintaining our commitment to the well-being of society. The Webster Dictionary describes individuality as: ‘the quality that makes one person or thing different from all others,’ while going on to suggest that it is also ‘the quality or state of being indivisible.’ This suggests that an absence of individuality means a divided self. In The Undiscovered Self, Jung argues that ‘civilization’s future depends on our ability as individuals to resist the collective forces of society. Only by gaining awareness and understanding of one’s unconscious mind and true, inner nature, can we as individuals acquire the self-knowledge that is antithetical to ideological fanaticism.’
Jung uses the term, individuation ‘to denote the process by which a person becomes a psychological ‘individual’, that is a separate indivisible unity or whole. The process involves a discarding of constructed selves in order to reveal an essential self. According to mythologist, Joseph Campbell, the tools to enable us to become individuals are contained within the structure of stories – the heroic journey. It has taken me many years of study to understand that this classic structure contains within it a beautiful paradox. While story is often used to encourage social conformity it also has the capacity to be truly subversive, through encouraging and enabling the reader to embark on their own journey of individuation and in so doing release themselves from social and psychological conditioning.
It is in the inner structure of the story, the character arc, that we can see the process of individuation at work. Individuation, or the Hero’s Journey, as Campbell called it, is simply another word for a process that is as old as humanity – the journey of the soul. It is a healing process, a journey of realignment which eventually enables an individual to live harmoniously in the world. According to Christopher Vogler, ‘the Hero’s Journey and the Writer’s Journey are one and the same. Anyone setting out to write a story soon encounters all the tests, trials, ordeals, joys and rewards of the Hero’s journey. . . Writing is an often perilous journey inward to probe the depths of one’s soul and bring back the Elixir.’ To write a novel is to descend into the underworld or step into the labyrinth, with only a few clues and no guarantee of a way back out again. As writers we step fearfully into the Innermost Cave where we face our greatest fears before emerging, if we’re lucky, to reap the Rewards and ultimately to share these rewards with our readers. Campbell, in his analysis of the stages of story, repeatedly stressed the importance of returning from our journeys to share the rewards we reap, in whatever form they manifest – riches, wisdom, empathy, new ideas, freedom from conditioned thinking . . . for as Bob Dylan once said, ‘A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.’
Telling the Truth
In his popular book on script writing, Robert McKee writes, ‘We have no responsibility to cure social ills or renew faith in humanity, to uplift the spirits of society or even express our inner being. We have only one social responsibility: to tell the truth.’ But which truth does McKee mean? And how do we know we are telling it? Reflecting and documenting the world around us is in a sense, a form of truth telling but unless complete the journey of individuation that Jung speaks of, our reflections are inevitably filtered through our own subjective and culturally constructed self. As Nietzsche wrote: ‘What is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms which after long usage, seems to a nation fixed, canonic, and binding; truths are illusions of which one has forgotten they are illusions.’
Truth is not fixed, but instead changes according to who is telling it and the context in which it is told. It changes too, according to the unique collection of filters each individual applies to their reading of a story. As Walter Truett-Anderson writes in The Truth About Truth, ‘truth is made rather than found’. Yet below this slippery world of relative readings, perhaps there is another world, a more stable one of universal truths and themes. Not tribal or dogmatic ‘truths’ that are socially constructed and create divisions but a truth which is beyond divisions, beyond polarities. This, for me, is where truth can be found and it is what my characters are seeking in the stories I write.
As a writer I can only approach this truth through metaphor, story itself being a metaphor for the journey of the soul, the journey to that truth which is beyond language. Factual truth has little bearing on this journey. It involves a seeing through of ideology, as well as the acceptance and subsequent release of constructed psychological truths, in order to receive a remembering of something deeper and more sustaining. At the end of my latest novel, Flight, Fern is able to perceive once again a vital universal truth that enables connection and harmony and the innate knowledge that everything is one.
Telling New Stories
There are three ways in which the potential for change is consciously or unconsciously applied within story; within the structure of the story, explicit within the content and implicit within the content. The art of the novel is to weave ideas and themes into the very fabric of plot and character, to show through action and experience what others in non-fiction works might describe theoretically. The novel is about showing not telling so it is not necessary to write a political or social novel in order to create new stories. Any themes are revealed through the inner journey or character arc of the protagonist as they progress through the plot, becoming aware of and beginning to release psychological and sometimes social conditioning. This is made visible through moments of catharsis and the turning points that exist within most narratives.
As Rachel Le Rossignol writes, in ‘Creating the Third Space’, ‘there’s a difference between fiction which holds a message and fiction from which meaning emerges because of the ontological stance underpinning the story’. Our knowledge, our values and our emotions infuse our stories, weaving themselves into their very fabric. This value system is visible in the way we describe our characters and show them interacting, it’s there in the power structures at play in their lives, in the settings we choose to describe and the ways in which we represent our characters relationships to these settings. And it’s there in the food we feed our characters, the medicine they use, the values they express . . . This is the fabric of our stories and we are often unconscious of it and of its implications in terms of shaping our readers. It does not represent an opinion, or a position that can be agreed with or disagreed with but rather it shapes us unconsciously. This is why, if we accept any responsibility for the interpretation of the world around us, as writers, it is vital to keep track of our ever changing value systems and become more conscious of its application in our stories.
Conflict lies at the heart of story. If a story begins with peace, it is generally an uneasy one that reveals a growing need for change. In order for a story to move, there needs to be some disruption, internal, external or both. More often than not, through the exterior plot line and the interior character arc, some degree of harmony is eventually found and with it a new understanding is reached. When I was writing Flight, it began with disharmony as most stories do, and conflict, both inner and outer. I was ‘telling it how it is’, depicting a dysfunctional character in a dysfunctional and disintegrating society. The world I created for Fern was a weary one, pessimistic and dark. However, as the story progressed and Fern discovered and accepted the existence of a metaphysical world, a note of optimism began to creep in and I found myself tending more towards telling it ‘how it might be’. This shift occurred naturally as I progressed with the writing of the novel, my own new understandings paralleling the understandings of my protagonist. What had started out as a story of alienation and anger, became instead a story of love and forgiveness.
By the end of the story, Fern had reconnected with herself and with nature. She had forgiven her family and learned how to open her heart to love. In the process she had begun to create a new story. At the end of Flight, Fern is able to tell her daughter, ‘the world is changing . . . and the time has come to let go of the old ways, the ones that ensure the repetitions of history. Peace is a gentle thing that can no longer be fought for. Instead it will enter our hearts and spread from there like the ripples of a pebble dropped into our pond.’
In her conclusion to A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong writes: ‘A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see the world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest. If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight into our lost and damaged world.’ Perhaps these are grandiose claims but I would like to think there are moments when as writers we reach out beyond our own limited knowledge and beyond the restrictions of language and culture and context, using story and metaphor and symbol to express what cannot be expressed merely through language. We cast spells with words, breaking through cultural programming and questioning the very basis of our lives and the society in which we live. And in so doing, perhaps we make the world a slightly better place.
I want to conclude with a quote from Lindsay Clarke’s alchemical novel, The Water Theatre because the five points he lists pretty much boil down to a manifesto for life and perhaps for writing new stories that offer an alternative vision of living in the world.
- Our lives are as we imagine them to be.
- Imagination is the agency of change.
- Change in the collective begins with change in the individual.
- Compassion is an act of the imagination.
- Let us re-imagine our world.’
You are welcome to share articles as long as copyright and contact information are always included. Thank you for your courtesy. Rosie Dub