Tartarus. The prison of the cyclops and the 100 headed giants and then the Titans. A place of great darkness – a deep, gloomy place, a pit, an abyss used as a dungeon of torment and suffering that resides beneath the underworld.
What is the writer’s Tartarus? What puts chains and shackles on our arms, our legs, our thoughts?
Osho, a spiritual leader from the 60’s-70’s says about creativity, that all children begin life creative and able to be artists, but that society and the way we are taught in school drives this out of us. We are told to color within the lines, not outside; play with trucks or dolls; wear blue or pink; be embarrassed to dance or play sports; that we can read, or can not.
Kindergarten starts the process, standardized tests finish it.
Osho was on to something. I have seen all these cultural beliefs (based on social values, not nature) placed upon my son by teachers, other children, by parents, sometimes even myself. Everyone is influenced by them in some way even if we do not act upon them to the same degree. Conform or be sanctioned (looked at differently, nobody will be friends with you, made fun of, verbal abuse, physical violence).
We start off as creative beings and lose sight of that wonderful freedom, so says Osho. Many think Osho was crazy too. I think he was a mystic, a crazy mystic who journeyed inward.
For me, writer’s block, the inability to write, is a personal Tartarus – a cell in the underworld with a grill that lets in only a sliver of light. It’s like Steve McQueen’s cell in Papillon (one of my favorite books and movies).
Loss of faith in myself and my work and a publishing system that grinds up writer’s and eats them for breakfast helped me to place myself there. I say place myself there because I own that the space is mine. I created it and I have existed in it. It is a part of my process. I know my own process of writing has ebbed and flowed over the 34 years that I have been writing and sometimes publishing. A few years ago I lost faith in myself – in my writing. In Papillon, Steve McQueen paces back and forth, eats cockroaches and water-bugs, talks to himself while his teeth fall out and he waits for his opportunity to escape.
I’m not big on water-bugs or cockroaches, even if they are high in protein. And I’d like to keep my teeth.
What saved me in my cell was that although I couldn’t write much in the way of new fiction and could not start a new book, I could still edit and I could still write other things. I kept my muscles working, even if only a little. I paced in my own way and looked up at the sliver of light that came from the grill.
I wrote blog entries about my son and being a father.
I wrote poetry.
I drew a lot – Faber Castle markers have always been my favorite. What I couldn’t put in words I put in pictures.
Until I found the door to my cell was no longer locked. I pushed it open, looked outside and started writing again. My process had changed. The words have not flowed as easily. But I have a deeper faith in myself. To me that’s the only way to get out. It’s better than waiting for Zeus to get you out. He’s got other things to do. He’s a God after all. And Greek.
Sisyphus was one ruthless, murderous (at least three people and children as told in stories about him), sly, crafty, iron-willed, Machiavellian, power-hungry, bastard of a Greek king. He was an absolute evil genius that regularly outsmarted Gods (Zeus and Persephone in particular) and mortals alike. Of course he took a fall eventually and Persephone (Goddess of the underworld) took him to task (after he played her the fool twice) and made him pay for all his trickery. His ultimate fate is to roll an immense boulder up a hill and upon getting it to the top watch it roll all the way back down, only to roll it back up, again and again. He’s probably (probably?) still at it right now. Now there’s a story to be written (Rick Riordan are you listening?). A Sisyphean task is one that is endless and can never be completed, no matter how hard you try.
Sometimes writing a novel seems like a Sisyphean task. It seems endless with restarts and stops. It is soul crushing at times (dealing with writer’s block), humbling (critiques and rejections, oh my), and the words the end seem like they are unreachable, no matter how close you get or how hard you try.
Which is why when you finish a first draft and write the end, it is so damned satisfying. No matter the rock rolls back down the hill for draft two through nine-teen. Because it doesn’t roll back down all the way and although the peak gets higher, it is a new peak to push the rock up to. And eventually, if we do our work well enough, we get to a top (after copy editing and final final editing and final final final editing with a publisher) and the damned thing doesn’t roll down at all.
Of course then it’s time to create a new rock to roll up the hill.
But for a few moments, on top of the hill, rock firmly in place and unable to roll back down, the view is pretty damn good and the air is very very sweet.
Rhea is the mother of the Olympian Gods (7 including Zeus) and wife of her own brother, Chronos. I mean, how many titans could there have been to choose from? Chronos eats all his kids but Rhea feeds him a stone (large one) swaddled in blankets instead of her last son, Zeus. Zeus escapes and as we all know from the Percy Jackson Tales (at least that’s been my refresher course) he rescues his siblings and puts the titans in their place. Saved by mom and a big swaddled stone.
Its made me think of mothers and their place in the books I’ve read recently. I just finished Michael Grants Gone – a wonderfully creepy story about kid survival practically without the presence of any mothers (or fathers) at all – even though one mother’s actions are key to the plot and kids act as “mothers” of different types. Mr. Grant can spin a tale and take it down some dark paths. But his tale represents the absent mother motif.
The present and struggling mother comes from A.S.King’s Everybody Sees the Ants – in which the mother swims to cope. She is not the protagonist but the story could not be told without her struggling presence. I love this book.
There’s also the mother with the heart of gold, the evil mother, the step-mother (good, bad or indifferent), the replacement mother, the oh my God what a mother (okay I just made that up), the mother who dies in the first scene or before (thank you Disney – that’s their speciality). How many others can you think of?
How do you write these characters as authentic human beings? Read King’s book to see. The mother is called the squid but she is not defined by her squidiness. As with any character in a book, so too in real life.
“Come take [them]!”
King Leonidas of Sparta says this in response to King Xerxes of Persia’s demand that the Greek army lay down their arms before the Battle of Thermopylae. Tens of thousands against 300 and they say, “Come take them!” What were they, out of their minds?
The movie 300 (see it if you haven’t because it’s awesome) is one of the most chest-thumping, testosterone filled films I’ve seen in the last year. Maybe I don’t see many chest-thumpers or maybe it is just that visually stunning (it is). Or maybe it’s the classic story that grabs me in which 300 come-back-victorious-or-on-your-shield Spartans hold off a swarm of Persians at the small pass of Thermopylae so that their armies back home can organize. They buy time now for victory later. And… spoiler here … they all die in the process. It’s brutal. But the dialog is just amazingly chest-thumping. There’s so much testosterone in this film it is overflowing.
What’s fascinating to me is how caught up I was in the characters, the father and son, the two friends who are like brothers (they are all like brothers), the king who willingly sacrifices himself and his warriors for the greater good of his country, and the cripple who wants so bad to be a soldier and betrays them all.
The reviews were mediocre of this film when it came out so I did not see it until recently. Everyone said it was visually spectacular but that the story was weak. I didn’t see that at all. I saw tremendous violence surrounding characters, hard as nails, that I cared for. That’s what story is all about. Characters you care about placed in danger in some way that they have to somehow get out of or through or around – even if they do not survive. Extreme, yes, in this case, but also, compelling.
The 1963 version of Jason and the Argonauts has an army of skeletons attack Jason and his sturdy argonaut crew. The skeletons area a creation of special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. I saw this movie as a kid and it made my jaw drop open in absolute amazement. They looked real – still better than any CGI effects you can see today. They made the movie come to life. They made the whole hero’s journey work for me even though the lead, Todd Armstrong, was far from charismatic as Jason.
And the hero’s journey is what Jason is all about. Here’s a short-hand version of his life:
Jason is related to Odysseus (the hero of the Odyssey – not a bad lineage), tossed out of his kingdom by his uncle Pelion, is raised by the centaur Chiron, gets helped by Hera (always problematic), becomes the man with one sandal (kind of like the man with no name from a spaghetti western), goes on a quest for the golden fleece (just like Percy Jackson), gathers a band of burly argonauts including Heracles, Theseus, and the poet Orpheus (why is a poet on this adventure?), gets help from Athena (I thought she only helped women?), meets Medea and falls in love with her, plows a field with two fire-breathing bulls (one of which was in heat), sows the field with the teeth of a dragon (these become the skeletons in the movie!), snatches the golden fleece (snatches is a word that needs to get used more), marries Medea, takes his kingdom back from Pelion by tricking Pelion’s daughters into cutting him up into little bits and eating him (talk about issues for therapy) – take a breath from this long run-on sentence – has children of his own then falls in love with another woman (he can’t keep his you-know-what in his loin cloth), has Medea leave him after she in a fit of anger kills off all their own children, and finally ends up alone and lonely and kills himself by dropping off the end of his old ship the Argo. Whew. The hero’s journey.
Things need to happen to your hero/heroine. Whether it’s the journey to the corner drugstore, or the journey inside her head. Hero’s get chased by skeletons, big and small, real and imaginary and like Jason, they conquer or get conquered, grow, learn, or get dashed against the harsh realities of their existence. What is your hero’s journey like?
I can tell you this… mine will have white boned creatures with round shields and scimitars in there somewhere.