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Why Writers Write the Crazy Books They Write

Why writers write what they write is an endlessly interesting topic, or at least it is to those of us who spend our lives writing.
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From time to time I marvel at the fact that I keep writing the book that I am writing on-line. I also marvel at the fact that there appear to be actual human beings out there who are reading it. Or at least, they keep visiting the site. Maybe they are fascinated by the idea that a person would demonstrate her own insanity, day after day, in words, in the way that I have.

Or maybe they just want to read the story.

Why writers write what they write is an endlessly interesting topic, or at least it is to those of us who spend our lives writing.

My good friend and fellow fiction writer P.M. "Peg" Woods, Assistant Director of the Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts (and author of a fabulous novel, Spinning Will) has pointed out any number of times (and always laughing that raucous laugh of hers when she does) that the biggest mystery about Sister Mysteries is why I've spent 16 and a half long, long years writing it -- first pouring it out on reams of paper, and then, more recently, pouring it out on the Sister Mysteries blog.

I agree with Peg. It's not just mysterious. It's nuts. But then I hear about people who have "second lives" on-line, a kind of virtual existence to live out their fantasies. Apparently, these second lives have turned lives upside down And destroyed marriages.

So I think, what am I worrying about? All I'm doing is writing a crazy story about a nun accused of murdering her cousin. So I keep going. When Peg and I met yesterday, for one of our wonderful writing sessions, she was amazed when I told her that I'm now writing Chapter 45. I told her I felt a little bit crazy doing it. But like I said, there are worse things in the world.

Meanwhile, another writer friend has another explanation for why we writers write the sometimes completely bizarre stories we write.

Eugene Garber, an award-winning fiction writer, author of a marvelous new novel called O Amazonas Escuro and one of my best teachers ever in grad school at SUNY Albany, explained it to me one day in one word: "displacement."

He might not even remember this conversation, but we once were chatting about a novel that he had recently completed. I recall him saying that he gazed at the great stack of paper that was his finished manuscript, and began to realize that within that stack of pages was a whole world of wild and crazy ideas and images that had poured forth from his brain (I'm sure he said this with much more grace and style.)

Anyway, what he was saying is that all of the sometimes dark and disturbing ideas and energy contained in his novel might have driven him mad, had he not chosen instead to displace it all onto paper in the form of a novel.
After Gene said this to me, he probably laughed his wonderfully raucous laugh, a laugh I really love, a laugh which is right up there with Peg Woods' laugh as one the world's most infectious guffaws.
I guess I'm now ready to face up to the fact that, as Gene Garber suggests, my writing, like his, is displaced craziness (my word, not his.)
Sister Mysteries is the story of a nun, Sister Renata, who from time to time does an about face. She trades her starched white wimple for a wild red ruffled dress. Renata is both a devout Dominican novitiate and an erotically-charged young woman dancing flamenco and seducing her nutty cousin, Antonie.

Why would someone invent such a character?

There is a relatively simple answer, or at least one that makes a lot of sense to me. It involves a rather famous French anthropologist named Claude Lévi-Strauss, who was once described in the New York Times as "a towering intellectual" who "transformed the West's understanding of what was once called 'primitive man.'"

One thing Lévi-Strauss did, and it was no small achievement, was undertake a study of the myths of indigenous (or so-called "primitive") peoples all over the world. What he discovered was what he called an "astounding similarity between myths collected in widely different regions" of the world. Indeed, Lévi-Strass found that myths had underlying them a kind of universal "binary" structure, that is, in plain language, the myths all were fundamentally stories about pairs of opposites: love and hate, life and death, good and evil, black and white, female and male, large and small. (His thoughts on the binary structure of narrative are perhaps best laid out in an essay called "The Story of Asdiwal.")

What's more, he discovered through his wide-ranging and exhaustive study of myths (including stories like the Oedipus tale), that "mythical thought always progresses from the awareness of oppositions toward their resolution," which in plain language means simply

a story or myth seeks to, in one way or another, make peace between the binaries it presents.

This was one brilliant insight. And I have, through my own experience as a writer, and my experience as a reader, I have come to believe that Lévi-Strauss was right. There is no question in my mind that stories do exactly what Lévi-Strauss suggests. Stories, which often emerge out of deep archetypal images in the subconscious, tend to present binaries, opposite forces, forces that the author is trying to resolve in his or her psyche.

It isn't such a surprise then that myths should all resemble each other, because, after all, each and every one of them was produced by a human mind facing the same kind of challenges in surviving.

It is fair to say that the job of a story is to find a resolution, though language and imagery, for whatever binary forces the author is juggling. We writers are at the steering wheel, but most of us feel that we aren't really in control of that vehicle that happens to be our story. The language and images and especially, the characters, have a life of their own, and at some point, they really do just take over.

In my first novel, Dreaming Maples,
the binary forces that fueled the work were two competing roles for women: women as artists and women as mothers. In simple terms, a woman as an artist should be supremely selfish. As a mother, a woman should be supremely self-less. It is no wonder that most of the women in my novel abandoned their children. (This you might say was me safely displacing my urge to do the same thing.)

By the time I had finished writing and editing that book, I had figured out a kind of compromise in my competing roles as mother and writer/artist.

Now, in this curent story, Sister Mysteries, the binary is also clear, and it too presents competing images of women, the so-called virgin/whore dichotomy. Feminist writers frequently chastise patriarchal society for relegating women to this sort of demeaning representation. Like all women, I have been "acted upon" by societal narratives that construct women in these either-or roles. But for me personally, specific life experiences have fed into this binary, and these are mine to negotiate as well.

I have a set of photos that will help tell the story underneath the story.

As a picture is worth at a thousand words, two pictures are surely worth at least twice that. These images are both from my childhood.

The first one is of me, at perhaps age six or seven. It was taken at Saint Anthony's Catholic School, in Bristol, Connecticut, a school that was ruled by nuns, and a priest.

I now see that there may be a reason that I named Renata's oppressive cousin...Antonie.
In this photo, I am standing in a devout and innocent pose, hands clasped in prayer. There to the left of me is my first cousin Lorry and we are standing next to the statue of the Virgin Mary. It is the month of May, when we always celebrated Mary. You probably cannot smell those lilacs on the table, but I can. All I have to do is close my eyes and I am back there in the classroom, with those scuffed wooden floors and those dusty chalkboards, and those very, very strict nuns.
The second photo is of me as a flamenco dancer. I am about ten or eleven, judging by the ironing-board shape of my chest.
It was probably May, judging by the flowers in my father's rock garden behind me. It was definitely my ballet recital day, orchestrated by my teacher, Mildred Ruenes, who forced us, or tried, to memorize each and every ballet pose in French.
On a very basic level, you might say that Sister Mysteries emerged out of these two images.

Well, so, lately I've begun to actively deconstruct the binary forces underlying this book. I've begun to consider the various "narrative selves" that gave rise to this story. In some sense I've become more interested in the underlying narratives than the one I've toiled so long to tell. (Well, so I have written 44 chapters, and we're running close to the end.) I wonder if perhaps I fear that the book will end before I'm finished with it.

Does that make sense?

If you think about it, a book might be considered a kind of collage of interconnected stories, one superimposed on another.

In this complex collage, the author is representing in words a character or characters. But the author is also representing his or her "self" or selves.

There is the story or stories being presented. But just like this painting, the book has embedded in it layers of other stories. You could say that each story contains within in it, hidden if you will, a set of stories of the narrative "selves" underlying the book. You could say that these narrative selves are responsible for giving rise to the book. You could argue that an author imprints or displaces her narrative selves, in layer upon layer, into her story.

More on this as we go forward. But for now, these thoughts:

It is quite a miracle, storytelling. It is quite a miracle, the act of writing.

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