For years I have been a writer, an editor and a teacher of creative writing. Now I want to share some of what I have learned along the way. Write On The Fringes is a blog about the dangers, the disappointments and the rewards of writing. It's a record of the writing of a novel, from the tantalising first inklings of an idea, through to the final draft. But above all it's an exploration of the art and the craft of writing and the nature of story, as well as a search for the essence of creativity and the complex nature of truth.


Monday, July 2, 2012

Writing Character: Uncovering The Wound

'To release the full potential of the treasure, the wound must be uncovered, delved into, healed to some degree, as if coated with loving layers of lustrous deposits.'
Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft


Earlier this year an astrologer friend looked at my birth chart and winced. When I asked, she explained that my year was full of major transits, meaning major upheavals. Well she wasn't wrong. Until a few weeks ago I thought I'd been through enough upheavals for a year a significant birthday, awarded a PhD, a new novel published. . . but no, there was more to come in the form of an interview in Wales for a position as Creative Writing Fellow at Aberystwyth University. When I was offered the position, I gulped and said yes, then sat down suddenly and began to consider the implications. Moving from Hobart in Tasmania, across the world to Aberystwyth in Wales is a major upheaval, paling all else that has happened this year into insignificance. A new home, new schools, a new job, a new country to become familiar with. . . there's no doubt these are exciting times. Exciting, but frightening too, because like many of us, I am afraid of change.

Change is something we tend to yearn for and then fear as it approaches. It's a natural part of life but not easy to allow. Change is also the major catalyst for story, in fact without it we wouldn't have story, or at least our stories would be extremely dull. Major upheavals tend to signal those moments when a new story begins and are often linked to characters who are afraid to embrace this change - the reluctant Hero, as Vogler calls them. The nature of the change tends to depend on what wounds our characters (or ourselves) are carrying, as often the unfolding drama involves a healing of those wounds.

We all love wounded characters. A wound adds mystery, back story, tension and most importantly, the potential for healing, for as psychologist Jean Houston writes, a wound can be 'an invitation to our renaissance'. A character's wound may be a physical one in the form of a scar or a limp perhaps. Or it may be a psychological wound, a memory of an event that has isolated the character from the world, making him or her an outsider; perhaps the loss of a child or a spouse or some other injustice that is indigestible. This is something that is often evident in the cowboy story or detective genre where the protagonists are outsiders, running on the edge of law, isolated from society and family, and generally carrying a heavy chip on their shoulders. The isolation and pain is revealed through a bad habit, perhaps a drinking problem or perhaps an abrupt manner towards other characters. In more complex stories that carry a good deal of psychological exploration, the wound may be less clear, revealing itself through a number of memories fused together, the scar tissue creating a filter between the character and the world so that each action a character takes is really only a programmed reaction to the past. In story, the character arc often provides an opportunity to change or unravel one or more of these programmed reactions, and if not, it generally reveals the tragedy that occurs when we are unable to do this.

'In many cases in psychiatry,' wrote Jung, 'the patient who comes to us has a story that is not told, and which as a rule no one knows of. To my mind, therapy only really begins after the investigation of that wholly personal story. It is the patient's secret, the rock against which he is shattered. If I know his secret story, I have a key to the treatment.' The story that Jung refers to is one that even the patient may not be consciously aware of. It often resides deep in the unconscious, buried under layers of scar tissue. The process of uncovering this wound can be long and arduous, but it is necessary, for it is the clue, or as Jung says, 'the key' to psychic health. In Soulcraft, psychologist, Bill Plotkin writes that 'the wound does not necessarily stem from a single traumatic incident. Often, the wound consists of a pattern of hurtful events or a disturbing dynamic or theme in one or more important relationships.' This is the case with the two main characters in Flight which explores complex psychological patterns within the main character, Fern, and the man she learns to love, Adam.

For Adam, one aspect of his wound lies in the birth of his brother and the guilt Adam feels for being normal. Another aspect lies in the death of the father and the guilt Adam feels for his part in that tragedy, as well as the loss he felt, growing up without a father. Both of these wounds have created a series of reactions in Adam, sending him away from Tasmania and into the army, where he has tried to follow in his father's footsteps. And it is in the army that Adam wounds himself so deeply he can only withdraw from society and from his family, hiding in a basement in Sydney and attempting to drink himself into oblivion.

Adam's healing begins when he meets Fern who takes his attention away from himself. The healing continues with his return to Tasmania and his family, and then with his return to nature. Adam is of the earth, the wilderness feeds his soul and it is only in the wilderness when he has been brought back from the brink of death by Fern, that he can tell his story. In the telling, Adam makes it conscious and begins to live again, bit by bit, releasing the guilt that he is holding.

Fern's wounds are even more deeply layered. The story opens with her having retreated to an attic room where, like Adam, she is hiding from life. Fern is damaged by her childhood, by the callous treatment of her adoptive family and by the guilt she feels at being accused of trying to kill her father. Through the course of the story, Fern also uncovers pre-verbal wounds that occurred while she was in the womb and just after birth, the trauma of her birth father's violence towards her in his two attempts to kill her, and also the trauma of being abandoned by her birth mother. Then, as the story unfolds, Fern discovers that she has another connection to her birth father, one that reaches back through many past lives and involves a repeating pattern of abuse.

Psychologist and physical healer, Jean Achterberg, writes that 'in traditional shamanic cultures, healing bears little relationship to the remission of physical symptoms. It refers, rather, to becoming whole or in harmony with the community, the planet and certainly ones private circumstances.' This attitude differs greatly from allopathic medicine, where symptoms are almost always treated before causes, and for which healing generally means, a 'return to normal where normal is culturally defined by some measuring standard created by society's members.' Achterberg cites a remark made by an Indian Medicine Man: 'With white man's medicine you only get back to the way you were before; with Indian medicine, you can get even better.' In a sense then, the writing of Flight was an exploration of Indian medicine, an attempt to truly heal a condition (Fern's depression), rather than treat the symptoms.

At the beginning of the novel, Fern has lost most of her self, something that in shamanic tradition is considered a serious illness, leading eventually to depression, damage to the immune system, cancer and many other disorders. Soul retrieval is a major element in shamanic healing. In order to retrieve a fragment of the soul, shamans must travel into the upper world or underworld with the help of their power animal/s and find it, sometimes having to coax it back, sometimes having to fight for it. These fragments may have left the soul in shock at a violent action or been taken by another person. As the story progresses, Fern is able to retrieve a number of parts of her self, and in the process realises how much she had lost.

In Greek myth, the wise and gentle Chiron the centaur is a wounded healer. When he is wounded by a poisoned arrow he is forced to live the rest of his life in great pain. Because of this he studies the healing arts, finding many remedies that heal others but none that take away his own suffering. In shamanic culture, prospective shamans generally become very ill, and then must agree to become shamans before they can heal. It is only in experiencing pain that we are able to heal others. Joan Halifax writes that 'the true attainment of the shaman's vocation as healer, seer, and visionary comes about through the experience of self-wounding, death and rebirth.' This is the process that Fern must undergo. In the novel, Shamesh tells Fern about the initiation process, which is a process of clearing the dense parts of the self. When Fern asks why the process is so slow he tells her that she will become a healer but must first experience the process herself. Fern only accepts the possibility of becoming a healer towards the end of the story, when she uses her hands to heal Adam and remembers that she had done this before. Towards the end of Flight, Fern studies homeopathy and herbalism, 'trying to understand the patterns of illness, trying to see its source which is so often beyond the physical'. She says, 'I have understood that true healing is not something you can do with a closed heart. It must reach deep into the spirit and work its magic from within. True healing changes a person, clears scar tissue and the patterns of reaction that have formed their character. It is not an easy path to choose.

According to Houston, we must be 'willing to release our old stories and to become the vehicles through which the new story may emerge into time.' When Fern tries to tell her story to Adam, she realises that each story is linked to another and she feels weighed down by back stories, wishing she could sever them all. Through the course of Flight, both Fern and Adam reluctantly and painfully release their own stories. By the end of the novel, they are creating a new story, both together and individually. Accepting change provides us with the opportunity to let go of an old story and create something new. It enables us to learn something new, integrate that knowledge, and in the process heal an old wound or wounds. No doubt I will need to repeatedly remind myself of this over the next few months, as change picks me (and my family) up and hurls us across the world to beautiful Wales and to a new story.

For other posts on characterisation see:
And there is more on The Wound in Story as Therapy: Healing the Wound

Copyright (c) 2012 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website:http://writeonthefringes.blogspot.co.uk/

6 comments:

  1. Hey ya its a good blog... i really loved reading it

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  2. This is a gem of a blog Rosie thank you very much! For me it is extremely inspiring and has given me a fresh approach to writing what I want to. I look forward to reading yr other blogs .. sooo useful and inspiring thank you.

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  3. Thanks Susan, I'm so pleased you're finding it inspiring.

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  4. As someone who has covered his work previous, I am writing to see if you would be interested in receiving a review copy of Bill Plotkin's new book Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche which we will be publishing this April for consideration. If so I would be happy to ask his publicist at New World Library to send you either the PDF or the physical book in March when we get them hot off the press. If this is of interest, please reply to this email with your mailing address, a direct link to your blog, and the format you prefer!

    Here's more information about this ground-breaking book...

    What do we need to know and understand to help facilitate lasting positive change in our individual lives and communities? How can we revolutionize our understanding of what it means to be human and revive our abilities to realize our potential and transform our contemporary cultures?

    The enclosed advance reading copy of Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche (New World Library, April 15, 2013) by cultural visionary, author, and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin addresses and answers these key questions of our time.

    “We’re being summoned by the world itself to make many urgent changes to the human project, but most central is a fundamental re-visioning and reshaping of ourselves, a shift in consciousness,” writes Plotkin. “We must reclaim and embody our original wholeness, our indigenous human nature granted to us by nature itself. And the key to reclaiming our original wholeness is not merely to suppress psychological symptoms, recover from addictions and trauma, manage stress, or refurbish dysfunctional relationships, but rather to fully flesh out our multifaceted, wild psyches, committing ourselves to the largest story we’re capable of living, serving something bigger than ourselves.”

    In Wild Mind, Plotkin introduces a map of psychological wholeness that is rooted in nature’s own map of wholeness. The book offers an elaborate field guide to becoming fully human by cultivating the four facets of the Self and discovering both the limitations and gifts of our wounded, fragmented, and shadowed subpersonalities.

    I look forward to hearing from you about this possibility! Please don't hesitate to ask if you have any questions.

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  5. Here is our email:
    soulcraft@animas.org

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  6. Thanks for sharing this interesting and educative information. I think many writers will find your contribution very helpful, I have equally learnt something from it.
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