“Don’t forget to let it do its work on you.” These words were spoken by a retreat leader in response to my telling him I was eager to get back to work on my novel after the inspiring experiences of the week. It was a beautiful piece of advice, one that I knew immediately to be true on many levels. I was reminded of it again yesterday, reading Steven Pressfield’s blog post on how he healed his self-doubt by working for two years on a book about Alexander the Great, arguably the most confident man in history, one who knew and embraced his destiny even as a child.
Pressfield’s advice on overcoming Resistance in his book The War of Art, fueled me through my novel’s first draft, so I tend to listen to him. His point in yesterday’s post is that the muse gave him the Alexander the Great assignment for his own good, and that all art is a soul contract. What that says to me is: don’t question the inspiration too analytically, just answer the call, put in your best work, and let it do its work on you.
I did a little exercise this morning to inquire into the muse’s plan for me, having invited me to write the novel I’m working on. From the beginning, I saw the plot as a Hero’s Journey, and somehow knew that writing it would be my own hero’s journey, that I would have to become the kind of person who can write a novel like this, and to agree to be changed by the adventure.
About two years into it, I discovered another framework, the Heroine’s Journey, in the form of Maureen Murdock’s book, written partly in response to a conversation she had with Joseph Campbell about women. Her question to him was: Don’t women have a journey too? His response: Women don’t need a journey; they are what the hero is returning home to, what the hero longs for all along. Murdock wasn’t satisfied with this and went on her own quest for answers.
Pressfield wrote about self-doubt and confidence, two very clear values that run through his book about Alexander the Great, a classic hero’s journey. In my novel, the poles are rationality and intuition. Murdock helped me to see that our culture is skewed towards unbalanced masculinity (materialism, competition, hyper-individualism, isolation, separation, control, short-term gains) that cries out for balance and integration with the feminine (intuition, emotion, mystery, connection, creativity, cooperation, long-term thinking).
When I started, I wasn’t fully conscious of how this dance between masculine and feminine energies plays out in the story of our civilization, that my story could be both a diagnosis and a beacon of possibility. This is one of the ways it has changed me, which speaks to the scale of the undertaking. I often say that the muse tricked me into doing this. Deciding to write a novel is akin to a non-architect thinking how much fun it would be to design and build a high-rise.
I’ve been rethinking my characters, their scenes and settings, and the arc of my story—yes, it’s taken me this long to understand what I’m actually writing and have enough clarity about how to do it. It remains to be seen whether I can pull it off, but I have to trust this assignment from the muse. It’s not only for my personal growth; it’s a message, and going through this adventure with my protagonist is an experience that would benefit others as well.
Where does this call come from? I believe it’s from the Earth herself, waking so many of us up, all over the globe. Yesterday, a bit of David Korten’s writing struck a powerful chord with me. He wrote that some biologists are studying life on its own terms now, moving away from the classic science of grinding up cells to identify their chemical composition. They are instead applying insights from living systems, especially life’s evolutionary processes, to design a more functional economy, one that creates conditions conducive to life instead of destroying the planet.
My main character’s journey, then, both mirrors and holds a lamp to guide the journey that our culture is making, or could be making. I’ve noticed that I feel a certain amount of resistance to this. A mean inner voice assures me that no one will want to read about someone like that, a woman who throws away all that she is and goes into the unknown, confused and in despair, allowing herself to be so changed by life. Most of us avoid doing much to change our behavior until circumstances force us.
And yet we know where our modern lifestyle is taking us and the planet: right off a cliff. We tell ourselves that we are powerless to do anything about it. I’m fascinated by the psychology of this. Why do we see it as such a black and white scenario? It’s all (what we have now) or nothing (give everything up or have it ripped from us by apocalyptic events). We refuse to look at any sort of middle ground, or—more tragically—to trust that we can use our prodigious powers of imagination to design another future for ourselves.
Maybe we deeply, deeply distrust ourselves, and humanity, and suspect on some level that most of what we do is wrong, and that we deserve a bad end. We could be paralyzed by unconscious feelings of guilt and shame. From what I’ve read about the adolescent brain, this black and white thinking is characteristic. As is thinking it’s all about us. We are messing up, so we have to fix it, and yet we can’t imagine how, so we’re caught in a vicious cycle. The problems are so much bigger than us, we worry that we can’t solve them, and so we are stuck.
In his book, A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright gives a cogent analysis of what happened on Easter Island. At some point, the people knew they were fouling their own nest by destroying the ecosystem upon which they all depend; yet they couldn’t stop. They were beholden to an idea about themselves, a story, and could not imagine any other. Fortunately, Korten and others are giving us a way out. All we have to do is study, and let ourselves be inspired by, living systems.
We actually do not have to figure it all out and reason our way out of this mess. We can model ourselves on millions-year-old design systems that are conducive to life. And they have qualities that we know how to emulate: they are cooperative, long-term, resilient, and local. Add to that their conscious awareness, intelligence and compassion, and you have a powerful antidote to our sterile, mechanistic modern world.
Storytelling is powerful magic. It takes us out of our day to day, immersing us in another world. We literally embody other characters: feel their emotions, experience danger, heartbreak, transcendence, and triumph. The story my heroine pieces together is our story. We start with her where we are: stuck, afraid, beholden to our intellect and our life-destroying systems. She entices us to follow her; we make discoveries, see possibilities, try and fail and change along with her.
My heroine undergoes a transformation as her overreliance on the rational gives way to trusting intuition; she embodies a change of being that holds great promise for our culture. Her guarded coldness opens to honest emotion. Control becomes letting go. Knowing and directing give way to questioning, listening and receiving. Boredom to wonder. Cynicism to awe. Faced with the daunting task of redesigning and remaking whole systems and civilizations, when we remember it’s the stories themselves that can change, spaciousness opens. When the stories shift, everything follows.