My writing has been shaped by a history of reading about violence, and that violence is perceived as transformative and even spiritual in its results. That violence began with my earliest discovery of books and stories, those from the Bible. While one might argue the books of the Old and New Testaments offer proverbs and pastoral psalms as well as guidance for love, they are full of justification for and forgiveness of violent acts. Violence can certainly be physical AND psychological and emotional. When I studied literature in college, medieval literature, Beowulf, all the way to Southern lit, Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away—a lineage of violence in the history of literature captivated me.
Nightmares have plagued my sleep. Vivid, horrific cinematic-type dreams of war, abductions, gang-mafia-mob torture, one-on-one murders, etc. that haunt my days, too, and so, I made a choice in my twenties to stop viewing extreme violence on the screen, not to read horror books, and to limit my in-take of mainstream fictional violence and television programming. That didn’t stop my nightmares but at least they weren’t layered with tv and movie imagery, or characters from a slasher book. I couldn’t watch tv at all without seeing commercials for violent investigative crime shows, depicting images of torture in a matter of fifteen seconds. There was no guarantee that I wouldn’t see it, so I stopped watching tv. While I want you to understand that I do not have my head in the sand, please know that I have always read the news (The Washington Post) religiously, and a lot of books of both fiction and nonfiction, mostly literary fiction and political nonfiction, some memoir, some poetry, some history, some philosophy and theory, art criticism…that’s enough, you get the idea. I don’t need the tv images to understand violence. I am regularly horrified because the images are already in my head.
So, I made a promise to myself after writing my first novel, Multiple Exposure, that I wouldn’t focus on violence in the next books that I wrote. That was in 2012. The spider was already my logo, and I viewed storytelling as a web, but Multiple Exposure was still focused on violence and fear, even if the narrative wasn’t exactly linear. In my point of view at the time, the spider as consumer was as violent as life needed to be, and consumption-conflict might be present but it didn’t have to be the source or the result of the story’s meaning, linear or not. And spider woman in the indigenous stories I read was like my relatives who told stories and histories and spun dreams, fantasies, and tall tales. I was drawn to her story web.
My transformative and spiritual experiences in life were sourced from something other than violence—I had been regularly transformed and felt a spiritual connection to trees and plants, people, animals, landscapes, even to history and people and moments in history that I learned about when I visited a place. My spiritual experience and transformative life lessons were not shaped by violence happening to me or around me. While I was defined by violence and influenced so profoundly that I was shaken by empathy for every crises I read about in the papers, and I still am, sometimes, I focused my writing on telling a different kind of story. I took what I considered to be a new route, though I’d already been writing these stories about a medicine wheel in college.
In the stories, I wanted to show sorrow for the passage of time, for those unattainable moments that we all want but don’t achieve, for the sweetness that surprises us, for the full circles and spontaneous songs we sing together and the moments of longing when we want to be heard and felt, understood beyond even our own knowing. That was my focus for the Family Medicine Wheel series, and the first book was published in 2015. I wanted the narrator, Robin Ballard, to reveal a woven story, not linear, and more than that, I wanted it to be interwoven with the stories of her family members, with their secrets and lies. I wanted the books to reveal how stories move in and out of our lives, and we are yearning for information about aspects of how our family’s stories intermingle with and define our own at different times. We struggle with trying to make sense of them, as Robin does. Success and failure are not singular tracks limited to one aspect of our lives. The reader might think that Robin could succeed at songwriting with Kevin, while failing to fall for him romantically. And then, later, one sees that Robin being single is a success, and the songwriting is a burden once she discovers her joy in managing the tea shop with her aunt. This is only one part of Robin’s life from the books. And, she is only one character of many.
The stories of Robin’s ancestors are equally as focused on transformative redemptive experiences, free of violence as the main initiator of change and more appreciative of a connection to the landscape, their place in history, their growth into the future. Robin’s great-grandmother and her friends carry plant medicine, and go searching for it, and moreover, each character has at least one talent that they offer as a medicine to the people around them, to the world. That’s the intimate take-away from both books in my series.
Yesterday, I read these excerpts (copied below) in Rob Brezsny’s most recent newsletter, and they are the best descriptions of the sentiment I hold in my own heart when I write the Family Medicine Wheel books and how I changed my writing focus:
“ANOTHER WAY OF STORYTELLING
It’s hard to find modern stories that don’t depend on endless conflict to advance the plot. I understand the attraction to such stories, but I don’t understand why they dominate storytelling.
Are authors and filmmakers really unable to conceive of the possibility that entertaining adventures might emerge from pursuing discovery and excitement and joy as much as from overcoming relentless conflict and difficulty?
Read what Ursula K. Le Guin has to say about the subject.
“The Hero has decreed that the proper shape of the narrative is that of the arrow or spear, starting here and going straight there and THOK! hitting its mark (which drops dead); second, that the central concern of the narrative, including the novel, is conflict; and third, that the story isn’t any good if he isn’t in it.
“I differ with all of this. I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.”
“One relationship among elements in the novel may well be that of conflict, but the reduction of narrative to conflict is absurd.
“(I have read a how-to-write manual that said, ‘A story should be seen as a battle’ and went on about strategies, attacks, victory, etc.)
“Conflict, competition, stress, and struggle, within the narrative conceived as carrier bag or medicine bundle, may be seen as necessary elements of a whole which itself cannot be characterized either as conflict or as harmony, since its purpose is neither resolution nor stasis but continuing process.”
—In The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin writes much more on these subjects: https://tinyurl.com/ykures5a
In her essay “Spider Woman as Healer,” Nancy Corson Carter writes:
“I am inspired by another way of storytelling—not the linear, singular, ‘breakthrough’ and ‘power over’ brilliance of the ‘hero’ narrative, but the spiraling, juxtaposing, and interpenetrating ‘power with’ luminosity of the weaver in the act of telling.
“I imagine the weaver as the one who attends and intends while the hero extends; the weaver carefully untangles knots that need to be rewoven, while the hero cuts them asunder with his sword.
“Ursula K. Le Guin writes of an ‘unheroic’ fiction under the rubric of the ‘carrier bag theory of fiction.’ This term comes from the idea that the earliest cultural inventions were probably containers, slings, or net carriers used to hold gathered things.
Le Guin decries the hero or ‘killer story’ as one that ‘hid my humanity from me.’
“In its place, she celebrates a new/old story, a ‘life story’ that many people have told for ages, in the forms of myths of creation and transformation, trickster stories, folktales, jokes, novels.’
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My books in the Family Medicine Wheel series:
Poke Sallet Queen & the Family Medicine Wheel