When I was young, I thought I had a spirit-helper named Dirus.
I pictured him as a gray wolf of great size, wisdom and strength. Though both a lone-entity and a pack member, I don’t ever recall the pack being a big part of our exchanges save only once—but of that, I’ll speak another time. Whenever I had a problem or felt a deep yearning for love, understanding or beauty, I would call him to my waking-dreams and we would talk. He was as honest as his teeth were razor sharp. He bit hard and his jaws were strong.
He could shape-change from a wolf to an aged and glyph covered shaman or a scarred and proud warrior in his prime. When he changed, however, his head always remained that of a wolf.
I wrote down many of our conversations and more than a few of our adventures. He brooked no fools and did not hesitate to let me know when he thought I was acting one or was wasting his time. His voice was as vivid in my head as someone at my ear and we spoke together clear until I was in my early 30s.
Though he was a powerful entity and stood tall in my dreams, I sensed that behind him was a fragile truth, a secret, that should it ever come to light would somehow change things forever. I suspected I knew what it was but as long as I never said anything about it, never articulated the words, he would always be on call.
When an important relationship ended in a traumatic breakup, it left me an emotional wreck. At a low point in my recovery, I mentally acknowledged the secret: that Dirus was really a composite made up by my conscious and unconscious mind from my mental, physical and emotional experiences and yearnings, that he was not real in the sense of an independent entity; he was a fantasy and in truth nothing more than…me.
From that moment on, I rarely conjured the Great Wolf and our conversations ceased—he was a figment of my imagination, something I, my right-brain and left-brain, had made up.
I know this might be upsetting to some, and in someways it upset me too, but deep down I knew where Dirus had come from, knew he was but a construct that my mind had cobbled together—a patchwork character using my experiences as a source. For example, during the early to mid ’60s, my father and my grandmother worked as counselors at Philco-Ford’s Employment Training Center in Madera, California for Native Americans. The corporation, no longer in business, was under contract with the BIA to offer vocational training to Native Americans. On occasion both he and my grandmother took me to work and I was fortunate enough to get to know some of the students there. Native peoples have a deep affection for children and the students took a shine to my sister and I. I was able to do and see things as a child that adults could not such as participate in dancing and singing, impromptu language lessons, eating amazing tacos and playing with their children. I believe my love of all things native and aboriginal had its origin there. When I turned nine, the BIA took direct control of the facility and my father felt the mismanagement was such he had to resign. Not long afterwards, the Center closed its doors. Though I was sad that I would no longer be able to attend Friday night sings, hear the cool stories or eat unci’s fry-bread, I’m glad to say that the memories have remained with me. It is in the stories told by those vocational students that the seeds of what would become Dirus were sewn.
By the time I was a freshman or sophomore in high school, I was already labeled a day-dreamer and accused of “living in a fantasy world” by my peers. At the time I was hurt by the derision in their voices, but deep down I was happy to be considered a mutant who sang bad imitations of native chants, recited Tolkien’s poetry, read Conan adventures, dreamed of Bruce Lee and wrote bad short-stories rather than be counted among my peers as one of the many with only a drug induced haze or a hangover to show for the weekend. I reveled in being different and, as ever, retreated into reading whenever the drama became too much. With the legends the native students told me still in my heart, I bought a book called The Legend of Wolf Song by George Stone, which I still have and treasure. It tells the story of how wolves learned to sing and is the first place where Dirus makes an appearance as the protagonist’s god and helper. I so wanted to be like the main character “Wolf” and have Dirus as my mentor.
It didn’t take long for the Great Wolf to emerge as a subject of my poetry and the mental counter-voice my mind conjured whenever I wrestled with the tough issues of growing up and needed someone, or something, I trusted to talk to. My imagination more than answered the call in Dirus.
I miss Dirus. I miss his strength, his authority, his aboriginal connection to the truth, his native assurance of belonging, but I clearly understand that Dirus was not some visitor from the spirit plane, not an independent muse sent by the gods. He was me—a combination of my right and left brains and my experiences as a child and teen come to life in the fertile fields of my imagination. His power and ability to change my attitude, alter my physical reality, offer both damnation and salvation and truly change my world were, and are, products of me.
I suppose this is why I am so uncomfortable with the idea that “my Muse” is somehow independent of my self. When it is referred to as “…your Muse and your You…”, I find it sets my teeth on edge like nails on a chalk board. I am me and my right-brain is me, as is my left-brain. I am the toy maker.
I remember a John Milius interview in which the director of the Schwarzenegger Conan the Barbarian described Robert E. Howard writing the first Conan story in a panic with the Cimmerian hovering over his shoulder an ax held aloft ready to slay the author if he did not finish by dawn. A little research shows this story to be apocryphal, but it is a great illustration of how the romantic stereotype of the writer at the mercy of the muse or character is loved, embroidered and perpetuated. I suppose if it works, it works, but what drives me absolutely crazy is the copious amount of advice such stories generate that is more akin to how to become one with the Force than how to access the creative self.
Left-brained folk, who have rarely had to fire up their right-brain neurons, are blown away when right-brainers tell stories of characters running away with the plot or how their muse Calliope became angry and took an extended holiday.
I understand that the subconscious is remote and difficult to navigate, or even to define and describe in concrete terms, but such romanticism leaves left-brain folk wondering why their characters aren’t offering them direction, advice or running away with things; indeed, having a character run off “…with my story” is in some writing groups and forums almost a rite of passage or a badge of honor.
No, I’m sorry. My characters do not go rogue; I do. I am responsible. If a character seems to be running away with the plot, then it is my responsibility to step away from the key-board or put the pen down. If I do this, it’s amazing how said rogue character can no longer commit another word to paper. I go mow the lawn, wash dishes, take a nap or switch WIP until things have calmed down, then I return. I completely understand how addictive the voices-inside-the-head can be. I am blessed with a very active right-brain and my characters come through loud and clear. I am also a teacher, however, and my left-brain skills are strong, but I am not subject to either side’s demands because in the end, I know it is me who chooses to follow the promptings of my right or left-brains not my characters.
It is akin to the anthropomorphisization many pet owners subject their dogs and cats to. Don’t get me wrong, I love my pets and it never ceased to amaze me how my animals seemed to know what I was feeling and what I meant. My last cat and my last dog were seriously boon companions in this regard. I miss them as much, if not more, than I do my late father. I miss how my cat Greystoke seemed to know I was on my way home and was there on the front porch waiting for me no matter when I drove up. I miss how he would “converse” with me in various pitched meows when I told him about my day, my newest story idea or character concept. I miss how Callista stayed close and laid her huge head in my lap whenever I was depressed or sick, avoided me when I was tense, and knew just what to do to make me laugh. I am under no illusions, however, as much as my right-brain may play with the idea, that they were employing human emotions and observations, that they felt sorry or sympathized with me. No, they were animals and, as mine, keen observers of my behaviors, which they had down so well, it seemed like they knew what I was thinking before I thought it myself. For example, Callista noticed pending migraine symptoms long before I did and would paw at me like a service-dog. If I picked up on it, I could take my meds and blunt the headache’s pain when it came. If not, within a day, bam!, it was migraine-city and then I’d remember her pawing at me. Doh!
No matter how I might subject her to personification Callista was, in the final analysis, a dog. This came strongly home when her cancer first showed up, and we had to have her diseased leg amputated. In a 135 pound dog this was not something undertaken lightly, especially as it involved a front leg. Would she be able to navigate? How mobile would she be? Considering her weight, how would it hamper recovery? The vet and I discussed many such considerations before the operation. I remember asking him if she might not become depressed and could that effect her recovery? He smiled and said that although he believed animals could become depressed, especially those who had lost a mate or human companion, he assured me that animals “…don’t think like us.”
“We lose an appendage” he said, “and we’re not only scarred physically but emotionally as well. We wrestle with the mental demons of inferiority, weakness and imperfection. A dog is more likely to act as if nothing happened. They make adjustments because that’s what the moment dictates. If all goes well, we’ll have to hold her back because as soon as she can stand, she’s going to want to go for a walk, legless, stitches, staples, and scars notwithstanding. It’s all about what’s for dinner and are you ready to walk?—that will be her response.” And so it was.
In the end, after a long and amazing battle with her disease (nearly two and a half years!), she died in my arms (30 pounds lighter—we had walked a lot :-)) a valued member of my family who can never ever be replaced, but nonetheless as the beloved dog she was, happy at being caressed by her human until the moment her huge heart stopped beating.
Any anthropomorphic characteristics I might have imbued her with were nothing but mental constructs reflective of my own human needs and desires. Believing otherwise doesn’t necessarily hurt, but it does create a set of false responses and parameters that could have caused greater problems in myself.
Characters running a muck in the playground of my mind, muddying my story and stealing lines? All mine, baby, me: constructs of my imagination, my muse, my brain, my responsibility.
Does speaking of the right-brain in such terms hurt? I mean, so what if I want to call it a “she” or a “her” and name it Calliope? No. I don’t believe so, but neither do I believe it is okay to blame her for running off with the story or for writer’s block. Doing so creates a false perception that someone or something else is in charge, not me, and therefore my lack of accomplishment is somehow not my personal responsibility. It shields me from owning the problem and learning how to deal with it because to try and do so is paramount to admitting I am responsible and forces me to give up my romantic notions of a muse such as John Milius described. Instead of doing something about it, I sit and wait for lightning to strike or for my character to get with the program.
This is one of the many reasons why I appreciate Holly’s course so much. She offers methods by which to understand the wild character and tools with which to make lightening strike. Though she refers to the right-brain as her Muse and the left as her “You” and her descriptions can get a bit squishy, the exercises and tools she offers are sound for bringing the two in concert and if applied with wholehearted focus and open minded flexibility, they can produce amazing results without any hocus-pocus or blood sacrifice–well, maybe a little blood :).
Do they involve hard work? Oh, yes, but also hard play. Can it be frustrating? Of course it can, but what is worth having that isn’t also worth a little frustration? Can the process be a bit…illusive? Sometimes but usually due to my own shortcomings and learning curve. A bit mystical? No, I don’t think so—but there is room to believe so if I wish. Uncontrollable? To this I offer a resounding no! It’s about learning mental skills and control and the rules (which always change) but also about play and spontaneity and right-brain access. Impossible? Absolutely NOT.
I make no claims that the above is the ultimate truth, only that it is my truth. Dirus was a powerful construct and I sometimes mourn deflating him of his power by admitting he was nothing more than a product of my imagination. On the other hand, I appreciate knowing just how powerful my imagination can be and feel blessed that I can tap that power in the creation of my literary characters. I enjoy that I might interact with them in a similar fashion and, hopefully, render them on paper as convincingly, but if not, either because they refuse perform or because of poor writing, it isn’t their fault or the Muse’s fault…it’s mine.