Myth, History, and Belief Systems

Ancient myths precede histories and were once thought to be histories. They were thought to be true accounts of important matters.” ~Margaret Atwood, from “Burning Bushes” in In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination

I’m part of a couple reading groups on Goodreads. Unfortunately, I can never seem to keep up with the novels the groups are reading because I’m so darn distractable. *shiny!* However, these smart folks have directed me to books that I would not otherwise have read. For example, right now I’ve started reading a book called Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset – winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.  It’s a monster of a book. I’m barely halfway through part one of the trilogy.

But I’m far enough in that I see something very interesting going on.

Brief overview of the book: Kristin takes place in 14th century Norway and it’s about a girl/young woman who enters into an unwise marriage against her parent’s consent.

(What on earth does this have to do with Margaret Atwood? Just hold on a second, I’ll get there.)

In one of the opening sequences, Kristin is confronted by the spectre of a dwarf (a fairy in Norwegian terms). It’s an interesting section in which Kristin is almost tempted away from her father and the group she’s traveling with. Her father ‘saves’ her at the last moment, and she tells him what she saw. Dad immediately freaks out. She’s not allowed to leave his side, nor is she allowed to tell her mother – a deeply religious woman who would flip if she thought her daughter was being threatened by evil sprites.

While reading this turn of events I was caught by the idea that, in the past, the myths are real. Magic is real. The reason we read fantasies and science fiction and speculative fiction (whatever you want to call it) is partly because we don’t see this stuff in real life…anymore. Science has kind of ripped the mystery away, but once upon a time – and not a very long ago time either – we used to believe that magic was real. Miracles could happen.

Undset certainly caught the right historical tone – and it made the history more believeable than any description of medieval churches ever could. For the first time reading a historical piece, I felt the very real terror of the *beyond.*

In “Burning Bushes,” an essay in In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood, she states there are questions that myths answer:
1. Where did the world come from?
2. Where did people come from?
3. Where did OUR people come from?
4. Why do bad things happen to good people?
5. Why do good things happen to bad people?
6. What is right behavior?
7. What do the gods/God want?
8. What are the right relationships between men and women?

And that’s why myths have hung around so long.

I would add that a good story – any story – has characters who behave in accordance with a mythos. Whether you base the story’s belief system on science, with its “seven step” scientific process, or if it is based more on a religious backbone or if it’s based on the idea that Nothing exists past this life doesn’t matter. What matters is that there is something (nothing is something too) because real human behavior revolves around the answers to the above questions. You can’t write something believable without knowing what those answers are for your world.

Margaret Atwood, from what I’ve read, has taken great pains in order to answer these questions for herself. In Handmaid’s Tale, you can see the evolution of the society via a belief system. Oryx and Crake is almost a listed, direct answer to the questions she poses in “Burning Bushes.”

And so far in Kristin Lavransdatter, these questions are being addressed as well.  

Do you have answers to these questions for your stories? Have you read any books that answer these questions particularly well?

Hang-up Awareness

After an interesting bout during a critique meeting, a few of my writers group buddies and I discussed our hang-ups in fiction. Basically, we asked ourselves: during a critique is there anything that you, personally, cannot get past or overlook in another writer’s submission – and it’s an entirely personal reaction, not something like comma-use or story structure or anything ‘writerly.’

For example, my hang-up is the treatment of women in a story. I have next to zero tolerance for what has been termed ‘Mantasy’ because a lot of the elements of this type of fiction treat women in a questionable manner. For example, rape is often utilized in some manner in the unpublished works I’ve seen – often negatively, but rape will still show up in there somewhere. Because this is such a damaging life-altering event in any woman’s life (I hope to heaven it never happens to any readers here!) I hate seeing it used as anything even remotely erotic.

That’s an extreme example, but my hang-up shows up in smaller ways too. If a story doesn’t represent a balanced woman’s perspective I have a difficult time overlooking it. Sure, not all stories need a balanced perspective – but I really think that Of Mice and Men would’ve benefitted a little. (See? It’s a matter of personal taste.)

Anyway, reading The Handmaid’s Tale I realized something else: I’m also irritated when men are not treated in a well-rounded fashion.

As a woman, I had some strong reactions to this book. The dehumanized portraits of women reduced to a color or a duty. The lack of choice. The fear, the threats, the loss. I felt all of it, so two-hundred and ten points to Atwood for that. But something was bothering me throughout the story and I finally realized that it was the men.

So this Handmaid’s Tale society is male-dominated. The dudes are in charge – which just takes it back a hundred years or so and is not a monstrous stretch of the imagination (woe be the day!). And this is where I hit the flaw in the story: men were in charge for centuries prior to this one. They have a certain amount of logic and dominating capability. In fact, when it comes down to dudes “defending” themselves against women, their “claim” is that they are more “rational” and “logical” rather than “emotional” and “passionate” like the chicks. While I don’t think guys are more rational than women, by any means, I do think that a dominating group has certain rationales that drive it.

In Tale, the rationale for the Handmaids is that they have proven themselves in The Time Before as capable breeders. All of them have had children. The Commanders (dudes in charge) want kids. But the Commanders are stuck with their Wives, have negotiated certain rights and responsibilities with said Wives, and the Wives – some of them – are not able to have children. Therefore the Handmaids are brought into the Commander’s homes and assume getting-knocked-up duties.

Now, here’s my issue: the Commanders are in charge. They have certain requirements – namely children. Sure, they negotiated with the Wives prior to the takeover of the world, but now the world is taken over…why still negotiate with the women who aren’t adding to the quantity of children? Of course, it’s the men themselves that are probably responsible for the infertility…but that didn’t stop Henry VIII. Wouldn’t they start the rules for multiple wives, especially if they’re using Biblical precedent?

Like I said – this is my hang-up. There’s no way that Atwood could’ve made that choice, because that would’ve upset the balance of the story – in fact, it would’ve changed the story entirely – and there’s so much that is interesting already in Handmaid’s Tale. But I think that’s the key to creating a good story: the writer has to create a more interesting idea in order to help the reader past their own prejudices/biases/hang-ups.

It does make me wonder how much of our hang-ups make it into our own writing.

What are your hang-ups? Do you think that your hang-ups extend from your reading/critiquing into your writing? How can you spot it without it being pointed out by, say, your writing group?

Answering Questions with Questions

Perhaps you noticed in the introductory post on Atwood, during her interview with Bill Moyers, that Atwood answers a lot of questions with more questions. Moyers asks something like “Are the myths true?” and Atwood answers something like “What is true?”

The interviews with Atwood that I’ve found online are all like this. A question gets asked, and she responds with a question. I’m sure this is a very frustrating trait for interviewers. I’m sure they’d like nothing better than to reach across the interview space and smack her around. Because journalists are about getting answers.

But novelists are about asking questions.

Any story, any novel, is a presentation of a question – the What If? – and the exploration of a possible answer: these characters in this situation would do this (maybe). Take a group of novelists and give them a situation and watch them ask a million questions of their characters, of the situation, of the setting, of the ‘theme.’ Whenever they answer, it’ll be with a story, but something interesting will have occurred. Their stories will be riddled with further questions – the story isn’t an answer at all, it’s just a way to ask deeper questions.

In my opinion, Atwood is a strong writer because she asks so many questions.

I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale recently, and that’ll be the example book for this week and probably next week – so just fair warning that I’ll probably ruin some stuff for you if you haven’t read it, but I’ll try to be careful about that.

Imagine that you’re in a group of novelists that has been asked to answer the following questions with a story:

1. Women no longer have rights. Their personal incomes are shut down, they are completely reliant on men for support. How did this happen in the late twentieth century?

2. What does this new society look like? How does it function? Does it look like the late 19th century? Medieval times?

Atwood’s answer to these is The Handmaid’s Tale. Her answer to the first question defines a lot of the structures in the book: everything collapses after a violent massacre of the U.S. government – congressmen are killed, the government can’t really function, and voila – a whole new regime that Atwood actually keeps fairly small and in the early stages, the struggle for control is still ongoing. And her answers to question two (the societal structures and purposes of the Handmaids, the Wives, etc.; clothing based on Mid-East garb; religious totalitarianism) define the other questions that need to be asked.

But what’s really interesting are the questions that The Handmaid’s Tale brings up: Could something like this happen? Has something like this happened already? How is the similar or different to today, or yesterday, or what we’re expecting for tomorrow? How realistic is it?

Good literature makes us ask questions – even today we talk about the questions brought up in, say, Jane Eyre regarding marriage/violence/mental illness. But I also think that good literature is only created when the writer explores questions. Exploring questions is different than answering questions. Exploration is similar to experimentation – you start with a question and then start digging into what the answer could be.

It’s sort of like the new theories of time travel and different lines of time. Say, for example, that a Yankee really did go back to King Arthur’s court. One of the theories circulating at the moment is that the Yankee won’t have changed this timeline…he would have created an entirely new one, so nothing is predictable anymore. Thomas Edison may or may not invent the lightbulb. Columbus may or may not discover America. The entire planet of Vulcan could be destroyed! Stuff changes when different questions are asked.

So, as writers, it’s up to us to ask questions of our work. Would our characters behave this way? Why? Why not that way? How can something work differently? What are my options? What is truth? What am I trying to say? How else could it be said?

***And, speaking of interviews, here’s a great one from the New York Times: Margaret Atwood interviewed by Joyce Carol Oates in 1978. (There are fewer questions asked in this one…but she’s younger, and younger people know it all, right?)