Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Where Dreamings Come From, Part 3: Growing Up

I decided to people Carter’s not-so-imaginary world with intelligent animals--not cartoony, animated versions, like in Winnie the Pooh, but real animals that could grasp logic and communicate in some way. I was adamant, however, to avoid recreating Narnia or the Jungle Book.

Though I love them, I find anthropomorphized1 animals overused. Yet, anthropocentrism2--avoiding the emotional depth and natural intelligence of animals--is as much of a problem. So how do you balance the extremes?

"Tell me more about anthropomorphism."
What if only a few individuals from each species possessed a level of intelligence similar to ours, while the others lived as average animals? The idea intrigued me, but I couldn’t picture how that kind of society would develop. How could I make the world work without relying on: “It’s a fantasy novel, it’s like that because it’s like that.” 

In my teens I discovered a passion for indigenous cultural myth and religion. As a long time gamer and fantasy fan, classical Greek mythology and European fairy tales were a part of my makeup, though in the majority of these stories nature is something to be feared or dominated; to be turned into a tree by Zeus or a frog by a witch was punishment. The animistic nature of Aboriginal Australian, Shinto Japanese, Native American, African and even pre-Christian European cultures paralleled my own belief that nature was to be respected, not feared, and that animals should be treated as equals, not as creatures to be dominated. Later, in college, I met a Black Seminole Indian who introduced me to the spiritual practice of shamanism.

The word shaman originates from the Siberian Turkic word šamán and is often used to describe the countless, unrelated animistic practices from around the world. Shamanism in and of itself is not a religion, yet shamanic practices have been attributed to many religions, including Christianity; Jesus’ forty-day fast in the desert mirrors a classic shamanic practice of communing with the spirit world. As such, defining shamanism is difficult and is the subject of much academic debate3.

L-R Elephants: Boonmi, Sidoh, Kaewta
L-R Humans: Phon, Juke, Author
A common shamanic perspective teaches that the dynamic between a shaman and a spirit guide (power animal, totem, guardian angel, etc) isn’t one of dominance or worship, but is experiential in nature. Each gains something from the relationship in the same way that two people in a friendship do. This idea reminded me of the bond I had with my stuffed animal family, as well as the friendships I’d experienced with animals through my years of veterinary work.

This led me to expand the “What If” of my story from, what if a young boy’s childhood imagination intruded itself on his middle school life, to include the much more intriguing question: What if a child’s imaginary friend and his totem were the same being?

This idea helped answer many of my earlier questions. What if the more intelligent animals in this other world were the spiritual leaders of their species? What if they thought differently because they had human totems? If a reciprocal relationship existed between a human and his or her spirit guide, what would the human offer?  Logic, problem solving, organization and the ability to challenge instincts (for good or evil). 

Carter’s imaginary world became easier to picture and after months of development I started writing scenes with the him and his friends. That’s when I ran into a completely unexpected problem. In the story I had envisioned, Carter was eleven-years-old. He’d been eleven in my head for a good six months, yet none of the scenes I wrote were working. Each was cute alone, but lacked the elements I needed to fit them into the story I wanted to write.

“That’s because I’m not eleven,” Carter kept trying to tell me.  “I’m fourteen.”

“You are eleven.  I’m writing this story.  I created you.  You’re eleven.”

“Yeah, well, good luck with that,” he said.

For months I tried to write this Middle Grade fiction story from the viewpoint of an eleven-year-old protagonist who insisted on fighting me the whole way.

Any writer will tell you that you have to listen to your characters. If something doesn’t feel right, if you have to force a character to do something for the sake of the plot, stop. Let the character go where it’s telling you it wants to go. The worst that can happen is that you get a few chapters down the line and find out you were wrong. But you won’t be. I’ll bet money on it. What I was doing with Carter was what I would never do with a friend--I was treating him like a possession, something to be dominated or owned. I only went to him when I needed something and, not surprisingly, the relationship stopped working.

Non-writers offer understandable concern when I tell this story--concern for my mental state, that is. “You have conversations? With your characters?”  It’s one of those behind-the-scenes things that non-writers think they never experience. I’ve never run into anyone who hasn’t spent time in their head arguing with a friend or family member who isn’t in the room. It’s how our imagination penetrates our daily lives. You may hear a writer say that they feel more like a conduit for a story than the creator of one. This is what they mean. Sometimes in writing, as in life, you need to get out of your own way.

After months of frustration I decided that I had nothing to lose by trying things Carter’s way. I had no idea how the story would look with my characters as high school freshmen, but, immediately, the story started flowing. Nearly everything I’d created for a middle school Carter morphed into a tighter, more interesting version in the high school setting. Don’t get me wrong, writing this novel has been the hardest thing I’ve ever put myself through, but scenes started making sense, dialogue flowed, characters acted more like I pictured them acting. Carter had grown out of grade school, graduated middle school and arrived at a very different Magical Address than I’d originally pictured.

Even though the family of stuffed animals from the children’s book had been cut from the final plot of Dreamings, one of them remained the core of Carter’s story. Carter’s imaginary animal friend would be a young cheetah cub, who, like Carter, never understood that his imaginary human friend was real and living in another world. Neither Carter nor Roary recognized the connection between them and until the novel starts, each has lived their lives believing the other to have been a childhood dream.

This one story element is the thing that evokes the strongest reaction from friends and family. It somehow taps into the sense of wonder I would like every reader to take away. What if the things you imagined as a child were real and they thought you were the myth?

The spiritualist side of me can’t help but wonder if this is why I was so drawn to Roary in that toy store thirty years ago.  Was he always meant to help me through my first novel, or was it inevitable that something so important to my early development found its way into such a creative endeavor?  I’ll never know for sure.

And when I can never truly know the answer to a question, I always go with the one that makes me happiest.

anthropomorphism |ˌanθrəpəˈmôrˌfizəm|
noun-the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object.  DERIVATIVES anthropomorphize |-ˌfīz| verb; Mac dictionary, v2.1.2

anthropocentric |ˌanθrəpōˈsentrik|
adjective-regarding humankind as the central or most important element of existence, esp. as opposed to God or animals.  DERIVATIVES anthropocentrically |-trik(ə)lē| adverb; anthropocentrism |-ˌtrizəm| noun; Mac dictionary, v2.1.2