Writing Right with Dmitri: What Goes on in Your Mind?
When I was a teenager, I once showed my dad a poem I'd written. He studied it, and said, with civil-engineer gravity, 'Sometimes I wonder what goes on in your mind.' That was me told.
The ways of the imagination are myriad. Each of us has worlds within: the trick is to find a way to explore those worlds without running amok.
So far this week, I've read or watched stories about imaginative exercises that went awry. There was the teenager in 1950s New Zealand who only wanted to entertain her best friend with her fantasy tales, but who got caught up in a murder plot with serious consequences. There were the neognostics of the Heaven's Gate movement, who imaginatively mixed science fiction, New Age thought, and Bible lore. They ended up committing group suicide in order to join the mother ship, somewhere behind the Hale-Bopp Comet.
I've just watched a little documentary segment that claimed wonderful powers for an ancient skull made of rock crystal. The sweetest little old lady you've ever seen looked straight at the camera and told the exciting story of how she found the skull in the Mayan jungles, while helping her famous father on an archaeological dig.
The problem, of course, is that the crystal skull isn't thousands of years old, and can't have come from Mesoamerica. The crystal is either from Madagascar or Brazil, and was machine-tooled no earlier than the 1880s, probably in Germany. And she couldn't have found it: her father bought it from an unscrupulous French dealer in the 1940s. Besides, nobody remembered her going on that dig. But you know, she was really plausible when she told that. She looked as guileless as Gloria Stuart in Titanic, just before she snuck outside and threw that jewel into the ocean. That lady died, at age 100, without ever admitting she'd made anything up.
Remember what I said last week about writer agnosticism? The trick to a good flight of fancy is to remember the landing instructions. Don't go so far away that you can't see the lights of home. You can learn a lot by letting your imagination play around. Just don't get so convinced of your own ideas that you mistake a good story for rock solid evidence. This goes double if you have a fan club. Folie à deux may or may not be a thing, but having an audience egging you on is sometimes the ticket to really bad decisions, for writers and performers just as much as for leaders.
I had by this time become fairly expert in clairvoyance, clairaudience and clairsentience. But it would have been a very dull person indeed who failed to recognise the black, bilious rage that shook him to the soul. I instance this as a proof that Yeats was a genuine poet at heart, for a mere charlatan would have known that he had no cause to fear an authentic poet. What hurt him was the knowledge of his own incomparable inferiority.
Aleister Crowley, Confessions, v.1, p.232.
Aleister Crowley was a wizard, we'll give him that. He was at least more of a wizard than Harry Potter, but perhaps less potent than Rincewind, since he practiced magic rather than being magic, and besides, didn't have such nifty Luggage. . . But was Crowley a better poet than WB Yeats? Here's some Crowley verse:
With hoofs [sic] of steel I race on the rocks
Through solstice stubborn to equinox.
And I rave; and I rape and I rip and I rend
Everlasting, world without end.
Mannikin, maiden, maenad, man,
In the might of Pan.
Io Pan. . .
Now, this is not bad stuff. It has a beat, and you can chant to it. You want proof? Here's a US politician reading the whole thing aloud. It's awesome. But is it better than Yeats?
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
More to the point, was Mr Crowley, as he claimed, the greatest poet of his day, maybe better even than Shakespeare? That's a fine ambition, but it's kind of up to the audience to decide. Sometimes, our imaginations can run away with us. They can also make it hard to see ourselves clearly in the mirror. On the other hand, WB Yeats might have been jealous, who knows? We weren't there. They belonged to the same wizards' club, so there might have been all sorts of rivalries going on. (My wand is bigger than your wand. . . ) Sometimes, we're sure Crowley is joking about such things. He's an imaginative guy – after all, he claimed to have conjured the devil by singing 'From Greenland's Icy Mountains' while walking backwards around his family's house. When he was ten, or something like that. At other times, we're not really sure if he doesn't mean it. We don't know what was going on in his mind.
What I'm saying, though, is that when you start giving your imagination free rein, you have to beware of the double trap: on one hand, if you're being pretty original (and Aleister Crowley was nothing if not original), it's dangerous to pay too much attention to critics. If they don't know what you're trying to do, they can't very well tell if you've managed to do it. On the other hand, without any criteria to measure by, it's easy to miss your mark entirely.
A lot of us wish Philip K Dick had written better prose. I personally wish he'd stayed awake in German class. We treasure the fruits of his imagination, but we mourn the shine that might have been had he been able to polish his work. And yes, sometimes we wonder what went on in his mind when he wrote all that.
This is true of so much that is new and great in art. How close did the artist, poet, author come to the original intent? How could we tell? Derivative work can be judged by the way it follows the 'rules', or creates tiny variations on the current norm. But when you're out there breaking new ground, you're kind of like a frontier explorer. It's terra incognita.
Try to bend a few twigs along the route, so you'll get home by supper.