Here Be Dragons

“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better.”

Annie Dillard, from The Writing Life

Baby Dragon by Jan Oliehoek

Trepidation. Fear. Perfection. Sheer volume. The inertia of beginning. The gravity of success, however one measures these things. But these are precisely all the measures and things that keep closeted writers, musicians, artists, creators of any sort, really, from putting their expression out into the world.

Exploring yourself and the world around you enough to synthesize and come back with an observation in words is a very personal cartography. It’s the unknown, dangerous, unexplored dominion with no map of how to proceed or where to go. No corresponding scale of distance. No highlights and must-see attractions. It’s the edge of the known universe and you are seeking to present the landscape, telling people what you see. There’s a series of vast, dark, restless oceans between solid land masses and circling, swimming in those watery voids are immense and hungry beasts.

Writing is the uncharted territory. Here be dragons.

here-be-dragonsA dragon is a fine symbol for the writing process. Dragons draw from the European folk tales which in turn come from the Greek derivations of drakon to mean “the watcher,” from the verbs drakein and derkomai “to see clearly”, “gaze sharply, “to stare.” Also, from the Chinese, who view them as water spirits in the form of serpents, river gods, or sea monsters. They give them an appropriately trembling name in their language that is onomatopoeia for the sound of thunder. The dragon, as watcher, guards jewels, treasures, apples, gold, sacred water, and dark caverns where unknown secrets lie in wait to be discovered. In essence, the dragon is a fearsome creature that makes the acquisition of our inner treasure, a challenging battle. The dragon symbolizes our need to preserve, protect, and hoard the illuminated gift we are often too afraid to share. Consorting with the dragon in its lair, we bring torches to see our unwritten selves—what we really think in there beneath our rows upon rows of defensive scales. We gaze sharply in order to see clearly.

dracoOur mythos around dragons encompass all elements. Earth, air, water, and fire. They are representative of the primal, morphological forces of nature. Both serpent and seafish. Lizard and bat. Venomous blood and incendiary mouth. Dragons are both dark and light, both helpful and harmful, ethereal and base. In our myths, we’ve even cast dragons into space. Wise Minerva, virgin goddess of the arts, poetry, medicine, wisdom, crafts, and magic defeated Draco and flung his carcass skyward until it twisted on itself and froze at the cold North Celestial Pole. In medieval astronomy, we called the north and south ascending node and descending node the “dragon’s head” and “dragon’s tail”. To write, to find our full voice, is a top to bottom exploration, a drawing down of stars at the risk of burning.

But in our current culture, in our storytelling, in some of our filmmaking, even in our daily journalism, there is a demythification—a cheapening, watered-down reconstitution of our old myths. We gut them of their powerful symbols and strip their vital message of transformation. Reality tv and tell-all fake memoirs are symptomatic of an insecure culture of writers and creators who will do, say, show, or write anything to affirm that their story is worth telling. We make small talk into big lies and whopper lies into bleeding headlines. In our washed-out, suburban nightmares, so distant from timeless, epic tales of fantasy, we have news stories about alligators who are made to guard a pile of marijuana. In place of the captured damsel in distress, imprisoned in a stony castle tower or dungeon behind iron bars, we discover the sad, modern shell of femininity, the exotic dancer girlfriend of the druglord who had a stripper pole installed so that he may entreat her for home entertainment. We’ve not only slayed the dragon, we’ve done in the Wizard.

Steve Almond encapsulated this best in his article on the fake memoir:

In a sense, the internet has made us all memoirists. We spend more and more time in front of screens, constructing our identities. Rather than building small communities of friendship in the real world, we seek the adulation – or at least the attention – of a million strangers.

We tell the stories that make us seem heroic, and suppress the ones that reveal our cowardice and cruelty. Our rhetoric becomes more provocative, dismissive. We type things that common decency would forbid us from saying in person.

Our cultural habits of thought and feeling have begun to ape the tabloid news in which we marinade. Mankind has always needed myths. We invent beliefs to protect ourselves from unbearable truths. But I can’t think of an era in which clearly demonstrable lies of self-interest have been so richly rewarded.

Even so, I get it. It grows ever-increasingly more difficult to gain traction as a writer of any sort. The publishing world is turned on its head and merging into multi-headed beasts like Random Penguin as more print publications are translating themselves to partial, pay per service, or strictly online format to deliver books, magazines, news, and blogs and all to a multitude of electronic devices. It is, indeed, a new Dark Age for writers.

dragon-with-fireOf course, I am not suggesting we all rewrite Tolkien and tell our personal tales as grand as King Arthurian legend. But I am suggesting we invest in maintaining our living symbols and cultivate our personal writing pathways with care, understanding that they begin and end with our authentic selves in order to keep them a vivacious source, as in the form of the serpent or dragon symbol, the Ouroboros. It is the head eating the tail, a circle unbroken, yin and yang, lightness born out of dark and dark giving the necessary rest from the light. It is the unending, self-reflexive cycle that all writers require to sustain their craft and their voice.

Establishing a regular rhythm where words and projects begin anew as soon as they end and reignite our imaginations is a form of meditative practice. Assembling those words in such a satisfying way that a resonance is created; this is most every writer’s dream, to put something out into the world that transcends and lasts. A successful piece of art, is a self-contained immortality.  If we choose our words honestly and our written quests wisely, we confront the insurmountable beast. A conquered dragon serves not only the conqueror, but the community and sometimes, the world at large who chooses to believe.

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