Transforming Skin: Writer as Alchemist


I’ve spent enough time playing the Fool

Some writers, often those new to the game, like to share their beginning story. They will take any opportunity they can to speak of how long they have been dreaming of becoming a writer; and how they wrote their first story, crayon in hand, when they could barely walk or talk.

Well, I am not going to speak of that: the dreams of the child, or that time I was first praised for conjuring up a story. I’m not even going to talk of the learning difficulty that delayed my entry to the magical world of words; or how I tamed that beast, only to end up being grateful for what it had taught me.

Instead I will talk of my Fool’s Journey. Very similar to the Hero/Heroine’s Journey. Actually, they are probably one and the same.

Only a fool would dare follow the path of the writer; to sit at a computer, creating stories about heroes and heroines.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I took my first step on that journey a few weeks in to the final year of formal schooling. It started on the day I walked out of high school: literally. I just got up from my desk mid class, walked into the principal’s office and told him I was leaving. At first he tried to talk me out of it, telling me that I mustn’t even think of not finishing and going on to university. If not for my own sake, then for others. [He wore a black-frock, guilt was the weapon of choice]

I told him that I would rather live in the real world, and get my education at the school of life. [Many many years later I did go to uni, and still value life-learning over conformity-by-institution] Finally, knowing he was getting no-where, the principal asked what I intended to do with my life.

I simply replied that I was off to collect some experiences, and after that I would sit down and write.

Even at that young age, I firmly believed that before I could pick up a pen [We are talking pre-computer era here; yes I am that old], I needed to learn the basics of being a writer. And the biggest lessons weren’t punctuation, sentence structure, dialogue, point of view, tenses, beginning-middle-end. There was plenty of time for that, later. [I don’t think the Lists of the Top # of Blah for Writers existed in those days; if they did, I would probably have ignored them as well] I knew that the best preparation for being a writer was to live a little, and grow up a lot.

For how can a person write if they have not lived life to its fullest?

A writer needs to have felt the pains of love and loss; witnessed first-hand creation and death; accumulated treasured memories; given everything away; ridden the roller-coaster until they puked. I knew that I needed to do this, and more. That I should take the time to live and watch. To people-watch; see my Self; to inhale the beauty of a sunrise; feel butterflies on my cheek; pull straw from my hair; be retrospective; be forward thinking; delve into the light; sense the darkness of humanity.

I knew school wasn’t going to help me find what I was seeking.

And all these experiences, and more, I desperately needed if I was to become a writer. So I walked out of that classroom, crossed the school yard; and started on my Fool’s Journey.

Rather than put you to sleep with what I have done these past few years [Ok, decades], where I went or what I learnt, instead I will explain the holy madness of the Fool’s Journey. It is perhaps best captured in the Tarot, that pack of cards that uses symbology to explain the many archetypes that we might encounter in the big scary world, or express within ourselves; and the situations we may or may not find ourselves within.

The Fool of the pack is the seeker, a vagabond who carries only a few worldly goods. With his little dog nipping at his heels, he bravely/foolishly steps off the cliff: into oblivion. Where he eventually finds a path, or more, to travel; to seek to his heart’s desire.

If ever a young hopeful was to sit at my feet, asking for the key to being a successful writer, I wouldn’t hesitate to say: Go jump off a cliff.

Many of you will be familiar with the Hero/Heroine’s Journey, a formula for stories that has been used for many centuries, even before the written word. From the Iliad to Star Wars, Wizard of Oz to Lord of the Rings, or Conan the Barbarian to The Princess Bride, the Hero/Heroine’s Journey is a much used formula.

The protagonist starts out as the fool, only to end up the hero/heroine.

Roughly, it goes like this: Hearing the call for adventure, the young woman/man leaves the ordinary world and takes off along a familiar path. He/She soon meets a friend, a teacher or acquires some sort of supernatural aid. Then they leave the known behind, and step on to a new, dangerous path. At this point, they may need to confront something/someone to get past the guardian/s and step over the threshold. Then comes the long middle-part of the story: full of challenges, temptations, and ‘what the hell am I doing here’ moments. Until they all fall into the abyss; which can take many forms. Going through the whole woe is me, how will I ever get through this, death-of-previous-self, they finally have a revelation. Then comes the rebirth, the transformation; and a shimmer of hope is restored.

And at this point, we know that we are getting close to the end of the story, the big finale.

Having escaped from the belly of the whale, our hero/heroine (for by now they have earned that cherished title) might have to do some sort of atonement for their past sins/foolish ways. Then they go through a final initiation, get the girl/boy/dragon’s egg/key to the universe/whatever that they were tasked with getting. And perhaps even be gifted a little something extra for their troubles. They then cross the final barrier/mean-guy/pits of hell/ogre and return home; a very much changed and all-grown-up man/woman. Once back in  the ordinary world, the whole village claps and kills the fattened beast of choice. Whatever family members are still alive shed some tears. And the childhood sweetheart either plants a big one on them, or the new love they found on the way does. End of story.

Ok, so the average writer doesn’t have to fight dragons or what not, but they do need to go on a journey of their own.

Having gone on a Journey, confronted some personal demons, been tossed around by life a bit, the Fool is now ready to become a writer. And why not write a Hero/Heroine’s journey? The world can never have too many of those. As they say, write what you know. By now, if your life has been anything remotely like mine, you probably know both the Fool’s and the Hero/Heroine’s path like the back of your hand.

So what has the Alchemist got to do with this?

Glad you asked. Even after all this, if the Hero/Heroine is not done with questioning – and still has an overwhelming urge to venture, expose, dream, examine, create or predict – then the next journey is that of the Alchemist; where another transformation awaits.

The Alchemist is not only found in children’s tales. You may have heard of the 9 stages of ego development, or similar models. The Alchemist persona sits at the top of personal development. Not everyone needs, wants or will become the Alchemist.

Its nothing special, not really. Just a different way of thinking.

Looking back, when I walked out of school, neither that principal or my parents had any hope of persuading me to stay. As I was already well and truly in the Individualist stage, and stubborn as any mule that ever lived. It was this streak that lead me blindly into many places and situations; some not so fun, but all a source of learning. Finally accepting the pros and cons of being an Individualist, I made a conscious decision to change; and stepped into learning the ropes of the Strategist. This is where I sit now, and its an ok place to be. Well, maybe not to anyone who has the misfortune of being my manager/boss.

To be the writer I yearn to be, I need to find that hidden door, or perhaps the key. And step out along the next path. As an Alchemist (or Magician of the Tarot), I could write of the paradoxes of being. I could see with clarity the complex interplay of my characters’ thoughts, feelings, perceptions, wants, and balance these with action and effect. I could create people, and place them in situations to explore and explain both the frailties and greatness of humanity. I could find the literature equivalent of the Elixir of Life, or perhaps even the Philosopher’s Stone.

I could write as if I were an Eagle: flying over the landscape, viewing the characters and their struggles; being both part of the story and removed from it. 

Perhaps this is just tiredness speaking, the dangers of late night writing. Or perhaps my Fool has once again surfaced; ready and eager to take me on yet another journey.

Its ok, I have become quite good at jumping off cliffs.

If you would like to read the rest of the Skin series, see these previous posts:  
1. Shedding Skin: Writer as Creator –
2. Exposing Skin: Writer as Exhibitionist –
3. Reclaiming Skin: Writer as Artist –
4. Transforming Skin: Writer as Alchemist
5. Honouring Skin: The Writer Identified (coming soon)

Artwork downloaded from Deviantart 15 May 2013 –  downloaded 15/5

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