During a visit to Calgary, Canada, the city where I grew up, I conducted a workshop at the event “When Words Collide.” It was entitled “The Origins of Fiction: A Personal Odyssey.” Preparing for the occasion had me thinking about narrative seeds, especially mine. What starts me on these explorations of others’ lives?
One of my bios states “Lily sprouted on the Canadian prairies under cumulous clouds that bloomed everywhere in Alberta’s big sky. They were her first creative writing instructors, scudding across the heavenly blue, constantly changing shape: one minute an elephant, bruised and brooding. The next morphing into a rabbit or a castle. These billowing masses gave her a unique view of life on earth.”
I do credit those experiences I had as a child for my impulse to write, my desire to explore (and expand) my immediate surroundings, to move beyond them. Being a writer is being a shapeshifter, a mythic concept that Ovid capitalized on in his Metamorphoses. What do I mean here? While writing, we are constantly manipulating reality, making it do things that we actualize in our fictions. And it involves the psychological term transference where we are able to project emotions, ideas, and perceptions onto something in the external world that others resonate with because they share these same impulses—the foundation of what it’s like to be human. We are transferring these elements into our characters. But we are also conveying them to our readers.
When I read Faulkner’s Sound and Fury, I not only understood Caddy’s feelings, but I also became Caddy for a time. She inhabited me, reading in me similar impulses that I had had as a young woman. Faulkner had created a character that had such an effect because he could imagine and inhabit her world, thereby enabling me to imagine it, too. So a reader’s shape is also shifted as a writer shapes and shifts his/her creations into a characters. There’s a whole lot of shape shifting going on!
It isn’t just that our imaginations seek opportunities to alter the material world and recreate it. Odyssey is an important word here to describe the journey that each of us takes when we begin writing a narrative, whether it’s a short or long fiction.
In the Odyssey, Circe was the ultimate shapeshifter, turning Odysseus’ men into pigs. We writers all share this impulse, whether we recognize it or not. We can’t bear to just take the world as it is. We are always probing, inquiring, analyzing, creating and turning things into other things: into clouds, into human beings, into fiction. And that’s how stories begin. It’s also why there are constantly new stories: there are always new combinations, fresh possibilities. How can we possibly stop searching in these clouds of perception for novel forms that will immerse us in new worlds that we have at our fingertips?