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Imagination, Myth & Memory

18 June 2019 Stephanie

As part of a wonderful evening at Waterstones in Exeter alongside a literary hero, the author Lindsay Clarke, and fellow Unbounder Robert Woodshaw, I’ve been inspired to consider the titular themes of imagination, myth and memory more deeply – and in turn, this has motivated me creatively.

In preparation for the event and while reading Lindsay’s writing memoir, Green Man Dreaming, I was astonished at the waves of synchronicity that formed in terms of my own writing. I would often read a chapter of Lindsay’s book during a break from working on book two in The Children of Sarah series and find the hair beginning to rise on the back of my neck as I realised that he was discussing something directly related to what I’d  written moments before.

That process works in two ways, however, and some of the points Lindsay raises in his book have not only given me the sense that I’m on the right track with book two, but sparked fresh ideas for where to go with it next. (Even if progress is slow for a number of reasons.)

Stephanie Bretherton

IMAGINE THAT!

It was such an honour to be the support act, if you will, for Lindsay – a lovely man and an inspiration in every way. I’d had no contact with him prior to sending him a proof copy of Bone Lines in the hope he might grace it with a blurb for the cover, but while I knew that Lindsay and I shared similar fascinations and concerns, I also knew that an endorsement was a long shot, especially for a first novel.

I jumped up and down like a six-year-old when Lindsay’s comments came back, and this wasn’t only because somebody I hugely admire had liked my book, it was because he’d really got it. He’d picked up on its deeper trail of breadcrumbs (lain both consciously and unconsciously, it seems) and understood what I was trying to do with it – and that was both thrilling and gratifying.

However, it wasn’t until I read Green Man Dreaming that I fully understood why Lindsay had enjoyed my book and the realisation dawned that many aspects of Bone Lines had emerged from a deeper and more ‘universal’ centre of human experience and had been drawn from the well of themes, archetypes and symbols that Lindsay often refers to. I have never formally studied the classics, or even folklore, and yet these stories seem embedded in our psyches.

This is also what’s been so enjoyable about responses to the book since it’s been out – how readers apply their own imagination to the author’s offering and often see things that the author hadn’t realised were there. For example, one recent review observed that the two stories within Bone Lines were like the double strands of the DNA helix in the way they wrapped around each other and were bound together – and I thought, yes of course they are! I hadn’t consciously planned or been aware of that until someone else expressed it but it made perfect sense as DNA is such a significant motif throughout the book.

OPPOSITES HELD IN TENSION…

There’s also a line in Green Man Dreaming that had particular resonance for me:

The writer is as much the pipeline as the engineer.

That’s how I felt when a vision emerged of a young woman, an ancient ancestor, escaping a devastating natural disaster – and the moment that character took form and demanded to be written about – and then told me who she was and what she was going to do.

In Green Man Dreaming, Lindsay explains that the Arthurian myth of Percival and the Green Knight is ultimately about losing your head to find your heart. And this applies beautifully to my Dr Eloise – as, like many of us today, she lives far too much in her head and has often closed her bruised heart to new opportunities (as much as that heart is yearning to open again).

The very process of writing the book, together with its arising themes, often embodied what Lindsay refers to as ‘opposites held in the tension’ which ultimately give rise to something new. Bone Lines is in many ways about the reconciliation of opposing principles. The head and the heart, the masculine and the feminine, science and spirituality – and the soul of the book is the search for a new synthesis, a middle way for the modern age. Perhaps rediscovering much of what we have lost but applying that to all we know now?

In Lindsay’s response to me after reading Bone Lines he included a quote from John Cowper Powys about how the great ‘Shakespearean sense of life’ combines the maximum of scepticism with the maximum of openness. Lindsay said,

The kind of writing you are doing encourages an imaginative resolution of contraries in a way that opens wider perspectives on both ourselves and the world.

As you can imagine this was tremendous encouragement, as I felt my genre-fluid novel was risky in today’s market, even if it was the book that I needed and wanted to write.

Indeed, such resolutions drive me both personally and creatively and while I’m drawn to the myths of the ages and to a ‘spiritual’ relationship with nature, I’m equally excited and inspired by modern science, which offers an extraordinary resource for the imagination. During my research I was sucked down many a mind-blowing wormhole while creating the context in which my scientist engages with her world. She is immersed in a rational worldview yet remains open to possibility – and the wayfinding drive of the imagination.

 

Imagination may take us to places that never were, but without it we go nowhere.

Carl Sagan

It’s interesting to me that those scientists who most capture the affection of the wider public tend to be those with a poetic embrace of the imagination in partnership with a clear rationality and measurable methods. It’s the Einsteins and Sagans whose words most of us average ‘punters’ remember – and who are capable of awakening a sense of wonder – as well as good sense. Apart from her hero, Charles Darwin, Eloise relates most to such figures and nurtures a resilient hope for the onward evolution of mankind, in consciousness as much as anything.

But Eloise is not the only scientist in the story. The prehistoric character, who is by birthright and early training a shaman, is also a kind of proto-scientist who spends much of her time observing, assessing and attempting to understand. She, however, lives more vitally in the moment than Eloise and remains intimately connected to the natural world (and perhaps also to worlds beyond?)

RITES OF PASSAGE

When it comes to ‘Myth’ – especially as told through symbols – there are visual clues in my novel that I hope speak in shorthand to the subconscious. There are also certain ‘archetypes’ present, whereby some characters may embody particular qualities, such as altruism or fanaticism, or the role of the ‘wounded healer.’

In terms of the classic mythical plot of the hero’s journey, each protagonist in Bone Lines is on their own particular quest and while reading Green Man Dreaming, I realised that many of the trials they undergo constitute a form of initiation. Indeed, the entire prehistoric narrative is, in effect, a rite of passage and a vision quest into becoming a fully-fledged shaman. And, perhaps, for both characters, the journey is about becoming more fully, fearlessly ‘human’?

THE ARCHIVE OF DNA

So what of ‘Memory’ in Bone Lines? Well, there’s obviously a strong undertow in terms of how the past shapes both the present and the future. Memory is key both in how it influences the characters – and how it is passed on.

In prehistory, this is via oral traditions and learning through rote or ritual. There’s also some early experimentation with art and cave drawing. In the modern story there’s the sense of a canon of recorded knowledge, but also the ritual of capturing our personal memories in photography. In both narratives, however, the sense of ‘received’ memory and knowledge is key, whether through intuition, fractal patterns, or through our cells.

Of course, we know now that DNA is the most proficient form of physical memory imaginable. Its ability to store, pass on or ‘upgrade’ information is staggering, and its potential is still being unravelled. Indeed there’s a whole field of research into epigenetics, by which chemical tags direct the expression of our genes – and it’s now understood that emotional memory such as trauma, can be inherited in this way. It really is a brave new (and old) world out there (and within).

WHERE NEXT?

Ultimately, I hope that with Bone Lines I have worked with Imagination, Myth and Memory in a way creates a sense of hope, despite the warnings from both history and science as to our impact on each other and on the living world. I hope there is also – through the resolution of contraries – a lasting sense of the power and possibility of renewal.

So what does all this mean for book two? Well, here’s a hint, the notion of ‘storytelling’ will be key. There’s also a greater willingness to explore the darker heart of the hero’s journey and venture into ‘the underworld.’ Perhaps most of all, the experience of our Imagination, Myth & Memory event has been a vital reminder to trust my own intuition as a writer. Not to second guess under all the pressures of what musicians know well as that ‘difficult second album’ and to simply turn on the creative tap and let the river flow… wish me well.

Imagination, Myth & Memory

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