Back in the mid 1990s when I was intent on getting my books into the mainstream press, I started using the term “mythic writing” to describe this form of writing that I love to do and encourage others to do.
Mythic writing served to describe any kind of written engagement with a myth or fairy tale. Retelling a story, writing about one’s response to a story, weaving personal stories with myth and fairy tales could all be called mythic writing. I held classes in this form of writing, and fostered the directions that each of the participants set for themselves. An exploration of the Greek goddess Athena, a query into the role of the soul in Hans Christian Andersen’s Sea Maid, or a retelling of The Handless Maiden from the King’s point of view were some of the rich forms of mythic writing that I had the privilege to hear and support.
At that time there weren’t many opportunities for publishing this kind of material, on the web or in the mainstream press. My publisher at Key Porter didn’t know what genre “mythic writing” belonged in. “Where would you find your books in a bookstore?” she asked. Where would she put a book like Brave Work, a mythological perspective on the quest to make a meaningful career out of a devastating job loss? Or How to Ride a Dragon, the personal stories of cancer survivors who are dragon boating and telling real life dragon stories?
Hardest of all to peg were my stories, like the stories in A. Seeker’s Storybook. “They’re not literary stories. They’re more like parables,” the publisher suggested. I never intended them to be teaching stories. They came to me at a time when I was in pain, and lost in the middle of life. The stories reeled out from a deep inner storyteller, wiser than me, whose metaphors lit up the spiritual and emotional crises associated with chronic pain, and led me somewhere that was promising. I didn’t fiddle with them too much. If I didn’t know what an ending meant, I just let it be, with the faith that one day I would arrive at an understanding.
Since that time, I’ve been developing a particular form of mythic writing that I call “wonderlit.” It involves an activation of one’s imagination to engage with a myth that has personal meaning. Whether the writing comes out as prose, poetry, or a retelling, the writing has “blood on it,” as a storyteller once said. It comes from a place of vulnerability, of openness to the images that you get when you approach a fairy tale with the intention to be illuminated by it.
Let’s say I want to write about Bluebeard’s wife. I can retell her story. I can tell you how her rich, blue-bearded husband gave her the keys to the mansion, but then chillingly warned her not to enter one particular room. I can relate her situation to other mythological situations, such as Eve’s predicament in the Garden of Eden, or the psyche’s predicament when it is encountering its own hidden dark matter. That’s all good stuff, but when I start writing in this “wonderlit” way, I’m approaching the story with the knowledge that there’s something in it that is important for me to see. I want to know Bluebeard’s wife because she’s related to me somehow, and I want to understand my connection to her.
Needless to say, when you do this kind of writing, there are surprises. You might expect to find Bluebeard’s wife afraid as she walks down the hall to the forbidden closet, but you may be surprised by her feisty spirit and her strong determination to know the truth. These insights can shift our frames of reference, sometimes permanently, in ways we couldn’t have imagined.
I’m always looking for examples of this revelatory writing that I call “wonderlit.” I think my need for soulful revelations goes a long way back, to adolescence, when we were beginning our careers and putting on masks of worldly identity– as accountants, mechanics, lawyers, doctors, and teachers. I wondered then, and I still do: who are the actors when the actors come home?
illustration by Julie Dubuc, from How to Ride a Dragon, Michelle Tocher