Why Clowns are Knocking at Our Doors
Creepy clowns are terrifying America. Suddenly they are everywhere—riding in trucks, popping up in backwoods communities, in grainy photos on city streets—always with their crazed grins hiding deeper, sinister emotions. Arrests are made; schools receive clown threats; children are frightened. Real clowns are fighting back, parading with signs: Clown Lives Matter. Ronald McDonald has gone into hiding for self-protection.
Why is this happening? Or perhaps the better question is: Why is this happening now?
One answer is that the scary clowns embody a familiar archetype present in many human cultures: the Trickster. Familiar examples are Mercury and Hermes in classical mythology and the Coyote in Native American societies. The Trickster is a shadowy, shape-shifting figure who plays with us, confusing us, and, in the end, holding up a warped mirror to our anxieties.
The Trickster normally lives in the weeds, at the periphery, but when we are afraid, he seizes his opportunity. As Dr. Thomas Singer, a Jungian analyst in San Francisco, puts it, “In times of national stress, powerful forces are unleashed. This is how the Trickster behaves— he exploits them, both creatively and destructively shifting shape and forms like a clown to amuse and frighten people. But the shadow has more sinister aspects that threaten mayhem and destruction.”
So, in the year of Brexit and Middle East turmoil, a figure like Donald Trump has emerged, behaving like a Trickster, tapping into deep faultlines in the national psyche. He merrily breaks the rules. He can say forbidden things that exploit unspoken anger and resentments of many in the country around race, immigration, ethnicity, and the status quo. He has toyed with our strongest sense of the familiar. He has said that he can get away with murder.
Lewis Hyde writes in his study “Trickster Makes This World” that the Trickster is one of America’s unacknowledged founding fathers, the Confidence Man, who beguiles, seduces, and fascinates us. The scarier times are, the more people take vicarious pleasure in watching him refusing to follow the rules.
That’s why Hollywood loves its shadow clowns. Think of Jack Nicholson in the 1989 version of Batman, skipping and singing through an art museum, smiling fiendishly while defacing Old Master paintings. The Tricksters turn our most familiar values upside-down, just as the center seems not to be holding in the world today.
Clowns in circuses help children conquer their fears of the unfamiliar. Today’s frightening clowns on the streets are expressing a profound dislocation many people feel about the future. But we need to see who these Tricksters really are and why they are here today. And that is no joke.
If These Stones Could Talk Reaches Henry Louis Gates
This week is all about watching If These Stones Could Talk reach new audiences through the hard work of authors Beverly Mills and Elaine Buck. They were recently invited to bring If These Stones Could Talk to present to Dr. Henry Louis Gates at The Lawrenceville School.
As their publisher and friend, I can’t help but think back to sitting with the authors around Elaine’s table every week, gathered next to overflowing boxes of research files, taking notes, writing and revising If These Stones Could Talk. Then, last November we got to the finish line. Throughout our three year journey to publication and beyond, Bev and Elaine have worked tirelessly to bring their messages to schools as well as the Sankofa Collaborative among other services through their Friday Truehart Consulting work.
A couple of years ago when I suggested Facebook as a place to reach their audience, grow their supportive community and tell the stories we couldn’t fit in the book, they were excited to connect their stories to headlines because we all knew the present was directly connected to the past. Now, we are six months after their book’s publication–and their work and their story continues—as their visibility continues to grow.Check Out the last Friday’s Memory
Here’s the photo as well as an excerpt from the authors themselves. You’ll really want to join their 3500 followers on Facebook if you haven’t already!
From Bev and Elaine: So what does this have to do with us having the pleasure of meeting Henry Louis Gates? Along with his acclaimed specials on PBS and being one of the world’s leading experts in African American studies, his latest book entitled, Stony the Road – Reconstruction, White Supremacy and the Rise of Jim Crow is already a best seller and delves into what reconstruction was really all about—to divide, overwhelm and resist. Recently Dr. Gates wrote and narrated a two-part documentary film for PBS “Reconstruction: America After the Civil War.” So when we were invited to attend his final lecture at the Lawrenceville School for their 2019 Senior Capstone Series on “Race” and to bring our book to present to him we were ecstatic! That evening Gates literally “took us to school” about the years following the Civil War and how the nation initially tried to do the right thing by being inclusive and transformative between 1865 and 1877.
Theatre is My Yoga
It was so reassuring to see the hearts, shares and “Yes!”s on the Your Teen Facebook page underneath my article, “The Importance of Doing What You Love.” The kind comments–and tags to other families–reminded me that so many others know that the juggle of stoking our kids creative lives is all worth it.
Here’s the article link from Your Teen for Parents, too. It’s an incredible resource for parents raising teens you’ll want to check out.
Ninety-two years ago, in May of 1927, Virginia Woolf created a memorable middle-aged female character (and a bohemian artist to boot!). I always return to Lily Briscoe for inspiration in Woolf’s classic novel To The Lighthouse published by Hogarth Press.
Both TIME Magazine and Modern Library named To the Lighthouse as one of the 100 best English language novels of the 20th century.
The character Lily Briscoe (a painter) experienced an epiphany at the age of 44. It happened as she stood before her canvas, and layers of memories accumulated inside her mind. She imagined those who had died. She remembered younger versions of those who had grown. The paths of so many lives, stumbled into her own, unfolded in fragments in her mind as she painted, and Lily thought to herself:
“Like a work of art,” she repeated, looking from her canvas to the drawing room and back again. She must rest for a moment. And resting, looking from one to the other vaguely, the old question which traversed the sky of the soul perpetually, the vast, the general question which was apt to particularize itself at such moments as these…paused over her, darkened over her. What is the meaning of life?
A simple question–one that tended to close in on one with the years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one. This, that and the other.…In the midst of chaos, there was shape.”
She would come, yes. But it was with difficulty that she took her eyes off the picture…struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say; ‘But this is what I see; this is what I see, and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.”
These seem like good words for writers in the midst of complex projects, I think of Lily doing her best to stick to her vision in front of her easel–and remember: “In the midst of chaos, there was shape.”
Muse of Long Forgotten Mothers
In honor of Mother’s Day on Sunday, May 12th, I turn this week’s post to novelist Janet Benton, author of Lilli de Jong, a work of historical fiction I recommend.
I ran an interview with Janet for my series upholding women who carve brave paths that light the way for other women: Women on a Quest.
But first, I dedicate this post to all of the mothers out there (biological and otherwise) who feel the energy of caring in their bones. Here is the excerpt from the preface of Lilli de Jong.
This work of fiction began in the long days and nights of nursing and nurturing my baby. As I held her in my arms and listened to the ticking of a clock, a voice came now and then into my mind. It was the voice of an unwed mother from long ago.
Sometimes she railed against being cast out, with her life derailed for good, while her lover walked freely among respected persons. Sometimes my own moments merged with hers, as when I marveled at the calm that descended while nursing or felt a fatigue I could never before have imagined. After placing my sleeping infant down, I walked to my desk and jotted those words onto scraps of paper.
While pregnant, I was inclined to study. I followed the stages of a growing human. I looked into practices of labor and delivery and armed myself with all manner of ideas and stuff. I considered these acts to be preparatory, even protective. Yet for my own specific labor, and for the actuality of caring for the infant who emerged, I was utterly unprepared.So perhaps this was when the door to Lilli’s story opened: when I was stunned at being the basis of a newborn’s survival and awed by how my body and heart changed in service of her. Becoming a mother was no small shift in identity. I would never see any aspect of living in the same way again.
Oh and be sure to read about Janet’s journey and check out her theme song for her quest to uphold long forgotten mothers.
[otw_shortcode_button href=”http://www.kimnagy.com/interviews/women-triple-quest/the-lilli-quest-the-long-lost-voices-of-fallen-women/” size=”large” icon_position=”center” shape=”square”]Meet Janet[/otw_shortcode_button]
One Benefit of Dreaming? Creativity
If you ask many a writing coach, they will usually steer scribblers far away from writing about their dreams in any final published form. And, it’s true that it can be dangerous to slip into a self-referential blur of abstract prose. That said, there are some good reasons that famous authors of enduring literature (e.g., Shakespeare—“to sleep, perchance to dream” or a “Midsummer Night’s … Dream”)—have embraced the mysterious and emotional depths of dreaming.
It might have everything to do with science and how our brains are wired.
For instance, some neuroscientists have suggested that the amygdala (I should say amygdalae, since we all have two) and the hippocampus (hippocampi) are activated when you dream.
You might want to call your amygdala fear and bliss central. Shaped like an almond and located near the hippocampus (the learning and memory HQ of your brain) without your amygdala you cannot process your feelings. Those deep sensations might lasso up all sorts of emotion-blends– everything from traffic-induced frustration or fear of a snake’s coil to extreme happiness.
Thinking about dreams and writing has led me to two muses this week. One is a clip featuring Dr. Matthew Walker, author of Why We Dream and Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at UC Berkley. In it Walker calls dreaming “emotional first aid” and connects dreams with creativity.
My other muse is an expert named Dr. Aiden Josey, who can help you decipher your dreams–and learn how they can lead you to new insights about yourself and about the world.
Take a look at the forthcoming workshop at my favorite bed and breakfast in New Jersey. June 7-9, Jungian analyst Dr. Alden Josey will be leading an exploration that can deepen your understanding of your dreams. (You can read more about the owner here.)
Here’s a write up about the weekend or click this link:
“In our weekend together,” promises workshop leader, Alden Josey, “we will develop a contemporary model of the psyche and its dynamics with special attention to the relationship between ego consciousness and the unconscious. We’ll look at the dream process as a very important part of the interaction between ego life, its supporting psychic depths, and our creative energies. Our explorations will take us into some of the extraordinary architecture of our psychic ‘house.'”
Alden Josey, PhD spent a career in organic chemistry research and research management–including more than two dozen published technical papers, and 7 patents. Then he retired in 1985, entered the C.G. Jung Institute for Analytical Psychology in Zürich, as a Training Candidate in clinical Jungian Psychoanalysis. With his degree in hand, he returned to the U.S. and opened a private practice in Wilmington, Delaware, from which he has continued to practice, to teach in Jungian Institutes in Philadelphia and New York, and to lecture widely the U.S and abroad. The first weekend in June, he’s coming to Minerva’s by the Sea (a weekend that just happens to coincide with Long Beach Island’s international film festival!)
11th Annual Lighthouse International Film Festival
A new study reveals a winning creativity formula (Writers, take note…)
A teacher of mine used to look over my shoulder while I was doing my homework and ask with a grin: “Working hard or hardly working?”
Haha, I’d laugh (kinda sorta).
But is working hard–alone–enough? For me, sometimes the fuel-key-ignition of idea and inspiration (plus keep-butt-in-chair research) takes a while to turn over.
A recent report, “Incentivizing the Creative Process” out of Texas looked like a creative formula worth noting for writers. That the study was first published in an academic accounting journal seemed like a good muse for tax day!
The study found that idea generation was maximized when the participants were incentivized (with money) for the quantity of ideas they came up (not necessarily quality) followed by an “incubation period.” As the summary states:
There is an effective formula for unlocking employees’ creative potential, according to new research. Employers should incentivize workers to produce an abundance of ideas — even mediocre ones — and then have them step away from the project for an ‘incubation period.’
You can read the details of the Science Daily article that first alerted me to the study.
For my purposes, the study held a lot of parallels for writers. In short: It’s good to write a whole lot of words down–and then walk away to let it simmer. But don’t forget discipline and elbow grease first. Did you take good notes and collect details or organize your research? Maybe even take a photo of something you want to describe more fully later.
But, then, by all means, go ahead and walk away.
Besides, you never know when the muse will strike. For instance, aha’s don’t usually appear when I’m overusing adjectives and then deleting them to describe the cherry blossom tree that took my breath away. You may picture me cursing my inability to position the tree branches in the view of one of my characters.
Creativity is not always as pretty as that cherry blossom tree that inspired me. There are in-between phases. There are before-”I’ll never get there” walls and almost done-grrrr blockades.
The light-cracked-door in a project, the just-right details to bring a character’s body alive in a scene or the overall chronological structure for 27-jumbled-shorter narratives, tends to come for me exactly when I am biting into my peanut butter and jelly sandwich every time I don’t have my notebook right next to me at lunch.
Or when I am sleeping.
In fact, for one book project, the writing plan for a client woke me up as though someone had yelled straight in my ear at 4 a.m. I knew better than to go back asleep. So, I pulled myself up from the comfy pillows and got to my desk fast. I didn’t dare let my eyelids close until I wrote every single thought (complete with google link) and by that point there was no going back to sleep. It was 11:30 a.m.
No matter what break we need for ideas to coalesce, and we do need them, as this study reminds us, walking away is imperative–but so is being rewarded for cranking ideas out in an open and productive forum first.
So, make sure to reward yourself for each step of your journey, those five-figure-word days or the research puzzles you took fastidious notes on. Keep making concrete goals and generating ideas. But then walk away and chances are, more–even better– ideas will come.
BTW: Need an incentive to write that very first draft pre-pitch? Award-winning author of Naked, Drunk and Writing (a must-have-book on craft for memoir writers) Adair Lara suggests that writers pay themselves per word to maximize their daily output with only a hint of sarcasm.
As she says,”Whatever works.”
All I know is the next time I hear my teacher’s voice in my ear while I’m at my keyboard, I’ll just tell him straight up.
The Power of a Sentence (Happy Birthday, Barbara Kingsolver!)
In my scroll through birthdays this week I landed on bestselling author Barbara Kingsolver, an author who participated in a different kind of book exhibit which I covered in 2014 at Christie’s Auction House.
At 20 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan, I took my notebook out not to gaze at diamonds or rare art but (nerd alert…) to look inside glass-tinted cases at books for a partnership between PEN American Center, one of the oldest human rights organization in the U.S. and Christie’s with the support of countless writers and artists who all played a part in the fundraising event that raised a million dollars for freedom of expression.
It was as large as a concert hall inside the famous auction house–310,000 square feet of bright lights and plush carpeted floors when I walked into the exhibit room of First Editions/ Second Thoughts displaying books.
First Editions/ Second Thoughts asked famous writers to annotate their older published material with their second thoughts on now-famous works many many years later. This New York Times interview features Paul Auster, Jane Smiley and Robert Caro’s thoughts on participating in the event.
But back to Barbara Kingsolver, who in her reflections, led the reader back to her first sentence in The Poisonwood Bible, the bestselling novel that depicted missionary-fueled imperialism and its troubled legacy in the Congo. Kingsolver had a compelling annotation on her first page after the first sentence of her book.
“Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.”
Kingsolver writes: “The first sentence of a novel should make a promise that the book will keep. The ruin that Europe and the US brought on the Congo. The difficulty of inheriting this history — as captive witness to our nation’s past. The impossible search for redemption. The temptation of denial.”
I think it’s important to note that Kingsolver used funds she made from The Poisonwood Bible to establish the PEN/ Bellwether Prize, an award given to support socially-engaged fiction. “Established by Barbara Kingsolver in 2000 and funded entirely by her, it is awarded biennially to the author of a previously unpublished novel of high literary caliber that exemplifies the prize’s founding principles.”
I landed on Kingsolver’s sentence that began with the word “imagine” because it linked with a part of the article I wrote–and so many other famous socially-engaged writers involved in First Editions/ Second Thoughts–Angela Davis, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison to name but a few.
As I reflected on my 2014 piece for Wild River Review, I gravitated to the role of writing and writers: Imagining a transformed world — or more critically, examining the “real” world — is perhaps the most important role of the writer, the group PEN International Center worked to protect since it was founded by Catharine Amy Dawson-Scott and John Galsworthy in 1921.
So, my question of the week: How can we reimagine and transform the world through our writing?
Myths, Muses and Me
What do myths, muses and my basement have in common? Myths have secret messages that live in the basements (aka dumping grounds) of our heads, mine anyway. I don’t know about you but I usually stay well out of my basement unless the humidifier needs emptying or a fuse blows in the kitchen. But then, I realize how important it is and vow to pay more attention (again). That’s after I have to trudge down the musty steps in a panic and play with the switches and figure out what power source is connected to which room (which either requires me yelling up to my daughter or me running up and down the stairs to check what actually works), etc. because I wrote down the answers in an ancient code years ago (on top of what the previous owners wrote) and that isn’t quite working anymore.
Myths are codes that connect the wires of our minds to the stories we believe (sometimes unconsciously)–interspersed with cloudy habits and conditioning of what we should and shouldn’t do or think. Nevertheless, we make urgent “stress” decisions there right in the jaws of what mythology reveals about that conditioning–and we also begin to descend the depths of ancient mysteries for which we will perhaps never know answers.
How do we untangle myths in our minds?
I’ve always wanted to ask one of the leading female popularizers of mythology, Edith Hamilton (1867-1963), author of the classic work Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (1942) why no-one (certainly not her who called Pandora a “beautiful disaster”) ever had Pandora’s or say, Medusa’s back. To bad, I can’t time travel to request an interview. After all, Edith Hamilton was headmistress of a girls school who radiated lines like this in her retirement speech from the school.“This only bears out what I have been trying to teach you, and that is to look a plain fact in the face.”
It seems important to continue to talk back to the ancient poets. Here’s a snippet from an older piece I wrote called “Me and Medusa.”
“Perhaps you are wondering why Ceto shivered at the name her unborn child whispered in wild vague dreams. After all, the root of the name “Medusa” connotes profound wisdom (sometimes interpreted as feminine wisdom); in Sanskrit (medha) Greek (metis) and Egyptian (met or mat).
First worshipped as a Serpent Goddess in Libya, Medusa’s lineage spread (and of course, constantly changed) across the Mediterranean through the coasts of Africa to Greece to Turkey for thousands of years, so her name collected the cumulative human interpretation of many ancient languages.”
In my view, as fluid as gender might be right now–as much progress as we’ve made by and for women (and hopefully men too)–there is a lot about ancient mythology we still refer to in backed-up-against-the-wall-straight-jacket terms that aren’t really exactly, ummm, factual.
When you read classical literature you are stepping into peoples’ minds (their epiphanies but also their log jams and steel traps) and if you are not exposed to the psychological nuances and realities of diverse viewpoints, you are cut off from a vital power source.
Muse of The Woman Citizen
In continuing my coverage of Women’s History month, my muse this week is a family picture. My great grandmother on my mother’s side, Frances Nelson Tillman (1880-1957), with whom I share my August birthday, was an ardent suffragette. And like me, she was a writer. From the time she was a teenager, Frances was a journalist who covered women’s issues. She began her journalistic career working on The Salt City Voice, a Manistee, Michigan weekly paper, one of the first papers totally published and edited by women. She was an assistant editor in 1900. She wrote a front page piece for the Detroit News Tribune in 1901 sharing her experiences at the American Pan Am exposition.
When she later married and had four sons, she stayed engaged in the suffrage movement. She sent her photograph of her four young sons reading The Woman Citizen in 1918 to the magazine, and it was published. See the letter from the editor-in-chief Rose Young. The Woman Citizen was the official organ of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.