One of my favorite authors is the Canadian writer, Robertson Davies. So, when I’m looking for inspiration and ideas, I turn to his articles on writing. One is entitled simply Writing, the other Reading.
What makes a novel good or even really great, so that it will be read one hundred years from now [or more]? What takes a novel out of its own time, so to speak, and become universal?
I have to quote Davies from his speech where he talks of an essential quality he calls shamanstvo.
To weave the spell, the writer must have within him something comparable to the silk spinning and web-casting gift of a spider; he must not only have something to say, some story to tell, or some wisdom to impart, but he must have a characteristic way of doing it which entraps and holds still his prey, by which I mean his reader.
When reading this, I first think of shamans [i.e.: shamanstvo]—some sort of mystic, a healer, with powers not given to mere mortals. Perhaps a trickster or someone claiming to communicate with gods!
A tall order for us who toil before our computers, hoping for inspiration to just wrap up the plot or get a bit of dialogue right!
But it’s true! Remember the last time you picked up a novel and from the very first sentence, you were transfixed, inexorably drawn into the world the writer had created. I suppose that’s the “un-put-down-able” quality we all seek.
Somehow, I don’t think Davies meant the quality of a real “page turner.” He knew the value of lingering over a passage and the savouring of language. It’s got to be something else.
I really like this quote from Davies: “The silk to make the web comes from within the spider and is produced naturally from it. The spider doesn’t know how it does this. It is just its inherent ability.” And so, Davies must be talking about the grand sum of our whole self which produces this story—or silk. It is a product of the writer’s being.
And it should have a story to tell or some wisdom to impart. But I think the real secret is contained in the last few phrases— a characteristic way of doing it which entraps and holds still his prey, by which I mean his reader. Obviously, it has to be highly personal and individual to the writer. And it must be a story or a thought, which virtually impales the reader with its significance.
How can the writer hope to do such a thing? After all, my experience is personal to me, just as yours is to you. How, by drawing on my own personal experience, can I hope to ensnare you into my web? And better still, capture thousands of readers, all of whom have their own personal worlds? How can I ever hope to enchant a reader with my world?
Immediately, I think of the Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung and the collective unconscious—which we all share. If a writer can access that level of the unconscious, perhaps he can bring into his writing that which is common or universal to all humankind. Of course, the writer interprets that material and adapts it to his own personal experience of life. But still, he has drawn upon emotions, thoughts, archetypes, symbols and signs, even myths from that great library of human experience we all share—the collective unconscious.
Perhaps that is how we come full circle to the idea of shamanstvo. That charmer, enchanter quality. Shamans are indeed mystics. They have special access to inner
worlds—as I understand it—by way of gift. But that does not mean we can’t try to enter those worlds where the creative materials of universal appeal are buried.
But Davies would not likely agree with me. To him, you either have shamanstvo or you don’t. Of course, he says that everyone has a personal unconscious, which is rooted in the collective unconscious.
But the difference is this. The kind of writer he means is one who has “the ability to invite it, to solicit its assistance, to hear what it has to say and impart it in a language that is particularly his own. He may not be—very probably is not—fishing up messages from the unconscious which astonish and strike dumb his readers. It is more likely that he is telling them things that they recognize as soon as they hear them.”
There you go! If its something they recognize immediately, then it must be drawn up [dredged up?] from the collective unconscious shared by all of us. Put in more mythological terms, it sounds just like the ability to court the muse.
So, next time we’re writing and get stuck, perhaps it’s best to just take a nap. Why? Because dreams, they say, are the gateway to the unconscious.