20 January 2014

A Different Kind of Research

The last part of 2013 was a whirlwind of writing goodness for me. After ten months' worth of false starts and personally upsetting events, I abandoned myself to the NaNoWriMo gods and rebooted my writing habits. Although I have and continue to put a lot of energy into short stories, I've been working for a while now on writing novels. I know a lot of you writers are working on longer pieces. All I can say is you have enormous volumes of respect from me. Novel drafts have always felt like an intimidating investment to me, especially given how much you can learn about different plots, character development, techniques, etc., etc., from short stories.

Nonetheless, it's good to be well-rounded. After multiple tries, I guess I feel as though writing a novel is becoming a lot easier, in the sense that I don't feel as inclined to race around, arms flailing, yelling "I don't know what I'm doing!" the entire time.

In preparation for November (and, as it turned out, most of December), I built an idea loosely based on this post on the Siberian Ice Maiden. I did a bunch of reading about Pazyryk art, I constructed a soundtrack, I brainstormed back story, and I mapped major plot points.

I also worked my way through Where the Spirits Ride the Wind, an amazing book by Felicitas Goodman. I stumbled across her work while I was researching the history of standing meditation postures (that's a thing). Goodman was an anthropologist who experimented with using ritual postures, found ubiquitously in ancient art, to induce trance states and allow the participant to experience trance journeys. This is done both with and without the use of drugs. Goodman's experiments proved that it was possible for people to feel and visualize altered states solely through the ritual posture and the use of rhythm instruments (drum, rattle) played at a certain interval. (In her book I think she suggests 200 beats per minute.)

Not content to merely speculate about the potential meanings of different postures, she decided that the thing to do was to try them and see what happened. She gathered volunteers (readily accessible - this was the '60s), took them through a simple breathing exercise to induce relaxation, had them assume whatever posture they were working with, and played a rattle at them for fifteen minutes.

The results were pretty remarkable: not only did people experience visions and feel that they were travelling outside of their bodies, but different postures created different experiences for the participants. Not that everyone saw the exact same thing, but there were trends among the imagery the participants experienced. Each posture, it seemed, attuned the person to a different mode of consciousness.

There is substantial debate in Goodman's field about the validity of this research, primarily because by necessity her work with postures and trance was performed outside of the context of the cultures that originally created the postures. (Some of the postures she worked with were originally part of cave art, so it wasn't her fault, really.) I can understand the problems any science has with incorporating subjective experience into its data set. Fortunately for me that has no bearing whatsoever, since I decided to use Goodman's results personally. It seemed to me that the ideal way to do research for a book with heavy Shamanistic themes was to do something Shamanistic.

Assuming the Bear Spirit posture might win you new and larger friends.
I've got about twenty years' meditation experience, enough to make me interested in just about any non-drug related way to blow my own mind. (Nothing against using drugs to achieve altered states...just I've found I personally don't need them.)

There's something a little bit...extra, I think, about writing and reading fictional narratives all the time that helps with things like guided visualization. When you're a writer, you're used to the images flowing non-stop into your mind. When you do a meditative exercise like a visualization, the process can be similar although the goal is different: rather than telling a story or reading someone else's story, you're opening yourself up to imagery for the purpose of understanding yourself better, receiving guidance, or even healing.

Partly through meditation, I've learned to no longer think of the images, plots and ideas that spring forth with writing as simply generated by my own psyche. I haven't read enough Jung to know if I understand the Collective Unconscious correctly, but I do believe that we float in this pool of ideas, any one of which can express through any one person at any given time. (I think there's more going on than a collective idea pool, but that's a post for another time.)

One way to look at the mind-body is as a receiver for signals from outside. In the ancient world, this was such common knowledge that it barely required mentioning. Psychologist and Princeton Professor Julian Jaynes famously wrote about this state in his The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, in which he pointed to abundant evidence that, up until about 1000 BC, all people experienced a constant influx of messages (orders, points of strategy, insights) from sources that they personified as the Gods. (Jaynes thought this was an inferior state of mind, and also a delusion. Everybody's entitled to an opinion, Julian.)

Many writers will tell you that they've experienced writing-as-trance. "I don't know where that came from" is a common experience following a particularly intense or focused writing session. (Or the related notion: "Where the hell did that come from?") So why not induce trance and see what comes up?

Because one of the aesthetics I'm working with in this book is Pazyryk culture, I went on a search for traditional music from this region. Through the Free Music Archive, I found Siberskya Vichora, a highly listenable group that researches, performs, records and preserves traditional Siberian music. A couple of their songs are on the soundtrack for my novel.

A little further poking revealed Russie Sibérie: Musique de la Toundra et de le Taiga. The first track on this record is a sixteen-minute jam by people playing the Khomus (more commonly known in the English-speaking world as the Jew's harp, mouth harp, etc.). If you haven't heard what it's possible to do with this incredible instrument, here you go (stick with it to 3:30, especially you like techno). The Wiki page notes that "since trances are facilitated by droning sounds, the Jew's harp has been associated with magic and has been a common instrument in shamanic rituals."

I decided to listen to Russie-Sibérie while sitting in bed and planning my novel. I wasn't planning to trance. In my mind, I thought I still had to find the right piece of music - preferably, a repetitive rattling or drumming piece - before I could try it.

A minute or two into the Khomus track, I felt my entire energy shift and knew I was going out. I stuck with the novel planning for a bit, making a few sparse notes on my main characters and thinking about what kind of future setting I wanted to create. By the time I was done with that, it was very clear to me that I was going. I wasn't sure where I was going, mind you, but I knew I was going. I didn't keep my mind on the music: I just let myself flow with it, and let the imagery that came to me present itself in whatever way it wanted to.

I don't remember moving into the landscape, but shortly I was in an area of flat grassland with a grey sky overhead. A small animal, walking on its hind legs, approached me. In my mind I was calling it a badger but I have no idea really. It handed me a small, glittery object. I held it for a moment and looked at it. It seemed to be a sort of prism in which lights shifted constantly. It shone with an interior light. I knew just what to do with it: I parted my rib cage and placed the object inside my torso. I had the sensation of the object unfolding, and a liquid warmth racing down my limbs. I saw streams of light running in tiny rivulets all throughout my body.

"That's your novel," the badger said. "It's in your nervous system now."

I felt it was time to go, so I climbed up through a hole in the sky. Just as I got back into my body, the music stopped.

Okay so that happened.

What also happened is that I had a really smooth writing experience. Opposed to my usual drop-down-dead effect at the end of November, I felt okay by the end of the first 30 days of writing. It was a lot of work. It's always a lot of work. It was emotional. It's always emotional. By November 30th, I was about 70k into the draft. I was tired but I had enough juice to keep going through most of December. I finished the draft 'round about December 20th, at about 108k. I won't say that anything especially magical happened while I was writing. It's always magical. I will say that I didn't worry as much as I usually do about how it's going. I trusted.

Badger power.


Anonymous said...

Huh. Maybe I need a stinkin' badger! ;) Or I could just trust in my friendly owls. . .

Jay Noel said...

Very interesting insight.

Yes, once in a while, I do find myself in kind of a trance while writing and churn out my very best writing.

Deborah Walker said...

That's fascinating, Elizabeth. I wish I could slip into flow more often. It only happens once or twice a year for me.

Mina Lobo said...

Dude, that's a wild trip! I'm impressed it didn't freak you out to be opening up your ribcage...though I reckon that's the way of things in altered states of consciousness. I'm both intrigued by and afraid of trying it out myself.

Elizabeth Twist said...

@Kelworth: You do need a stinkin' badger!

@Jay: Mental focus and relaxation are the cornerstones of good writing, I find.

@Debs: I don't think I would be nearly as prone to it without all the meditation practice.

@Mina: It didn't. In the trance space, the weirdest things make total sense. I always use protection (tee hee). In the altered consciousness context, this means protecting your space and yourself so you won't be assailed while you're "out". Any prayer will do!