Sunday, February 18, 2007

"Lie" vs. "Myth"

Elizabeth Bear started me thinking about this with a post that is both fabulous and true for a given value of truth and a given value of broken. It's about reading and writing and cultural expectations and the idea of epiphantic healing and I wanted to like it much more than I did, since it clearly touched a lot of people. But something about it didn't work for me at a very deep level, and my subconscious has been picking at what that something is until this came out.

In the dungeon nothing is wild and free

Sometimes a myth is all that keeps you alive, a myth in the shape of a story or book. You can't leave the dungeon. If you could, it wouldn't be a dungeon. But stories are day passes that let you out for a time, myths that let you believe for a little while that there's another kind of place, one where happily ever after really happens and that a moment of magic or insight can make the pain stop. When you're in the dungeon you don't need someone to tell you that those moments aren't true, that pain doesn't just go away, or that the magic moment is never going to happen. You know that.

What you need is very different from what you know. What you need is that day pass, that myth that allows you to believe that somewhere the reality of the dungeon is the myth, and the idea that it can all be made better is the truth. It's the myth that keeps you sane, the myth that allows you to keep breathing every day, to hang on a little bit longer.

How you got into the dungeon isn't as important as the dungeon itself, but I'm a storyteller, so I'll tell you a little bit about one kind of dungeon.

It's the dungeon of being a child who doesn't have the power physically or legally to walk away from the situation that causes the pain. The pain doesn't even have to be something that everyone would agree is awful, though often it is. All it has to be is unbearable and inescapable by normal means. When you're in the dungeon, instant healing is not a "lie" it's a "myth" and a reason to keep on keeping on. And in this particular dungeon sometimes you do get out, sometimes you grow up and you get the keys to the dungeon and you walk out into the light. And while the healing won't actually be instantaneous or magical, that moment that you realize you're out is, that epiphantic moment.

Sometimes a lie is a myth. Sometime a lie keeps you alive long enough for myth to become truth. Again, for a given value of truth and a given value of broken. So, if people want to keep writing myths where breakage can get better in a moment, there's an audience out there who really needs them.


Clearly Bear's answer is right for her and for a lot of her readers. I just had to write this because some people need a different truth.


Kelly Swails said...

I agree with your take on it, Y.

Kelly McCullough said...

Thanks, X.

This was not easy to write for a number of reasons.

Stephanie Zvan said...

When I saw that Bridge to Terabithia had been turned into a movie, I nearly puked.

I was about 11 when I read it. Aside from being female, I may as well have been the main character. The world I knew didn't have a place for me. I didn't have the tools to create my own. I'd never met another kid who spoke the same language I did.

Patterson's book, with its kindred spirits and a world the kids carved out for themselves, was a revelation to me. It told me it was possible I wouldn't always be alone. It gave me hope.

Then the girl friend died, pointlessly and arbitrarily, just as it would "truly" happen. The protagonist was alone again. All the possibilities I'd seen in the book were snatched away. In many ways, I was worse off than I'd been before. It's not an exaggeration to say that book and its "truth" damaged me.

Now, lo these many years later, I've found the people who speak my language. I've built that world that's more to my liking. And I wonder how much sooner I might have done it if I hadn't been told it would all evaporate as soon as I held it in my hands.

I wonder why the only people I hear defending their work as true are the ones who feel compelled to keep things grim. Happy endings happen too, more easily if we're not discouraged from reaching for them.

Erik Buchanan said...

I'm of two minds about this, because I like a happy ending as much as the next person, but I also like seeing characters grow and mature and change. The sort of happy ending where everything has come out hunky-dory after events that would leave most of us trembling in bed for a month don't quite ring true for me.

I find it better to see that people can heal, rather than come out untouched, but that's just my take.

I agree about Bridge to Terabithia. Didn't like it, didn't like the last movie, won't see this one. My wife loved it, ever since she was a kid. Don't know why. It may be because the ending (if I'm remembering correctly) shows us that imagination can go on, and that the world doesn't end because someone we love has left it.

Of course, I had already dealt with the deaths of a couple of close relatives by that age, so maybe that concept was harder to accept for me at that age. Don't know.

Anyway, good thoughts, Kelly.

Kelly McCullough said...

Thanks Steph, Erik.

I'm not actually talking about coming out untouched. I think that's actually one of the chief spots where I disagree with Bear's post, the idea that epiphantic healing means being returned to the intial state.

Now, it may be that I've missed all the books she's talking about and she's missed the one's I've read, but I've never seen characters made whole by being returned to their initial state.

That would miss the entire point of character development and maturation that goes on in the vast majority of the books I've read, and I don't know of a single author outside of certain types of media tie-ins (where they're not allowed to significantly change the characters) who does this healing as reset.

What I usually see in epiphantic healing is a step forward into a new state of wholeness, not a step back into the old.

Kelly McCullough said...

Another thought. Maybe it has to do with the way I see the intial state pre-breakage.

Elizabeth talks about the teapot lid that's been glued back together being her best, scars and all. To me that implies a rigidity and completeness to the inital state that I don't see in people. It also implies that the propere state of the thing in question is it's original, hence the gluing back together. She was speaking metaphorically of course, so the state she's talking about is not meant to map directly onto a human being.

So what she meant and what I got may be wildly different things.

But I think of people in a much more plastic work-in-progress kind of way. Take a perfect new block of clay. Say it's pristine and geometrically perfect. Then break it apart. Shatter it. That's more how I see a person who has been broken. If you have the right sort of mold, you can near instantaneoulsy smash the disparate piece into a new, complete shape.

That's how I see epiphantic healing in a novel, remembering of course that the new shape is going to have tags and loose bits and is open to being reshattered and reformed again. Of course, the piece can be put back together slowly and shaped lovingly into something perfect over time and that's much more likely the way things will go. It may also get mixed with something else, fired, utterly broken, etc.

Anyway, I'm not trying to say that Bear is wrong. She's perfectly right for a given value of truth and a given value of broken. I'm just saying that there are many values for those variables and one person's horrid lie is another's life-saving myth, or even soul-saving truth.

lydamorehouse said...

Clay is a good metaphor for the character arc, but I like to think of characters going through the kiln fire and transforming almost completely from one kind of thing to a completely different one.

Kelly McCullough said...

Lyda, I like the firing idea as a way of showing tempering, but I have trouble with it in that the end result is then fixed. When I write a character I want my reader to end the story with the idea that they'll continue forward and keep growing even though it's no longer happening on the page.

Douglas Hulick said...

Instead of clay as a metaphor, how about steel? I can be tempered, honed and given flexibility all at the same time, yet still be heated and changed and tempered again. And, steel can break - shatter, even - but still be reformed, although never truly as it was before (pieces are always missing or changed). At the right temperature, it can be twisted, folded, even molded; at others, it will defy any attempt at being changed.

Now throw all of that on to what can happen to a character in a good story, and I think you have a decent fit.

(Yes, I have a friend who is a blacksmith - why do you ask? :)

Kelly McCullough said...

Better than clay on many levels, definitely, but I still want some way for near instantaneous change for the better. Epiphantic healing of the huge and complete shift variety may not happen, but the cathartic instant that reshapes your thinking in a good way sometimes does. I don't know, that's really the problem with metaphor, isn't it-this imperfect mapping.