" I looked at the statue of Mary and there was not even a slight trace of a smile, only tiny bits of orange peel on her sad and somber face. Even the crow on the wire chose to reveal its true nature as it started dancing up and down chattering at me."
I wrote the sentences above in a recent short story. It was a rather strange story which started out being a description of an actual fender bender where I was hit from behind at a stop sign, and it morphed into something else, into a very surreal something else.
I was experimenting with a writing technique that I read about in the book The Best Minds of My Generation by the poet Allen Ginsburg. The book is a collection of lectures delivered by Ginsburg about Jack Kerouac and the other writers of the Beat Generation.
Ginsburg described a technique used by Kerouac called sketching wherein the writer writes in the way that an artist would sketch a picture, "Write with an 100 % personal honesty both psychic and social etc. and slap it all down shameless, willy-nilly, rapidly." In a letter to Ginsburg, Kerouac wrote he would some time lose consciousness of his surroundings and write as if he were in a trance, "I feel a little crazy for having written it...I read it and it seems like the confessions of an insane person.....then the next day it reads like great prose."
I was hooked on the idea by the reference to creating psychic prose. Three years before I retired from teaching, I had an epiphany on the way to Fresno.
I was driving north on Highway 43 and somewhere between Hanford and Corcoran, I had a huge flash of intuition where I instantaneously understood the answers to about five different questions that were pressing upon me, including the understanding that most stories were not written about the outer world action, but rather served as vehicles for revealing the inner drama that occurs on the subconscious level of the main character.
The most loved stories are those that speak of the workings of the subconscious. These are the stories about universal themes, for example, falling in love, dealing with self-doubt, dealing with rejection, the lack of hope, dealing with death, feeling regret, etc. They are psychic stories that deal with the concept of human transformation.
This initial intuition led to a further understanding that fiction was nothing more and nothing less than a way to spread the universal truths that were once conveyed in the language of myth and in particular hero quests.
And all terms listed under the elements of fiction were not just mere definitions and words describing plot structures, but were the actual stuff of life itself.
Setting, for example is defined as the time and place that a story takes place. It is also where and when our own lives take place. And climax is not merely the high point of interest in a story, but reference the moment of transformation where real individuals rise to meet the demands placed upon them by their existence in a certain time and place.
It wasn't by any accident that fiction began to emerge about the same time as mythological language was losing its power as the Church Triumphant began to focus less on spiritual matters and more on gaining temporal power and wealth. During the Middle Ages the church tried its best to eliminate all links to a pagan past, and it was only the valiant efforts of Renaissance artists that kept the language of myth alive in Western culture.
Fiction most likely developed as method of conveying the wisdom of the ancients and allowing it to pass by the unknowing eyes of the censors of the church and state.
Anybody who understands this must teach to the wisdom of the ancients. And that wisdom is that men and women are born to rise above the conditions of their time and place, to overcome the obstacles that hold them back from being who they are meant to be, to transform their very nature so this knowledge becomes permanently engraved, and to ultimately arrive at a better place from where they started. By achieving this form of psychic wholeness, the individual raises not only his community but the whole of humanity.
In my story, the narrator is driving to a nearby town. He seeks to make the trip, a mundane event, more special by adding a soundtrack.
In this case the music Pink Floyd and the album The Dark Side of the Moon.
"I blotted out all unnecessary thinking and used the music as a soundtrack to the life outside my car windows. I've always had this slightly insane belief that you could find hidden patterns in life by doing something like that, as if you could coax out these little magical moments where the random happenings of everyday life were brought into alignment with the music."
This serves as an indication that the character is unhappy with his current state, something that is usually true in both fiction and in real life. He seeks something different and is willing to try anything to make life seem more meaningful.
The story then becomes a description of time and place like the way that Kerouac's sketching technique describes. That is until a truck strikes the narrator's car in the rear.
Where do you go after that? Describe the call to the insurance company or the drive to the auto body shop? That would have been realistic but also very, very boring.
Instead, the story takes a surrealistic path. When I was done, I sat back and muttered the words, "Damn where did that all come from?" I was kind of weirded out by the ending and decided to save what was written and get back to it later. When I came back to it the next day, I was surprised that it read well and was somewhat pleased with the results of the experiment.
When I first started teaching about fiction one of my students asked me if great authors simply placed allegory and symbolism down on a page and then wrote around it. I couldn't reply. I did however spend several years searching for the answer.
I think this story marked the first time that a story I had written ever produced any kind of natural allegory and symbolism. For example, the intersection where the accident took place becomes a symbol of the barrier between reality and the subconscious much like the surface of the lake in Natalie Babbitt's young adult novel Tuck Everlasting.
There were a many illustrations in ancient Greece that showed Apollo on one side, Dionysius on the other, and Hermes in between. Some scholars suggest that the pictures speak to the natural order of things with Apollo representing the material plane, Dionysius the subconscious plane, and Hermes as the interface between the two. In Christianity, the Holy Trinity represents somewhat the same idea.
Iain McGilchrist, in his brilliant book The Master and his Emissary, suggests that this also has something to do with the structure of the brain with its two hemispheres and the corpus callosum. The callosum is not just a barrier between the two halves, it is what makes the two hemispheres work together for the good of the whole, you might say, a place where the subconscious and the material world blend.
The accident itself becomes a force that drives the action below the surface much like the rock in The Hobbit that knocked Bilbo Baggins unconscious in the subterranean tunnels beneath the Misty Mountains, an act that signified that the events that transpired afterwards were occurring in Bilbo's subconscious.
Then there are the weird visions of the narrator.
"I asked her about her wreck, and at that moment, I swear I could see, or at least it looked like, the statue of Mary turn its head and smile while the gray clouds over the west horizon opened and the huge thumb of God thrust through the break in the clouds with a thumbs up gesture."
It is the lot of the human race to be unsatisfied. It is this dissatisfaction that drives us forward and allows us as a race to make progress. It is also this dissatisfaction that drives most fictional stories.
The narrator seeks approval for his existence and for a while thinks he has obtained it. However, his bizarre proposal snaps the scene back into the world of flesh and bone, and he has to deal with both the consequences of his action and the fact that the universe seems to have rejected his efforts.
"And there I was on my knees in the muddy dirt looking at both my crushed rear bumper and the fleeing red tail lights of a silver Sentra disappearing. I also saw pieces of torn white paper come out of the driver's side of the car, some hanging in the slight breeze, some floating gently to the road."
I think this passage is what Kerouac meant by saying the sketching technique produces some good prose. I quite like this part and the ending where the narrator is forced to come to grips with reality and rejects the existential approach to life in favor of the spiritual.
"I got back in the car and belted up, then shut the car door. I knew I had to make a decision as they were required at moments like these. In the state that I was in, it only took a second. I reached and turned the volume up on the radio, turned the car around, turned right at the intersection and headed north as the trampy angels sang."
I don't know how else the story could have ended. I guess I could have had the narrator go to great lengths to amass a great fortune and do great things on behalf of the human race in order to gain God's approbation and Bianca's love, or I suppose I could have had him become crazier and crazier and start stalking the woman in order to gain his revenge.