It’s sometimes said that, in a Jungian sense, there are perhaps only half a dozen archetypal stories in the world ... maybe even less.
Cinderella, to be sure. Saint George and the Dragon. Ulysses. King Arthur. Osiris. Romeo and Juliet, if that isn't another version of St George. Oedipus, I guess. Poirot?
And beyond that...? The universal themes tend to run a bit thin after love, war, the quest, triumph over adversity, fate, resurrection and the whodunit (which is probably a variety of the quest).
Ulysses offering wine to Cyclops
Only six or seven original story lines – and everything else are merely variations upon them, as writers and artists struggle with new ways and new symbols to re-tell old tales.
New characters. New clothes to dress them in. New situations. Another perspective. An unexpected insight.
All designed to give fresh life and interest to narratives that are as ancient as humanity and our need for stories that appeal to the deepest psychological needs of being.
"There's nothing new under the sun," the chief of staff used to tell me as a young cadet journalist half a century ago. "It's up to you to find a different slant on the story ... another angle that will deserve a place in the newspaper."
The angle. That's what we used to call it – drawing our metaphor from the compass,
And I suppose they still do, even if in the world of books we might talk instead about the literary approach, or the point of view, or perhaps the parallel dichotomies of narrative if we really want to sound abstract and important. They all amount to much the same thing.
I've been musing on the subject this week while following an interesting discussion on LinkedIn about the nature of what’s often called "writer's block", or the "fear" that sometimes grips you at the beginning – or even part way through – the composition of a book.
It's a somewhat different beast to finding yourself in the black hole of having completely run out of ideas and not knowing what it is you want to write about.
Different, too, to the kind of self-conscious modesty that seizes most of us on re-reading a manuscript after the furnace of creativity has dampened down, and finding the words fall flat, lifeless and turgid on the page.
It's entirely natural to wonder if anybody will find merit in your work. Is it boring? Derivative? Worthless?
Allowing the yeast to rise
The thing to do in that situation is to put the manuscript ... the chapter, the draft... in a drawer for several months to "prove" itself like bread.
Talk it over with a reader you trust. If, on looking at it again, you find that the yeast has risen, and there are some good things in it after all, you'll be quite ready to go on to the second draft.
And if not, well the dough is always there to be kneaded and salted and worked up again.
That's one thing. The type of "writer's block" that I've been thinking of is rather more particular.
The ideas are there. The words are flowing. When suddenly, without warning, the work will stop. The narrative seems to have hit a wall ... as if the composition is “jamming” somewhere. You know what you want to say – but for some reason you can't seem to express it properly.
How do you respond in these circumstances? Despair? Surrender? Bewilderment? Press on regardless?
It doesn't happen to me now as often as it used, for I’ve learned a few tricks: but it's pretty alarming when it does.
And the point was made during the online discussion this week, that such a mental block is usually the unconscious telling you that something is wrong.
It may be a problem with the whole structure of the piece, or a gap in the research. It may signify a difficulty with a certain character or aspect of plot development.
But in my experience it almost always indicates a flaw in the creative imagining ... the angle ... the approach you've taken to the telling.
You may be trying to impose upon your story a meaning or a course of action that is not naturally or "truthfully" there.
Every narrative has its own life, its own literary truth. Writers can manipulate it to a certain point – but beyond that it becomes false.
The "jamming" or "blocking" I've spoken about is generally the unconscious warning of the error long before our conscious minds are aware of it.
And in that event the only solution is to trace the problem back to the point of departure – even to the beginning of the manuscript if you have to.
Delete it (though always being careful to keep a copy in case you're throwing out a pearl among the rubbish).
And start again. Like a dropped stitch. Or curdled mayonnaise.
I was acutely aware of this issue last month when preparing to compose the last chapter of Part One of my new book. The material was familiar and the plot lines clear: to narrate the decision by the family I’m writing about to migrate to Australia at the end of the First World War, and to describe briefly the voyage out in the ship.
The trouble was I couldn't think of an interesting way to do it ... to find a narrative thread that would engage the reader and at the same time further our understanding of character, background and the development to come. One could always use the "Then and then and then..." technique. But that ain’t telling a story. That's just reciting a collection of events.
For a week or more I walked around the chapter ... hesitating and baulking at actually making a start. Something was clearly the matter.
The answer came when I was having lunch with the family at around that time. We were talking of the voyage out when the surviving daughter, a lady now in her 90s, mentioned the story of the nursemaid.
White Star liner SS Doric
Now, her mother had said in an interview many years ago how upset she'd been not to have a nursemaid to help care for the four children when she arrived in Australia.
I'd assumed mother meant she didn't bring a nanny because of the cost. But not so. Always be wary of assumptions. And read your sources very carefully.
It transpired, from the conversation around the lunch table, that a nursemaid did make the voyage to Sydney with the family. But as soon as the ship docked, Nanny did a bunk and ran off with a returning Australian soldier she'd met on board!
Here was a tale worth telling. Here was something to have a bit of fun with and tantalise the reader, as I brought my characters from Southampton to Woolloomooloo. A shining new angle on this age-old theme of Ulysses and the quest. Cinderalla too, perhaps, for Nanny.
I began writing the very next morning. And had the chapter finished by the end of the week.
Ulysses offering wine to Cyclops: 1895 print, author photo.
Cinderella c.1875: Wikipedia Commons PD
Osiris: 1895 print, author photo.
White Star Line: advertisment, Wikipedia Commons (PD)
* There have been some excellent comments on my post Dressing Up ... Clothing our characters about the Hollywood Costume exhibition, both on this blog site and in the discussion thread on LinkedIn. For those of you who are LinkedIn members, the thread is in the Historical Novels group. And if you want to read more on the idea of story archetypes, here are a few links of interest. Wikipedia also has an interesting article. Google "archetype in literature" (or stories):