Sunday, June 22, 2008
Writing and the Supernatural
I just finished reading Alison Lurie's memoir of her friendship with poet James Merrill and his partner David Jackson, Familiar Spirits. I loved it, partly because I really like Alison and her particular way of observing: she can be gossipy and tender at the same time. But her analysis of Jackson and Merrill's use of the Ouija board was also very interesting. For years and years they consulted a Ouija board almost daily, and developed long-lasting and important relationships with various "spirits" who communicated with them. Merrill's epic poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, was largely dictated by spirit guides.
What to make of all that? Lurie doesn't really know -- the notion of otherwise serious people becoming dependent on channelling spirits is baffling. She talks about how she used astrology in one of her novels, assigning a zodiacal sign to each of her characters to help develop them, and how she briefly thought she and Merrill and Jackson had something in common -- they all used the supernatural as an aid to creativity. But it was much more important to Merrill and Jackson. They actually believed in it. For years it occupied most of their free time.
Was it really spirits? Or was it a manifestation of their combined unconscious? Or was it one of them -- she suggests it was possibly Jackson, an unsuccessful novelist -- consciously or unconsciously pushing the planchette alone?
One of my favorite novels is Margaret Atwood's under-read Lady Oracle. It's about a woman who has a perfectly decent career writing historical romances, but who becomes suddenly famous when she writes a book of poetry by staring into a candle and writing automatically, in a trance. It's such a writerly fantasy: you close your eyes, stop thinking, stop trying hard, and let your hand just do all the writing on its own. And it's brilliant and you get famous.
But you know what? It's rather like what happens, anyway. (Not so much the brilliant and famous part.) But very often, writing comes from a place not entirely under your control. Writers often talk about their work going off in directions that surprise them, of characters having more life than the writer actually put into them. Where did all that come from? It can certainly feel supernatural.
Last summer when the final Harry Potter book came out, our store held a party and I read tarot cards for people all night. At first I felt like a terrible fraud, even though I didn't charge any money; I'm certainly not a tarot scholar by any means, plus I don't even believe in that stuff. But there was something about reading tarot that evening that was really tremendously fun and interesting. With some people, I had nothing. I blabbed for a few minutes, and they moved on. But with other people, I just looked at them and felt a connection, a knowingness. The cards were potent, everything I said felt important and true. Several people contacted me later and told me how accurate their reading was, how scarily apt the cards were.
But like I said, I don't believe in that stuff. I didn't, and I still don't. What I believe in is the human unconscious. We know so much more than we let ourselves acknowledge -- about ourselves and about others and about human nature. The supernatural, I think, can be a way to get at that information.
I have what is possibly one of central New York's largest collection of Ouija boards. Yet I have never once tried to use one. I guess I'm scared of either eventuality -- what if it doesn't work? What if it does?
What do you think? Should I give it a try?