A Muse of Fiery Dragons

When it was just me and a tree, I knew it all

St. George and the Dragon Day – something I like to celebrate, as it reminds me of those far recesses of childhood when I began to learn the world was SO BIG, and even bigger when you thought about all history. And in my head I had such a sure, vivid, timeless yet evolving image of all the stages of history in all the places I knew of. What does an “absent-minded” daydreaming six year old who has never left Michigan know? A whole lot! Enough to fill a universe. That’s the nature of the brain.

I suppose these vast conceptions of places like medieval England or colonial America or Neanderthal Europe were informed by folk tale books my mom read, TV and school–but I’ve been around the world and dangerously over-educated in the 4+ decades since and these “forms” (in the Platonic sense) in my mind’s eye have not much changed. This feels very much like a collective unconscious. Somewhere there is and always will be an England of rolling green hills where a maid tends her sheep across the river from a village fair outside a Gothic cathedral, and archers roam the forest and knights in armor ride out from a castle with crenellated parapets. Somewhere there will be a dragon and a St. George to do battle with it.

What the other realm has to do with inspiration

These places are real in the way everything in a dream feels so much more present and tangible and real than being awake: in your dreams, the smallest thing can be infused with a sense of the greatest symbolism, and what happens next always has the feel of momentous inevitability. This is how good writing works: you set up a world of believable vastness and palpable intimacy, where events or imagery sustain multiple meanings, and the plot develops logically and naturally from the introductory matrix.

When I write I don’t feel like I’m creating a new place, rather, I’m trying to re-capture one that already exists–has always existed–in my mind, which is the same as to say it already exists in the “out-there” where all possible places and settings have always and will always exist. Inspiration is just getting to a point where I can remember it. I’m just tapping into something outside of myself. I’m being reminded by a “Muse”.

But the Muse is elusive! I can only actually write while I’m awake, with all the meaning-less distractions and inelegant minutiae of everyday life crowding in. How can I possible get past all that to a mental state where I can touch that other realm of inspiration? Most of the time it’s as hard as remembering your dreams. You forget just as soon as you remember a piece of one.

And what memory has to do with inspiration

My dad is nearly 82 years old. Since starting up the whole genealogy thing a few years back, I’ve made a point of asking questions about my parents’ childhoods, and I get very frustrated at how little he remembers. Is he holding back? Or can he honestly not remember a day out of his entire fourth grade, or one of the dresses his mom always wore? And yet, since I turned 50, a part of me has started to believe it. I’ve reached an age where I have to face the fact that maybe not remembering that certainty of childhood has less to do with simply not thinking about it lately and more to do with the fact that there are memories that may well be gone forever. You start to get pretty desperate to tap into that world-eternal you had all around you as a child.

I still play this one game sometimes while trying to fall asleep: I scrape and think really hard and try to come up with one early memory from childhood that I haven’t thought about almost since it happened. Maybe it will keep my brain and memory in shape. Maybe I’ll actually learn something about myself. It’s a game because I don’t always win; in fact, it’s quite rare that I un-earth a genuine long-buried gem and the corresponding feeling of supreme satisfaction. For just a moment, I know all the secrets of the universe yet again.

Is education inspiration?

I’ve spent a life voraciously chasing after that complete education, the level of knowing it seems like everyone else must have, a basic understanding of all history and myth, of geography, of the “greatest” writers and artists and musicians, the times of the greatest break-throughs for science and mathematics, how a cell works and how a galaxy is born. Reading every word Shakespeare ever wrote (happy birthday) and doing a dissertation on his histories. I think I always thought that’s how someone achieves enlightenment–er, peace of mind–er, being a real human being.

But apparently my Muse is the same she’s always been: someone who puts me in touch with a conception of the world I’ve always had. Or maybe I’ve just set up a false dichotomy: I suppose even as a child I had to overcome staggering inanity and mundanity. Probably trying to find school-clothes that weren’t laughable and doing homework that was a painful exercise in futility were just as frustrating to my higher self then as these stacks of unsorted receipts and boxes of unsifted cat litter are today. There were bullies then who teased me about my overbite and flood pants and my uncool mind-absences, and there are bullies today who torment me over my awkward bookishness and unfulfilled potential and my uncool absent-mindedness.

Daydreams and distractions, still

I think now that reaching my Muse is more of the same creative selective-attention I learned as a child. For sheer-survival I learned to tune out–as soon as they were gone–the unpleasantness of nose-bleeds on the school bus and that girl who always said out loud how messy my hair was or how I acted like a boy. In my head all that mattered were the woods I played in and the books I read. Today I sit in my condo and listen past the distant road traffic and screaming kids and that jack-ass running his leaf-blower at dinnertime and sometimes I really do manage to hear only the birds outside. I play with my cat and some string and sometimes I really do find myself as single-minded and in the moment as she is.

Perhaps it’s the pernicious TLE déja-vu seizures I have that have me obsessing on capturing something lost from childhood:  in the moment of the seizure it sure feels as powerfully atmospheric as a dream. Or perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve been around the world and still I’m right back where I started:  a daydreamer in a book under a tree, desperate to prove one way or another that what you all thought were “mind-absences” were, in all ways amazing and worthwhile, me being very much present someplace after all.

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How many ways can you tell a (hi)story?

I’m not biased, am I? –You’d better be!

So why do people choose to write historic fiction instead of straight-out fiction? Or instead of fiction fantasy, where you don’t actually need to do the historic research and a few anachronisms may be expected, even encouraged? All right, strange question to begin a blog post that isn’t actually about historic fiction but rather the writing of history. I would posit that historic fiction and history books are not two distinct entities, but rather two ends of a spectrum whose middle ground is rather more trodden than you might expect.

The Powers That Be Still Decide What We Think Is Our History

Once, all written history was as trusted as absolutely true as an article on snopes.com. And those writings almost always had the “official seal of approval” of the state or the Church or whoever held the greater sway. If the illustrious powers that were in all their wisdom didn’t want you to hear about it, you didn’t hear about it. The bulk of European histories before the Renaissance were shaped by the unshakable belief that history was ordained by God:  rulers and Popes and bishops and noblemen, of course, carried out the actions that led to historic events and trends, but it was God who put them on their thrones.

“But I know all that,” I hear you saying. Yet consider: how do we learn our history today? It really isn’t that much different than once-upon-a-time because most of the populace is a bit lazy, and even the critical readers among us–if they don’t have an interest in learning about a particular time and place–are going to fall back on the same sources as the non-readers: what they learned in school and what they see on the big screen. Look how many people believe that all the whites at the first Thanksgiving were Pilgrims–and Puritans at that–the way they were in their school play, or how many folks buy wholesale the conspiracy-theory depicted in the Oliver Stone film JFK.

And We Seem To Be Happy To Think That History Is Etched In Stone

Text books in school are always notoriously behind the times, but most parents and educators don’t seem to mind much: for one thing, books can be expensive, and it’s expected that they can’t always be current. For another, most of society is usually content if history class gets the general idea right, and along the way maybe teaches our kids a little something about the good guys and the bad guys and some skills in reading and remembering dates and writing reports. I’ve followed my niece’s primary and secondary school career in the cyber-age, and it’s surprisingly similar to when I grew up: you have access to information, but knowing what to do with that information is all the difference. You can only learn so much actual fact as a youngster. A student like me from the information dark ages of the 70’s who has been taught to read and think and argue critically is a hundred times better off than a student today who has all the information in the world at her fingertips through her laptop.

Information and education are NOT inter-changeable commodities. –Yeh, I said it, you can quote me.

And yes, I know you know that, but where did it all start, the idea that we could even question what our government or our church or Mr. Pendleton our sixth-grade history teacher wanted us to know about history? For the most part, we have Niccolo Machiavelli to thank, the guy who is somewhat-unfairly eponymous for the scheming, manipulating political villain. Before he pointed out in The Prince that history was created not by God or by God-appointed rulers but by fallible human beings with a variety of motivations, there was no (official) notion that there was more than one way to interpret history. Suddenly it was all the rage to depict the events of history being caused by ambitious, smart or otherwise influential persons, through charisma or manipulation or sheer luck.

Machiavelli Says. . .Consider the Source

Post-Machiavelli we are able even to have the concept of “historiography”–that is, not the study of history so much as the study of the ways history is depicted. History can be interpreted through a moral lens, where the good guy comes out on top, or events can be depicted to bolster up a particular ideology, or they can be construed to re-affirm the superiority of one nation over another. (No, really?) These are the bold strokes; there are far more subtle ones at play that have taken all of us in at one time or another. Even me. And I did my dissertation in this neck of the woods. (What follows is quite an original thesis; here’s stipulating the caveat that if you take it and run with it, I’ll call it plagiarism, thanks!)

Shakespeare’s histories, the next-gen of the ideas of Machiavelli, gave us in the guise of individual characters a whole pageant of these “theories of historiography”, though they weren’t known then by this name. Check out the first tetralogy of history plays–that’s a fancy way of saying the three parts of Henry VI followed by Richard III. You have Henry VI, the pious but weak ruler wandering around in his own medieval church pageant, and his practical, down-to-earth statesman and all-around good guy Gloucester depicting a more secular or humanist approach to governing, and in comes York (Richard III’s father) as the ambitious Machiavel. By the time you get to Richard III’s antics you see a control-freak so manipulative that he psychologically starts to cave in on himself–really quite a modern idea in the sense that I could only label it with blatant anachronisms drawn from Freud and Jung and Engel’s biopsychosocial ideas. (But hey, Oedipus Rex existed quite a long time before the Oedipal complex, right?)

Look At All the Amazing New Things We’re Learning About Richard III!*

Ironically, the injustices done to the image of Richard III as a notorious Machiavel at the hands of Shakespeare and others in relating his history illustrate the same sort of Machiavellian “singly-motivated” telling made possible by the originator of the archetype himself. We’ve long known that here is a history ripe for revision–but whether that revision will be in the hands of an artist (like me, and the idea for a new Richard III play now-fermenting) or a historian, it is quite simply waiting for one thing: a new motivation for the telling of the story.

So here we are, right back where we started. I write historical fantasies because I want to deliver a certain message, a lesson or a truth that I personally believe. Those who write historic fiction are generally drawn to a “truth”, a topic associated with a particular time period, and the way they can drive home that idea to the reader. Writers of fantasy, those who have a message, have a more wide-open field upon which to play, but they can still draw from specific time periods and places to handle subjects that mesh well with the events of that part of history. And those who write the history books, well. . .they, too, have an ax to grind.

All of us writers, though, will probably fall into just one or two theories of historiography, vindicating Machiavelli, but perhaps our consciousness of the fact is what will make all the difference. We each have our own truth. We each have a story to tell. Just look at all the ways we can choose to tell it.


*The skeleton in the parking lot has captured my imagination this past couple years, and the story continues to unfold:  http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-leicestershire-21063882

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Revisit, Review, Revise–But Don’t Reverse History

Why a post about Thanksgiving in February? Well, my blog purports to address revisions of history: fictional stories that convey more truth than fact, genealogical accounts that shift the focus of history from huge international events to the simple truths of everyday lives of ordinary people, and non-fiction work that blows us away with new discoveries in history, in anthropology and DNA, in science and how we comprehend the world and the universe. I’d like to comment on a quintessential part of American history that is absolutely ripe for revisionists–and not for the better.

Here is my how-NOT-to-revise-history polemic.

I believe that re-writes of history are a constant, as we discover more facts and as we find it desirable to emphasize certain aspects of that history to further our interests and beliefs in the present day. No single interpretation of history is ever going to be flawless or final, but that doesn’t negate the necessity of examining the past in new ways–on the contrary, I heartily believe in and encourage the existence of several versions of history existing and circulating at any one time.

HOWEVER. Having said that, I don’t believe we need to allow free-for-all revisions of our heritage to suit the zeitgeist of any particular group. On the contrary, a modern sensitivity to a pluralist view of what history’s lessons are or should be should make us that much more critical and careful about being as truthful and honest as possible. We have an age-old problem wherein our cultural attempts to redress the wrongs of the past sometimes lead us to allow the formerly-repressed voice to assert anything at all it wants–perhaps motivated by guilt or ignorance or just not wanting to be left out of the protest/party happening out in the street.

How not to celebrate a Quatercentenary

The year 2020 approaches, and with it, a 400th year commemoration of the foundation of Plymouth Colony. Already we have groups–some of them with a seeming-stamp of “official approval”–completely in denial of the notable values practiced in this Colony (but rarely in any other early European settlement attempts) and attempting to subvert what it is we’ve always celebrated about Thanksgiving, turning it instead into a day or mourning (for atrocities against Native Americans) and vilifying people like Governor Bradford (come on, do you even know what he generally stood for?!) –Strange, I generally genuinely like people who attempt to “subvert” anything! And I’m usually the champion of the politically-correct–at least the original goals of PC, before it became the free-for-all I decry above.

It’s become apparent that groups such as Plymouth 400 don’t speak for me; this isn’t political correctness, it’s misguided (all right, even malicious) distortion of history. We have nothing to learn from either extreme’s version of history, particularly when the purveyors of such versions behave so badly in the present. (You’ll have to Google around for some of the incidents at play in and around Plymouth, Massachusetts.) And we have much to learn from a historical look at why Thanksgiving became and stayed a national holiday in the first place. Hint: it wasn’t actually about blithely giving thanks and throwing around pumpkins and turkey drumsticks.

Give earlier Americans who selected Thanksgiving a worthy holiday some credit: we don’t celebrate Plymouth Colony because they were the earliest European colony; they weren’t. And we certainly don’t celebrate it because it epitomized white/native relations. Rather we still celebrate because it was the exception to the norm, an example of how integration should have been, and how it still could be if we only learn the lessons of history.

Why did the 1800’s “discover” the Thanksgiving holiday?

Remember, when the holiday was established and took hold later in the 1800s, our country was in the midst of increasingly ugly race relations; people knew it. Lincoln was responding to the ultimate human degradation, slavery. Out west whites were at war with Native Americans and atrocities were committed on both sides. The notion of genocide even became a possible vision for some. And often-violent prejudice met the most recent immigrants: Slavs, Chinese, Jews.

Given that backdrop we can see that celebrating the first Thanksgiving was NOT a quaint hypocrisy; it was a fervent wish by people weary with all the hate and violence that surrounded them.

Were there ulterior motives at play when Massasoit showed up with twice as many of his folks to the Plymouth colonists’ harvest bash? Sure, they wanted to let it be known they were watching. But hey, they brought food. Was there political maneuvering on both sides that first year, a search for alliances and allies? Of course, and that’s precisely the point: these people believed–and went on believing in spite of occasional individual mishaps–that this whole living-together thing could be accomplished without bloodshed.

Cut to the past century, as we continue not to learn the lessons from Plymouth Colony: Japanese interment, backlash against the latest immigrants, SE Asian or Hispanic or Muslim. . .You’d better believe I’m going to point out how ridiculous it is to equate Governor Bradford with the KKK or to turn Thanksgiving into a national day of mourning.

Well, given that there are some groups of people still fomenting dissent among the races, I guess I can see why they’re threatened by the vision of the First Thanksgivng after all.


Disclosure: I descend not only from Governor Wm. Bradford but also the mythological American love story, John Alden & Priscilla Mullins.
Disclaimer: I felt this way about Thanksgiving even before I found out I had ancestors on the Mayflower.


Reading suggestion:  Nathaniel Philbrick provides a good balanced example of all the voices preserved surrounding the impact of Plymouth Colony on the New World, and vice-versa:  2003. The Mayflower and the Pilgrims’ New World. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. That’s the young person’s version; I found it quite challenging enough!

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