Tuesday, December 11, 2012


“In your writing, remember that the purpose of everything you’re doing is to bring about some kind of emotional reaction in your reader.” Christopher Vogler

What draws us to literature? What makes writing worthwhile? The holiday season has answers.

Yes, that holiday season, the one we love to hate. Whether you celebrate Channukah or Christmas or Kwaanzaa or St. Nicholas Day or St. Lucia’s Day, or whether you plug your ears and cover your eyes and roar humbug at it all, you need only a little fortitude and persistence to dig beyond the advertising inserts and glitter and cheesy carols to discover truths for your writing.

A recent caller to Rick Steve’s travel show described his favorite holiday ever: nestled with his family under a blanket on a balcony in a Swiss village that bans motor vehicles, listening to the clatter of horses drawing sleighs through the streets, enjoying a snowy scene happily lacking in bustle. As Christopher Vogler points out in The Writer’s Journey, that sort of simple, reflective interlude was the original point of the solstice holidays, presenting a sacred opportunity, a turning point in which we collectively removed ourselves from the rhythms of daily life.

But in the modern age, we’ve subverted the ritual cycle which birthed literature, and we’ve lost touch with genuine rest. As a byproduct, we’ve also lost touch with catharsis, the sudden release of emotions evoked by story, which is why much modern writing, including our own work, can leave us largely unsatisfied.

A few years ago, I had my first cave experience, thanks to the kind owners of Alaska’s Boardwalk Lodge on Prince of Wales Island. (I also nearly blinded their fly-fishing guide, but that’s a story for another day). We hiked up the side of a mountain to El Capitan, the largest known cave in Alaska and home to the deepest limestone pit in the country. After belly-crawling deep into the caverns, we extinguished the lights. The total darkness we shared is what Vogler calls “the perfect stage to initiate young people into the mysteries of the tribe, its deepest beliefs, the essence of its compact with nature.”

Originating in festivals that ritualized the cave experience in a cycle of mythological death and rebirth that includes mortification, purgation, invigoration, and jubilation, story plunges us into a place of darkness from which we emerge transformed “The absence of things that were normally taken for granted created a renewed appreciation for them,” says Vogler of ancient rituals born from the disorienting effect of the dark. “It also focused the minds of the people and reminded them of the possibility of death that was always near.”

These days, mortification and purgation are out of vogue. Heaven forbid we deprive ourselves, which ritually speaking explains why the jubilation we’re supposed to experience at this time of year feels so feeble.

In Aristotle’s era, catharsis was a medical term for the elimination of poisons.  In story, the hero stands in for the sacrificial god-king (or queen). As her fate unfolds, we feel sorry for her, and we fear her fate. We are purged. The poisons are gone. We leave the story relieved that though we, like the hero, are flawed, we haven’t had to endure what she has.

That’s classic tragedy. We associate it with the Greeks, but the concept is universal. Consider what Mark John says about story-songs in Yupitt Yuraryarait (Yup’ik Ways of Dancing): “Even a song, our ancestors sang it to take out bad feelings inside, and they considered such songs powerful. And though one feels tired before the dance, when one goes home, it seems like one’s being has been expanded.”

Comedy, too, is cathartic. The jolly old elf of our current season is no accident. Neither are the celebrations of light, joy at emerging from the cave.

In your holiday greetings to writers, you need but one word: catharsis. It’s a reminder of purpose.  As Vogler says, “You are always raising and lowering the tension, pumping energy into your story and characters until some kind of emotional release is inevitable, in the form of laughter, tears, shudders, or a warm glow of understanding.”

Try This:  In a favorite piece of poetry or prose, identify the cathartic effect. Then do the same for your own work in progress.

Check This Out: The back matter describes Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey as “one of the most influential writing books in the world.” Though they must resist the urge to find formula in Vogler’s analysis of mythic structure, writers will benefit from understanding the primal function of myth in story.