Murgatroyd, Maybe?

Sheila Finch |

Lacking something new to read when the day for my semi-monthly writers’ workshop approached, I dashed off a brief essay about Ray Bradbury speaking at a recent Eaton Conference. I had no plans to do anything with it beyond maybe putting it up on my LiveJournal blog, but one of my workshop mates told me that SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) had started a Nebula Awards blog, and that they were interested in short literary pieces. Not only did the editor like the piece, he asked for more, so I conjured up another short essay on the incongruity of a shrine to Mary Star of the Sea outside a local Buddhist monastery, and the three goddesses she represented. A couple of other essays followed, and I began to see that I was developing a theme of occurrences of the numinous. I dug out my well-worn copies of Jung and Campbell and Eliade and provided some underpinning about myth to my musings. They were fun and easy to do, written in an informal style, like having a conversation with old friends. But for the most part I was busy with writing fiction and reading novels as a jury member for the Campbell Award. I had no desire to go gallumphing off down the road not taken.

Then the Nebula Awards blog was cancelled, so I stopped playing with these little commentaries.  I’d just sold the short story which tied up all the loose ends in my ongoing series about the Guild of Xenolinguists, and was looking around for another project. I didn’t want to write any more about the lingsters for a while; in fact I was happy to burn down the Guild’s Mother House and kill off most of the lingsters. You can get tired of fictional worlds and fictional people, even – especially – when you’re responsible for creating them. I can’t imagine what it takes to plan a series of novels that will incorporate the alphabet into their titles! I would’ve been exhausted by the time we reached ‘K.’

But what exactly would I write in their place? My mind was blank. Well, I’ve had dry spells before, so I wasn’t too worried. When I was teaching creative writing for thirty years, I always told my students that stressing made block worse. Just play around with something else and the problem will solve itself.  Good advice! a little voice said in my mind.  While you’re waiting, you could write another short piece or two on myths you’ve seen cropping up in the science fiction you’ve read. So I indulged the little voice. I developed an article about echoes of the Hero’s Journey in works of hard science fiction. This was eventually published in James Gunn’s new journal, Ad Astra. But I really wanted to get back to my own fiction.

Myths, Metaphors, and Science FictionI started a couple of new stories – and abandoned them after a few pages. I wrestled with the problem, tried all the tricks I knew to overcome ‘block’ and failed dismally. This was a shocking discovery. My dry spell got worse, and I began to be concerned. Panicked, even. Meanwhile, myths were showing up in everything I read. It was as though if I didn’t work on the role of myth in science fiction, then my subconscious wasn’t going to let me write anything at all. So I gave in and wrote a couple more essays, the female version of the Hero’s Journey for one, and appearances of the Holy Fool or the Magi or the Wild Hunt. I found I had a lot to say about the subject. Enough, that is, to produce a short book on the subject, Myth, Metaphor and Science Fiction, which Aqueduct Press accepted for publication.

Here we arrive at ‘Truth in Advertising’. I didn’t enjoy the entire process. Writing about myths and metaphors and how science fiction writers draw on them for their effects was fine, and I found I had accumulated a lot to say over the course of the long years teaching, but I’m not a scholar at heart. I hate having to worry about bibliographies and citation style. I never remember where the commas and the periods go and have trouble believing it really matters. And I’m terribly apt to lose track of my research. When my editor asked for some missing page references for something I’d quoted, I was hard put to find either my notes or the original book I’d been working from.

Throughout the process, I grumbled that I wanted to get back to fiction. (My workshop group got tired of hearing this.) And every time the little voice in my mind replied, Do it or else! Once the manuscript was finished and turned in, I took a break from writing and went home to England on vacation – where I saw story ideas just popping out all over the place.

The day I came back I found my mind absolutely bursting with ideas for new fiction. I wrote three short (science fiction) stories in quick succession and started a new novel. The odd thing is, the new novel isn’t science fiction. For the first time since I was a teenager scribbling in my notebook, I’m writing a historical novel – no fantasy in it, no alternate world theories, no scientific speculation (no myth, either – at least none that I can see right now). To be working full steam on something outside the genre I’ve felt comfortable in for so long is wonderful, at times scary, but mostly exhilarating. It’s not as if I devour historical fiction when I’m temporarily sated with science fiction. That honor goes to mystery and suspense, but I’m not prepared to enter that genre just yet.

My writing method has shifted, too, a process that began long ago when I bought my first computer. I used to think about the narrative of my story as a straight line in my head, and it was difficult to write out of order; perhaps this stemmed from the difficulty of going back and making changes on a typed manuscript. Over the years, this linear approach gradually loosened its hold on me, and I could revise earlier chapters without derailing my forward motion. Now I find that I think about the story as if it exists all around me, and that the past of the story itself can change under my fingers in ways that add immensely to the whole. I’m enjoying this! It’s like learning to write all over again.

So why this sudden branching into a completely new field – which, I might add, caused many, many hours of research before I could write the first sentence? I don’t know the answer. The only certainty is that I defy that little voice from my subconscious at my peril. I don’t believe in communication from the ‘Other World’, or the ‘muse’, or any other such rubbish. But I do realize that the subconscious part of my mind knows better than the conscious what to write and how to write it. The trick is learning to listen.

I believe it was Damon Knight who used to call his inner voice “Fred” who lived in the basement of his mind. I’m taking suggestions for mine. Meanwhile, ‘Murgatroyd’ is about as joyous and lacking in obvious logic as anything else it sends up.


Bio: Sheila Finch has published seven science fiction novels and numerous short stories that have appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Amazing, Asimov’s, Fantasy Book,  and many anthologies. A collection of her “lingster” stories was published as The Guild of Xenolinguists. Her Myths, Metaphors, and Science Fiction is forthcoming. Finch has won the Nebula Award for Best Novella, the San Diego Book Award for Juvenile Fiction, and the Compton-Crook Award for Best First Novel.

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