When Inspiration Comes from Ancient Things

I love reading the works of early literature & bygone cultures to get motivated to write.

There’s something intrinsically liberating about realizing, as King Solomon said, “there is no new thing under the sun”. Our tasks as writers isn’t necessarily about being purely original, in the capacity of ‘stories which have never been written before’. Our business is the translation and curation of human experience. Human experience follows patterns of instinct, emotion, events, nurtured states and cultural norms since the beginning of recorded history. While culture and location have shaped human experience in differing places on the globe, the fundamental archetypes of a hero’s adventure remain relatively unchanged.

We start the Hero’s Journey in innocence, and eventually through the bends and mountains, we end up masters of ourselves and our domains… or we have terrific falls.

Identifiable & communicable. Story itself is one of our most powerful motivators for community and triggering mutual understanding. While I love reading works which give me a unique experience, it is the strength of the emotional authenticity, the characterization and the treatment of the prose, which delight.

One of the facts that might come to light in this process is our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else. In these aspects or parts of his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man. We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. And I do not mean the impressionable period of adolescence, but the period of full maturity.

TS. Eliot. Tradition and the Individual Talent

The reason I wrote the Judge of Mystics series was to enter into an authentic emotional experience with Caleb Mauthisen, a spiritually confused Judge and sometimes executioner, who becomes a single father. I know full well that a masculine person in a position of spiritual and magical authority, with a child to raise is something done previously by copious authors. The story of a hero coming upon a conflict, and eventually discovering a resolution is as ubiquitous as a god-shaped spray can, or the Vancouver rain.

If I tried to find an entirely original, never-been-done situation for a protagonist, I’d be short up a long creek. Some reader somewhere would find a similar situation to liken my character arc. This isn’t to say that we should go looking to copy works, akin to Shakespeare’s rewriting of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy into Hamlet, or Robot Chicken’s many parodies. Likening works to others is inevitable. Copying verbatim is a crime. The line is red paint and body oil, swept hazily in sand. What I can do is write with my own lens. My prose pours with my own voice, and the authentic emotional experience of my version of the quintessential ‘hero’. Or it should, if I write fearlessly.

As fearless as my current ancient thinker: Hildegard von Bingen. I began Son of Abel with a quote from Thomas Merton.

Book of Revels begins with this:

“She is so bright and glorious that you cannot look at her face or her garments for the splendor with which she shines. For she is terrible with the terror of the avenging lightning, and gentle with the goodness of the bright sun; and both her terror and her gentleness are incomprehensible to humans.... But she is with everyone and in everyone, and so beautiful is her secret that no person can know the sweetness with which she sustains people, and spares them in inscrutable mercy.”  

Hildegard von Bingen


Here’s to writing as fearlessly as Hildegard.