Jungian archetypes in writing

Clare B. Dunkle on a bridge in Rothenberg ob der Tauber

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt deals with story creation.

As I worked on my memoir, I sought the help of a fabulous Jungian therapist in the Kaiserslautern area, Eva Theiss (or Eva Theiß in German), to help me make sense of my own story. Eva was a genius when it came to dream exploration, and as we worked together, she confirmed what I had already begun to sense on my own: my stories are like waking dreams in which I work out problems of concern to my conscious and subconscious mind. This explains why the creation of my stories often seems to be out of my control, and it also explains why my stories often seem to arrive from nowhere, ready-made, so that I usually have no answer to the ubiquitous author questions, Where do you get your ideas? or Why did you make x happen?

Carl Jung avidly studied his own dreams as well as the dreams of others. He came to believe that, just as a crystal forms itself in a certain predictable order out of the chaos of a saturated liquid, so our psyches order themselves using certain predictable story episodes and characters which then appear over and over in our dreams. Jung called these ordering elements archetypes. Jung’s point wasn’t that all of us share exactly the same archetype: my “shadow” archetype is not your “shadow” archetype, for example, and the importance of that archetype to me and to you will differ based on our psyches’ formation. But your archetype and my archetype may display eerie similarities that cut across time, place, or cultural boundaries. That’s because, Jung would argue, those archetypes come from structures already inside our minds, and possibly inside our brains themselves.

In other words, Jung would say that the trickster god (Loki, Coyote, Hermes, Vainamoinen, or Reynard the Fox) appears all over the world in stories (Gollum, anyone?) because to some extent or another, the trickster god already exists, ready-made but empty of detail, as a structure within each one of us human beings. How our psyches form dictates how that archetype forms within us and what it comes to represent in the landscape of our minds.

Whether or not this innate psychological ordering is universal and whether or not it affects all authors’ creation processes, I don’t know. I’m not a psychologist. But I do know that Jung’s ideas describe my story process very well. My stories come out of a need, a concern, a question, or a problem that I’m actively trying to manage. They contain scenes that often are an elaborate pictorial metaphor for the state of my life at the time. In effect, my inner mind creates a puppet show for me out of the worries and feelings I’m struggling with at the moment—or out of the worries and feelings I’ve struggled with all my life. When I look back on a story later, I can usually pinpoint exactly why that story mattered to me then and why I needed to experience it. I can even pinpoint exactly which scenes in the story mattered the most to me—and why.

The excerpt below, which appears on page 47 of Hope and Other Luxuries, begins to explore those Jungian parallels between my life and my story worlds. It begins as Joe and I dropped our daughters off at the boarding school to begin their second school year. By this time, my first book, The Hollow Kingdom, had been accepted for publication at Holt, and Holt had also purchased the other two Hollow Kingdom adventures I’d written as letters to my girls for publication as well. Only now did I begin to work on an entirely new project: By These Ten Bones, a werewolf story. This excerpt highlights the reason I felt deeply drawn to the main character of By These Ten Bones: the protagonist was the young me, reimagined as a monster.

I watched my two girls, happy and animated, chattering away with their friends. My daughters are popular, I thought in amazement. They are actually popular at school. I realized that even if I told them what school had been like for me—about how it had felt to be the school freak for years—they wouldn’t be able to understand.

That was a strange feeling for me, both happy and sad.

Finally, the last bag was up in the room where it belonged, and Joe and I felt the welcome needlessness of our presence. So deep were our girls in catching up with their friends that they had to make an effort to remember we were there.

First, I went to Valerie’s room and hugged her good-bye.

“Look after yourself, Mom,” she said with her usual wisdom. “And hurry up and send me that new chapter.”

Then I made my way down to Elena’s room and hugged her.

“I love you, Mom,” she told me. “Write lots!”

“And you will, too, won’t you?” Joe said as we walked to the car. “Write lots, now that they’re back at school.”

I gave a little sigh of happiness.

“I certainly hope so.”

The atmosphere of the house reverted to quiet. The cat moved back down to the living room sofa. The dog caught up on his rest. I missed my girls, but I had a new youngster to worry about now: Paul, a woodcarver who lived in the Middle Ages in the Highlands of Scotland.

There was a fragile quality to his hands as they turned the wood. They were bone-white, the fingers long and slender. There was a fragile quality, too, to the hunch of his lanky shoulders. Shaggy black hair fell into his face as he bent over his work.

Like the changeling child of my own early years, Paul was an outcast. He was carrying a terrible secret. His kind—the werewolf kind—kill the people they love . . . if they aren’t killed first, that is.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of Clare B. Dunkle on a bridge in Rothenberg ob der Tauber copyright 2002 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

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