Making the Most of Your Mythology


Jennifer Crow

At a particularly difficult point in my life, I had a series of dreams about collapsing buildings. Skyscrapers, specifically, and towers. Some of you are already nodding your heads, but until that point, I hadn’t had even a slight acquaintance with Tarot and its symbols. Imagine my surprise, then, when I looked up falling/breaking towers and found a whole Tarot card associated with it, one that echoed some of the things troubling me at the time. It was a profound lesson to me about the power of archetypal images and the ways in which our brain can create and distill meaning.

I would have started this post with “I have a confession to make,” though it’s probably not much of a confession to anyone who’s read my poetry, or last month’s essay. Still: I like mythology. All kinds of myths, from any place on Earth. The stories we tell about the most important and painful and confusing and amazing parts of life, the tales with which we attempt to explain the inexplicable, are full of imagery and archetypes and ideas about the human condition. Every culture has a unique worldview, and yet there are echoes across borders and oceans. Some things seem to speak to all of us in one way or another.

Yet we also live in a time when we’re being asked, as creators and citizens, to be more mindful of the way we incorporate other people’s stories into our own vision. For too long, many people have been victims of colonization and oppression, and to me, it’s an important part of the creative work to think about how the poems I write might affect others.

Rather than looking at the changing mores of the world as a fence that contains us, it might be more helpful to consider it the way we look at the patterns of a sonnet. Having some boundaries can strengthen our creativity. If we choose not to borrow promiscuously from other cultures, we can dig deeper into our own mythologies—the ones we grew up with and the ones we work at creating all the time—and use them not only as a map for our own lives but as beacons for those who read our work.

I’m not here to sit in judgment of anyone’s thematic choices. However, if you, like I, have spent time considering how to write in ways that won’t cause harm and distress to people who are already suffering, you might want to consider working on building your own mythology.

Maybe you’re wondering what I mean by making our own mythologies. We can borrow from the stories that move us, of course, whether those are from the religions in which we were raised or the books we stumbled across in childhood. Last month, I talked a bit about the things that drew me to weird and creepy stuff, so understandably those elements make up a big part of the mythology I’m creating in my work. It doesn’t have to be the scary stuff, though. Whatever sparks wonder or excitement in you can be part of that. Dreams obviously form a rich part of that well of ideas, as well as other people’s artwork and writing. And then there’s the strange stuff that happens in our everyday lives.

Want a small example? I’ve been thinking this week about my childhood friend Amy’s family. The matriarch of their big clan passed away a few days ago, someone of whom I have fond memories for her sense of humor and enthusiasm for good food and stories. In fact, one of my sisters named a sheep after Maryann. What greater honor is there than that? (My husband says, “Um, maybe not having a sheep named after you?” But he’s a city boy, so his opinion doesn’t count.)

Here’s the thing, though: as I thought about Amy’s family, the memory which really stuck with me all these years involves not her mom, but her dad. He was a big man, a former football player, and he had a glass eye. Not a big deal, right? Except her dad thought it was hilariously funny to take his eye out and leave it in random glasses of water around the house, hoping some child would inadvertently take a drink. The thought of stumbling across Amy’s dad’s stray eyeball still gives me a little shiver of dread. Imagine that sip of cool, refreshing water, and then the solid, slick bump of a glass eye against your teeth. Yeesh.

That had slipped my mind for years, but now it’s going into the file. And this is something I’d recommend to all of you if you haven’t yet started one. Whether it’s on a computer (please remember to back up your files!) or in a notebook, have a dedicated spot in which to keep anything that sparks your imagination or makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Those are the seeds of your mythology, and as you add to it, you’ll find ways in which to make use of those images and stories.

Your dreams, your passions, your fears, all of those things can form the roots of a personal mythology, one that can draw from universal ideas and the images of specific traditions, while becoming uniquely your own. I hope you come up with some wild, thrilling poems—I can’t wait to read them!

Shy and nocturnal, Jennifer Crow has rarely been photographed in the wild, but it’s rumored that she lives near a waterfall in western New York. You can find her poetry in various print and electronic venues, including Asimov’s Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction, Uncanny Magazine, Abyss & Apex, and others. She’s always happy to connect with readers and poets on Twitter @writerjencrow and on her Facebook author page.

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