Personal Myth: a Writer’s Guide to Knowing Thyself
We all have our stories. In fact, we’ve pretty much lived for stories since we figured out how to communicate. One of my most treasured memories is sitting in the passenger seat of our beat up hatchback as a kid while my mom told me the story of how the goats were able to get across that dang bridge with the troll protecting it. Sometimes, if I was really lucky, she’d recap an episode of a show I was too young to stay up for.
That woman could build some tension, let me tell you.
In elementary school, I played “teacher” with my stuffed animals. Sometimes I would even force my friends to be my students (waves at the ones who still speak to me). When I was done “teaching,” I would sit at my old-fashioned, garage sale school desk and write stories. Words have always had power over me and, as I look back, I can see that even if I tried to move away from them, they always brought me back. In fact, if I really look, stories have been at the heart of everything I’ve ever been interested in.
In his book, Living Myth, Personal Meaning as a Way of Life, D. Stephenson Bond speaks of a core experience and how it “is the foundation of a personal myth.” He says the experience usually happens in adolescence or early adulthood but can occur at any time, and I’m willing to bet those car rides with my mom or the writing sessions at my desk are mine. We all have a personal myth, and we writers depend on ours to help us find and sustain our creativity well.
Most people see a myth as an ancient story told to some long-forgotten society to explain why things are the way they are. That’s not how I’m defining myth here. For our purposes, a myth is simply what we believe to be true, regardless of its factual value. There are many people in the depth psychology field who can explain it better than me. Or is it better than I? Meh, you get me. I. Ugh.
A personal myth moves beyond cultural and familial stories, although those play a part in how a personal myth develops. Even the mythology of a workplace, town, or group of friends influences how we create our myth. Look at it like a personal paradigm only we can see through. Let me illustrate with a popular myth.
A long time ago, Ancient Greeks and (eventually) Romans told a tale about this smokin’ hot dude called Narcissus. The Greeks told it one way, but I’m going to use Ovid’s version for our example. Anyway, this guy wasn’t just Khaleesi’s hubby/Aquaman hot. Flowers bloomed when he walked by. Girls swooned. Polar ice caps melted. His parents were understandably worried he’d grow up and pick some arm candy without a dowry, so they consulted the oracle, Tiresias, who told them he’d be fine as long as “he didn’t get to know himself.” Well, along comes Echo, a darling little wood nymph, as he’s walking through the forest one day. She takes one look at his beauty and falls madly in love. The poor child follows him around like a middle-schooler with a crush just repeating what he says until she ceases to exist.
He literally ghosted her.
An early feminist, the goddess Nemesis isn’t too pleased with Mr. Cutey-pants, so she allows him to Know Thyself. As he comes to a pond, he is enraptured with the beautiful image he sees reflected back to him, the image of himself. Alas, he perceived the gorgeous thing floating on top of the water as a beauty he couldn’t possess, so he killed himself. Some say he’s still staring at his reflection in the Styx.
I know, that’s all fine and good and you’ve heard it all before. So what does it have to do with creating our own myth? Two things, actually.
When Narcissus reaches the pond, he is thirsty and alone. Maybe even lonely. Dennis Slattery, in his book Riting Myth/Mythic Writing, reminds us that water is the only element of the four that allows reflection of what is in front of it or above it, but it requires a “stillness, both in the person and on the water’s surface.” Swiss Psychologist Carl Jung amplifies the water’s surface as a symbol for where our consciousness meets our unconscious.
Think about it.
We are aware of everything on and above the surface of water if we look around long enough to notice it. But underneath is an entirely new world. Jung argued that our unconscious harbored our deepest memories and experiences we’ve long since forgotten about; but they are there, forming what we do and how we think, even if we don’t know why. He says “whoever looks into the water sees his own image, but behind it living creatures loom deep…harmless, if only the lake weren’t haunted.” These shadowy images need not be haunted or even bad, but they do exist in the places we can’t see.
As writers, we study how people communicate their anger, desire, and every other emotion. But we do this through our own lens, like a goldfish sees its environment through the water without recognizing what he’s looking through. Like the fish, we can’t help it.
Looking at the surface, Narcissus sees his reflection, much as we see ourselves through the responses of others to our words and deeds. And nine times out of ten, we react in the same manner, grasping at what isn’t real or what we perceive to be the perfect versions of ourselves only to be disappointed when we come up all wet and empty handed. (I’m looking at you, social media.)
Writing, however, can be a way to examine our personal myths and express them in ways that resonate with others. I don’t know about you, but I internally scream “SAME!” or “WHY IS THIS ME?” a lot when I read books. We long to see ourselves in the Other, and stories help us do that.
To sum up, Narcissus often gets a bad rap because he became fixated on what he thought he couldn’t have. The truth is, he had what he longed for the entire time, he just looked for it “out there” when it was really with him the entire time. As writers, we have to embrace our personal myth and work it so we can tell a better story.
The kid riding in the car with her mom depends on it.
Deborah Maroulis is a mythographer who writes young adult novels and teaches literature, composition, and mythology at San Joaquin Delta College. She has a master’s degree in English and is pursuing her Ph.D. in mythological studies with an emphasis in depth psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Her first novel, WITHIN AND WITHOUT, will debut in the spring of 2019 from Lakewater Press. She loves visiting schools and libraries and offering workshops inspiring students to read and write, all while having a little fun. You can contact her through her website, deborahmaroulis.com, and follow her on Twitter at @yaddathree.