(W)riting Myth: Exploring the Personal
“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” ‒ Carl Gustav Jung
For my friend Roger Barnes.
I cite this story for one simple reason—it is one of the building blocks in my own personal myth. It was a moment, a set of circumstances that helped mold my life. The power of personal myth and reckoning with the forces that shape it are among the reasons I was intrigued with Dennis Patrick Slattery’s latest work, Riting Myth, Mythic Writing: Plotting Your Personal Story (2012). As Slattery frames it, a personal myth “is a loom on which we weave the raw materials of daily experience into a coherent story” (2012, p. 19). And the secret to connecting, discovering your personal myth is through the ritual of writing, or as Slattery puts it, (w)riting.
Slattery has more than four decades of experience writing, reading and teaching myth and depth psychology, For the last 17 years he has been at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpentaria, California. An astute scholar in the mold of C.G. Jung, Joseph Campbell, and James Hillman, Slattery is one of our most imaginative writers on matters of soul, self, and psyche. In all, he has authored, co-authored, or co-edited 18 books. He is also a gifted teacher who has been active in conducting “Riting One’s Personal Myth” retreats in the United States, Canada, and Switzerland. Out of those experiences comes this marvelously accessible book that can be used in any number of ways -- by the teacher who teaches writing or the individual who is game “for a spiraling down into their particular histories to excavate at the deepest levels of their being what guides, informs, and helps shape their lives….” (2012, p. 7). Many of the writing meditations by his retreat participants are included in the text and they demonstrate clearly how one can plumb the interior world of the self. In this sense, I think the book is really about the act of discovery, of the journey of assembling and disassembling the material of one’s self. To guide us through this process Slattery has created a thoughtful list of questions for the reader/writer to take on in writing meditations. It is interesting to note that Slattery asks the reader, the (w)riter, to write in long hand, allowing him/herself to experience the energy and motion of the written word. (I should note that for the writing of this review I had to ask for dispensation to type it).
Riting Myth, Mythic Writing is structured by way of an introduction titled “Personal Myth: The Soul’s Central Station,” followed by nine chapters with titles such as “Engaging the Myth That Rites You,” “The (W)riting Self,” “Riting the Wounded Self, “ and “Riting the Spiritual Self.” Each chapter contains Slattery’s in-depth overview of the topic (the over 130 books and articles listed in the bibliography gives one a sense of the depth with which he treats these topics), followed by writing meditations with numerous questions to respond to, followed by selected responses from retreat writers as examples or prompts.
For instance, the chapter on “Riting the Wounded Self,” has ten separate writing meditations. My favorite writing meditation in this chapter is the one titled “The Wound That Keeps on Giving.” Drawing on his previous book, The Wounded Body: Remembering the Markings of Flesh (2000), Slattery points out that “We are a scarred and marked species. Wounds, with scars as their visible or invisible memories, dismemberments, crucifixions, riddle our being as we walk or run through life, or as we simply stop living” (2012, p. 92). He then poses a series of questions for the writer to choose among. My favorite questions from this writing meditation are:
Just to be clear—this one chapter on the wounded self has ten different writing meditations with a total (I counted them!) of 110 questions spread among the ten meditations. One could literally spend a lifetime working one’s (w)riting self through all the chapters of Riting Myth, Mythic Writing.
The “writers’ responses, culled from numerous writing retreats Slattery has conducted, provide insight into the breadth and depth that psyche can go with this material. Some responses are quite long, others short, some are a bit funny, others despairing. The chapter titled “The (W)riting Self” has a writing meditation called “Reveries on Writing,” in which Slattery poses a handful of observations on writing and then asks the (w)riter to “Simply go with whatever one…takes hold of you. Write without planning ahead; simply write what wants to be heard” (2012, p.53). In response, one of the retreat writers offered this:
As a writing self I’m someone who lets go with ease but never forgets the joy of holding hands; someone who is in touch with his feelings and is able to set boundaries when necessary; someone who has learned how to fall without too much trepidation; someone willing to wait and trust in the possibilities of the moment—believing all the pregnant possibilities will present themselves in time if only I wait; someone who sees the possibilities in the tear, the story in the stone, the hope in the star, the faith in the chair, the cold in the gun, the poem in the truck stop. And someone who has learned to kiss and be kissed and to keep the seat down. Quite accomplished, actually.
Towards the conclusion of the book Slattery takes the reader to what he calls the Central Question, “a fundamental question that guides or goads our quest in life,” (2012, p.177). Emphasizing the idea of a mystic spiral, “a geometry that many cultures and civilizations of the past have venerated as a powerful universal symbol for life itself, Slattery asks us to “enter the tabernacle of the spiral we are currently moving around and entertain a few ideas,” such as: “What is Truth? What is Wisdom? Is it possible for me to learn and trust more?” (pgs.177-8). As a sociologist this reminded me of the famous passage in Max Weber’s essay, Science as a Vocation, where he quotes Tolstoi’s observation that “Science is meaningless because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important to us: ‘What shall we do and how shall we live?’ “(1946, p. 143). So, how do we answer the Central Question? What say does your psyche bring to the table? Whatever the answer, it is indisputable, as Slattery reminds us, that it “carries within it the reverberations of my personal myth” (p.178).
At the outset of the book we are informed that “Its intention is to retrieve what we are through the poetics of depth and archetypal psychology and by means of the shaping and forming instincts of the soul” (2012, p.7). Dennis Slattery has clearly done his part—he has produced a smart, lively account of personal myth and self. But, the book is not complete, not until the (w)riter takes pen in hand and starts the journey of personal narrative and discovery. It is possible for vision to become clear, as Jung notes in the opening quotation of this review. The trick is to get this done, and I am amply convinced that (w)riting one’s way through the contours of our personal myth works. Dennis Slattery has instructively helped us to “look inside,” and with this, he is calling us to an awakening.
Gerth, Hans. and C. Wright Mills, eds (1946). From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wylie, Philip. (1942). Generation of Vipers. New York: Farrar and Rinehart.
Note: To purchase Riting Myth, Mythic Writing and receive 20% off the list price, click www.dennispslattery.com
Author Dennis Patrick Slattery
Assissi Institute Speaker Series
Dennis speaking on "The Healing Power of Narrative"
Reviewer Roger C. Barnes, Ph.D.
Roger C. Barnes, Ph.D.
© 2001-2012 mythopoetry.com All Rights Reserved