Carl Jung and Writing ‘New Shoes’

‘New Shoes’ began as an early chapter in my second unpublished novel, introducing my protagonist at a low point in her life. She’d been fired from her job. Aside from the humiliation of being sacked, she had to deal with the culture of unemployment – anxiety about job interviews, rejection, the loss colleagues and the worst thing of all – daytime television.

This is a story about work-related identities, a term I would use now, after about a dozen rewrites over the course of two decades. No one said writing was easy. Back when the story was a novel chapter, I thought of it as being about Jungian archetypes. I was living in Washington DC and it was the mid-nineties. In academia and new age thinking, Jungian psychology was all the rage and it found its way into literary and cultural criticism, which I was teaching at the time. And if that weren’t enough, Joseph Campbell had taken Jung and turned him into an industry through the PBS television series The Power of Myth, which of course came with a best-selling book. An offshoot of this can be found in the fiction writers’ bible The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.

‘New Shoes’ looks at changing one’s role in life and identity in Jungian terms. The visually-impaired old lady fulfils the mentor archetype. As Karena goes down her hallway looking for the old women, she comes across other archetypes and rejects them – or they reject her. The characters on the television, presented as two-dimensional, are also archetypal, pandering to an audience of types of people (rather than individuals). The somewhat open-ended conclusion stresses the importance of the process over the outcome. In Jungian-based psychotherapy, the emphasis is on the process of self-discovery, which is often aided by the analysis of dreams. Neither Karena nor the reader knows if she’s dreaming in parts of the story.

Over the years, only a couple of people who have read the story and commented on it have picked up on the Jungian references. But that’s okay. I’m reminded of the scholar who spent years analysing and writing about Shoeless Joe and its screenplay adaptation Field of Dreams, as explorations of Jungian psychology. It makes loads of sense to me with a story so obviously full of symbolism. When the scholar met the author of Shoeless Joe, W.P. Kinsella, and asked about the Jungian influences, Kinsella had no idea what the scholar was talking about.

Writing Essays

This was supposed to be a writer’s blog, writing about my writing and others’ writings. But other aspects of life have funnelled in – politics, feminism, visual arts. I make no apology. What brings all of these disparate parts together is actually essay writing. Blogs for me are a warm-up activity, a brain and language stretch for writing essays.

Before I write another word, I should explain that by ‘essay’ I mean creative non-fiction. What I don’t mean, for those of you who have searched #essay writing and landed here, is the formulaic student essay – that academic rag of assessment that takes all of the fun out of essay writing.

Without the structural constraints or the timeliness needed for newspaper articles or columnists’ pieces, essays can have a more varied existence. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard once said ‘The essay is, and has been, all over the map. There’s nothing you cannot do with it; no subject matter is forbidden, no structure is proscribed.’

Annie Dillard
Annie Dillard

In some of my essays, I’ve worked within an overriding chronological story-telling, but without fictional characters to get in my way and with space for more philosophical ideas than I can get away with in fiction. With other essays, I’ve used more of a mini-collection style, with each vignette on the same theme and some indirectly answering to other vignettes. I try to not ramble in my essays. Perhaps it’s because I ramble in my journals or perhaps because I fear the work won’t get published – being mistaken for bad writing.

That reminds me of something I read a few years ago in Prospect Magazine: ‘The essay is more than an assembly of literary conventions: it ought to be an examination of the facts of the world. This has become clearer with the emergence of new technologies, which threaten to deprofessionalise one of the main historical strands of the essay, the egotistical ramble.’ (P. Hensher)

Aside from the above comment about rambling, this quote is also interesting for its inclusion of ‘facts.’ One thing I’ve learned from writing essays over the years is that while they are not fictional, their ownership of ‘facts’ or ‘truths’ is a bit slippery. I write about what I know to be factual at the time, sometimes having to rely on elusive memories that I’m aware are from my viewpoint. I choose to write about some facts and not others because this fact or that fact has been meaningful to me.

My favourite essayists have been mostly male. In part this is because men are more likely to have collections of essays published as single volumes. I’m thinking Gore Vidal and Clive James. I suspect this has its origins in the essays of the great Western philosophers. Women’s essays appear more often in anthology form along side other authors, such as the works of Rachel Carson and Margaret Atwood (underrated as an essayist).  I’ve noticed the trend too of the rare collection by a single female author being labled ‘women’s writing’ or ‘feminism.’

Well, if I’m going to buck this trend, I had better stop by rambling – I’ve exercised enough with this blog – and get on with essay writing.


Allende’s The Japanese Lover – another mistitled book

Book promoters must believe romance and chick lit sells better than stories about families affected by war and human trafficking. The Japanese lover in Isabel Allende’s novel is really a character of a subplot that draws other characters (not the lovers) together and as a loose commentary about interracial relationships in post-war America. The romantic elements play second fiddle to a story that starts with Jewish immigrants fleeing Hitler’s Europe and continues with a Japanese family in California sent to an internment camp. These elements run alongside a more modern story of immigration from poverty in Moldovia only to face slavery and child abuse in America. Embedded in both stories are romantic relationships, but two of which are not truly romantic – an unrequited love and a marriage of convenience.

The novel should have been entitled Lark House as that’s the name of the free-spirited and eccentric residential home that brings together the two stories and their main characters. Alma is one of Lark House’s more independent residents. A painter and designer from a wealthy family who was brought to America as a child to escape the war in Europe, at the end of her life, she meets Irina, a young care worker. While Irina struggles to come to terms with the abuse of her past, she befriends Seth, Alma’s grandson. The young friends piece together Alma’s mysterious past, uncovering the older woman’s affair with Ichimei, the son of her family’s gardener.Allende 1

While Allende weaves these plots together seamlessly, her prose isn’t remarkable. At times, the omnipotent narrator is so distance from the characters and their physical surroundings, some passages read like journalistic reportage. That aside, it still was a good read and often hard to put down.

Crime Fiction and Tana French

When I occasionally read crime fiction I feel as if I’m watching television. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In recent years television has improved immensely, especially in the crime department, with the likes of Line of Duty, The Wire, The Fall and Luther, to name a few. But where crime fiction and television fall short are in being plot-driven. With fiction, I invest my time and soul into the activity of reading and I expect at the least a story which is character-driven – for me, a mark of good writing. Of course, some of the best television crime, like those already mentioned, have strong characters, whose lives and character journeys develop as subplots to the main crime plots.

I’ve recently read Tana French’s The Trespasser, a murder story set in Dublin. While it’s a plot-driven page turner, it’s equally about Detective Antoinette Conway. As narrator, Conway is opinionated and fierce, encapsulated in an entertaining Irish idiom. As a detective, she can be sarcastic, brisk and aggressive, especially with her co-workers. She knows that she ‘lacks charm’ but believes it’s her best defence against the squad that wants to be rid of her. With the murder story taking its twists and turns, this character makes her own journey of self-awareness and identity. And like Line of Duty, the story thrives on long, but gripping, interrogation scenes that explore the psychology of the interviewers as much as those of the interviewees.Tana French trespasser

I do wonder if The Trespasser didn’t have detectives and a dead body, it may have been shortlisted for awards in 2016, alongside Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and Rose Tremaine’s The Gustav Sonata.

Gertrude Bell in Persia

She’s been described as ‘the female Lawrence of Arabia.’ I confess that I’ve used that glib and convenient phrase myself. But it doesn’t do her the least bit of justice.  One could argue that she accomplished a great deal more than T.E. Lawrence and that she had more barriers to overcome along the way.

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was an archaeologist, scholar, writer and a political advisor, helping to establish modern-day Iraq and the National Museum of Iraq. As a contemporary of Lawrence, she worked with him at one point in Egypt. Both were British born and both developed a love and consequently insider’s knowledge of what was then called Arabia and Persia (or even more broadly and strangely to modern ears ‘the Orient.’) While Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom is still read by British and American forces stationed in the Middle East, Bell’s writings on Iraq and Syria are studied by military experts and scholars the world over.

I recently read the first book she wrote, Safar Nameh: Persia Pictures.  It’s a journal of her travels in 1892 to what was then Persia, covering modern-day Iran and much of Turkey. She was accompanying her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, the British Minister to the region, which gave her access to people and places unavailable to most Westerners, especially women.Gertrude bell

Persia Pictures shows us a travel writer at the naissance of her writing life, before she knew herself the role writing would play in her career and the mark it would leave on her legacy. She relays impressions of the landscape, the towns and villages and the people that inhabit them with a sense of wonderment – that first discovery – of a part of the world few in the West knew much about. With this is her discovery of the Persian language and some of its most revered writers – in preparation for the adventure, she became highly proficient in Persian. (At this point in her life, she was already fluent in French and had begun studying Arabic.) Among the gems of this book are her fragments of translations of the Persian poet Hafiz into English. A few years later she published her translations of The Divan of Hafiz.

Bell concludes this short volume with what can be best described as a meditation on travelling. Here, she summarises her encounters with the locals in her role as traveller: ‘Although your acquaintance may be short in hours, it is long in experience; and when you part you feel as intimate as if you had shared the same slice of bread-and-butter at your nursery and the same bottle of claret in your college hall. The vicissitudes of the road have a wonderful talent for bringing out the fine flavour of character.’

With the films Queen of the Desert and Letters from Baghdad, Bell is slowly emerging from obscurity, but still appears to be relegated to ‘women’s studies’ as opposed to the writer, scholar and historical figure that her feats deserve. Yet, the day might come when T.E. Lawrence is referred to as ‘the male Gertrude Bell.’

Writing ‘The Scent of Oranges’

Since the publication of my short story ‘The Scent of Oranges,’ some people have asked me why I chose to write on such a subject. And they’re speaking through gritted teeth, unable to hide their discomfort. The story is about a woman paedophile.

The topic surfaced in part because Mslexia announced that their showcase theme for issue 73 was ‘guilt.’ Of course, like any good self-absorbed writer, I first looked to my own life. We all have our residue of guilt. The guilt leftover from actions in my childhood, some of which I’ve written about, are at their strongest when viewed from a child’s perspective. In keeping with the audience and purpose of Mslexia, I wanted this to be an adult woman’s story. Most of my guilty feelings from adult years are rather undramatic and feeble – not so much guilt, as feeling regretful for not keeping in touch with friends or not taking on more responsibilities or not acting in a more sympathetic way – those sorts of things.  Then I considered the actions of others I’ve known over the years. While I’ve known some dodgy characters, I was never directly involved in their white-collar crimes. Even those adventures seemed too soft for a short story about guilt.

I needed something with force.

Paedophilia is a topic with force. As a child, it terrified me; as an adult, it sickens me. Unlike other crimes, it’s also something I can’t imagine myself doing.  Anytime I see a good heist film, I envision myself with the toolbelt and all the technological know-how to break into the safe, take the rolls of money and get away with it. As an antihero, I’ve even imagined myself committing murder – there are some people I think the world would be better without. But I cannot conjure up a scene involving paedophilia with me in it.

Of course, it’s possible to write about characters unlike ourselves or people we know. I find that easier when I write male characters, and I did in fact write about a male paedophile some years ago in my play A Special Boy. There, I kept myself at a safe distance from the awfulness of the topic. The play was more about a misguided community of vigilantes than a pederast – and that character was an emotional abuser and manipulator, leaving the existence of physical abuse for the audience to decide.mslexia-march2017

For ‘The Scent of Oranges,’ once again I’ve positioned myself and the reader at a slight distance.  I placed the physical act in the past. The paedophile has served her time and has to deal with life on the outside. I drew some ideas from the newspapers. Occasionally one reads about a woman being arrested for having a relationship with a teenage boy – in other words, the boy had to be old enough to get it up, but not old enough for legal sex. But I didn’t want to make it appear that the paedophile was a victim of strict laws about the age of consent – that would have been a copout. So, in the end [SPOILER ALERT] it’s a battle between guilt and temptation to do it again.