Wednesday, March 29, 2017

My Muse: A Trickster Extraordinaire!

Bugs Bunny



"Your book is a trickster!"
– Book-Birthing Rule #9, Birthing Your Book…Even If You Don’t Know What It’s About




The “trickster” exists in many cultures. In myth, think leprechauns (Ireland), coyotes (U.S. Southwest), the Greek god Dionysus and the Hawaiian/Polynesian demigod Maui. In literature and popular culture, think A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Puck, King Lear’s Fool (along with every court jester ever conceived), Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Bart Simpson, the Pink Panther and Bugs Bunny.

In short the trickster is an archetypal figure that dupes its victims into doing its bidding. Mischievous by nature, it will lie unashamedly and break any rule to get its own way. 


Coyote Medicine CardTo date, I have written five books on writing and each includes some version of what I say in Birthing Your Book’s Rule #9: “As you craft the book you think you are writing, [your book and your muse] will often trick you into writing something you never expected to write, something you never thought you wanted to write, something, perhaps, that is uncomfortable to write.”

When the idea came to me for The Emmeline Papers, the third book in my award-winning Sara Stories, it was going to focus on one of the minor characters in After Sara’s Year: Mac's quirky, eccentric, single-minded Aunt Emmeline Mandeville. The idea for the story arrived nearly fully formed (or so I thought), along with the title. 


Had I been smart, I would have remembered not only my Book-Birthing Rule #9, I would have recalled how that same tricksterish rule played out in Sara’s Year, the first of my Sara novels.

When I sat down in a Santa Monica Starbucks to begin Sara’s Year, I also had a concept and a title. The title never changed, but my original idea vanished within minutes of launching into that first day’s writing.

Q in Star Trek: TNGBecause, like lightning, a trickster never strikes twice in precisely the same place or the same manner, my experience with The Emmeline Papers was entirely different, if with the same ultimate effect: The title has not changed but everything else about the book has!

Part of the impetus for that change came from a book that I was asked to not only edit and design but contribute to, an anthology titled Still Me…After All These Years: 24 Writers Reflect on Aging.

I began my first draft of Emmeline the same way I began my very first novel: in a writing workshop I was leading. This time, I was teaching at Unity Santa Fe, not in my long-ago Toronto living room. And this time, I assumed that I knew what I was doing. (Never assume anything!)

Twenty-three years earlier at that Toronto workshop, I had felt guided to participate in a writing exercise that I was facilitating. The result eventually became The MoonQuest, and that evening’s writing would become an integral part of the novel.

Still Me coverWith Emmeline, I set out to begin a novel whose plot I believed I knew. Within a few weeks, however, I had trashed that opening scene and begun again, from an entirely different premise.

(This time I didn’t dare fight the title, which insisted on remaining intact. With Sara’s Year I did fight it, only to discover in the final scene of the first draft why that title was perfect!)

What happened to me that changed the Emmeline story? Author Karen Helene Walker, who had conceived and was compiling the Still Me anthology, sent me the first of its essays to edit.

Those, along with the essays and poems that followed in the ensuing weeks, moved me, inspired me, made me laugh, made me think and, in a few instances, made me cry. As a 62-year-old, I also recognized myself and my experiences, joys and concerns in many of them.

But the Still Me essays did more than that. The more I read, the more I began to think about Emmeline and her “papers” in a whole new way. It didn’t take long before I realized that the book I thought I was writing was to be something else altogether — something more engaging for its readers and, for better or worse, more emotionally and creatively challenging for its author.

The Emmeline Papers coverIronically, The Emmeline Papers is not a book about aging. All tricksters move in strange and mysterious ways, and my trickster-muse is no different. Aging is a component of Emmeline, but the story is more about many of the things that we experience regardless of our age. It’s about hopes and dreams. It’s about mortality and death. It’s about fear and courage. It’s about loss. It’s about relationship. It’s about life. It’s about many of the themes addressed — both touchingly and humorously — in Still Me…After All These Years. (And for fans of Sara’s Year and After Sara’s Year, it’s about far more than Emmeline: All your favorite characters are back for this third installment of the series.)

It will be a couple of months before you can get your hands on The Emmeline Papers (I’m aiming for a late spring release, but you can preorder your copy now). However, Still Me…After All These Years is available today and well worth the read, regardless of your age. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a contributor!


The Pink PantherAnd what about my contribution? It also links back to The Sara Stories. It’s called “It’s Never Too Late to Follow Your Dreams” and it tells the story of how I came to write Sara’s Year. A series of age-related health scares forced me to ask myself the question many of us of a certain age find ourselves asking, even without medical prompting: “If I’m to die sooner rather than later, what is it that I want to make sure I do before I go?”

It won’t surprise you (though it did surprise me!) to discover that it’s a question that also pops up in The Emmeline Papers.


As I move forward with Emmeline, I continue to be struck by the creatively tricksterish wiles of my muse and I have to wonder whether the fourth and final book in The Sara Stories (as yet untitled) will bear any resemblance to my current notion of it!

Meanwhile, The Emmeline Papers continues to unfold, thanks in some measure to the gifted and engaging contributors to Still Me…After All These Years!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Larger Than Life

Barbra Streisand in concertSome years back when I was visiting Toronto, a friend treated me to a ticket to Barbra Streisand's first-ever concert performance in that city. Although we were sitting high in the rafters in a hockey arena that was anything but intimate, I was startled by how fully and personally her energy filled every corner of that venue.

"She's larger than life," I remember gushing to my friend at intermission.

I recalled the experience a few months later while listening to a recording of the concert. “That’s what I want,” I heard myself blurt out loud and was so startled by what seemed such an unspiritual, ego-driven thought that I was embarrassed. It would be a few months more before I was able to recognize the deeper meaning of both the Streisand experience and my response to it.

“Larger than life,” I realized, was not about having Barbra Streisand’s fame. It was about continuing to shed whatever self-imposed limitations I still carried within me in the mistaken belief that they could protect me from some undefined evil. Even if I couldn’t detail all the ways I was holding myself back, I knew that I was.

Return to Love book cover"Our deepest fear," writes Marianne Williamson in A Return to Love, "is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure." Perhaps even deeper than the fear she describes is the fear of experiencing and expressing our power out in the world, of being larger than life, of living beyond the self-imposed walls and barriers we create in the mistaken belief they will keep us safe.

They can't and they won't.

Our only safety resides in living our largest life to its fullest potential, in living our truth...in living our passion. In walking through life as though we are safe...as though nothing can stop, limit or restrict us.

As I write this, an old Cole Porter lyric keeps running through my head:

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above / Don't fence me in

At a literal level, the song is sung by a cowboy who longs for the endless space of the open range.

Yet it's also the song of every soul deprived of its fullest expression by the fences of a fearful mind, a soul that seeks only the limitlessness of its natural state.

Whatever you think of Barbra Streisand's talent or personality, when you are in her energy field, you touch that limitlessness and your soul cries out, "Me too! That's who I am, too!!"

Here in the Western world, where we have been taught to play small, we transfer all of our natural desire for the fenceless world of a life lived large to our movie stars and sports heroes.

If we can't play out our own passion and power, we play it out through a celebrity cult that's no healthier than any other cult, one we also find in countries with charismatic leaders/dictators, in religions with unapproachable gods and in all situations where we abdicate the expression of our infinite nature to someone or something outside of ourselves.

Q'ntana Trilogy book coversIn my novel, The MoonQuest, very much a metaphor for all our journeys, the main character is destined for a greatness he continues to resist. Yet destiny, as he is constantly reminded, is not cast in stone. There is always a choice.

"Every choice you have ever made, has led to this moment. Your moment. Still, the power to make a different choice remains yours."

The power to choose is always ours. In every moment and through every situation, we're offered the opportunity to choose our greatness, our passion, our light.

It's what we do with each moment and situation that governs our destiny, that decides whether we live in our greatness or in the shadow of someone else's, that determines whether we build fences or tear them down.

In this moment, what do you choose?

Adapted from Acts of Surrender: A Writer’s Memoir © 2012, 2013 Mark David Gerson


• Look for The MoonQuest and Acts of Surrender: A Writer's Memoir in paperback or ebook from your favorite online bookseller or signed by me to you from my website.