By Lyssa Tall Anolik
Writing from Sacred Story
It begins with a snake.
Once upon a time, a serpent in a garden tempted the first woman to eat forbidden fruit. The woman fearfully remarks, “But God says we’ll die if we eat from that tree.” The serpent scoffs. “You won’t die. God knows if you eat that fruit, your eyes will open and you’ll be like divine beings, who know good from bad.” So, the woman takes a bite. And we take a bite. The luscious juice of story dribbles down our chins. We know what happens next. We are never the same. Is this sin or salvation? I’ll come back to that later.
The cultural role of sacred story
Whether or not we are religious, we know these stories. We have heard them in school, listened to them in songs and seen them depicted in movies and art. Moses parts the Red Sea, Raven steals the sun, Thor wields his mighty hammer, Buddha sits (and sits and sits) beneath the Bodhi tree. These stories live inside using that vast collective unconscious of our dreams.
These stories, like pearls buried in the flesh of oysters, become seeds around which cultures grow. The rich heritage of oral tales and written texts glues us together, binding us in a tradition of communal story, whether we experience this history in a literal or figurative form. Sacred stories can tell us more of who we are if we venture inside them and overlay our lives with theirs.
Using sacred story in memoir
Similar to Jungian archetypes, characters and symbols in religious or folk stories can represent parts of our own psyche’s struggles and triumphs.
Let’s return to Eve and the snake. When you hear the word serpent or snake, what associations and emotions spring up? Are they evil, holy or something else? Snakes and serpents figure in mythologies throughout the world: Africa, the Amazon, Ireland, Italy. In Voodoo/West African lore, for example, the snake represents a rainbow, a bridge to God, and infinity. Your reaction to, and interpretation of, Eve’s serpent will depend on your personal history with that and other snake stories you may consciously or subconsciously bring into the mix.
I often don’t know how I will relate to a particular story, and what it can illuminate about my personal life story, until I step inside its world and write about it. That relationship changes as I continue to work with a story. I’d like to share my process for going about this work.
Writing exercise: You are the story
Pick a sacred story you have some relationship with or connection to.* It could be one you have read from a religious text, or heard from a parent or teacher, or seen a movie rendition of that has moved you to tears.
Make a list of characters from that story (the serpent, Eve, Adam, God). Make a list of symbols from that story (forbidden fruit, tree, garden, nakedness, eyes).
Pick one character or symbol from the lists and use as an “I am” prompt, like this:
I am the serpent … or I am the tree …
Freewrite from that prompt for 10 minutes. Don’t put your pen down until the time is up. Don’t plan ahead. Just allow the words to bubble up from your subconscious and spill onto the page.
Notice what happens. Did you learn something about your own story, or gain a new perspective on the old story?
Keep going. Choose another story, one that feels foreign or unfamiliar in some way — one outside your usual conception of the world. Repeat the exercise above. What does it feel like to enter that story?
Compare your two writings. You may be surprised to find that you could enter the unfamiliar story just as easily as the familiar one, and still discover something about your own sacred journey through life.
I believe all sacred stories originate from the same great, collective creative well. As we live our lives and struggle with obstacles in our path – as every great heroine or hero must – we are living our own sacred story. When we engage with the powerful tales that are our birthright, we reinterpret them, searching for relevance in our modern lives. As we do so, we renew them for today’s generation and allow ourselves to become renewed, as well.
* Sacred Stories: Wisdom from World Religions by Marilyn McFarlane (Aladdin/Beyond Words 2012) is a compact source for tales from different traditions.
This is VoiceCatcher’s thirteenth (and last) article in a series by writing coach and teacher Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, her series is the perfect place to start. If you’re new to this column and memoir writing, please see the first installment for an introduction to memoir and tips and tools for getting started.
When Lyssa Tall Anolik agreed to write a memoir column for our website, little did she know her commitment would span almost a year and a half. Her first article appeared on October 14, 2012 and introduced readers to what memoir is and is not. Each subsequent column was not only highly polished but engaging and practical. We kept encouraging Lyssa to think about transforming these “chapters” into a book. We hope that happens someday.
Lyssa has given us concrete ideas, craft ideas, inspiration, how-to’s and encouragement to write memoir – the personal stories hardest to tell. Thanks, Lyssa, for enriching our readers with your experiences, examples and wisdom. We will miss you on the pages of VoiceCatcher and are grateful to hold you in our community.
Lyssa Tall Anolik received her MFA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Vermont College. She coaches writers and teaches memoir in Portland. Her personal essays and poetry have appeared in Drash: Northwest Mosaic, The Wild, VoiceCatcher3 and 4, EarthSpeak and other journals. Lyssa is a founding member of The Writers Next Door.