by Lyssa Tall Anolik
In the dark days of winter we turn instinctively to story, to that which sparks our imagination and warms us through the long months of cold. What stories did your family tell? Which books have you read over and over until you’ve inhabited their places and characters? Some of my favorites are the infant Moses set adrift in a reed basket, “Raven Brings the Light,” and Maurice Sendak’s, Where the Wild Things Are. Like Max, I’ve journeyed to far-off lands to Wild Rumpus with my imaginary monsters on sleepless nights. It holds at bay the fear of real monsters – the things I can’t control – that lurk in the margins of my life.
According to Gertrude Mueller Nelson (Here All Dwell Free: Stories to Heal the Wounded Feminine)*, the archetypal characters in myths and folk or fairy tales represent aspects of our own psyche. Little Red Riding Hood personifies the innocence of childhood. The dark wood represents the fear and danger of what is unknown in the wilderness of our subconscious mind. These characters and symbols offer powerful clues to illuminate our deepest personal and societal truths. Here’s an exercise to help you find your truths.
Make a list of archetypal characters from your favorite stories: Snow White, Merlin, Persephone, Wolf, etc. Don’t be afraid to be unconventional. My list includes Jo from Little Women, and a student of mine once used all the characters in the Andy Griffith Show!
Now make a list of archetypal symbols that are meaningful to you: Christmas tree, Star of David, moon, secret garden, Alice’s looking glass, the color red, and so on.
Review your list and star the items you feel most strongly pulled towards. Pick one item from your list (a character or a symbol), and use it as a prompt for a 10-15-minute freewrite. Allow yourself to inhabit and be inhabited by that character or symbol. Repeat with as many items from your list as you like.
When you finish a freewrite that has the seeds of a story you love, pick a line or phrase from that piece. Use it to begin a new freewrite, going deeper into that story. Use your imagination to fill in the things you can’t quite remember: the snap of fir twigs underfoot, the color of your grandmother’s sweater, the smell of fresh-baked bread. This is how stories develop. You can continue to daisy-chain freewrites until you feel you have all the pieces of a story or have explored it from multiple angles.
Share your work
In honor of the winter solstice, I invite you to create your own story circle. Find a partner or a few friends to do these exercises with and share your work aloud. Respond by giving feedback on what moves you most about your partners’ work. If you feel inspired, type up one of your freewrites/stories and post it as a comment to this article!
In January, we’ll start looking at how to structure and shape the pieces you’ve been writing; but for now, I encourage you to take advantage of the winter dark to turn inward and draw forth the archetypal panoply of characters that live within you and the stories you have to tell.
* See also Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women Who Run with the Wolves.
Welcome to VoiceCatcher’s third in a series by writing coach and teacher, Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, here’s the perfect place to start. Check in every month for Lyssa’s practical tips on telling your story.
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.