Last week I posted about the production “Papermaker” (to be played on the Portland Stage). The native Maine playwright extrapolated from her interconnected book of short stories, but what inspired her to pursue the project was something largely neglected in that collection. Namely, the chief executive officer. After writing the blog entry I recalled an early writing experience—exploring mythopoeic nonfiction in a Maine setting that would be permeated with all things Maine.
Mythopoeic nonfiction sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? The contradiction intrigued me (though there were other reasons for trying it). Something about it seems not quite possible, for I am a stickler about the term nonfiction. If, as CS Lewis once said to his friend Tolkien, myths are lies breathed through silver, shouldn’t something called nonfiction be factual, unrelated to myth? Nonfiction should be fact, factual. Tolkien addressed a poem to Lewis defending myth as truth. Yet the challenge remains. Tell the truth (in this case without fiction), but infuse it with mythic qualities inherent in your worldview. And the truth is best told and received using structure and elements inherent in storytelling itself.
Back then I was writing and submitting to Maine magazines and publishers. The editor of Dogeared Press liked a piece I sent him, but with qualifications. If I had been able to follow through on his request, factually, it would have meant incorporating management personnel, and the owners of the lumber mill featured in my piece. I felt unable to do so. Already I was feeling uncomfortable with my concept, but a few years later I would be able to try working it up again without overt intrusion into the lives of others. I did this by focusing more on aspects of Maine itself and my reception to them. The result was Maine Metaphor.
The piece I sent to Dogeared Press was a true account of my detailed observations in a lumber mill—watching each worker at his machine, and how the trunk of a single massive white pine moved through the mill on its way from the log yard to the lumberyard—debarked, squared, sliced, edged, trimmed and graded. Every man on the crew was receptive to being observed and written about in his nightly working roll of achieving this goal — turning white pine into marketable lumber. The trimmer turning the heavy boards that night was my husband, R..
Still later, and this material never having been published, I was able to turn it into fiction, and thus incorporate a mill owner, of my own imaginative devising, based on this role in a locally construed and fictional town full of qualities found in rural Maine towns. Especially in the 1980s, nearly every rural town had lumber and wood-turning mills. I found that community roles are excellent types from which to extrapolate characters.
And they pursue from ancient archetypes: messenger (news reporter, telegrapher); warrior (policewoman, national guard soldier); Artemis (hunter, game warden), town-founders (bounders, establishers); Hades (undertaker, hospice worker); healer (doctors, nurse-practioners). And many more.
Swapping people for things from wikipedia on Plato’s definition of forms: “[archetypal forms] were collective in the sense that they embodied the fundamental characteristics of a thing rather than its specific peculiarities.”
And the poor in your fictive town you have with you always: the worldview of a world famous storyteller.
I can’t get inside a real person’s head unless they are willing to share their thoughts with me … even that would be limited. And liking to make things up, so I used my lumber mill observations in mythic fiction where head-hopping happens.
Remember, fiction. Made up. The trimmer in this fiction below is not R.. The mill owner here is nothing like the owners of the lumber mill in the nonfiction piece mentioned above. This scene seems realistic but is actually part of a mythopoeic cycle featuring New England Gothic, heaven and hell, visitations, and a peculiar owl. From a scene on a night when perfect white pine is moving through the lumber mill in fictive Gott’im Maine:
The trimmer’s table stretches to the mill wall, just this side of a door leading out to the grader and the yard below. Approaching, Lyman Bearce senses refreshed alertness in the rhythms of Moses Merrill. Merrill’s job is to increase the worth of a board by cutting it to length. A good trimmer can shove the price of a board two, three, even four grades higher, depending on how he trims it. Always looking for that select board, Moses is quick. He can spot the face of the next board while cutting the end off the one he is releasing, eliminating as much as four feet to bump that board up to clear select.
Bearce stands back of the stocky trimmer, eyeing the perfect lumber coming through, watching as Merrill turns and trims in a smooth repetitive motion. This wood! Even demanding Lyman Bearce is impressed. Board after board of flawless pine. So broad that other mills would not be able to process it. So broad that Moses can hardly turn it.
“Some wood!” Merrill tosses the observation over his shoulder loud enough to be heard above the whine of the 16-foot saw.
“Not a knot anawaya!” Seeing it, Bearce can hardly keep a smile off. Board after 16-foot board, select. The world can’t be as bad as they say, not with this kind of wood still around. Almost he feels like clapping Merrill on the back. As though the boy had prayed and pronounced over it when a seedling, saying, Thy wood shall be select! It’s the purity they have waited for. All that cutting, edging, trimming, and seldom seeing such wood. The sight of it coming should lift the boy’s heart; it does mine.
But when Bearce turns away Moses grits his teeth, turning a heavy board, cursing under his breath. When the boss has gone he can coast. No use turning these boards. Theya ain’t no knots in this wood. Won’t slip my discs over the old man’s lumber.
If you are having trouble coming up with characters, start with jobs, work. You may have to research the jobs. How does the world work? Can even a made up world function without work to keep it going?