The evolution of personal myths and our writing

by Pari

In a way, every human being is in the fiction business. We all nurture myths about our lives — the victories and defeats, the entitlements and generosities.

Writers mine these myths in their work, often unaware that they’re doing this mental archeology. But, I believe all of us create characters that, in some way, mirror the attributes we admire or abhor in ourselves. At least, that’s where we start.

If we do it well, no one can tell what we’re up to. If we fail, people think our fiction is autobiographical. (This is a common pitfall for newer writers.)

Over time, myths become ossified. Our personal legends sit so still that we don’t even realize they’re there. They’re cemented into our psyches.

IF they budge, it’s usually at a glacial pace . . .

Img_6312So, imagine my surprise when I realized my self image as a "frumpy soccer mom" had been sidekicked into oblivion.

I never thought that Tae Kwon Do would affect my art.

When I first started, about four years ago, I did it because it looked like fun. For a long time, it wasn’t. At least once a week, I thought more about quitting than sticking with it.

It was too hard.
I didn’t want to punch a bag. I didn’t want to punch a person OR BE punched.
I didn’t want to try to throw a person down. I sure as hell didn’t WANT to be thrown down.

But, I stayed.

Img_6051Somewhere along the line, I became fierce and focused. I have no idea when it happened.

The other night, when we were in class, Master Kim had us compete against each other. The class had about 30 people that evening ranging in ages from 15 – 59.

For the uninitiated, "forms" are a series of specific moves that reflect attacks and defenses.  Sometimes they make sense. Often they don’t. But you learn all of them in a particular order and each one brings its own challenges and insights. Right now, I’m working on the one I’ll need to earn my black belt.

Master Kim (he’s the Korean guy in the background of pictures 2 & 3) lined up three chairs and had the other black belts teaching the class sit as judges. The only thing they were looking for in our execution of these forms was sheer power.

I won every time.

Img_6059Given that my kicks aren’t high or pretty, given that there are men in the class who are much stronger than I am, given a thousand other factors . . . this was astonishing and truly humbling.

My TKD master often jokes that I should have one of my protags study this martial art. I tell him that neither one has the discipline or personality for it.

But, as my writing continues, I’ve noticed that these ladies I’ve created have more and more backbone. They’re less willing to be frightened or intimidated.

Somewhere, deep inside, they know they could ram an attacker’s nose cartilage into his brain . . . if they had to.

That didn’t come from writing the character. That came from my own study and ownership of Tae Kwon Do. My personal mythology has evolved and it’s affecting my writing in a very real way.

My questions today are:
1. Have you noticed these kinds of transformations in yourself?
2. If you write, have you seen them transfer to your characters?
3. Is there anything lately that has caused a shift in your personal myths?

I can’t wait to read what you’ve got to say.

35 thoughts on “The evolution of personal myths and our writing

  1. Mark Terry

    Very often, although more in small ways. My interests in music change, so do my characters (very interested in blues guitar at the moment). I’m a belt-level away from black in Sanchin-Ryu karate and that’s often reflected in my characters’ self-defense notions, although not specifically Sanchin-Ryu, usually, although it was pivotal in my latest novel, The Serpent’s Kiss.

    I’m wrapping up a novel now with a character who’s not into the martial arts, but notes that he was on the wrestling team in high school and was a walk-on for a year or two in college until a wrestler who went on to win a silver in the olympics taught him what real wrestling was about by dislocating his shoulder and elbow. This came up because my youngest son is really into wrestling these days.

    I sometimes seem to mine different aspects of my personality. The novel I’m completing mines more of the smartass, politically pragmatic/cynical side, rather than the compulsive, obsessive, stubborn aspects that I mine when I write about Derek Stillwater.


  2. Sheila Connolly

    I took a class in Tae Kwon Do in college, many years ago, and the thing I remember best is how to fall. Maybe that’s useful, knowing that if you are knocked down you can roll back up, rather than lying helpless on the ground.

    Sometimes I wonder if we use our characters as some sort of therapy. After you’ve written a few books and take a look at your protagonists, you find yourself saying, hmmm, she seems to have problems with her mother, or, doesn’t she have any friends?

    So, since I can’t fix my relationship with my late mother, I can make an effort to find new friends and reach out to people. It’s working!

  3. pari

    Mark,You bring up a good point about how our characters often reflect our interests. I’m sure you’ve gotten comments from friends that when they read Derek, they know it’s you.

    Well, I’m sure it’s not. But your protag — and other characters — share some of your passions and that may be enough to make friends think you’re really writing about yourself.

    . . . and yes, I used to take my whipped cream straight from the can.

    Sheila,Yeah.Fiction as therapy. That’s so right-on.

    In my Sasha series, I definitely continue to work on my relationship with MY mother — though in real life, she’s been dead for almost 9 years. But, the fictional mom and Sasha have a different history, different issues, than I did with mine.

    The therapeutic part is that that mom is still alive. As long as someone is living, there’s the chance for growth.

  4. Louise Ure

    I spend a lot of time writing about guilt, and blame and responsibility and fault. And oh yeah, that comes straight from me.

    You’re always the hero of your own story, Pari, and your martial arts success proves that yes, indeed, you deserve to be.

    Please, please put a martial arts-learned character in a book!

  5. Stacey Cochran

    “Somewhere along the line, I became fierce and focused. I have no idea when it happened.”

    I’ve been writing to be published since I was sixteen. I’m 34, now, and it’s been the primary pursuit of my life. I’m married and have a young son. I’ve never sold a novel beyond self publishing, and I’ve received over a 1000 rejection letters.

    A funny thing happened this past year, though. Maybe it was the birth of my son, or maybe it was that I was finally beginning to get good at what I do.

    People started showing up at events that I did. I’d put a panel together of self published authors, get the word out, and we’d see 120 people show up, packing bookstore after bookstore, library after library.

    Then, I added a TV show.

    The response has been good.

    Then, in August, I added the site. We’re nearing 4000 views in just under two months.

    At some point, I think I took the chip off my shoulder, turned it into coal, and made the bitch start working for me.

    Now, if I could just find a publisher who shares my passion and focus.

  6. pari

    It’s fascinating to witness our own themes, isn’t it, Louise?

    Mine have a lot to do with how we communicate, or don’t, and are based in the idea that each human being is a culture unto him- or herself.

    RE: the martial arts . . . I might do that one day. Have a character who looks like a regular gal just beat the crap out of someone. Or, be really groovy about it.

    Stacey,The birth of a child is one of those life events that smack our myths into a different universe. Today is the birthday of one of mine and I keep thinking about the person I was then and now.

    I LOVE your line: “At some point, I think I took the chip off my shoulder, turned it into coal . . .”

    You’re a prime example of that — and making it work well.

    I have a question for you: Why do you want a “publisher?” You’ve had such success w/o one. I’m not being facetious here, just really curious.

  7. guyot

    Oh, and now seems like as good a time as any…

    I recently finished reading THE SOCORRO BLAST.

    Pari might be a brown belt in Tae Kwon Do, but she is writing at the level of a 3rd degree black belt.

    Seriously, have any of you read her? Not just friends or fellow blog mates, but those of you cruising this site. Have you read her? Forget the preconceived notions you might have about her, or the subject matter of her books, or because they aren’t printed by Random House at 100,000 a run. Buy the freaking book.

    Guyot’s gonna drop some science on you right now… There’s a lot of people in the world who play golf, but there are very few real golfers. There are lots of people who play cards, but there are very few card players. There are thousands of people who write books every year, but there aren’t many writers.

    Pari is a writer.

  8. Tammy Cravit

    For me, it was becoming a rape crisis advocate that gave me that sense of personal emopowerment, and it’s definitely transfered to my characters. They’re stronger, more self-assured, and more willing to extend themselves to do what’s right.

    Writing as a mirror to the soul, methinks.

  9. Stacey Cochran

    Why do you want a “publisher?”

    Two reasons really: I want to reach the broadest audience possible in order to touch people’s lives to show them that they, too, can be published. I want to inspire people to do something with their creativity.

    Second reason, I want to take the burden off of my wife. She works herself to the bone to support my writing.

    I’ve had an awesome year as a self-published author, but I’ll barely clear ten thousand dollars for 2007. Which is great, but it ain’t enough to raise a family on.

    I want to take some of the burden off of my wife.

  10. guyot

    I would also think that every self-pub’d author wants a legit deal. No matter how successful one is by self-publishing, there is nothing that would feel as great as a legit publisher offering real dollars (however large or small) for a manuscript.

    It’s also a validation, and with that comes an acceptance from people or organizations that – right or wrong – doesn’t exist as a self-published author.

  11. David J. Montgomery

    I see people running around the blogosphere bragging about how successful they are at their self-publishing efforts. And who knows, maybe they’re making a fortune and the rest of us are the suckers. But I’ve never heard of one of them turning down a deal from a real publisher. Even a lousy deal.

    There’s a certain kind of pain that comes from having your work rejected that is unique to being a writer. Sometimes it hurts so much that we’re desperate to search for shortcuts to avoid that pain. Life teaches us, however, that, as with all things worth attaining, there are no shortcuts.

  12. Stacey Cochran

    Guyot and David, I think you’re absolutely right.

    There’s a third reason that I didn’t list, but you’ve basically said it. It’s professional fulfillment, the respect of others, confidence, even self-esteem.

    I think I’ve gotten most of these to where they’re pretty healthy on my own.

    But to take it to the next level and grow as an author, I think I need a publisher like Random House, Simon & Schuster, Harper-Collins, etc.

    Nothing feels as good as validation from somebody who is better established professionally wanting to work with you.

    That’s an amazing feeling, and it’s not something that I’ve had much of.

    I like working with really good people.

  13. Elaine Flinn

    Sometimes I hate Guyot. Often, when I’m about to post a brilliant response to someone’s blog – he beats me to it. But then – maybe great minds DO think alike, huh? 🙂

    But I must disagree with Stacy on one point – ‘they too can be published’ – that’s not true. I think it’s a great diservice to promise that possibility. As any of the writers here on Murderati, and those of us who stop by, can attest – it’s easier to become a rocket scientist than a legit published writer. You may indeed ‘touch people’s lives’ Stacy – but it might not be in a positive way. The Heartbreak Hotel is booked up enough.

  14. Pari

    Holy Cow,I go take the kid to the dentist and, because it’s the holidays, buy 16 boxes of Trader Joe’s truffles and an entire discussion has erupted here.

    Okay, Paul,Thank you. Seriously.

  15. Stacey Cochran

    “Holy Cow,I go take the kid to the dentist and, because it’s the holidays, buy 16 boxes of Trader Joe’s truffles and an entire discussion has erupted here.”

    This tends to happen when I post on blogs.

  16. Pari

    Tammy,I think that’s really amazing that being a rape crisis advocate has made you — and your characters — stronger. It just broke another one of my stereotypes about victims going inward rather than taking that experience and turning it into power.

    Stacey,Thanks for the insights. I’ve met so many people who go on and on (not you) about their success at self-publishing but most do want that deal with a recognized publisher. I’ve never understood the dichotomy.

    Paul,I think you hit on another valid reason for it. There’s something very powerful about that external validation.

  17. Pari

    David,I’ve heard so many writers say, “Well, the publishing company’s didn’t get what I was doing.” The phrase is always delivered with a certain amount of derision — as if the publishing houses didn’t know what they were missing — but, I suspect they did . . . very clearly.

    Rejection sucks. I hate it. But, those first two manuscripts I wrote, the ones that remind me of how bad I can really be, the ones that went out to too many publishers to mention . . . those taught me quite a bit about the craft AND my own ego.

    Stacey,I got it.

  18. Pari

    Wow, Elaine,Tell me what you’re *really* thinking.

    But, you’re right.

    Getting published by traditional means is incredibly difficult these days.

    But there’s been a change in our societal lexicon, I think, and “getting published” now means something else.

    To me, it still means going the traditional route — finding an agent (usually after a lot of rejection); finding a publisher (usually after even more rejection; getting an advance for the work; having the publisher design, edit, market and distribute the work; receiving royalties once you’ve earned back the advance; going into reprints on the publisher’s schedule etc etc etc.

    But, I think most people aren’t nearly that savvy. They see a book by someone and — poof! — that person is “published.”

    Somehow, it feels too darn easy — when we know many of us have struggled a long, long time.

  19. billie

    Pari, what a great post.

    This is slightly on topic – there are two male characters in two of my books who I did not “put” there – they entered of their own accord and have grown into full-blown characters so real to me I wouldn’t even blink if they showed up at my front door.

    I mourned the fact for over a year that they aren’t real – that indeed I won’t ever “know” them in real life.

    One day, I don’t recall when, it suddenly occurred to me that I already know them – they are the masculine part of ME. What a revelation that was. There was nothing to mourn – but something to celebrate and take comfort in, which I do. I’m certain those characters developed as my own masculine self did – and I wrote that into the books w/o even realizing it.

    That’s the part of writing that keeps me doing it.

    And I totally agree with Guyot – if you haven’t read Pari’s books, GO GET THEM. Can’t wait ’til I get to read the new one, Pari.

  20. Tammy Cravit


    “It just broke another one of my stereotypes about victims going inward rather than taking that experience and turning it into power.”

    I think that you’ve hit on the difference between short-term and long-term responses to trauma. In the short term, many of the women and men I work with go through the stereotypical struggle of losing themselves in, and trying not to drown in, the after-effects of the trauma. I’m a survivor of sexual assault, too, and I’ve been there.

    But over the long haul, once the psychic bruises and metaphoric broken bones have healed, when all of that energy and attention is directed out at the world again…well, let’s just say that I’ve had the privilege of meeting some very powerful, very focused, very compassionate survivors over the past five years.

    There’s a good lesson there, I think: Trauma is not, in my view, a single shattering, defining moment that freezes forever the lives of those who experience it. Trauma might push the stream of our (or our character’s) narratives in a different direction. It might even dam them up for a while. But eventually, the water starts flowing again.

  21. Pari

    Billie,What a marvelous response. I love the fact that you mourned not being able to meet your characters in life — and then had such a fantastic revelation.

    I actually thought of you when I posted this blog because of your work as a therapist. I knew you’d share something great with us.

    And, thank you so much for your comment about my books. I hope you enjoy SOCORRO, too.

    AND ANDPaul,I look forward to examining your Yoo-Sin in Denver . . .

  22. simon

    I think everything I’ve written reflects my sensibilities. Not only that, they represent me at my best and worst. Some times my past history has cropped up in the stories, such as crashing a plane and drowning, etc. I haven’t included too much of me as a direct reflection, but I think some future projects will. Usually I just have sympathy for the poor fools at the heart of my stories.

  23. Pari

    Simon,Usually, I tell newer writers that we’re not nearly as interesting to other people as we are to ourselves.

    You, sir, are the exception to that comment.

  24. JT Ellison

    Amazing day here at the ‘Rati. Of course, Mondays always are.

    I think you’re right, consciously or unconsciously, we put a bit of ourselves into each character. John Connolly said that once — each character, good and bad, have bits of him in them. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be real.

    I don’t know what good I bring to mine, but I hope to figure it out one day. I do know that as I go on, I become a better writer — tighter, leaner, less prone to adverb attacks and superfluous BS. I care more what word goes on the page, want it to be stronger with each pass until I know I can’t do any better. That’s as much as I can ask for at this stage, you know?

  25. Pari

    Yep, I know.

    J.T., I think you bring quite a bit of yourself to your characters. The integrity is there, the deep feeling and striving for justice . . .

  26. toni mcgee causey

    Great topic, Pari. There are a couple of characteristics that one of my main characters had that I liked, but didn’t feel was a natural part of me, but over time, I’ve found that trait to be more of who I actually am. It’s helped me handle stress better, helped me deal with enormous life changes, and I don’t know if the trait for the character came first and I reflected it, or if it was some inner thing I had that I hadn’t quite had the faith in yet to explore until I explored it in the character.

    I do think we have something of ourselves in each character–that whole human condition, no one being all black or white–keeps the characters grounded and real.

    Great angle on the topic. I love reading through everyone’s responses.


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