" To really write, to write with power, one must sever the connection with 'the already-written, the already-known.' One must travel to where 'knowing and not knowing touch.'"
--Pamelyn Casto, quoting Helene Cixous
The Land of the Ice Medusa: |
___Writing From Your Fear
by Pamelyn Casto
There is a place so frightening you seldom or never want to go there. A
place that contains your fears, taboos, all the thoughts and ideas you're
afraid to explore. A place of truths so scary that you feel a warning
chill and begin to shiver when even thinking about facing them. It's the
place that contains the dispersed segments of your frozen, immobilized
writing self. Only you know this place because it's within you.
Let's call this place the Land of the Ice Medusa. In this frozen and
desolate territory within, you must face the Ice Medusa in order to become
a powerful writer. Facing her bulging crystal blue eyes, her terrifying
freezing stare, and her writhing ice-asp hair takes all the courage you
can muster. But face her you must in order to gain access to the vast ice
chamber where she stores what could make you a better writer. You must be
brave enough to battle her for possession of the contents of the ice
chamber, the frozen hinterland of your mind, where the Ice Medusa guards your
mind's reservoir of frightening truths in deathlike stillness--immobile,
unexplored, and unusable. To become a really powerful writer you must
journey to the place of your fears and write about what you find there.
Despite the fierce battles the Ice Medusa will throw your way, she's not
your enemy. In fact, she's one of the greatest allies a poet/writer can
have. She guards your frozen ice chamber until you've proved your mettle,
proved that you're strong enough to deal with and write about your
unacknowledged individual truths. To retrieve and thaw the prisoners--the
thoughts, ideas, and truths held there--requires the fire of your writing
passion, the fire of your writing courage, the fire of your search for
your real truths. The prisoners you free need your fire to thaw out and
become reanimated. The writing of those who do battle with the Ice Medusa
is forever changed. The strong have and will survive; they become great
writers. The fit enough also survive; they become better writers.
I first discovered my personal Land of the Ice Medusa when I took a course
in phenomenology. In that class I was required to do many descriptions of
various objects without resorting the usual descriptors such as length,
height, color, shape, etc. If often found myself quite uneasy with the
assignments, sometimes downright scared. And I wondered why.
I discovered that looking at object in new ways, in unfamiliar ways,
unleashed some of my strongest censors. It was a raging battle for me to
write any descriptions at all because I'd stumbled upon some of my taboo
areas--things I should not see, say, nor even think. Finding myself in
the Land of the Ice Medusa was unsettling and frightening. My pen was
frozen in my hand and I was unable to write. I lacked the necessary fire
I took an even deeper and more successful trip into the Land of the Ice
Medusa when I was writing a poem expressing ideas I was extremely
uncomfortable with. It was a poem about raw, ice-cold hatred. Such
expression did not fit the image I had of myself, nor the image I hoped to
project to others. Each time I'd work on writing or revising the poem my
heart would beat rapidly, my hands would shake, and I felt the uncanny
chill of fear over what I was trying to say. I kept at it, despite my
discomfort and unease, and began thinking that if the poem had this effect
on me, then it might have a similar effect on readers. But I was afraid
of what people might think of me. Afraid people wouldn't understand.
Then one day I felt strong enough to bring my poem before readers so I
sent it to a poetry competition. It won a first place prize. Since that
competition didn't also publish, I then sent it to another competition.
It won again. One of the judges said "It is so good to read some genuine
poetry." I was delighted to learn that people really did understand and
could relate to the emotions I'd revealed in that poem. It also felt
wonderful to be free of that cold, paralyzing fear that originally gripped
me in the writing of it. The freed prisoners I brought back (the ideas
expressed in the poem) thawed out quite well.
I feel as if I'm in good company when I explore the Land of the Ice
Medusa. Others have gone there before me and have written about it in one
form or another. May Sarton writes, "The poems I've written which I
feared no one could really understand are the poems that people respond to
most." Part of what the Land of the Ice Medusa provides is the knowledge
that hard-won individual truths are appreciated by readers.
That icy and frightening hinterland, however, is not within writers only.
Readers have a similar place. So says Franz Kafka, who was familiar with
the frozen place in our hearts or minds. In a letter to a friend he said
that a book [and we can insert poetry here] should "wake us up with a blow
on the head." Books [or poems] should "affect us like a disaster, that
grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves,
like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide." Such
a book "must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us." His description of
the frozen sea inside readers is nothing other than the Land of the Ice
Medusa. It exists in writers and readers alike.
In writers, the Ice Medusa takes many forms. She is protean, a shape
changer, and is able to freeze up a writer in individually specific ways.
Virginia Woolf knew her as the "Angel of the House" and first discovered
her presence while trying to write a book review. The Ice Medusa, in the
form of Woolf's Angel, slipped up behind her and whispered, "My dear, you
are a young woman. You are writing about a book that has been written by
a man. Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and
wiles of our own sex. Never let anyone guess that you have a mind of your
Woolf recognized that the presence would have "plucked the heart" out of
her writing so she grabbed the Angel by the throat and while claiming
self-defense, did her best to kill her. Whenever that freezing presence
would reappear, Woolf would fling her inkpot at her. Woolf's form of the
Ice Medusa was testing her, checking to see if she was made of the
writerly courage that dares to display a mind of her own, that dares to
tell the truth in her writing.
And truth is exactly what is at issue, at stake, and what genuine writing
really requires. Truths are what the Ice Medusa holds frozen for daring
writers who would go deep and face her. Because she knows that telling
the truth is not for the timid. She tests a writer's strength before
allowing a single prisoner to leave.
We lie mostly out of cowardice and the need for love, says Helene Cixous
in her Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing_ But truth is what's most
needed in powerful writing. Truth, says Cixous, "is the thing you must
not say...the thing that is both known and unknown, the most unknown and
the best unknown, this is what we're looking for when we write." She says
that the only book worth writing [and we can insert poem here as well] is
the "one we don't have the courage or strength to write. The book that
hurts us (we who are writing), that makes us tremble, redden, bleed."
Genuine writing is "learning not to be afraid."
The best writers, says Cixous, "play with fire, play seriously with their
own mortality, go further, go too far, sometimes go as far as catching
fire, as far as being seized by fire." To really write, to write with
power, one must sever the connection with "the already-written, the
already-known." One must travel to where "knowing and not knowing touch."
In this lightening region, one must hope not to be afraid of
"understanding the incomprehensible, facing the invisible, hearing the
inaudible, thinking the unthinkable." One must look at "what must not be
To really write, to write with power, requires that you become a
pyromaniac. You must ignite the writing fire within you in order to thaw
the frozen prisoners held in your mind's icy hinterland by the Ice Medusa.
A journey to the Land of the Ice Medusa is the process of finding your own
mind, perceptions, ideas and truths--the elements that will make your
writing stand out, make your writing genuine and honest. You go there to
find out what's held there, what needs freeing. You go there to prove
your bravery, to find your most powerful writing. You go there to find
your writing fire, to find out who you are and where your passion lies.
You go there to find your uniqueness, your style, and your depth. Then,
after igniting yourself, freeing your prisoners of the mind, you will then
be able to share with the reading world what you've discovered through
your more powerful writing.
Once you have done battle with the Ice Medusa, once you've proved yourself
strong enough to handle your truths, your writing will be forever changed.
It will have experienced both ice and fire and will bear the stamp of
Medusa's likeness. She will bestow upon you the power to break the
"frozen sea" inside readers. She will allow you the power to arrest, to
stop readers in their tracks as they read your powerful work. If you work
hard enough you'll be able to stun, astonish, charm the minds of your
readers when you subject them to the excitement of an enormous charge of
intellectual energy. The Ice Medusa will allow you to don her powerful
mask in order to at last reveal yourself--your individual uniqueness and
your hard-won truths. Powerful poetry, powerful writing of any kind,
demands nothing less.
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