There’s something enthralling about myths—those stories passed down from one generation to the next to both entertain and explain the many mysteries of human existence. Some myths take liberties with narrative that many writers wouldn’t dare to, and they do it with flair. One of my favourites is Ovid’s myth of Narcissus and Echo. You won’t need to look hard to find its influence on my story in Joiner Bay and Other Stories; I’ve not hidden it well! It’s a good myth: a beautiful young man destined to be undone by self-knowledge; a besotted but also cursed mountain nymph; doomed love; lonely deaths and lamentations … what’s not to like? And, as with so many myths, you can find valuable life lessons in it. For example, how vanity can swallow you up, or how grovelling doesn’t pay in the game of seduction.
I think you can read other lessons into it too, lessons about writing.
If, like Narcissus, I am preoccupied with myself in my writing—if I keep my focus inward and explore only my own subconscious and conscious experiences—the work may lack anchorage in the world and be more self-serving than engaging. Far better to look upward and outward, to observe and record the world and its people in all their wondrous specificity. Better to write beyond myself, beyond what I know.
If, like Echo, I mirror other writers and neglect my own voice, I run the risk of being rejected by agents and publishers and subsequently wasting away on my own in a damp and dripping cave. Okay, so that’s a little extreme. And improbable. The point is, it doesn’t pay to be derivative or lack agency as a writer. Having said that, we all have to start somewhere, and sometimes the best way to start is by imitating the style or voice of a favourite author en route to finding our own.
So we can learn a thing or two from the beautiful boy and the mountain nymph.
But I think the real role model in this myth lies elsewhere. I’m not thinking of the watchful trees or the wailing nymphs. I’m also not thinking of the friends who left Narcissus alone in the forest while they pursued hunting glory without him, although there may be lessons to be found in those elements of the story too if we look closely enough.
I think the hero is the water that caught and reflected Narcissus’s lovely face. For one thing, it held him spellbound. That’s something I want to do for readers. Enchant them. Captivate them. Transfix them.
Water can run deep and be reflective.
Water can be shallow, catch the light, be playful.
Water—slowly, via freeze-thaw erosion—can crack stone. It can rip a path through root-bound landscapes. It can urge a smooth groove into sturdy wood. Writers, too, can penetrate the seemingly impenetrable. With their words. They can implode preconceptions and stereotypes; they can tear through tedium and open up narrow ways of seeing. They can erode the bald-faced lies of governing administrations that are so much stranger than fiction. Their power—for better or worse—should never be underestimated.
Water yields in some instances and resists in others. Writers, too, must yield in some instances (when the feedback is so right) and resist in others (when it is not).
Water quenches the thirsts of those who are parched. Avid readers are thirsty people: thirsty for escapism, for magic, for transformation, affirmation, lyricism, hope, inspiration. It’s up to writers to sate them.
Water is fearless and persistent.
Water is sometimes quiet, sometimes loud.
And water knows how to find stillness. This can be challenging for writers, a.k.a. People with jobs, children, homes to manage or build, places to be, relationships to sustain. Food to prepare and/or grow. Stillness can be so elusive. And yet without it, our writing can be fractious and flinty.
Then again, sometimes the urgency of an overstimulated life can lend intensity and energy to our work. But we can probably tie that back to water too—to floods, storms, or geysers. Natural phenomena that remind us that water may know the rules, but it doesn’t always follow them. If the situation calls for flooding streets and tearing down walls, then that’s what water does. It’s not always pretty or kind. It’s not always fair. But it can be magnificent.
Jo Morrison is a Fremantle writer and freelance editor. She teaches at Murdoch University, where she completed her creative writing PhD in 2015. Her writing has been published in Westerly and Celebrity Studies. Find her online at www.jodijo.com and @jodijomo. Her story, ‘Of The Water,’ was published in Joiner Bay and other stories, now available from Margaret River Press.