On SpecFic Writers as Visionaries and Mystics

Among my people, girls born blind were sometimes apprenticed to mediums. When they first bled, they entered into a long initiation of hard labor, sleep deprivation and exposure to the cold to force their sight into Anoyo, the Other World. Then they traveled on foot from village to village, and the poor folk would gather to hear them when they entered. While these oracles shook long rosaries of bone and claw and horn, they approached the spirits of capricious ancestors and confronted the angry ghosts and fox spirits who harassed or possessed these farmers and fishers.

These women always moved on, never wholly accepted, feared for their connection to the other world, revered for their power to reach into the past, to foretell the future, and to give meaning to the suffering of those who spent their entire lives in this paddy-encircled hamlet or on that pine-covered mountainside.

I see similar visionaries throughout history and across cultures. Strange men who disappeared into the jungle, the mountains, the desert and returned naked, mad, sputtering visions and telling of encounters with gods and demons, ghosts and nature spirits. Poor women who lived off of nothing but the consecrated host, the flesh of their Bridegroom, and who spoke with authority of visions that exposed the sins of abusive priests and bishops. Shamans who survived brutal concoctions and spirit journeys to tell stories in the firelight that helped others to understand the darkness beyond.

When I was at Clarion West, one of our author-teachers, Ian McDonald, read from The Dervish House. I felt a rhythm in his telling, a magic in the words he carefully chose and pieced together that carried me from my plastic chair in that bookstore in Seattle to an Istanbul not too far into the future, and deeper into the universal and diverse human condition. When instructor Maureen McHugh cast her spell and sent us into post-apocalyptic suburbia, she conjured demons–genuine fear and tension that completely transfixed an audience of fifty–and then banished them with a breath. I remember after each of these readings thinking–this is a connection I have with my ancestors who may have sat around the itako, the blind medium, hearing her pronouncement. There is real power–magic–in words.

I feel a kinship to the sorcerers, the mystics, the myth-and-meaning-makers of the past. As writers, we are the crazed visionaries, outsiders who have the power to open widows into the strange vistas that otherwise only we can see, to transport our audiences to the worlds that we painstakingly create. We can cast spells that shape the past, that foretell the future, but most powerfully, that share insight into the mysteries of what it is to be a fragile human struggling in the darkness, to shape the demons in the void, and with our words, to weave ourselves and our readers into the fabric of the Universe.

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  • Great post, John.
    I’ve often wondered if I’d been born in a different era/culture if I’d have been communing with the spirits, listening to my people, and telling stories around the fire. I guess I still can. 🙂 

    • John Remy

      Thanks! I like to think that we serve some deep, important function in society, and aren’t merely crazed outcasts. 😛

  •  Great post.  What I love about writing sci-fi and fantasy is being able to answer the unanswerable questions, the ones that strike us when we let our minds really wander, or that keep us up at night.  We predict the future, and then sometimes we warn of the circumstances and consequences to come.  We create portals to other worlds, other times, and sometimes as a result we (well, I anyway) are not always quite as connected with this one. (This strikes other people as daydreaming or absent-mindedness.)  And sometimes, we tell stories to entertain, like the bards of old.  But I definitely think there’s something of the “mystical” in what we do.

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