Because many have written of the Philosopher’s Stone without any knowledge of the art, and the few books extant, written by our learned predecessors and true masters hereupon, are either lost or concealed in the collections of such (however despised) as are lovers and seekers of natural secrets, we have taken a resolution to communicate our knowledge in this matter, to the intent that those who are convinced the Philosophical Work is no fiction, but grounded in the possibility of Nature, may be faithfully directed in their studies, and have an undoubted criterion to distinguish between such authors as are genuine sons of science and those who are spurious, as writing by hearsay only. —Eirenaeus Philalethes (George Starkey 1627-1665), “The Stone of the Philosophers.”
CHAPTER 1 The Quest
On January 23, 2013, I woke in the middle of the night and lay in bed listening to coyotes howl outside and thinking about a new book on storytelling I was writing for which I had no title. I’d been drawn into a crazy approach involving alchemy, Jungian psychology, and mathematics by a series of coincidences, which had paid off in surprising revelations. Yet, something was missing, not in my methodology but in its characterization. The coyotes kept yelping in the forest beyond the meadow in back of our home where darkness pervaded a moonless night. I sunk back into myself, almost fell asleep, and then with a flash of insight, I realized what I had done. I’d found the Philosopher’s Stone of storytelling. This is the story of what led me to that discovery.
Such was the contention of alchemists that an element exists, called the nigredo [Latin for “black”] or prima materia [prime material], that was matter’s original primitive and base state. Use of this primal substance was the first step in the long quest to obtain the Philosopher’s Stone, which transmuted lead into gold and under the name Elixir of Life provided immortality. Once having obtained the prima materia, the alchemist followed detailed but coded procedures to produce, after decades of slaving over a hot, smelly furnace, the sacred Stone. Invariably, the quest ended in failure because the process had a catch. To find the correct path to the Philosopher’s Stone and wield it once found, the alchemist had to be worthy. Every alchemist knew that within the dark recesses of his own inner being, a human nigredo also existed, and this Shadow of the Soul had to be transmuted as well. To become worthy, she/he had to attain personal perfection along the way.
The culmination of two thousand years of alchemy came at the hands of Sir Isaac Newton. We don’t think of Newton as an alchemist, a much maligned and discredited pseudoscientific profession, but he was, having spent decades in pursuit of this “forbidden” knowledge. He was also a true scientist, and his Laws of Motion and Gravity came to govern the mechanical theories of the Universe for two hundred and fifty years until Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity replaced them with what might be termed the Philosopher’s Stone of cosmology. Even today, we have put men on the Moon and robots on Mars using Newton’s Laws as an accurate and easily manageable physics that predicts motion on Earth and throughout the Solar System. Newton’s Laws, obtained by decades of studying alchemy and performing rudimentary scientific research, were his Philosopher’s Stone. They didn’t change lead into gold, but they did turn a world of scientific chaos into a manageable, predictable arena of scientific inquiry and led directly to the Scientific Revolution.
The decades spent in pursuit of alchemical goals provided him with an acceptance of theories that involved action at a distance (gravity) and the concept of force, an invisible quantity that acted between interacting bodies to produce motion. Newton transmuted alchemy’s philosophical principles into intellectual gold.
If this is true of science, one might well wonder why no one has found a Philosopher’s Stone for storytelling. The reading, theatrical and movie-going public have an insatiable appetite for story, and yet so many, indeed most, writers stumble and fall in their attempts at telling a good one. Even the master storytellers of Hollywood puzzle over the basics, sometimes hitting the mark and at others missing so badly that they spend tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars on special effects, trying to cover up their storytelling deficiencies. They end up not with gold but fool’s gold.
Writers can’t even agree on how to define the key elements of storytelling. Definitions for theme, plot, and storyline are without consensus and have no actionable content. Do we have any hope of finding such a Philosopher’s Stone? Who would believe that he or she had been given a truth the equivalent of Newton’s Laws that could straighten out the process? Who would claim to be such an adept?
I believe such an “object” does exist. I believe we see bits and pieces of it in all the writings of those who have tried to lead us forward. Yet, storytelling is a primitive art even though it has had eloquent practitioners who have tried to convey their knowledge. Henry James, Annie Dillard, Syd Field, Irwin R. Blacker, Janet Burroway, Robert McKee, Stephen King, Richard Walter, along with many others have provided sound device on both the art and craft of writing. And yet, no specific, detailed and consistent guidance on how to plot and integrate the organic elements of character, conflict and theme exists. So the question persists: What is the underlying nature, the physics, of storytelling?
This problem didn’t start yesterday. Here’s a quote from Aristotle that illustrates how difficult plotting was for tragic poets back 2,400 years ago:
…beginners succeed earlier with the diction and characters than with the construction of a story; and the same may be said of nearly all the early dramatists. We maintain, therefore, that the first essential, the life and soul, so to speak, of tragedy is the plot… [Poetics, 6]
Aristotle didn’t see plot as just an important part of storytelling. He called it the “life and soul” of the work. He was talking about epic poetry, tragedy, as well as comedy and dithyrambic poetry, all of which he calls “modes of imitation” of life. All storytelling is an imitation of life. But even Aristotle’s advice provides nothing actionable. It doesn’t help us get the words on the page.
To whom can we turn to get a surefire way to construct a story? If we follow the examples of Sir Isaac Newton and the alchemists, we could spend decades searching for such a Philosopher’s Stone. Even if we found it, would we recognize it? Would we be able to wield it? The alchemists were on an outward quest for knowledge but also an inner purification of the heart to become worthy.
I started my own search some four decades ago in Denver, Colorado with my first attempt at a novel. I quit after one hundred or so pages because I didn’t know where my dystopian story was going. I had a good idea, I thought, but after exploring the situation I envisioned, my story lost steam because it had no direction. It ran aground in a sea of possibilities. I tried again and again but always ran up against one stumbling block after another. In the ’80s and ’90s, I read about craft, took classes at the University of Colorado, formed a writing group, joined the Rocky Mountain Writers Guild, and over a period of five years, I finished my first novel, not set in a post-apocalyptic world but my own hometown. The crucial principles I learned concerned two elements of story: the premise and the central conflict. Since then, I’ve written and published three more novels, along with a couple of nonfiction works and a few short stories and essays. One of the books, Novelsmithing, is on the craft of narrative fiction.
At the same time, I was constantly reading self-help books. I was always interested in psychology, and I even briefly entered group therapy following a divorce. I kept a journal. In 1988, I entered therapy in earnest with a psychiatrist, and I continued two-a-week sessions for almost five years. Shortly afterward, on January 1, 1993, I got laid off from my day job, astronautical engineering no less. (Yes, I was a rocket scientist, and Newton’s Laws of Motion and Gravity were the tools of my trade. Engineer/scientist by day, novelist/poet by night.) I decided not to return to my profession immediately and instead went on a pilgrimage to Greece where I confronted myself with the ruins of my life while visiting ancient religious sites for two and one half months. During the following two years, I turned my journal of that trip into a travel book and published it under the title Oedipus on a Pale Horse. I learned that narrative nonfiction contained the same story elements and structure as that for fiction.
I then decided not to return to my profession at all, but to write full time, and I moved to Carlsbad, New Mexico where I lived in an old house my grandfather had built with his own hands. Not particularly plush but certainly adequate for a struggling writer. When I ran low on funds, I went to work in the library at the local branch of New Mexico State University. In addition, I taught classes in Greek mythology, novel writing, and astronomy. I turned my class notes into my book Novelsmithing.
Still, I seemed to be missing something and continued my work investigating the nature of storytelling. I ran into the writings of Carl Gustav Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, who had a special interest in mythology and what it has to say about the human experience. I read many of his works and those of other Jungian psychologists, much of which surprisingly enough has to do with alchemy. Jung’s last work is the massive (695 pages) Mysterium Coniunctionis, which contains decades of his study and reflection on philosophical alchemy, principally the synthesis of opposites. This “synthesis” to me implied the resolution of conflict and led me to develop a new theory of storytelling.
Then in mid June 2009, I made a breakthrough in my research. In the ensuing days, I extended this new theory. For four years, this investigation kept expanding, but the full importance of the discovery eluded me. I didn’t fully realize what I had uncovered until the morning of January 23, 2013 when it came to me in a flash. I realized that I had finally discovered the Philosopher’s Stone.
In the following chapters, I provide directions for creating this magic “object.” It took me forty years of hard labor to learn the true nature of the writing process and decode it. What I am offering you is the inside story on the nature of storytelling. Even if I do give you the Philosopher’s Stone, will you be able to wield it? In the words of the alchemists, “Are you worthy?” Probably not. Jung cites an old Chinese proverb: “If the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way.” [Alchemical Studies, page 7]
Don’t lose heart. I also know something about remedying this worthiness issue. Jung’s method of individuation, much of which he developed while studying the alchemists, could well get you there. The good news is that the process of writing fiction, at least the method I’ll provide, is an offshoot of the path to individuation so that while practicing your craft, you are also traveling the road to becoming worthy. Just as the ancient alchemist perfected himself by looking within while practicing his alchemy, so will your writing efforts, if done properly, serve a dual purpose. By staying on the right path to good storytelling, you become worthy.
Here’s a word of caution. Sir Isaac Newton may have found the Philosopher’s Stone for physics, but he paid a price. He had an emotional collapse and almost didn’t survive the process. Plus, he was a different person once he came out the other side. He was no longer much of a scientist and became a bureaucrat. Unaccountably, he accepted an appointment to be Warden of the Royal Mint. No one remains unaffected by a process that looks so deep into the psyche. You might have a good talk with yourself concerning your own emotional stability before getting into what I’m going to present here. I’ll have more to say on this as we proceed.
On May 22, 2010 while practicing a visualization technique with my eyes closed, I noticed a light patch in the psychic darkness and focused on it. It immediately exposed the tips of three mountains outlined by the bright light coming from behind. I continued to focus on this image, trying to get it to expand into something meaningful, when the image split and became dynamic. The background light consolidated into a brilliant ball, and the dark mountains became a black ball. Both started moving about my field of view and then circled like heavenly bodies orbiting each other, each growing a tail and appearing comet-like. Their orbital motion decreased in radii until they were practically touching. And then they stopped. I made a rough sketch of these psychic images with colored pencils, and the result is shown in Figure 1-1.
Figure 1-1 Psychic Derivation of Yin-Yang Symbol
While all this was happening, I was a passive observer. I didn’t know what would happen from second to second, as if I were watching an animation. When it finished, I recognized it as the yin-yang from Chinese alchemy. I had seen the symbol derived before my eyes. I also realized that it was similar to the symbol for Cancer, my astrological sign. I thought that the little light’s shenanigans were remarkable but didn’t pursue the subject further.
Then on September 11, 2010, I ran across the yin-yang symbol on the Internet and learned that yin (shade) can represent the shaded north-side of a mountain and yang (sunny) can represent the Sun. It would seem that initially I was positioned on the opposite side of the mountain range relative to the Sun, which was either rising or setting. The yin and yang relationship is often described as sunlight over a mountain and in a valley, which of course was my initial vision.
I was astonished that this symbol had appeared spontaneously and with many of the attributes used to describe it through the millennia. It is a universal concept that conveys the interconnectedness and dependency of contrary forces. They give birth to each other. Although we generally think of the symbol as originating with Chinese alchemy, it is also a part of Celtic, Etruscan, and Roman iconography and goes back possibly three thousand years.
My psychic event occurred three days after I started visualization as a part of writing Story Alchemy. I’ll have much more to say about this technique, particularly in Chapter 7. This was one of several episodes that led me to believe that a real adventure awaited me. I wasn’t disappointed. You won’t be either.
This is where I’ll leave off this introductory chapter and start providing the details of my quest. Is it an unraveling of a strict scientific discipline? Hardly.
We tend to think of theory development as emerging out of an objective, scientific attitude. Wrong. All theory is autobiography. The person the theorist really wants to understand, more than anyone, is himself. The subjective can never be elbowed aside. It hovers inescapably, like an off-stage voice, whispering, whispering, whispering… [May 19, 2009 by William Todd Schultz, Ph.D., “Why Freud and Jung Broke Up,” Psychology Today in Genius and Madness]
Of necessity, this is a personal narrative about an intimate creative process. Have I truly found a Philosopher’s Stone for all storytellers? You’ll have to decide for yourself.
(End of Chapter 1)