The Shape of the Book

Y’all, just as a relevant side-note, I have been trying now for two days to learn what settled on term there is to describe the religious person in a non-Christian, indigenous community who uses altered states to communicate and work in the spirit world. The problem with “shaman” is that it is a term specific to a northern Siberian culture. That’s their word to describe a specific community member. Think of it kind of like describing the person who delivers the religious teaching at the service of any monotheistic religion as a “priest.”

Sure, okay, if you don’t mind that some monotheistic sects actually have dudes called “priests,” that some monotheistic sects deliberately don’t have dudes called “priests,” and that other monotheistic sects and religions would find it bizarre and misleading and weirdly imperialistic to call their dudes “priests” when their dudes have actual titles they should be called. Plus, it tends to erase the meaningful differences between roles and job functions of the people who deliver the religious teaching in each subsection of monotheism.

So, there’s an ongoing controversy about the word “shaman,” and about applying it to people who seem to inhabit similar roles in various cultures throughout the world, since it isn’t what the people in those roles call themselves, except in the one case where it is exactly the right word. But I can’t find any consensus about what we might use as a generic term to mean “the community member who uses altered states to interact with the spirit world and who acts as a mediator between the spirit world and this one.”

I thought about going with “magician” in the old-school sense, but that’s just switching from one culturally-specific term to another. Though, in fairness, Hannah is kind of on a specifically European-American journey. So, maybe for the sake of this post, magician works.

So, when you are a magician of the “using altered states to interact with the spirit world” type, we can say there are some very broad strokes your journey from “regular” to “irregular” might take. You might have been born different, or seemed to be different from a young age. You might go through an ordeal where you feel you are torn apart and put back together. You usually go through some kind of apprenticeship and learn your stories and traditions. There’s singing. And drug taking. And hallucinating. And talking to dead people. And community building and reinforcing. And cosmic tussles.

I tried very hard to give the main character, Hannah, two arcs. The one she’s emotionally going through is her finally coming to terms with there being no way for her to be a part of the church she grew up in. But the literal, physical journey she is on is one of becoming a magician. I had to work it that way because otherwise, the emotional story was just too depressing–that you would go through all this shitty stuff only to discover that, in the end, you’re expected to become a metaphorical shit-distributor if you want to be a part of things. But in the end, she gets to be a literal shit distributor! Ha ha ha.

That may be funny only to me.

But I wanted her to have positive forward motion, for her to be becoming someone powerful, even if she doesn’t know it.

Anyway, I am anxious about it, as always. But the plan is to let K. have it for a couple of weeks (or more, if she needs) and see what she thinks and I’ll read some and think about other crap. It’s funny. The writing was easy and enjoyable. This part, though, I just don’t know about. I don’t know if I’m doing it right. I don’t know if I’m ending up any place that is making the book better. It’s weird. And I don’t yet feel like going through it is providing me with any great knowledge for next time. I think this part may just be unique for every project.

I don’t feel like I have a good internal sense of my own weaknesses as a writer. I know I can be a little convoluted. And I know people easily mistake my writing for fact and become upset when it’s not (ha, but let’s not rehash that old problem).

Ugh, I’m running late and long.

But mulling things over helps.

12 thoughts on “The Shape of the Book

  1. In the Nickelodeon series “The Last Airbender” the human bridge between the spirit world and the material world is called the Avatar. Like the Highlander, there can be only one. I’m watching it on Netflix streaming for the third consecutive time. Don’t even be tempted by the non-animated feature film. If you’re interested at all, just skip it and go right to the original, animated (50+ episode) version.

  2. The thing is, “shaman” is what comes closest to the protagonist’s journey without attaching a bunch of other assumptions, preconceived notions, etc. to the role.

    That’s a tough one. If you never came up with another word, I don’t think it would be the end of the world. Just sayin’.

  3. witch doctor was a popular one, but it seems that it was replaced with shaman, but that bleeds into the first paragraph of this entry. you can’t really use wizard, because JK Rowling all but copyrighted the word. Priest *could* work, only because it’s also used to describe pagan clergy, so it’s not necessarily specific to catholicism. i like the idea behind using magician, but that word tends to recall images of slender mustachioed men in silk top hats holding rabbits and playing cards. but you seem to do well with dismantling etymology, so i think that would be the most promising term. so, yes, magician. is there a phone number to call to vote?

  4. Or at least, that’s the closest English phrase that translates the literal meaning of various American Indian words for the people who do what you describe. They talk with the spirits. The spirits talk through them.

  5. another one i forgot is medium. although that makes me think of police investigations and dramatizations on shows like “unsolved mysteries” and “a haunting”. maybe i watch too much tv and i should keep my own weird word associations to myself.

  6. “Opener of the way” sounds right, but too wordy and has its own bad associations. Maybe High Priest (as distinct from plain priest)? Enchanter? I’m getting images of Tarot Cards now, and will probably suggest Hierophant in a second, so I should stop.

  7. I can’t see the other comments (again with the bitching about the iPad theme) so I’m sorry if I’m repeating what others have said.

    The terms I’ve most often seen would be Wise and Crafter. Both conjur(!ha!) the image of a person learned in the arts associated with Shamanism, but aren’t culturally specific.

    Since your book is Magical realist in tone I think you’d be fine to make up your own sort of word for it, explain that (your word=Shaman) within the culture of your book and go with that direction.

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