Whose Woods These Are

April 3rd, 2011

Whose woods these are I think I know.  But where that path leads I have no idea.

The woods have been a dominant metaphor for the unknown since they were inhabited by trolls and elves and dwarfs and studded with the cottages of witches.  The great forests of Europe, now reduced to sad patches of scrag and underbrush, were once the subconscious of Western culture.

Everything magical, everything wicked and mysterious, everything impervious to reason and order, existed “beyond the pale” — literally beyond the wooden fences and rickety stockade walls that encircled farms and villages and even large towns, and essentially defined the known world. Within the pale was orderly life, bound to daily and seasonal routines and the rule of various kinds of law. Beyond the pale was wildness, darkness, unpredictability, misrule: the woods.

Wicked stepmothers led unwanted children into the woods. Outlaws and murderers clustered there.  Beasts, poisonous and holy — everything from the manticore to the unicorn — lived beneath the wild trees.

There were treasures in the woods.  Caverns of jewels, veins of silver, sleeping palaces, the bloodsoaked booty of highwaymen.  If you could venture into the woods and return, you might be changed for the better.

I don’t think it’s stretching a point to say that writers venture into the woods ocasionally, hoping to return better, or at least with something unexpected.  We can only take a plot or a character so far in our orderly living rooms and at our solid desks.  Sooner or later, we need something that smells different, something with wet roots, something that doesn’t grow within the pale.

So we go into the woods.  The rules are the same now as they were in Hansel and Gretel’s time.  Find a safe way in, don’t lose your sense of direction so you can’t find the way out, and don’t get eaten.

You can get eaten by a voracious character who devours the others.  By a seismic plot twist that seduces you by its glamor — in the old sense of the word, when it described the charm that made the leprechauns’ perilous haunts seem like normal meadows and dells.  By the time the writer sees what’s really followed him or her home, the first part of the book may be three feet underwater or hopelessly mired in irrelevance relative to the new material.

This is one of the times that my brother Michael’s caution not to let the work ethic hurry the vision.  When a book seems to have turned itself inside out, it’s time to tell the work ethic to take a walk and then take the time to circle the book a few times, looking at where the characters seem to have gone, and why.  Just because you were planning a minimalist one-story house and you seem to building a gingerbread Victorian, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve lost your way.  If your characters fit uncomplainingly into the idea you brought home from the woods, it’s probably time to look at what’s wrong with the first part.

But slowly and calmly.  It’s not a bad x-ray or the Ides of March come at last.  You’re just writing a book, and you went into the woods to find something wild, and you succeeded.  Good for you: you captured your big dangerous animal, and now comes the daily, step-by-step discipline of teaching it to roar on cue.  Or it might be that it’s captured you, and your job now is discovering how to frame it in words for other people to read and understand.   And if you succeed, well, you might find you’ve become a braver writer.

12 Responses to “Whose Woods These Are”

  1. Tom Logan Says:

    Wow! Great stuff. My favorite word–the word that I try to use to get some control of my life–is “balance.” For me there is both natural balance and imposed balance and, of course, those two have to be dealt with at the same time. An outline of where I am going may be useful if I don’t try to outline how I’m going to get there. There needs to be both direction and adventure in one’s life and, I believe, one’s writing. Tim, the only thing that preceeds my checking your blog each morning is coffee! That’s my balance. Thanks.

  2. Usman Says:

    First I’ll reply Larissa’s very nice welcome in the last entry. I’ve been hiding from a lot of things these past few months. Unfortunately, didn’t do a lot of writing and ended up abandoning my WIP. The energy seemed to be lost.
    Now I’ve restarted, hoping to find my way back.
    This is akin to what Tim said above…finding the way in the forest. Thank you Tim, my friend, for a timely and wise post, which applies to books as well as life.

    Mike, yes I live in Pakistan. I am seeing my whole way of life change in front of my eyes. So far, I’ve been safe, as has been my family. Though my sense of humor does get affected every now and then. Yes, your drawings have been very helpful in making me laugh, and think of the sunny side of life.
    Thank you Mike and Cathy for your prayers. I, or should I say, we need them.

  3. EverettK Says:

    The hardest part, it seems to me, about creating things is the deep breath and gut-wrenching strength it takes to THROW AWAY large chunks of stuff that you’ve created, in order for the end result to be stronger, larger, better.

    WARNING: Grizzly, not-for-the-faint-of-heart analogy ahead…

    It’s very much akin to having 10 children and willingly killing 3 of them when they’re 6 years old, in order to have a stronger, better family.

    But not quite…

  4. Laren Bright Says:

    Very revealing walk in the woods. Thanks Tim.

  5. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I like what you say about forests. It seems to me we all experience them once in a while. Makes us stronger, writers, teachers,-um people. I’m finding myself longing to see what you are writing. Waiting’s good too.

  6. Beth Says:

    In Irish history, the term “beyond the pale” or the stockade referred to the area outside what would become Dublin and the surrounding area. From the twelfth century to the end of the nineteenth, the English controlled the island from that small, safe circle.

    Today, the Irish often use the term to mean the same area but it comes up when the rest of the isle thinks that Dublin and its suburbs get better treatment from the government.

    The Irish still use the term more in the way that it is used in this post. “The pale” is the comfort zone, the place in people feel they belong. To go beyond it, emotionally or intellectually, leads to those places where they be dragons. Going beyond the pale is risking every thing one knows about ones self.

  7. Bonnie Says:

    Why do I have the feeling Poke has just passed through some grave danger?

    Your post, though probably not going there at all, reminded me of one of the Dr. Siri books where he has one of his unwelcome experiences with the centuries-old shaman who occasionally inhabits his body. Though I guess he has learned to live with it. 🙂

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, folks.

    I want to start by leading a cheer for my brother Mike, who put up some of the best material ever to fill this space. I had a huge amount of fun playing with the cartoons, and I’m hoping micael will send me a batch of them every now and then so I can increase the humor and sanity quotients of the site.

    This post came into being entirely because I stumbled across that astonishing photo. I looked at it for about five minutes, and the whole piece wrote itself in my mind. The problem was typing fast enough to get it down before I forgot it.

    So, Bonnie, Poke is fine. This isn’t related so much to THE GROWING YOUNGER MAN as it is to my reaction to the photo. Some of the “wild thing” issue is coming into play in a short story I’m writing for a collection I can’t talk about yet (but you’ll love it when I do, I promise). But it was mainly the magic in the photo.

    Beth, the “pale” also has a very specific meaning in Jewish history. The Pale of Settlement was created by Catherine the Great and modified by some of those who followed her. it designated areas of Imperial Russia where Jews were allowed to settle. Jews who lived beyond the Pale were taking their lives in their hands; they were subject to pogroms, death by cossacks, the burning of entire villages. The motion picture industry was founded largely by Jews from beyond the Pale who emigrated to the U.S. in the first decade of the 20th century.

    Hi, Lil — the forests we frequent may be frightening, but they help to shape us. I really think the metaphor of the forest as the subconscious is valid (and it’s almost certainly not original, since psychiatry is a European invention from the wolf-filled forests of Germany, Hungary, and Austria).

    Thank you, Laren — for a great musical exploration of this, get the DVD of the Broadway production of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.”

    Everett, you’re right, but there’s a caveat, which is The Third Law of Imaginal Dynamics, which states: “No good idea is ever completely discarded.” For example (this will mean more to you than to most), the title of the short story I’m writing for the collection I can’t talk about yet is, “The Silken Claw.” Thus, those children are not led into the woods but raised in different homes later.

    Usman, I’m so happy to see you back and to know you’re hanging in there. Now we need to get you writing. You’ve lost sight (I think) of the fact that detective stories are a global art form and that American readers love to enter other cultures through them. You finish that book, or write a new one, and if you keep your standards up, I can guarantee that some agents and some publishers would look at it. Just put him in the Pakistan of today, complete with drones and lives interrupted at random, with all the wreckage that entails. And (I know this sounds impossible, given what I just said) but keep it funny. Your Dickens Challenge writing was drop-dead funny.

    And TOM! Today, first asked is last answered. I’m really glad you liked it, because I loved writing it. I’m going to do more of this — just let an image lead me somewhere. I’m in total, absolute agreement that we can outline where we want to go, but it’s fatal to outline how we’re going to get there. I keep accidentally typing “poutline,” which is obviously an outline that takes us in the wrong direction. Of course, the woods are only an image: some of the most indelible events in literature happen in immaculate drawing rooms as people lose everything they care about without uttering a word. Henry James was the poet laureate of spiritual death on fine carpets.

  9. EverettK Says:

    Ah, The Thilken Claw. When you’re lost in the woods, Ahmed would, of course, be the perfect companion. Better than, Doris, the GPS!

  10. Usman Says:

    Thank you for the message. I’ll probably have to write you an email one of these days, on how to re-incarnate Dilbar, our friend from the Dickens Challenge.
    Who knows, perhaps I am capable of that.

  11. Howard Marder Says:


    I just checked some historical maps and it is evident that my ancestors came from the Pale of Settlement. I think that they probably were placed in a situation in the 1870s and 1880s where living in the Pale was not conducive to living as Jews. So off they came to America. Probably a good thing because they would have been in the vicinity of Chernobyl had they been able to survive the Communist dictatorship. So thank you Catherine (you were great) for making it possible for my family to be persecuted. Thank you to the murderous Communists who probably killed more Jews than Hitler. If it wasn’t for the slavic tradition of anti-semitism I probably wouldn’t be trying to figure out the forest for the trees (had to get back to the theme).

    Tim, any thoughts on what Crime Noir is? I just wrote to Leighton Gage discussing this and would appreciate any thoughts that you might have on the subject.

    Still trying to convince myself to get a Kindle so that I can read what you’ve put up there.

  12. RJ Baliza Says:

    hi tim,

    that was a very inspired piece of writing. one can always tell when a writer is inspired–the words don’t leap out of the page, but rather, the reader is sucked out of his place and into the writer’s space. thanks for that.

    and now for a more tangible version of this image, kindly check this. http://www.oberondesign.com/shop/cart.php?m=product_detail&p=1307
    not that i’m promoting this product, but i was looking at this a coupla weeks ago and i had the same sentiments. (btw, these covers are really good, so yes it’s sort of promoting it, sorry. but, i’m glad to share this with everyone here. i use their journal version.)

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