Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Moving From One Genre to Another

by Kathleen B. Jones
Ten year ago, I published a memoir, Living Between Danger and Love. The book explored how a student's murder had affected my life. While I was writing the book, I had some rather amazing dreams, some of which wound up in the narrative. Others I stored for...well, I wasn't sure for what.

One dream in particular continued to haunt me. It was a dream about my mother. In the dream, I could hear my mother enter the room where I was sleeping.I could feel her slide her hands under the covers and begin to hug me. And then suddenly her comforting caress morphed into something threatening. I remember calling out in my sleep for her to stop. And then I heard her say this: "Tell the rest of the story."

Sometimes, it turns out, we aren't finished with a subject when we finish a book. Sometimes the subject begs to be continued. That's what happened in this case. But as I returned to the story I realized what I needed and wanted to do with it: I wanted to turn it into a play.

I turned back to the book I had written and from it began to extract the threads of another narrative, one more ancient and mythological than the story I had told. As the threads began to weave themselves I could see the outlines of Homer's ode to Demeter-- goddess of agriculture, originator of the seasons--emerging in the pattern they were making.

Demeter and Persephone. Mother and Daughter.  Connection and Loss. In the myth, Persephone is playing in the field, away from her mother, when she sees a flower. Charmed by it, she reaches to pluck it. But when she does, the earth splits open wide and she is taken by the lord of the underworld to live with him. Demeter, is grief stricken and goes in search of her daughter. She condemns the earth to lie fallow until she can be reunited with Persephone. When she learns where Persephone is, she demands her return. Zeus agrees, but only if there is a compromise: Persephone can stay with her mother for part of the year; then she must return to Hades.

The myth helped me give the story I had already written about mourning and loss a deeper dramatic structure. As I began to immerse myself in writing the play, the dreams I had encountered before returned to my consciousness with renewed purpose. They became the vehicle for the invention of new characters--fictional characters, including some ghosts--whose role was to help the protagonist along the journey she was taking to confront the past and be changed in the process.

The play is called The Origin of the Seasons.  What's it about? A student's murder provokes a woman professor to confront her own guilt about a traumatic loss in her past. It's Demeter and Persephone upside down:  In this case, the daughter searches for the mother. What happens? Well, that's what the play explores. I hope to have a full draft very soon. And to stage a reading of it sometime later this year.


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