“Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.” – Franz Kafka, from his Zürau aphorisms
When I first read Kafka’s temple ritual aphorism in high school, I was enchanted with logic. I believed that including the leopards either suggested that the ritual was meaningless and/or that the leaders were simply lazy and expedient. In high school, we were taught to plan, outline and research our fiction and nonfiction in advance to ensure that we said what we meant. Stray leopards in our prose might suggest otherwise.
Over the years, intuition and a love of apparent chaos have replaced logic in my life–and in my writing–as the primary inspiration behind what I’m doing and saying. Now, when I see Kafka’s aphorism, my thought is that the leopards had, in fact, been missing from the ceremony from day one.
Had the temple leaders maintained security and vigilance, the leopards couldn’t have gotten into ritual. The same is true, I think, for writing. Too much logic and too much planning can keep out the very things your story needs. Needless to say, if you allow something to enter and decide it really doesn’t help the story, you can edit it back out.
Author Diana Gabaldon once mentioned during a research discussion on a writers’ forum that while doing research about ABC she would inadvertently stumble across XYZ. Once she investigated XYZ, it turned out to be vital to the plot and theme of her book even though she had never considered it before. Was her discovery magic, synchronicity, a butterfly-effect phenomenon, or an example of her subconscious mind “knowing” the material was there and leading her to it?
I’m not sure. And really, I’m less likely to stumble over the leopards trying to get into the temple if I don’t worry about how they found the temple or managed to appear at the proper time. So, I leave my work open to chance. In his book Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write, Mark David Gerson suggests that the stories we tell are already out there (don’t worry about where), just waiting for us to listen. If we don’t listen, we won’t hear them or, perhaps, if we do hear them, we’ll censor out the leopards because they weren’t included in the original plan.
Over the years, I’ve come to think that events and ideas that seemingly come out of nowhere are often the most meaningful. And, they can send our lives and our stories off on the most surprising pathways. In her post How an African Intruder Taught Me a Lesson on Magic and Writing, author Smoky Trudeau Zeidel wrote about a guineafowl that wandered into her neighborhood. She named the bird Gertie. Its appearance there was probably just as unlikely as a leopard in the local temple.
“All sorts of Gerties have popped up in my Work In Progress (WIP), The Storyteller’s Bracelet. Not guineafowl, these Gerties, but surprises that seem to have materialized out of nowhere,” she said. (She and I were content to label the appearance of a Gertie of any kind as magic.) Her view is that “when magic enters your life, be it through an unexpected visitor from another continent or through your words, it is best to go with it.”
I agree. Going with it is part of allowing your story to happen.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism and contemporary fantasy novels, including “Sarabande.”