"Myth, Magic, and Metaphor: A Journey into the Heart of Creativity," Pat Daly

Pros: Interesting quotes
Cons: Editing; coherency; originality; usefulness–or rather, lack thereof; assumptions; etymologies
Rating: 1 out of 5

First published 5/21/2002

I’ve been reading a bunch of writing books in the effort to slowly reinvigorate my interest in writing, which has burned out recently. A book entitled “Myth, Magic, and Metaphor: A Journey into the Heart of Creativity” sounded perfect, particularly since it billed itself as a sort of mini-creative writing course. “It’ll be inspiring,” I thought.

[Cue the insane laughter]

Academic Navel-Gazing

The blurb “About the Book” in the front explains the book as “a fairly simple creative writing classroom scenario. The idea is to awaken the aesthetic sense, the creative muse who lurks within us all.” However, if you cut to the very back of the book, you find that “some of this text was also used as part of [the author’s] doctoral dissertation.”

Now, anyone who’s familiar with academia will know that many doctoral dissertations are written in a sort of heavy, thick academic language that hardly lends itself to a “simple creative writing classroom scenario.” Don’t get me wrong — I like intelligent writing that uses big words. But I don’t like writing that is condescending and pompous. And that is where the first problems crop up.

The Sins of the Writer

If there’s a sin against writing, it is probably committed somewhere in this book. First let’s go into the excessive etymologies. I do believe that sometimes it can lend new insight into the use of an old word if you know the origins of the word. Ms. Daly takes this to a distracting extreme, however, strewing parenthetical etymological notes liberally throughout. (Sometimes repeating an etymology as though she has forgotten that she already showed it to us.) Perhaps people who are used to reading very thick academic writing might enjoy this sort of style, but if you don’t — don’t bother with this book.

Ms. Daly also makes the assumption that her readers have had exactly the same education that she has. She frequently throws out references and comments without any explanation or context at all. Are you willing to bet the cost of this book on the idea that you’ve read all the same books that the author has? I didn’t think so. (And if you had read all the same books, then why would you need to read this? After all… Oh, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Just go on to the next section…)

Over-Quoting

The text consists largely of quotes from various sources (philosophers, writers, artists of all types), most with names you’ll recognize. There are a few of the author’s own thoughts used to string the quotes together, but that’s really all they are — a bit of string tying lots of quotes together. Largely her material interprets and expands on what other people said; I’m unconvinced that there’s anything new and original in this book.

Of course, the quotes are both the saving grace of this book and its downfall. For while they cause one to eventually realize that there is very little substance to the book, they are what give the book its only grace-notes. The author does have the ability to choose beautiful and interesting quotes.

Wasting Space

You must understand that this is a small book. 107 pages sounds like a reasonable size, but they’re small pages, in large type, with inset quotes and pieces of art and blank “work pages” taking up an inordinate amount of space. Every word counts in such a small book. You can’t waste space or you’re really going to end up saying nothing at all.

Given that, I find some of the author’s choices baffling at best. After a while, I found that some of the quotes started to look suspiciously familiar. Sure enough, they were repeated from earlier chapters (sometimes repeated more than once).

Then let’s look at that whole “it’s a creative writing course” idea. How does she make it so? By tacking on a paragraph of “exercises” as an afterthought at the end of each rambling chapter, including a couple of blank “work pages,” and showing us bad black-and-white copies of art that’s supposed to inspire us. Maybe it was inspiring in the original form, but these poor copies leave us with very little to look at.

Excitement

The author talks a lot about mystery, excitement, enthusiasm, and wonder being central to creativity. I happen to agree with that thesis, so for a while I had trouble understanding why it was that I disliked her approach to the topic so much. Then it finally occurred to me.

The heavily academic style of writing removes any sense of enthusiasm and wonder that it might have conveyed. She robbed her words of exactly the thing that she was trying to express. She occasionally inserts a few exclamation points or a bolded quote as a poor substitute for real wonder and excitement, but that’s about it.

Derailed!

Around the time when the author starts talking about mythology and metaphor and symbolism, things get strange. There are comments thrown out that make no kind of logical sense whatsoever, no matter how you look at them. Maybe they made perfect sense in a missing context or with additional information, but as it is they just confuse. If anyone can explain to me what on earth this is supposed to mean, I’ll be very grateful: “The Cherokee Indians have a symbol with a star in the middle. The star has seven points and ends with the number 9!”

This is also about the time when she starts making contradictory statements. For instance, she insists that science and technology require inspiration and creativity to get anywhere (which I agree with), and yet says that the more cognitive society gets, the less creative it gets. These two things seem directly contradictory. She says at one point, “Unlike animals, man had a brain…” Animals don’t have brains? Someone should tell the biologists!

It’s about two-thirds of the way through the book that she starts doing this. There’s even a page on which she repeats the same quote twice in two paragraphs, not to mention a whole bunch of missing, wrong, or weird punctuation marks that confuse the quotes a bit. What, did her editor quit part-way through the book? Or did she just not bother with an editor, and gave up editing it herself part-way through?

By now you’ve probably realized that I have some real issues with this book. I cannot recommend it for reading unless you have a real love of thick, quote-heavy rambling. It starts out with a wonderful premise, and I wish I could say that it does anything good with that premise. But alas, the only real value this book has is as a collection of cool quotes — most of which you can probably find elsewhere.

Posted in Reviews, Writing

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