The Fractured Mirror: Writing Out of the Dark Valley

By Edward Karshner

I write because I like stories. I like reading old stories and finding new meaning in them. In my day job as a folklorist, I study how storytelling influences behavior. The fancy term for this is the study of “cognitive scripts,” how stories become the knowledge we use to understand and navigate situations. I’m also interested in how we find meaning by becoming the characters in the stories we carry with us.

Writing that paragraph, I realize that’s how I read, not why I write. Writers I admire have answered this question better. Writing is a salve for something that hurts. I read somewhere that one way we psychologically deal with loneliness is through the telling of stories. We create worlds in our head that give us a place where we belong. The first stories I ever wrote, as a kid, came when it was no longer socially acceptable to play with toys. Play was the way I dealt with my own loneliness. The stories were a way to internalize that play, hide them where no one could take them away.

What kind of writer am I? I’m a lonely writer.

When I was working with the Leonard Roberts Collection at Berea College, I was drawn to a story called “Nine Cat Tails.” In this story, a Widow travels from wasteland to wasteland looking for a safe place to raise her children. One night, in her loneliness, she looks up at the moon and remembers a story about how a man was exiled to the moon for working on Sunday. Because the Widow is “thinking about what she’s heard” about him, he comes to her and gives her magical aid to defeat the darkness and create a brightly lit valley—a home.

This tale is transparently a story about another story. The story about a man being exiled to the moon for working on a Sunday begins in the Hebrew Bible, Numbers 15: 32-36, when a man caught collecting sticks on the Sabbath is stoned to death. A German folktale spares the man by turning his punishment into an exile where “the man was caught up with his sticks. . . into the moon where he stands yet.” By remembering another story, the Widow is able ease her loneliness and find a respite from the darkness.

The moral of “Nine Cat Tails” reminds me of a 2015 interview with Toni Morrison where she shared this advice with her creative writers, “I would tell them ‘I don’t want to hear about your little lives.’” That sounds harsh; however, she embodied this perspective in her own writing. She says she would never write a memoir because “I like invention. I like to create new stuff. . . only if they let me lie. . . all the places I didn’t go, I’ll write about how I went there and what happened.”

There is little difference between Morrison’s “little lives” and the Widow’s “dark valley.” Morrison’s idea of writing the lie is the other side of the Widow remembering the folktale of the Man on the Moon. Writing stories about other stories allows me to escape the dark valley of my loneliness. As stories and storytelling illuminate the smallness of my biographical life, I create long shadows of possibilities.

Finding possibilities in the dark valley requires that I continue to spin my own stories. To suspend belief as I re-imagine old tales and my experiences with them. I worry when I see writers whose gate keeping creates dark valleys of purity and authority. Trapped in their own little lives, they seem hell bent on keeping us all there. So, I want to end with a cautionary tale.

I was a huge fan of the Davinci Code. I loved Dan Brown’s pop culture take on the boutique academic topic of Gnosticism. When the novel was released in 2003, I was teaching religion at a community college and sat through dozens of conference panels where scholars “debunked” Brown’s book like it was an academic history. The Davinci Code was a good story that academics couldn’t quit. People I’d known for years, in their comfortable stretch slacks and windbreakers, suddenly sported jeans and tweed jackets (the main character, Robert Langdon, is described as “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed”). These scholars were wearing the possibilities found in their own lives they found in fiction.

But there was a change in Brown’s work. The Da Vinci Code was batshit crazy. What many took as “historical inaccuracies,” I took as giving zero fucks about the facts when they got in the way of a good story. As he internalized the criticism from writers, his books became cautious. The books were clearly more “accurate,” but a drag.

When academics read as readers, they became characters immersed in the enchantment they found in Brown’s story.  As writers, they criticized him for how he put together his fiction using other stories. They gladly took his story but exiled him. This ingratitude contradicts the lesson from “Nine Cat Tails.” Because the Widow remembers the story of the Man on the Moon’s exile, he frees her from her own loneliness.

As I’ve gone through my own “dark night of the soul” as a writer, I hope I’m the type of writer who, like the Widow, can find meaning and community in other stories. However, this requires that I continue to spin my own stories. To suspend belief as I re-imagine the possibilities inherent in old tales and my experiences with them. And I hope I’m not the type of writer who has lost the joy of finding the fiction in fiction. As a reader, I want to escape my little life to a place ripe with possibility. In my mind, I’ll really be a writer when I can find my balance as a reader and writer—working my way out of my own dark valley without excluding those trying to do the same.

Read Ed’s other work here at Reckon.

author Edward Karshner
Edward Karshner

Edward Karshner was born in Ross County, Ohio and grew up in the Salt Creek Valley of Southeast Appalachia Ohio which draws together Ross, Hocking, and Pickaway Counties. After earning a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Philosophy from Bowling Green State University, he began to explore cultural rhetoric as expressed in folklore. His primary interest was how landscape influences folk-ideologies. In the early part of his career, he travelled extensively in China, Slovakia, Austria, and the Czech Republic before spending over a decade working with the Dinè(Navajo). Now, as a Professor of English at Robert Morris University, he has returned to researching, teaching and writing about Appalachian folklore, magic, and mysticism. A 2022 Research Fellow in Folklore at Berea College’s Special Collections and Archives, Karshner is the author of “These Stories Sustain Me” in the collection Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Replies to Hillbilly Elegy. His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and in Still: The Journal.

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