Story Is Alchemy
The unbearable lightness of writing
My first introduction to the term “alchemy” came in an illustrated children’s book about the scientific process. The illustration showed a bunch of fancifully dressed bearded men, some with amulets and bones hanging from their beards, bent over a worktable covered in ramshackle equipment. The book explained that alchemy had been a medieval scientific worldview focused on making gold from lead. It sounded nuts, and these guys looked nuts. I didn’t know of anyone turning lead into gold, so it seemed that this pseudoscience had been thoroughly disproven.
I didn’t think about alchemy for a very long time after that, not until many years later. When I got sober at the age of 30, I was introduced to the idea that all of the worst things that had happened when I was drinking, all of the episodes that hurt to think about in even a passing fashion, could have a different and better purpose if I used them to help others. That is to say, if I shared them not necessarily to unburden myself or brag about how tragic I was, but to lessen the shame of anyone carrying a similarly painful past around with them, and to demonstrate that it was possible to live deliberately and usefully now no matter what had happened before.
For example: I was a blackout drinker. I blacked out just about every time I drank, and I drank every day. Hiding this was a constant obsession with me, and it demanded that I be very careful about how I discussed the events of the previous night with friends. I couldn’t ask questions, even the most general questions, because if I did, I risked somebody saying, “Don’t you remember? We did go to the diner after all,” or “Don’t you remember? You picked a fight with the bartender when you stole money out of the tip jar.” Etc. And so one of the most depressing consequences of my drinking was that I realized I couldn’t make new friends, since friendships typically developed from spending time together and reflecting on it later, calling back to things that happened.
I had never admitted this to myself, so it was incredible when I heard someone — who had been sober for years already at that point — articulate the same effect in her life. And what’s more, she could talk about this element of her past without shame. She had survived it, metabolized it. Even if I didn’t know exactly how I might do the same thing, it became possible.
I remember one day, having been sober for three or four years, telling the story of my broken nose in a 12-step meeting. This had been one of the lowest points of my drinking, and hugely shameful to me because it wasn’t even that I broke my nose in a fight; I broke it by falling hard, square on the face, over and over again as my friend tried to wrangle me onto the couch to sleep it off at her house, seeing as I had lost my keys and begged to be left out to die of exposure.
Horrible as this was, I was telling this story as an example of something that I was perhaps bizarrely grateful for: That night made it clear to me that my drinking had to stop, and it was one of the moments along the way to the bottom that stuck in my mind and nudged me, eventually, to get help. If I had kept drinking, I could have killed someone else or myself. In a way, there’s some mercy in simply breaking your nose if it helps wake you up to the severity of your situation.
After the meeting, a woman came up to me and said, “It’s my first day. I broke my nose exactly the same way. I thought I’d never be able to say that out loud.” She was relieved. She didn’t have to carry that part of the past by herself anymore. She could see it in a new context which freed her up. And it freed part of me, too: That night had become helpful instead of shameful. Lead into gold indeed.
What does this have to do with writing? Well, quite a lot, actually.
Until some indeterminate date, stories will always be about conflict, great or small. As Charlie Baxter says, “Hell is story friendly.” And your capacity to imagine hell, your capacity to render it clearly, is probably at least somewhat informed by your experiences of life on earth. So it follows that in order to write a successful story, you also have to successfully engage with past pain. By “successfully,” I mean that you have to remember it well enough to render it, but not be taken over by it either. You have to be able to see it clearly, take it apart, transmute it into words which can then transmute into an understanding or vision for the reader.
Much later, once I began my training in hermeticism, I realized that the goofy metallurgical alchemists I remembered from the children’s book didn’t represent the whole story. In fact, alchemy is a spiritual process, one in which the lead and gold are metaphorical stand-ins for the heaviness and lightness of experience and grace.
In any case, if you have ever found yourself changed by a story, you have experienced alchemy. If you have ever comforted someone by sharing your experience with them, you have experienced alchemy. And if you have ever looked over your writing later and realized what you couldn’t see at the time, you’ve experienced alchemy, too. Transforming past pain into a gratifying or even entertaining experience for the reader is utter alchemy (and by alchemy, I mean magic, dude). You are already a skilled alchemist, although you may not think about writing in this context.
So, in practical terms, how can you use this idea?
The next time you find yourself in a dark place, see it as a story.
You would never read a novel that began: “It was a perfect day, and everything was perfect.” (Well, actually, you might … and you would expect something horrible to happen because such is the irony of narrative framing.)
If you read a book in which the main character got everything they wanted and just meandered around, thinking about how shiny their hair was, you wouldn’t finish it. You’d be bored, for one thing. But more importantly, you would find yourself asking what readers often ask of books that fail to deliver tension and drama: Why should I care?
We care in equal proportion to how human the character feels to us. We care more when we feel how fragile and precious life is on earth, and difficulty is what really underscores our common precarity on this hot (and ever hotter) rock.
Pain + time = change
Pain + time = story
Change, story, alchemy: these are all forms of magic. And once you have access to this framework, it gets a lot easier to make magic out of your life, pain included.