Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Credits Page

We're often told, as writers, to 'write what you know.'  Write from experience.  For me, that means For me, that means embodied, physical experience – not just academic learning.

I've been fortunate enough to be greatly assisted in my research by the Powderhorn Cultural Wellness Center, in Minneapolis, MN.  PCWC offers culturally centered kinship building, identity development, ancient wisdom, and cultural knowledge/competence classes. This work includes knowing and reclaiming our ancestral identity, values, concepts, principles, stories, myths, and spiritual practices.

For me, that means re-learning the folk-ways of my Norse ancestors.  Engaging in hands-on learning of  pre-Christian, pre-colonization folkways. 

At PCWC, I've learned to sing 'lokkr,' and read the rune-patterns formed by the branches of trees.  I've learned how deeply ancestral patterns inform my sense of time, my physical need to withdraw in the winter. I've learned the difference between cyclical and linear time – how marking the year with agricultural festivals grounds me, centers me, even at a time of profound change.

I've also been studying 'Völva Stav' with Kari Tauring.  Stav-work means stamping on the ground with a staff, and banging on the staff with a 'tein,' (a beater), creating rhythmic accompaniment to songs, chants, galdr, lokkr. Stavving can also be used as a 'sonic driver' for shamanic journey-work.  I've learned that coordinating my body to stamp a staff on the ground while standing upright in a trance is a very strange sensation!

I have also been fortunate enough to participate in the Runehof Asatru community. There, I've attended Blots, learned to card and spin wool, and how to engage in relationship with the Land Wights. I've learned to bake Viking era 'ash-cakes,' as well as making heavy winter socks by nalbinding (1 needle knitting.) I've even learned to leave a cup of coffee and a bit of oatmeal on the altar for my ancestors.

As well, I owe a debt of gratitude to the Society for Creative Anachronism for 20 years of embodied learning. There, I learned that walking through dewy grass makes the hem of your gown miserably cold and clammy against your ankles.  I've learned that complicated line-dances can build to feeling united, like a single being with one soul and multiple feet.  I've also learned that, after combat, men smell really, really bad.

These are the kinds of details that one cannot learn in a library.  Writing the kind of novel that draws a reader in, and transports them to another world requires more of the writer.  It requires embodied knowing.

In this blog, expect philosophical musings, journey-work reports, writing tips, and commentary on the intersection of Nature and Old Norse folk-ways. Much of this blog will be driven by the physical learning driving my novel, In the Company of Stones, an historical fantasy set in 780's Denmark.  Some future commentary may also be driven by ideas I find, trudging to the library, flashdrive in hand.

But much will not.  My keyword is – immanence.

TTFN -Karen-


  1. Karen's well-written essay gives a fascinating description of the transmission of folk-wisdom. The details are tantalizing, and I hope to read more of them here.

    There are many ways of knowing, and Karen is right to lift up the value of embodied learning; it's the Humanities' cognate to the experimental method in the Sciences.

    However, I hope that the more casual reader might not assume that Kari and others built their body of information out of their own imaginations alone. They used academic methods to glean at least some of the knowledge which they tested by experimentation and adaptation.

    The Sagas themselves were recorded, translated and edited by academically trained people. Research in linguistics has been critically useful in understanding cultural dissemination as well as in recovering surviving texts.

    The cultural anthropologists who have collected so much traditional wisdom developed and/or used academic methods to do their research and train others to do so, not to mention publish it in popularly-accessible books.

    For decades, academics have used PRAXIS to further research and training: PRAXIS is a process by which theory is informed by practice and practice itself informs theory. Without grounding theory with praxis, a scholar is at risk of the scholastic error which can result in a lot of wasted ink about the number of angels which can dance on the head of a pin. Perhaps SOME academics or some subfields are still stuck using medieval methods (applying pure reason to a privileged text.)

    We need BOTH sides of the brain to be whole people. Extending our knowledge and understand requires reason AND imagination AND personal experience AND the reason and experience of other thoughtful people (as preserved and transmitted through writing). Normal children learn by all these ways. Only the very young infant learns purely by experience.

    Karen has lifted up the value of experiential learning, which is indisputable. However, I don't know of any academic who would argue to the contrary (again, there may be a few in some fields I've not studied.)

    In short, her otherwise outstanding essay is marred by the fallacy of the excluded middle. Reconstruction needs what academia can provide; this is true even as relevant fields in academia may have higher standards of "proof" than reconstructionists accept.

  2. Christa, absolutely agreed. However, the reason for upholding experiential learning is not to ignore the Middle Path. My comments were meant to remind writers, particularly historical fiction writers, to ground their works in physical experience. This adds to the verisimilitude, the sense of 'being there.' It is too easy, when relying on written research, for a writer to 'get heady,' and write very abstractly. Which doesn't draw a reader in, with fiction.