Life Lessons from Writing The Christmas Dutch Pot Baby
Deus ex machina. I first heard the term when I was studying literature with Dennis Scott in lower sixth form at Jamaica College. But I really didn’t know what it really meant until I met John Hearne at the Phillip Sherlock Center at the University of the West Indies where he schooled me in the basics of fiction on a rainy Thursday afternoon.
On the surface, I had gone to the Phillip Sherlock center to collect my contributor’s copy of Arts Review Vol.4, Easter Term 1979, edited by John Hearne and Michael Cooke. Arts Review had published one of my poems, "Mobile (for Dennis Scott)" and a short story, "Escape." Although I was very grateful for the publication credits, I also wanted to know why the other story that I’d submitted wasn’t published.
The esteemed novelist—he of the bushy moustache and khaki pants—looked out at the rain that was pouring off the side of the building, went back to his office, and then, miraculously produced the manuscript. Mr. Hearne read his scribbling in the margins of the manuscript and gave me a lesson in fiction that I’ve never forgotten.
“Always begin in medias res,” he counseled. “As with everything else, we are always poised between life and death. The main character will always have to make a choice between the dead past and the beckoning future.” Next, he explained the pathetic fallacy and the concept of deus ex machina, which was the main reason why my story had been rejected.
“Whatever conflicts are in the story, they arise from the protagonist’s desires. The resolution of these conflicts must come from the main character and it’s up to the writer to discover it.” Then, he showed me how I’d cheated the protagonist (and the reader) out of the resolution by having another character, who had not been a part of the initial narrative, appear “out of the blue” to rescue the hero.
I’d forgotten about that rainy afternoon until a few months ago when I was working on my children’s book, The Christmas Dutch Pot Baby, based on the Irish folktale famous by Ruth Sawyer in The Wee Christmas Cabin of Carn-na-ween. The story as I had planned it was going to stick to the plot of the original folk tale which had a rather bleak ending. (The Irish can be so tragic!)
When I showed the story to my friend, Diane Browne, one of the leading writers of children's books in the Caribbean, she quickly sent me an email with the following advice:
Eleanor sacrifices herself constantly and in fact one could say she gives up her life for others (cf Mother Theresa). This reinforces the fact that she is born poor, lives poor, sacrifices herself constantly, her reward being that her life ends with her going to a better place. Not very cheerful for children who need, even from folktales, uplifting ideas, values to live by in the present world.
How do we follow the traditions of the folktale genre, how downtrodden is the heroine/hero, how brave is she/he, how much of a kind of a happy ending should there be? “
I knew Diane was right. But how was I going to fix the story without resorting to the dreaded deus ex machina for the self-imposed deadline of December 23, 2012?
I had to reread the story. I won’t give away the ending. But let’s just say that I went back into the story and traced the main character’s desires and the complications that blocked her from achieving her goal. Then, I was able to resolve the story while remaining as close as possible to the original and without the dreaded deus ex machina—“god from the machine”--a phrase which always reminded me of “Get Up, Stand Up” by The Wailers:
Most people think Great God will come from the sky
Take away everything and make everybody feel high
But if you know what life is worth
You will look for yours on earth
And now you seen the light
Stand up for your right
Bob Marley and the Wailers, who were RastafarI schooled in The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, revealed in song Garvey’s message of self-reliance: “Action, self-reliance, the vision of self and the future have been the only means by which the oppressed have seen and realized the light of their own freedom” (1).
So, Mr. Hearne, I think I’ve finally got it. In life, as in fiction, whatever conflicts have appeared, they have arisen from my desires. Only I can solve them by relying on my own skills and determination. For the cavalry ain’t coming.