Wednesday, October 5, 2011

VP4W 5 The Secret World

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

The idea that a superhero must have a secret identity is so firmly established it's well past cliché and on it's way to Law of Nature.

There is, of course, the practical matter of not giving the super villains a target when you need some down time. But at a basic psychological level, there's something powerful and invigorating in having a secret.

Kim Hudson* explains the role of the Secret World in the arc of the Virgin's Promise:
"Once the Virgin has had a taste of living her dream and has made it a tangible reality, she creates a secret place in which it can thrive. She's not ready to reveal her dream to her Dependent World and face the consequences. The Virgin goes back and forth, juggling the impulse to meet the expectations of her Dependent World with creating a separate and Secret World where she can grow into herself."
A Secret World may be a place, a time, or simply an idea. It's generally something overlooked or ignored by the Dependent World--like the secret garden, in Frances Hodgson Burnett's book of the same name, which was literally beneath the notice of the housekeeper. In fact, it's critical that the Secret World is something that the Dependent World believes is inconsequential: if they suspect anything else they'll shut down the Virgin's explorations before she can threaten the complex of expectations placed upon her.

This is not to say that the Secret World must always be something benign and inoffensive. The Virgin may be doing something that would unsettle her Dependent World, if they knew, during a time when their attention is elsewhere.

The joy of exploring what's possible in the Secret World is colored--and perhaps heightened--by what Hudson calls, the Fear of Discovery: "There is constant tension that the Virgin will be exposed before she is strong enough to stand on her own." And discovery could mean anything from the death of the dream to an actual death sentence in the most restrictive contexts.

Again, unlike the hero who sets out to confront problems directly, in the arc of the Virgin's Promise it's important to be clear that the Virgin's motive is self-realization and that she actively avoids conflict, particularly with her Dependent World, during the initial stages of the arc. Hudson explains this in terms of pleasing everyone:
"In the Secret World, the Virgin believes she can find a way to please everyone. The good news is that she has added herself to the list of people who need to be pleased. ... The belief that she can keep them separate and preserve her Dependent World is crucial for the Virgin to risk exploring her dream in her Secret World."
As writers, it's easy to believe we can please everyone--we can be a star employee, a sterling partner and/or parent, and knock out a novel without breaking a sweat.

Some of you may be shaking your heads at that last sentence. In the cold light of rationality, we would all agree one can't do everything.

The cold light of rationality, however, doesn't shine on the Secret World because it is fundamentally irrational--not in the sense of madness but in the simpler sense that one can't make a rational evaluation with incomplete information. The Secret World is full of new possibilities, including the possibility of pleasing everyone. After all, wouldn't the people who depend on you be pleased if your novel brought them riches and fame?

This phase is particularly seductive for writers because we have not one but two Secret Worlds into which we can retire. The first is the role of the writer: we go from being mild-mannered, Responsible-Person by day, and sparkling, witty, Writer-Person by night. The second, and for those of us working in the long form more consuming, is the Secret World of the story, where for a time, with a heady mix of god-like power and child-like wonder, we are the only ones making footprints in the snow.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

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