Unlikely Influences: What Johnny Worthen learned about writing from freemasonry

Unlikely Influences is a series of weekly blog posts about how writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. Most are from guest authors, but I’ll pop in from time to time too.

This week’s installment is by Johnny Worthen.

worthen2What Masonry taught me about writing

by Johnny Worthen

I’m a multi-genre author because no one has yet paid me to stay in a single genre. I’ve had books published in horror, young adult, and now mystery. Subsets would be paranormal, romance, politics, detective and humor. Not having an agent or an exclusive contract has freed me up to write what I want. My motto is “I write what I like to read, and this guarantees me at least one fan.” I can’t say I read outside my genre because I don’t have one. Having a wide palate and voracious appetite brought me flavors and influences from all over the place. However, there is one influence that is most unusual:

Freemasonry.

I am a Freemason. Attracted to The Craft from an early age, I became the youngest Master of my lodge at the time. Twice. I’m inactive now, writing takes all my time, but the language and pageantry of the degree of Masonry have deeply influenced my writing.

Masonry is an ancient fraternity, existing before the age of common literacy. Its teachings have their origin in the verbal transmission of ideas, spoken mouth to ear across generations. Though I won’t pretend that telephone-game system was flawless, or that the words spoken today are the same as used in the sixteenth century, but I will say that the format remains.

Like the ancient stories of the Iliad and Odyssey they are meant to be put to memory and recited back. In modern Masonry, it is more performance than story telling, so the work has a decidedly theatrical element that elevates it above a lecture and inspires emotion. One cannot experience the rites of Masonry and not be affected by them.

In my writing, I always listen to my words. I read the text aloud like a script because the words on the page are one thing; hearing them spoken and “performed” are something else. It’s a higher bar to have the texts work on both levels. I’m acutely aware of rhythms and shapes, places where I want the reader to run out of breath, places where I want them to pause and ponder. This comes from my experience with Masonry.

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Another influential element I draw from Masonry is its symbolism. The entire structure of its rites are attempts to convey an idea and relate an experience beyond expression. Using light and language, time, pageant, movement, music and odors — all the senses are used in an effort to express a transcendent concept. These elements are meant to open a door that the recipient would then be able to walk through — to connect with the idea.

Language is the same way. Each word is a symbol, full of sound and history. Each sentence a modification and direction of the symbols it contains. Each paragraph and chapter, and ultimately the entire book, is a further modification of complex concepts and a door to a greater reality.

I studied literary criticism in college. I have two degrees in it, including, ironically enough, a Master’s Degree. I understand literature from the perspective of someone who’ll dissect it looking for meaning. As I was getting these school degrees I was also getting my Masonic ones and in my mind they are kith and kin. Each instructs the other as to expression and power, and when I write today, I deconstruct my own work and instinctively sense the symbols I’m using. Sometimes I’ll relate them to the time tested archetypical symbolic language used by Masonry but more often I’ll use that “language” as a guide to create my own set of specific literary symbols.

This has led many to call me a “literary” writer, though I’m not wholly sure what that means. I’ll take it to mean I leave breadcrumbs in my work for the reader to follow, secret keys that could open the text up in unexpected ways. Parallels and contradictions. I do this intentionally and instinctively often surprising myself in later readings at what I put in.

For example, in my newest book, THE BRAND DEMAND, a central symbol is Galen’s pacifism contrasted with his love of violent video games. Virtual vs. reality, lonely vs. loved. Guns. The book’s climax takes place in a desert, a locale I often use because three of the world’s great religions were born in the desert. Place then becomes a symbolic backdrop for Galen’s enlightenment.

Even if you don’t catch any of this, or find things I don’t even know are in the book, it doesn’t matter. The key is to make the story stand on its own and by having a solid symbolic skeleton beneath, the book holds together better and allows enjoyment on multiple levels. I don’t have to sacrifice a ripping good adventure like THE BRAND DEMAND to add layers of subtle meaning with symbols. Because of my influences, I’ll put them in whether I want to or not. It’s how I write now. It’s how I am.

I know joining a Masonic Lodge isn’t practice advice for new writers, particularly if you’re a woman, an atheist, a recluse or don’t have the time or inclination, but the lessons I learned can be found in a love of live theatre and studying semiotics, symbolism and deconstruction. All wonderfully rewarding activities that can warp your mind like mine.

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A writer needs as much input as possible; the more influences, the better. Inspiration is everywhere. Go get it!

Johnny Worthen is the author of, most recently, THE BRAND DEMAND. You can find him at his website or on Twitter.