Sunday, November 20, 2011
Ray Bradbury, an author I tend to trust on the subject, says that an author has to write 1,000,000 words of fiction in order to know what he or she is doing. Various other writers I tend to trust have said similar things, or directly backed up Bradbury's statement. It's one of several reasons I try to write more or less constantly.
But, the closer I get to a million words, the less I feel I know what I'm doing. The closer I approach to that threshold, the more aware I am of my own shortcomings, the more I realize how pathetic my knowledge of techniques and of other authors is, the more I feel like I should stop writing before I get to a million words and know nothing.
In 2009 I took Playwriting, a class I was let into by the grace of its teacher in spite of not having the prerequisite courses for it. It is still one of the classes in which I learned the most about writing in general.
As a final project for that class, we were required to write a 1-act play. My play was described as "very Ethan-ish," which I suppose is a compliment. It was about a mother and daughter, and the person who killed the mother when the daughter was an infant. At the height of the play, the daughter reads the one letter she got from her mother, a letter written by her mother while the daughter was an infant:
“My darling child,
"I write this as I watch you sleep peacefully, your little eyes closed, your little fists relaxed (for once). I am thinking of all the things I want for you, of all the things you will accomplish, and of how proud I will be of you no matter who you turn out to be. But, and maybe this is just the natural worry of a mother, most of my thoughts turn towards things I have experienced or seen or heard that I never wish you to experience. Things I hope I will be able to protect you from. Things I know I will not be able to protect you from—your first love, your first broken heart, your first betrayal.
“My mother, in her semi-mystical way, always used to say this to me: ‘The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.’ The dragons in life, I have found, are never what we expect them to be. They are never what we are prepared for. We must face them on the strength of our weakness, that weakness which is turned into perfect strength by our God.”
For one of my graduate classes I just finished reading The Painted Drum, a novel by Native American author Louise Erdrich. This is a novel that is about, among other things, mothers and daughters, and the love that is between them. It was published in 2005, four years before I wrote my play, but as implied, I had not heard of it, much less read it, until this year. A couple pages from the end of that novel we have this:
"There are other things that [my mother] could say to me, things I will never hear. I doubt that many mothers say these things to their daughters... They try to protect us, even when we're middle-aged. So I must supply the words for myself:
"Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won't either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could." (Erdrich, The Painted Drum, 274)
Obviously there are differences--her writing is good, mine is not; my writing has overtly religious content, hers does not; etc.--but they are similar enough to give me a slightly eerie feeling. I suppose some burgeoning writers like me would be annoyed, perhaps thinking that such similarity implied in them a lack of originality. However, I tend to view the finding of such things oddly flattering. I take it, perhaps incorrectly, to imply that I have hit on something universal, or at least somewhat universal. At the very least I find encouragement in the fact that my wild guess at what a universal theme might be in such a case is so similar to someone else's--someone with a LOT of credo, no less.
Saturday, November 19, 2011
to be your harlequin, your palanquin,
you needed only to have told me.
I would have sprung, on Mercury's slippers,
into the tops of the trees
where the real leaves lie, with their real slippers,
with their buds of exchange
and their slippers like old theaters
breathing the dust of soliloquies
past, breathing the dust of two
children who thought they were adults
and were performing for each other
in that old theater on an august night
and the soft melting of whose lips
illustrated, unconsciously, the soft melting
of the snow in April, illustrated
the way all things fade away in the end.
Sunday, November 13, 2011
...it has problems. In it, Sanderson talks about postmodernism in fantasy, declaring himself to be a postmodern fantasist and trying to define ways in which fantasy has been, and is, postmodern.
I only have the time and energy to point out a few of the problems at the moment. I guess my first major beef is that after stating, correctly, that fantasy was very quickly ready for a postmodern era, since it was subverting its own genre tropes almost from the beginning, Sanderson says this (in the context of his idea for Mistborn):
The thing that made me want to write it, originally, was the thought, “What if Rand lost the Last Battle? What if Frodo had failed to destroy the ring? What if the Dark Lord won?”See. Frodo DID fail to destroy the Ring. Why is it that nobody, especially those writing criticism of Tolkien, seems to remember this? Frodo failed. The evil, the corruption, overcame him, and it is only through the influence of Gollum's greed that the ring is destroyed.
What I'm saying is, if this sort of thinking makes fantasy postmodern, then fantasy has been postmodern from its very beginning. Which essentially renders the appellation meaningless. (Actually, this sort of thing goes back farther than Tolkien. Lord Dunsany was subverting the tropes of fairy stories, and James Branch Cabell subverting the tropes of basically everything, decades before Tolkien published Lord of the Rings.)
Here's a post from Jeff VanderMeer where he says a lot of the things I thought about this post, and has much more credibility to do so. Vandermeer is one of a slew of fantasy writers I can think of off the top of my head who are actually postmodern; others include Michael Moorcock (Elric, among others); Neil Gaiman (though he claims, rather charmingly, not to know what it means to be a postmodern writer, his short stories and most of his novels are filled with postmodern tropes and techniques); China Mieville; Steven Erickson; R. Scott Bakker; Kelly Link; Jeffrey Ford; Jasper Fforde; and even George R.R. Martin. Not all of these people are writers of epic fantasy, though a lot of them are, but all of them are more postmodern than Sanderson probably ever will be. (And I do realize the ridiculousness of the phrase 'more postmodern,' since as VanderMeer points out, postmodernism is not a monolithic concept of the type that lends itself well to a scale or even a continuum.)
Of course, that leaves off the writer who might be the king of postmodern fantasy (a title I am guessing he would hate): M. John Harrison. By the end of his Viriconium books, Harrison has deconstructed his fantasy world right out of existence. That, ladies and gentlemen, is postmodernism (granted, one of many possible incarnations of postmodernism); that is deconstruction. Setting a world a thousand years after the hero failed is a neat concept, a springboard for a good story, but it does not make a book 'postmodern fantasy.' (Or if it does, then the appellation would have to be defined so generically as to be useless.)
But my major problem is the point Sanderson seems to be making about Mistborn. He seems to think that the series' success came from the fact that it was a supposed postmodern fantasy; that it was the specifically postmodern things he was doing with the book that made it good. Now, there's a certain truth to this, if we go with Sanderson's definitions of postmodernism: most of the people I know who fell in love with those books seem to have done so because the story was something they had not seen before, the world-building and concepts very new, very fresh. If Sanderson got there by consciously taking epic fantasy tropes and twisting them, then more power to him. But again, he's just following in a long line stretching from the people subverting William Morris in the late 19th Century up through the reactions to Tolkien up through now. If that technique is postmodern, once again, all of fantasy is postmodern, and it's not even worth having this discussion.
The thing is, people don't fall in love with a technique, or with a form, or with a movement, when they fall in love with a book. People want good writing, good characters, and a world that they can either get lost in or through which they can gain new insight into the world, or both. Mistborn has enough of those things that it sold well, and that people fell for it.
If you want real postmodern fantasy (which, sometimes, I do), read M. John Harrison. If you want a good story with solid characters and an intriguing world, read Brandon Sanderson. Don't worry about the deconstruction, unless that sort of thing floats your boat, in which case, let's have coffee.
Friday, November 11, 2011
raked by the moon’s silver venom.
you called me and said you wanted to walk
said you were depressed
and that you wanted to attack the night and talk
about anything that wasn’t being depressed.
since I was the one who had said you weren’t allowed
to walk alone at night you said I was the one
who had to walk alone with you.
that was years ago. the moon has waxed and waned,
becoming a great accusing face,
a silver spoon made to overflow with its own mercury,
melted down in the crucible of our hearts.
we walked a crooked shining silver sidewalk
past a slow stream that wound under a bridge
of bright yellow with streamers flying,
and both of us thought of being kids,
when bridges were castles in the sky
floating high above a night land whose green
and twinkling flow like a river
the color of a peacock’s tail
spelled redemption from all the bloody scrapes
and the throat-tearing shouting matches
that filled our days like the hot sun.
i told you a line i took from hemingway:
that the world breaks everybody
but afterward many are strong in the broken places.
i used to like that sort of thing,
big sweeping cynical speeches
from novelists who knew everything.
now they hurt too much, and the breath
to make the speech comes from a place in my heart
that is too broken for words.
we are broken places, you and I,
and how can we be strong
when we don’t believe in strength?
moonbeams shoot out the ends of your hair
and i hold the sun in the palm of my hands
but all i can remember are three red-gold leaves
that floated to the sidewalk that night,
the silent wind of whose passing
through the river of the moon’s face
silenced us as if forever.
Monday, November 07, 2011
A golden moment's come to pass,
And it made a swift goodbye.
Waved its hand from left to right,
Saying bye, farewell, goodnight.
But it left me brave and bold,
Like the knights of ages past,
Like the dawn leaves dew upon the grass.
As morning glories bloom,
So do some things in life this way:
Rising early but well past noon,
They weaken die and fade.
But there's many perspective buds
Still clinging to the vine,
Waiting in patience
To show their glory at later times.
Oh I got what I wanted.
And I'll be afraid no more,
And face all these toxic things,
Also, their EP, "I Was Seeking and I Found," contains five songs: "Buck Up, They're Coming.", "You Can't Escape Them;", "You Can't Evade Them.", "But You Can Enjoy Life Before And After,", and "Without Fear of their Return."
Thursday, November 03, 2011
She led us to the edge of a giant bowl in the woodlands, a sudden valley that dips away and down. The trees grew at angles that made some of them look like awnings, like giant fans, like someone had chucked a giant toothpick into the side of the hill.
“I used to come out here when I was a lot younger, when my parents and Cassie were shouting at each other,” Grace said. “It was the only really rebellious thing I did until… well, until everything I did was rebellious.”
There was a tree that was growing at an angle that was nearly horizontal. Into the trunk, in a rough sort of block letter carving, was the word GRACELAND. Grace pointed to it and grinned at us. “My mark,” she said.
She led us farther down the slope, all three of us leaning back to counter balance as we scuffed our shoes in the dirt side of the valley, until we got to a tree that had fallen. Judging from the size of the thing and the rot at the base of the trunk, it may have simply died of old age. Grace hopped up on the trunk and balanced her way out onto it. Mark stopped and watched her go; I hopped up after her and followed behind, ready to grab her if she fell. She turned and gave me a bit of a quizzical look and then yelled at Mark.
“You have to come up here, too.”
Mark sighed and hauled himself up onto the log, and came and stood by the two of us, a little close, as though he were trying to stand next to Grace through me. Grace pointed and we turned and looked off the broad side of the log down at the valley as the sun was striking it.
“I have this timed down to the second,” Grace said. I was about to mention how the valley did look really beautiful when the sun was at this exact angle, filtering through the trees and making the valley glow green and shining red off of some metal that must have been buried in the dirt, and white off a hundred sprays of mushrooms I suddenly realized were scattered throughout the valley floor. But the breath to form the words caught suddenly in my throat. The view wasn’t what she was talking about at all. The sunlight shone another scene, as if the light itself was creating a view, or projecting it. Suddenly the valley floor became mapped with roads of gleaming gold and the trees transmuted into houses, but houses like I had never seen before, great hills black as pitch with gold windows from which white light shone, and one great house like a miniature mountain which rose over all of them. There were people dressed in robes almost like kimonos, adorned with stars, robes of gold and white and red, and in the center of the town a great fountain sprayed water into the sky, and above the fountain rose a globe that pulsed with color, more color than I could comprehend, color that seemed to encompass all hues at once and leave me with the feeling that I was seeing more than I could possibly comprehend. I stared at the scene for what could not have been a minute but felt like hours, not sure where to look, wanting to see all of it and barely able to comprehend or contain any of it. Then, the sun passed behind a cloud, and it was gone.
Tuesday, November 01, 2011
There's not a whole lot for Larry and me to report about that year either, and unlike certain people, I won't take 1200 words to say how little there is to talk about. Larry and I pretty much went on the way we always did. We would have known who Grace was, if you asked us, and we knew when she went off to boarding school because that's the kind of thing that home schoolers will talk about, but she was nobody special to us at that point.
That was the year we both got jobs; I started working the cash register at a gas station and Larry started working desk and shelving at the local library. He would show up to the gas station and sit on a stool behind the counter with me and grab cigarettes for people if I was too slow to find the pack they asked for. I would show up at the library and follow him around while he shelved and sometimes unshelve things just to make him mad, which didn't work because he said it just killed part of his shift while not really making things more complicated for him, shelving wise.
We went through several phases, that year: an alchemy phase, a time travel phase, an Atlantis phase, and several minor history phases (the Napoleonic Wars, the Hundred Years' War, the Great Depression, British Colonialism). We did some writing, too, mostly to entertain ourselves and each other. One series we wrote while some of our phases overlapped was about time traveling alchemists who sometimes lived in Ancient Atlantis. That was fun. Larry's library job allowed him to check out materials without getting overdue fines, which allowed us to keep books for the months on end that we required when obsessed with a particular subject.
One book Larry checked out, on supposed (or suspected) Atlantean architecture, showed a picture of a pyramid sunk under the ocean in the Bahamas, on the stone side of which was carved a circle with spiky points, that could have been a stylized sun, or moon, or star. I remember Larry staring at it for a while.
“I recognize that design,” he said.
I glanced at the picture. “Says it doesn't resemble any known design.”
“I can see that. But I still recognize it.”
“Did you dream it? Maybe the Atlanteans are trying to communicate with you.”
“Maybe,” said Larry, but he was still focused on the book.
It's not really worth going over that next year in detail. The stuff from the mango incident to the conversation I just talked about took place between something like August and May. I had to wait until the following August to go off to boarding school. I would be sixteen in October. They enrolled me as a Sophomore. Over the summer they pretty much let me do whatever I want, as long as I didn't do it in front of them. I calmed down somewhat. I stopped smoking pot, and I never drank that much at a party (or anywhere else, for that matter) ever again. I did have a few drunken make out sessions, and the little bit of a romantic who survives somewhere inside me is kind of sad that I don't specifically remember my first kiss, and that even if I did it would be a memory of two drunk people sort of slobbering on each other.
The boarding school (I prefer not to remember its name) wasn't awful in the way that you hear about British boarding schools being awful. There was never any rape, as far as I know, and there was no physical abuse or anything like that. There was a lot of scheduling, though. That was one of the two things that put me on the phone with my parents one evening in April, just barely too dignified to be begging them to take me back.
Just to show you what I mean: we would get up to one of the Mentors banging on our dorm room door or ringing a bell down the hall at seven. We would have fifteen minutes, during which we must brush our teeth, wash our face, and get into our school uniforms. We would file down to the cafeteria, have half an hour precisely to eat breakfast, then go to school. And the end of four very precisely measured fifty five minute periods, with five minute breaks, we had precisely half an hour for lunch. Three more class periods later, we would go outside for some kind of physical activity; tennis, soccer, distance running, sprinting, and so forth. We would then have a forty five minute supper period, after which we had two hours of free time, followed by an hour of study hall, after which we had an hour to prepare for bed before lights out at eleven thirty.
I learned a lot, sure. But this was not the freedom I was looking for.
There was a group of us who got into the habit of skipping study hall and going out into the woods down by the pond and drinking Boone's Farm or smoking. I didn't like them, really, and I didn't (and don't) like Boone's Farm and I never could stand the taste or smell of cigarettes. But they were the only people who made any effort to be free, and at that point I only really had the ability to do what other people were doing.
One night we were there and the Dean of the school and a bunch of Mentors came and told us we were surrounded and shouldn't run. I didn't run, but I hid, under the trunk of a fallen, rotting tree. At least two mentors and the Dean (I recognized him by his black wing tips) walked right past me.
After that I was sort of a hero to the “rebellious” kids. I remembered how to flirt, suddenly, and on top of my cache as hero I used my flirting to make a few of the boys fall in love with me. That really wasn't nice, but I was so not used to being thought of as anything like hot that it went to my head.
Well, one of the boys tried to kill himself. I don't know if he had other problems (you don't really get to know people when you're flirting with them), but his roommate said it was my name all over his notebook before he passed on from falling off the chair. His roommate, who was not in love with me, hid the notebook before the authorities searched the room for evidence, and the kid who tried it, Blake, never mentioned my name at all.
Writing this brings back an urge I've had several times over the past three years: to track Blake down and apologize to him, unconditionally, to tell him I'm sorry and ask for his forgiveness, knowing I don't deserve it. Sometimes that urge is overpowering, but I can't get to the point of actually doing anything about it. I'm a coward.
Anyway, after that I got away from the rebellious kids, even though they kept wanting me to hang out with them. I started going to church a lot. But church was a prison too.
Let me put it this way: what I learned at church was, You need to be converted, say the Sinner's Prayer. Okay, you've said that? Good. Now you're saved. Now, if you pray hard enough, and believe hard enough, and have enough faith, then God will give you everything you ask for, and will make you into a wonderful person. Oh, you're not a wonderful person? You're not getting all the things you ask for? You haven't prayed hard enough, or believed hard enough. You don't have enough faith. Better recommit yourself, pray the Sinner's Prayer again, make sure you actually believe it and actually mean it. Now, pray for all that stuff again. Oh, it's still not working? You obviously don't have enough faith. Better recommit...
I'm a broken person, I wanted to cry. I can't bring myself to think about the things I want to do, the things I should do, let alone to do them. Please God (I would think), can't I just crawl into your lap and cry for a while?
I finally didn't want to deal with it any more, any of it. If I couldn't crawl into God's lap I would crawl into my basement room and cry there for three years or so. I called my parents and I cried, and I gave them apologies I'm still not sure I believed, and I asked them to take me back, to let me come home. They sounded like they truly wanted to; my mom cried too. I had a flash of insight, then. I told them I'd follow their rules, but I would need some freedom, I would need them to trust me somewhat and let me out of their sight and out of the house, sometimes on the spur of the moment, sometimes until late at night. There was a long pause, to the point that I was afraid they had hung up or the connection had gone dead, then Dad said, All right. I hung up with them and suddenly I was really happy. Maybe it wasn't a perfect place, maybe it wasn't a castle in the sky, but I was going Home.
[Nano writing at its best--unedited, just as it came out of the scary reaches of my skull. Enjoy.]
I first became interested in the two young men who will tell a lot of this story when I first saw them. Don't tell them that, though, it would go straight to their heads.
I was fourteen, I suppose, which seems like a really long time ago though it was only four years. Four years can change a person a lot, and it certainly changed me. Let's set the scene for my fourteen year self:
A tall girl, gangly, with long self conscious brown or strawberry blonde or dishwater blonde hair (nobody could ever agree on the color, and when they talked about it I always wished they would just shut up and leave me alone and let me read). I wore a floral print dress that hit me at mid calf, and looked just awkward but it was modest and that was the point of clothes, to be modest. My arms felt long and thin and naked, sticking out from the short sleeves of my dress, so I crossed them in front of my chest.
Imagine this person standing in the middle of a crowd of similarly clad people, home schoolers all of us except the Catholic priest who didn't have kids, on the sidewalk right next to the parking lot of the Planned Parenthood. We were staging a prayer vigil protest, where we showed up and stood just off the Planned Parenthood property lines and held signs silently and prayed in silence. In sharp contrast to this were the people who drove by on the busy street behind us. Some of them honked and some of them screamed things at us (this was the first time I realized what the word was that people meant when they talked about the “f” word). I, the shy little home schooled girl, was far too freaked out to even think of words to pray. I stood, arms crossed, mouth probably a little open, eyes probably a little bugged out, a hot chill of mortification shooting through me every time a car went past and honked or yelled or anyone looked at us or I thought anyone was looking at us or I even thought about anyone looking at us, at me.
We were a big crowd, and being from a smallish town in the upper midwest, we were mostly white. I say this so that when I mention that there was one black boy in the crowd, hopefully it will seem less... I don't know, racist or whatever. I don't mean to be; it's just that, in a place like that, he was noticeable. His parents were the O'Connors, who couldn't have kids so they adopted five of them. The other four were Russian or Ukrainian; Larry was from Uganda. He didn't seem that different, other than his skin, and no one really cared. He was just Larry.
I didn't know him very well. He went to one of the other Baptist churches in town, and at home schooler events he would hang out with the kids from that church, who seemed a lot more socially well adjusted than the kids from my church, but that was only because they dressed in contemporary clothes and went to the mall and played video games and things like that. We might have been less entertaining, but we were more spiritually mature than they were. At least, that was the only way I knew how to think.
Larry's friend Mark came up the sidewalk, carrying his backpack. Larry was wearing a yellow button-up shirt, untucked, and blue jeans, with a pair of white sneakers. He had a backpack at his feet, though (as I would come to know later) it was unlike any backpack that someone going to a public school would carry: the only book in it was something he was reading for fun.
From the other side of Planned Parenthood came Larry's friend Mark, who seemed in sharp contrast to the adults and kids in the crowd here. We were a lot of studious faces, hands lifted, lips moving silently or half vocally, eyes closed or cast skyward in presumed prayer or contemplation. The Catholic family all had rosaries out, and were praying through their beads. I didn't understand it, but watching them filled me with a sort of awe.
Mark, meanwhile, was loping along, one arm swinging wide, the other occupied eating a mango like it was an apple. He wore a big grin, which got bigger when Larry waved at him. Mark was wearing a white button-up shirt, black jeans, a red tie and a black vest, and if it hadn't been for the vest and the cheap costume shop bowler hat (and also the wide grin on his face), he might have looked like a junior version of our pastor. He walked up to Larry, and the two clapped each other on the back and Larry said something that made Mark guffaw rather more loudly than I thought appropriate. Then I heard Mark ask:
“Do you have any floss on you? Mangoes are delicious but they get stuck in your teeth something awful.”
“They do, man, it's true,” Larry said. I turned and watched as he rummaged in his backpack, wondering how Mark could have the audacity to assume Larry had something as random as floss on him.
“Here you go,” Larry said, handing Mark a dentist's waiting room sort of floss container. “You'll have to take off the needle first. Careful.”
Mark took the needle and thread, handed his half eaten mango to Larry, unthreaded the needle from the floss, and proceeded to floss his teeth. I turned away in disgust, thinking a lot of uncharitable things about the two boys and their appropriateness, propriety, and... stuff like that. I overheard Mrs. O'Connor berate Mark for dropping floss on the ground. Mark made Larry guffaw at something and while Larry was laughing a woman came out of the Planned Parenthood. Her face was red and she looked across the parking lot at us and she marched over and stood about twenty feet in front of us. I had never seen someone look so mad before, never seen a brow so furrowed or a glare so fierce.
“You people can just go home!” she yelled, her voice high and shrill like when my younger brother dragged his fork across the chalkboard just to watch us girls cringe a lot. “Get out of here! What women do with their own bodies is their own business! What do you care? You all can just go to hell!”
Nobody responded to her. We had been told what to do if something like this happened. It was, basically, not to respond. The woman stood there another minute and her eyes got even darker and her forehead developed even more wrinkles, something I would have thought was impossible. She screamed at us even more loudly.
“Guess what? I'm about to have an abortion! I'm about to go in there, and set up an appointment to commit murder, according to you people! How do you like that? I'm going to have an abortion and there's nothing you can do about it, you bunch of meddling, pious, self-righteous, idiotic, control freaks!”
During this tirade I heard Larry mutter, “Dude, give me your knife.” Larry pushed past me and I saw that he had cut a couple slices of mango in his hand. He went to the front of the crowd and crossed the gulf toward the lady while she was still screaming. He stood at arm's length from her and held out a slice of mango. She glared at him and finally asked, “What the hell is this?”
“It's a mango,” Larry said.
“Is this supposed to be symbolic?” the lady asked, uncertainty making the stridency of her voice decrease.
“No,” said Larry. “It's supposed to be a mango. You looked like you might be hungry. Have you ever had one? You should try it, they're delicious.”
The lady stared at him another moment, completely at a loss. Larry continued to hold out the mango, arm extended, smiling at her. Finally she took the mango from him, took the other piece he offered her, turned around, and marched back into the clinic, a shard of sunlight making me wince as the glass door swung shut behind her. Larry turned back around and resumed his place by Mark's side. From the way he walked, he might have thought that what had just occurred was the most normal thing in the world.
Some people looked around at him (including me, though I did it surreptitiously), but he seemed to only be responding to Mark and all Mark did was give him a look.
“What?” Larry said defensively. “She looked hungry.”