A #summer of #writing & #motherhood, part 3: Imagination is, Like, Hard.

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I turn off the midday movie, a common part of our summer schedule. Biff and Bash run off with helicopters, koalas, Batman, and garbage trucks in a complex story of friendship and adventure on Mystery Island. Blondie remains prostrate on the couch.

“What are we doing now?” she asks like clockwork.

You can do something. I’ve got to finish grading these papers.”

She lets out the sort of long, dramatic sigh only a firstborn daughter can give. “I think I’ll just lay here until the tv is back on.”

“You find yourself something to do, or I’ll find some cleaning for you to do. Got it?”

“Uuuuuuugh. Fine.” Stomp, stomp, glare at Mommy, stomp, stomp to her room.

When Blondie’s alone in her room, she could be doing a variety of things. It used to be staring at toys staring right back at her, but now there’s creativity humming in the air…

…sort of.

I walk by her room: she’s holding a palm-sized concoction of little Lego pieces. “What’s that?”

“It’s an ice cream maker!” She explains the function of every miniscule button.

“Oh neat! Will you put it in the Lego treehouse?” She received a treehouse Lego set for her birthday. After Bo had put it together, it sat as is in her room until her backpack fell upon it.

She looked at the pieces, scattered in her storage box. “But it’s broken.”

“You could rebuild it.”

“I don’t know how.”

“It’s Lego, Kiddo. You can rebuild it however you want.”

Her face scrunched, pulling dimples out of hiding. “But it’ll be hard.”

Breathe, Mommy, don’t roll your eyes–oh hell, roll your eyes. “You can build an ice cream maker, you can build a treehouse.”

This same halt comes at her desk, too. Our big seven-year-old has her own desk, perfect for coloring, writing, drawing, creating…

…sort of.

secrets_lg“Can I play computer games today?” She calls after reading a few chapters from her latest library acquisition, Secrets According to Humphrey. (A series right up your gang’s street, Lady Shey!)

“Not today.”

“Then what am I gonna do?” Her whine mimics the slide of a finger along violin strings. It grates, it stings, it makes me want to just close the door without a word and let her survive on her own until dinner.

“Why don’t you work on another Spoty the Dog story? Or your research on Egyptians and tornadoes? Or do one of those coloring projects Grandma gave you? Or do your word search? Or do SOMEthing?” Insert a dramatic gesture towards the desk surface, the only clean surface in the room.

Blondie continues to bury herself in toys. “I dunno,” she mumbles from under a pile of puppies.

Even when I try to get the imagination rolling, Blondie’s got a knack for burying it. While her brothers easily role-play themselves into stories about cars, or ponies, or planes, or astronauts, or animals, or any number of things, she tends to simply latch onto them rather than starting something herself. One morning she said she wanted to make a puppy school; after helping her make a school and little picture books for her puppies, what do I find? Puppies in a pile, her head in her hands, eyes on a Lego book. Why? “I’m too tired to play.”

Writing’s rather like that.

Story-creation is “fun,” but it’s also work. Bloody hard work. You have to take an entire world filled with people and places and screw-ups and miracles and somehow come up with the right combinations of the right words in the right order to help people you don’t know see what goes on inside your brain. We all know that the first draft is shit, of course it’s going to be shit, and yet we can’t help fighting with ourselves over each and every word we put onto the blank space. It’s just so, so much easier for it to stay inside where we can fine-tune it to our heart’s content, and daydream about our glorious debut on the publishing scene, complete with awards and carpets and active-wear models hanging on our arms. We are each of us filled with worlds, but the act of drawing those worlds up and out of us can seem like an impossible action. You may as well locate the physical point of my soul, or make Biff eat oatmeal. It ain’t happenin’.

Which is why as both a writer and a parent, I have to watch my expectations. Yeah, that first draft is bound to be horrid, and know what? It may take a while to even write that first draft. Maybe some character sketches, setting freewrites, and mini-scenes need to come first. I did this for writing Middler’s Pride, and it seems to be helping with Beauty’s Pricetoo. I’ve yet to start the story itself, but I’ve got over thirty pages of just, stuff. It’s all useful in the end, because in the end it gets me in the groove to do the impossible: create.

I walk by my daughter’s room. She hunches over her desk, pencil dancing about. “Need anything, Kiddo?”

“Mommy, wanna see my inventions?” Blondie stands up. Insert a dramatic gesture towards the desk surface.

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“It’s a Wood-Chopper Movie Starter!” The steps blur together while she talks, for I’m just lost in this image: where did this come from? I see more plans for inventions on her desk: wake-up calls for dads, dog feeders, pool starters. My heart swells, and I remind myself I can’t force this kid to be creative the way know how to be creative. If she’s going to explore her imagination, she should do it on her own terms. I can’t wait to help her tap that mad-scientist vein in that curly head of hers, unlock all its potential–

“So when can we build this? We’ll need some really big logs, and some springs, and the log’s got to come into the house, and…”

–sort of.

Ah, well. I still love it.

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Blondie with her trusty assistant Sledgehammer & top-secret Inventions folder. Shhhhh, don’t tell!

A #summer of #writing & #motherhood, part 2: Experience Does Not Always Inspire Learning.

A lovely summer day, the kind of day that inspires so much hope and happiness in little ones, especially when:

“We go to the carnival today!”

Biff said it the moment I opened the boys’ door that morning. He talked about it all through breakfast, all through the agony of waiting for Grandma to come at lunchtime. He plowed through his food in a few minutes and literally hung by the door. He peed on command in the potty, found his shoes and sat without kicking.

We met my kid brother and his family, up from Arizona to visit relations, for an afternoon of kiddie rides and giggles. Yes, this the same place I wrote about previously that grips a peculiar air during the off-season, when all is metal bones and concrete in the cold.

But in summer’s light, sweet air, the heebie-jeebies are forgotten. Smiles abound.

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Biff and Grandma–yay, carousel!

Until, of course, this:

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It was one of the last rides of the afternoon. Bash had been throwing tantrums, while Biff had been an excellent listener. I felt he deserved a reward, and could pick the next ride. Of course, he picked the ferris wheel. Why not? We had ridden it last year without  trouble. He jumped about in line, beyond stoked, and sat quite still in his seat, enamored with the heights. I, of course, was petrified that he’d make a sudden move at any given moment, and gripped his arm and shoulder the entire ride.

And then, we were back to the ramp, our turn done. I let go.

I let go.

I let go, and he ran from the bench and fell off the ramp and his feet in the air and head down and I heard the screams and saw the blood and thought my boy, I killed my boy, my boy is dying right in front of me because I let go.

I cry even now writing this.

I gripped him and the towels on his head as people swarmed to me, to us. Bo got Bash and Blondie to my relatives and ran over. Ambulance, a policeman, it all…and me crying and pleading for it to be okay and I was so sorry because I knew if I had held on….

Biff calmed down far, far sooner than I, I think because a policeman was talking to him for the first time. Biff asked him his name, what he was doing there, did he want to ride the ferris wheel, too? My little Biff spoke so smoothly without stopping that the EMTs and officer thought the chances of concussion too small to be a concern. After a stupidly long wait at urgent care where even Biff tells me to “Calm down, Mom,” we came home to see the others going on a short walk.

What did Biff do? He launched himself from the car to run down the street after them.

He tried to run alongside the cars as family departed.

He jumped from furniture because he was Superman.

He head-butted Bash because, brothers.

With me, holler-pleading all the while, “Didn’t you learn ANYTHING from those stitches?!?!”

Writing’s rather like that, on two fronts.

We get very set in our ways, we writers. Something works for us once, and superstition swells about it. If people liked the prologue we wrote that one time, let’s always use it. I wrote my best dialogue in that chair; therefore, I’m annexing it to my workspace. I only get good ideas at dinner. I can only write in complete silence. These ruts form, and form quickly.

But life doesn’t “do” ruts. The other prologues kinda suck. The chair breaks. The new work schedule has you on the job right through dinner. Kids dare to age and, like, need stuff.

As writers, we’ve got two choices: despair, or crack on. I’ve done the despairing, and let me tell you, it does you about as much good as a fall off the ferris wheel ramp. What does cracking on mean? It means taking what you’ve learned from your environment’s changes and adapting. It means learning to write with noise, to write in any position, to try new story structures and styles. It means trying, learning, growing, just as our characters do when conflict rises in their worlds.

Sometimes.

It occurred to me while pulling Biff and Bash apart yet again that experience and learning do not always go hand in hand. It seems to, because in books that’s how writers so often have it work out. It makes the plot all nice and tidy, don’t you know. Well, you don’t know, because sometimes, human nature just doesn’t jive that way. Bash, who got stitches in June from running around the house and crashing into a wall’s corner, continues to run around the house. Biff…well I told you about him. Even Blondie, who got stitches last year from jumping on the bed, continues to jump on furniture (sans beds) and trampolines any chance she gets.

That night after urgent care, with me still in tears wondering how, how can we keep these kids from killing themselves, Bo said, “With these guys, the only way they’ll stop moving is if they can’t move. It’s going to take a broken limb. Or two. Or probably three, knowing them.”

And I think we need to remember that our characters’ lives can be like that, too. Job wasn’t tested with only the loss of wealth, or only the loss of a loved one. He lost his entire family and all he possessed, even his health, before God blessed him anew. When a character totally alters over something piddly, we as readers call it out because we know human nature doesn’t switch so suddenly between “nice” and “jerk.” It evolves in time, and time rarely paces problems for our convenience. So why should we make it convenient for our heroes? Rather a boring read, I’d think.

Though I admit, I wouldn’t mind some boring days on the mother-front, such as yesterday, when all three were content with little super-hero cars built from Legos. I watched Biff fly the little Superman around and make friends with Doomsday. I remembered his feet in the air, the blood. I grabbed him, kissed his head.

And found myself chasing him down the hall because he’d grabbed the helicopter Batman from Bash’s side of the table and was now laughing maniacally from the bathroom with Bash ready to inflict fists of vengeance. Biff’s is a spirit that simply cannot be broken.

And yes, despite everything, I love it.

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Lessons Learned from John Kaag: Re-Route, Re-Root.

Salvation can’t be accomplished in isolation.
-John Kaag, American Philosophy: A Love Story

Words have a tendency to change meaning from profession to profession. In the world of  university adjuncts, for example, you may hear the words “professional development.”

We adjuncts hear “time suck.”

I’ve sat through webinars on sexual harassment in the work place (I teach from home), the importance of making time for yourself for the sake of your students (um, have you met my kids?), the costume choices used in different versions of Pride and Prejudice (because a literary festival requires a book to be present in some fashion, ha ha), and all sorts of meetings where we cheer on and on for our ever-present awesomeness for students all over the globe. “You are all so awesome!” My chair/CEO/dean/provost/etc. roots from my screen.

Yay.

51Ek3onp4tL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Such was the situation to bring John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story into my hands. I had to fill at least an hour of professional development somehow, and I was sick of “how to keep students focused/use stand-up comedy in seminar for engagement” kinds of webinars. A different department was holding a monthly book club, with Kaag’s latest being May’s choice.

I had “studied” philosophy in college, and by “studied” I mean I audited the 400-level course without any previous credits in philosophy courses. Yeah, not my brightest move. But it promised deep discussions with at least two really cute guys and the teacher was one of those rare men who by all appearances balanced philosophy and faith with ease. I was intrigued then. Don’t remember a lick of it now. But Kaag’s title brought that old intrigue back. Why not? I liked stretching my lit boundaries, and it would earn me a PD hour in the process. I contacted the PhD in charge: I’m in.

~*~

At one point, philosophers like Pierce could determine the very language we use. They had the power to define reality. (25)

“So yeah, I guess it was pretty good, but I had a hard time sympathizing with the narrator.”

“It was informative, but I just couldn’t root for the guy, you know? I mean, he left his wife. Why should I cheer for that?”

The Google Hangout felt way too much like grad school for comfort. It was the dust bunny-addled classroom all over again with cracked plastic chairs and classmates declaring a book unworthy of them solely because they didn’t like the main character.

I was stymied, and conflicted. These people, especially the Dr. So-and-So in charge, should be better at this sort of discussion. Why such shallow comments? Why wasn’t anyone looking past this need to “cheer” a hero and not see the journey Kaag risked showing us? Because I understood this kind of journey. Any one buckled under by depression would.

“Yeah, I mean, talk about a first-world, white-privilege problem.”

~*~

May was not a good month in my house. Family crashed upon us in waves for not one, not two, but three parties for Blondie’s birthday. The church threw some extra duties my way because apparently no one thinks anything has to be done until mere hours before a major retirement dinner. Friends got married upstate, which meant more family gatherings to butter up the baby-sitting and to travel and to get back and to grade final projects and to START a new term and and and AND.

And, it was not a good month. When you’re an introvert, and would love nothing better than a few uninterrupted hours to read and write, this social storm nearly drowned me. Many nights ended in tears. My children noticed: on the “My Mommy” cards Biff and Bash made with their teachers, it was revealed that this is what Bash remembers more than anything:

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How did I respond? With sobs on the front porch. Fuck the neighbors, let them watch, it’s not like they have yet another conference about their sons kicking and fighting the teacher again, Mrs. S forgot this at church can you get it again, Jean we need to talk about the party food again, I need to clean the house again I need I need I need

I. Needed. Out.

So did Kaag. He does indeed leave his first wife, and he does indeed write about his alcoholism. Yet while my colleagues saw these as reasons to put the narrator down, I couldn’t help but think of my own postpartum depression, how my own marriage struggled with the arrival of children. Here I’d managed to write about my sexual abuse, but I couldn’t fathom writing about the purgatory my marriage wandered in for years.

Maybe another well-meaning American philosopher would find the library, but not the books. Maybe, on the drive back to my unhappy marriage, I’d get in the fatal crash I often imagined. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to find my way back. (38)

I thought nothing of salvation and immortality at Durgin-Park, opting instead to drink myself senseless. At the end of the night I stumbled home and tried to convince my wife I wasn’t drunk. I was looking for help in all the usual places, all the wrong places. (14)

I couldn’t do alcohol, not after losing one uncle and nearly one sister-in-law to it. Motherhood: some days, it just fucking strangles the soul.

When that kind of feeling wraps round the heart, I knew I had to get out. If I didn’t, all the poison inside would dig itself in and suck my love dry. I lived through that once. Not going back there.

I envied Kaag his ability to simply uproot and begin again. What started as a small conference away from Harvard diverted to an exploration of self and of William Ernest Hocking, himself a philosopher who gathered thousands of books and letters that together charted the roots and growth of American philosophy. In Hocking’s library, surrounded by old lives and skittering rodents, Kaag felt something new:

Alone in an empty library, in a deserted wood, in a nearly forgotten field of American philosophy, I felt momentarily at home. (32)

I’m betting that, for the first time a long time, he could breathe.

I’m familiar with such a moment.

~*~

But eventually I came across, quite by accident, what I desperately needed to find. (31)

Another fun piece to May was the road work that cut off my town from the town where Blondie’s school is located. Thank God for Google Maps–a new road to the north, and a cut through hilly farmland. On the way out of town I passed this sign: Charles Langer Family Park.

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A park? Where? Farmland as far as the eye could see. For the kids, invisible = nonexistent, so we continued in our new ruts.

Then one day–in May, for like I said, all things happened in May–Blondie had to attend yet another birthday party, but this one was rather short. It wasn’t worth going home just to rile the boys up with “WHERE’S MOMMY GOING!?” when it was time to retrieve the girl. I could drop Blondie off and–gasp, read! But where to read? The library was packed with their book sale (not worth it). The riverside park was packed with geese, who don’t much care for human beings.

And then I remembered. And knew.

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I watched the tractors work before driving on.

Where would this road take me? Considering the proximity of Madison, a small part of me hoped that I, too, would discover a forgotten library, or at least some literary treasure of equal awesomeness.

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I parked. The place looked popular, but…no playground? At least the nature trail looked promising. Once again, I’m out before spring’s taken full effect. Oh, Wisconsin, you are so temperamental. Yet you cannot dim the sun’s magic cast upon the water and the leaves, nor can you silence distant birds, calling together. Perhaps that’s why these rocks were set up as an auditorium: for nature talks.

Ting!

I think nothing of the goofy metallic noises and watch the river.

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I walked on.

The point, if one could call it that, was to experience the sublime in the mundane. And this experience, so common yet so rare, had intrinsic value, the sort of value that made a life worth living. (70)

Ting!

What the–

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DISC GOLF?!

You mean to tell me that my town, unable to support a grocery store or a pub or any normal amenity, can maintain a large, gorgeous disc golf course?

I couldn’t stop laughing. Yes, I pissed off one couple, who seemed to be doing this as a date (she sure looked thrilled) and a group of hipsters from Lord-Knows-What-Suburb.

I kept walking, and laughing, probably looking a little crazy, surely feeling a little crazy, but the more I walked along old tree roots, the less I felt like drowning. I was on dry land after all, with life still moving forward if I didn’t clean that day, if the retirement table wasn’t ornate enough, if the cake wasn’t to my in-laws’ preference. The kids would fight, but they’d hug, too. They’d wrap their little arms round me so tight, so strong, and hug until I laughed myself out of breath.

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And it occurred to me: I was breathing.

Ting. 

For all the love and wonder we hold for words, there is a time when words are the last thing we need. Sometimes we just need to pull ourselves up and away to a place so utterly outside of our normal, we can’t not take it in.

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Salvation is revealed in the long road of freedom and love.
-J. Kaag

Days of Walkmans Past

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Earlier this spring the ever-lovely lady & author Shehanne Moore set me to the “Music that Means Something” Challenge: five pieces of music with meaning to be shared over five days.

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Well of course I never got to my computer in time to fulfill the challenge properly, and her own choices gave such lovely visits to her family that I couldn’t help thinking on the music of my own childhood. Plus, when I think of music from those days, I can’t help but think about Dad.

Those who knew Dad strictly as a pastor tended to assume he only listened to choirs or Christian contemporary. While he willingly listened to such things during Lent or Christmas, he rarely had them on just because. I mean, come on–St. Olaf’s choir is nice and all, but they ain’t Pink Floyd.

Yet I can’t share Pink Floyd. Oh no. I gotta share the music I hated when it was on: Renaissance.

According to my kid-self, the singer’s voice drove me nuts. The lyrics made no sense. You couldn’t day-dream anything exciting going on with the music. And worst of all, these songs go on forever. The video I found to share here was one of the short ones, and it’s FORTY-FIVE MINUTES.

But Dad just loved this stuff. Peer into his study any given night. Greek and Hebrew texts are flopped open and piled on one another with Post-It confetti. The Fourth Doctor Who stares frog-eyed from the calendar. Three cans of flat cherry Coke all on the verge of spilling on Minor Prophets. And Renaissance, because of course Renaissance, whines on that big relic of a boombox while he clacks away on the old IBM. There was no escaping it, not even on the road, thanks to that ancient 1980s wonder known as The Mixed Tape. Imagine being eight and on a road trip for twelve hours, knowing there were tapes of John Williams and James Horner soundtracks locked away like the Ark of the Convenant beneath the passenger seat, while this was on, and on, and on:

No wonder my brothers and mom slept for hours while Dad drove. Meanwhile, wee me in the way back of the van struggled to read, or just stare out the window. But sometimes, I would catch Dad’s eye. He’d smile, or start dramatically lip-singing. I can still remember the way his eyes would twinkle, like a goodbye, just before he turned his focus back to the road.

I was so very, very tempted to go with James Horner for this list, as his Star Trek scores were thankfully played during road trips, too, but I’d rather dedicate a post to Horner later. Besides, there’s another composer who had a huge impact on me.

il_fullxfull.1216505053_iphyMy elder brother was an avid reader of books by Tom Clancyso when a movie version came out, he and Dad would usually see it. The Hunt for Red October was such a hit with both of them that Dad invested in the CD. (Buying a new CD was a pretty big deal with three kids and a shoe-string budget.) I made my own cassette copy for the portable cassette player I earned with Kool-Aid points and made myself deaf with a Russian choir whenever that Renaissance tape ka-chunked into the player. It was the first time I heard a choir singing something not-religious with so much power. There was height, and depth, and terror, and joy, all in the first minute of the first song. Basil Poledouris’ score has a few slow moments, but the thrills elsewhere more than make up for them.

When my kid brother was old enough to inherit the relic boombox, he took to rooting through Dad’s CDs for music. Unlike me, who only took from Dad’s movie soundtracks, he took to the rock…sort of. Look, I just don’t know if this Alan Parsons Project song qualifies as “rock,” or even progressive rock. YouTube users say it’s “underrated.” All I know is that one night a twelve-year-old boy tossed aside his algebra and performed a lip-sync and dance routine with his desk chair to this song that could never, ever be repeated in any universe ever again, and I was the only witness.

Mom listened to these various genres with the patience only a mother can have. Some of it was to her taste, some not–she never really complained. As a kid I didn’t get it, but gosh do I ever now. I’ve let the kids have the most irritating songs on repeat for ages, just because it kept them laughing and/or quiet. This “song” was on repeat for an hour once. No joke.

So apart from some particular Christmas songs, I don’t have many childhood connections between music and my mom.

Beauty and the Beastthough, was a game-changer. My mother adored this movie, and I’ll admit, it’s one of the few animated Disney films I genuinely enjoy. Knowing how much Mom loved the story, Dad splurged when the broadway musical came to Chicago and got the whole family tickets. Mom HATES big cities, but seeing Chicago lit up for Christmas and this story performed live? Worth it.

For this list, though, I’m not picking any of the musical numbers. Those songs are okay, but they weren’t what hitched me to this story, even as a kid. Nope. It was the very first sequence, the prologue. The hushed piano and strings, like fairies flittering just out of sight. That first shot of the lush woods, the hidden castle, and those windows! Again, I grew up with stained glass being just for God. To see it tell other stories just as beautifully stayed with me ever after, even coming into my own writing.

One more song to go. (That Weird Al snippet does NOT count. It’s not a real song.)

When I met Bo, my music knowledge was, um, limited. I had my movie soundtracks, and some Christian contemporary from my years working at the Christian bookstore, and that was about it…well, and Monty Python. And The Firesign Theater.

Anyway.

Bo’s mother died of cancer when he was in college; that same year his girlfriend of over a year dumped him. He was currently studying for the ministry, but no longer felt like God wanted him there, or anywhere. The only thing that seemed to connect to him was, of all things, Quadropheniaa rock opera by The Who. He even wrote to Pete Townshend, thanking him for the music and how it helped him through this point of life.

Pete wrote back.

Bo proudly displays that postcard still.

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This was one of the first albums Bo shared with me: the narrative gripped and still hasn’t let go. The melodies hit hard, every damn one. The sounds of the sea are such a perfect touch. I loved this album so much that it became the core support of one of my protagonists. I could not write the story without those songs. But what if by some miracle of God I publish? It’s not like I could refer to these songs without Townshend’s permission.

Unless…I write to him for permission. There. Done.

Nah, he’ll never write back. What’s he going to care about some random American writing a story?

Totally forgot about it. Putzed with the story some more, finally discovering the key problem with its voice. Started reworking it.

An email a few months later from Pete Townshend’s rep: show us where the songs are used, please.

Bo: Holy cow, that’s awesome!

Me: HOLY SHIT I’M SCREWED.

Because of course, I was barely one act into my rewrite. Bo calmed me down, got me thinking about the specific scenes I knew Quad came into play. Fucking blitzed through those and sent them back in tears, because they were shit, of course they were, and now there would be no hope for this WIP at all.

An email one week later.

Townshend approves.

Peter Townshend of The Who approves.

The shock of that moment still ripples into my present.

Bphilipnov2016efore this, when my WIP was barely a WIP, Blondie barely a toddler, and the boys barely done with colic, we learned Bash had acid reflux. If we kept him upright a little while after the last feeding of the night, he–and therefore we–had a better chance of sleeping all night. To fill that time between stories, feeding, and bed-tuckings, Bo started putting on music videos. Sometimes it was Peter Gabriel, sometimes Genesis, sometimes ZZ Top, and sometimes The Who. It took some ninja-skills with the mute button to hide the occasional”fuck” and such, but The Who’s live concert at the Royal Albert Hall quickly became a huge favorite with all three. As the boys grew bigger, Biff took to playing guitar on his blanket complete with Townshend’s signature windmill move. Bash still insists on wearing one of  our three The Who shirts every day. Heaven help me the day he outgrows them.

Music always has and always will contain a piece of the divine to me. I’m not just talking about religious music, which, yes, the right hymn brings me to tears and stirs the faith into something tangible. But the right song at the right time always transcends me. I can feel the lift, the change inside. I know when hope blossoms again. I no longer cringe from the world. I want to move forward. I want to try, to do.

hope. 

know. 

live. 

When Fiction Lives Down the Street

My town…

Hang on.

I can’t really call it that yet.

The thing about being a preacher’s kid is that we often moved where Dad felt God needed him most. This meant my family never really planted roots in any one town for very long. The concept of a “hometown” is still a bit lost on me, but I think Bo and I have found a place where our kids can grow, safe and happy.

There’s just one major street through our town, a farmer’s highway that connects several farming communities like ours to the capital.  We’re a very rare Wisconsin town: for having over 3,000 people, we can’t seem to keep our two bars open. Disgraceful!

Now, I called you here to this bland, wet street for a reason.

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Take a look at that big building with the peeling white paint.

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No name but “Mercantile.”

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We moved to this town two weeks before the boys were born (lesson learned: NEVER move while pregnant with twins), and in all that time I’ve never seen this store keep actual hours. It’ll go months without opening, and then suddenly early one Saturday morning its door will be open with stuff on the stairs. Weeks closed up. Monday night: open. Days closed up. Wednesday midday open, but Wednesday afternoon, closed. No pattern, no time. It’s gotten to the point where Bo and I will text each other every time it’s open, which of course only happens when we’re on the way to or from something with kids in tow.

One time I came home after grocery shopping with the kids to give Bo an hour’s quiet. “It’s open!” I say first thing. There’s no question what “It” is. “If you wanna go, I’ll stay with these guys.”

“No way,” he says while marking yet another historical inaccuracy in his umpteenth book about the Three Stooges. “I’m not losing my soul to Max Von Sydow. You go in.”

Max Von Sydow?”

“The movie Needful ThingsRemember?”

“Ooooh.” We’d watched the film based on the Stephen King book some time ago. The story was meh, but Von Sydow was wicked fun as LeLand Gaunt, demonic proprietor of a store selling only one’s most desperate desires. Somehow this conversation led to a wager about Stephen King books and films: We’d both read a King book with a film version and compare stories. I chose Needful Things while Bo chose The Shining (which I’d read and will NEVER read again.)

The films won, but that’s not the point here. As I read Needful Things, I started getting the heebie jeebies anytime I drove past the “Mercantile” of our town. Fiction’s supposed to be set in an Elsewhere, a source of escape. It’s not supposed to creep into my reality and stake a claim. Is it?

The display window of Needful Things had been cleansed of soap, and a dozen or so items had been set out there–clocks, a silver setting, a painting, a lovely triptch just waiting for someone to fill it with well-loved photographs. (43)

Suddenly Hugh looked like a tired little boy up long past his bedtime, a little boy who has just seen what he wants for Christmas–what he must have for Christmas, because all at once nothing else on God’s green earth would do. (77)

Here [Keeton’s] thoughts ceased. He was standing in front of the new store, Needful Things, and what he saw in the window drove everything else slap out of his mind for a moment or two. (212)

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There was a lot more merchandise in Needful Things on Friday; that was the important thing.

There was a music box, old and ornately carve–Mr. Gaunt said he was sure it played something unusual when it was opened, but he couldn’t remember just what…Mr. Gaunt did a fine business that day. Most of the items he sold were nice but in no way unique. He did, however, make a number of “special” deals, and all of these sales took place during those lulls when there was only a single customer in the store. (166-7)

Were we to enter that store, what would be waiting for Bo? For me? I remember posing that question to Bo once, and receiving a shrug in return. I think I know why, though. Despite Bo’s Amazon wish list being 14 pages long (at least shopping for him’s pretty easy) (and for the record, mine’s TWO pages, so, yeah), we’re both rather clear about what we miss most of all: our folks. That seems to be protagonist Alan’s immunity to Gaunt: still in mourning after the loss of his wife and son, Alan has no desire for any thing.

Alan stood looking into the display window for a long time. He found himself wondering what, exactly, all the shouting was about…Rosalie had made Needful Things sound like northern New England’s answer to Tiffany’s, but the china in the window…was rummage-sale quality at best…He cupped his hands to the glass in order to see beyond the display, but there was nothing to look at–the lights were off and the place was deserted. (223)

Still, I don’t think I’ll be taking any chances with my soul for a box of Diana Wynne Jones’ old story notes any time soon.

As if having such a store like “Mercantile” wasn’t eerie enough, we have our own carnival stationed year round. During the summer, it’s a nice place to take the kids for the afternoon. The rides are mostly geared for their size, being a collection of old drive-in theater cast-offs.

Once summer’s done, though, the place is stripped down to bones for winter. The pavement grips its quiet abandon. An old home with older memories, and neighbored by, of all dramatic places, a cemetery.

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A carnival should be all growls, roars like timberlands stacked, bundled, rolled and crashed, great explosions of lion dust, men ablaze with working anger, pop bottles jangling, horse buckles shivering, engines and elephants in full stampede through rains of sweat while zebras neighed and trembled like cage trapped in cage.

But this was like old movies, the silent theater haunted with black-and-white ghosts, silvery mouths opening to let moonlight smoke out, gestures made in silence so hushed you could hear the wind fizz the hair on your cheeks. (51-2)

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How does this NOT make one think of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes? I knew the movie as a child, and read the book in college. The book wins for better imagery, character, plot, and everything else in spades (though Jonathan Pryce was brilliant for Mr. Dark, and as I listen now to the score by James Horner, I will concede that Disney managed to get a couple things right).

In-season, though, it’s easy to forget these things. Even in the book, Will and Jim see an ordinary carnival come daylight:

And the deeper they went, the more obvious it became they would find no night men cat-treading balloon shadow while strange tents plumed like thunder clouds. Instead, close up, the carnival was mildewed rope, moth-eaten canvas, rain-worn, sun-bleached tinsel. The side show paintings, hung, like sad albatrosses on their poles, flapped and let fall flakes of ancient paint, shivering and at the same time revealing the unwondrous wonders of a thin man, fat man, needle-head, tattooed man, hula dancer… The train? Pulled off on a spur in the warming grass… (61)

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They peered in at the merry-go-round which lay under a dry rattle and roar of wind-tumbled oak trees. Its horses, goats, antelopes, zebras, speared through their spines with brass javelins, hung contorted as in a death rictus, asking mercy with their fright-colored eyes, seeking revenge with their panic-colored teeth. (72)

But with the coming of the cold months, I wonder if this place truly sleeps. I wonder if there is a night, when this small town turns off the porch lights, when the autumn fire pits burn the last bad beer on the embers, when the moon’s face hides because it knows what’s coming, when the stars aren’t quite aligned for rightness…I wonder.

With a pop, a bang, a jangle of reins, a lift and downfall, a rise and descent of brass, the carousel moved….It was running backward.

The small calliope inside the carousel machinery rattle-snapped its nervous-stallion shivering drums, clashed its harvest-moon cymbals, toothed its castanets, and throatily choked and sobbed its reeds, whistles, and baroque flutes. The music, Will thought, it’s backwards, too!…Then the calliope gave a particularly violent cry of foul murder which made dogs howl in far countries…(77)

I wonder.

 

Tales of 100 Hearts

I never linger in sight. Last time I did, Bash screeched his head off the entire march down the stairs from his classroom, and Biff nearly pushed the child ahead of him down the stairs. So I remain around the corner where a small corridor leads to the church’s daycare.

February holds two major events for an elementary school: Valentine’s Day, and the 100th day of school. I don’t remember celebrating the 100th day as a kid, but Blondie assures me this is a big deal that requires special games and treats all revolving around the number 100. O-kay.

The boys’ school was in the spirit, too. I couldn’t stand far enough away to get a complete shot, but I was able to take a few close-ups.

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I loved studying the variety of writing styles, of what must have come from adults vs. tweens, of kids vs. teeny ones. And the choices made in both topic and writing fascinated me. Take that pink heart in the bottom photo–why history? And why write it with the teensiest letters possible? One seems to enjoy her cursive “friends” (because I’m guessing a boy’s not going to change font, let alone write the cursive so carefully), while another is equally writing friends so long as it can be in nearly invisible red ink. Two kids apparently like Spirit Week, though one’s definitely younger than the other…

I love the creativity little ones put into spelling words they don’t know, with letters big and proud. And then you have some who wrote at a weird angle–why? And one who really digs the teacher but must have forgotten how to spell her name, so a few letters had to go above the “Mrs.” Then, of course, there’s the over-achiever who had to explain why she picked what she did, and needed to make extra hearts to emphasize her love for it.

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Yes, being a Christian school, there were bound to be a few God-related hearts. But the heart in white is the one that really got my attention.

Bo’s certain it was written by a grown-up, but I’m not so sure. I studied that heart quite closely compared to the others, and the letters are a bit stilted and crooked when compared to the other more rounded, brighter teachery lettering.

The political climate of the United States has become a nightmare for many. I’m not going to lie–Wisconsin feels very cut off from it all. Milwaukee’s always been racially tense, Madison’s always been loudly liberal, but the rest of the state is, well, quiet. It can be easy to forget such a basic want is still very much a want everywhere: to be safe. To be where one is wanted, protected, and loved.

Every heart shares a piece of life tied to that school. I look upon how these words are rushed, curled, misshapen, stiff, and cannot help but wonder what else is tied to these hearts. That if I were to pick a heart from the wall I’d find a string, a string leading up and down stairs and around the playground and back into the room where the heart’s maker sits. I’d look upon the maker, tied to all the scraps and bits of life that brought the heart maker to write that word above all words.

And I’m betting I’d find a story.

History Don’t Do Cameras

Ever since the loss of our babysitter to the warmer climes of Arizona, Bo and I have lost all chances of a “night out.” (For the record, we did try three other babysitters, but those, um, didn’t exactly work out.) We have managed a few outings in the daylight hours, however, thanks to relatives willing to watch Blondie and the twins. That’s how we got to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story* and tour the Pabst Mansion.

Why the Pabst Mansion? Bo and I aren’t beer connoisseurs. I can’t fathom whatever’s brewed under the current Pabst label is anything like the Pabst beer brewed in the 1800s.

250-history-bookWell, back when I was working on that old WIP (the one with Dorjan), I struggled with details for the primary setting of the story. I found my inspiration in a photography collection of the Pabst Mansion: rich, yet not obscenely so. Large, but not unwieldy. Down to earth and still elegant.

Now that Bo has become a stronger ally in my writing life, I asked if he wanted to go with me to the Pabst sometime. I wanted to see the history with my own eyes, breathe its air and touch its remnants. Bo thought for a moment, then got on the phone with Grandma Varinski to watch the kids. He had originally proposed an afternoon at the art museum (Yes, Milwaukee has one), so this seemed an acceptable alternative.

Acceptable indeed. I didn’t know Captain Pabst had been such an avid art collector. Work spanning back to the 1600s hung inside the mansion walls…

But I get ahead of myself.

We arrived on yet another cloudy day. Winter left behind its zombie ice-crusts along the roadside: too damn tough to melt. Despite standing on a major thoroughfare, Bo needed me to guide him to the mansion. Marquette University dominates this stretch of Wisconsin Avenue, making it easy to look at an old building and think it the school’s.

We step into what looks like a chapel to await the tour.

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I look upon the walls and windows…and get depressed.

What has happened to this place? Why’s it being held together by packing tape and pint glasses?

Worst of all, I have to pee. I hate having to pee while stuck in sweater tights.

So of course I had to ask the only male staff person about a bathroom. “Yes, if you’ll follow me.” He walked towards a door…into the mansion.

Weeeeee, I was getting in early!

Were one to be shrunk and escorted inside the Fairy Queen’s pixie dust tree, then one would know what it felt like to leave the decaying chapel and enter the mansion. It’s not that everything was all glittery or jewel-encrusted or such. It was the color: the warmth in the woodwork, the landscapes painted above the doors, the touch of gold and iron in all the right places. I cupped my phone in my hand, eager to snap some early photos before the tour–

–only my escort stuck with me all the way to the mansion’s bathroom and back.

Damn.

The tour began with an older women who sounded like she’d smoked through her formative years but had quit a while ago. She explained that we were actually in the beer pavilion Captain Pabst had commissioned for the World’s Fair in 1893. It was rebuilt as a sort of sun-room for the mansion. Then, when the Archdiocese of Milwaukee took up residence in the Mansion in the early 1900s, it was converted into a chapel. Once the Catholic Church sold the Pabst property in the 1970s, much of the mansion had, like this chapel, fallen into disrepair. All restorations are funded through donations–and tours–and they try to work room by room. So far, they had the first two floors done. We would see them, and the work being done on the third floor.

I was practically hopping at Bo’s side. I couldn’t stop grinning. I had nearly emptied my phone of all precious moments of children doing childreny things to get as many shots as possible–

“No pictures, please.”

DAMMIT!

So, um…I don’t have pictures from inside the mansion proper.

But I do have some photos scrounged up from the Internet!

Oddly enough, the Pabst’s website used to have a sampling of the photos taken for their book. Why they took them down I don’t know; they provided some closeups of the amazing woodwork as well as a few rooms.

Entering the third floor was like stepping into a whole new building. The Catholics had plastered this sad, generic whitewash over the walls and altered much of the plumbing in order to “modernize” the house. Granted, many of these changes are merely cosmetic, but it was clear by seeing rooms in the midst or restoration just how long it would take before the mansion was completely restored. I found a great article on OnMilwaukee.com which shared some photos of restoration in process. You can see in that bottom right photo where they’re repainting the original patterns; the bottom left shows stencilwork that had been covered up by the “modern” paint.

The tour covered only the residential portions of the mansion, but I hope to return for one of their special nights of touring the basement and attic, too. Just look at that shot: there’s a story hidden in those depths, I’m sure of it.

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One of main reasons I started this website was to share the imagery of my state and how it inspires me as a writer. I know some of you do this, too–Shehanne Moore has some stunning captures of her beloved Scotland, for example. Why? Because where we come from as writers is also where our characters will come from. Does that mean all my characters will be from Wisconsin? Probably not. But they’re all going to come from some place inside me: from my fears and loathings, loves and joys. They may never smell the air around the Circus World Museum, but they will all be a part of me, just as Wisconsin is a part of me.

The Pabst Mansion, this often-overlooked piece of homeland, inspired the setting for the first story I took seriously as a writer. And to share it with my husband, who still doesn’t like reading my fiction but loves my passion for writing because he loves me, made it all the more beautiful.

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*Last month I conversed with a few of you about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I noted a review that I felt nailed the film’s failures (character development/plot) as well as achievements (that final space battle!). Now mind you, it’s a video made by nerds for nerds, so their sense of humor may not be your thing. But if you don’t mind some goofy sketches and crude language, watch away!

Point of View Blows Up in My Face (or, the end of the “Normal’s Menace” experiment)

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(Photo credit:YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Point of View makes–and breaks–good stories. Sometimes omniscience helps move the story along at a good clip, but other times it burdens readers with tangential thoughts and details irrelevant to the story at hand (I’m looking at you, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas…gosh, I hated that book…).  If we choose to write from inside a character, or even alongside one particular character, then we’re limited to that character’s knowledge–or lack thereof. We’re stuck with the vocabulary and worldviews, and we better stick with them, or else. Readers have a knack for calling bullshit on adult terminology coming from a five-year-old, or a character knowing the particulars of past events never actually discussed.

When I first brainstormed “Normal’s Menace,” I imagined it a story for Dorjan, a secondary character from an old WIP. I also wanted to make good on an oath I had sworn to some other indie artists about naming a story “Quiet Mound,” which…um…okay, so that part didn’t happen. I ended up commandeering something else from their work, for which I’m sorry, but it was just too damn perfect to use. Incognito Cinema Warriors, I humbly beg your forgiveness for stealing the most perfect name in the world:

Captain Whiskers.

That’s when the story in my head shifted away from Dorjan and re-centered itself around Millie, a lonely kid who befriends a strange cat that’s able to bring her daydreams to life. Not long after the cat arrives, Dorjan comes to take the cat away.

In my previous post, I shared what happened from Millie’s perspective. The next phase of this experiment intended to re-tell the story from Dorjan’s perspective and mark out each telling’s strengths and weaknesses.

Note the word “intended.”

Oh, I tried. I tried three damn times to get a handle on this story from Dorjan’s point of view. Yet each take, just…it was like trying to hold a snowflake. I had it, it was so sparkly and awesome, and then–plop. Just another drop of water on the cement.

Here’s Take #1:

Nothing sets my hackles off like a stray pissing on the rules. They want all of home’s comforts without the obligations to obey. And who’s to tell them otherwise? The mother, father? One likely can’t talk outside of instinct, while the other is gone completely, or dead.

Well, as an exile, let me just say: no.

You don’t get to play that way.

Our kind treats central America as a sort of wasteland, a place to mow down the strange growths of life and culture they consider unimportant in the big scheme of things. They did it with Rome, with Germany, then got bored and decided to find a new sandbox to trample. The dullest corners they transformed into prisons. My family’s in one. Why not me? Because I was a bloody coward and hiding at the time, that’s why. Shut up, I’m not talking about it.

But a mixed blessing, as Uncle says. No one’s teaching the rules anymore. No one’s tracking the new breeds.

So I do what I can in this land: the Midwest, I heard it called. When I catch wind of a new litter, I teach what I can. When strays wander in, I take them to a crossing to live with others.

I stopped. I didn’t want to get long-winded about Dorjan’s family, as they’re the center of my WIP. This short story needed to focus on taking Thorn down, not Dorjan’s family tree.

Okay, start again. Take #2:

The problem with strays is that they don’t want to understand the rules. They like the taste of a child’s dreams and think nothing of devouring a young soul whole. They don’t care about exposure of our kind, or the impact upon the social mores rippling throughout the class system of various societies and blah, blah IT’S DAMN WRONG.

Thorn learned the hard way. Twice. Not often one survives the first lesson.

 The first time came with his arrival to boundary lands between the prison and the rest of life as you know it. A farm with guest lodgings sits there. If you are fully grown and hold your life in any worth whatsoever, then I strongly recommend guesting yourself elsewhere.

The farm was run by normal human beings, whom I usually left alone in order to avoid being shot. Several more had shown up that day for a party of sorts—lots of children, fire-cooked meats, freshly baked pies, and snowballs everywhere. The air positively reeked with celebration. If I hadn’t stayed to enjoy the smells from behind the barn, then I would have missed Thorn altogether.

He wandered in from the highway, looking like a blown-about broken twig. I caught a whiff of his foreignness, and watched.

The adults ignored him. Just another cat on a farm.

But the children… one little boy waddled over in his pillowy pants. “Kitty!” He said, all precious. The others stopped their snow-battle and ooed and aaahed and starting petting him…

…and they stopped talking. They all huddled about him, barely breathing. All are like that when their dreams are unleashed and souls exposed.

He was going to devour them all without a second thought.

None of the adults had guns.

I had to do it.

I ran.

The children didn’t even scream when my muzzle pushed them aside. Parents did plenty of that, though.

Someone screamed about a shot gun while I chased Thorn down the drive and off the borderland. I would have sunk my teeth in him then and there, but the Lady’s henchman got him first, and flew him off into the prison.

I stopped. Again, this path would take me into the inner workings of the WIP. A short story doesn’t have time for extensive backgrounds or world-building. If I continued this way I’d have to explain who the henchman and Lady are, why they’re in the prison, why Dorjan can come and go from the prison but his family can’t….AAAAARGH!

Ahem.

Start again, this time at Millie’s farm. That should avoid the need for history, yes? Take #3:

I shake the water out and sniff to gauge my surroundings: still winter. Another farm. The little pisser hasn’t left the region, then.

The ground has a lot to offer a nose, too. Cat. Human: female. Rubber. Peanut butter. Something grape-ish. Tobacco. Gunpowder. The last two were faint. The first two were strong, dangerously so. Hope that peanut butter keeps the human stuck to the ground, because humans haven’t the heart’s fire to survive the water road. Curious it comes to a pond rather than a proper exit. Must have been a place of magic for the Old Ways…

I study the land for his path.

DAMMIT DAMMIT DAMMIT.

No. All wrong. I’m diving into terminology I won’t have time to explain. I could treat the situation with the air of magical realism and make readers deal with it, but why should they? They’re not attached to the character or the situation. They’ve no reason to work at keeping up.

By sticking with Millie, we don’t have to explain why things happen as they do. Millie doesn’t try to figure out how Captain Whiskers does what he does; she accepts it and moves on. She lets the mystery remain a mystery for herself, but also lets readers pick up on odds and ends from the details she shares. For instance, readers know the cat is capable of physically changing things, like Millie’s pocket knife. We learn he’s feeding off her somehow, what with all his getting fat by licking her person and eventually her blood. We also know that Millie doesn’t connect the dots because she’s too fixated on escaping reality. Through Millie’s perspective readers receive an intimate look at the power the cat has over her.

This story is about a girl’s life ensnared by a cat.

Were I to tell the story from Dorjan’s perspective, everything alters: the stakes, the motivations, all of it.

Therein lies the reason I stopped time and again: Dorjan has no real stake in this situation. Millie’s the one with, as Shehanne Moore and Sarah Higbee aptly put it, the most to lose. If I wanted Dorjan to be the narrator, then the story needed to center around him.

There would have to be a first meeting and a sin against Dorjan to set him hunting. This would require establishing another setting, the rules Captain Whiskers/Thorn goes about breaking in such a way to motivate Dorjan to wreak deadly justice–basically, a lot of world-building that can’t fit into a short story. Now I admit, it’s tempting to go into that bit of his life. His fierce desire to protect mortal children is a subplot in my WIP, and I wouldn’t mind exploring where that comes from.

But that, as Maz Kanata says in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is “another story for another time.”

Only that IS the case here rather than a cheap cop-out to avoid a plot hole. Millie is the one who interacts with the cat, who suffers at the paws of the cat, and is left to die by the cat. If I tell this story from Dorjan’s perspective, he’d have to witness that whole arc, not just the end. How the hell would that happen? Or something would have to happen to make Millie tell all of this. That sounds as much fun as a sit-down with a librarian over appropriate behavior for children around a microfilm machine.

Experiment conclusions: stick with Millie’s point of view. Oh, and change that title. “Normal’s Menace” sounds…not kid-like, that’s for sure. And while I wanted to use “Quiet Mound” and fulfill my oath, the story isn’t about the mound. It’s about the cat.

“The Stray.”
Ah…now there’s a title…
That snowflake, I caught on my tongue instead of my hand.
Totally worth all the plops.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Point of View Experiment with “Normal’s Menace,” Phase 1

The wrong point of view can ruin the most fantastic of stories. Maybe you jump from character to character too much. Maybe the character you designated as narrator has taken over the story, or that particular character can’t possibly be present for the necessary plot points.

This is the quandary I’m in now with a bit of short fiction. I’m not even sure I want to use the title “Normal’s Menace.” But then, I’m not even sure I want to tell it with the narrator I currently have.

Well, like any scientific experiment, the process of elimination will show me which voice best serves the story. Since you’ve been patient enough with my brainstorming through music and photography, let’s continue on through this, my first draft.

Normal’s Menace

I loved Captain Whiskers. He was the best thing to come from Quiet Mound. You don’t know where that is, because it’s on my farm and you shouldn’t be going all over it unless you got a snowmobile, I guess, but Daddy hates those things, and he shot at one when he thought it was a bear, so it’s just not a good idea to come here.

You can sort of see it past the first field. I see it, anyway. I always look at it when I wait for the bus in winter. Hard to do anything else when you’re in a snow suit. Mom’s gotta yank my arms through the straps of my backpack, but it’s up to me not to drop my She-Ra lunchbox. She’s the Princess of Power, you know. You drop She-Ra, the Evil Horde wins.

So I hold on super-tight to my lunchbox, and imagine that Quiet Mound is a portal to Etheria, where She-Ra fights for the Great Rebellion. Nothing grows on Quiet Mound, even though it’s got this pond big enough for two ice shanties at the top of it, like…oh! Like when you make your mash potatoes into a crater and put all the gravy in it. Like that. It’s all protected and cut-off because of the trees. Winter makes them look like someone strung them out and wrapped them together again, like the webs barn spiders make.

That’s where I found Captain Whiskers.

The first big snow, and I’ve just freed She-Ra from Hordak’s Ice-Ray, and there’s this cat. I didn’t see him at first because its speckles matched the last brown leaves stuck on a thorny bush along some of the trees. I thought he was stuck, so I pulled out my real pocket knife to cut him out. He looked starved and pretty beat up, with scrapes and cuts deep in his fur, but he was still super nice when I cut some of the branches, and his eyes were the prettiest purple, prettier even than She-Ra’s friend Glimmer. He purred while he watched me the whole time, and when I touched him! Oh, it was magical. I could see, you know? Really see She-Ra on Swift Wind, and the Horde Robots marching through the trees. And she called to me, ME, Millie the Magnificent, to fight by her side! And my pocket knife was a real sword, and the pool was lava, and I fought all those robots into the lava and melted them and She-Ra knighted me for the honor of Grey Skull and bestowed a captainship upon The Bravest Cat in the Galaxy—

–and that’s when Daddy found me with his rifle slung over his shoulder and a dead turkey in his hand. “What are you doing, Mil?” I wrenched my pocket knife out of a dead tree trunk. He spat a little tobacco at Captain Whiskers. Captain Whiskers went on licking my feet as if they were covered in milk. “We don’t have room for strays, Millie.”

“Barn’s always got mice, Dad.”

He snorted into the snow like a bull in the cartoons, and set a bunch of snowflakes all whirly. “Fine. Barn only.”

And for Mom and Dad, that was that with Captain Whiskers. They didn’t know how he came to my window every night to take me back to Etheria, to make magic with Madame Razz and spy on the Horde with Bow. They missed all that. Captain Whiskers made it all real. It was…it was just so awesome, I can’t tell you. I didn’t need television or my cassettes or even food, really—made for some awkward dinners with my parents, let me tell you. They started to watch me eat just to make sure I wasn’t the one fattening Captain Whiskers. It’s just that…food’s so boring, you know? Who needs food or sleep when you can go on adventures that take you away, inside and out? I even snuck Captain Whiskers with me to school a few times until Captain Whiskers cursed Molly Grunewald.

Yeah, that’s right. Cursed Molly Grunewald. All he had to do was stare at her, and I saw her for the Horde Robot she really was, and I held up my sword to strike, but she leaked all this oil and fell before I could cut her head off. Turns out she peed her pants real bad. But she didn’t want other people to know she peed her pants, so she said Captain Whiskers peed on her. But I was there. He got her to pee herself. No more bullies for me! But I couldn’t let Captain Whiskers do that all the time, so I kept him out of school unless I needed him.

Then that stupid guy came out of the trees and ruined everything.

 

Saturday, right? No busses to wait for, and winter meant chores weren’t too bad, so I was going to have lots of time with Captain Whiskers on Quiet Mound. I got him from the barn. He was so sweet that morning rubbing his head right against my heart and purring, even licking a little. I could see the portal’s light all sparkly and secret through the trees from the driveway—

–but something moved. Something low.

Skulking, that’s the word. It skulked around the edge of the trees, eyes right—

—on—

—me.

Captain Whiskers went NUTS. He leapt out of my coat and took off faster than I could blink. Even Cheetara never had a chance of catching him.

The thing stopped skulking and lifted its head.

Like a huskie on steroids. Big. Black. Nasty.

I shrieked high and as loud—trust me, I get pretty high. Even that far away, it had to shake my noise out of its ears. Mom rushed out asking what I broke, but then she saw it run up Quiet Mound and yanked me into the house and declared I was stuck inside until Dad trapped whatever that was.

What really stunk was that Captain Whiskers wouldn’t leave the barn that night. I spent more time out of bed than in, peeking out the window to see if The Nasty ever took a break from skulking. My hands shook for my sword. I shivered for Etheria. It got so bad I tried walking down the stairs to find Captain Whiskers in the barn, but my feet weren’t listening to my head and I clunked too hard on the groaning boards. Mom fussed me back into bed with a cold pack and a slug of something gooey and dreadful. My dreams were as hollow as a snake skin.

 

Next morning I find a note from Mom: they’re helping neighbors with traps, stay inside, be good, eat some food you look like a skeleton, blah blah blah. Are you kidding me? It’s the first sun we’ve had in weeks. The trees sparkled with all their little icicles, and I could see the…the…what’s the word…meniscus! That line the top of water makes. It sparkled, too, like the portal I always saw with Captain Whiskers. I opened my bedroom window to look at it better, Captain Whiskers came in purring, and the air just bit with magic, you know? Cold, too, but magic. I knew, through and through, that something amazing was going to happen at Quiet Mound today.

And then, that guy.

He stood by the trees, hands in a ripped up trench coat. I know the homeless people in our town because I help Mom with the free lunches our church holds a few times a month. This guy was new. Or a hitchhiker? That was more a summer thing. What the heck was he doing out there? Just, hands in his pockets, standing in dirt and snow, and…looking.

At my window.

The window blew a bunch of snowy ice off the trees. It whipped his coat around his knees, it blew his black hair around his face, but he didn’t move.

“NO TRESPASSING!”

Captain Whiskers took one look at him and totally freaked out a gazillion times worse than yesterday. He hissed and spat and ran around my room and clawed the closet door in no way that I could cover up with my folks. Stupid cat. I yelled at him to stop, turned to the window again, and—

–that guy was walking through our field. Not that stupid fast-walk old people do instead of jogging. Just this steady step, step, step. Through our field! He didn’t even have a snowmobile!

Call the Grunewalds for my parents? No way, not letting Molly know I’m scared. Call the police? I went for the phone, but Captain Whiskers knocked the receiver out of my hand and he just…he glared. And his paws held my hand down. I didn’t even know he had claws. Ever catch your hand on an old nail under the couch when you reach down there to get something? Like that. Like eight of that.

I sucked in air and bit my lip and made my tears go silently into my hair. “Stop it, Captain Whiskers. We need help.”

He shook his head.

“But he’s coming. What are we gonna do?”

Captain Whisker’s ears fell flat as his hair rose up. He…it was such a weird sound, something I never heard from a cat before. Like a groan people make when they’re really frustrated, but there was a hiss in it, too. He let go of my hand and licked my blood off his claws. Morning light and dust mites shimmered above his head, came together and made—

The Princess of Power stood in my room—still a little bit see-through, but wowzers, she was in my room!  “He heralds the coming of Hordak to your world. He is determined to enslave you all.”

I couldn’t help it—I looked out the window.

Not walking.

Fists out.

Oh no…but…”but he’s just one guy.”

She-Ra bent forward, and…wow, that scowl. Her eyes weren’t blue like in the cartoon, but all black, and when she brought her face to mine I thought I was going to fall in, get buried alive. “Do you want the Evil Horde to conquer your world?”

“N-no.” My voice didn’t even sound like me, so small and stupid and scared.

“Then evade his capture.” Now her skin lit up like diamonds on tv, and she smelled like summer. “Reach the water, and your captain will bring you safely to Etheria, and to me. Do not fail me, Sir Millie the Magnificent.”

I wanted summer. I wanted Etheria. No more stupid snow suits or barns or schools or parents. I wanted to fight by She-Ra’s side forever and ever and ever. “Never!”

Her skin got really shiny, then broke up like dust in the sunlight.

Ding dong.

I grabbed my coat. Captain Whiskers stood with me at the top of the stairs.

Ding dong.

“Hello?”

He wasn’t even American!

This time my feet listened to my head. I tiptoed down a bunch, managed to skip the groaners even, but once the stairs were in view of the door I laid back and started sliding on my butt instead. I could see a head with wavy hair behind the stained glass on the door. Captain Whiskers had been moving behind me, but once the head came into view he shot down and round for the kitchen.

The head moved with him.

Ding dong.

“I’m with Animal Control. It is urgent I speak with you about a rabid animal loose in these parts.”

“Come off it, you, you sod!” I heard people like him say that on PBS.

“I know you’re in there.”

Guess he doesn’t watch PBS.

I back-stepped towards the kitchen and back door.

“Millie?”

HE KNEW MY NAME!?

My hand froze over the backdoor’s knob. The front door’s knob clicked against the lock. Click. Click. Thunk.

It unlocked.

Oh I bolted. I flung that door open and RAN. Didn’t think about steps or claws or wind or cold. Just barn barn barn barn barn barn

BARN!

I slid through the cow poop at the door and ran up the ramp and up the bales to the hayloft. He’ll use the main door to avoid the poop and—

He sat in the hayloft’s threshing door like he’d been there all morning. He even had his hands folded like this was all normal! “Look can I just—“

“NO!” Captain Whiskers leapt onto my chest and dug his claws into my bones and I turned to run but my feet flew into the air and I fell over the loft edge, I was going to die with poop on my shoes—

A hand grabbed my leg and YANKED. I was upping and not downing, overing and not splatting, overing and downing and thud. Hay this time.

The guy hunched on hands and knees where I would have landed—hard cold floor. I should have broken my neck where he stood, but he had saved me.

But—

—but I was still in so much pain. Not from the fall. From Captain Whiskers.

Why did he hold me like that? My heart felt like it was screaming and running and shaking all at once. Like Captain Whiskers had my heart for real in its claws.

The guy shook himself out like a dog and sent hay everywhere. It was…it was really weird. I knew Captain Whiskers wanted me to keep running, but how? This guy beat us to the barn. There was no out-running him.

“Sorry about the fright,” he said. “I’m not used to manners on two legs.” He stood up, and I saw his eyes for the first time: one was green, and one was sky blue. I’d seen eyes like that on a Huskie once, but never on a person. “May I please ask you where you got that cat?”

Now I didn’t believe for one Horde Second that he was from Animal Control. He wasn’t going to tell me the truth—I’m just a dumb little girl to him. But he’d have to tell the truth when Mom and Dad find him in here with me in tears, especially when Dad has his rifle…

I realized then I wasn’t holding Captain Whiskers. His claws were in me so hard that I didn’t have to. “Found him.” I still felt like I had to hide him somehow, so I zipped up my coat.

“You must love him very much.”

“Huh?”

“He’s drawing blood.” He pointed at my jeans. Hay clumped to little red stripes rolling down to my knees.

“He’s my cat.” That was all I could figure out to say. I felt muddled and hot inside. Outside the world sparkled with Etheria magic, but off somehow, like light in a cracked prism..

The guy took one step forward. Captain Whiskers hissed hot spit on my neck. “Thorn is no one’s cat.”

“His name’s not Thorn, it’s Captain Whiskers and he’s mine.”

Ever watch someone’s eyes when they laugh? They get this sort of extra smile in them. The guy’s green eye got that smile, but the blue didn’t. The blue one looked…angry. Like, Dad-watched-a-snowmobile-run-over-a-calf angry. That freaked me out more than his magical showing-upping in the hayloft. “Captain Whiskers. Nice, erm, name.”

“She-Ra gave it to him.” And I found I could hold Captain Whiskers, so long as I didn’t press him. He even started licking my chest and made the pain back off a bit. “You get a name from the Princess of Power, you keep it!”

He sucked his lip. The cows’ gossip got really loud for that moment. When he talked again, he went really slow, without a smile anywhere on him. “Has she spoken to you as well?” He didn’t ask like other grown-ups, who always assume it’s all pretend. He asked me like she was real.

Because she was.

Which meant…

I pulled out my pocket knife, and it grew, and was a sword and for REAL. Yes, for real. I pointed it at him with both hands, and it knicked his coat. Shut up, like one more tear was going to matter.

And you know? He wasn’t even surprised. He just stuck his hands back in his pockets and glared at Captain Whiskers’ head sticking out of my own coat. “And for how long have you and Captain Whiskers been going on adventures with the Princess of Power?”

The seriousness of it. Wrong, too wrong. “Why do you care?”

“Answer the question.”

“I don’t even know who you are.”

“My name is Dorjan.”

All that magic I felt in the air earlier? It fell out. Like in the movies, when you see zero gravity, and then gravity comes back and everything just splats. That’s what happened.

Captain Whiskers clung even harder and bared his teeth right by my throat, he was so scared. I wanted him to let go, I wanted him to keep the pain away, to keep the world away cuz it was just to muddled up and weird and dumb and I didn’t know what to say to such a dumb name so I just said, “That’s a dumb name.”

Dorjan stepped back until Captain Whiskers closed his mouth. “Yes. Well. We can’t all be Captain Whiskers.” He cracked his neck. “Now. Let her go.”

“Captain Whiskers is a boy, stupid!” But then I realized he wasn’t talking to me. His eyes were on Captain Whiskers, and they were angry. Both of them.

Captain Whiskers hissed and opened his mouth by my neck again. His teeth, pointy as the claws, on my skin, why? “Captain Whiskers, stop!” I felt small and hollow. I even cried a little. “Please, I love you, stop!” She-Ra’s scowl was all I could see, and doom. Real doom. I was going to fail her and lose my magnificence.

“Don’t be an idiot, Thorn.” Dorjan’s voice went low and slow, weird compared to Captain Whiskers’ crazy heartbeat against my own even crazier heartbeat. “The girl won’t survive the Water Road. She’ll be useless to her Ladyship, and you’ll be driven out again.”

The teeth let go.

The cat-heart slowed a little.

“You can’t win. She won’t allow it.”

A small shove from Captain Whiskers sent me back into a bale. The sword clanged, bounced, and landed a pocket knife. Bubbles of pain burst across my chest, and I suddenly went all light-headed…

…but, on the ground, hazy, I could still see Captain Whiskers make bloody pawprints as he approached the Dorjan guy. His tail bobbed in the air like a snake’s head.

“Frankly, Thorn, if I were you,” he stepped aside, and the big barn door opened to glorious sunshine and the sounds of an old truck slowing down on the highway, “I’d try Milwaukee. It’s got a casino and a rather rampant drug problem. Living there’s a breeze for our sort.”

Captain Whiskers purred.

Purred!

He was leaving me!

“Cap…Captain…”

He turned around.

Ever look in a cat’s eyes? They’re really good with that calculating look.

Captain Whiskers had it, but more. The beautiful purple in his eyes was actually swirling around the iris like a whirlpool. I held up a hand for him, to pet him, because this was his home, he was my light, my life—

He laid a paw in my hand. Purred.

Then dragged his claws across my skin.

Dorjan sucked his breath in.

I whimpered as more blood came out. It glittered in the dark. Captain Whiskers lapped some up.

I didn’t get it then. I still don’t.

He…he just showed up, took me to another world, and then left me lying in my own blood.

And then he walked away, like I was a toy he got bored with. He even approached Dorjan with his nose in the air.

Dorjan knelt beside him. “Of course,” he said, voice a growl, “if I were you, I wouldn’t be going after children in the first place because I’d know the rules, and how certain princeborns don’t take kindly to the rules being broken.” He smiled. It stretched his face. I peed my pants.

Captain Whiskers hair rippled up from head to tail. He moved his mouth as he hissed as though he could speak real words. He ran out in…it was all so slow….all couldn’t-be-happening…

…me struggling up…

…Dorjan in the air, burning like a copper fire…

…Captain Whiskers slipping on ice…

…me grabbing the door…

…Dorjan landing on four paws, not even a huskie, some sort of wolf, teeth blinding in the sun…

…Captain Whiskers long, bizarre, not furry, hands and feet and a mouth full of curses…

…me screaming his name…

…the blood in the air, but something else, too, something tragic and beautiful as it sparkled brighter than any snow…

 

Mom and Dad say I was traumatized. That a hawk got Captain Whiskers, and attacked me when I tried to fight it off, because that’s the crazy sort of thing I’d do in my She-Ra games.

I don’t play She-Ra anymore.

It’s all cold and fake and not-real.

I miss the old Captain Whiskers.

I miss the magic I felt that morning before Dorjan made Captain Whiskers evil.

I stand at the end of the driveway every morning and stare at Quiet Mound. Maybe another Captain Whiskers will come. When he does, we’re taking off for Etheria before another Dorjan comes and screws it all up.

 

Next week I’ll post from Dorjan’s point of view. We’ll see how much of the story alters…or if it’s the same story at all.

 

Photography + Music = The Normal’s Menace

Creativity’s bizarre. Unpredictable. Deafening. It can flood our inner selves so completely that we don’t even notice the wreak of twin-poop running by amidst maniacal laughter.

But that flood can’t just stay inside. We’ve got to get it out somehow, and in the right place…rather a lot like potty-training, come to think…

ANYway.

Since I still struggle with this whole “read my fiction” concept, can we start at the beginning? Not the story’s beginning, but before that. Let’s start with the brainstorm.

Last week I mentioned the desire to write a story for an old character named Dorjan. He’s from my first Work in Progress, the novel I started writing when Blondie was a baby, the same novel that helped me fight the first round of postpartum depression.  I haven’t dared share that novel here yet, though the more I think about self-publishing, the more I’m inclined to do so. But come one, I can’t plunk a 600some page colossus here. That’s bloody insane. And it’s a fluid novel; I can’t pull pieces out and expect you to have a clue or a care.

So, let’s brainstorm an episode outside the novel. Something beforehand, I think. How about the 1980s? Can’t think of anything else when John Carpenter’s playing. My previous post shared a song from Lost Themes. Its sequel has stuff just as good:

Listen to the rhythm, its steady chase, its sudden fights. Oh this’ll do.

But where to put this? I have the shapes of movement, the white eyes of fear when the baddie’s chased by Dorjan. We need a sense of place.

20170118_100928

Take this farm. Pretty common sight in my chunk of Wisconsin…for now, at least, until yet another damn suburb bulldozes it over.

ANYway.

Let’s get a better sense of the expansive isolation of it all.

20170118_100702

Not much to it, right? Imagine being a kid and this is all you can see from where you live: blankness. Flatness. Trees that tend to cluster over nothing. And it all looks so sickly this time of year, as though a famine came down. The trees stand like gravestones over their summer-selves, and their branches reach for you with witchy fingers.

So you, as a kid, look out at this, day after day, see nothing but witchy fingers reaching out to grab anything close. You’re just thankful there’s that field between you and them. You’re used to this menace in the distance, that evil-ish look out there. Gets kind of dull, really.

Until it’s not alone.

Until you see someone standing in those trees, looking your way.

How long has he been there, hands in his pockets like that?

It starts to snow. He doesn’t move an inch. Even the witchy-fingers don’t go near him, bending any way but.

And then he starts walking your way.

No one’s supposed to walk that field. No one’s supposed to be ON it like that and he’s broken all that’s normal up with his being, with his walking. The wind whips up a flurry around his legs time and again, but it can’t trip him.

He’s getting closer. You can tell he’s not looking at the house anymore, or the barn. He’s looking right–

–at–

–you.

Do you run?

Do you stay?

What is he after? You?

Or what you hold in your arms, screeching its furry little head off?

 

These questions are part of what I’m mucking about with in my current short fiction. I’m studying myself,  you could say, noting what songs and images really set plot points in motion and/or clarify the characters. I’ve also been mucking about with the voice. Whose point of view tells the story best: Dorjan, or the child?

Oh, I’m not letting Gwen and her other Shield Maidens sit on the back-burner, believe me, but part of this whole “writer’s life” thing is to prioritize what can be done sooner vs. later. Dorjan is from a novel that was on its LAST F’ING ROUND of editing when I stopped due to motherhood/teaching/beginning to blog. I want it done. I want it out. I want it read. It’s almost like facing The Monster all over again: not the pain, to be clear, but the ability to move forward with a lighter load and stronger step. I want to complete this story, let it out, and move forward with my other stories. I can’t keep carrying what’s unfinished.