#lessons Learned from #DianaWynneJones: What She Plots About When She Plots About Love Pt. 3

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Part 3: I Despised You Three Chapters Ago, But NOW…

As I said in my preface post a week or so ago, Deep Secret utilizes a romance arc we often see in stories and films: the terrible first impression (cue the trombone) that ends in happy love (cue the strings).

Thankfully, the story is so, SO much more than this. The romance arc is one of many character/conflict arcs in the novel, all of which weave beneath not one but TWO quest problems for the male protagonist Rupert: to find a new Magid (one who uses magic to keep the multiverse moving in the right direction) for Earth, and to find the heir for a nasty chunk of worlds called the Koryfonic Empire. While Jones tells the story with three different points of view, Rupert’s is the dominant, so readers tend to feel from his angle.

Now, to follow my “traditional” lovey-dovey arc points:

Who-The-Heck-Are-You. The female protagonist Maree is one of five candidates Rupert’s been recommended to interview for a new Magid. He is most eager to find her because a) she’s the only candidate in his country and b) she’s just a touch younger than him. He imagines her to be pretty, smart, and free to attach to him.

The search does not bode well. He first meets Maree’s mother, who sums him up in one look: “You think too well of yourself…. Posh accent, shiny shoes, expensive raincoat, not a hairout of place—oh, I can see well enough why you let her down…Let me tell you, if I’d seen you when she first took up with you, I’d have warned her. Never trust a cravat, I’d have told her. Nor a mac with lots of little straps and buttons. Clothes always tell” (p.22-23). Rupert blows her off, though he does throw the cravat in the fire when he gets home. Rupert continues to build up an amorous vision of Maree from what he learns of her— someone who’s strong and capable with talents she doesn’t know she has. And then he meets her.

After a long car chase he finds her dancing in the middle of a street in deadlocked traffic: “She was a small, unlovely woman in glasses, with a figure like a sack of straw with a string tied round it. And she danced. She bent her knees, she hopped, she cavorted. Her ragbag skirt swirled, her untidy hair flew and her spectacles slid on her barely-existent nose” (p.61). All amorous ideas vanish. He is angry. He refuses to have anything to do with her despite her talents. In fact, he continues to be angry for several days, and in this anger, prepares the fatelines of the other candidates so he can interview them all at once during a fantasy/sci-fi convention.

When we first read from Maree’s perspective, we learn she’s crossed in love—that is, horribly depressed after a bad break-up. She has no money and battles her aunt over everything. When she receives a letter from someone calling himself a lawyer, her hopes lift that good change is coming. And then she meets him.

After a battle with the aunt over Nick (the third perspective in the story), Maree and Nick drive off into town and find themselves in an unlucky situation. To break the bad luck they do their Witchy Dance in the middle of the road. Someone steps out to confront them: Rupert, the supposed lawyer: “Oh he was angry. I looked at him. I looked at his great silver car and then back at him. He was a total prat. He had a long head with smooth, smooth hair, gold-rimmed glasses, a white strappy mac and a suit, for heaven’s sake! And instead of a tie he had one of those fancy silk cravat things” (p.90).

Memorable first impressions, to say the least.

I-Can’t-Stand-You. Rupert is so enraged Maree didn’t fulfill his romantic expectations that he works magic to ensure she can’t be near the convention where he’ll interview other Magid candidates. He is determined not to see her again, or think of her again—except anger has its own magic, too, and his dwelling on Maree causes her fateline to be entwined with the other candidates’. He sees her at the convention, and she sees him, and they are equally horrified: “[his] face was just turning away from me with much the same horror on it that I was feeling, seeing him” (p.130).

And yet, already, feelings begin to shift, just a touch. When we get this horror-face-trade from Rupert’s perspective, we also know he observes a change in Maree: “…she had neatened up considerably from the witchy bag-lady I had encountered in Bristol…She looked almost human. I watched Rick Corrie dart up to her…I got the impression he fancied the woman in his shy way. There is no accounting for taste” (p.140). Why should Rupert care if someone took an interest in a girl he loathed mere days ago? But Rupert does care, and by the following morning his intrigue over Nick’s bizarre morning routine (read the book just for this bit—BRILLIANT) leads to calmer talk between the two, and later in the day Maree and Rupert manage a civil conversation. Each notices things about the other, but none of these are worth discussing when there’s an injured centaur on the loose.

Wow-That-Was-Surprisingly-Impressive. When Maree tells Nick Rupert creates computer games (every Magid needs a cover life), Nick goes bonkers and insists she make introductions. They spot Rupert, try to catch up to Rupert…and end up hiking through worlds instead as they follow him. They are impressed with magic and Rupert’s Magid life, but they don’t get a chance to share this as Rupert’s too livid with them for following him unprotected.

Not long after an injured centaur leaps out of one world and into Earth’s—right in front of a car. Rupert, Nick, and Maree get the centaur out of sight, and Maree, being a vet student, takes it on herself to stitch the centaur up. She is professional, calm, and collected; she even clips her talon-nails (growing since the break-up) in order to do the stitching properly.

“Come along! Barked Maree, disposing of her last fingernail. Snip!

“Yes’m,” I said.

She caught my eye and grinned at me. “Sorry.” In the bathroom, she confided in a whisper, “This is the first time I’ve done anything like this. I’m nervous.”

“You could have fooled me!” I said. She pushed her glasses up and gave me a proper smile at that. It made me as warm as the flush on [the centaur]’s face. I began to feel that it was worth being volunteered, if it meant that Maree was starting to approve of me a little. (p.203)

I’m-Jealous-When-You-Fraternize-With-Others-But-Don’t-Know-Why. Yes, Rupert has officially taken a liking to Maree. He admits as much to readers after their first casual talk ends—“…she disappeared while I was flagging down Kornelius Punt, and I hardly knew whether I was relieved or aggrieved” (p.157). When Punt talks to Rupert about hitting on Maree, Rupert finds himself angry, mortified…and more and more preferring Maree to the other Magid candidates.

 Don’t-Risk-Your-Life-I-Love-You-Shoot-I-Forgot-To-Say-That-Out-Loud. Back in the Koryfonic Empire Rupert discovers more murder and trouble with some potential heirs. He also finds Nick and Maree, who were lured in by the injured centaur. Nick’s mother (who is evil on so many levels) opens an inter-world portal through Maree, stripping her, and leaving her half-dead. Rupert carries Maree to his car to drive back to earth: “It was no trouble to lift her. Her body weight was exactly half what it should have been. I stood up with her easily and was puzzled to discover that holding her like this, light, limp, and frost cold, was one of the most sexual experiences I have ever had. I also had to fight myself not to cry” (p.238).

One thing can save Maree, but it is a Deep Secret: a hidden knowledge so powerful it is broken and divided among the Magids so that no one has too much for him/herself. Rupert knows the Deep Secret of Babylon could save Maree, but how many verses of the knowledge were out there to get? One can’t call up a deep secret without knowing how to use it. All the while Maree’s half-presence lay before him: “Feelings I had been carefully trying not to admit to blocked my throat and tore at my chest. It was a dry, strong, physical ache, as if someone had forced me full of little broken pieces of concrete” (p.251). In the end Nick screams something Rupert now feels, too: “I wasn’t alive until Maree came to live with us! She makes that kind of difference—she’s that kind of person!” (p.252).

Using Babylon takes a long time, and requires other Magids to fight off curses and evil Koryfonic folk while Rupert stands guard to the opened Deep Secret. The Babylon secret involves a road into a world NO one, not even those who control the Magids, can find, and Maree must walk, half-dead as she is, that entire road and back. Rupert desperately wants to go with her, but knows he can’t because he must keep the portal to the road open. Nick goes with her, and gladly. Rupert spends the hours dwelling on everyone and everything, but most of all on Maree. He contemplates how unhappy she was, yet she “thrust her way beyond with angry fingernails…I hoped her life would be better now. I ached to let her have something better. I wanted her to come back more than I have ever wanted anything. Ever” (p.300).

Let’s-Spend-Forever-Together. An excellent twist here on Jones’ part. Maree does return from Babylon, in full health, but more, too—she is back in the same garb and with the same spiked nails as she had when she danced in traffic and infuriated Rupert. These two get a chance so few of us could ever hope to get: a second chance at a first impression.

A small, small measure of the change was that she now looked good in her woeful old garments. She looked astonishingly good.

As I saw all this, Maree looked up and saw me. A look I had not seen before—one of pure delight—filled her face. I don’t think she had ever been truly happy in her life before. Now she was, because she had seen me.

Maree’s face was a glowing heart-shape of pleasure. She looked up at me and said, “Really?”

“Yes,” I said. “Really.”

At this, she stepped back a bit and pushed at her glasses in her combat-manner. “I’m not a very good investment,” she said, with that sob in her voice. I had missed that sob. “I warn you.”

“Neither am I,” I said. “Wait till I tell you.” (p.316)

There’s still angry Koryfonic people with thorns and lasers to deal with, but this is where the romantic arc ends.

Why did I find this a satisfying love story? More than anything, I think it was because Maree and Rupert were so, well, human. They were not perfect physically, emotionally, or mentally. Their flaws stood out prominently at first, because sometimes what we consider shows of strength (Rupert’s fine garb, Maree’s spiked nails) are really charades to cover the real feeling: loneliness, or bitterness. Like any relationship, we have to see more than just the lion’s mane and fancy raincoat. We have to SEE the strength, the knowledge, the determination. The humor, the selflessness. It’s all there. But it is NOT always tucked inside a Standard Pretty Person hidden beneath a temporary shroud of frumpiness. We love, and that love brings out beauty in the other that no one else will likely ever see. That’s part of what makes love so amazing. Let’s try to remember that as writers, too. Pretty’s nice, Beautiful’s de-wonderful, but Love, True Love, gives any character that deliciously secret view of another that sets readers’ hearts and imaginations alight.

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#Lessons Learned from #DianaWynneJones: What She #Plots About When She Plots About #Love Pt. 1

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Part 1: I can’t be in love, you idiot

One of the many brilliant moves in Howl’s Moving Castle is the emphasis on wizard Howl’s heartlessness. Sophie, the narrator, establishes this in the first reference to Howl: “He was an utterly cold-blooded and heartless wizard and no young girl was safe from him if he caught her on her own” (p.5). Rumor has it he seeks young girls to devour the souls from their hearts. This only adds to Sophie’s problem: spinelessness. Being the eldest of three sisters she assumes herself doomed to a life of tedium and spinsterhood. She cares for her younger sisters and hopes for their fortune in love and happiness, but already by 18 she has given up on chances for her own.

Their first brief encounter comes towards the end of Chapter 1. We have no clue who Howl is, nor does Sophie. But somehow she acquires attention from the “dashing specimen” who, according to Sophie, pities her (p.19). This only shames Sophie, and she literally runs away from the man before he can say anything else.

When the Witch of the Waste comes to Sophie’s town on the hunt for Howl, she learns of Sophie’s encounter—among other things I can’t mention yet—and curses Sophie with old age.

Oddly enough, Sophie doesn’t mind. Oh she gets angry later, but until the final chapter of the book, Sophie remains an old woman. So how in Ingary does romance blossom between a 20-something wizard and a 90-year-old woman?

First off, Sophie grows a spine. She no longer fears to speak her mind or act on impulse: “As a girl, Sophie would have shriveled with embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman, she did not mind what she did or said. She found that a great relief” (p.83). She also does not fear calling Howl out on his rude or selfish behavior. Since the plan is for Sophie to break a magical contract between Howl and his fire demon Calcifer so Calcifer can break the old-age curse, Sophie declares herself Howl’s new cleaning lady even though she “can’t clean [him] from [his] wickedness” (p.75). She calls Howl out on all sorts of things, especially when he is seen courting her sister Lettie for what Sophie assumes to be Lettie’s soul.

Howl remains quite the enigma throughout the book, as Sophie’s narration isn’t always reliable. Multiple readings, though, help give the audience a touch more perspective. When Howl first meets old-age Sophie in Chapter 4, he hints to his apprentice that he knows more about Sophie than he can let on:

“Howl’s not wicked,” Michael said.

“Yes I am,” Howl contradicted him. “You forget just how wicked I’m being at the moment, Michael.” He jerked his chin at Sophie. (p.75)

Howl criticizes Sophie with equal vivacity, especially her nosiness into every nook and cranny of his castle. In Chapter 5 he lays Sophie’s true problem bare, even though she doesn’t know it:

“You’re a dreadfully nosy, horribly bossy, appallingly clean old woman. Control yourself. You’re victimizing us all.”

“But it’s a pigsty,” said Sophie. “I can’t help what I am!”

“Yes you can,” said Howl.

Howl wants Sophie to know she IS capable of a fate different than what some old superstitious saying dictates for her. But Sophie isn’t listening, and on the first read, most readers aren’t, either.

Despite all of Sophie’s nosiness and bossiness, Howl never makes Sophie leave. He gives her jobs, even ones he can complete with magic. When Sophie suffers a small heart attack, Howl is genuinely concerned and strengthens her heart with magic. He even opens up in Chapter 14 about his inability to love. The references to his heartlessness have persisted by means of Calcifer and the apprentice Michael, who explain Howl’s wooing process: he beautifies himself and professes undying devotion to a girl until she confesses her love in return; then, he dumps her. When Howl and Sophie are alone in Chapter 14, he relates the same process to spiders and their webs, but unlike Calcifer and Michael, he does not see it as selfish at all:

“That’s why I love spiders. ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.’ I keep trying,” he said with great sadness. “But I brought it on myself by making a bargain some years ago, and I know I shall never be able to love anyone properly now.” (p.281)

This not only foreshadows the magical contract between Calcifer and Howl, but also proves Howl considers Sophie as more than just a cleaning lady.

Sophie also ceases to see her place in Howl’s castle as a mere ends to her curse. She is relieved when Howl gives up on her sister, and jealous of his fresh attention to the strange and beautiful Miss Angorian. She does not like when people mistake her for Howl’s mother. And when Howl asks her input on what kind of lifestyle they should lead when hiding from the king, she shares ideas without hesitation.

This move comes at a price: Howl’s castle merges with an old shop in Sophie’s home town. It is the same shop run by her parents for years. Sophie looks around, sees herself back where she began, and is totally miserable (“…it’s being the eldest, really. Look at me! I set out to seek my fortune and I end up exactly where I started, and old as the hills still” (p.342)). It doesn’t help that Howl reveals who she really is to everyone and accuses Sophie of holding onto the age curse because she “liked being in disguise” (p.369). Sophie refuses to accept this, but her sulk afterwards does reveal that she’s never seen a chance for herself when compared to her sister, and especially no chances with Howl when compared to Miss Angorian. So the old age stays, and we’ve only got two chapters to go. Howl appears to be apologetic, even upset that Sophie won’t speak to him. But too much has been going on with the villain (you know, plot and all), so no time is spent in boring conversation about love and feeling. There’s a witch to battle.

By this time events have revealed Sophie has her own magical gift: she gives life to things. She successfully charmed hats in Chapter 1, though she didn’t understand what she had done until Chapter 12. Her charms apply to clothing as well, such as the suit she mended for Howl early in the story. She fears the suit’s charm (“built to pull in the girls” p.239) worked on her sister, and later in the story, she blames the charm for her own feelings about Howl. But when Howl reveals he hasn’t worn the suit in ages, Sophie has nothing to blame but her own heart.

The fate of Howl’s heart is finalized in the final chapter. Determined to make up to Howl for her poor behavior, Sophie tries to save Miss Angorian from the Witch of the Waste, only for Howl to defeat the witch instead and explain Miss Angorian was really a fire demon, just like Calcifer. They rush back to the castle and find Miss Angorian with Calcifer in her hand. Beneath his flame beats Howl’s heart, a trade made under contract to lengthen his life and strengthen Howl’s magic. Sophie attacks Miss Angorian, not Howl. Sophie successfully gives life to Calcifer so he can separate from Howl’s heart. And Sophie gives new life to Howl’s heart…in more ways than one.

Six pages left, and Sophie is finally her true self, in and out. Youth back, but spine intact, she no longer fears what the future may bring: in fact, she embraces it. Howl does remember Sophie from their first meeting. He held no pity, but hope that the old Sophie who had the nerve to command a fire demon and hunt down the Witch of the Waste would be “that lovely girl I met on May Day” (p.426). The two never kiss, or have any other such cliché moment. Even his proposal keeps with his slightly-snotty but kind character, as does Sophie’s slightly-snarky but delightful response:

Howl said, “I think we ought to live happily ever after,” and she thought he meant it. Sophie knew that living happily ever after with Howl would be a good deal more eventful than any story made it sound, though she was determined to try. “It should be hair-raising,” added Howl.

“And you’ll exploit me,” Sophie said.

“And then you’ll cut up all my suits to teach me,” said Howl. (p.427)

No angst. Only a few pages of love-talk. LOTS of pages of magic and attitude and adventure. We are not jilted out of a romance here, but as the plot moves the characters don’t have much time to think about love, and when they do, it is too difficult to contemplate for long. So why force the subject to the forefront where it does NOT belong? The characters didn’t want to believe themselves in love; they had to reach that epiphany on their own which, I think, makes that epiphany all the more satisfying for the reader. So, don’t feel that if you have teenage protagonists they MUST swoon and despair and go googley-eyed over someone. Let love surprise them like a snowball at recess. Quietly form, aim, and fire with precision. The shocking strike and beautiful fall-out will be all the more perfect.

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Firefly Night

 

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Photo from Reddit.com

I watch Blondie chase fireflies. Her first time up late and outside, she runs and giggles and squeals, “Hello there, little lightning bug! Hey, wait for me!” Few stars care to share themselves before the sun disappears, but Bo comes across Venus and Jupiter together. “The second star to the right!” Blondie tugs my hand and points beyond our world. “That’s where Tinkerbell and the fairies live. Can we go there?”

 

“In your dreams, Blondie, sure you can.”

“But I want to go for real.”

“I know, kiddo.” Magic’s for dreams and stories, I want to say, not real life. But she’s five. What does she know?

~*~

I am returning from the library in the next town. Biff and Bash have been living up to their names moreso than usual, so when Bo offers to handle bedtime solo, I flee.

The sun’s brilliance wanes. A thin haze rests upon the treetops. It is the first cloudless sky in days, and I wonder if I shall see some constellations before I reach home.

The stars do not bother. Too much competition.

Never have I seen so many fireflies at once. On either side of the road, from curbside to distant tree lines, slowly circling every corn stalk. Blondie would have called them dancing fairies. I would have agreed.

I find myself jealous of Creation.

Had I built this moment myself, in my head, I could stay in it as long as I choose. I could add more colors to the fireflies and the sunset. I could add a chill in the air to make it more comfortable. I, I, I. I wanted to be in control.

Stories allow that. I can revisit a scene from years ago and rewrite characters’ choices. Natures. Trim every unpleasantness away.

But where is the life in such manipulation?

At some point, I have to stop the fixes and simply let the characters go the ways they wish. I am tempted often to analyze what I’ve done: if I give it just one more go, I can get it right.

But will it really be “just one more go”?

~*~

We cannot see the ripples of consequence until after the stone is thrown. Some of us don’t have hope great enough to fill the palm of one hand; instead, we carry a pebble, a little nothing that could never touch another. Or, like me, some lumber about with a boulder that defines everything, everything we perceive ourselves to be. I aimed my boulder as best I could for graduate school, certain it would teach me the beautiful secrets of writing. Instead, I learned to hate it. It took years of postpartum depression for me to try writing again, and discover its power to heal. I can’t delete the dark thoughts I battled to reach this point. I don’t want to. Because I wouldn’t know, really know, who I am if not for those internal scars.

I still stare into that water sometimes, though, and wonder how much longer I should have held on to that damn boulder. What friendships I should have saved and not abandoned. Which hearts I should have sought and not ignored. I can stare, and stare…and miss the beauty of a hundred fireflies dance around my daughter.

So I do my damndest not to stare. Creators who watch nothing lose control of their worlds, and characters who immerse themselves in nothing can only drown. I am a mother of children who see me as the foundation of their world. I am a wife to a man who dared throw his pebble into the water at, of all things, the sight of me. I am a woman who wants to share her imagination with those who walk away from the water and enter the fireflies. Perhaps we will see each other amidst all the little glows, perhaps not. To miss the dance this year is not the end—one of the best miracles about fireflies is that they come back. Until then, we can look for stones to skip, and, when we’re ready, launch them across the water and make it beautiful. That, to me, is magic.

As My #Daughter Turns Five

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Blondie observes a toad cross our walk

“What’s that noise, Mommy?”

“Sounds like a dragon waking up for some breakfast.”

“No it’s not. It’s the washing machine.”

Your persistence with reality annoys me. “Then why did you ask?” I leave you in bed and hunt down your brothers.

 ~*~

For you, imagination must be pre-created by others, people in cellophane and places punched out of cardboard. To look outside the wrapper is to look into The Nothing.

 ~*~

Biff is reading, Bash is talking to helicopters. You are nowhere to be seen. I approach your bedroom door and hear small murmurs. I knock. You open the door, knowing it’s me. (That is, until your brothers learn to knock and wait. Then your room is doomed.) I see you have opened your fairy house, a three-room house built out of an old suitcase that my father had made for my dolls, and that I had recently altered with butterflies and flowers to suit fairies. All the fairies sit on the furniture in a half circle facing you.

“What are the fairies up to today?”

“I dunno.”

“Are you getting ready for a big adventure?”

“No. They’re just sitting here.”

O-kay.

“Are they having a party?”

“No.”

I try a movie reference. “Are they going to get the blue pixie dust back from the pirates?”

“No.”

I see her dragons perched nearby. “Can the dragons come over to visit?”

She scoffs at such a notion. “Dragons can’t go into a fairy house. They’re too big!”

“Well…are you having fun?”

She shrugs.

Someone small, male, and irksome is into the kitchen pans again. “Well I guess I’ll close the door.”

“Yeah you do that.”

I do. Biff and Bash leap into the hallway with cookie pans and drying racks. “Hi, Mommy!” They throw the pans back onto the hardwood floor. “BOOM! Do it again!”

I hear a small yell as I chase little wiggling butts—“Don’t let them into my room!”

 ~*~

There is a box in our basement filled with audiocassettes I made when I was 5, all stories and songs I made up. Yes, I used storybooks we had, but I turned those images into places to explore. I gave characters voices and motives. They had fights and adventures. My imagination could take me into the page and deeper, until the real world was but a small hole high above me. When the typical story books didn’t satisfy me, I started making my own. I spent hours drawing out the different scenes and then “published” the esteemed work with a fancy glittered cover and purple string binding.

 ~*~

You grunt with increasing frustration as Bash makes yet another go at the dragons in your lap. “No, Bash, mine!” Biff rattles your door again. “Stop it, Biff!”

“WE ARE DONE!” Ahem. “Time to color, okay?”

“Crayons?!?!” Biff and Bash never have access to writing utensils unless I am desperate for peace, and today qualifies. They race to their chairs at the table, knock the chairs together, push them too far away to reach the table, whine, push them too close to get into the seats, whine again, and then just whack each other in the heads because, brothers.

You quietly get into your seat and settle your head in your hands. Bored already, and the boys haven’t even finished their routine to sit down. “What are we gonna color?”

“How about we draw today?” I get some crayons and paper and spread them out on the table. Biff and Bash get right to work, seeing which color is darkest, which crayon will fly furthest when thrown backwards, and so on.

You continue to sit. I place three colors and a blank sheet between your elbows. “What am I gonna draw?”

“Whatever you want.”

You sigh.

I sigh. “How about a dragon?”

“I don’t know how.”

“It can look however you want.”

Your voice shrinks. “I don’t want to.”

“Okay then, how about a fish?” I pick this specifically since you have spent a week on ocean life in school.

“What kind of fish?”

“Any fish you want.”

“I don’t know how.”

“Oh yes you do, from school.”

You draw like you eat vegetables: resigned and hateful.

Biff and Bash are on their fourth pieces of paper. “Look a helicopter!” Bash cries out gleefully as he points to a mess of circular scribbles. Biff straightens his back up and declares his pile of straight lines are “lots and lots of trailer trucks.”

You push a paper my way. In one corner of the sheet is a small orange circle, some fins, and an eye. “There, a fish.”

“It’s a lovely fish, Blondie. Can you draw another one? There’s loads of fish in the ocean, you know. Or an octopus? What about a whale?” I push the paper back. You sit and sulk for a moment, but when you see Biff and Bash are having fun for some reason, you choose a blue crayon and begin to draw.

I manage three sips of coffee before you appear in the kitchen with your paper. “The ocean’s full now. Can I go?”

A gigantic rectangle fills the rest of the page. It is bent inward on one end and dotted slightly on the other. “Is this…”

“It’s a whale.”

“Ah, I see. And what are their names?”

“Whose names?”

“The fish and the whale. What are their names?”

“Um…” you look around. I see you debate about my coffee, about the frying pan, the sink. You settle on your brothers. “Biff and Bash.”

“What are Biff and Bash going to do? Go on an adventure?”

“No. They’re just fish. Am I done now?”

 ~*~

You are a will of your own, always have been. I love you for your curiosity, your laughter, your silly dances and cuddly hugs. And because you are growing into your own person, I must realize that what you define yourself to be will not match my expectations. I can want you to be creative, but I cannot make you. Creating stories should be fun, not a chore, and I promise you, my daughter, that I will never make you imagine any more than you want to.

 ~*~

Biff rests his nose on the table as he slowly moves two trains past his eyes and back again. Bash sits on Biff’s bed to read about trains. I hear a high-pitched, exasperated voice down the hall, followed by a strange…is that supposed to be male?

I tip-toe to your room. Quiet. The bathroom door is open a crack.

I peek inside to see you on the toilet with a Tinkerbell comic book you just received for your birthday. You do not know the story yet, nor do you know many of those characters. But I see you have two index fingers pointed on two fairies, and you are making them talk.

Then you see me. “Mo-om, what are you doing here?”

“Oh just…saw the door open, thought you’d want it locked before Biff or Bash showed up.”

“Yes, please.” You wait all through my dramatically slow closing of the door before saying in a nasal voice only small children can make, “But I don’t make flowers, I’m a skunk fairy!”

You bust my heart wide open, you skunk fairy. I want to sit and listen to your voices and learn about the places, maybe add my own and give some voices too. But then the story would no longer be yours, would it?

Let your stories be your secret. I shall keep my distance and listen for the fairy-speak, wondering what adventures hide within the pages this time and all the times to come.

Writer’s Music: Philip Glass

dracula-1931-philip-glass-kronos-quartetSo far, I have written about music that unsettles, saddens, or makes my characters wary of the unknown. But only one composer has the air of pure conspiracy about him: Philip Glass’ Dracula is a beautiful example of this.

(Admittedly, I wanted to tell you how Notes on a Scandal is the ultimate example, but then my husband introduced me to Glass’ score for the original classic Dracula, and that rather won me over. I’m bound to write about Notes later on, anyway.)

Even though the score is performed by a string quartet, the melodies can grow to overwhelming levels and suddenly shrink as Glass demands. Also, thanks to the strings, the melodies maintain a dangerously light feel, like spider webs gracing your neck in a walk through an abandoned building. But don’t underestimate the cello and viola—their dogged perseverance with rhythm give every track a sense of inevitability that, sooner or later, good will succumb to evil.

From a child’s perspective, the adult world is one big conspiracy to unravel. My human children never receive the answers they seek from their troll masters, so they must seek them out on their own. The track “Renfield” helps me imagine a party thrown by one of the troll masters, the perfect opportunity for the children to break into the secret library and find answers. These children are terrified, but if they don’t maintain their pretense of happy servitude, they will be caught, or worse, disappear just like any other “discontent.” Seek out Dracula, and listen as the formal veneer over your characters fades to reveal their true fears and desires.

Selection: “Renfield”

Click here for more information on Philip Glass and his music: http://www.philipglass.com/

The Consequence of Denying “What If”

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Nurses in the intensive care unit step aside, for I move with purpose. It is my father’s gait, one I followed year after year as he brought me along to visit sick parishioners.

Rachel’s room is guarded by a cart armed with gowns and gloves. I cover myself as directed and enter a gallery of drawn flowers, suns, crosses, cakes—get-well cards sent from her students in the south. I lose track of all the tubes and where they connect and look for the girl I met in boarding school.

Rachel’s head tilts away from me, covered partly in bandages and partly with a blue Velcro noose. The note above her head explains how the noose is really a brace meant to keep her head upright. Towels are rolled up and positioned against her neck. The breathing and feeding tubes now have a guard that presses into her hollow cheeks; Rachel’s fingers look stuck inside the guard, like she had fallen asleep trying to pull it off. Which is quite likely, by the sounds of my last conversation with her mother.

-*-

“She keeps pulling out her tubes. I just don’t think she can take it anymore,” Mrs. Brim said to me as we stood over Rachel just a few nights ago. “She’s so sick of being here. She wants to go to her heavenly home.”

“Or she just wants to prove she doesn’t need them.” Why was this super-devout preacher’s wife talking about her daughter’s unconfirmed suicidal tendencies in front of her daughter, like she is something incapable of hearing or comprehension?

She waved me away then, like I didn’t really know her child. I shook my head like she didn’t know, either.

-*-

Rachel grew up a preacher’s child like me, and like me was sent to a Christian boarding school to learn how to serve God once adulthood hit. Unlike me, Rachel embraced this future. It was the only world she had known.

Reverend and Mrs. Brim put God above all things and taught their children to do the same. Music is for God. Read God-endorsed stories and Scripture. What you earn is for God. God, God, God.

I remember losing my voice more than once at their dinner table as I learned of the evils in society. The Brim parents ate like Jack Sprat and his wife, and looked the parts, too. “Imagine, these people call themselves Christian parents, but they let their children read about sorcery! Watch vampires and aliens on television! It’s all in defiance of God’s creation, Jean, you know that, don’t you?” Mrs. Brim always did the talking as Reverend Brim nodded along.

One weekend Mrs. Brim burst into Rachel’s room. “You won’t believe what I found today!” She held up a garment bag with a smile full of bravado. The smile faded when she noticed my copy of The Crying of Lot 49, but as she had no clue whether or not the book was evil, she did not comment. “I just couldn’t pass it up.” Mrs. Brim unzipped the bag. There hung a gold-white wedding dress, an unadorned gown of basic A-line shape, no train, and thin gauze for sleeves and collar. “It was such a bargain!” (All the Brims love bargains, but I don’t hold that against them. You have to when you’re a preacher’s family.) “Now you just need a husband.” Mrs. Brim laughed as though a wedding could happen once Rachel made up her mind with all those gentlemen callers, when in reality Rachel had yet to go on a date.

Rachel kept her face a complete blank, even when her mother insisted she try it on. I wanted to leave. That dress dictated the future: frugal marriage. Sensible lifestyle. Dedicated in duty. No-nonsense in family. A preacher’s wife.

“A perfect fit!”

I looked at Rachel. How could she not want to escape this? Didn’t she want to dictate her own life? The separation between her extremely conservative world and mine was bubble-thin. Just pop it and come out!

The next weekend I went home. There sat Dad in his favorite Doctor Who shirt (before it was cool) watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “Wanna hit Hot Topic? I need a new Harry Potter shirt for the midnight premiere next week!”

Did a love of the worldly creations somehow make my father less godly? That’s what the Brims thought, hinting as much without saying it to my face. Yet I knew my father’s dedication to God was life-long and absolute. Grandma told me he played communion with his stuffed animals, for crying out loud, making little wafers with bread and putting grape juice in teeny cups. And then he’d go tie a red towel on his neck to be Superman. In the eyes of the Brims, one could not dabble in fantasy, for that meant you treated religion as fantasy. Now granted, Dad had Biblical commentaries shelved with Dragonriders of Pern, but that didn’t mean he took his divine vocation as a joke, nor did he consider dragon-riding a possible career change.

As my favorite writer Diana Wynne Jones wrote time and again, people need fantasy, to explore the “what if,” in order to work through the problems in real life. I, or I should say my children, are living proof of this: my post-partum depression reached levels so dangerous my rational self feared for my children’s safety. By writing about another world, I learned to cope with the one I’ve got.

-*-

The night before the surgery, Rachel explained that she hadn’t bothered seeing a doctor because she felt okay despite the weight loss. She just focused on her students. Being a dedicated servant to God’s flock, she knew God would see her through whatever ailment made her body act like an 80-year-old-woman’s. If not for her pastor specifically stating she needed to seek medical help, she would not have bothered with tests in the first place. Either God wanted her in heaven or He didn’t.

After years of hospital visits with strangers, church members, and grandparents, I knew how monotonous and confining those rooms could be. I raided my Diana Wynne Jones library and selected three favorites to help Rachel escape those sterile halls: Archer’s Goon, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, and Charmed Life. I couldn’t wait for her to meet Chrestomanci and talk to her about how Jones blends worlds and pokes fun at all the clichés of the fantasy genre.

I stupidly pulled the books out with Mrs. Brim in the room.

“Oh what a nice card, Jean! And,” she paused at the sight of the books on the bedside table, “how nice. Thank you. Let’s move these for your supper, Rachel.” Mrs. Brim plunked the books on the windowsill behind the drapes. Rachel’s supper consisted of yogurt and Ensure. “Let’s not forget your owl!” Mrs. Brim balanced a large plush snowy owl where I had placed my books. I did not tell her the owl looked just like Hedwig from the Harry Potter series.

-*-

Now Rachel lay before me, barely sixty pounds, and unable to speak. The tumor had been wrapped around her brain stem for quite some time, according to the doctors. She needs a hole in her head to function as a drain, a permanent system where fluids could be siphoned into her stomach. And speaking of stomach, she needs a hole there too, so they can move the feeding tube. May as well put a hole in her throat so she can get her mouth back. All normal procedure—that is, until her fever goes away, which must stem from an infection we can’t find. We’ll just keep taking samples from all over and studying their cultures which could take days maybe weeks and keep her in intensive care which normally is just a short-term thing but what do you know, she’s been here five weeks. Well, what’s another week.

A week. I can’t imagine laying in that bed for an hour with all those tubes and noose on my head. I don’t blame Rachel for being so unresponsive. I just wish I could give her a new fantasy to live in, if only for a few hours, without backlash from her family. There are so many beautiful worlds out there, Rachel, beyond the Christian-approved Narnia and Middle Earth, where the quests are terrible and hilarious until the very end where all is well again. Without permission to share my fantasies, I resort to becoming Listener of Woes.

“It’s a shame her sister couldn’t come before the surgery,” Mrs. Brim says with a sigh, “but she had to play organ, and you know Ruth—she just has so many duties at the church, she didn’t want to let them down.”

I nod slowly because all I want to say is what   a   BITCH. Rachel may never be the same way again, and you put ORGAN before your sister? I do not say this because I know the answer: God first.

We say good-bye. “God has his plan for Rachel. We’ll see it someday.” She hugs me, which requires a very awkward bend forward on my part. I wonder if that wedding dress still hangs in Rachel’s old closet.

“The future is full of ‘what ifs’ to be explored, Mrs. Brim. Good night.”