Body in the Subconscious Mind

I wrote a fantasy story recently about a woman who wards mermaids off from ships but it was really about women’s bodies. That surprised me, because my subtext is usually about the formation of stories and I was pleased that another facet of my interests had subconsciously taken hold. I’ve been stuck on mermaids for at least three short stories now (and countless abandoned paragraphs in WordPad; I use it because it doesn’t distract me with my own atrocious spelling errors), to the point where I was beginning to worry that I wouldn’t be able to write anything but mermaid stories, but I see now that they were a distraction to ween me away from my compulsion to flay open whatever story I worked on to see all its still moving parts. Thanks, subconscious!

I am almost Thirty. I apologize to the people I’ve casually lied to, claiming the age Thirty since I was twenty-eight: I had no real reason to do so, other than it offered fewer syllables and seemed to carry more weight. I am still twenty nine, but close enough to thirty that my doctor used it as explanation for why my back was suddenly misaligned (she also kindly assured me, without judgment, that random joint pain is very rarely cancer). I have considered thirty as a marker since deciding in high school that I want to write, to be published, and to be read, preferably on a mass-market scale, well before I turned Thirty, because of some magazine article I’m probably misremembering that claimed most professional authors did not publish before they were thirty. It was an arbitrary number then; something to beat. As it’s closing in, nothing about it really feels arbitrary.

I went through some major revisions from first draft to second with this fantasy story. The protagonist in my story is in her forties. (Apologies in advance to the people I will inevitably lie to, claiming Forty at the tender age of thirty-seven.) She is very tall, her features are very broad. She has albinism, and trouble with her eyesight, but she is comfortable in her body, well settled in, and that confidence spreads into every part of her life. I liked this character, and I tried to draw her several times to get a better handle on her personality for the second draft, but nothing looked right until I started to think about my own body, its softness that I hated through my twenties for subverting the quills I try to wear in public, my ankles that are still mismatched in strength even though the sprain was months ago. My cheekbones that only now are starting to look a little like my great grandmother’s when I smile. (Noice.) And I realized as I was going through the stretches that keep my back aligned and the pushups that just get me amped for writing that I was okay with my shape. Well, it was more the pushups and Abby Hoffman’s awesome comic about being fat at a doctor’s office that inspired this acceptance.* My body’s weird, yeah, but it’s livable and sturdy (except for that ankle.) And it struck me as a thought my protagonist might have, so I returned to my character sketches.

I actually got it right this time.

tuulikki-and-vic

I did not draw myself. I am a convoluted mess that could never survive a short story full of murderous mermaids. But I was more honest with her look and she took on a real shape that was closer to true than most of my character sketches have come before. And as I sketched her counterpart, a twenty year old with an indefinite prettyness about her that she did not work for or care much about, I realized that the underlying conflict, beyond “how do I keep these mermaids from eating my crew?” was between these two women, and ultimately my life between these two perspectives. Thankfully all of that is running background to the story. Inner cogs are spread here on the blog for examination, and are carefully tucked away inside the narrative to hum along and keep momentum. Wouldn’t want anyone reading a high seas adventure and have to think about the author huffing and puffing on a yoga mat.

The second draft replaced almost every one of the four thousand words in the document, which may not seem like much, but when you have a completed story it’s pretty hard to reject all of it in favor of the unknown. That’s what first drafts are; the unknown. But the first draft of this story was obsessed with this character’s body, how it fit on the ship, how it loomed on small islands, all without reason. Second draft, after I balanced her with the counterpart to my own inner conflict, the story took a real shape.

It is not finished. It requires some real editing to make it presentable. But then, that’s often how I feel about myself.

I am still a long ways off from this idealized forty… I can hardly imagine what I’ve managed to get wrong!

,,,

*my excellent doctor has never suggested I eat more vegetables as a solution for my ankle turning black for all the bruising around a sprain. She’s the best. Also, read Abby Hoffman’s Last Halloween because it is also the best.

I am an old sea witch

My brother gave me a box of totems for Christmas. I strung most of them together with white crochet thread and hung them in my office and a few of the others are resting under my monitor and the last, a small white vertebrae picked clean by fish, is in the pocket of my winter jacket and it will live there until spring. He also gave me a story about collecting magic things that will one day be useful for stories.

Already it has started working. I found the monsters in my novel riddled with wood-beetle holes worn smooth like the driftwood lung that is hanging behind me, and they are made of void-stuff now, like the physical manifestation of dementia, because that is what scares me most and couldn’t bear to write a monster that doesn’t scare me.

I am afraid of many things, but I am more inclined to identify with fictional monsters than I am to fear them. Monsters are too human now. And the unknown is an unreliable source of fear because I faithfully believe in the spirit of inquiry and its endless capacity to carry us forward. What scares me are the Hattivatti and the Grokes. The familiar entities appear consistently, reliably, and are impossible to understand because their very nature is antithetical to humanity.

Moomintroll encounters the Groke. -Tove Jansson

It is remarkable that a box of totems that my brother collected have already taken hold in my fiction. I carry a totem to have a focus when my head is out of sorts; it is an object to keep me in the world. But these have me in another. I like it. This was a very good gift. It makes me wonder what sort of power in a totem comes from the person who discovers it, and how that is passed on.

The story my brother wrote had me as a witch who could turn to sand and grass and sit by the side of the sea until cities were built atop my head and that was very kind of him. I am completely human but when I write I do feel like an old sea witch. Sometimes I think I have to be. I am not strong enough as a human to make new worlds.

I drew a map the other day and when I finished I wanted so badly to draw what was happening in every room of every building, and then became exhausted by the very thought.

Happy New Year.

Character Sketch

Sometimes (many times) I need to draw a character in order to understand her. Particularly if I’m going to spend more than 10k words with this person, it is good to have a visual on her quirks of dress, composure, size… all those fiddly things that I’ll need reference for after an obscenely high word count. Obscene being over 30k because Woah man, novels are cruel to the memory. I am not super great at capturing everything I want (that’s why I write; I have a slightly better net made of words than I do of sketches) but I was really pleased with this character sketch of a girl called Fio in a fantasy story I’ve been working on.

sweet shades, ja.

sweet shades, ja.

I doubt I’ll really need to describe her kickass tutu and cape combo, but messing about on the page until I had it really helped to solidify this person in my mind. Knowing that she could feel totally comfortable in a tutu (i so wish i could…) helped me write her interactions in the opening of the story, opened up the world… yeah all that good stuff. I also drew her mermaid neighbor who lives across the street.

mermaids are terrifying.

mermaids are terrifying.

I already knew the mermaid wore a tie because she is a proper business lady with an entire short story kept at a merciful 3k words, but I sketched her anyway. It was fun. And it is surprisingly hard to find references of women with translucent skin and jellyfish tentacle hair.

Sometimes (not as many times) I make objects from stories. Not only my own, although it’s easier to make the objects I’ve got in my head than the ones I have limited reference for. I know if I don’t keep planted at the desk and continue this story through completion I will end up making those dang glasses Fio’s wearing. The lenses are red. Red lenses, guys. With hand wrought wire frames. I want them.

Sometimes I think the only reason I write is to torture myself with the things I can’t have. Whatever. I’m a go buy a tutu.

Already got a cape.

🙂

Making Pots: A NaNoWriMo Story

Once upon a time there was a pottery class that was divided into two equal number of students. The first group was told that each student in that group would be graded on the quality of a single piece of work for the entire quarter. The second group was told that they would be graded on the quantity of finished works produced. (A note about pottery: if you don’t do it at least a little bit the right way, the whole thing blows up in the kiln.) And by the end of that quarter, the artist-professor found that the group being graded on quantity was consistently turning out more technically brilliant and innovative pieces of art.

I read a tweet that made me a little mad last night and then I spent the next twelve hours dwelling on it because I am a parody of myself. The tweeter claimed she hated National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo” for those of us spending every spare second on writing a novel from beginning to its bitter end by November 30th, because it took her years to write her novel, she had an MFA, she was published, and how dare these kids call themselves writers. She has obviously never seen Ratatouille*. My first thought was “Why are you mad that your neighbors are enjoying the above ground pool they set up in a weekend? It doesn’t make your concrete saltwater lap pool any less impressive.” Should have said that… L’esprit de l’escalier fo’ LIFE. And yeah, I can understand that the word “writer” has been put pretty high up on this crazy pedestal when it’s really just another noun-enized verb. Like “carpenter.”

Do you write? You are a writer. It’s not hard to be one. The difficulty is in recognizing all the ways you could be better and then pressing forward and forcing yourself to improve. It is difficult to receive six different rejection letters on the one thing you are most proud of, and finding that bit of deranged confidence that’s tucked away behind all of the self editing and shame over whether that was the correct use of a semicolon; to send that story out again semicolon be damned.

NaNoWriMo is not for your manifesto as a novelist. You enter NaNoWriMo to make a lot of pots as fast as you can. You can learn so much about the craft of writing by reading and studying the best writers, your favorite writers, but you don’t have their hands and you can not make their pots. NaNoWriMo strips away this time for stewing, for wondering how Murakami might have painted the glaze, and as you blaze furiously along to beat the clock you have no option but to paint it sans frontal-lobe influence. At the end of November, you’ll really hear your voice. And isn’t that what you are writing for?

All that being said, if she’s just mad that come December 1st the market is flooded with unedited 50k word manuscripts full of plot holes and f-bombs, then I sort of get the reason for her animosity. Edit your manuscripts! First drafts are only half the battle!

*I haven’t seen Ratatouille since it first came out but the lesson “Anyone Can Cook,” has lodged itself deep in my soul. My writing background is humble, but a pedigree does not tell the story, nor does pedigree present a dish. If I had waited for permission from someone in the writing world to tell me I had a chance at being published, I would have never sent anything out. In another dimension there is a depressing little shoebox in another megan’s closet with a few mediocre short stories that might have been great had she worked a little more at her craft. I try not to visit that dimension very often, and whenever I encounter someone in this world who tells me she’d like to write, I am thrilled. Everyone needs everyone to write a novel. Imagine a world full of people who have the sort of introspection it takes to write a whole flipping novel. Sounds a lot like love, right?

Keep Writing.

easy peasey

Scenic Beach, Washington.

Scenic Beach, Washington.

I have a new story featured on Luna Station Quarterly! It’s new because it was posted today and it has never been published until now, but I wrote it about three years ago. Maybe more, my memory is hazy. I was going on a camping trip with some friends and we had the idea to tell each other stories around the campfire, and I wrote the (preliminary) story for A Sea Without Oysters in about an hour based on my impressions of Scenic Beach and memorized its rhythms so I could Are You Afraid of the Dark freestyle it over the fire. Perhaps throw some sand in the flames. That never happened. We ended up talking about terrible movies all night. Nothing lost, I had a great time, and I had a story that I wrote in an hour that didn’t sound like I rushed it. It sounded like I pulled it from something else, like I was recounting some old fairy tale I read a long time ago. That almost never happens to me. I edit EVERYTHING.

I think everyone has in them at least one or two stories that happen automatically, they lay themselves out in the perfect format, all the right language, rhythm and strength, put down with such ease that they read like something that’s always been. I think that’s why in (the comic) Sandman when Dream takes you to the library that holds all the books that everyone ever meant to write, and there’s a book from everyone, that idea holds water. These are good stories, I like these kind of stories. But these lightning-in-bottle stories can hurt. They feel so good that they trick you into thinking every story ought to feel that way.

I can’t pinpoint another writer’s lightning stories. I only know my own. I read through it again this morning at LSQ because I like to see a story in its home and I still really love it but it is not my favorite story I’ve written. My favorite story took a week of muddling through a haze of an idea for the first draft and another two weeks of editing to pain over verb placement just to ensure the story moves in time with the skittering nightmares that plagued the first week. I am not saying that my favorite work is my hardest, I do try to avoid such simple cliche. I am saying that I can not wait for lightning to set off every story. Some fires take work to start, to maintain, but the results of lightning and of work are the same. Lightning is beautiful. To capture it is magic, but work is reliable. Always there when you need it.

It’s easy to read a beautiful story and attribute it to lightning and assume that everyone’s got a rod but you. I read Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver before I read its introduction (because I’m a dummo who’s all “introductions are fer chumps, yo.”) and fell completely in love with every bit of it, then fell completely into despair because how could anyone hope to keep writing after Jansson channeled lightning like that? Then I read the introduction; she struggled with the book, worked stubbornly, laboriously. And it is my favorite book. To know that it did not come about by chance is an endless comfort because I can not depend on chance for anything.

I didn’t cut my feet on the oysters at Scenic Beach. I sliced through the sole of my foot on a stick jutting out of a sand dune in Oregon about ten years before my husband and I went swimming at Scenic Beach. If I tell that story, if I remember to, it will take work to reconstruct that beach, the sword fights with sticks, the faces around the campfire. Or, perhaps, that scar on my foot will be hit with lightning some day and take on its own life outside my brain. But now, right now, I’m stuck with a novel that needs it’s continuity checked. It’s going to be a lot of work.

Oh, and uh… if anyone wants to freestyle some campfire tales, hit me up.