I came late to Stephen King. I’m not sure why: it’s not as if I’ve ever had anything against commercial genre fiction. What I am sure of: I’ve just discovered, however belatedly, that I get a profound kick out of his books—all of them, even the ones people tell me are generally understood to be bad. His characters are transcendently accessible. His small towns are deliciously creepy. His possessed cars and flying Coke machines and biggest fans are funny in a macabre way, and macabre in a funny way.
In addition to the novels, I’ve recently read his On Writing, after years of being commanded to do so by students and colleagues. I absolutely loved the first part, in which he (in transcendently accessible fashion) describes his authorial trajectory, from kid to teenager to man-who-threw-out-Carrie. There were many aspects of the second part—the part about the craft of writing—which made good sense, but there were a couple of others that made me balk.
Like this one here:
If possible, there should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames…If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall. For any writer…it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction…When you write, you want to get rid of the world, do you not?
When I was a teenager, I had a big IKEA desk, white-topped, with fetching yellow drawers underneath. I remember getting it, in grade 7 or so. Remember setting up all my stuff in neat piles and rows, ready for a long, graceful dive into homework. Except that when it came right down to it, I belly-flopped. I fiddled with coloured pencils and rolled my desk chair back and forth, sometimes while spinning on it. I listened to the castors on the parquet floor, because that was just about the only sound in the room.
After a few weeks of this, I abandoned the desk’s vast, white, uncluttered expanse. I set myself up on my bed, cross-legged, books spread around me, radio on. This horrified my mother—and yet eventually, presented with empirical, test-results-based evidence, she had to admit that it was working for me.
I wrote Rowansong in my backyard, stretched out on a chaise lounge (in a quixotic quest to obtain a perfect, golden tan, rather than a cooked-lobster burn), or sitting on the front stoop, or at my desk in grade 9 Latin class. I wrote The Pattern Scars on the 504 Carlton streetcar every weekday morning. I wrote The Door in the Mountain in cafés and pubs; the second volume is taking shape in the very same places. I’ve only just started writing at home, and it still doesn’t feel quite right. I need distraction. Ambient noise: traffic, other people’s conversation, music, TV.
One of the things I ask students to do, in their first class with me, is answer these questions: What’s your ideal writing space? What’s your real one? The answers vary wildly, and make for thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening conversation. The upshot: there are any number of possible writing spaces. The only wrong ones are the ones that stop working for you—which is to say, the ones in which you stop working.
Another paraphrased King prescription*:
The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months.
My first book took me six years to write. Granted, I never imagined it would be published—but it was, three years after I’d finished it. All told, a ten-year gestation period—which is, admittedly, a ridiculously long time. The first draft of the second one took about ten months; the third, two years. I truly don’t think that any of these books suffered for not having been drafted in three months. I’m a slow, careful writer who produces pretty polished first drafts—surely that counts for something? Plus, there’s life: that thing that’s happening, as you’re drafting. That thing that has jobs in it, and friends, and maybe kids, and books by people who aren’t you, and, yes, television. Should I feel guilty as I’m burning through True Detective**, because I should be writing? I’ve decided, for myself, that the answer is a resounding “no.” I’m pretty happy with the balance I mostly manage to strike, working and playing, creating and consuming. I’m okay with my 300 words a day, four days a week, because eventually, and hopefully by deadline, I’ll have a book.
Longhand or laptop? Café or white room? Music or silence? Agent or no agent? Commercial publisher or small press? Chocolate or vanilla? Like Stephen King, I’m extremely happy to tell people what works for me. Unlike him, I’m totally uncomfortable saying what should work for them.
This may be as prescriptive as I get:
If something’s not working for you, shake things up. Don’t get so fixated on routine and method, so wedded to Writing Rules imposed by self or other, that you end up wordless and guilt-ridden.
I’ll close with a mention of my Younger Daughter (who’s about to turn 12). I used to write on beds and stoops and in Latin classes; and lo, here sits YD on the bed beside me, half-watching The Simpsons, half-drawing in her sketchbook. Part of me wants to tell her to concentrate on one thing or the other, but I don’t. I figure something fairly okay will take shape on her sketchbook page. I’m not prepared for this, her depiction of a stoically weeping Benedict Cumberbatch (Cumberlock?):
Brava, distracted-yet-effective YD. Brava.
*He does say, at several points in the book, that these are recommendations, rather than rules—and yet they certainly come across as rules. Or maybe that’s just me being overly sensitive to his confident, bluff tone. I’m sometimes at ease only when I’ve prevaricated my way into an entirely new stance. (See? I just did it.)
**Oh my god, this show. It may require its own blog entry.
In November 2012, I wrote about bunny love. At the time, Bunbun, aka Slippers Houdini, aka The Probe, had just been diagnosed with head tilt disease. I felt moved by what we were certain would be her imminent demise to write about bunnies in general, and about the sweetness of Bun’s bond with Bubsie. (There are many “b” words, in the rabbit world.) Two months later, Bubsie, a two-year-old, energetic, amorous, sleek little creature, died in his sleep. I’d never seen such a thing: a rabbit in an attitude of complete relaxation (lounged on his side, paws out in front and out behind, white belly showing, eyes half-open), completely stiff with rigor mortis.
And Bun, who could barely keep herself upright, whose head was wrenched at a permanent 90° angle, her “lower” eye closed and blind forever and her upper eye constantly infected—Bun abided. She abided for a year and three months. She died yesterday afternoon, one year almost to the day after Bubsie.
Back in June of 2007, the last thing our family needed was a rabbit. Frankie Bun had died at the ripe old age of 10ish many months before, and my then-husband and I agreed: no more pets. The girls were young. The marriage was foundering. Yup: a rabbit was definitely the last thing we needed.
That first weekend in June, as my father was preparing to drive the girls and me home from my parents’ place, someone (maybe him, maybe my mother) said, “Look! Is that a rabbit…?” It sure was. It was a rabbit with an impertinent butt and saucy, flicky back feet: Look at me! I’m under a car; now I’m bounding onto someone’s lawn; now I’m under the same car; now I’m under a different car!
“Oh yes,” said the neighbour who owned one of those cars. “The rabbit. It’s been around for three days; I have to check every time I want to back out of the driveway. I’m calling Animal Services tomorrow.”
I felt a tug on my skirt. Elder daughter (ED), seven years old, looking up at me with big eyes. “If we catch it, can we keep it?”
“No,” I said. “Probably not.”
Pursuing rabbits who are hopping full-tilt away from you is difficult, even in the confines of a single room. Outside? Well, let’s just say that there was no dignity, in this particular chase. Not for me, anyway. The rabbit ran, binkied (twisted in midair so that, when her paws touched ground again, she was going in a completely new direction), ran some more. My sister and I tried to corral her; no luck. People were gathering behind us on the sidewalk. Both daughters were shrieking, “Over there! Over there! Catch it catch it!”
In the end, she simply got tired. She flumped down on her belly behind the front wheel of a car that was parked on the street. Her furry sides were heaving; her nose was twitching double-time. My sister got down on her stomach on the other side of the car and slowly, slowly extended a crutch my mother had dug up in their basement. Crutch prodded rabbit, very gently, in the side. Rabbit twitched. Crutch prodded. Rabbit sat up and hopped two inches closer to me. I lunged.
The softest place in the universe is the hollow right behind a bunny’s ears. As I held this one by the scruff, I remembered this.
The observers applauded. We put the rabbit in an ancient metal cat cage my parents also had, in that treasure trove of a basement of theirs.
ED leaned against my legs. “Now we keep it, right?”
“I don’t know,” I said, trying not to look into the rabbit’s big brown eyes.
“I’ll call Animal Services right now,” that neighbour said.
“No,” ED said, her voice wobbling. “You caught it, so we get to keep it!”
“Agh,” I said.
The rabbit came home with us, in the ancient cat carrier. We’d tossed Frank’s old cage and had to improvise an enclosure with Rubbermaid bins and furniture. The rabbit (a she, we’d determined) escaped. Again and again, she shimmied out somehow, and ended up behind the TV, nestled amongst delectable electrical cables. Hence the “Houdini”—but we didn’t actually call her that. She was always Bunbun—that is, until Peter dubbed her “The Probe.”
She came with me when I moved out of my first-marriage bungalow and into an apartment, two months later. She lived in the girls’ room.
“Mommy!” ED called one day. “We just found a tattoo in Bunbun’s ear!” Faded blue ink; letters and numbers: a breeder’s mark. “So,” she said, musingly, “Bun has a mysterious past.” A purebred rabbit who’d been dumped from a car onto a sidewalk at 6 a.m., one day in June 2007, with two other rabbits. Those two disappeared. But Bun abided.
Two nights ago, we wrapped her in a towel and brought her to bed with us. We didn’t think she’d make it until morning, but she did. She wheezed, seeping and stinking with an infection that had taken hold in what seemed like mere hours. She kicked a couple of times, and I had to rearrange her. When I did I felt the horrible, stark ridge of her spine and her twisted, jutting shoulder; I saw her face, whose features (eyes, nose, lips, jaw) had all warped to such an extent that they seemed to have migrated. But the place behind her ears was unchanged. So were her big back feet.
We made an appointment with the vet for 6 p.m. She died around 3.
“I’m getting used to death,” younger daughter said yesterday. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not sad.”
Oh, Bun. The universe was a little bit softer, with you in it.
And so I arrive again in a part of the first-draft woods I know all too well. The “OH MY GOD HOW IS THIS GOING TO END?” part.
I always assumed that A Telling of Stars would remain an under-the-bed manuscript, destined for reading by my lucky children, and their lucky children, if I was lucky. No one was waiting for me to turn in the manuscript, so it took me six years to write. I had no idea how it would end—but it wasn’t just the ending I didn’t know: it was what would be waiting for my young protagonist from the moment she fled the beach where she’d grown up, and every step she took after that. I knew barely more than she did, for the longest time. But at last I got her across the sea, which had been the only certain thing, for years—and then I finally had to sit down and plan. It took me months to figure out Jaele’s fate. I struggled and fought, filled pages with scribbles and scratchings-out. It took a coffee house concert by a friend of mine to calm me down. Somehow, sitting in the dark, listening to cello and guitar, I started to understand what the ending had to be.
Then came The Silences of Home. This time, in order to get an offer from Penguin, I had to produce a plot synopsis. A detailed one. I remember going a little hysterical on my editor over the phone: “I’ve only written 80 pages! I barely even know what’ll happen on page 81!” She was, as ever, firm but reassuring. “We know you’re capable of finishing a book: just write something. Something plausible. It doesn’t matter if things turn out to be way different.”
I took myself off to the Royal Ontario Museum, mere days before the synopsis was due. I was miraculously kid-less: I’d dropped one daughter at daycare; the other was home with a neighbour. I sat on a bench in the Egyptian exhibit and chewed on my ballpoint pen, staring from a painted frieze to the blank notebook page on my lap. I wasn’t dealing with just one main character, now: I had to figure out arcs and endings for five. Why the hell had I been so ambitious? Why had no one told me that the delight of creating five points of view would result in pen-gnawing paralysis among sarcophagi?
I ended up writing something. Pages and pages of something, in fact. I submitted it, and Penguin made me an offer, and the synopsis got filed somewhere, never to be referred to again. I kept writing the book—a little frenziedly, since this time I had a deadline that was closer to six months than six years. The plethora of POVs continued to thrill me. I continued to have no idea where it was all going. 70,000 words, 80,000 words, 85,000—still no idea, but I’d need to figure it out soon. I whined to family and friends. I jittered and frittered away my precious 1.25 hours of writing time-per-day. The due date was still a couple of months away, but it didn’t matter: I was terrified.
And then one of the friends to whom I’d whined suggested we go see The Return of the King. I’d already seen it, but this didn’t matter: I’d buy myself three hours of escape in Aragorn’s stubble (and subsequent kingly beard, which never did do it for me as much).
In fact, what it ended up buying me was clarity. Because I’d seen it, I didn’t need to focus—and yet, even as I wasn’t focusing, I was awash in multiple points of view and sweeping vistas and a story that was ending. I sat in that theatre, and my own five strands started to knit. It wasn’t an epiphany (not an on-the-spot Erin sweater), but it was enough. I left there, once Sam Gamgee’s round door had closed, and I went home and made a chart of possibilities, and very quickly I narrowed these down, and in the end I handed the book in two months ahead of deadline. (The ending, by the way, looked nothing like the one I’d cobbled together at the museum.)
The Pattern Scars marked a return to my first-novel non-method: “Oooh! Here’s an idea; here are some images; just start writing!” Two years later, at 95,000 words, I was still in familiar territory: “OH MY GOD HOW IS THIS GOING TO END?”
This time I didn’t go to a movie: I went to Rivendell. True, there was a certain Tolkienian consistency there—but this Rivendell was a house in Prince Edward County, Ontario. A house inhabited by two beloved friends; a house backed by woods (and a Gandalf carving!), and a pond (frogs!) and high pasture (tiny white snails!). I’d paced the fern-thick forest paths in previous years, trying to come up with a beginning; now I went in search of an ending. And, at some point between the paths and the martinis, between sunlight and dark, I found two. I made a chart. “Nola lives” was one column. “Nola dies” was the other. I sat cross-legged on the bed, while hummingbirds dive-bombed the feeders above the porch and tree shadows lengthened on the road up to the house. I figured it out. This wasn’t an epiphany, either; it was months of conscious and sub-conscious wondering (/fretting), finally easing into certainty. Not that that made it any less fantastic.
The Door in the Mountain, which will be out in April, is volume one of two—so while the book ends, the story doesn’t. And that’s what I’m into now: the actual ending. You’d think that, because I plundered a myth this time ’round, there’d be at least one clear way to wrap things up—but nooooo. The due date’s still a few months away, but that doesn’t matter: I’m terrified. It’s a stupid kind of terror, since I’ve been here three times before, and there’s always been a catalyst ex machina. I have to trust this scattered process of mine. And yet.
The sounds of cello and guitar in a darkened café; a movie theatre; a house in the country. No pressure, process, but what’ll it be this time?
Hawthorne, Nebraska probably reminded moviegoers from all over North America of Fill-in-the-Blanksville. It reminded me of Essex, Ontario. The single road that crosses railroad tracks and passes some silos and a water tower before it becomes, briefly, Main Street, then reverts again to a numbered route that runs straight through flat farmland. Main Street, with its tavern, its Family Restaurant (Chinese-Canadian, perhaps), its grocery store and hardware store and liquor store and drug store. In gridded squares off Main Street, the houses, with their cushioned chairs that rock but don’t recline; their floral-print couches draped carefully, back and arms, with crocheted doilies; their decorative wooden cabinets filled with tiny, collectible spoons, and glass bowls filled with gritty, plastic fruit. The houses, with their old people. They’ve known each other for decades and decades, these old people, and they have names that no one has now (Weltha, Cecil, Nelda, Betty, Delmar). They don’t seem to talk about anything except the weather (all of them), cars (the men), and who’s doing poorly (the women, stage-whispery and head-shaky). They ask their visitors half-hearted questions about life in the Big City and make vaguely disapproving noises at the answers. They don’t change, but you do: every time you show up, at Christmas or in July, they exclaim at how much taller you are and say you must know, now, what you want to be when you grow up. (I started answering “a writer” when I was about 10. My Essex grandmother always replied, smugly, “Oh, you’ll change your mind.” At which point I always thought, indignantly, “Why even bother asking?”)
I remember being shocked whenever I saw another child, in Essex—because surely there couldn’t be children there; it was a small, colourless place whose children must have all grown up and moved away long ago, as my father had. It was a place where old folks died, all the time; I knew this for certain because my grandmother took me to funeral visitations, some for people she didn’t even know. But lo: there were children, both in town and living on the dusty-looking farms outside of it. I could tell because some of the houses there had toys in their yards: trampolines, wading pools, swing sets.
A few weeks ago, at around the same time Peter and I saw Nebraska, we started watching Six Feet Under. I caught the first season-and-a-bit when it originally aired, but we’re now well into season three, and un-viewed territory, for me. Strands of movie, show and Essex County are now weaving (possibly knotting) in my head.
In the Fisher house, as in those funeral parlours in Essex, and, inevitably, in Hawthorne, there are old, freshly coiffed people in coffins, and there are kids who’ve grown up and come home again, even if only briefly, to floral-print couches and meatloaf and possibly Jell-O salads with pineapple and mini marshmallows in it (and, in my grandmother’s case, shredded iceberg lettuce underneath, smeared with Thousand Island dressing). (Seriously.)
Sometimes the deceased in Six Feet Under have left particular instructions for the clothes they’ll wear, in their open caskets. Sometimes they haven’t, and it’s their children or spouses who care desperately about (even fight over) the clothing, the earrings, the hair. I’ve never thought of myself as someone who’d care even a little about such things. And as for open caskets—ew. But then my grandmother died. And when I looked down into her open casket, at her adeptly made-up face, her thin but well-coiffed hair, her floral-print dress, I took myself utterly aback by crying. And there was the crowd, too—the many, many people who filed up to us and took our hands and told us what a fine, stern, impressive woman she’d been.
“She would have loved this,” we said to each other, all wobbly and laughing. “God, how she would have loved this.” (Though not that particular use of “God”, which, when we were kids, would have made her snap our names and then purse her lips. But here’s a poignant, fascinating thing: when she got dementia, she went back—waaay back, to a time before she’d been Born Again. For the last few years of her life she was gentle and smiled a lot and never, ever mentioned Jesus.)
The only thing missing, in her coffin, was the giant handbag.
Afterward we followed Main Street out of town until it turned back into a number, running straight through flat farmland. Kilometers later, in Cottam Baptist Church, we wobbled and laughed all over again—because there, arrayed in rows on a couple of long tables, were bowls and bowls of Jell-O salad: green, red, and orange Jell-O, studded with maraschino cherries, pineapple, mini marshmallows, slimy halved grapes and tiny cubes of Granny Smith apple.
Hawthorne, Nebraska. Essex, Ontario. Open caskets. Old people with old-people names: Weltha, Cecil, Nelda, Betty, Delmar.
The girl strides down the hall, her knapsack slung over one shoulder. It’s a full knapsack, and it drags her back down into an odd, Quasimodo-ish shape, but she doesn’t care: one-shouldered is the only way to do this. She strides. She knows where she’s going—locker to math wing to 3rd floor English class to basement weight room to locker to cafeteria to music room to locker to back field. She imagines one long tracking shot, capturing every step. She thinks, “None of this will be important, someday, but I want to remember every second of it.” She’s a romantic realist, and she plays the trombone, and she loves high school. Even the hunkering down outside the gym, waiting for the surge that will signify open doors and imminent exam. Even the tests, the essays—the things that make her sit cross-legged on her bed (to her mother’s chagrin), flipping textbook pages and writing line after line on three-ring binder paper. Especially the grade 9 Latin class in which she works on her novel (on three-ring binder paper) when she’s finished with Sextus (puer temerarius!) and Flavia and their dog Latrax (Latrax latrat!). Her Latin teacher walks up and down the rows; she sees the girl writing words that are, at best, Latin cognates, and she smiles. It’s OK. It’s good. The girl writes stories and novels and does homework and plays trombone and sits with her friends outside the music room doors; she reads Shakespeare and Golding and Sartre and masters, briefly, the arcane hieroglyphs of trigonometry, before she burns her math notes and pitches the remnants into a garbage can on the back field, having dropped this nemesis of a subject forever. She dissects no frogs or fetal pigs, having dropped science before this became necessary. She is happy in a way that she knows people (maybe even she) will roll their eyes at, in the not-too-far future. She longs for that tracking shot; for an image of her navigating, striding, going places.
I just got back from parent-teacher night at my daughter’s high school. And by “got back from,” I mean “hightailed it from said high school to a fabulous gastropub a few blocks north and west of there.”
Parents shouldn’t be disingenuous or precious or otherwise deny-y: evenings like this one really are as much about parents as they are about their children. It’s just another level of navigation—and I wish there were a tracking shot for this, too. Me, following my kid through the hallways she knows. The lockers. The cafeteria. My kid saying, “It’s so weird being here at night”; me remembering having had the very same thought (and wondering, now, what my parents were thinking, when they followed me). The things that were mine, the things that are hers, right this moment—some that match; others that don’t.
And that’s OK. It’s good.
My sister and I decided this, the other day: reading Wolf Hall is just like watching Game of Thrones. So many names; so many places; a world that’s impossibly evocative, while also being utterly confounding. Granted, I’m not all that smart when it comes to anything Epic. Fair warning, future students o’mine: if you’re writers of sagas, I will scrupulously line edit them, and I will say things like, “I think you should put a section break here, and use italicized present tense for the magic” or “This part is slow”—but I will never say, “I’m wondering why the genesis of the feud between the Houses of Sokartates and Teliae is attributed, on p. 382 of volume I, to the perfidy of the forty-third Viscount while in Ullnaria, whereas Teleonides III says, on p. 740 of volume II, that it all started at the Rock of the Lesser Seer, fully a generation earlier.” Nope. I won’t catch anything like that. I process political intrigue the way I used to figure out algebraic equations—which is to say, not at all.
Anyway. Wolf Hall and Game of Thrones.
The imagery of the latter keeps me vaguely grounded. The desert: ah, it must be Daenerys. A dungeon, and implements of torture: oh, it’s that wan young man who beheaded the old guy in Winterfell (for I recognize Winterfell, always), and I have no idea where this torture chamber is (but then again, neither might the wan young man), and I forget his name, but yeah: he’s that guy. I’m always both treading water and letting myself sink; I surrender to the not-getting-it, even as I rue it. (In fact, this puts me in mind of reading novels in Spanish…but that’s a cuenta for another time.)
Wolf Hall‘s images are all on the page, but they’re just as vivid as the HBO ones. Wolf Hall‘s world is imagined but not made up: it’s 16th century London; it’s Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and baby Elizabeth: names I know, events I recognize, in a smooth-edged kind of way. Yet I’m still a little lost. People have names and also titles; Thomas Cromwell, the point-of-view character, is almost always simply “he”, surrounded by countless other “he”s. All those archbishops and foreign-yet-related royal types. The Lutheran heretics. The estates and palaces, the Tower and the barges. It’s all a wonderful, dizzy blur.
When I’m treading water, I cling to character and scene. There’s much to cling to, in this book: moments of unbearable poignancy, amongst the intrigue; moments made more poignant because the narrative voice is so poised and cool. It’s a carefully constructed paradox, which, in lesser authorial hands, would irritate me. But Mantel makes it work. I surrender.
Also, I think a lot about pain and waiting.
The story of Henry VIII and his wives is one I internalized so long ago that discovering it again, in Mantel’s hands, is an epiphany: simultaneous dramatic irony and discovery. I was a teenager when first I internalized; now I’m not, and I’ve had two children. Anne Boleyn is pregnant, and everyone knows it’s a boy—there’s no way it couldn’t be, given the blessedness of the union—and nine months go by, and the reader writhes and revels, waiting. I waited, twice. I chose not to avail myself of the ultrasound technology which would have had Anne cast off well before Elizabeth emerged—and when my own daughters emerged, there was only joy. I try to imagine what Anne’s pregnancies must have been like. All the prayers and invocations; the certainty of king, courtiers, priests, and maybe herself, because everything depended on those first few seconds; that first glimpse of the slippery, pinkening baby. (Of course, Elizabeth had the last, ruffle-collared laugh.)
And then there’s the pain. Implicitly, the pain of birth; explicitly, the agony of death. An old woman burned. A young man burned. Thomas Cromwell the quiet, aching observer. And although I’ve read about such deaths countless times before, it was this quiet voice that truly brought them home to me.
I might not understand the nuances. I might flounder in the Epic swells. But when Daenerys’ dragons fly; when the boy Thomas gathers greasy bone from burned-out fire, and the baby Elizabeth squalls at her mother’s feet—I get it. I surrender.
A couple of weeks ago, the wondrous Erik Mohr did several cover mock-ups for me—all of which made their way to me for comment. One was utterly, immediately right; another was absolutely lovely. The resounding first choice was nixed, utterly and immediately, because it wasn’t Young Adult enough. For those of you who might not understand what that means, take a look at this blog entry. What you’ll see is photo-realistic bodies and body parts, plus a whole lot of indigos and turquoises.
So: no to Erik’s fresco cover, which I adored. On to the purely lovely choice, which was a landscape: a mountain-with-lightning-bolt, a meadow, a winding stream (see previous post). “Huzzah!” Chizine and I exclaimed, both aloud and on Facebook. “This is it!”
Except that it wasn’t, because this cover was, according to yet more YA experts, “too static.” We needed a figure, and tauter font arrangement. I, who had just thrown the cover online, felt both chagrined and panicked. After about three minutes, I fastened on the only thing of which I was certain: the figure had to be my Minotaur. (In fact, I was certain of another thing: Erik.)
A week later, here the Minotaur is, in front of the mountain-with-lightning-bolt. He’s a figure, all right. His body parts are teenage boy and bull; he has verdigris on his head (and I LOVE this: it evokes the ancient agelessness of Knossos); he’s crouched, half-shifted, in an attitude that would be all coiled aggression if it weren’t for his slightly lowered muzzle. He’s my Asterion, and I’m so glad that those experts led us to him.
Asterion was standing before the double-axe pillar. He was naked and glistening with oil; he looked like a golden creature that had just pulled itself out of the sea. A priestess was kneeling before him, holding up a lamp. He lifted his hands. Chara bit her lower lip; she always did, at this point in the rite, because the first time she had seen it she had gasped, and the queen had glanced over at her. He passed his hands slowly through the shuddering tip of the flame. He did not flinch. Just this one pass was enough: he fell forward onto his hands and knees and changed, swiftly and silently, as the priestesses poured libations on the stone around him. He stamped his hoofs and his heavy head swung back and forth on his neck…
“I know,” said my writing student yesterday, “that you’re not supposed to throw prophecies in at the beginning of a book. But I have. Three of them, in fact. I couldn’t help it!” (They are, in fact, perfectly acceptable prophecies, and it’s a truly remarkable book.)
And as we sat there in pre-rain heat, on the “patio” of a Starbucks, with cars, dogs, people and bikes passing by mere inches from our table, I thought of another August, and another novel that began with a prophecy. (A prophecy within a prologue—and there are those who insist that prologues, too, should be banned. I have no shame.)
The August was 1987’s; the book was Rowansong.
For the second summer in a row, my parents and sister had gone off to Nova Scotia, leaving me in charge of house, lawn and cat. Things weren’t going well. My boyfriend and I had broken up, and I wasn’t feeling nearly as sanguine about this as I had a month before. The novel I was writing (yes: Rowansong) had, since the breakup, refused to be written. There were patches of yellow appearing on front and back lawns at an alarming rate, despite the fact that I soaked them unto quagmire with the sprinkler. I’d had some people over, and one of them had nearly set my kitchen on fire with flaming sambuca. And then, just when I thought I couldn’t pity myself any more, I got fired.
I was a City of Toronto Parks and Recreation employee, which meant that I’d spent the summer acquiring an unwontedly spectacular tan whilst standing by a wading pool. I was also supposed to run programs for the kids who came every day, and I’d been totally prepared to do this—but the kids turned out to be between the ages of 12 and 14, not 5 and 7, as I’d been led to expect. They didn’t want to play duck-duck-goose or make collages with bits of lace and dried pasta. These were mouthy, hilarious, sweet, smart people, the oldest of whom was a mere three years younger than I was, and when I wasn’t standing by the wading pool, we hung out. My supervisor didn’t like this at all, and she didn’t like them, and they really didn’t like her.
While it did occur to me that my supervisor might not be all that fond of me either, I wasn’t prepared for the super-supervisor’s visit to the park, in the almost-last week of August. I was, of course, standing by the pool. He cleared his throat. He told me I was fired. He said my supervisor had complained that I had been late on multiple occasions (which was absolutely untrue), and said that the Parks & Rec management team wanted, via my firing, to let other employees know that it wasn’t too late in the summer for them to be fired (which was just plain idiotic).
I went back to my empty house. So did the kids from the park. For five days they arrived promptly at 9, throwing their bikes onto the yellowing front lawn, charging around the place with the wooden sword I’d gotten from my “When Knighthood Was in Flower” enrichment course a few years before. We made peanut butter cookies. We lay on our backs on the stupid dying grass. They found my grade 6 diary and howled with laughter as they read bits of it aloud.
And then, as one, they stopped coming—cottages; a last week of sleepover camp—and I was alone. So self-pityingly, echoingly alone, despite the furry, kneading presence of Merlyn the cat.
I called my grandparents and cried a little. They commanded me to come to Stratford to stay with them; I bought a train ticket. The night before I left, I called my ex-boyfriend, who came over. By the time I’d packed the binder containing the handwritten pages of Rowansong and sat myself down on the train, I was already feeling a whole lot better.
That week was magic. There was the small matter of my parents’ panic—for I’d neglected to inform them that I’d be going to Stratford, and by the time they phoned my grandparents (having phoned our house over and over for days), they were out of their heads and probably about to call the police. Other than that, though: magic. I ate breakfast at the round table in the kitchen. My grandfather and I walked down to the river as we had since I was little, carrying bags of bread for the swans, who were gorgeous and greedy and ungrateful. I spent some afternoons with my grandmother at the art gallery where she volunteered. And in between, I went to the island—or, more accurately, the islette (a made-up word which, I hope, reflects the need for an additional diminutive form). It was the tiniest lump of land ever known to islettedom: it had a couple of trees, some grass and flowers, a graceful wooden bridge connecting it to the shore (to which I could have walked, had I had rubber boots), and, most importantly, a low, flat rock. I sat on this rock every day, with my gigantic binder open on my lap, pen in hand. I filled up three-ringed page after three-ringed page. After two months of stasis (“Two months!” the older me scoffs. “Just wait for the drought of 2004-2007!”), the ink was flowing. And it was the most wonderful synthesis: the golden-green, grandparent-warm space of Stratford; the boyfriend reunion; the kids who’d followed me into exile.
And the kids were on those three-ring pages. Oh, yes.
Kella awoke at dawn the next morning. The first thing she heard was Trillany’s voice.
“She’ll be angry that we followed her – maybe we should leave.”
“Certainly not,” came Doric’s voice. “This was my idea, anyway: we’ll stay with her.”
“Your idea?” demanded an incredulous Blaine. “Yours? Little brother, you’re deluded.”
“Now see here,” Doric retorted hotly, “I don’t know what that means, but – ”
“Shut up!” hissed Jemm. “You’ll wake her with your quarreling.”
Kella decided that she had heard enough and sat up, opening her eyes. “I’m awake already, thank you Jemm.” He hid behind his hair, while Doric looked decidedly uncomfortable. Blaine grinned and said, “This was actually Jemm’s idea, as you could probably guess. Doric’s trying to get all the credit, as usual.”
“Credit?” Kella demanded. “I wouldn’t accept credit for something like this! This is my journey – you can’t come with me.”
Trillany looked triumphantly at Doric, who stammered, “But you’re blind, and we can help you…” He withered under Kella’s glare, which, for a blind person, was quite direct.
“You know I don’t need help, and I won’t take it. Go home: your parents will be worried.”
There was an awkward silence. “Actually,” Jemm admitted, “they don’t expect us back for a few days. We guessed when you’d be going and said that you were…”
“Yes?” she snapped, and he looked defiantly at her from beneath his hair.
“We said you were taking us to my hill for a few nights. I told father that you probably forgot to mention it to him.”
Kella was relieved. “He knew you were lying.”
“Probably,” Jemm replied, “but he didn’t say anything.”
“Most likely because he hoped that this witch would frighten some sense into your heads!” Kella stormed, rising and beginning to stride up the trail. Trillany reached her first.
“Kella, we’ll let you see the witch alone. Only let us come with you to the cave. Then we promise to leave.”
And so it was that five people instead of one went up the path as the sun climbed higher in the sky.
(Don’t ask. Don’t ask how Kella could be blind but also the third-person-omniscient POV character who can somehow see that Jemm’s blowing at his hair and Blaine’s grinning. That’s not important.) (I was barely 17, OK?)
I went home to a changed world. Love: restored. Lawn: not dead, just ailing (chinch bugs). House: intact. Cat: sullen but not full of hate. Book: back on track. Parents and sister: as happy to see me as I, strangely-but-not, was to see them.
The last week of August, 1987. Thank you, o thrice-prophetic student of mine, for making me think of it.
Rowansong will have the last (and first) word.
There is a harp, standing alone in a cold stone room. Sorsillis’ Harp it is called, after the woman who crafted it. Its rowan wood is lined with age, and coursing with power long-stilled. The silver strings are silent: no hand for centuries has been able to wake the power. So Sorsillis had willed.
There are runes carved in the wood. They twine around the frame to the scrollwork at the top, where, suddenly, they stop. At one time – unknown Cycles ago – the runes continued serpentine to the ruby set in the center of the scrollwork. Now they have faded into virtual non-existence – mere scratches, indiscernible figures. Forgotten prophecies.
A white-haired woman slips into the room, closes the door softly behind her. She stands before the pedestal on which Sorsillis’ Harp rests, gazing at it with familiar desire. Her hands do not go to the strings: she knows she is not the one to break the silence. She hoped, long ago. But no longer. Now her fingers reach for the runes that are still decipherable; she touches them lightly, reading them with her eyes closed. Her lips form the words as her fingertips skim to the scrollwork. There they still, resting on the scratches. Her eyes open, and her hand falls away from the harp.
She leaves without looking back.
There will be many:
one for birth
one for forgiveness
one for salvation
one for Beyond.
There will be Three:
one for tears
one for hope
the last for sightless vision.
In the sleeping land will their meeting lie
where darkest caverns burn brighter than a thousand suns…
As a doula, I see new parents who, while they’ll admit to knowing almost nothing about babies, are also filled with certainty. One couple’s infant is sleeping through the night. Another’s doesn’t sleep at all unless he’s in the Sobey’s produce section. Even though, at some level, they know better, both sets of parents are sure that this is the pattern that’s in place for the duration, be it soul-crushing or delightful. As a writing instructor, I see students who are just as certain: This is how I write. This is never going to change. Now, while the author may have more control over his or her writing process than the parent has over the small, squalling life form, I’ve been both, and there’s a common thread: Whether you’re smug or resigned, contented or anxious, you can’t get too comfortable, and you shouldn’t ever capitalize The Way Things Are.
Until 2011, I wrote longhand. When other writers found this out, many would make dismissive hand gestures, roll their eyes and say something like, “You’ll change that.” Still others would get defensive: “Please tell me you’re not one of those writers who think there’s some mystical bond between your hand and the paper.” To the first comment I’d say (defensively), “I really don’t think so—and anyway, it doesn’t matter how you write”; to the second, “No—it’s just a functional thing; it’s how I work best.” And it was, for years and years.
I could write anywhere; all I needed was a pen and a notebook, or a napkin, a coaster, a grocery receipt (most of my bursts of inspiration were conveniently brief). I chose my notebooks and pens with an almost fetishistic fervour that sort of belied my insistence on the lack of a mystical element to the process. I did some quiet gloating while writer friends crawled around under café tables, looking for power outlets. And this quiet gloating did some more belying. Yes, I wrote longhand, and yes, I did think it made me a little bit better and cooler than the other kids.
Some of these other kids didn’t simply write on laptops: they wrote OUT OF ORDER. One characteristic of my longhand process was its linearity. I couldn’t jump around in the narrative without requiring multiple books, or colour coding, tables of contents, explanatory notes that would end up being longer than the actual story. So I started at the beginning and stayed firmly on course, chronologically. This meant that I’d sometimes spend weeks or even months not writing, as I was trying to figure out what came next. There might be an image in my head—a moment that I knew would take place another fifty or hundred pages in—but I wouldn’t write it. Not allowed, according to Sweet’s Longhand Code.
Three years ago, I was struggling with a new idea, scribbling notes in a book that didn’t feel quite right (too big, with pages that ripped too easily away from the spiral binding). I’d retired my Pattern Scars pen (because, as every fetishistic longhander knows, each book requires a new pen), and none of the ones I was test-driving was doing it for me. At the same time, my ancient-in-technological-terms iMac, after displaying some increasingly strident warnings, was unable to do anything except turn on and off—and sometimes not even that.
So I got myself a MacBook Air, and everything changed. Not right away, mind you. At first I kept scribbling in the sub-par notebook, struggling with scenes that weren’t coming together. I typed some notes and saved them on my laptop. One “Writing Thursday” at the pub, I went from typing notes to typing a paragraph of actual story. It wasn’t terrible. I kept writing the scene longhand the next day and was irritated when it didn’t flow as I’d expected it to. I returned to the laptop. That scene was followed by another, and another. No way, I thought. Nope—this isn’t how I work. So how dare it be working?
I got stuck. Longhand didn’t help. The laptop didn’t help. Jump ahead, a new, seductive inner voice whispered. You know there’s going to be a scene in a cave, with Minos, Daedalus, Icarus, Ariadne…you can see it now. So write it now.
I did write it—it, and another couple of scenes that came well before and well after it. I typed these scenes and then spent nearly eight months filling in the ones that led to them, all aflutter that I was being so risqué, so heedless of what I’d always considered to be my modus operandi.
I’m writing the sequel now, entirely on my laptop, entirely out of sequence. I haven’t made a longhand note in months. I crawl around under café tables, looking for a power outlet, and I can’t believe that I’m doing this; meanwhile, I also can’t believe that I wrote a book entirely on the streetcar, in a series of Miquelrius notebooks, with a red plastic pen, blue ink, medium fine tip. Both processes seem mysterious (if not mystical). The transition from one to the other is humbling because I can’t really explain it. The fact that I can’t be sure that this latest phase will endure is both unsettling and exciting—kind of like that moment in the middle of the night when you’re awake and your baby, who hasn’t stayed quiet for two hours in a row in its entire four-week-long life, isn’t, and you think, “Oh my god: what is this new state, and can it possibly last…?”