Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Category: Prose (page 1 of 2)

Learning From All the Genres

In honor of upcoming NaNoWriMo, I’m here as your friendly neighborhood multi-genre writer to remind you that your fiction can benefit greatly from studying multiple genres.

 

What can a fiction writer learn from poetry?

Why the beginnings and ends of things matter

How identity affects your voice, your expression, and your world

Meter, musicality, rhythm

How to use imagery like you would a scalpel, or a needle, or a broom

 

What can a fiction writer learn from screenwriting?

Story structure (mythic structure)

How to follow an image or symbolic prop through a story

Thematic through-lines, the “spine” of story

How to incorporate complex world building without excess exposition

 

What can a fiction writer learn from comics?

Story structure: manga in particular often uses kishotenketsu

How to manipulate time

Isolating the important moments of a story/doing scene breakdowns

Character design: how physicality of characters can connect to their personalities/arcs

Innovative idea generation

 

What can a fiction writer learn from nonfiction?

Figure out where the narrative structure is in a nonfiction book. There is one. That is why nonfiction books are interesting.

Then go read Mary Rufle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey and have some feelings. Okay? Okay.

 

Study Questions, In Light of Recent Events

One of the things that makes fairy tales last is that they provide a dark mirror to the world. I invite you to examine this short Grimm tale. Please consider the study questions following the text.

 

Herr Korbes

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

translation by D.L. Ashliman

Once upon a time there were a rooster and a hen who wanted to take a journey together. So the rooster built a handsome carriage with four red wheels, and hitched four mice to it. The hen climbed aboard with the rooster, and they drove away together.

Not long afterward they met a cat, who said, “Where are you going?”

The rooster answered, “We’re on our way to Herr Korbes’s house.”

“Take me with you,” said the cat.

The rooster answered, “Gladly. Climb on behind, so you won’t fall off the front. Be careful not to get my red wheels dirty. Roll, wheels. Whistle, mice. We’re on our way to Herr Korbes’s house.”

Then a millstone came along, then an egg, then a duck, then a pin, and finally a needle. They all climbed aboard the carriage and rode with them.

But when they arrived at Herr Korbes’s house, he was not there. The mice pulled the carriage into the barn. The hen and the rooster flew onto a pole. The cat sat down in the fireplace and the duck in the water bucket. The egg rolled itself up in a towel. The pin stuck itself into a chair cushion. The needle jumped onto the bed in the middle of the pillow. The millstone lay down above the door.

Then Herr Korbes came home. He went to the fireplace, wanting to make a fire, and the cat threw ashes into his face. He ran quickly into the kitchen to wash himself, and the duck splashed water into his face. He wanted to dry himself off with the towel, but the egg rolled against him, broke, and glued his eyes shut. Wanting to rest, he sat down in the chair, and the pin pricked him. He fell into a rage and threw himself onto his bed, but when he laid his head on the pillow, the needle pricked him, causing him to scream and run out of the house. As he ran through the front door the millstone jumped down and struck him dead.

Herr Korbes must have been a very wicked man.

Study Questions

  1. What would have happened if the cat had never jumped on the bandwagon?
  2. Where were the rooster and the hen during the murder?
  3. What happens after the story? Were the rooster, the hen, the mice, the cart, the cat, the duck, the egg, the needle, the pin, the millstone, were they prosecuted?
  4. If a grand jury were to put the millstone on trial, would it be acquitted? If so, would that be because the millstone is a millstone, or Herr Korbes is Herr Korbes?
  5. If the whole incident was caught on video tape, would that make a difference?
  6. What did the egg say, later, on social media? Would it moan to its Facebook friends about how it, too, was broken during the incident?
  7. Why were the wheels of the cart red?
  8. What would have happened if Herr Korbes had been home? Would his life have been spared if he had known his place?
  9. The final line was added in the third edition of the Grimm tales, in 1837. How does that line change the story?
  10. Are you the hen, the rooster, the mice, the cart, the cat, the duck, the egg, the pin, the needle, Herr Korbes, or the Grimm brothers, adding the final line?
  11. What if you are a millstone, what then? What if are were a cat? What can you do differently next time?
  12. What if you look like Herr Korbes? What if your children and parents and aunties and uncles and cousins all look like Herr Korbes? How do you feel? How do you feel about millstones?
  13. Must Herr Korbes have been a very wicked man? Does that justify his death?

Postcards from Eula

In the following, some of the dates and details may be inexact. Consider this account first and foremost a personal recollection from the inside of my own damn head. If my family is reading this, feel free to fill in the fiddly bits in the comments.

postcard circa 1911: "A Cheerful Christmas to You"

A few nights ago, a crash on my porch signaled the Postal Service’s delicate ministrations, and I opened the door to find a cardboard box marked “fragile” on my porch. It was from my aunt, my mother’s big sister. When my brother and I were kids, my aunt would be the one who gave us squirt guns and candy cigarettes, and other naughty-but-not-explicitly-bad things. So, I was curious to see what my aunt could have sent me now. “This is the strangest wedding gift anyone every got,” she said in her letter. It was a box of my great-great grandmother, Eula Stanbro’s things: post cards, “head of class” awards for spelling and reading from elementary school, Bible trading cards, old ads from magazines, and some needlework. My aunt described it all as “remnants of a short and rather colorless life but one filled with the optimism of the young.”

It’s funny looking at stuff from a century or more ago. Eula Stanbro was born in 1900 and died in 1921; the year on the postcards signifies about how old she was, which I cannot help but think about in terms of years left to live with such a brief life as hers.  Her postcards feel like a puzzle for me to unravel—I go through one piece at a time, trying to work out the people and places in her short life. She was an excellent reader and speller in grade school. She went to school at least through age 11, and most have excelled enough for a friend to ask her on one of the postcards if she was planning on teaching at the Prairieview School, the one-room schoolhouse where my granddaddy was educated, or at least educated at, and where he met my grandmother. He reputedly flirted with her in grad school by sticking a snake in front of her face as she was grinding a pencil.

My grandparents were married on December 25th, Christmas Day in the morning in the early 1940s while my grandfather was home from the Navy.  My grandmother was a court clerk, having been one of the first in her family to seek any kind of post-secondary education, since she went to a little bit of secretarial school. Anyway, legend has it that he asked her to marry him and she went down to the courthouse and wrote out her own marriage license. ‘Course legend also has it that they were married in the living room of the Methodist minister, despite them being Baptist—my mother thinks maybe he was available on Christmas Day. And my grandmother has reported directly that she wore a little blue Pendleton suit to her wedding—some of her fancy court clerk cloths. This came up because my mother sent her some pictures of my wedding, and warned her that I wasn’t gonna be in a white dress. Who knew I was actually mimicking my grandmother by getting married in a practical piece of nice, non-white clothing that I can use again.

Postcard: "Good luck to you this Christmas"Eula was married at age fifteen to a seventeen-year-old named Charlie Spears, a hillbilly of inconsistent behavior and ill repute that she apparently had a big crush on. I recall reading one of her letters a few years ago when a different cache of her things was unearthed. You can tell she was really in love.  I do not miss an era in which it was perfectly reasonable to marry your teenage sweetheart while you were still a teenager. It’s interesting trying to figure out Eula’s social life from her postcards. I only have a couple of dozen; some are from her, some are written to her. She corresponds with her grandmother a lot. I have things ranging from when she was in first grade to when she was a teenager. There doesn’t seem to be much from after 1917 or so.  There are vaguely flirty postcards from a man named Robert Bell. Who was he? Was he less of a loser than Charlie Spears? Did my great-grandmother have many suitors? How much of a choice did one even get to make in a place like Prairieview, New Mexico? West Texas and Southeast New Mexico are still bleak country—all short-grass prairie, but now with the Ogalala Aquifer mostly drained. Desperate people, clinging on like topsoil. I have a photo my mother sent me of the founding of Prairieview, New Mexico that I look at when I’m feeling sorry for myself and thinking things are hard: eight or so wagons. Some horses. Maybe a hundred people. No discernible topography to the landscape—no river, no mountains, just the flat dryness of the Llano Estacado.

founding of Prairieview pictureEula died when she was 21 years old, a few weeks after giving birth to my granddaddy, Charles Hickman Spears. She died because of a secondary infection that would have been easily treatable with a course of antibiotics. After Eula died, a motley assortment of relations took care of baby Charles. There was an uncle, who my granddaddy credited with his survival as a young child. There’s a dramatic story of his appendicitis as a little boy, barely older than a baby: he was ridden across West Texas in a horse-drawn cart with a burst appendix. Somehow, my granddaddy survived—he was always a fighter, and matched the dry harshness of the country with equal parts stubborn force of will and humor.  He used to tell a story about when his father was taking care of him (his father whirled in from wherever he’d been off cowboying and took Baby Charles when he was about 18 months old). His father would often leave him home alone for the day with a bottle of warm milk. Once his father forgot to poke a hold in the end of the bottle’s nipple before leaving for the day. When he came home that evening, Little Charles held up the bottle and proudly announced: “I bit the titty off!” That was my grandfather in a nutshell: fierce self-reliance, humorous vulgarity, and good nature in the face of harsh circumstances.

***

Here’s one of Eula’s postcards that makes me wonder:

front of postcard, as described belowback of postcard, as described below

 

Postmark: Quanah, Texas, Sep 20 9PM

Picture: Potter County Court House, Amarillo, Texas.

Writing on back (translated as best I could):

“9-17-15 [could be ’18]

Dear girl: Honey I know you think I’ve treated you mean but I still love you & think of you sweet girls. I spent most of the Summer in Ft. Worth and Denton visiting. Had a splendid trip. What are you girls doing will you go off this Fall? I hope not. Susie entered the C.I.A. college of Denton Sept. 13—Hope she’ll do good in school. Wish you could go to the C.I.A. it’s a fine school. Ruth”

Addressed to: Miss Eula Stanbro, N Mex. Chaver Co.

Writing on front, over sky in picture:

“I will write you all a long letter soon—if you go off this Fall, write me so I know where to write you. I think of you all so often. Wish I could see you. I get homesick for New Mexico sometime. –Write–”

Seven of Words

All of my mistypings today are truer than the words I meant to type.  I tried to type “Seven of Swords,” viz. the Tarot card I pulled when trying to figure out some shape for this blog post to be in. I typed “seven of words.”

I want to write about school shootings. I wrote about them, coincidentally, on Tuesday, before this latest one happened. I type up what I wrote then. I try to type “fact.” I type “face” or “fire.” The facts slide and shift in time: I remember first and last names. I forget whole swaths of time, key details, faces until the moment I see them in a photograph.

Seven of Swords from The Vertigo Tarot

One:

Sixth period English class, April 20th, 1999. For the first of two times in my high school career, the TV comes on automatically, showing the news. Two assailants with guns have opened fire at Columbine High School. They have not yet been identified. The school is surrounded by police and mostly evacuated. The shooters are suspected to be dead. The kids in class react with something like a bemused disdain: there are a few mocking comments about footage of a boy who is in tears, looking for his girlfriend. We have been trained to take nothing seriously. We have been trained to think things on TV are not real. It is not real for me until I go home and find my mother crying.

 

Two:

In college I have this friend who went to Columbine. She’s a poet. A year after we meet, she tells me that she dyes her hair blonde because it is actually white. It turned white after the shooting, she says. All in one go. Her senior year she celebrates because it’s growing in blonde again, five full years after the shooting.

 

Three:

I do a lot of crying in AmeriCorps because it’s hard and I have a lot to process. Normally I cry on Friday nights. But I cry on a weekday morning in 2007 when I hear news of the crazed man who took six girls prisoner at Platte Canyon High School. Conifer High School, where I attended, is about halfway between Platte Canyon and Columbine.

 

Four:

At some point I have had the conversation with my brother: Statistically speaking, we are likely to be crazed mass shooters. We are white. We are intelligent. We have been bullied in the past. We are from Jefferson County, Colorado. He is male, so he’s rather more likely than me. But still. Odd to think of how much of the profile I fit. I was in speech and debate. I had arguments with teachers sometimes.

 

Five:

I wrote a longer piece at the Louisa Cafe last Tuesday. It has more of the layers, of the unresolvable memories, laid out like bones in a display case. It’s paleontology, what poet Nikky Finney refers to as the Palentology of Poetry. Tracking the timeline of your life with the timeline of your community with the timeline of your world. Patterns emerge and I don’t know what they mean.

Arapahoe High School is about forty-five minutes from Conifer High School.

 

Six:

The other time the news came on automatically during high school was in calculus class on the morning of September 11th, 2001.

 

Seven:

This is a poem from Jocelyn Heckler’s 2005 chapbook, “The Half-Lit Room”:

The Broom Closet

(in Columbine High School)
The door slams
and it is
too dark
in here.
I am inside
your trench coat
and feel
the lining
close me in.

You hold me tightly:
I listen
to heavy breathing
and feel
you turn cold steel,
hard
and clenched
like a gun barrel
I’ve been in here
for hours.

When your coat
finally opens and
I step into the long
stretch of hallway,
all I see
are shoes.
I wonder where
all the people
who belong
inside of them are.
And where are you?
And why can’t
I hear
you breathe?

Revision Workshop One

Dear Internet,

 

Today I thought I’d try something a little different. I’m going to post a piece that I’ve been working on in a class via The Living Room Workshops in Seattle. I don’t usually post my own fiction on this blog because that greatly limits its publishability later. However, I not only have no particular plans for this piece, but I wanted to do a public revision exercise so y’all could see my process of revision and perhaps reflect on your own.

Today I’m posting a slightly picked-over first draft of an amorphous essay thing. I added a bit of length to what originally shot out of my pen because I wanted to turn in a nice 500 words or so. I will get feedback from my class on Tuesday; feel free to post in the comments your feedback as well. Next week, I’ll post a revised version and talk about what/why/how I changed the piece.

That’s the plan. Take it away, writing:

The Long, Slow Death of Zombie Fruit

IMG_0272

I filled the one-quart Mason jar with barely ripe halves of plums on an August afternoon. Covered them with simple syrup. Sealed the jar. Put it on a shelf. Imagined winter, eating it in the depths of late November when I was desperate to remember the summer sun.

I think I never felt my desperation was adequate enough to unseal a jar—as if the pop of the lid would signal defeat: White flag! I’ve been brought low by you, winter. This eternal squash soup is not enough to see me through. But I never surrendered, and the plums stayed in their jar, sealed, on the pantry shelf.

Five years and eleven roommates later, the jar stayed in its place, in the cupboard next to the jar of pickled beets someone once gave me, taking up space. The syrup slowly turning from bright red to a darker stain, like old blood. The half-plums taking on the cast of organs pickled in formaldehyde—the appendix in a jar proudly brought to elementary school.

The plums were no longer food, not fruit any more but a symbol of never quite being desperate enough. Inedible except when huddled in a bomb shelter or a bunker during the zombie apocalypse. “Desperate enough” became this increasingly hyperbolic creature. It began by occasionally envisioning having a day with just a few more shouts or tears than today, popping the jar to spoon sweet plums over ice cream at the end of today. Eventually, I would have elaborate, visceral fantasies of being unable to go to work due to massive earthquakes or flooding, and then sitting in my yard, cooking old dried beans on my camp stove and finally eating the plums.

Looking at how the skin of the plums is beginning to peel back from the softening flesh, I can only think of how utterly without hope I would need to be in order to put a piece of that decaying, spongy flesh in my mouth and bite down. If I swallowed, what would I become?

I have to kill the zombie fruit. I, mad doctor who made them, who took natural things and preserved them with artifice and boiling water, am the only one who can do it. I am not Dorian Gray; I cannot pay anyone else to take this body into a bathtub for me and melt it with acid so that none may learn of my indiscretion. I will pour the syrup down the drain. I will put their dead flesh in the compost. I will wash the jar. And I will fill it with something else, something better. Fill it with what’s been done already, perhaps, rather than hope for the future that may never come to pass. I know what sustains me through the winter now, and it is not the promise of desperation. It is practice. I can live off of squash soup and writing. It will be enough to see me through to spring.

New York, I Love You, But You’re Freaking Me Out

Or, a Tale of My Three-Day Trip to New York in only Sounds, Smells, Tastes, and the Occasional Sight

Heat of the Port Authority Bus terminal

Smell of Diesel and old old pavement

Wave of noise outside: people, cars, beeping horns

Rattle of my suitcase for the ten blocks through Times Square to our hotel

Spider-Man cosplayer wandering around Times Square, hissing behind passersby

Wave of air conditioning, ding of the elevator for floor 11

Sitting on the bed, staring out at the window at skyscrapers, no skyline visible, listening to this:

Wave of heat, sticky and humid

Smells of people, sewers, sweaty horses

Taste of pickles and the biggest pile of Reuben I’ve ever seen with tangy sauce

Listening in to the people next to us discuss the staging of Angels in America. (“Then the wing reveal? Okay.”)

Sound of baseball players in Central Park calling each other’s fouls.photo

The sounds of a violin player and a cellist playing in a Central Park tunnel

Smells of grass and people and sewer and piss alternating with some incredibly fragrant tree

 

The “ding” of the elevator audible at night

The beep of the Metro Card machine

The screech of the subway

“Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, Please!”

The cool, temp-and-humidity controlled air of the Met

photo(1)

The clicks and whirrs of people taking pictures of the art

Really mediocre museum salad

Waiting in line for a comedy show, drenched in sudden rain

(Smells like RAIN people sewer dirt metal brick old)

Delicious bagel in the morning, although always with melty American cheese

The plod of our feet on the Manhattan bridge, the vastly louder scream of the subway trains passing by every few minutes.

photo(2)

The taste of Lombardi’s pizza. Actually legit best pizza I’ve had. Something about the sauce, the real Italian sausage.

Heat and sore feet and sweat-soaked clothing.

The clack of pool balls at the Fat Cat.

The burp and purr of the bus to LaGuardia.

Fiction for Poets

So, I was at a poetry class the other day (poetry! I know! It totally happened to me!) and someone there said, “I want to write fiction. How do you start?”

What a damn good question that I don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about.

To my fiction brain, poetry seems to just kind of happen to you, which I realize is a gross oversimplification of poetic craft. Perhaps one must be more calculated going into fiction…which is also a gross oversimplification. Let me try to expand.

Poe and Verne are bestest bros.

With comics by Kate Beaton to help me explain the finer points of craft!

The seeds of fiction can be pretty dang spontaneous. Sometimes fiction starts when characters speak to you; you have a voice or a person that you can’t get out of your head. (Poets go for ecstatic mania, fiction writer for obsessive schizophrenia? Something like that.) Sometimes fiction starts when you hear someone tell a funky anecdote and you go “ohh, there’s a short story there.” Sometimes fiction starts when you have a topic or a place you know you need to write about: Russian mail-order brides, or the Isle of Skye, or the family farm in Texas. Sometimes the seeds of fiction start from a compelling what-if question: What if I had been telekinetic in high school? What if there really IS a global conspiracy to keep the American government under the control of corporations? What if we could share dreams, literally, when sleeping? What if Jesus had been reborn as a gay Mexican boy?

I find freewriting an important place to let that stuff out. Subconscious dribble turns into stories. Sometimes exercises turn into stories. Italo Calvino called the Tarot “a machine for generating stories,” and I often play with Tarot cards while freewriting…but that is another post, to be told another time.

Today, I want to talk about what happens after you have that initial moment of recognition: “Ohh, that’s a story.”

Say you just heard your friend talking about how her mother sent her newspaper clippings about women who got raped or attacked in the mail all through college. No letter. No note. Just these creepy stories. That story instinct buzzes inside you at this, and you want to do something about it, but you’re not sure what.

First: Ditch reality.

A rookie mistake I’ve both committed and seen other folks commit, especially when writing fiction set in this world with nothing supernatural happening: justifying mediocre choices because, the author cries indignantly, “That’s the way it really happened!” This isn’t reality. It’s fiction. What happens in reality doesn’t necessarily make good fiction, and the catharsis of fiction rarely extends to reality. So, give these characters some space to not be your friend and her mom, but to spring from those seeds.

pride and prejudice and monster trucks

Okay, so maybe not like this…

 

Second: What do your characters want?

In our pretend story, we’ve got two main characters so far: mom and daughter. Exploring what they WANT is gonna be fuel for your story. Does the daughter want independence? Maybe she’s annoyed by her mother’s persistent article-sending and does reckless stuff to compensate. Does she want safety? Maybe her mother’s articles secretly terrify her and therefore she is afraid to talk to people or do much of anything. What does mom want? Is she lonely/does she want her daughter back in the house? Does she want safety for her child? Is she afraid her daughter will get raped because of some past trauma in her own life? Is she just really controlling, and if so, why does she want control so bad?

Character want is more obvious, quite frankly, in longer fiction than in shorter fiction. You can track the wants of characters in Pride and Prejudice or The Master and Margarita or Anne of Green Gables pretty well–each novel has a several characters who all WANT something. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy wants Elizabeth. Elizabeth wants Darcy, but also wants independence within her family structure. In The Master and Margarita, Berlioz wants to prove his secular reality to the world; Satan wants to expose people’s selfish idiocy, and Margarita wants love and revenge against those who’ve wronged her lover. (The narrator actually has a direct discussion about what Margarita wants, and says, “Evidently, however, she spoke the truth in saying that she wanted the Master, not the Gothic house, not a private garden, and not money. She loved him. She spoke the truth.”) In Anne of Green Gables, Anne wants a rich, romantic life that lives up to her imagination.

In terms of dramatic structure, distilling your character’s wants can lead you to find something called the Major Dramatic Question. The question that, when it is answered (or decisively not answered,) the story is over. Will Anne find her way? Will The Master and Margarita be happily re-united? Will Satan be foiled? Will Elizabeth and Darcy get married?

Third: What does that want LOOK LIKE?

sleeeeeeves, Marilla!

So, props. I was used to props from theater; you don’t have a prop on stage unless it’s doing something in the scene, and it’s extra bonus points if the prop can be symbolic or hold visual weight: Yorick’s skull, anyone?

Props also apply in fiction: not so symbolically blatant as film or practically chosen as theater, but hey. Oftentimes there are things or people that represent what a character wants.

Take Elizabeth Bennett, for example. She wants independence within her big ol’ family. What does that look like? Marrying Mr. Darcy. Darcy becomes a symbol of Elizabeth’s wants, and a nicely mutable one considering all the times he’s got a giant stick up his ass and Lizzie’s re-calculating if he is the answer to all her problems or not.

Margarita has a prophetic dream in which she sees herself flying over the landscape to a shack where her lover resides; that’s why she’s so eager to use the magic ointment she’s offered to go flying and meet…well, Satan, but it was a nice try. The ointment is tied right into Margarita’s desires, and is a nice concrete object. The dream helps her actions make sense and help us believe she’s acting rationally.

In Anne of Green Gables, Anne freaks right out about puffed sleeves on a dress: a nice, concrete metaphor for that rich romantic life she so desires.

In our hypothetical story, those newspaper clippings are a GREAT prop to play with. Perhaps the mother comes to visit the daughter, who’s hiding out in her dorm room with, like, every article posted on the wall by her bed, and Mom realizes how much she’s freaking out her child. Perhaps the daughter’s final act of rebellion is to NOT open the letter and toss it out or burn it with a cigarette she’s smoking at a sketchy frat party.

Fourth: Why NOW?

Jane Austen Fanfic

Here’s how *not* to do it!

So, that roar of ignition for your story: the moment it begins. In dramatic structure, it’s sometimes called the Passover Question, as in: Why is this night different than any other night? Why is this moment different? There has to be a tipping point that gets things started.

In Pride and Prejudice, the story starts when Bingley moves into Netherfield Park (and the Bennetts hear about it, prompting the daughter-hocking to begin in earnest). In The Master and Margarita, the story begins when Satan, that old catalyst, comes to town. In Anne of Green Gables, the story starts on the day when Anne comes to live with Marilla in Green Gables.

In our story, perhaps it’s the day Mom is finally coming to visit, and the daughter has to hide signs of the lesbian relationship she’s been having with her roommate. Or Mom’s visiting her daughter at college for the first time, and we’ve been following the story from Mom’s POV, and she has aforementioned “oh crap I’m making my daughter a completely paranoid shut-in” moment. Or it’s the night the daughter goes out for the first time and something traumatic does or doesn’t happen. Or it’s the night the daughter is actually attacked at a sketchy frat party and either she gets raped or dissuades her attackers. Maybe she fights off potential rapists and then goes home and rips up all the articles her mom keeps sending. There are all kinds of different stories to choose from here.

 

Jane Austen comics

Also, this happens.

 

A final thought: In the same way that I must read more poetry if I want to write poems (and make it specific: watch videos of slam and/or go to slams if I want to write slam poetry), if you want to write fiction you must read it. Want to write short stories? Read short stories. Want to capture the aesthetic of Russian literature? Read Russian literature. Want to retell fairy tales? Read a lot of freakin’ fairy tales. Read what you want to make, and steal its tricks. As Picasso said, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”

Stop looking at me, Swan.

creep-ass swan

It's thinking about murder RIGHT NOW.

After exhaustive research, I have come to the following conclusion: swans are creep-ass.

I think swans are physically weird. This is a totally personal bias based on me being terrified of geese as a small child. My preschool had a farm right next to it, and geese (and once, a cow) would sometimes escape into the school grounds. Those fuckers were mean and as tall as I was; no way in hell I was gonna get near them. Besides, one bit my teacher, and they don’t even have real teeth, just burning ire. So, I still don’t like long-necked birds of any kind; the way their necks go is creepy. There’s a specific deformity of the finger called the Swan’s Neck.

Other than being physically weird, birds are connected with the souls of the dead, which heads us into questionable territory. Specifically, stories with swans in them tend to take weird, weird turns.

First up: Swan Lake. Swan-obsessed magician makes beautiful girl into swan. Okay, fine. There’s an imprisonment and/or necrophilia metaphor going on there, whatever. (Really: in the ending variation where the princess in condemned to be a swan forever…isn’t that a kind of death?) But the prince? I know he fell in love with the Swan Queen when she turned back into a human. But I think he was a bit of a swan fancier to begin with. Suspicious.

Speaking of swan fanciers, Jove. As in the rehashed Greek Ovid’s Metamorphoses version of Zeus. Now, to begin with, he was a weird dude. He liked to have sex, willing or not, with more or less anything that moved. He had some very weird sex brags (“one time I fucked a pregnant chick so hard she set on fire”; “one time I seduced some hot girl in the form of a cow”). He was like a more heterosexual and less classy version of Jesse Canon from Tominda Adkin’s series Vessel. Anyway, Jove gets his eyes on this girl, Leda. He seduces her (the nice term for “rape”, usually) in the form of a swan, which is weird even by hentai standards. Then apparently they have kids, and some parody of a family life. Family life with birds. Like you do.

leda swan children

Doesn't she look sick of it all?

That brings us to my third piece of Swan Creepass evidence: the tale with many variations known as the Six Swans, the Twelve Brothers, and other titles. It’s about a girl whose brothers are turned into swans for various reasons (Dad wants her to inherit the kingdom; the bros are turned into swans to escape actual death). Her job is to rescue them; the condition is that she must not speak or laugh for seven years, and also make shirts for her brothers out of some odd or unpleasant material (nettles, starwort, depends who you ask). Usually she succeeds, often with the sleeve of one shirt unfinished, so that one brother is left with an arm and a wing for the rest of his life.

I was thinking about this during a workshop about metamorphosis at the Richard Hugo House, and I wrote the following:

 Every Sunday, Laura would go to the shore of the lake to look for her brothers.
The swans at the lake had innate enough trust of her to swin right up, hop out of the water, and eat the chunks of bread she provided them out of a large plastic bag with a twist tie. Sometimes there would be a jogger or a dog and the swans would get spooked and flap out into the vast expanse of water, but most times they’d be bold enough to steal a piece of break right out of her hand.
She bided her time with the nettle shirts. You have to make sure a wild animal really trusts you before trying to wrestle a shirt meant for a human onto it. Besides, making cloth out of dried nettle was hard. The hippies down at the co-op must think she drank more nettle tea than any of several gods. They never said anything, even on weeks when her hands were still red and blotchy with stings. Baking soda was her #2 co-op purchase.
The day came when she had to put the shirts on or give up, be alone forever. The day marked by a red square on her calendar. She took the usual bag of bread and a backpack filled with the nettle shirts. She waited for the swans to come gliding over the water. She scattered bread and opened the sipper to the pack slowly, so as not to startle the birds.
The movement was quick, when she finally dared to do it. Woven nettle held in sweaty fingers, unable to feel the stings any more, a twist of the wrists, up and over the long struggling feathered neck. Wings beating, wind rushing past her face, her eyes, blinding her so that she never saw exactly what happened, if there was some moment that was half feathers and half skin, but in any case she was suddenly holding in her arms Richard, her eldest brother, naked except for the knit shirt made of strung-together dried leaves.
He was gasping for breath with a desperate look in his eyes, muscles under his skin still pulling against her, trying to escape. She released him, tried to not to glance down at his nakedness, and looked into his yees. For a moment her heart dropped; he wasn’t making eye contact and was breathing hard. What if he was still a swan inside his head? What if she’d revived him only to lose him to shock or insanity? She should have brought blankets. She should have brought real clothes. Richard knelt by the edge of the water and threw up noisily. The other swans had scattered.

And so. Swans. The ever-present reminder of death with weird-ass necks.

black swan murder

See? Murder. Told you so.

An exquisite tidbit.

This came out of a blind pass-the-paper exercise I did back in my class with David Wagoner. It’s an exercise a lot like exquisite corpse, except more aimed at prose than poetry.

The structure is to write a male character (pass), a female character (pass), a location (pass), an activity (pass), what he says (pass), what she says (pass), what society says (pass), and the moral of the story.

This was my favorite of the bunch:

Robert Pattinson and Sylvia Plath are at a beachfront resort in Hawaii, holding each other, weeping.
“You’re cheating,” he says.
“That’s right. I’m working on my standup routine.”
We all know this is a foolish idea.
Moral: It’s a huge world.

The Lady Gaga/Captain Hook one was pretty good, too, but instead of posting it I’ll leave it up to your imaginations what those two would do together. Post your ideas. I’m morbidly curious.

Another piece for class

So, in lieu of me writing something new and provocative for my blog, I’m reposting stuff I’m working on for class. Hah! This is a piece in a very different vein than my last; I had a go at personal essay/memoir writing. I got both the letter and this piece workshopped last Tuesday, and I am pumped to revise. The letter needs to be shorter; it’s really a cover letter, and I’ll repost an updated version. This one, they said, needed to be longer…and possibly a suite of poems. Here it is for now!

***

Twelve Years of Saying Goodbye

Twelve: We’re in Alaska, and share a hotel room. I see the backs of my grandmother’s calves for the first time. They are veiny and look like they’ve been through several wars. “When you’re my age, your feet are blocks of wood,” she tells me.

Thirteen: I am in her living room that smells of camellia blossoms. She pulls her thick wool cardigan aside to show her pacemaker to me. It’s a round alien box, visible under her papery skin.

Fourteen: She is sitting on the grassy hillside on the Marin coast, gazing at cormorants and grebes through her spotting scope. The wind tousles her thick gray hair. “I want you to remember her like this,” my dad tells me. And I do.

Fifteen: She stops driving the year I start. She puts her foot on the gas, not the brake, and rams through her garden fence. She’s done after that.

Sixteen: She likes to go birding still, down by the marsh near her house. She’s starting to forget the names of the birds, though.

Seventeen: It’s the last of the yearly visits to her house. She gives me a hat she’s been knitting, wool, her last knitting project. It’s a little too advanced for me—cable knit. I take it anyway. Even if I never finish it, I figure, it’ll be something we both touched.

Eighteen: My father and brother move her out of her house, the house my father grew up in. I’m secretly glad to be busy with college, unable to help. We visit her in the home and she’s a scaled-down version of herself. Our conversations loop on each other.

Nineteen: I think about sending her some calming poetry on tape. Mary Oliver. I think about sending Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, but I don’t want to break her heart. Or mine. I send nothing. I’m afraid of calling her on the phone.

Twenty: We call her on Christmas. She has no idea it’s Christmas. She has good days and bad days, at this point. Christmas is a bad day.

Twenty-one: My mom calls her on her 91st birthday. “Is it my birthday?” she gasps, excited. “I must be one hundred years old today!”

Twenty-two: I think about sending her poetry again, but she can’t use the tape player any more. And she wouldn’t remember it. So I don’t.

Twenty-three: I realize that I haven’t seen her in years, and had better hurry up. My brother and I visit her. She’s moved from the apartment room to a glorified hospital bed. She is so frail; I do not recognize her at first. We talk. It’s a five-minute conversation but she’s lucid enough. “Don’t wait too long to come again,” she says, earnestly, as we’re leaving. Of course, I do.

Twenty-four:  My dad calls to tell me the story: It’s an early morning. She wakes, goes into cardiac arrest, and realizes that she is dying. She welcomes death. I think to myself, it was a blessing that she woke up in order to die. I wished then that I knew how to grieve now that she was actually dead.

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