Holy Wild, story

Storytelling, Magic & Community

I remember the night vividly: As midnight approached, the line of excited fans waiting outside grew so long it wrapped around three city blocks. Those of us who’d made our reservations early were the envy of all, flashing our wristbands as we made our way to the front. Despite the late hour, the crowd was buzzing with excitement, hyperactive nine-year-old boys standing shoulder to shoulder with middle-aged men, giggling teenage girls and angry-young-and-poor twenty-somethings like me and my friends. Lots of folks had come in costume, creatively donning the colors and symbols of their heroes. But for every geek in a wild get-up, there was a lady in mom jeans and practical shoes standing nearby, with a smile just as wide.

This dazzling press of human bodies radiated unchecked and unashamed enthusiasm, transforming the dark urban streets into a spontaneous community block party where everyone was welcome to join in the fun. I found myself marveling at the beauty of how such a simple thing could bring so many people together. In an age of cynicism and self-interest, surely we fans here had discovered something amazing.

Finally, the clock struck midnight, and the bookstore opened.

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It was Harry Potter. What else could it be? But this was no movie theater line — this was the local Barnes & Noble, where people had been pre-ordering Book 6 for months. For the first time in my life, I saw huge crowds gathered in the middle of the night just for the chance to get their hands on a book. Inside, the store had been transformed into a veritable Hogwarts, with festival games set up throughout the aisles where folks could try their hand at bean bag tosses or jelly bean guessing games, or just enjoy the free wizard-themed snacks while showing off their handmade witchy wardrobes. Even at the time, there were critics of J.K. Rowling who bemoaned the popularity of the Harry Potter series, citing it as evidence of the infantilism of modern culture and seeing nothing more than mindless consumerism. But those of us there that night knew otherwise: we understood that there is magic to be found in the telling of a good story.

These days, I see the same enthusiasm and sense of community among those who participate in National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo). This month my local public library’s Twitter feed has been flooded with announcements for write-ins and social gatherings almost daily, where professional writers, starry-eyed teens and soccer moms all get together to hang out, chow down on snack food and… well, write.

How crazy is that? Dozens of people gathered in a room to write together.

Most of us think of writing as a solitary activity — as something that maybe only truly inspired (but always half-starved) artists can do, hunched at their desks with ink-stained shirt cuffs and fingers callused from typing, driving themselves beyond the breaking point (maybe with a cigarette or a beer along the way), wrenching words syllable by syllable from their utmost depths and spilling them onto the page like blood.

I have never liked this image. As someone who takes perhaps unreasonable pleasure in the written word, it always seemed somewhat unfair to me that my particular vocation should condemn me to a life of obscurity and self-torture, while the astrophysicist and the bank manager and the firefighter and the dairy farmer were all allowed to take a certain pride in their work and enjoy the satisfaction of being a vital contributing member of a supportive, grateful community. (Okay, well, maybe not the bank manager. But he got to own more than one pair of shoes.)

There is magic in good storytelling. And in a world that can seem so woefully devoid of magic, we have a tendency to romanticize the writer, the artist, the “creative type” who is in touch with that magic in a deep, visceral way: crafting new realities out of sound and silence, drawing whole landscapes in black-and-white Helvetica. I think there is a part of us that even wants to believe that we could never do that kind of thing. If the writer is a special kind of creature — if his genius comes from inhabiting a cramped and impoverished little world, like an ascetic monk who spends all day on his knees in prayer hoping to earn divine blessings — well, then we can be forgiven for not having the stamina or the stomach for that kind of work, can’t we? I mean, some folks just aren’t cut out to be monks.

But it wasn’t always this way. Sure, there have always been those few bards who, mad with the wandering moon, find themselves stumbling through the wilderness with unkempt hair and the language of beasts on their tongues. But there were also the family gatherings around the hearthfire each evening, when grandmother would weave stories out of smoke and flickering shadows as simply and as surely as she wove bits of much needed yarn into hole-riddled socks. There were the stories father told at bedtime — old favorites about the Good Folk who tortured Old Man Henry down the road for building that fence across their invisible lanes, and new stories invented on a whim to coax the dreams or soothe the fears of sleepy children.

Humans have been telling stories for as long as we’ve been human. We build whole communities around the stories we tell to one another. (As any Harry Potter fan can attest!) Those who are lucky enough to call themselves professional writers have a particular set of skills and an admirable work ethic, but they don’t hold the monopoly on good storytelling. The astrophysicist and the bank manager and the firefighter and the dairy farmer have stories of their own to tell. (Okay, well, maybe not the bank manager.)

Which is why I can’t be anything but gleeful, and grateful, each November when suddenly my community is once again abuzz with stories — stories of all shapes and sizes, stories from old and young, stories that have been carefully researched and plotted for months in advance, alongside stories that go careening from page to page like sugar-injected toddlers with no direction at all, overflowing with the sheer joy of being told.

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Most of the year, I sit at my desk pounding away at the keyboard hoping that at the end of the day I’ve managed to produce something that will speak to somebody, somewhere, someday. It can be a long and lonely process, sending my ink-babies out into the world without even a coat to keep them warm.

But storytelling at its root is a communal activity, something that can be shared by everyone. How wonderful that, once a year, we can return to those roots to find new inspiration and support. NaNoWriMo inspires us because it reminds us that storytelling is not about self-torture or perfectionism or asceticism, let alone popularity or profit. We can reclaim storytelling as basic human nature. We can recapture the creativity and imagination that is our birthright. We can push back against a society that would drain the world of its magic and lock our artists and writers away to toil in half-starved isolation while the rest of us are relegated to the role of mere consumers. We can shout from the rooftops the plain and simple truth of it:

Good storytelling can be as humble as darning socks, and yet as powerful as making fairies out of firelight.

And so, I dedicate this post to all of you out there who have thrown yourselves wholeheartedly into NaNoWriMo this year. Whether it’s your first year or your fifth. Whether you’ve met your word count goals, or you’ve only managed to scribble a few paragraphs in your notebook on the bus on your way to work…. I salute you! You stories matter, and your courage to tell them can change the world.


Photo Credits:
• “Reader,” by Hartwig HKD (CC) [source]
• “My Book,” by Cinzia A. Rizzo (CC) [source]

Featured, Holy Wild, story

It was a dark and stormy night…

This past weekend, I hit the halfway mark for NaNoWriMo‘s 50,000-word goal, and today (if I can meet my word count goal) I’ll break 30,000 words! So to celebrate, I thought I would share an excerpt from the beginning of the manuscript. How do you know it’s steampunk? Steam-powered contraption: check. Rolling fog and gloomy rain: check. Gaslit ballroom: check. Automaton with gears and pocket watch parts: check. Snarky, liberated woman: check. I think I got it all in there in the first 2,000 words. Of course, this is a shitty-first-draft, so I might end up changing it or scrapping it altogether. After all, there are probably better ways to start a book than, “It was a dark and stormy night…” But in any case, here you go; let me know what you think!

Yes, I totally drew this myself! Yes, it could totally function as an actual clock mechanism. (I think.)
For you, dear reader, this world may appear strange indeed, and so allow your careful chronicler the indulgence of taking a moment to set the scene of this evening’s tale, in which so many of the events, not a few of which may prove as wondrous as they are bizarre, shall unfold in their due course.

It is a great house in the country, belonging to the respectable Sir Byrnecock and his Lady wife. No mean house at all, though not untypical as such you would expect among the high society elites of the island. Certainly not so very fine as those palatial residences you might find on the continent, but Sir Byrnecock, having a peerage and more than a bit of wealth at his disposal, does very well for himself and his family besides.

The house sits high on a ridge just north of the city, its long, elaborate facade of ribbed columns and peaked archways facing towards that cluster of lights that are all the marks of civilization on the horizon. Even with the steady rain and fog so common to the area, on evening’s such as this when the winds sweep across the valley moving the mists aside in shifting veils, glimpses of the distant ember glow of urbania can be caught now and then from an upper story window of the great estate. It is perhaps the lingering comfort of Lady Byrnecock on nights when her husband has gone to town for business or traveled to the continent to exercise his duty to the court, to sit in her bedroom late into the night, long after the serving staff have all retired and the household fires have been smoored until morning, and to look out from her window on this wild country landscape and see, at its utmost end, the reassuring signs of industry and progress asserting themselves against the darkness of a rainy eve. Or perhaps, it is her bedroom at the end of the hall, with the heavy brocade curtains drawn back despite the draft, and the windows that look out across the great house’s extensive grounds and gardens giving way eventually to wild heather and moorlands to the east.

It is from the east, now, that something new approaches the Byrnecock estate. Along the thin road bordered by hedgerows that cut across the hillsides come a pair of gaslit headlamps, illuminating with their amber light the slanting rain that dashes down through a plume of rising steam. The hedgerows have been thinned by the season to a tangle of bare limbs and would cast long, haunting shadows of grasping phantasms across the dampened earth if not for the low, dense clouds that so thoroughly blot out the moon. The thin, wide wheels of the carriage spin steadily despite the rain, hardly slipping across the slick track of mud and fallen leaves. There is no sad, sodden beast trotting along mournfully before this carriage, no sound of hoofbeats muffled by the wet autumn litter. Instead, a kind of wide, flat cart and on it, a large cylinder of dark metal that sizzles slightly in the downpour. The hiss and sigh of small pistons pumping a series of nested gears on either side quite drown out the low conversation of the occupants who sit, rigid and poised, casting slim silhouettes on the fogged window panes from the dry interior of the cab.

Should Lady Byrnecock have been in her bedroom this night, even now she might have seen the wavering lights of the carriage as it approached along the road. She might have been put in mind, seeing those two seeming eyes glimmering in the evening’s gray twilight crawling closer and closer over each hill and ridge, of the stories told by the household staff of ghosts and demons that lurk on such nights, beneath a half-hidden harvest moon. Had the Lady been at home alone on such a night, her husband called away to town on some matter more urgent than marital comfort, she might have then drawn closed the curtains and turned her back on heathered countryside and gardens, risking not even a hope to glimpse the city lights, a stiffness to her spine that bespoke a chill deep in the bones, deeper than any draft could stir.

But she was not.

Indeed, there were none in the household who saw the strange carriage approaching.

The Lady of the house herself was far too occupied in the front parlour, an easy smile warming her eyes and laughter urging her cheeks to flush as she stood, one arm linked gracefully with her husband’s, ushering guests here and there and greeting late arrivals with cheerful words of welcome. It had been a somber day, as far as holy days went, the dreary weather lending its weight to the morning’s ceremonies when, with all the women of the household staff, the Lady had gone to lay flowers and offerings on the graves of her ancestors at the temple grounds and speak prayers of remembrance to the honored dead. The dull duty finished, and the example of ladylike piety set, Lady Byrnecock might revel now in the jollity that the evening’s party promised.

Two score guests or more were expected. The doors of the great hall that adjoined the front parlour had been flung open wide, and the room’s gas lights burned high and bright along its walls, reflected in the tall, arched windows that had been transformed into dark, wet mirrors by the blackness of the night beyond them. The heavy oaken dining table had been moved aside to clear a space that hinted tantalizingly of the magnificent masquerade dance to be held later in the evening. In the parlour, tables had been set for games of cards and other similar amusements, with comfortable seating arranged for those who preferred the refined pastime of reclining to the heady art of dance. Guests moved and mingled freely between foyer, parlour and hall, murmuring of the delights they took in such high society and pleasant company, complementing one another on the ingenuity of a costume or the clever wit of a mask. Inside the great house, all was bustling warmth and rosy light and lilting music. Outside, the storm slouched on, quite forgotten except for the steady tap of rain against the tall, thick glass of the window panes that underscored each lull or sudden hush of a conversation.

“Oh, Cynthia! What a scandal!” The Lady Byrnecock laughed as the two daughters of the Marquess of Don approached her. “What on earth do you mean by it?” She glanced briefly at her husband, who stood engrossed in conversation with an acquaintance from town, and slipped her arm from out of his and came to meet her friends.

“You’ll never guess,” said Jane, the younger of the two sisters, whose bare shoulders were wrapped in a lush fur shrug and whose gown of soft brown taffeta pulled back into a bustle that sported a long cat’s tail behind. Fascinators done up to resemble two pointed cat’s ears pinned back her hair, and rings on her delicate fingers extended silver fittings into the appearance of claws.

“You’re lucky I don’t turn your sister right out of my house,” the Lady said, her old eyes twinkling.

“And be thought an ungrateful hostess? You wouldn’t,” Cynthia said confidently. “Besides, what purpose is there to Samhaintide if we cannot subvert the tiresome safety of our lives with a bit of scandal? Too pious for demons of any other kind, but not too polished for a worldly kind of joke. And I assure you, there will be far more to come this evening, if our cousin doesn’t lose himself on the road in this weather before he ever arrives.”

“She commissioned the corset specially just for tonight,” Jane spoke up again, blushing at her sister’s bold talk. “You needn’t worry — it’s no more real than my claws are.”

“It is the suggestion, no less than the use, that risks to offend the eye,” the Lady said.

For the elder sister wore a costume that, among less refined society, might have proved too true a scandal regardless of her intent. Below the dipping line of her ambitious décolletage, the corset of stiff velvet cloth clung tightly to her body, curving into a pinched waist before opening out again at the hips. Not at all like the usual undergarment, which a lady might be hard pressed to allow even her own husband to glimpse in all propriety, this corset had clearly been crafted to be seen and admired, with gold stitching along the hemlines accentuating the long lines of the torso and depicting a gear-like pattern in panels along the front and sides, so that the sheen of the velvet caught the light in changing tones of midnight and sapphire. The thing was rigged up with straps and brass buckles so that it appeared less a piece of clothing than a halter. A clockwork contraption, loosely connected to the buttons of the bodice by a delicately-wrought golden chain like that which might be found on a gentleman’s pocket watch, pinned the flowing blue silk of the overskirt aside where it blossomed out from beneath the edge of the strange corsetry, revealing an immodest hint of the hooped cage of the young woman’s crinoline.

Cynthia twitched a bit more of her skirt aside with a careful hand. Jane raised her cat-eyed mask to her face to cover her deepening blush.

“Offends the eye, or draws it,” the older sister said. “I suppose I should be thankful for such sophisticated company, in either case.”

“But what do you mean by it, dear?” the Lady asked again. Her eyes lingered on Cynthia’s neckline, where a series of layered gold bands gave her neck the look of a gear spring wound taut. From the lowest band hung another clockwork contraption, this one in the shape of a heart.

“Haven’t you guessed?” Cynthia raised her mask now, too, and Lady Byrnecock gasped at once with both the shock of recognition and delight at the joke. “I am the perfect woman, my dear Lady Byrnecock. I am an automaton.”

“You’re far too clever for your own good! Who ever heard of such a costume for a Samhain masquerade? I will catch your father out for letting a daughter of his make such a show of herself on a night meant for solemnity and respect for the departed.”

The sisters were already moving away again, arms linked, reentering the ebb and flow of the guests who moved about between the rooms. Lady Byrnecock smiled after them, her face showing for a moment the creases of her age. Had her husband happened to turn his eye to her at just that moment he might have caught a fleeting look in his wife’s expression that gave him more reason to pause than the thoughts of landholdings and investments that normally so occupied his mind.

But he did not.

“For want of a mother….” the Lady murmured to herself as the two sisters disappeared among the crowd of handsomely cut coats and rustling gowns, and she resumed her place at her husband’s side without a word, pressing his arm gently with the fingers of her delicately gloved hand.

To be continued…

Holy Wild, story

Tarot, NaNoWriMo and You

We’re nearly a week into National Novel Writing Month, and I’m taking a break from writing The Fantastical Adventures of the Working Title to share a little bit about my process.

Until a few weeks ago, when it came to fiction writing, I didn’t have one. That’s one of the reasons I avoided participating in NaNoWriMo (as all the cool kids call it) until this year. Okay, that’s not quite true. I flirted with the possibility last year, secretly working on a nonfiction book manuscript — which ended up being a lot more difficult to stick with, and a lot less fun than working on a steampunk fantasy where I get to spend time “researching” by watching Downton Abbey and old Jane Austen films (and yes, I know they’re from very different time periods… I’m averaging them).

My training and background in creative writing is in poetry. I’ve had poetry published in honest-to-goodness magazines (for which I’ve been paid honest-to-goodness money, if you can believe it), and I’ve even had a short chapbook of poems published several years ago. At some point, I decided there was no real money in poetry, and in any case, I ended up happily married recently, which means I won’t be making it big on the American poetry scene again until I am either jilted by love through the process of a bitter divorce, or end up an old white person reflecting with ironic distance on the follies of youth and how everyone I’ve loved is dead now, except this old dog who barks now and then as the hours pass. In the meantime, I turned to blogging and essays, which I like very much. But I don’t have very much discipline.

In case you haven’t noticed, poems are short. Blog posts are, apparently, ideally between 650 – 800 words, so they’re fairly short, too. I had absolutely no process in place for sustaining a long-term writing project of any kind.

Enter: the Tarot.

Jeff recently procured for himself the new Steampunk Tarot deck by Barbara Moore and artist Aly Fell. I hated it. I loved the idea of a steampunk tarot, but I thought the illustrations were dark, dirty and unattractive. Jeff liked it, but his relationship with the deck was complicated, so it ended up sitting on the shelf unused most of the time.

Since I was working on a steampunk novel, I asked him if I could borrow the deck to use for visual inspiration. He asked the deck its opinion, and got the go ahead. And a beautiful friendship was born. There are aspects of this deck I hadn’t appreciated until I began working with it regularly. (And Moore’s insights in the accompanying book are fantastic in their own right.) Now, I’ve settled into a simple routine that has simplified my writing sessions and loosened up my creative writing muscles (and I’m already quickly closing in on 15,000 words — that’s almost a third of the way done before the end of the first week!).

Here’s how it goes:

(1) Draw a three card spread. (2) Sit in meditation for ten minutes. (3) Write for forty minutes.

The whole process takes about an hour, and I repeat it whenever my writing begins to slow down to a snail’s pace and I find myself taking twenty minutes to describe the minute details of the brocade pillows on the chaise lounge where the heroine has been reclining awkwardly waiting for her narrator to realize nobody gives a shit about brocade pillows.

I have a few favorite three-card spreads that I use to shake me out of those moments of lethargy and myopia, but my favorite one by far is the Character in Tension spread. It looks like this:

Card 1: The character. This card represents the viewpoint or main character of the scene, and the external circumstances that she will be facing as the narrative progresses.

Cards 2 and 3: These two cards represent tensions that pull the character in opposite directions as she tries to navigate the external circumstances. They might represent other characters in the scene, or internal psychological turmoil. There is absolutely no guarantee that these tensions will be resolved by the time the scene is over but, in true steampunk fashion, they are the fire and water elements that combine to create pressure that drive the narrative forward (and serve to temper the character as she evolves through the story).

This spread has been incredibly useful in helping me to connect with the inner essence of my characters as I write, as well as the larger social patterns and ideas that they’re playing out through the story. For instance, I recently sat down to write a scene in which the main character, Dara (an automaton), must deal with sexual harassment at a high society party. How would Dara respond? I drew three cards. On the left, the Knight of Cups burst in on the scene, all romance and energy and melodrama. On the right, the King of Swords stood in his library, quiet and calculating, all fatherly authority and intellect. And in the middle, the Two of Swords, a girl blindfolded and holding two heavy swords out to either side, trying to balance on her tiptoes on an electrified gear in the middle of a rushing stream. Not the best place to be. Moore describes the card in the book as one of: Lalala I can’t hear you, everything is fine, I’m just going to keep on investing all my energy into pretending things are cool even when I’m suspended in an abyss of water and air. This was exactly Dara’s position, pulled between the tensions of her intellectual side and her emotional side in a society that gave her credit for possessing neither. The three-card drawing allowed me to ground in a strong sense of Dara’s inner world before moving on to write the action of the scene.

What I’ve found to be the most important part of this writing process, though, is the ten minute meditation between the tarot reading and the forty minutes of actual writing. During this meditation, I do not attempt to explore the images of the cards or analyze how exactly they will fit into the scene. Instead, the cards become a visual koan. I hold the images loosely, allowing them to settle while I clear my mind of any interfering thoughts. I let one-liners and turns of phrase float to the surface of my mind and then sink again, not trying to grasp any too firmly. When I find one that seems to still have some buoyancy after the ten minutes of meditation are up, I start there and begin to write.

If I were you, I’d be skeptical of this approach. I always thought using a tarot deck to write would surely result in a kind of mishmash Alice in Wonderland kind of story, where random things happened for no obvious reason. But believe it or not, if used in the right way (and alongside a healthy dose of revision to refine later drafts), it works surprisingly well.

There are a few other spreads that I’ve used, and a few more I want to experiment with throughout the rest of the month. I’d love to hear if anyone else has tried this technique, and what spreads they’ve found most helpful during the process!