“Where do your characters come from?”

6c3e86d5-058c-42a5-a6a4-f8f4856e77db_650x366

 

I’m sure I am not the only writer that gets this question. Usually it’s about halfway through the question and answer period after a reading, or during a school visit. The hand goes up. I know they’re going to ask it before they do. I brace myself.

“Where do your characters come from,” they ask. And I wince.

Because I seriously have no idea how to answer this question. At least not in a way that makes me sound sane.

But it shouldn’t sound insane. Not really. This is something that we do – all of us, all the time. We create characterizations out of nothing. We see people walking down the street and we make thousands upon thousands of assumptions about them, without even realizing that we are doing so. Our brains are built for narrative. We think in narrative, understand in narrative, process memories in narrative. It is the structure in which we organize information and construct truth. We may be walking down the sidewalk and see a broken bottle in the grass, and then go a little bit farther and see a cast-off shoe, and then go a little bit farther and see a bare spot in the boulevard, or some trampled flowers, maybe, and we start to connect the dots. We start writing a story. We can’t help it.  It’s our brains, you see?

Similarly, if I sit down on the bus, and the man who sits down next to me has a very long beard and very callused fingertips and hand-patched jeans and a tattoo that says “meat is murder” with a drawing of a pig wearing a crown of thorns (this happened to me once; I stole the tattoo and put it in one of my books)? Well. I start inventing all kinds of stuff. It’s a long bus ride. What else am I going to do. And by the time the bus ride is over, I already know that a woman named Elsie broke his heart and that he plays his guitar every night, trying to find the memory of her voice in the harmonics between the strings, and that his grandmother always called him by a name that was not his own and never explained why and that he hasn’t spoken to his mother in six years, even though she leaves a message on his phone every single day that says the exact same thing, “I’m just thinking about you and I love you. Call when you have a sec.”

He hasn’t told me any of these things, of course. And the character in my head isn’t him. Of course it isn’t. It’s just someone like him. It was my brain connecting the dots. It was my brain doing the work it is built for, which is to say, stories.

“Where do your characters come from?” they ask and I always want to shoot back, “Where does anyone come from? Your teacher, your friend, the guy who opens your drains, the meat inspector with the limp, the check-out clerk at the gas station with a wad of gum the size of a golf ball. Where do any of them come from?” And how can we separate what we know about the people we meet with what we invent? I don’t think we can. I think the creation of knowledge requires imagination. And that the world that we live in is largely imaginary. We invent the world around us and the people in it, again and again. We weave the known and the unknown into an experience that is uniquely ours. And we don’t even know that we’re doing it.

Instead I just say that I go fishing. I cast my nets into the sea of the mind and pull in a character. I don’t do this at all, but it is a quick and easy way of answering the question.

I get asked a lot which character is me. “Are you Jack?” they ask. “Are you Wendy or Violet or Cassian? Are you Ned or Aine or the horrible King Ott? Are your Sister Witch or Uncle Clive or Aunt Mabel? Which one are you exactly?”

The answer, of course, is none of them. And all of them. But mostly none. These characters have elements in them with which I identify, but they are not me. They are themselves. I met them one day and I got to know them, and I lived with them for a while. And I loved them. Each blessed one. They were like those roommates that you have in the crazy living situations that you get into those post-college ennui years when your life hasn’t quite found its feet. Those people that you stay up with until the sun rises talking about books or politics or music or whatever. Love. Loss. Love again. And you love them. Profoundly. And then their lives take a turn, or your life takes a turn, and they slip into the wide world and do not look back.

All you have then is a story.

The fact is, the world is filled with deeply interesting and broken and brave people. I have never turned anyone I’ve met into a character in my book. But I have honed in on the strange gifts of Self that people offer to me. I have kept little bits with me from my conversations and connections that never go away. For example: Once, when I was in my early twenties, I worked at a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon. It was a great job for an insomniac because I had to be there at quarter to five in the morning, when I was already up and fussing, and it gave me something else to fuss about. And I met a lot of interesting people in that job. For example:

The city inspector who would get really mad when people would ask if that little child was his granddaughter. He was sixty. His wife was twenty five. Every time someone said “granddaughter” his face would go red and his lips would suck in and he would hit the nearest table with his fist.

The lady who insisted that we call her “Mrs. Q” – I never learned her actual name. She was incredibly old – a body diminished to sticks and feathers and rice-paper skin. She had deep folds above her copper-colored eyes. She came in every day for a decaf latte that she would never finish. And every day, she would take out a yellowed sketch book. She never drew. She just looked at the pictures. I never knew why.

The guy who sold his zine (remember zines?) every Saturday from one of the back tables. No one bought them, so he started handing them out for free. He had been born a girl, and his wife had stayed with him loved him through his transition. I had never met a transgendered person before, though I know many now. I remember reading his zine – and he was very frank in his discussion of the trans experience, as well as his call for trans acceptance and the rights of all individuals across the gender spectrum – with a hunger for understanding. It’s not every day that someone gives you an open door to their experience, you know? He loved old band tee-shirts and he had very small feet, but large hands. He also had begun to lose his hair – an effect of hormones, he told me. “You don’t know before you start all this if you’re the guy who’s gonna go bald,” he said sadly, running his hand through his thinning hair. I told him it made him look distinguished. And I meant it.

And Horst. Oh, Horst! I’m pretty sure he was in the country illegally. He had been a student at the University of Oregon, but that didn’t work out, so he moved north to Portland. He always paid in cash, and said he avoided bars because he “didn’t believe in photo identification”. Horst was in his late twenties – blond, tall and narrowly built. He had high cheekbones and profoundly blue eyes. He asked me out every single day. Sometimes more than once a day. He knew I had a boyfriend (though I never said boyfriend. I said partner, because we were modern and forward in our thinking. And then people played the pronoun game, trying to pin me down as to which kind of partner I had exactly.). Horst was always cheerful about his lack of chances. “Make sure to tell me the second you’re single,” he’d say, giving a gentlemanly bow. The last time I saw him, it was December, 1998. I was twenty-five and recently pregnant, though I didn’t know it yet. Horst shows up in a long wool coat, covered, I remember, with tiny drops of rain, each shining like a jewel. He removed his hat. He had a purple, handmade scarf wound many times around his neck, and his face was so pale, as though he was made out of milk. He bowed again.

“I must bid you farewell, dear lady,” he said. He was always talking like that.

“Where are you going?” I said.

“I am taking my Volkswagon and traveling the width and breadth of you nation. By this time next year, I will be taking up residence in the desert, where I will prepare for Y-2k.”

There were a lot of these in Oregon at the time. Doomsdayers. Survivalists. My partner-soon-husband had just gotten a job with the city helping them with Y-2k readiness. People thought their microwaves would explode and their computers would melt, and that there would be utter anarchy.

“Why do you need to be in the desert to prepare for Y-2k?” I asked.

“You see, dearest,” he said, “we are entering a new phase of the human experiment. Currency as we know it will cease to exist. And good riddance. Numbers as we understand them will also cease to have meaning. Good riddance to that as well, I say. We are entering a time that we have been destined to enter since we first climbed out of the trees and learned to work together. Kindness will be our currency. Love will be our numbers. And an age of blessed one-ness will descend upon us all like sunshine.”

“Really?” I said.

“Most definitely,” he said.

“And the desert . . .”

“Oh,” he said with a casual wave. “I just like it.”

And then he bought a cup of chamomile tea. He paid for it in cash. And he foisted a fifty dollar bill in my hand as a tip. “Make sure you spend it this year, though,” he said. “It will just be paper soon.”

 

I have never put Horst in a story. But I think about him all the time. And I like to think that he is in the desert somewhere, staying in an old trailer, or a small cottage atop a small rise so he has an unobstructed view. And I like to think that he still has that scarf because the desert gets cold at night. And I like to think that he is paying for things in kindness. Because he is kind. And why not? And I like to think that he is meeting people and talking to people and that they are creating and storing stories of their own. That Horst exists in the narratives of people all over the country. And that he is everywhere. Perhaps in a story that you are writing, right now.

 

 

If those boys would stand still for five minutes, they’d write a damn good novel.

Leo and his friends are careening up and down the stairs, a cloud of knees and elbows and supposedly-brushed teeth and glinting blonde hair. They are making engine sounds and laser sounds and sounds of exploding nebulae (which, being a big dork, I did have to explain to them do not make a sound in the vacuum of space, and they looked at me with blank eyes and continued with the swan-songs of doomed stars) and six-shooters and race cars and TNT disasters in abandoned silver mines.

They run down, and someone yells, “I’m Pete Petowski and the world will be mine in forty seven seconds MINE I TELL YOU!”

They run up and yell, “BEWARE THE POWER OF MR. JIBBLYKINS!”

And, “I do so have cyborg eyes.”

And, “I’d rather go the the dentist than kiss a girl.”

They run down and someone asks, “If you kill a zombie and then infect it with a new zombie virus is it a half-zombie or a double-zombie?”

And, “Can zombies be pirates? Can they go in space?”

They run up and yell, “I ALREADY GOT YOU WITH MY LASERS. YOU ARE SO OUT!”

Only to be returned with, “Well, I used my laser-blockers. So.”

And as the game continues, I catch little bits as they float down the stairs.

“We each get sixteen superpowers. I call having the power to beat every superpower. Which one do you want?”

“Which would be better: an outerspace circus in space, or an underwater circus with squids and octupuses and sharks?” “Or both?” “You’re right. Both.”

“Oooo! Zombie fingers!”

“Okay, fine. We all speak fluent Wolf.”

“Toe jam is just the nice way of saying toe poop. No one likes to believe that their toes can poop, but they do all the time.

“They sent an army of miniature cyborgs hiding in cereal boxes. The attack will happen at breakfast!”

“I don’t need any weapons. My fingernails were implanted with lasers when I was a baby. That’s what everyone does on my planet.”

“No matter what, I have a second brain.”

“You’re right. Your farts really are grosser than mine.”

“Baby dinosaur? Well, of course.”

“Donuts ARE TOO dinner food.”

“It doesn’t matter if we guard our ice castle with polar bear armies or not. NO ONE CARES IF WE TAKE OVER THE ARCTIC CIRCLE.”

“We have to stop Dr. Nimblenuts and his atomic EXPLODING ANTS!”

“You’re right. A penguin army would be awesome.”

“Is there such thing as chocolate salsa?”

“Let’s say we were separated from our families and raised on a remote island by ninja spiders.”

“My boots have levitation upgrades, but they’re on the fritz. That’s why this leg can’t come off the ceiling.”

“You can too build a space ship from bottle caps. My dad told me.”

“Fine. I’m King. You’re President and you’re Supreme Ruler. And I’m also the Pope.”

“It is not a dumb game at all, Ella. We’re whales. Flying whales. In space. What’s dumb about that?”

“Well, on this planet people’s butts are on their heads.” “Actually, our planet is the only one where people’s butts are, you know. Where butts go.”

“It would totally be good if everything was flavored like raspberries. Raspberry cereal. Raspberry milk. Raspberry bacon. Raspberry pizza. Raspberries. They’re delicious!”

 

I’m sitting here, trying to finish my Sasquatch story. Instead I’ve been listening to these kids for the last hour. It’s more entertaining than the teevee.

What’s distracting you from your writing today?

 

In Which There Were Seven Dreams

Last night, I slept fitfully and without satisfaction, my brain addled by the moon’s bright insistence. I am floating now. The earth is separated from my feet by wind and cloud and empty space. I do not know when I will find solid ground.

Right now, two books are growing like moss under my fingers – each a different color, a different texture, a different wild name called against a wide sky. But I will not work on them today. Today I will float. Today I will think about dreaming.

In between each dream last night, I woke with a startled cry, a flail of limbs, a sob lodged in the throat. Each time I got out of bed and walked across the icy floor to the wide windows facing the back yard, and the field, and the creek, and the city beyond. Each time, I pressed my damp fingers to the cold glass, and watched the progress of the moon across the frozen land. Each time I watched my breath collect on the window like a cloud, and vanish without a trace.

This is what I dreamed.

1. I am in a gold-colored tent in an alpine grotto beneath a snowy peak. I have been here before, many years ago. I slide onto the platform upon which the tent sits and slip my feet into my government-issue boots. My ranger’s shirt. My fire-proof pants. I go to the metal cache and pull out what we need for breakfast, but nothing is there. The cache is empty. I call to the man sleeping in the tent – the one who becomes my husband, but in the dream, as he was at the time, he is connected to me by will and by love, and not by law. The tent unzips. He lumbers out. A damp snout. Black fur. White teeth. Ten bright claws, shining like glass. He regards me, as I regard him. The smell of bear musk. The shirr of the breeze. I snort, snuffle, and open my throat and roar.

2. I am in a submarine, following the migration of blue whales. The submarine is gold with black stripes, like a bumble bee. It is narrow at its face with a swollen middle, as though ripe with young. It has a comfortable, easy look to it, as though it’s only purpose is to act as a plaything for the whales. Indeed, the blue whales seem curious, turning their great, round eyes toward the view windows and peering inside. They blink. I blink. They lean into the deep and I scuttle after them, leaving a trail of bubbles behind. My children are in the submarine and they are stopping up leaks. They use their fingers, their hands, their clothing. They use wax and rubber and paste. They press their mouths to the holes and blow out. “Mom,” they say. “We have to go back.” “Just a little bit farther,” I say. “Mom,” they say as the water pools at our feet. As it splashes our knees. As it slips up around our waists. “Just a little bit farther,” as we skirt the backs of the whales. As we turn upward with them toward the invisible surface thorough the endless stretch of salt and dark and cold, cold, cold.

3. I am being fired. Again. It hurts just as much as before.

4. There is a wolf fast asleep at the end of my bed. It is curled around itself, a spiral of fur and tail and meaty breath. I sit up. It cocks its head and blinks its eyes. It gazes at me sleepily. “You!” I say. The wolf yawns. “You were expecting someone else?” it says.

5.  I am wearing a black pencil skirt with a matching jacket and patent leather pumps. My hair is done with a swooped bang and a high bun and a pillbox hat. I am running. I realize that the world is in black-and-white, with the occasional jerky flash like poorly threaded film, and there is a soundtrack running behind me – bright and jangley like a Hitchcock flick. I have no name. I know I have no name. My only purpose in this movie is to die. The light changes. A blade flashes. The music launches into a brash, assonant chord, like the shatter of glass. I feel the knife enter at the back. I feel the steel in the space between ribs, in the sinew of muscle, the sponge of lung. I do not breathe. My arms fling out like wings and the light surrounds me and I am gone.

6. There is a knot in the umbilical chord. And oh god, there is a knot. And oh, god, there is a knot.

7. I am outside. It is freezing cold, and I am in a tank top and my underwear, walking barefoot across the lace of snow over the brown grass, down to the creek. The cattails are flattened against the shore – no herons nest there now. The foxes have found more private places for their denning, and the ducks have launched into the air and shot across the sky. I am alone. My toes curl onto the mounds of frozen mud and I sink onto my heels, regarding the frozen creek. There is a figure under the ice. Its hands are pressed against the surface. Its mouth moves in horror. It is dressed as I am. Its hair floats in the murky water. I turn, find a stone, crack the ice, and offer my hand. My hand on my hand. My fingers around my wrists. I help the woman that is me out of the ice and lead her back to the house. Where it is warm.

One of these days, I will sleep without dreaming. But not soon, I hope. My dreams are strange, but they are mine. And I will keep them.

A giveaway? Why yes, I think that would be a good idea.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I came to the stunning realization today, after writing things in the calendar and fretting about how I would afford the shocking price tags on school supplies and school clothes and school shoes and school programs and school activities and all things related to the well-rounded education of my darling children that it hit me.

I have less than seven weeks until this book comes out.

Dear god. Or gods. Or possibly-devine-entities currently peering through the vapors at my lost, lost soul. Whatever.

In any case, I panicked, of course. And then I whined on Twitter and Facebook for a while and got advice from friends much smarter than I am. And while I sit down and actually hatch a plan, I figured, since I have an ARC or two in my possession, that I should organize a giveaway.

So here it is!

Between now and September 11 (which, by the way, in addition to being a Day of Somber Reflection also happens to be the day upon which my other book, THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK, comes out on paperback. Yippee!) I’m hosting a giveaway of two copies of the ARC of IRON HEARTED VIOLET. Both of these I will sign and will also include another little goodie inside that is SOOPER SEEKRIT, so you’ll just have to enter to find out what it is.

Enter today, enter tomorrow, enter next week. I don’t want to make a big thing about it – it’s your schedule, after all. But don’t wait too long, otherwise, I’ll just have to give these copies away to myself, and that would stink.

For those of you who look at my situation and laugh and laugh and make fun of how unbearably disorganized I am, I’m curious: How do you ramp up to publication day? What should I be doing to make sure I am not doomed to failure forever? And what do you do to keep the pesky anxiety at bay – because it does not do to be ushering a beloved book into the wide world and suddenly come down with a case of the crazies. It doesn’t do at all.

Evening in BarnhillLand

So here’s the thing: I’ve got a really weird job.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’ve had lots of jobs in my life (lots and lots and lots of them), and I discovered along the way that I’m, well, ill-suited for……pretty much everything. And I’m not whining and I’m not being annoyingly or fishingly self-deprecating. These are just the facts.

I’m overly chatty, I can’t type for crap, I’m disorganized, I’m surly with folks in authority, I’ve got poor attention to detail when working on other people’s projects, I bristle at wasted time, I fall asleep in meetings and I am not a team player. I’ve been fired from eight different waitressing jobs for consistently writing down orders – not what people wanted, but what I thought they should have. And once for spilling a $300 bottle of wine down my shirt. I nearly came to blows once with a district official over a reading curriculum that I absolutely refused to use in my classroom. (Because it sucked). (She told me that I’d be lucky if a single child passed their state reading test. I told her I didn’t care because the tests in Minnesota at the time were the laughingstock of the nation – which was true.) (79% of my kids passed – one of the highest stats in the district. So I told her to suck it.)

Anyway. I work very hard when I’m on my own. In the world – in the real world – I’m sorta….vague. My husband says this is adorable. I think he’s being nice.

So I have this job instead. This writing job. This live-in-a-world-of-my-own-making job. And….well it’s weird, isn’t it? It’s a weird job.

But another weird part of my job is porous division between the imagined and the real. Particularly since my real life is written in the language of hyperbole, and synched to the rhythm of hyperbole and painted with hyperbole’s brush. Every day I must comfort a daughter whose life, apparently, is over, and another daughter whose leg is falling off and must stop a son who has decided to destroy a house (that part wasn’t hyperbole at all, though. That bit was real). Also, the little boys who daily invade my house, are constantly threatening to explode.

In any case, it’s an odd bit of vertigo that happens, when my head is still in the story, still sitting on the shoulders of runty, foul-mouthed gods who are – as we speak – creating universes, and smelling the sulfury breath of easily annoyed dragons who have no hearts in their bodies, or looking up the gory details of shoulder wounds or armpit wounds, or inventing the masonic structure of an ancient castle – then figuring out how to destroy it…..and then – THEN – be interrupted by my panicked children because the toilet, apparently is overflowing. Or the bank’s on the phone, and they’re pissed. Or I’ve forgotten to meet a friend for lunch. Or the email that I thought I sent I only sent in my mind. Or whatever.

In any case, I’m terribly grateful to my children for keeping me in this world. I don’t know what I’ll do when they grow and move out. Maybe I’ll have to hire kids to hang around the house and distract me from my work. Or maybe I’ll fade into the pages of a story and you’ll never see me again.

Right now, with my head in VIOLET, that feels like a possibility.

In fact, all day, I felt partially-faded. Like Frodo when he had the ring on too long. I was translucent-faced, cellophane-bodied, eyes made of smoke. And I would have continued like that – a half-existence, a half-life – had it not been for Leo.

I was hunched at my computer, rewriting a scene for about the nine-thousandth time, when Leo tapped on my shoulder with two fingers.

(and really hard, I might add. I think I have a bruise.)

“Mom,” he said. “Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, MOM!”

“What!” I yelled. Honestly, I only heard the last MOM. “Why are you yelling?”

“Mom,” he said. He was red faced, red lipped, eyes bright as full moons. “GUESS WHAT?”

“What?” said. Thinking: This better be good.

“What happens, when every person on earth burps AND coughs AND sneezes AND farts….. AT THE SAME TIME?”

I pulled my hands from the keys, cracking the knuckles. I brought my fingertips to my brow and pressed at the headache that I’m sure was there all day, but I was only just noticing (does this happen to you too? Do you feel separated from your body when you spend all day at a story? Or not even all day, but three or four hours? Sometimes I forget that I have a body at all.) Leo waited. He bounced on his toes. He was thrilled.

“I don’t know, honey.” (I secretly did.) “But I would love it,” (a sigh, a long, slow, long-suffering sigh) “if you would tell me what happens – what really happens – when all the people on earth burp, cough, sneeze, and fart at the same time.”

Leo smiled with all his teeth. “THE WORLD EXPLODES!” he said, jumping up and down.

“Well,” I said. “Let’s hope that never happens. Next time you need to fart, be sure to tell us, so that we don’t accidentally do it at the same time, okay.”

And then we went outside to go spider hunting. Because I had been outside of this world for long enough. And it felt good to be running around the back yard – my real yard of my real life – with my son for a little bit.

The story will just have to wait its turn.

Underwater

Dear Blog,

I know, I know. And I’m sorry. I’ve been ignoring you, ignoring my commitment to the daily practice of poetry (was I completely mad for deciding to do that? Probably.), ignoring my commitment to engaging with Ideas (or, in other words, being Uppity, Bombastic, and Generally Annoying) and ignoring my insistance on gathering little bits of bright paper and pinning them against the sky.

(because, in the end, that’s what a blog is, right? Things gathered, things assembled, things roughly made. Like an automaton made of soda cans or a rendering of the Venus de Milo made of used wrapping paper and ribbon and tin foil. A blog is a wobbly thing, insubstantial, ephemeral, as permanent as smoke.)

If it’s any consolation, it’s not just you that I’m ignoring, dear blog. You should see my house. It’s a freaking mess. And I haven’t washed my son’s hair in about a week. (Of course, that is also due to the fact that he is very, very fast.)

But soon, I will crawl out from under the weight of this next revision, and soon I will feel happy (mostly) about the work that I’ve done, and soon I will breathe the sighs of the innocent and sleep the sleep of the blest.

I took this bit out of the book:

They say that an entire universe lives inside of the tear of a dragon, and, if you had eyes to see it, a close examination would reveal endless space, burning suns, spinning planets, and huge civilizations rising from the dust and vanishing into the ether in the time it takes for the tear to well, spill and evaporate.

Did my world originate in the tear of a dragon?

Did yours?

But I’m sorry to see it go, quite frankly. I like novels with thought experiments in them, and I really liked them when I was a kid. Maybe I’ll put it back in.

Don’t tell my editor.

I also took this out, my little bit of mythic scripture-making:

You see, the story that the children told was true. Or true enough. There truly was once a single Universe, and it did indeed split into the teeming, cacophonous multiverse – the Worlds upon Worlds upon infinite Worlds – that exists now. It was also true that the short, runty god (the one who had no name; the one we loved best of all) was the cause of it.

But there was more to the story.

The other gods, upon seeing what their brother had done, were enraged. Imagine their shock! : Three worlds where there once was one? “Madness!” the other gods cried. “Lunacy!” they shouted. “Stubby idiot,” they muttered under their breath. He was ordered to undo his rash creation.

But you see, the runty god with the stubby arms and legs found that he could not destroy the worlds he had made. “Look!” he said, “how the mountains uncurl from the sea! Look at the white clouds in this world, the golden clouds in that. Look how the planets spin, how the stars cast their light into the ragged edges of space and time.” Soon, the other gods noticed that the three new worlds were stable and whole. They didn’t wobble or shift. And what’s more, they saw how their stubby, ugly brother loved his new worlds. Loved them.

And so it was that the other gods decided to form new worlds as well – so many that they frothed and bubbled as though in a great sea. There were universes ruled by mathematics and those ruled by magic and those ruled by philosophy and those ruled by physics. There was even a universe entirely subject to the whims of a very large turtle. There were worlds that dwarfed their neighbors, and worlds that fitted neatly inside one another, like nesting dolls. Every universe imaginable erupted, spun and grew. The multiverse swelled and foamed. Worlds pressed so close to one another that their fragile skins stretched and bulged, curving the space within. And the creatures of these worlds saw strange reflections – the distorted glimpses of a world not their own. And they were afraid.

Finally, the runty god had an idea. “It isn’t right that the creatures of our new worlds should suffer. I propose that all of us spend time in the worlds of our devising. We must train teachers and thinkers and tellers. Stories shall be the antidote to fear.” And so they did, each god to its own world, its own creation.

All but one.

I may end up keeping that bit, but in a very, very, very different form. We’ll see.

In the meantime, someone tell me a story. Or tell me good news. Or tell me a joke. Put it into a bottle and throw it into the sea of my own making, my stormy, foaming brain. Or tie it to a rock, and let it sink to the bottom. And maybe I’ll find it. Maybe it’ll keep my heart from drowning.


Back to Normal

The children are back in school. My hands are raised to the heavens. My mouth sings hymns of praise. I have cleared away the debris on my desk (there was beach sand on my desk. And a flip flop. And nine snail shells. And a note from my daughter demanding her own room) and I have gotten back to work.

There was a time, when my kids were small, that my only time to write fiction was between the hours of four and six in the morning. This is a scenario that I cannot recommend. During those years, I would haul my shaking carcass out of bed, stumble to the stove and light it. Sometimes I would forget to put on the kettle, and would, instead stand in the darkened kitchen, staring at the cold blue of the hot flame. Once I burned my hand. Another time I singed my bathrobe. Honestly, I’m astonished that I didn’t – not once – burn down the house.

Or maybe I did. In a different universe. I’ve been obsessing with universes lately.

In any case, I would stumble, tea in hand, sloshing it all over my damn self, and lean into my desk chair and start to write. I wrote a grown-up novel that collapsed under its own weight (I had actually started that one in college), and a young adult novel that was so dark and so upsetting and so violent that no one in their right mind will ever want to read it (all copies – I’m pretty sure – have been destroyed) and a mystery novel that wasn’t horrible, but still wasn’t particularly publishable.

It was an important time for me, but it wasn’t a time of producing good work. Just work.

But then – oh! then! – my kids went to school. No more collapsing at keyboards! No more zombified visage! No more potential disasters with fire! Instead I was rested, rejuvenated and organized. I planned out my writing day the night before, and worked in time to read. I had time, each day, to plunk words on the page, and the words – while not good, per se – weren’t terrible. I had graduated from Sucky to Mediocre. I was on fire!

But here’s the thing about the school year – it’s only nine months. Like a pregnancy. And like a pregnancy, it ends with interrupted schedules and lack of sleep and crying fits (mine, mostly) and bouts of vomiting and sticky surfaces and howls of rage. (Also mine). It is almost impossible for me to work during the summer.

Now sometimes, one has to. Deadlines, after all, exist, and boy did I have one. I needed to get the new version of Iron Hearted Violet to my beloved editrix, and I fear that I tried her patience, alas. My time was interrupted, and the work was slow, and the deadline began to creep, and bend, and topple forward. If I lived in NYC, I think she might have strangled me.

Right now, I miss my kids – I really do. The school day is long, and I’m lonely without them, but I need the time away from them in order to make fiction. Right now, my house is quiet. Right now, my heart is quiet. And right now, my new book is taking shape – even as I write this post, even now – under my hands. It presses on my skin. It whispers in my ear. And now, with the kids blissfully at school, it’s quiet enough for me to hear it at last.

Today’s Poem: “Cheating at Cards With Jesus”

Cheating at Cards With Jesus

The Lord is a pain in the ass when He’s had too much whiskey.
But then, so’s anyone, so I couldn’t fault Him for it.
He leered over the rim of his cards and winked.
The table had cleared out. It was just him and me.
He sipped on the dregs of His drink and belched.
“Well,” He said. “What’ll it be?”

“I thought people bet their souls with the Devil,” I said.
Jesus yawned. “It’s cliché,” He said. “And you’re stalling.”
He fingered the card that I knew was a queen of hearts.
“And anyway, the Devil sucks at cards. Only a poet can play poker properly.
The Devil’s a numbers guy.”

“Hit me,” I said. Jesus paused.
“You sure?” He said, thumbing the top card.
King of clubs. I already knew it. I had marked it myself.
Or Jesus had marked it.
After all this time, the cards were well-worn and as readable as faces.
There were no more surprises, and I was about to go bust.

“Hit me,” I said again. Jesus nodded and filled our glasses.
The whiskey burned its way down until my whole body gleamed.
Jesus held His glass next to his drink-flushed face. He closed His eyes.
“A poem works, not for what it says, but what it does not say,” He said.
“A poem speaks from the empty spaces; silence brings light to the gloom.”

“Your point?” I asked. Why drag it out? I snatched His drink and gulped it down.
“A game is the same way. Just when you think you’ve won, you’ve lost,
and just when you think you’re lost, you are found.”
“I think you’re confusing your words,” I said.
Drunk asshole, I thought.

“I fold,” Jesus said. “You win.”
A boozy smile. A hard stare.
Two bright eyes,
hot and old as nebulas,
burn across the table. I wince.

“So,” He said. “What are you gonna do about it?

How To Roast a Novel

My father gave me a copy of Julia Child’s letters (As Always, Julia), and, as always, that woman is a revelation. I remember watching her show as a little kid and, after being first entranced by her voice and by all the cool stuff in her kitchen, I remember being struck by her relationship  with food. That combination of exasperation and delight, that careless tenderness combined with a firm belief in the democratization of pleasure.

That woman loved food. She love the fact that the food she made existed solely to spoon into another person’s mouth. She loved the communal nature of a meal, the shared experience, the moment of delight and euphoria and grace. And she rocked, that woman. She rocked.

The woman who said, “A few drops of Cognac never hurt anything. Neither did a bottle.”

And, “Cooking is like love: it should be entered into with wild abandon, or not at all.”

And, “How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like kleenex?”

And, “The only time to eat diet food is when you’re waiting for the steak to cook.”

And, “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.”

And, “Life itself is the proper binge.”

And, “You could use skim milk, of course, but I don’t know why you would.”

This is the woman who taught me to make omelettes for 300 (a skill I use all the time, though for five instead of three hundred).

I love that woman. I love her forever. And I love that my kids have gotten into the habit of watching bits of her show on youtube.

Now, I know – I know for sure – that Julia, if she was to visit my kitchen, would likely turn up her nose at the kinds of foods I typically cook. My family is vegetarian – a state of being that she regarded with the utmost suspicion – and in the summer we eat lots and lots of raw foods straight out of the garden. Still, despite the fact that much of what she taught me does not apply to how I cook now, and how I eat now, I have absorbed lesson after lesson of her cooking practice into my writing practice.

Or, more specifically, my revision practice.

I’m in the throes of revision right now. It’s not a happy place necessarily, or an easy place. The process is difficult, painstaking and sometimes a pain in the butt. It requires patience, planning, insistence, and love. It needs a willingness to appreciate the raw materials in its ugliness, in its shyness, in its unstructured state, as well as a willingness to coax it into a place of beauty, into a delight of the eye and ear and tongue and nose, into a thing whose very existence requires it to be shared.

Or, in other words, what Julia did for the roast chicken, I am now attempting to do with my novel. Here is my recipe:

INSTRUCTIONS FOR ROAST NOVEL

1. Prepare your workspace. Wash your hands.

2. Lay out novel. Run your hands along the pages, feeling for cracks, gaps, and bulges. Pay special attention to the eruptions on the skin. Pull out loose hairs. Mind the feathers.

3. Grease your hands (butter works the best, but you may use olive oil if you are concerned about saturated fats). Run your fingers through the words, making sure to massage between the consonants. As with a roast chicken, anomalies will exist – a thickening here, a flaw there. There will be scars, of course – there always are with a thing that is alive. What you’re looking for is signs of illness, mutilation or genetic distress. Third eyes. Extra digits. Teeth in the throat.

This is not to say there is not a market – or indeed an appetite – for a roasted three-headed chicken, or a chicken with a dolphin’s tail, or a chicken with jeweled eyes. Still, it’s best to know such things up front.

4. Take a very sharp knife and a measure of strong twine. Cut away what cannot be eaten. Cut away that which detracts the eye or the tooth or the tongue. Cut away what is not beautiful, or what is too beautiful. Cut until your fingers bleed, or your heart bleeds – whichever is first.

5. Bind what can be bound. Even in this state, your novel is wily and wild. It will slip from your fingers, dance around the room, run out the door. The parts that you cut will become ambulatory too. They will swing from the chandelier and slither up the walls and mess up your bed. They will hide under carpets and in linen closets and will collude with your kids and steal your credit cards. Indeed, they’re doing it all ready.

6. Gather sweet things and salty things and savory things and herbacious things from your garden and your pots and your cupboards and your pockets. Stuff the gap. You are only doing this to flavor the meat. You will remove it all in a minute.

7. Put it in the oven. Walk away. Do nothing. Don’t check it. Don’t fuss over it. Let the novel sit in peace – in the hot dark, in the cloud of its own steam, in the flow of its own juice. Because there is nothing you can do to it anymore.

NOTE: Please take care when you open the oven. It will not behave itself. It will not go willingly to the table. It will knock you down. It will grow arms and legs and feathers and wings. It will fly away. You will only be left with its lingering scent hanging in the house. It will leave you starving.

And with that, I’m off to work. What is everyone else working on today?

All Memory is Magic; All Magic is Memory

f

When I was three years old, I walked out into the yard. It was a cicada year, though I did not yet know what a cicada was. All I knew was that the air hummed, and the sky hummed, and the grass and trees and flowers hummed and hummed. I knew that the hum was visceral and alive. It moved and breathed. It had substance and texture and mass.

Which is to say, magic.

 

At three, I did not yet know what magic was. I didn’t know what electric was, either. I simply walked out into the grass, into the green, green grass, and heard a sound that filled me with wonder. Later, I would remember it as hearing magic. And still later, I would remember it as hearing electricity. And even later, I would remember it as hearing bugs.

But the memory of me at three (of unkowingness) has been fused with the memory of me at ten (of intra-knowingness), which is fused still with the knowledge of myself now at thirty-seven (of post-knowingness). Beauty becomes magic, becomes science, becomes philosophy. Now, they are all the same.

Which makes the construction of fiction – particularly fiction with magic in it – a tricky operation. Fiction, you see, relies on memory in which to operate. And this is true for both the writer and the reader. In Story, our memories are gathered, bound, altered, re-formed, re-purposed and re-named. Every story is built again and again in the minds of the reader – an amalgamation of the writer’s memory and the writer’s invention, and the reader’s memory and the reader’s invention.

It is a process that is alchemical, transcendent and infinite in its possibilities.

Which is to say, magic.

Which means that now, as both reader and writer, these fused selves must be parsed out, separated and laid bare. I must remember the magic without the bugs, and I must remember the electricity without the magic. I must rely on my readers to make those connections on their own.

Dreams, Signs, Wonders (Is there a difference between novel writing and clinical insanity? Probably not.)

There’s a magic thing that happens when a book takes over your life. There is….an unpinning from the world. A sense of nonbeing – or, perhaps multi-being. 

When I start a book, it feels like play. I doodle pictures of my characters, I draw maps, I try to channel their voices in journals and logs and the endless possibilities resultant from potential choices spread in every direction – like bright, hot threads stretching from my fingers to the sky.

Later, however, those possibilities begin to dwindle.

Later, the possible choices begin to thin, clear and fall away, leaving precious few paths left for our characters to take. Sometimes, our characters are left with only one path – and it is a devastating, brutal thing to do to one’s creation.

When this happens – when I am immersed in a world of my own invention, when my heart breaks again and again every time I return to the page – I experience a sense of dual existence.

I am here and not here.

I am there and not there.

I am in between.

Four days ago, I wrote a scene in which a character wakes up and sees a large crow sitting on his window sill. The boy sat up, regarded the crow, who regarded him, one shiny black eye narrowed on the boy’s heart. Later that day, when I was out for a run, I saw a large crow flying low to the ground – missing my head by inches – with a still-kicking baby duck in its beak.

I know that crow, I thought. I know that duck. 

I ran home and sank into the book.

Yesterday, I was running in Nine Mile Creek park in Bloomington – a long windy trail in a wooded ravine tracking alongside the rushing water. It was a perfect day – not too hot, the rush towards green in the plantlife, the insistence of birds. Suddenly, I stopped in my tracks.

The wolf, I thought. The black wolf.

black Wolf 44

And there it was. The black wolf from my book. And it was huge. Broad shouldered and ropy muscled and heavy jawed. I couldn’t move. In my head, I recited these words:

That night, I was troubled by strange dreams. I dreamed that I rode on the back of a large black wolf through a darkened wood. I hung on tightly to his course and greasy fur my nose crinkling at the rank, gamy tang to his smell, though strangely comforted by it at the same time. Above us, a red, glowing bird soared just over the tops of the trees, its mouth wide open to the sky, its song ringing against the world. What’s more, the song itself made the forest blossom – flowers opened and fruited, moss grew thick and bright around the trunks of the trees. 

“Why are we running?” I asked the wolf.

“I dare not stop, Child, not even for the moment, or the wild dogs will rip you to shreds.”

And before I could ask anything more, I heard the unmistakable bay and snarl of a pack of dogs getting closer and closer. Also unmistakable: We were slowing down.

I had just been revising that chapter not two hours earlier. Was I in the book? Was I here? Were the lines between here and there permanently blurred.  I closed my eyes. I smelled the wolf and felt the wolf and felt its breath upon my skin.

When I opened my eyes, the wolf was gone, and in its place was a dog – a labrador. Black. Its head tilted and its grin spread in that classic labrador smile. I took a step backwards and it bounded into the woods. It was then that I realized that I was holding my breath.

But I thought to the book – when Nika first encounters the wolf, and I thought about my body when I thought I saw the thing I did not see. I remembered the instant prick of sweat, the musk of fear, the breathing quickening, shallowing, until it ceases entirely. I thought about the sudden lightness of my body – that I was fully prepared to sprint the three miles back to my car, and that I would likely run without tiring, without pain, without hesitation. I thought about the terrible calm, the utter assurance that I could outrun this creature or fight it to the death if I had to, regardless of whether such things were true.

I thought about the physicality of fear. And then I re-wrote the scene.

The threads from my life weave into my book; the threads from my book weave into my life. Perhaps this is the nature of my work, perhaps I must simply accept that I live in a reality that bends, buckles and flows. Where the imagined and the real are inextricably linked – two different sections of the same, long road.


On Entropy, Accretion and Exploding Novels

http://kellybarnhill.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/6a0120a6b6d001970b0120a6c9603e970b-800wi.jpg?w=300

There was a time in my life when I was a lot tougher than I am now. And though I was strong enough to break a man’s nose (and did once, but that is another story) that time in my life was marked – no, defined – by terrible, terrible fear.

When I was a teenager and early adult, I never feared death – which can partly explain the ridiculous risks that I took with my personal safety and well-being (walking alone through sketchy neighborhoods late at night, fist-fights, jumping off bridges for fun, dating boys who liked punching things, and etc.). I didn’t fear death at all. Now, I will heartily admit that I was (and I really and truly admit this) a certifiable idiot, which accounts for at least some of my…..misguided behavior. I was an athlete and very fast and very strong, and I somehow equated that with invincibility, with deathlessness, with indomitability.I was intoxicated with my body’s ability to preserve itself.

It wasn’t death that I was afraid of. It was decay. It was entropy. That my strength would ebb, diminish and fail. That my skin would stretch and fold and hang, that my eyes would dim and my ears would clog and my brain would muffle and cloud and fade. But mostly, I was terrified that, one day, after I had coughed and shuddered and stopped breathing forever, that every cell in my body would disassemble, disassociate, dissolve.

It was, at the time, a terrifying thought.

It wasn’t death that scared me. I knew that everything that breathed would stop, and that alive and dead were just two different sections of that same long road. I was pretty sure there was a heaven, and I was mostly sure that God had enough of a sense of humor to let me in. No, it was the corruption of the body that gave me the creeps. And kept me up at night. And haunted my dreams again and again and again.

http://blog.cleveland.com/pdextra/2007/08/large_zombie2.jpg

For a long time – for much of my twenties and into my thirties – this notion of entropy of dissolution – defined much of my understanding of the world. Entropy increases, I told myself. That is the nature of living: We form; we complicate; we undo; we fade; we blow away. We don’t just fall apart; we become food.

And I accepted it, and was okay with it, because it is true. Mostly.

Last year, I participated in a yearly workshop called Launch Pad, a program funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation. I wrote about the experience here. Now, after listening to lectures for eight hours a day and looking through telescopes at night and reading textbooks until the wee hours before finally falling asleep in a desk chair, waking with a crick in your neck, and heading out to do it all again – for an entire week….. well, it leaves an indelible mark on a person, I’ll tell you what. I felt the metaphors upon which my understanding of the world was organized start to shift, wobble and reform.

We are all made of stardust, our professors told us. Every atom in your body, every atom that surrounds you was once part of a star. That star exploded into dust. That dust became a new star, a new system, and everything began again. Indeed, our universe, being about 13.7 billion years old, went through some pretty dynamic changes along the way before morphing into the images that we’ve all seen and loved from Hubble and other beloved telescopes.

http://www.mhs-science.org.uk/images/Horse%27s%20Head%20Nebula%20Hubble.jpg

The first stars that formed in that primordial soup of dark matter (about 100 million years or so after the Big Bang) and glowing plasma were hot and bright and brief. Live fast, die young, indeed. They exploded, sent their matter across the universe, and their atoms bound to other atoms, and more, and more until they accreted into stars. And then those stars exploded and the process started again.

The point is that the atoms that made me were not just in one stars, but more likely they were from many. And from everywhere.

I tried to explain that to my son. He thought about it for a while, and said, “You mean when Buzz Lightyear said, ‘To Infinity And Beyond’, he was talking about me?”

“Yes,” I said. Leo was thrilled.

And while the central bulge of our galaxy was formed while the universe was still very young, our own star is under five billion years old. How many other stars were born, lived and died before our own emerged?

Billions.

And billions.

A star explodes and becomes dust. Another star explodes and the shock wave incites the dust to become stars. Such is the nature of things.

And I bring this up because I’m working on a book.

A book that I destroyed.

A book that I exploded.

A book that became dust, ash and wind. That became plasma and fire and energy. That was given over to the universe as an offering. A book that fell apart, bloated, liquified, decayed, jellied and became food. A book that I left for dead.

A nebula is the dusty, gassy, dissolved remains of an exploded star. It is also the dynamic womb for a forming star. It is both. I like things that can be both. There are entire universes in both.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/72/Omega_Nebula.jpg/250px-Omega_Nebula.jpg

The thing is, as far as my process goes, this is nothing new. I start books in a flurry of heat and light. They are all I can think about. They are all I can do. And then they collapse. And I need to learn to accept the collapsing. I need to learn that entropy is part of my creative process. Hell, my book that’s coming out this summer, The Mostly True Story of Jack, ground to a halt no less than twenty times while I was writing it. My book that’s appearing next year – Iron Hearted Violet –  had to sit and wait for an entire year before I could finish it.

I start books; I create universes; I foment stars, and then I blow them up and leave huge clouds of dust behind.

Last year, I’ve been suffering from an increase of entropy.

Or, it isn’t so much that I have experienced the entropy, but the book did. I shouldn’t be surprised, not really. This is how I make books. I wrote The Firebirds of Lake Erie last year. Wrote the end. Hated the end. Erased the end.

Then I erased the last third.

Then I erased the last half.

Then I left it for dead.

Recently, I felt a shockwave. A jolt. The energetic pulse of an exploding supernova, half a universe away, and it knocked me out of bed and onto my knees. The book was in pieces. It was subatomic. But the tiny bits were starting to coalesce. They were starting to stick. And I think I know what to do now. The thing that was dust is becoming book. And it was good.

This makes me happy, because the other book I started last fall – Witless Ned and the Speaking Stones - suffered a similar implosion in February. So now I just have to trust that the undulating cloud of dusty novel bits will one day shudder, tremble and live. And the best thing I can do for poor Ned is to leave him be.

Change exists. Matter recombines. The Universe reinvents itself again and again and again. There is no death. There is no destruction.  There is only formation and history and newness and memory and structure and pattern and arc.  And, deep in our souls, is the unshakable knowledge every atom within us gleams with the memory of stars.

http://www.universetoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/sirius-580x550.jpg

*******

I told my son that all the matter in his body was formed when the universe was formed, and that his atoms are as old as the Big Bang. He thought about that for a while.

“You mean that I’m the same age as you?” he asked.

“Yup,” I said. “In a matter of speaking.”

“Well,” he said, “next time you do something naughty, I’m totally going to send you to your room.”

First Lines

Just a quick post today, as I hurry out the door to conduct my very last story-writing workshop at Chanhassen Elementary. But I wanted to share with you just a tiny bit of what these kids are doing.

I like to start my residencies with a workshop on First Lines. I do this for a number of reasons – firstly, because it’s a very non-threatening place to start for the possibly-reluctant writer. (“Hey!” I tell them. “We’re not writing full stories yet. Just a sentence. The first sentence of a story that you would like to read someday.” See how tricky I am? And see how I educate these children in the fine art of Self-Delusion, so necessary for a life built on fictions and lies.) Secondly, because it is the first line that sparks our love in stories. It is the first line that draws us in. It’s the first line that knocks us out of balance and forces us forward in our search for equilibrium.

The first line matters.

So I put the kids to work. And holy heck, do they ever produce. And they produce material that is so much richer so much more authentic than any worksheet or teaching aid that I could produce. This, of course, allows me to be lazy, which I appreciate.

Here are some of their first lines:

-It was never my intention to rule the world. I didn’t even want to rule my own town. But now I’m stuck with it.

- It is coming. Fast and faster than I could run.

-When I woke up, I was in jail.

- Nobody knows that I’m an alien.

- My mother is a dancer. My father is a dance. I have been dancing since before I was born.

- Do you know what an ordinary Saturday is like? Well lucky for you, because I don’t.

- He heard the hunters getting closer. He checked his watch. “Perfect timing,” he said.

- In the darkness, the white willows shone like ghosts and the moon shone like a shield.

YOU GUYS. These kids are amazing, and I will miss them.

I’m pretty sure I just squashed the dreams (and possibly the souls) of a bunch of college students.

I just got back from a student/alumni networking event for Liberal Arts majors at my alma mater, St. Catherine University – a small, Catholic, all-lady college in Minnesota. I had agreed - foolishly, yes, I see that now – to sit down and chat with a bunch of current students about my career trajectory, my past experience, how my academic grounding prepared me for where I am today, and…..I don’t know. Some other stuff.

And I told them the truth.

And their faces fell.

And honestly, I’m not (entirely) sorry about framing the things I said the way I said them. No one really prepares college kids for the directionlessness of the post-college years. The uncertainty. The self-doubt. No one tells kids how much utter re-invention their life paths will require of them, how much they will have to rely on their creativity, their vision, their willingness to change paths, change thinking, change everything. And that’s okay – it’s just good to be prepared.

I told them that graduation really sucked for me. That I floated in a state of ennui for a couple of years, without direction, without spark, without a sense of the shape that I wanted my life to be.

I told them that they’ll never feel like a grownup. That they’ll always feel like a learner – and that’s actually good. If we feel like we’re one step behind where we want to be, it means we’re moving. Life requires motion, and action and response. We can coast when we’re dead.

I told them that they needed to be flexible and creative and innovative with their career choices, that they had to be willing to research and analyze, that they need to be able to apply their skills to one day do jobs that may not even exist now. And even more – that they’ll have to do that again and again and again. I told them that the world is dynamic and changeable and there was very little that they could count on, so they’d have to build a life with their own two hands.

I told them that my career – hell, my entire life -was built on a precarious structure of duct tape, string, popsicle sticks and gum. And fairy dust. And prayer. And a couple hocked loogies. And that was okay, because it is the life that I built, which means that I can claim it – even the wobbly bits and the annoying bits and the guess-what-kids-we’re-only-eating-ramen-noodles-this-week bits.

I told them to be prepared to work jobs that they hate, to take orders from people they despise, and to do it with a smile. I told them that they well may be fired one day for reasons totally outside of their control, that good jobs can go suddenly bad, and that things that seem like scraping the bottom of the barrel can turn into the opportunities that define their careers. I told them to take chances. And that self-employment is a terrifying, exhilarating, nail-biting and beautiful, beautiful thing.

I told them that being a writer required masochism, a thickness of skin bordering on delusional, a willingness to be simultaneously separated from the world and integrated into it. A willingness to go to a place of not me. When I’m writing, there is no me. There is only the book. Indeed, when someone reads my book, there is no me there either. The only thing that exists is this: characters, place, story, and the reader’s relationship with the three. Being a writer is both prestidigitation and vanishing – you see the thing I make, but I disappear.

But mostly, I told them to lose everything that they should be doing. Should is a word that has driven many a twenty-something (including myself, once upon a time) straight into the waiting arms of their therapists. Not to knock therapists, or anything, but it seems that we could all save ourselves a lot of trouble if we forget about shoulds and forget about the standards by which our eighteen year old selves judge our twenty-eight-year- old selves (or thirty-eight, or forty-eight) and simply focus on the paths that we’re on, and pouring our hearts and souls into each blessed (and sucky) day.

Once upon a time, I was a starry-eyed co-ed too. The life that I had assumed that I would have was radically different from the life that I had. And honestly, thank god. Because I was kind of an idiot in college. Much of the turns my life has taken, have been entirely accidental. I didn’t mean to fall in love, for example. And then parenthood kind of presented itself when I least expected it. These things dramatically altered my course – away from the shoulds of my college self into the doing the best I can of my adult self.

I didn’t mean to become a bartender. Or a homeless youth worker. Or a janitor. Or a park ranger. Or a receptionist. Or an activist. Or a journalist. Or any of the random jobs I’ve held in my life. Sometimes you get to seize opportunities, and sometimes you take what you can get. All the same I’m glad that I did the lot of them, because each step brought me to where I am now. Novelist. Mom. Teacher. It’s not a comfortable life by any means, and it’s fraught with uncertainty, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.

It’s a pretty good life, actually. And I’ll keep it.

Feed the Beast

Whenever I have a lull in my writing production (and let me tell you, this happens a lot), I start reading a TON of books on writing, on the creative process, on living the life of an artist, and what have you. And these books, though they may give me the aura of the Artist Hard At Work – it is nothing short of poseurism. Because these books – for me – have been nothing short of useless.

And that’s okay. Sometimes we need to do useless things to fill the time between bouts of mad utility and unabashed production.

Still, with my head full of slogans like “filling the well” and whatever else they’ve told me to do over the years, I’ve discovered that my creative life bears no semblance to the secret groves or babbling brooks or tender thoughts alight on gossamer wings that I’ve read about in other people’s descriptions of their various creative journeys.

My creative life is not a journey. Nor is it a well. Nor is it a river. Nor is it a garden that I must love and tend and fuss over.

My creative life is animal.

It has teeth, and claws and sinew and bone. It has a wet nose and sensitive ears and breath reeking of old meat.  It is heavy-muscled, long-legged and agile. It is crafty, frightened, randy and fierce. It lopes, and stalks and pounces. It sniffs at the ground, howls at the moon, urinates on trees, scratches after it shits, and follows its prey for miles.

My creative life has mangy fur and yellow eyes and a gamey scent that can knock you out. It nuzzles my face in the morning, grabs me by the nape of my neck and tosses me out of bed. I can see its ribs. I can see its ligaments under its tight skin. It’s hungry. And it doesn’t want to wait.

So I feed the beast.

I don’t write every day – I’m not that kind of writer. I write when the beast is hungry. I write when the beast paces next to my desk. As I write, I sweat, I shiver, I weep. I write from my skin, my muscle, my empty stomach, my restless feet. I write as if I’m running. And maybe I am.

And when I write – when I write a lot – the beast begins to be satisfied. I read too, though not craft books. It hates those. I read fiction and nonfiction and poetry and memoir. I read across genre and time period. My brain is a smorgasbord for my hungry beast. I gather things from the natural world – artifacts from the book I’m working on. Right now, on my desk, there are three oval stones, a bit of bark with pale green lichen clinging to its grooves, five scraps of paper with five Nordic runes written crudely with my left hand. There is a crown made from wintered grass, tied with a ribbon.

I write to feed the beast. I write to make it happy. I write to put it to sleep. I write to feel its head on my lap, its dark breath on my skin, its ragged howl ringing in my own, open mouth. I write, so that one day, it will be sleek, fat and fine. I write to send it – howling, snarling, singing its name – into the wide, wide world.

And then I wait until the next time I’m woken in the night by a pair of yellow eyes, a hungry, hollow panting somewhere in the darkness of my house. And a new book begins.

How I Became the Most Famous Woman Alive (in my head) (for one week)

Last week I did a fiction residency at Epiphany Catholic School in Coon Rapids, MN.

(Here’s me holding a whiteboard marker that I was about to start waving around as either a lightsaber or a magic wand. One or the other.)

On my very first day, after talking to a group of fourth graders about stories, and cheering them on as they wrote stories of their own, a little girl gave me a big hug, and said this: “You are as pretty as Sarah Palin.” She smiled. “Almost,” she added – yanno. To keep it real.

And while – most people who read this blog probably guessed this – I wouldn’t call myself a fan of the ex-governor, nor would I expect that she and I would agree on a single thing if we were ever in the same room – it was certainly evident that as far as this little girl was concerned, she was giving me the highest of compliments. And I appreciated it.

(though really…..the “almost” does sting. I could out-cute Sarah Palin with one arm tied behind my back and hopping on one foot.)

But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that for one week – perhaps the only week of my life – I was a total rock star. There were posters of my serious-looking mug all over the school (like, about twenty of them), and the kids throughout the school knew that I’d be paying all of them a visit sometime during the week.

Whenever I walked by, children pointed. They gasped. They whispered in one another’s ear. They asked for my autograph (I didn’t have the heart to tell them that once I wrote on the paper, the autograph was worth less than the original paper it was written on. Who puts value on a scribbled piece of paper?). Kids ran up to me from halfway down the hall and gave me a hug. They squealed when they realized that my nonfiction books were in the library (“The library!!” they gasped.)

They listened to me read.

Okay, fine, they weren’t really listening at that point, because they were working so hard on the stories they wanted to share with me. And share they did. I have around seventy hand-written pages in my bag of student stories – lovingly written, then shoved into my hands. They giggled and blushed. They needed me to read them. Look how hard they worked! 

I’ve written here before how I’ve never been, nor will I ever be, cool. Still, for that week, those kids declared me cool. And I’ll hang onto it.

On Ruling the World (and other worthwhile endeavors)

About a year ago, I sat on the couch with my eleven year old. She had a book on her lap, I had a laptop upon which I was furiously typing the final chapter of my next story. All of a sudden she closed her book with a slap and chucked it – without comment – across the room. I looked over. Her face was set with exasperation and rage.

“Everything okay?” I asked.

“Why,” she asked, “do evil villains insist on incessantly trying to rule the world? Can we have another plotline, please?

http://t2.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSkxkQw04UUg6Y093HHnAV-ryUlSmO-GxTpfljNUu3t9pdVVEM7csJCj4bttQ

“What about evil villains who try to rule the multiverse?” I asked, giving a surreptitious glance at my own work-in-progress, thinking more critically about the motivations of my own evil villain.

“Same thing,” she said.

Drat, I thought.

“Is it just that writers themselves are power-hungry megalomaniacs? When writers write villains, is it just because they’re living out their fantasies?” She gave me a sidelong glance. “Do writers secretly plot to rule the world?” She gulped. “Do you?”

I had to act fast.

“Let’s have ice cream,” I said, changing the subject. Next I knew, she’d be asking about my alter-ego, or my secret lair, or my army of steam-powered automons with laser-beam eyes that I have in the garage.

“No,” she said. “I don’t trust it. And I am so on to you.” She narrowed her eyes. “Princess Barnhill.” She flounced away (though, I noticed, she picked the book back up, and took it to her room to read.)

Yup.I thought. She’s onto me, all right.

Because it’s true: I’m a total megalomaniac. And a power freak. That’s why I write fiction.

Incidentally, that’s why I like teaching as well.  Now I’ve blogged before about my passion for corrupting the youth of America, and I stand by it. But what I haven’t written about before is the rush I feel – both in teaching and in writing.

Take this picture for an example:

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2634/3885203060_9dae58f12a_z.jpg?zz=1

A classroom full of bright-eyed, fresh-faced minions! What’s not to love?

Because it’s true: In my classroom, it is my land, my kingdom, my realm. And I am Princess. When I was a classroom teacher, I had a hundred and twenty kids refer to me as Princess Barnhill. Now, every once in a while, I show up at a school to do a week-long residency wearing a crown.

Just because.

When I stand in front of a classroom – when I have every eye, every mind, every heart tuned to what I’m about to say – I’m creating a singular, insular, perfect world. I make the rules; I guide the thinking; I can make it wonderful or scary or boring or fun. And when I get a room full of kids thinking about stories, and talking about stories, and imagining new stories…..and THEN, preside over that same room with thirty kids bent over their desks, spinning stories on the page, when the only sound to be heard is the sound of pencils scratching and papers rustling and open-mouthed breathing…..

Honestly, there’s nothing, nothing better.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b4/Landaff_1940s.jpg/350px-Landaff_1940s.jpg

I love teaching. I love pulling kids into the world of story-making. And I love, love, love being Princess for a little bit. It’s not exactly ruling the world. But it’s close enough.

On leaps of faith. (And falling.) (And flying.)

I read an article over at Salon.com about the financial perils of the Mommy-track. (It’s called “Regrets of a Stay-At-Home Mom” , by one Katy Read, and it’s absolutely worth the read. Then, if you happen to be – as I am – a stay-at-home mom, then get down on your knees and pray). Essentially, the author examines her own decision to remain at home with her two sons, now teenagers, and how that decision (in conjunction with her divorce) has landed her in a financial pit of despair. She’s a freelance writer (which means that she makes close to nothing), and was out of the newspaper game for fourteen years, which means that she missed fourteen years worth of promotions, pay increases, seniority, 401k employer matches and what have you.

And her situation is bleak. (And not just for her. This economy really sucks for anyone who’s been out of work. Still. She’s paying for her choices and paying hard, and the comments on her piece have been anything but kind.)

I read that article, and I immediately called my husband.

Actually, that’s not true. I didn’t call him immediately. I cleaned my house and thought about leaps of faith. Because, in the end, that’s what I did. I leaped – into love, into marriage, into motherhood, into stay-at-home parenting, and into the writing life. All of those decisions required tremendous faith in things that are not me. And I believed in them for no reason, except for hoping. I’m very, very good at hoping for the best.

As I got my house in order, I became incredibly appreciative of my husband. Look, I’ll be honest: I’m not an easy person to be married to. I’m sensitive, needy and sometimes irrational. I’m a terrible money-manager. I make horrible financial decisions. I’m a rotten gardener. I’m a miserable housekeeper. And I have temper. And I’m sometimes loud.

And yet. Ted loves me anyway. We were so young when we married our fortunes together, and so young when we married for real, and so young when we brought a new person into the world. We had nothing. Just a little bit of hope that we’d keep eating and building and growing.

It’s a little easier to leap when someone is holding your hand, but it’s a leap all the same. We closed our eyes, bent our knees and jumped skyward.

So, after cleaning the house, I called him at the office. Ted, like me, is a do-it-yourself type when it comes to his job. A few years ago, he took his own kind of leap into business-ownership, starting a small architectural design firm with a partner, called Design 45.

“I just wanted to tell you that I recognize that I’m not an easy person to be married to,” I said to him, “and I appreciate you and I really really really love you and I think you’re marvelous.”

Ted sighed – a slow, long-suffering sigh. “I think I’ve mentioned before that you really need to knock off the mushy phone calls when I’m trying to get work done,” he said. I could hear him shaking his head. I could hear him smiling. “But I love you too. You dork.” And he’s right. I am a dork.

And just like that, I flew.

The thing is, though, when I made the decision to choose stay-at-home parenting instead of returning to the classroom, I was absolutely making a leap of faith in regards to my marriage. I was also making a HUGE leap of faith in regards to my potential as a writer. Because I knew – I knew! – that I wanted to be writing fiction. I knew that I did not want to be in the classroom full time. I knew that I wanted to be with my children every waking moment and writing stories when they were sleeping, and I wanted to be building books.

I never thought to really analyze the tremendous faith I was putting on the stability of my marriage to make that happen. It never even occurred to me. I trusted in my marriage in the same way I trusted that my next breath will have enough oxygen in it and that the ground beneath my feet won’t give way to a sinkhole.

If we have faith without thinking, is it still faith? Or, conversely, if we calculate the risk, if we weigh the possibilities of failure, and then leap – if we leap after first making sure that the other side is stable enough to hold us – is that faith?

In any case, it doesn’t matter. I leaped. I stayed home with my children. I was mostly good at it. And I loved it. I wrote books. Most of them I threw away. Some of them I sold – and by doing so, helped to keep my family financially afloat. My husband leaped too. He left the stability of a firm and struck out on his own. It worked. The one time when his business slowed thanks to the financial melt-down, I had sold the novel, and we were able to live on that exclusively for a while. And my kids – they have two parents who have built a life on their wits – and a combination of duct tape, twine, sticks, tissue paper and chewing gum. It’s not for everyone, but it’ll do for us just fine.

We closed our eyes, held hands, and flew.

 

Everything I Know About Writing I Learned From Reading Fairy Tales

All right fine, that’s not exactly true. But it’s a little bit true.

When I was a kid, my dad had a book of fairy tales. It was a huge thing – phonebook sized. We struggled to haul it to my parents’ bed for bedtime stories. The cover had long since been worn away to nothing, so my dad re-bound it, using a checkerboard cut to size. We called it The Checker Book, and my dad read to us out of it night after night.

Later, I couldn’t get enough fairy tales – Grimm, d’Aulnoy, Perrault, Lang, Anderson, collections from Russia, Vietnam, Persia, Scotland and Norway. I gathered stories in my arms. Sucked them dry.

Later, because I was SUPER GROWN UP, I turned to more sober fare. I learned to parse language, analyze, make connections, dissect. But there was something about fairy tales. Something that wouldn’t let me go.

I return to fairy tales – in my thinking, in my dreaming, in how I organize the world, in how I operate with others, and in my writing. Take this for example:

(the actual fairy tale starts in the middle of the second minute)

The servant shall be king. Good prevails. The world is both dark and light – the light needs the dark, just as the dark needs the light. There are rules – and we break them at our peril. There are rules – and we follow them at our peril. True love exists – it is instant, revolutionary and life-changing. Those who think they deserve success achieve none. Those who presume nothing achieve all. The princess shall be rescued. Greed is punished tenfold. Kindness is rewarded beyond all imagining. Our perceived weakness hides the key to our triumph. The mighty bear the weight of their own destruction – and they can’t even see it.

What I Need to Turn My Teacher Into A Toad

Confession: I have done this.

 

Okay, fine, I haven’t really.

In my defense, I never really tried,  but that has more to do with a healthy respect for magic and the many laws of unintended consequences. Writers who write about magic know all about unintended consequences. Indeed, it’s one of the few things we excel at.

But the reason why I bring it up at all is because of my current obsession with checking the dashboard page of my blog, which tells me the search engine terms by which folks arrive at my little corner of the internets.

(Hello, by the way, to those of you who are new. This is a quiet little corner. Unfashionable. But comfy, in a old-wool-socks sort of way. I have snacks and grog and a ratty chair that moans pleasantly when you sit on it.)

(The chair, incidentally, tells stories too.)

Now, most of the time, people arrive here because they’ve googled my name, or the name of one of my stories. Sometimes people arrive looking for information on yoga or nautical history, or taxidermy, or Billy Collins – all of which I’ve written about on this blog from time to time. Every once in a while people arrive looking for, well, yucky things. Pornographic things. I can’t help but think they’ve gone away horribly disappointed, and for that I’m mostly sorry. But only mostly.

Today, however, someone stopped by after googling: “What I need to turn my teacher into a toad.”

I stared at it for some time, mouth open, breath halting in quick, short gasps. How did they know? I asked my computer. My computer, as always, was silent. How did they know?

You see, in eighth grade, while raging and fuming over some perceived injustice by one Mr. Trajano, my English teacher (who, incidentally, was a marvelous teacher, and utterly blameless in my adolescent cataloguing of wrongs. Lou Trajano! If you’re reading this, I’m terribly sorry that I ever wanted to turn you into a toad!) I went into a quiet spot in the schoolyard during recess, opened my notebook (my dark notebook. My secret notebook. My notebook that held every inkling towards wickedness, every yearning for wrongdoing.) and wrote the following words:

WHAT I NEED TO TURN MY TEACHER INTO A TOAD

1. String (Magic, as everyone knows, is practical. It needs no store, no catalog, no special order. String can be both net and noose. It can be both ladder and snare. It can be woven into a bag, give direction to the blind, tied in a knot that can’t be loosened. Anything that can be more than one thing at once is magic. Everyone knows that.)

2. Crayons (Magic is the alteration of substance – big to little, rough to smooth, red to green, white to black. Crayons, therefore, are ridiculously magical.)

3. Baking soda (for indigestion.)

4. Honey (to sweeten the sour.)

5. Vinegar (to sour the sweet.)

6. Wax paper (to keep it from sticking.)

7. A small mirror (A mirror doesn’t show us what we are. It shows us what we were. A moment ago, when the light hit your body, hit the mirror and came back again. A mirror shows you what you’ve lost.)

8. Gum (always useful.)

9. A toad (that’s the tricky part.)

Now, in my original list, I only had the items, not the explanations. But as I remember it, the explanations are close – or mostly close – to my thinking in eighth grade. In any case, I provided myself no instructions, believing that magic can have no instruction. Magic is intuitive. An instruction can be manipulated, distorted, bent. Intuition is the child of intention and resources; it is practical, decisive, industrious, and, above all, useful.

Even when it is not used.

I chose to refrain from turning my teacher into a toad. But I kept the list, just in case. And I list them here, not because I want you to use them, oh toad-turning reader. No! But to know that you can, but won’t. There is a marvelous power in won’t.

 

I had the power to turn my teacher into a toad. I didn’t. But the power remained, and it, like magic, transformed into something else – a poem, a painting, a story, a song. What is the thing that you won’t do? What is the power in you – running under your skin like electricity, buzzing in your fingertips, frizzing your hair, dazzling your eyes? And what will it be next?