“No one is afraid of me at all,” she said. And she grinned a wicked grin.

ImageYou are not afraid of me, are you?

Perhaps you should be. After all, I killed a man yesterday. Granted, he was imaginary, but I showed motive, opportunity and intent, so perhaps I should be in prison.

Particularly since it was not my first offense. 

So far this year, I have – willingly and without remorse – killed seven people. Recently, when assembling my short fiction and laying out the spine of a possible collection, I took stock of the crimes that I have committed since first writing fiction on a professional level. In my short fiction, there are twenty-two murders, one suicide, countless maimings, one self-inflicted limb loss, and a death by burning. (Side note – never smoke cigarettes while sitting on a pile of dead, dry leaves. Trust me. It does not end well.)

And, of course, this doesn’t count the victims of war in my high fantasy stories. My god. People are dropping like flies.

Now, granted, it could have been a lot worse. One of the early draft of one story had an entire universe of people being snuffed out without a trace. That, apparently, was too scary for middle grade, (who knew?) so I changed it. 

The thing is, in real life, I don’t typically strike people as a particularly dangerous person. I am a thirty-eight year old mother of three. I drive a minivan. I volunteer at school. I bake pie and garden and chat with neighbors. I appear sinister or dangerous or threatening to exactly no one.

Once, last year, I was running along Nine Mile Creek in Bloomington. If you’ve never gone running there, I highly recommend it – soft trails along a rushing creek cut in a deep, steep ravine, full of trees and vines and flowers. There is no road noise, no houses in sight, very few people. You run in a river of green. Anyway, last year, I was running along that path, all alone. I was two miles in, and I hadn’t seen a soul the whole time. It was around eleven a.m. on a Wednesday. The bedroom community surrounding the park had all packed up and gone to work. No one was in the park.

Except me.

And some man.

I slowed down. He was about a quarter mile in front of me, travelling in the opposite direction. He looked like he was in his late forties, caucasian, scruffy beard, vest and shirt sleeves ripped off. I could see, even from that distance that he was strong. I looked at him, he looked at me, and neither of us altered our direction.

And I thought should I be frightened? I wasn’t, but I wondered if I should be. I was alone. And attacks happen. 

And I thought, if something happened to me down here, would anyone hear me call for help? Absolutely not. That much I knew for sure.

And I thought, does he think of me as a threat. Is he frightened of me? Again, absolutely not. Though, he should have been. I know how to kill a man with a set of keys. I know how to use someone else’s momentum to throw them to the ground and then step on their neck. I know a lot of things. I’ve been in three fist fights in my life, and broke two noses (neither of them my own) in the process. I would likely be able to defend myself if need be. Plus, I was faster and stronger. And I have a wicked left hook.

And I though, how strange that, because of my gender and my age, because of my Anglo features and my crows feet and my wedding ring, no one sees me as a threat.

Now, of course, the encounter in the park occurred without incident. We passed, I said hello, he nodded, and that was that. He was nothing to be frightened of. Neither, apparently, was I.

But you know, I wish I was. Sometimes, I wish I was frightening. Sometimes I wish I was dangerous. Sometimes I wish I was sinister or ominous or wicked or menacing. I am not. I am the open-armed mama folding laundry and cooking soup. No one is afraid of me at all. 

Real people aren’t, anyway. Characters, on the other hand, are friggin’ terrified.

And really, in my real life, I like being a cookie-baking matron with a swarm of kids in the back yard and a gentle lilt in the voice. I like being the neighbor with the cocoa on the stove and the wine in the pantry and the nine million sleds or bikes or scooters in the garage. I like drawing pictures with kids. I really do. But I also like the idea that I could be dangerous- that I could be a threat, but that I choose not to.

Because the line between good and evil is perilously thin.

And I want to keep the world on its toes.

Round these here parts, you can’t throw a stick into a bar without hitting a writer.

Or, in my experience today, a coffee shop.

I live in a land lousy with writers. We are not just the land of 10,000 lakes: we are the land of 10,000 novelists.

Indeed, just in my random little neighborhood, I know of seven whose houses are in walking distance, and another twenty who are within a five minute driving distance. And these are just the people I know and enjoy hanging out with.

The other day, I met up with a bunch of kidlit author-types from the greater Twin Cities area at a pretty cool bar in Saint Paul. I love these people, I really do. They are funny and sassy and salty-mouthed, three things that I always appreciate in a person. They are also quick-witted and furiously smart, which  means, of course, that I’m always about nine steps behind in any given conversation (childbirth, alas, has significantly impacted my IQ), but I love it anyway.

At this particular bar night, the always-lovely Erin Downing (author of Kiss It and Prom Crashers) informed me that the Caribou Coffee near my house has magical powers.

Well, that’s not how she put it. She just said that she got a lot of work done there while her two youngest kids were at preschool. This, of course, I interpreted as having magical powers. Because right now, getting work done seems magical.

And you know what? I went over there, sat down, installed the good old Mac Freedom to keep my sorry self off the shiny, shiny Internets, and know what I discovered? That coffee shop is magic. MAGIC I TELL YOU! I’ve gotten more done in the last three days than I have in the last month. I think I may go there every day, if I don’t destroy my stomach lining in the process from so much dang coffee.

Today, when I arrived at the coffee shop, I ran into Ms. Downing, and of course it was wonderful.

“I’m so glad you told me about this coffee shop,” I said to her. “It has magical powers. This Caribou is MAGIC.”

The girl who was ringing me up stared at me, open mouthed. “It is?” she said. “I work in a magical Caribou? I had no idea.”

And I think I made her day.

One of the things about this weird job of writing books and selling books and hoping people like your books, is that it can be tricky to find colleagues. And so we work alone in our insufferable insecurities and annoying neuroses. This, alas, is attractive to no one.

When I was writing The Mostly True Story Of Jack I had no writing group (except for during one, small bit of it, but I couldn’t keep it going) and I really didn’t know any writers very well. And the ones I did  know, I was too shy to reach out to. And so I worked alone, writing only during the hours of four and six in the morning, and showing my work to no one, until I finally got an agent.

There were times, after my book sold, that my work as a writer was so divorced from my everyday life – none of my friends were writers, it was hard to talk about at playgroups or at the park – that I started to wonder if I had secretly made the whole thing up.

After all, I’m pretty good at making things up.

One of the things that I’ve tried to do over the last year is to forge stronger bonds with the writers of this community – both my physical community of the Twin Cities, as well as the tribes of cool writers who form little bands online. Because this work is hard, and because we need colleagues, and we need to blow off steam after work sometimes, and we need the support of caring co-workers.

And sometimes, someone needs to tell us about magical coffee shops. Because something needs to give us a little kick in the pants every once in a while. And  magical coffee shops are as good a kick as any.

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.

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?

Into the Woods

Last year, I took my family into the wooded north of my fair State – to a wilderness area known around these parts as the Boundary Waters (officially the BWCAW, or Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness). If you’ve never been, you simply must. Ancient rocks, abundant wildlife, deep, cold lakes with some of the clearest water in the world. Moose. Eagles. Cougars. Wolves.

It’s magnificent.

We went sporadically when the girls were little, but ever since my son turned two, we’ve gone every year. And every year, we’ve come home saying, “Well, that was definitely our hardest year. Next year will be easier.”

We said that when Leo tried to lose himself on the portage.

We said that when he stabbed a hole in the tent with a stick.

We said that when he peed on my sleeping bag ….. on purpose.

We said that when he dumped boiling water on his feet – right before a huge storm, and we couldn’t leave.

And we said that last year, when, after using the latrine and accidentally dropping the hand sanitizer into its putrid depths, decided that he would be responsible. He would be useful. And he would be brave. So, my son – my irony-loving son – hooked his arm on the lip of the toilet, and lowered himself inside.

He returned to the campsite, up to his thighs in decomposing shit, proudly displaying the hand sanitizer.

Next year, Ted and I told ourselves with quavering voices and shaking hands. Next year will be easier.

And today, I believe it. Today, we venture into the woods.

There is a great poetry to the wilderness excursion. We go seeking……something. Peace. Riches. Serenity. Enlightenment. Adventure. Castles. Dragons. Enchanted Kings. And we re-emerge into our real lives indelibly changed.

Or the world that we left has shifted under our feet.

Or the universe we left is not the universe to which we return.

We go to the wood and survive in the wood and are changed by the wood. We become fairy tale, fable and myth.

Last year, when we were camping, I brought a notebook and wrote the opening chapters of my project Witless Ned and the Speaking Stones. Since then, I finished the book, and realized that Ned needed an accomplice – a girl named Aine.  Now I return to the story, again in longhand, and will restart the narrative while sitting on a rock, next to a groaning tree and a windy lake.

And you know, I’m rather excited about it.

All Memory is Magic; All Magic is Memory

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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.

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.