Due to some personal issues, this week’s story has been delayed. I am hoping to have it ready tomorrow. I am very sorry to miss my deadline. I hope you understand.
I knew I should be working, but I was on my computer, scrolling through the same Facebook stories I had already read several times that day. It was then that a person walked into my office and sat down in the other chair. Their features, really any distinguishing characteristics, were difficult to make out. They just sat there, waiting.
“Who are you?” I asked after a moment.
“I am waiting for you to tell me.” The voice, too, was indistinct, as if the words were just there without having been spoken aloud. Neither young nor old; neither soft nor harsh.
“How should I know who you are, if you don’t know yourself?”
But the figure did not respond. It merely looked at me with eyes I could not clearly see. I wanted it to leave, so that I could go back to doing nothing. It stubbornly refused.
Exasperated, I said, “Fine. You are a young woman, around 20.” And she was. “You are five and a half feet tall, and thin. Sharp, almost regal features, with a fierceness behind them, yet a kindness, too. Shoulder length brown hair, and hazel eyes.” Those eyes looked back at me.
“Your name is Cassandra, but only your parents ever called you that. They passed away many years ago.” An old sadness, deep inside, could only be seen by those who knew her well. “You have studied under a mage, a strange old man who calls himself simply ‘Ice.’ You want to find your own path now.”
Cassie smiled at me, a look of gratitude. “Thank you. Now, please, write my story.”
Unable to deny her, I shut down my computer and picked up my pen.
Ink flows as I try to make sense of it all. Every minute of every day contains an unsolvable mystery. It is the clash between wanting to understand and the realization that there is no larger tale to be told. They mystery is why do I think there is a question, much less an answer.
There are the stories I tell myself to put my life into some sort of narrative structure. They are unrecognizable by others, even those who appear in them. They tell their own stories about those events. In some of the stories, I am the hero. In some, I am the villain. And in many, I am merely a minor character, playing a walk-on part. All of these stories are true. And all of them are misleading.
Then there are the stories I tell myself to escape from this world and live in another. These stories are false but never misleading. They contain whatever the reader wishes to find. Fiction tells us about the world as we hope to find it, or as we fear it might be. It is our world, but only if we have the courage to make it so.
The ink flows and invents meaning and truth. It transforms the blank page into the sacred text. It tells the story of lives we do not lead, but think we do. It does not matter if the words are any good. They represent our attempts – futile though they be – to understand. Or maybe it does matter, and that is just another lie we tell ourselves.
The universe cares about none of it. It sees only moments, no grand design. The ink flows, but only from us. Only for us.
They say it’s going to snow tomorrow.
Will you shut up. I’m not writing that kind of dialogue right now.
“What kind of dialogue are you writing?”
Shut up! I’m not writing any kind of dialogue. I don’t need you, or any other voice, for help with this. I just want to talk about snow.
“Oh. Got it. Sorry.”
Okay, so… Tomorrow it’s supposed to snow. There is even a blizzard warning up for the afternoon. It’s almost enough to get my hopes up. But I’ve been disappointed so many times, it’s hard to get too excited. I know we got some snow last year, but it still didn’t feel like a proper winter.
So far, the change in our winter weather feels like the biggest personal impact climate change has had…
“Oh. A political post. You haven’t done one of those in years.”
It’s not a political post. I’m talking about winter.
“Yeah, but climate change is so charged with partisanship these days.”
Hmm. I suppose you might be right. But this isn’t about politics. Just that I worry about not having proper winters anymore. We never got a lot of snow around here, but when we did, it stuck around. Now we get melts in January and February. During my favorite season. It’s depressing.
Anyway, sorry the repeated interruptions. Sometimes the voices get restless. And if I haven’t done any writing for them in awhile, they get really restless.
Back to winter.
I have always found peace in the snow, in the cold of winter. The world grows quiet, still. Sound is muffled. It’s a time for introspection, for rest, for regrouping. It gives reasons for drinking hot tea while curled up under blankets and cats. A season of long nights, beautiful skies, and twinkling lights. It brings a softness and peace to the world. Without its pause, it feels as though the world will never stop. It will just keep going and going until it wears itself out or tears itself apart. Winter is our chance to step back and consider what really matters.
So even thought I might be let down again, I still have hope for snow tomorrow. Hope that we might get a little peace. The moon needs something to reflect off of, after all.
“That was nice.”
I didn’t ask you.
For much of my life, I’ve had insomnia. My mind races with ideas. It isn’t anxiety, not always. Just ideas going through it and distracting me from sleep. Perhaps it’s that I’m really a night person. When I’ve had the chance to work night shift, it seems to suit me. Whatever the case, since I was a teenager, I’ve always had trouble falling asleep at night. Often, to try to quiet my mind, I’d tell myself stories. It’s something I’ve done for almost as long as I can remember.
These stories were often indistinct, the inventions of a mind too tired to be awake and too restless to sleep. One character regularly figured into the stories early on. His name was Jack. A roguish sort, heart of gold, rescuer of children. Mainly, he was the guy who kept me safe from all of the terrible things in my mind at night. Jack would be distilled and morphed into different characters in later stories I would write, but he started as my shield against insomnia.
I mention any of this only because there is another common feature to many of those stories. They often began with the phrase “I need you to do something.” The words were often spoken by an older man, white hair, long grey beard. The “something” was never described. It appeared in my mind like a prelude before jumping right into the action. The “something” would be revealed as the story unfolded. It was my version of “Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” The phrase set the stage, and I could relax into the story, eventually falling asleep.
As anyone who has ever kept a pen and notebook by their bedside could tell you, if you don’t write down your ideas when they happen, they get lost easily. Probably none of those stories were wroth writing down. But as I sat here, trying to write a story beginning with “I need you to do something,” I found myself wishing I could recall them.
A couple of decades ago, I tried to write on my computer. For some things, I still do. Writing emails or academic papers seems to go just fine on a keyboard. But for prose, fiction, and journaling, I never got fully comfortable with the computer. Even after writing my first novel on a computer, I found myself going back to pen and paper.
Mind you, this is a completely personal preference. I do not think one way is inherently better than another. It’s just that I started writing long before I got a computer, and pen and paper are the means I used.
It probably helps that I love office supplies. Even as a kid, I enjoyed those stores as much as toy stores. My dad and grandpa worked out of my grandparents’ house, and the basement always had pens, pencils, note pads, file folders, and so on. I never wanted for the tools of writing.
Over the years, I have had different favorite pens and different preferred notebooks (composition notebooks, anyone?). Generally, these have been inexpensive, though I admit that my current favorite notebooks fall on the pricier side. (I still use inexpensive legal pads for a lot of my writing, however.)
The other day, we were walking by an art supply shop. On the door was an advertisement for a limited edition Cross pen, Star Wars themed. I’ve only ever had one Cross pen in my life, an engraved one given to me by my sister. Normally, I wouldn’t consider such an item, but I thought I might splurge.
While looking over pens, I asked about fountain pens. I’ve never used one before, but I was curious. Now I have three bottles of ink, which together cost more than the pen I bought, and I can safely say I have a new favorite pen; my most expensive favorite yet. It is easily the most fun. And luckily, the ink washes off of my skin very easily.
- No 2-dimensional, cartoon villains. (Think the Emperor from Star Wars.) These aren’t real people. People have motivations. People are complicated. Villains should be people.
- All narrators are unreliable. Even without dishonesty, events will look different from different perspectives.
- Don’t be afraid of the supernatural. Use it to tell stories.
- Don’t overuse it, either. It will get stale and lose its capacity to inspire wonder and instill fear.
- The world doesn’t make sense. Not everything gets explained or tied up in a neat little package.
- Alienation. People don’t completely understand one another.
- Listen to your characters. These are their stories.
- There is no such thing as fate. The good guys can lose.
- Really examine your characters’ plans; look for loopholes and flaws. Either plug them or explain why they don’t matter.
- In the service of the story, all of these rules can be broken.
* These rules are merely descriptive, not prescriptive. Other people should follow their own style.
Something a little different to kick off 2017: some questions that plague me.
What if God created the world as an experiment, and it failed, but he didn’t have the heart to destroy it, so it sits forgotten in his closet?
What if reading was a sport more popular than football, baseball, or soccer?
What if no one ever lied?
What if everyone who had died could watch you whenever they wanted?
What if everyone in your life is merely playing a role they were hired to play?
What if we could fly as easily as we could walk?
What if we had never invented war?
What if we never died of old age but we also lost the ability to reproduce?
What if nothing you do matters?
What if everything you do matters?
What if The Lord of the Rings were a work of history rather than of fiction?
What if everyone could know what anyone else was thinking?
What if everyone looked the same and believed the same things?
What if you are merely a side character in someone else’s story?
What if animals could talk?
What if you are lucky at cards or love, but not both?
What if the world stopped spinning?
What if everything you do or say were reported in the media?
What if every year the slate was wiped clean, and we all got to start over?
What if right here, right now was all that there is?
What if everything you believe is wrong?
Do you ever have phrases just pop into your head, no idea what they mean or even if they are real phrases?
I was just sitting here, staring at my notepad, pen in hand, not writing. It is Thanksgiving, so something about being thankful seemed appropriate, but nothing was coming. There are a lot of different tricks I use to try to get the words to start flowing. Sometimes I use prompts. But often I try to clear my head and let opening lines, characters, situations, or some such suggest themselves to me, hoping one of them will strike a chord and lead me to something more. And sometimes the page stays blank.
A phrase popped into my head: asymptotic transversality. No joke. That phrase appeared, fully formed, in my mind. I had no idea what it meant or what it was doing there. So I followed it around a bit, see where it might take me. My first thought took me to science fiction. Perhaps it was some sort of measurement or phenomenon that a futuristic device could scan for. But that thought stopped there, refusing to go further.
So I tried again. This time, it was a completely nonsense phrase that a character used to try to impress people. Maybe it was even part of a pick-up line, to show how smart he was. That, however, seemed like a stretch, even for me. I began to think this was just one of those creative dead ends, and it was time to move on.
But I was just curious enough to search for the phrase online. Sure enough, it is a mathematical concept. Based on a few sentences on the first page of the search results, I couldn’t hope to explain it. Maybe if I did some research and studied for a bit, but my curiosity didn’t take me that far. It has been a long time since I last found myself in a math class, and I don’t think I’ve heard it before. But it seems strange to think I just happened to independently come up with a phrase that actually has some meaning in an academic discipline.
So as I sit here, this Thanksgiving, trying to come up with stories and thinking about obscure mathematical concepts I can’t remember ever coming across before, I am amazed at the mysterious workings of the human mind. I am thankful for it, on top of every other thing I have to be thankful for.
But seriously, how did that pop into my head?
Two of my favorite authors are Franz Kafka and Philip K. Dick. I suspect each has had an impact on my own writing. I know that I like crafting stories that leave characters and readers wondering about what is going on, that leave room for the reader to speculate. I hope I am effective when I attempt this, but I know I set out to achieve it some of the time. I’d be in denial if I didn’t acknowledge the impact that Kafka and Dick have played in developing my own voice.
(Usual caveats apply. All garbage is still my own, not to be blamed on others. And further, my understanding of their works comes from my reading of them for pleasure, not from formal study.)
One of Kafka’s short stories has had a particularly marked effect on me. “In the Penal Colony” is a wonderful and horrible story. In it, a man seeks to understand his own crimes by subjecting himself to the execution machine he has used on others. Instead, his machine malfunctions and just slaughters him without revealing his crimes.
We seek meaning in life and in death. We want to know why, or at least that it is all part of some larger plan. Unfortunately, that knowledge – even if true – often escapes us. Tragedy happens, and despite our wishes, we don’t often find out why.
Perhaps Kafka is too bleak. But even if so, we are often left in the dark by an incomprehensible world. Some of my stories attempt to articulate my own bouts with confusion, the times when the world has confronted me with its senselessness. And sometimes we don’t need fiction to demonstrate the inscrutable nature of the world.
Today we wonder at the world. Not for the first time, and not for the last. Our hearts go out to the people of France, and human beings all around the world. Even if the world doesn’t make sense, we can still act with compassion for all who share it with us.