Body in the Subconscious Mind

I wrote a fantasy story recently about a woman who wards mermaids off from ships but it was really about women’s bodies. That surprised me, because my subtext is usually about the formation of stories and I was pleased that another facet of my interests had subconsciously taken hold. I’ve been stuck on mermaids for at least three short stories now (and countless abandoned paragraphs in WordPad; I use it because it doesn’t distract me with my own atrocious spelling errors), to the point where I was beginning to worry that I wouldn’t be able to write anything but mermaid stories, but I see now that they were a distraction to ween me away from my compulsion to flay open whatever story I worked on to see all its still moving parts. Thanks, subconscious!

I am almost Thirty. I apologize to the people I’ve casually lied to, claiming the age Thirty since I was twenty-eight: I had no real reason to do so, other than it offered fewer syllables and seemed to carry more weight. I am still twenty nine, but close enough to thirty that my doctor used it as explanation for why my back was suddenly misaligned (she also kindly assured me, without judgment, that random joint pain is very rarely cancer). I have considered thirty as a marker since deciding in high school that I want to write, to be published, and to be read, preferably on a mass-market scale, well before I turned Thirty, because of some magazine article I’m probably misremembering that claimed most professional authors did not publish before they were thirty. It was an arbitrary number then; something to beat. As it’s closing in, nothing about it really feels arbitrary.

I went through some major revisions from first draft to second with this fantasy story. The protagonist in my story is in her forties. (Apologies in advance to the people I will inevitably lie to, claiming Forty at the tender age of thirty-seven.) She is very tall, her features are very broad. She has albinism, and trouble with her eyesight, but she is comfortable in her body, well settled in, and that confidence spreads into every part of her life. I liked this character, and I tried to draw her several times to get a better handle on her personality for the second draft, but nothing looked right until I started to think about my own body, its softness that I hated through my twenties for subverting the quills I try to wear in public, my ankles that are still mismatched in strength even though the sprain was months ago. My cheekbones that only now are starting to look a little like my great grandmother’s when I smile. (Noice.) And I realized as I was going through the stretches that keep my back aligned and the pushups that just get me amped for writing that I was okay with my shape. Well, it was more the pushups and Abby Hoffman’s awesome comic about being fat at a doctor’s office that inspired this acceptance.* My body’s weird, yeah, but it’s livable and sturdy (except for that ankle.) And it struck me as a thought my protagonist might have, so I returned to my character sketches.

I actually got it right this time.


I did not draw myself. I am a convoluted mess that could never survive a short story full of murderous mermaids. But I was more honest with her look and she took on a real shape that was closer to true than most of my character sketches have come before. And as I sketched her counterpart, a twenty year old with an indefinite prettyness about her that she did not work for or care much about, I realized that the underlying conflict, beyond “how do I keep these mermaids from eating my crew?” was between these two women, and ultimately my life between these two perspectives. Thankfully all of that is running background to the story. Inner cogs are spread here on the blog for examination, and are carefully tucked away inside the narrative to hum along and keep momentum. Wouldn’t want anyone reading a high seas adventure and have to think about the author huffing and puffing on a yoga mat.

The second draft replaced almost every one of the four thousand words in the document, which may not seem like much, but when you have a completed story it’s pretty hard to reject all of it in favor of the unknown. That’s what first drafts are; the unknown. But the first draft of this story was obsessed with this character’s body, how it fit on the ship, how it loomed on small islands, all without reason. Second draft, after I balanced her with the counterpart to my own inner conflict, the story took a real shape.

It is not finished. It requires some real editing to make it presentable. But then, that’s often how I feel about myself.

I am still a long ways off from this idealized forty… I can hardly imagine what I’ve managed to get wrong!


*my excellent doctor has never suggested I eat more vegetables as a solution for my ankle turning black for all the bruising around a sprain. She’s the best. Also, read Abby Hoffman’s Last Halloween because it is also the best.


I was thinking about drawing butts the other night while my head was swimming and I couldn’t sleep. My subconscious was playing around with the prospects of being a fuckup, and I’m going to try and re-create that stream of consciousness here.

Anthony Clark, the fellow who writes Beartato once recommended that the first thing drawn on a pretty new notebook should be a butt. Drawing a butt breaks up the sanctity of the blank page, and frees you to draw whatever else you like with impunity. It couldn’t be worse than a butt.

This appeals to me, as a fuckup. I’m not so great with words; I forget the ones I need when I speak, and I spend a lot of conversation time staring blankly while my hands pantomime the actions I associate with the nouns I need. When I write, I am more connected to my vocabulary, but there are still moments in which I have no idea if there is indeed a word for that face you make when you realize you’ve been talking to someone you’ve mistaken for your high school English teacher for the past ten minutes.

Seriously, is there a word for that? There should be.

I do not write long-hand. (Those muscles have atrophied, and can never be rebuilt.) I can’t draw a butt on the heading of my first drafts. Well, I could, this is a touch screen, but I’m not going to do that. Also, touch screens suck. They don’t register my hands as living. But anyway, I try to remember Butts when I’m writing a first draft. There is nothing sacred about a blank word document. I do not need to preserve some beauty inherent in nothing, nor am I obliged to so carefully choose my words that everything written will sing with Whole Story Truth in a first draft.

J. D. Salinger wrote on a typewriter. He used only his pointer fingers, and jabbed out every single letter that way. Salinger was great. But I write with my fists. I should explain. I developed the ability to type shortly after I developed the ability to read, and while my handwriting looks like an insane mess, I type in whole words the way I read in whole words without picking apart the letters. Where am I going with this? Stream of consciousness, right, just keep going… I write with my fists. Full bore, lets go, don’t stop, if you slow the mocking screen saver will come on and taunt you…

First drafts are the time to draw butts. Expiriment with language because you cannot remember the proper way to say things. Invent a word when you need it. Keep running, and let the story fall into place while you go. It’s a race between brain and hands, who will create the world first? Whatever happens, if you reach the end YOU WIN.

The reward is editing. I flipping love editing. And the editor’s brain is different than then one you use for first drafts. Yeah, it might cry in shame at the first draft attempt to create the word “fartgrubbler,” but it might just as easily enjoy the strange and naturally beautiful structure you accidentally built into the story. (Read a lot of well structured authors: your first draft brain will graft some I-beams into your own writing.) And second drafts are the time to divide those errors and leave in the accidental beauty.

What I’m advising is to never fear the butts. Make ugly things, there will be greatness there, too. But slowing down to worry over the possible mistakes that might make it in will keep you from achieving any spontaneous beauty. And the surprises are the best part of writing.

Now, this looks nothing at all like the flitting thoughts racing across my alcohol-addled head at two in the morning, but I kind of like it. It’s tres first draft. And I’m going to be a bit of a fartgrubbler and press “publish.”