My brother gave me a box of totems for Christmas. I strung most of them together with white crochet thread and hung them in my office and a few of the others are resting under my monitor and the last, a small white vertebrae picked clean by fish, is in the pocket of my winter jacket and it will live there until spring. He also gave me a story about collecting magic things that will one day be useful for stories.
Already it has started working. I found the monsters in my novel riddled with wood-beetle holes worn smooth like the driftwood lung that is hanging behind me, and they are made of void-stuff now, like the physical manifestation of dementia, because that is what scares me most and couldn’t bear to write a monster that doesn’t scare me.
I am afraid of many things, but I am more inclined to identify with fictional monsters than I am to fear them. Monsters are too human now. And the unknown is an unreliable source of fear because I faithfully believe in the spirit of inquiry and its endless capacity to carry us forward. What scares me are the Hattivatti and the Grokes. The familiar entities appear consistently, reliably, and are impossible to understand because their very nature is antithetical to humanity.
Moomintroll encounters the Groke. -Tove Jansson
It is remarkable that a box of totems that my brother collected have already taken hold in my fiction. I carry a totem to have a focus when my head is out of sorts; it is an object to keep me in the world. But these have me in another. I like it. This was a very good gift. It makes me wonder what sort of power in a totem comes from the person who discovers it, and how that is passed on.
The story my brother wrote had me as a witch who could turn to sand and grass and sit by the side of the sea until cities were built atop my head and that was very kind of him. I am completely human but when I write I do feel like an old sea witch. Sometimes I think I have to be. I am not strong enough as a human to make new worlds.
I drew a map the other day and when I finished I wanted so badly to draw what was happening in every room of every building, and then became exhausted by the very thought.
Happy New Year.
Everyone should learn a magic trick, or learn to paint.
Everyone who wants to write should especially learn a magic trick or learn to paint. I don’t know how to paint. I watched Bob Ross on every lunch break for a year (that may be an exaggeration, but it does not matter, the fact is I watched a lot of Bob Ross) and I know that there is so much one can see in a painting that was not painted. That could not be painted. You cannot paint every tree in a landscape and make it look like a landscape. Nor can you show every card in your deck and end up with the queen of hearts in the breast pocket of that guy who pulled it out of your hand moments ago. Painting and magic are cheating. So is story telling.
Painting and magic are about manipulation, in a fashion more tactile than words on the page. That disciplined study of which bits the brain will fill in on its own is intrinsic to how fiction should be constructed to best lean on the foundations of the reader’s brain.
Often I read about how an author had no influence over a cover design, because it is assumed that writers are not visual people. But we all must have our hands in everything. Specialization is a new phenomenon. Remember, once your grandparents built their houses because no one else would do it for them and they did not leave their former lives to become carpenters, they simply learned the craft.
Learn a magic trick.
My brother writes crazy stories in his magic notebook. The words are drawn in, and they drift up the pages, all around the borders, and some people speak upside down. I wrote a story for his book and it required I adopt his style.
(a difficult task, because I cannot write on paper. My hands know so well how the letters are configured through the computer that they’ve forgotten the way pens work.)
It was super fun. The whole exercise allowed me to press up against the edges of civility, and mash together all those things that growl just behind the sensible story. Here are my favorite sentences:
“She knew people the salamander had only heard of. Zoo people. Which rhymes with knew people, so you know it’s true (people.)”
“The jacket was left on her couch after a spontaneous party that erupted from the salamander’s cell phone a few months ago, when it attended on the back of a cologne soaked friend of a friend.”
“There is a spice rack in her kitchen, the only spice is nutmeg, and the twelve bottles are always filled. It was a gift from her grandmother, but any spices she brings into the kitchen turn to nutmeg, and she wonders occasionally if her grandmother had meant to curse her.”
“She sucked them through a straw and tried to ignore the distinct taste of an N.”
“The walking dead girl looked up at the letters hovering overhead, and watched the misplaced comma drift down the paragraph, pinging against p’s and q’s and dropping right though the page to stab Salvatore in the heart.”
They are simple sentences, but I enjoy them. They were successful, too. He said I had written his Mad World better than he had (which is kind, and a lie), and I am very pleased. I look forward to seeing how the words react with his magic notebook.
Would you like to watch a fantastic movie, unreading populace who occupies my mind? Of course you would. Go watch The Secret of Kells. It’s fantastic. Absolutely gorgeous is what it is. And I want a white cat called Panger Ban. Mr. Peepers probably doesn’t want his name changed though. He’s used to it. That and Peeps, Peeperdoodles, Peeperoni, and Catmonster. I think another name might make his little kitty head explode.
What was I on about? Oh yes. Secret of Kells. Animated movie from Ireland so steeped in magic it makes your average Disney movie look like, oh I don’t know, something terribly non-magical. Like cottage cheese. Yes, definitely like a big pot of cottage cheese. All the colors in Kells are decidedly what they are. RED jumps out in smoke and coils and devilish edges when the Vikings attack. Green is a flutter, vibrant and living, and blue is bloody magic in symbols. My favorite, though, was Aisling’s hailstone white hair and her quick prancing run. And of course that scowling cat Panger Ban.
I like being reminded of magic. Too often, in the doldrums of work, and the frustrations of the work I impose on myself, I forget that I believe in magic. Not like Expeliarmus or whatever, but the beauty that exists when an exceptionally talented person or group of people set themselves to doing one task Extremely Well. Thus so with the Book of Kells itself as well as the movie. Magic.
And I should probably end this post before I end up sounding any more like Esme. Exceptionally and Extremely Esme.
Is this your cat?