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.

tuulikki-and-vic

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.

Edward Eager

Or, Don’t Hide Those Roots

Edward Eager, author of Half Magic and its sequels, was my absolute favorite author when I was a kid. Well, he wrestled constantly with Roald Dahl, because Matilda was my absolute favorite book. In most of Eager’s novels, he made it a point to reference Edith Nesbit. He did it to point his readers to his own inspiration, and to insure that the kids who loved Katherine’s adventures in Camelot*, would get to enjoy Mabel’s feisty adventures in fooling the kids next door into thinking she’s a magic fairy tale princess (at least until the magic becomes real.)

I didn’t listen when I was a kid, but I’m glad he put that in there. I did eventually happen upon a copy of Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle, and the name bit me, so I picked it up. I read it all in a night like I had done Half Magic when I first found that book as a kid. It was wonderful, even reading it at twenty five, rather than the recommended ten. It has since informed my own opinions on the construction of fairy tales, and both Edith and Edward are in my personal list of references, which I’ll highlight if the story draws directly from them.

In the interest of being thorough on this blog, I’d like to mention that this sentence in particular tends to appear somewhere in my mind (either on the forefront, or in the muddeldy scribbly back bits) pretty much any time I set out to write:
There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs forever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real. And when once people have found one of the little weak spots in that curtain which are marked by magic rings, and amulets, and the like, almost anything can happen. -E. Nesbit, The Enchanted Castle

I wrote a story about stories called Lawrence in the Last Days of Knowing (written about in my last post, too, yeah, still thinking about it…) and of course I had a lot of names thrown around the narrative. Names I love, like Nabokov and Kafka, but there had to be one name that stood above the rest. The really important name was in the character’s mask that she wore to obscure her identity; it was a paper mache mask made from a tattered old paperback. It was the only book in the story that the character chose solely for herself. I had a couple names written down in that spot on the page, something to fill in later… I scanned my bookshelf to find the perfect one… and I was lost.

I had to make a choice. Did I want to reference some highly lauded name that I hardly care about, thus perpetuating the canonical literature (and lie about my own background as a reader and writer), or could I really muster the strength to say “This story is brought to you in part by Moominland Midwinter, and Viewers like You.” I could. I did. And I’m still a bad Edward Eager, I don’t think I ever said Tove Jansson’s name aloud. But I stuck with the book I loved, and the story was true for that, even when I was lying about other things.

That small bit of writerly strength appeared in my main character later on in this passage:
For a week, Lawrence filled notebooks with desperate comparisons of famous authors he barely remembered reading. Juvenile assessments of literature perfected were torn from notebooks and discarded in the corners of his increasingly depressing apartment. He had nothing. This latest list of books was no more insightful than the last.

The conviction I had in my roots fueled the story, even when the fore-parts of my head were working against it. My subconscious is a lot smarter than I am. My subconscious is closer in relation to the leviathan that runs through the blood of all humanity, so it damn well better be. (Yours is, too… listen to it.)

*Katherine had the best chapter when I was ten, but as an adult, I enjoy Jane’s bizarre adventure becoming a thoroughly different person in a strange and unfamiliar family who thought to name her “Constance” and force her into piano lessons. It’s a good thing to read whenever you’re worried about the choices you’ve made.