Tales of the Unexpected

This morning I read one of those “Where do your ideas come from?” threads, which are always a delight. Some accounts are pointed and precise (“I had this experience, and Book X arose from that experience”), some are redolent of metaphysics (“I open myself up to the Higher Mind and let it fill my imagination”), and some are fraught with shenanigans (“I leave sugar cookies on my nightstand and the noggin goblins bring me ideas”). It can be an imaginative exercise in its own right, though I think if we’re being honest with ourselves–or at least when I’m being honest with myself–creative fecundity seems to abide by two principles.

The first (for me, at least) is The Ebb and Flow, which follows laws that can be at once understandable and utterly mysterious to us. We just started the semester here, for example, which means I’m doing my best to get my teaching off to a flying start, preparing and overpreparing for every eventuality I can think of. In my composition classes, for example, we’re just about midway through our planning for the first formal essay, and I’m already drafting materials for the second. It’s pretty pragmatic stuff, and it means that the creative currents, at least in terms of poetry and fiction, are running slowly at the moment. I think that’s a normal and natural part of the process: ebb and flow, drought and flood, feast and famine. Sometimes our minds are preoccupied by other things, so when we lower the bucket into that spring-fed mental well it comes back empty. There are plenty of tricks to get those currents moving once again, but in some cases it’s simpler to concede and adapt to the pattern of our creative lives. I generally try to get one or two more sizable projects up and running during the more flowing moments and hope that the current will carry me to the next generative stretch.

The second is more exasperating, at least for me, and sometimes seems more pernicious. I’d call it The Unexpected Guest, although in my creative life it’s something more akin to a series of serial visitors. I know some writers who conceive of a plan and go at it from start to finish, then edit and expand, rethink and revise with single-minded purpose. In contrast, I tend to be at the mercy of fleeting obsessions, with one impulse preoccupying me for a short while before cascading into the next. It’s exciting and delightful at one level–the cascades keep on going for as long as I chase those impulses–but pretty dang annoying at another. It takes real effort to take those waves without being bowled over, but that’s the only way I can see a project through from start to finish.

Close to the end of the summer, for instance, I started lining up the components of a poetry collection that suddenly emerged from the shadows, a theme I’d been unconsciously fleshing out for months but didn’t really recognize as a coherent whole until I had written and revised about four pieces. The moment the bigger picture crystallized, however, I was able to sit down and lay out the ideas for other poems that would belong to that collection…until the idea for a novella intruded. So I set the collection aside, figuring I could chip away at it poem by poem, and drew up an outline for the novella and started in. As I set down the first few pages I grew increasingly fond of my main character and got a much better handle on their motives and voice…and then an idea for a series of hypnosis recordings arrived. I think you get the point. Back in the day it was called the pressure of ideas; today we might call it hyperfixation, though in my case it’s a decidedly subclinical thing. I can interrupt the pattern anytime I like, though it involves an act of will on my part. And at times it’s difficult to commit to that intervention, because it always feels far better to have too many ideas than too few.

Over the next couple of days I hope to see those recordings through, as I’ve done too much preliminary planning to shrug off the possibility. Then it’s back to the novella, I think–until some new impulse rolls in and bowls me over.

Working/Memory

Tension headaches normally occur for me as a band of muscular discomfort that’s snuggest around the back of my skull, and right around 4 o’clock yesterday afternoon I felt that old familiar band ratchet tight around my noggin. The source of tension, in this case, was both trivial and knowable: my partner asked me to find another landscaping company to do our annual shrub trimming next fall, as the folks we use had made the same mistake they’d made before.

That is, as I hope you can tell, a terribly small thing. It’s a tenth of a gram in the Grand Scale of Life. But the sudden tightening of that band told me I had just about reached the limit of my working memory.

I’ve had a headache for about four months now, which is of course a cause for concern. (I have some small reason for hope right now, as a second opinion from an optometrist following a couple of months of testing suggests that it’s nothing but the result of some corrective tension in the muscles surrounding my eyes.) But what it means these days is that I can tell almost to the moment when my working memory has reached capacity.

It’s almost always just a little thing, like the aforementioned incident, or someone sending me an email asking me to pencil in a meeting a couple of weeks away. That extra cathexis (a commitment of mental energy) shorts the circuit board and prompts my brain to power down, to idle for awhile. I told you recently about the ways in which I try to manage imminent tasks, but this is the flip side of that necessity. If I don’t keep clearing the queue, and if I don’t actively detach cathexes from things I can’t actually do anything about, then I am essentially sentencing myself to some cranial pain.

It’s easy to neglect that aspect of our processing, like subscriptions we signed up for once upon a time or appliances that are constantly running in the background. We’re not often aware of them. Walk down a hall in the middle of the night, however, and you’ll often find the faces of clocks running in other rooms, chargers lighted to let us know our phones and controllers are ready, appliances on standby. In my life I’ve got new stories and poems to draft, older ones to revise, lesson plans to write, and the like. That’s my day-to-day stuff, always drawing a little bit of energy. But the pending bits and bobs add up. I need to collaborate on a syllabus, though I don’t know when a colleague will be ready to tackle it; I need to make some hypnosis recordings to see how viable they might be as a side hustle, but I need to test some new tech before I do; I need to keep in mind appointments I’ve got on my schedule or plans I’ve made with my partner, though those hinge on a dozen contingencies beyond my control. And of course there are all the ambient worries I have zero control over, which take up a few amps of brainjuice each day. Until I get them off the docket they’ll hang around to haunt me.

No easy solutions to this matter, alas, aside from doing my best to clear projects from my to-do lists as soon as I can. What’s more important, though, is to recognize the underlying pattern and not lay blame on the wrong doorstep. Unless we inform them, folks don’t know, and only we ourselves really know the state of play inside our minds. The trick, I think, is to create a little space to spare so that it takes some really extraordinary new commitment to take us over capacity.

If you figure out how to manage that, do let me know! Until then I’ll try to keep one step ahead of my own mind and see what I can do to make that tension relent.

Habits and Patterns

Today is the first day of the fall semester, which means that I’m an absolute wreck.

It’s not that I’m especially nervous about heading back to the classroom or anything quite like that (though I’m naturally trying to figure out how I’d like to manage my own masking and COVID care, among other things). The jangly part for me is trying to dial in the shape my life will take–or ideally ought to take–over the next several months.

The summer was loosely scheduled, but the moving parts of each day were decidedly mechanical. I knew with perfect certainty what I’d be doing up until about noon on most days, and in the hours that followed before my partner came home from work I generally knew what I’d be up to. The bad news for me is that I didn’t plan any transitional time into the calendar: I knew I’d be reconsidering my course outlines to get ready for the term in August, but I didn’t brace myself for the temporal lurch that unsurprisingly arrived today. I wrapped up my summer plans on Friday, and today I’ve got to figure out the shape of my days and ways over the next four months or so. A weekend was not nearly enough time to get myself sorted.

Broadly speaking I’m cautiously optimistic about some big-picture prospects. Over the weekend I identified a change in tech that should allow me to dive into some recording ideas I’ve been planning for awhile, and I also came across a movie that perfectly captures the tone I’m aspiring to in both my novel and in the new novella project I started late in July. I feel pretty good about my teaching plans for the semester as well, as I’ve rejiggered many of the moving parts to make them more accessible and student-friendly. I tend to mistrust autonomic optimism, optimism as an unexamined habit of mind, but when enough moving parts align I try to ride out that trust.

To get my mind in some semblance of order–and to capitalize on these strange optimistic impulses–I’m leaning on some old tricks of the trade, which I thought I might pass along today. There’s nothing revolutionary about them, but they are often of use to me when I’m getting ready for change but haven’t quite decided what that change is going to look like.

The first step is broad-based itemization. It’s the kind of goal-setting most of us do when we’ve got longer-term prospects on the horizon. I lost thirty pounds over the summer, for instance, and I’d like to keep that momentum going. I’d like to finish off the draft of the novella. I’d like to figure out how to make better hypnosis recordings. It’s all chunky stuff, stuff that I’ll chip away at over the course of the coming weeks and months–big plot arcs rather than individual scenes.

The second step, then, is breaking apart my ambitions. I find few things more dispiriting than having a long, undifferentiated list of things to do that I can’t actually accomplish in any settled length of time. For me it feels like having a full cognitive inbox, an inbox stuffed with messages that I have no choice but to leave in the hopper. I know folks who regularly open up Outlook and find themselves starting at dozens or hundreds of emails. That’s far too many cathexes for my mind to manage, so I like to break actionable notions down into separate lists. At present, that means I’ve got Optional/Future projects in one (story ideas I’ve got in mind for various calls for submissions, for example, or revisions of older projects that have occurred to me), On-Deck/Ongoing items in another (like the draft of the novella, the refinement of my recording methods for hypnosis content, etc., all of which I’ll nibble at over weeks and months), and Week of August 29th prospects in the third, uppermost list. Those are all items I can reasonably tackle over the next couple of days, like buying a new USB cord or cleaning my computer desktop or getting my books for the term on the right shelf. They remind me that I’m making progress every day, and they keep me from fretting about those pending tasks that would haunt that uppermost list if I were less granular.

Step three is focusing on a) the known and b) the known bits of business that actually fall to me. Left to its own devices my brain can conjure up plenty of junk to worry about, though most of those conjurings belong to the realm of The Unknown. My partner, for example, plans to start up her own business in the coming months, and I intend to help her out in any way I can. But at this juncture I have only a fuzzy idea about what kind of help she might like, so fretting about it inevitably leads me to an array of dead ends. Likewise, I’ll be collaborating with a colleague on a course we’d like to get on the books in 2023 or 2024. Right now, however, the ball is in her court; we’ve got some ideas on the table, but not much progress can be made until we’re both ready to hunker down and get the syllabus written up. I could try to slap some flesh on the bones on my own, but all of that work could be pointless if we decide to move in a different direction. That project, then, gets dropped into the On-Deck file–it doesn’t need to crowd my brainspace right now.

Step four, given the divisions I’ve made, is tackling stuff on the first hop–getting junk done as soon as I’m able. The infinite business we call Adulthood involves the churning of tasks, clearing one item from the to-do list only to add another and another. The longer we leave those items pending, however, the more cognitive energy we expend, at least in my experience (hence the reference to cathexes above). Today I’m meant to blog, for example, so here I am blogging. As soon as I’ve finished the entry I’ll cross it off my list, and then I’ll tackle other items, one after another, until it’s time for me to head to campus. It’s not the sexiest state of affairs, but it will keep me from succumbing from that paralysis that comes with having too much junk to do and too little time to do it. Today could have easily become unmanageable, which would bode ill for the term, but I’m one paragraph away from completing this task and I’ve already got three tasks behind me. Not bad for 8:00am on a Monday, and at day’s end I’ll feel like I’ve made some progress–primarily because I actually have.

The fifth and last step on the day is anchoring the new habits, which I think is important to do any time I alter my routine, the mechanical pattern that shapes my day. It often feels like a cheap trick to me, but it’s really just a substantial, visible reminder of the difference I intend to instate. Right now, for example, I’m drinking from a different coffee mug, a mug unlike the one I used every day this summer. It seems like a trivial change, but every time I reach for it I’m reminded that what I’m doing today is not what I’ve been doing every day since May. Many folks I know consider themselves impulsive, spontaneous people, but I think there are generally underlying patterns–how we eat if not what we eat, how we actually dress ourselves if not what we’re wearing–that we tend to gloss over, some of the foundational habits we have learned to sublimate. Even a slight revision can be enough to remind us that things are a little different, enough to get some new way of living underway.

Practical Magics

Image from NASA via Unsplash.com

I’ve been revisiting the manuscript for the novel over the past week, just skimming over a few pivotal scenes and trying to prioritize edits. I’ve got a handful of higher-order changes to make, and I think foremost among them will be adding proofs of the antagonist’s capabilities. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not terribly fond of endless escalation, page after page and scene after scene of misery that forecloses all chances for the protagonist to win the endgame (except one, naturally), but I do think it’s important to hammer out proportions at the level of overall ability. The antagonist almost always has an edge, usually at the level of ruthlessness; we expect traditional protagonists to care for others and perhaps even exercise restraint when push comes to shove. I’ve established ruthlessness in my villain, I think, but I also need to make clear that, as far as overall juice goes, she’s got plenty of power and wants a little more.

The catch, alas, is that I find power dynamics endlessly fascinating. As subject matter goes, it’s a rabbit hole I can easily tumble down if I’m not very, very careful.

I can’t say I’ve got an especially good handle on the topic, largely because it’s so elusive and pervasive, occurring in a wide variety of forms and shaped by countless contexts. It’s not hard for me to see that most every scholarly or creative prospect I take up falls somewhere on the graph where power and ethics intersect. My approach to education is meaningfully informed by power, from the implied consent that comes with enrollment in a class to the mechanics of grading to the design of assignments. Seemingly simple matters quickly get bound up in questions of preparation, access, and fairness. Hypnosis is knotted up in questions of power as well–how much power is the hypnotee handing over when they enter a hypnoidal state, for example, a question that is itself complicated by my use of hypnotee rather than subject and hypnoidal state rather than trance. It’s a realm of operations where people go in expecting to be manipulated, but only in ways the psyche can accept. I write on BDSM from time to time, as it is an area of inquiry and practice that attempts to make power dynamics transparent but at the same time involves a distinctive kind of ethical negotiation–no matter how participants talk it through, there’s a moment when conditions of possibility change. Games (both video and table-top) are fraught with questions of what players can do, how and why they do it, and the means by which they acquire power for the doing. And storytelling centers on the play of power at the level of knowing and knowledge, as the writer manages disclosure and the reader makes meaning from what they learn along the way, sometimes wresting control of the story away from the person doing the telling.

I could go on and on, which is perhaps why in my own storytelling I find it difficult to manage power with a light touch. And that catch itself comes with a catch, as power often operates on us invisibly, in ways we don’t always recognize until it’s too late. There’s no such thing as fair play when it comes to narrative, but the teller’s power only goes so far. The trick of telling, I think, is to arm the reader with all the information they need, and to trust that they are going to use that information as you intend. It’s a big swing and a big risk, but it’s one we have to accept if we expect magic to happen.

The Oedipal Dilemma

Today’s post is a little about hypnosis, a little about fiction. Sometimes you’ve just got to cross the streams.

The hypnotic portion of the program comes from Discord, where this morning folks were discussing some of their favorite paradoxes. One of the premises most hypnotists build on (which is not altogether true, but we’ll just roll with it for the moment) is that a hypnotist can’t make a hypnotee do anything they don’t want to do. There are some asterisks involved, as you might imagine, but the focus of today’s discussion centered on the layer cake that is human experience: sometimes we really do wish we could be to be made to do certain things, and there’s a real anxiety about the possibility that a hypnotist could actually slip their way past those superficial inhibitions, reveal something we’d rather deny about ourselves, and oblige us to commit to the intentions we work so hard to suppress. That’s in many ways a more alarming prospect than some of the stuff we see in stage hypnosis, when a hypnotist gets hypnotees to do absurd things but those things, because they are so distant from the reality of who we are, don’t hit in the same way.

I’ve been thinking about that mechanism in terms of fiction lately, if only because the dynamic we so often lean upon is one of escalation and conditional catharsis. I think the latest season of Stranger Things makes for a pretty vivid example, especially since we can see some of the worst available outcomes on the horizon so plainly. Each step and each complication in the plot leads to more tension, more fear that the outcomes we don’t want to see will come to pass. The olde skool idea, however, is that the ending will get us to something like catharsis: that we’ll get relief by the end of the last episode, and that the denouement–given our readiness to deal with our apprehensions all season–will reward us with some outcomes we actually want to counteract all that felt pressure. Because this season essentially dovetails with the next, we don’t quite get there. We’re left with a system even more completely disordered, with new threats and tensions on the horizon.

The grandpappy of this approach to storytelling is Oedipus Rex, which can make for an excruciating reading and/or viewing experience. Early on we figure out that Oedipus is hunting Oedipus, that he is heading inexorably toward his own self-destruction, but his essential qualities of character (a bit of stubbornness, a bit of pride, a bit of unstinting intellectual curiosity) prevent him from turning back even when he’s on the cusp of horrific discoveries. Our relief, such as it, comes when there’s nothing left to discover, when all the horrors have been exposed. The tension that comes with anticipation is gone, and we’re left with the sense that the spell of the play has been broken, that a new order can now replace the old.

While it’s a time-honored sort of story structure, however, I feel like the journey it sets the reader on might be a bit too much for this particular moment in time. These days we’re beset with uncertainties at just about every level of experience, and I find that reliable, relentless escalation makes me more inclined to tune out than press on. Moving from crisis to crisis to crisis–especially if the best available outcome is to have the next crisis deferred or temporarily averted–is exhausting, especially if there’s no prospect of restoration or redemption on the horizon. That’s doubly true (at least for me) when the prospects for agency, for acting meaningfully on the world, reveal something less than appealing about ourselves, excavate those impulses we struggle to deal with on a daily basis.

These days I’m attracted to more optimistic modes of telling, even if the endings they arrive at feel contrived. As someone who writes dark fantasy and horror more often than not, it still feels significant to arrive at destinations where good things seem possible, however qualified or limited those goods might be.

Pattern Interruption

Over the past weekend my partner and I went on a brief vacation to a bed and breakfast up in Traverse City. It made for a lovely, simple break–we made some tentative plans, but for the most part we played each day by ear, cruising around and stopping whenever something novel caught our eye. For her it was a needful respite from work, which can become stressful during the summer months, and for me it was an effective jolt, as I’d fallen into an existential rut.

Late in April, just as exam week was starting, a headache settled in. It was mild, all things considered, but distracting enough to make my days more complicated. After I muddled through exams I took a week off (another valuable break) to dial in my plans for the summer, but once again I fell into a rut by mid-June. It’s been a pretty productive rut, but it was clouded over by the headache and the daily pattern it yielded. My early morning workouts tended to clear my head, so they usually set the stage for some good writing time before lunch. But on more than a few days I opted to tackle stray errands before most folks were out and about instead, which was often A Bad Idea. I’d use my mornings kindasorta well, but I’d wind up frittering away my afternoons instead of dealing with whatever was on my existential checklist, which is for me generally bad policy. The headache, the malaise, and my tendency to dwell on bits and bobs over which I have precious little control (an impending promotion, the prospect of student loan forgiveness, enrollments in my fall classes, my exasperation with local medical care providers, and the like) bogged me down, mostly because I allowed it to.

So the trip to the upper yonder was valuable in a couple of ways. The route we took involved driving along roads I used to take to visit a former partner, an absolutely lovely woman who brought out some of the very best bits of me. There was a bit of reminiscing and existential recollection, which helped me to think differently and more critically about the progress of my current pattern. Additionally, and more importantly, some cranial tumblers apparently fell into place. On our return I started to fall back into an old, positive pattern, a tendency to focus on what I can do rather than what wasn’t happening for me.

In hypnosis, pattern interruption tends to be a transparent mechanism: a hypnotist will help a subject to shift their perspective, to examine patterns they inhabit, and then intervene at the point where a break and change might do some good. The persistent headache makes for a decent example. Heading into the summer I did my due diligence. I started out with an eye exam based on my limited observations at the time (the headache, a bit of double vision, moments of feeling slightly off balance), then went to my primary care physician, then went to a neurologist. After imaging and blood tests ruled out a bunch of potential issues, I figured I was pretty much done–it was simply pain I was going to have to live with. That felt like a settled fact by mid-June. When we went up to Traverse City, in fact, my sole focus was on keeping mum about the headache, making sure I didn’t do anything to prevent my partner from having a merry, relaxing time.

The break itself, however, prompted me to think a little differently about the world when we returned. On Wednesday I focused on doings–taking care of the laundry from the trip, tackling a couple of tasks I’d tabled, and emptying out my many inboxes, which consisted primarily of messages I could easily address but had deferred answering. Along the way I also called an older optometrist for a new eye exam. I figured a bit of fresh perspective wouldn’t hurt, and attempting something I could do rather than fretting about all the stuff that’s out of my control did my noggin some good. It would cost me a little time and money, but (since I had more info about the way my headaches, double vision, and vertigo behave after three months of living with them) the visit would help me lay to rest a few doubts about the sufficiency of that first eye exam. The doing, in the abstract, promised to relieve a little lingering stress and tension, but as it turns out it also identified a probable cause the first eye exam missed.

Pattern interruption doesn’t always work that way, of course, but the headache example makes for a fine illustration of the essential mechanism. We all get caught up in ways of thinking about things and doing things, and over time–assuming that the habits are essentially successful in helping us to get by–those patterns can become fixed, rigid, stagnant. To shake ourselves free we often need only a little time and distance to conceive of matters differently. And from that point of reconceptualization, it’s often possible to make change step by step, to climb out of those old ruts, to move somewhere new.

On Time

I’ve been chipping away at several projects lately, though the going has been unusually slow. The causes of the slowdown? Time, timing, and timekeeping.

Time, of course, is something of an ass. Though it feels like this summer has been unfolding slowly (perhaps because I’ve been awaiting the outcome of Several Significant Things, and the suspense has stretched out the hours), each individual day passes by far too quickly. I rise at about 5:00, have a pre-workout drink before heading to the gym, come back around 9:00, have a proper breakfast between 9:00 and 10:00, take a second shower, run whatever errands need to be addressed, eat a light lunch, and then sit down to the keyboard. Though I know that I write best in the early morning, this is the schedule I’ve been obliged to settle into, that makes the best use of my time overall. Last summer, when the gym held odd hours in light of COVID protocols, worked very well for me, as it shifted my gym arrival time to 11:00 and gave me a few hours of drafting time in the morning as well as a few hours of productive revising time in the afternoon and early evening before my partner came home from work. This year has given me more room for self-determination, but the result has been less than ideal.

That’s the view from the world outside my fiction and poetry. But the inside is where things have become both sticky and tricksy of late.

The novel I drafted last summer, for instance, plays out over the course of six narrative weeks, with two sides–and multiple actors on each side–conspiring and acting against one another. Much of my revision, alas, has centered on making the time line simpler and clearer while trusting the reader to follow along a little more gamely. I suspect that when all is said and done I’m going to strip out a few thousand words just to get some excesses in temporal reckoning out of the way. The same hold true for the novella I’ve recently begun, which hinges on reflection and retrospection. For the story to work I need to fix the central story events at a specific point in time, then count forwards and back to attend to the aftermath. I can skate on historical details to some extent–the narrator/point of view allows me to dispense with most of the period particulars–but I need to make sure the timing works out for the young protagonist, for the life events that ultimately shape their older self, and for all the bits and bobs in between. In the drafting process that leads to quite a lot of spot research when I want to mix in a historical point of reference to enrich the context and enhance the realism, which means the going has been slow. It’s not a bad thing–the researching and dreaming stages are important portions of the program–but at day’s end I always wish I was working a little bit faster.

To offset the tension that come with slogging progress I’ve been writing poetry, but that, too, has come with its own snags, snarls, and opportunity costs. Normally when I compose a poem I’ll knock out a few lines, arrive at an impasse, and step away from the keyboard for a few minutes (or hours) so my noggin can resolve the problem with some background processing. When I’m working on multiple pieces, however, I wind up using my working memory to deal with some new issue that arises in the interim. I can’t count on background processing when I’m preoccupied by objects in the foreground. That means that my mind is trudging haltingly along parallel lines. I know the solution–to deal with one project at a time like a grown-up–but that’s a hard ask when all the work is equally intriguing.

Today I intend/hope to rethink things and settle on some short-term priorities, though my long-term prospects will probably hinge on refining my habits of mind. I’d rather be writing, of course, but devoting some of my writing time to roping coltish notions in the cognitive corral is probably time well spent.

Knives In

I’m working on a reflective, retrospective story right now, so I went back to Different Seasons to see how Stephen King handled reflection and retrospection in “The Body.” I wanted to revisit the narrative to see how he handled dialogue particularly, as it strikes me as a little slippery in reminiscences but, as always, new eyes led me to notice new things.

All the gestures of artifice and artfulness are there, and it’s hard (having read King’s On Writing more than once) not to notice debts to geography and biography in King’s work. But what caught my eye most this time around were the plotting and the violence, especially in terms of how the story portrays pain.

I won’t spoil too many features of the narrative, but I think it’s fair to say the plot is broadly mimetic in its effort to capture memory. Although we know the narrator, Gordie, has grown up to become a writer, the piece follows the contours of his remembrance, which is a kindly way of saying it’s sprawling. But it sprawls revealingly, catching at all the moments that Gordie has attached to the singular experience of traveling down the train tracks with three friends to see a dead body. In short, until they reach that body and live out all the consequences of doing so, not much happens. They buy supplies, they swim, they walk and talk. We get glimpses of how Gordie sees the world along the way. King spikes the journey with thrills and horrors, as one might expect, but the walking and talking is paramount.

And at story’s end we get a grim epilogue. If you’ve seen the film adaptation, Stand by Me, you might imagine that the focus of the conclusion is on remembered friendship, a bit of misty-eyed nostalgia offered by an older, wiser man who sounds a lot like Richard Dreyfuss. In the narrative, however, the ending centers on pain. Most vivid, I think, is the depiction of the beatdowns the reader is led to expect. Older bullies, thwarted in their ambitions earlier in the story, pick off the members of the quartet one by one. Blood is shed and bones are broken, and King catches at the harm done vividly and viscerally.

More haunting, however, is the manner in which King threads other kinds of pain through Gordie’s reflection. We learn a great deal about how life treated these four boys after this pivotal event–about the changes they underwent, about the kinds of young men they grew to be. Gordie’s story fixes particularly on the fate of Chris, his closest friend, and reflects on his short life in a clear-eyed, almost declarative way. But pain–felt pain–comes through. It’s subdued, understated, and tinged with the matter-of-factness that characterizes Gordie’s point of view most of the time. It’s a pain that lingers, however, that lasts after the wounds have closed and the bones have mended.

I think that’s one of the elusive qualities that elevates King’s stories in the eyes of his audience. Over the past few weeks I’ve binged on quite a bit of cinematic horror, and in those stories it’s easy to see both how fragile and durable our bodies are (at least on the silver screen). Between Scream 5, the Fear Street trilogy, and a few other flicks I’ve seen at least twenty slashings and a great deal of blood loss. Those moments shock and appall, just as you’d expect.

But the stories, like “The Body” itself, take on depth and complexity when viewers and readers see costs and losses, when they plug into characters with sympathy and imagination and try to envision what a life would be like with all those absences, with all that trauma. Those costs and losses, when reckoned well, seem to me more meaningful, more momentous. At least a couple of the films I’ve screened have thrown in an extra knife wound or two just to remind the viewer that no one is safe, that no one comes through the experience without shedding a little blood. But to me, at least, those casual stabbings are gratuitous in a suggestive way. We don’t need to see them to know that the characters we care about are leaving the screen harmed and scarred, with the sort of aches and pains that will haunt them all their lives.

The Soft Constellation – A Bit o’ Fiction

Photo by Paul Volkmer on Unsplash

(The following is a short story I tailored for an anthology submission, but it admittedly got away from me and took on a life of its own. Even so I like the story just the way it is, and I like Maisie and Alice just as they are. I hope you enjoy it!)

The Soft Constellation

I knew I loved Maisie McCorkindale the moment she picked up that shovel. Something about it was so wrong—not the fact that she was going to dig a hole to bury my Roy, but that she somehow seemed solid to me for the first time, her who was all soaring clouds and shooting stars. It was like she had come down to earth just for me.

She pretended to spit in her palms and winked at me when she drove the spade into the ground, and anything in me that might have held back that love gave way.

We would laugh about it after: me seven months pregnant, squared up like a gunslinger in front of Roy as he staggered off the porch of Maisie’s summer cabin, emptying his daddy’s pistol into his chest. Maisie had given me such a look, a look that said she was exasperated, a little bit proud, and more than a little bit tickled. “Oh, Alice, why’d you have to go and do that?” she’d said, shaking her head with her hands on her hips. “I killed Roy ten minutes ago.”

She tried to shoo me away, sent me to wait inside, but I wanted to see it through to the very end. I think Maisie recognized that need in me, so she let me keep her company while she laid him down. She huffed and puffed as she dug, working up more color in her cheeks than I’d ever seen, but she kept talking to me as if we were up at the big house, me tidying up the living room or fixing her dinner.

“The stars told me you were coming, you know,” she said, and I could see that twinkle, the mischief in her. She knew I didn’t go in for all that, but she’d always liked to tease me.

“I should have known they were talking about you,” she said, pausing just long enough to tie her hair back and point to the sky. “Just look at how bright Spica is up there in Virgo—might as well be written in neon! But I was all wrapped up in what they had to say about the when and how of seeing to Roy.” She eyed him and made the grave a few inches longer. “I slipped him night-blooming jasmine and Japanese star anise in the whiskey I keep for company—my little way of saying goodbye.”

When she was ready to cover him up, Maisie paused and waited on me, but I shook my head. Everything I ever needed to say to Roy had already been said. I might have let him hit me, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to let him hit my baby girl. I told him so, and when he took a swing at me I twisted his arm behind his back and drove his face into the wall a few times. He had all the answers he was ever going to get, and the look of surprise on his face told me they were not the answers he expected.

Maisie and I drove to the quarry outside town when Roy was in the ground, and she threw the gun into the cliff side of the lake, her talking the whole time to fill up the quiet and put me at ease. She told me how she’d managed it: how she’d invited him up to the cabin, offered him a stack of cash to skip town and leave me be, how she’d brewed a pot of tea but he grabbed her whiskey, just like she knew he would, and how she’d let him wheedle for more money, let him play at being a big man for as long as he liked, right up till the poison started clutching at his gut.

I sat listening beside her with my head back and window down, holding my belly, feeling sick to my own stomach. I hadn’t made any plans for after the cabin, didn’t really know what was supposed to come next. Maisie took me back to my apartment and walked me inside like it was any old April night. I grabbed her hand, and she let me hold it.

“Don’t you fret, Alice—everything is going to be just fine,” Maisie said, setting me down on the edge of my bed and looking me right in the eye when we were inside, then turning to pack up a couple of bags with anything that looked like it might be important to Roy. “Smell that?” she asked. “That’s a good rain coming. It’s going to make everything new for you. And by next week you’ll be up at the house with me.” She scanned the room and nodded, as if everything were settled.

I can’t say exactly when I fell asleep, only that I fell asleep believing her, fell asleep to the sound of rain.

The police didn’t come round until Roy missed his Friday night poker game, which was maybe the only commitment he could ever bring himself to stick to. Deputy Dunning glanced at my belly, saw Roy’s clothes and needfuls were gone, and sized things up pretty quick. I told him what Maisie had told me to say, and we drove up together to see her at the big house.

He was a world different up there, wiping his shoes, holding his hat in his hands, sitting where he was told, saying “Yes, Ma’am” to every line Maisie fed him. She told him the whole unvarnished story, save for the killing. The deputy didn’t even pretend to write anything down. I had plenty of questions myself—about Roy’s car, about the blood, about all the evidence any half-assed search would turn up at the cabin. But Maisie’s story lined up with everything Dunning already believed about Roy. And that was that.

Maisie brought me up to live with her in the big house midway through the next week, just like she said she would. She settled up the last months of my lease and fitted up the guest bedroom next to her own as a nursery, had Jack Hansom knock a hole through the wall and put in a door. Folks said it was the least she could do, rich as she was, hard as I’d worked for her. And once Birdie Nash said it was a good and proper thing—just like when Dottie McCorkindale took in in Ida Underwood after the war—there was nothing more to be said.

Maisie paid no mind to town talk herself. Telling tales about her family had always been a popular pastime in Embry. She never said a word about all the arrangements she made for me, either, except when she wanted to know what I might like, what I might prefer.  She never said a word when I crawled into bed with her the night she moved me in. She just made a space for me in her big bed, curled herself around me, stroked my hair, kissed me like I needed to be kissed. At last she said she’d always loved me, and I knew it was true.

When Astrid was born the joke around town was that she was Maisie’s natural daughter. There I was, six feet tall and broad-shouldered, freckled, suntanned, and callused from fifteen years in gardens, yards, and kitchens, and there was my Astrid with her blonde curls and blue eyes, like an old-fashioned porcelain doll, a perfect miniature of my Maisie. It felt so good to see them together it made me ache.

Maisie urged me to leave off keeping house for folks in town, to get some rest and enjoy myself, and so I tried. It took some getting used to—it had been a long time since I’d been with someone who wanted me around as much as she did. She wouldn’t let me tend to all that needed doing in the big house, either. She took up a share of the daily chores and hired Cecily Fox to come by twice a week, though that arrangement only lasted about a year, until Cecily’s daddy told us she was setting aside all her pocket money for nursing school. We sent her off in the fall, Maisie paying for her schooling and her daddy paying for her room and board, and we got a little better at cleaning up after ourselves.

All the while Maisie kept at her work, which was more like a calling than anything I had claim to. She’d wanted to leave off, to spend more time with me and Astrid, but folks spread out over three counties knew to visit Miss McCorkindale if they had a big risk in mind or thought they’d found a sweetheart worth keeping. She’d sit with them in our parlor, working out her charts of the stars, and tell them how things looked for the long haul. She was just too soft-hearted to send anyone away, especially when the stars always had something to say about luck, or love, or all the things in this life that really matter.

I didn’t know what to do with myself, but Maisie insisted that I needed time to be with myself, time I had never had much of. So I did what I did when I was a girl, back when spending time with my daddy outside was pure pleasure. I kept busy in the garden and the orchard in the spring and the summer, though I made plenty of time to go fishing, too. I hunted deer in the fall and grouse in the winter. I did a bit of woodcarving—just simple things, animals and such. I even tried my hand at tanning deerskin leather, setting up a rack behind the summer cabin. I got good at it after about two years.

And when my days away were over, I’d walk or drive back to the big house and find Maisie and Astrid waiting on me. The best part of going out on my own was having a family to come home to.

We spoiled each other for nine years, the sweetest nine years I could ever imagine. I took Astrid out on long rambles some days, and sometimes the three of us went out together. Sometimes we’d spread a blanket at the edge of the orchard so we could watch the clouds roll by and get caught out in the rain on purpose.

Astrid had a green thumb like I did, and she loved our days in the garden, but we could tell early on her head was in the stars. She never got tired of watching Maisie draw her charts, and the refrigerator was covered with the ones she worked up herself, all white crayon on black construction paper. On fine nights we would spread our blanket out just after dark and watch the sky, Astrid nestled between the two of us.

On one of those unseasonably warm March nights Maisie pointed out Spica in Virgo, one of the few stars I knew on sight. “There’s your momma’s star!” she said. “Look how brightly she’s shining tonight!”

“So that must be you,” Astrid said, sure of herself, picking out another bright star nearby, “and that’s me over there!”

“That’s exactly right,” Maisie said, leaning in. “That’s a bit of Corvus and a bit of Libra in the old-fashioned way of reading stars, but what you’ve picked out is what I call a soft constellation, the most important kind. It’s a map of the stars we draw with our hearts.”

I cuddled our girl between us then, reaching over Astrid to squeeze my Maisie’s hand, and for the first time, with an intuition that rolled over me like a cold wave, I could feel Maisie fading.

By the end of the week the doctors confirmed what I already knew: Maisie would only be with us for a few months more. Maisie had herself a good cry in my arms at the doctor’s office, but she was her old self by the time we got home to the sitter.

As for me, I could only manage a brave face when we were together with Astrid. I was more than a little ashamed of myself—me who should have been comforting her—but it couldn’t be helped. Nine years wasn’t nearly enough. I wanted nine lifetimes.

Eventually we sat Astrid down and told her together. We were ready with all the comforts and consolations we could think of, but she surprised us both. “It’s okay,” she said, sitting between us and holding our hands. “I talked to the stars about it, and they promised you both would always be here to watch over me—stars in the sky, just like them.” She nodded, looking at us as if we would be silly to think anything different, and then went back to playing.

I swear I wouldn’t have done what I did if Maisie hadn’t proposed it. I was afraid I’d get it wrong, but if she’d asked me to pull the moon down from the sky for her I would’ve. And when I understood what she really wanted and why she wanted it, I loved her all the more.

The time Maisie spent in Embry with her doctors, lawyers, and old friends I spent in the library with Astrid, figuring out how to do what Maisie needed me to do. At night we treated ourselves to whatever we liked for supper and dessert, and then we snuggled up with Astrid to watch movies or play games. After we put Astrid to bed we would slip out into the yard and make love until Maisie fell asleep or pretended to, always in my arms, always under our stars.

When Cecily Fox got word about how Maisie was doing she signed on to be her home nurse, stopping by every morning to see her before she left to start her shift at Fairlawn and every evening on her way home, though the big house was well out of her way. Cecily was a first-rate nurse, and if there was any pain to be faced, Maisie didn’t feel it. She even made sure Maisie had her daily colloidal silver at our request, though she wasn’t one to go in for alternative medicine. Together we asked Cecily if she would help us when the time was right, and she promised us she’d do as much as she was able.

And the right time was set to come too soon. Maisie worked out one of her charts with Astrid by her side, and she settled on a night in mid-May, a night when the moon would be full and the sky would be clear. I had myself a good cry in private most every day after that, but Maisie caught me and held me and told me to feel whatever I wanted and to cry whenever I liked. “You’re mine and I’m yours,” she said, “and that’s the way it will be till the stars go out. When I’m inclined to cry, Alice, I think back on the years I’ve had with you, and I can’t help but smile.”

The night Maisie was meant to pass on we fixed it so Astrid was away at a slumber party with her friends in town. We’d let her sleep between us in the big bed the night before, making much of her and holding her close, saying everything shy of goodbye. Cecily came and went, right on schedule, and I got myself ready.

We drove up to the summer cabin and watched the stars come out, me holding her as tight as her body could bear. Maisie seemed so happy, so radiant, and she looked to my face and looked to the stars in wonder, as if they were one and the same.

Like she promised, Cecily had helped as far as she was able. She had left a syringe full of morphine for me earlier in the week, and when Maisie was ready—when she saw Spica, held my hand, and nodded, I gave it to her. And then the two of us said “I love you” again and again and again, making sure those were the last words we’d ever hear from one another. I kissed her and she kissed me, and she raised her hand to touch my face. When her hand fell away I caught it and pressed it to my heart, and she smiled the sweetest, dreamiest smile as she drifted off.

When I was sure she was gone I let myself cry, burying my face in Maisie’s hair. It took me a half hour to collect myself, but when I felt able I gathered her up in my arms, walked halfway down the drive, and presented her to the stars. I couldn’t compose myself enough to say “thank you,” to say all I wanted to say, but I felt sure that they knew what I meant.

Then I brought Maisie inside the cabin and got to work.

Though he took some convincing, Mr. Osborne at the funeral parlor at last let me have my own way. Part of it probably had to do with the distinction of making the arrangements for a McCorkindale, which was a big deal in Embry, but when he saw how I’d settled Maisie down in the satin he realized he had no cause to worry about his reputation. She looked joyful, luminous, almost holy, just as she looked when she left me.

Close to three hundred folks came to the service, which obliged some of the men to stand in the back so we could squeeze them all into the church. Only about thirty of us went to the cemetery to lay her down in the family vault and pay our respects, and while we were there Maisie’s sister June took me aside to let me know that she’d talked it over with the clan and they meant to save the place beside Maisie for me. I’d managed to hold myself together for most of the morning, but that kindness did me in.

Folks came up to the house in the afternoon, and we played some old country music and ate little chicken salad sandwiches and swapped stories until the sun dipped low. June, Cecily, and a few friends helped me clean up, and Astrid and I went to sleep early in the big bed, with her being careful not to let her little body slip into the space that belonged to Maisie.

When Astrid was ready to return to her own room a few nights later, I tucked her in, put out the lights, and sat on the edge of the bed beside her. Her eyes were half-closed, but when she saw what I’d done she sat right up and held me tight. Together we looked at the shining silver stars I’d made and arranged on the ceiling above her, the soft constellation we had grown up around us—her, our Maisie, and me. At last the tears she’d been holding back came, and I stayed with her there all night, the two of us missing Maisie and looking up at those shimmering stars while they watched over us.

For almost ten years Astrid slept beneath them, and she’s since gone off to college to study astronomy, which I’m sure would tickle Maisie. Sometimes when I’m missing her I’ll sit out on our old blanket after dark and look up at the stars, imagining how they look from where she’s standing.

And on those nights when I’m alone in the big house, feeling it echo and creak with my own footfalls, I slip into Astrid’s room and stretch out on her old bed. It always makes me feel better—closer to her and closer to Maisie. Above me I can see the bits of Corvus and Libra that Astrid claimed for us, pulling us together in our own pattern, like a little promise the stars made when they first caught fire.

There’s so much of my Maisie in that pattern, the whole of it glowing soft and silver just like she did when I carried her into the cabin, but when I drift off I always find myself gazing on Spica, the star Maisie picked out just for me, and holding my hand to the place above my heart where I cut it loose on a sweet night in mid-May to join her in the night sky.

Heat and Light

Photo by Huper by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

While I’m only a few weeks into The Academic Summer, the season is already off the rails. As always, I gave myself a couple of weeks to gear down from the semester. I tackled a few cleaning projects and domestic diversions I’d deferred, and I also wrote/revised some short stories I thought I could manage in the three-week frame of May. It made for a goodly transition, and June and beyond were reserved for the revision of the novel manuscript. I made that plan last December, and it seemed like a fine one at the time.

Predictably, alas, I’ve moved into June with reservations. The trick for me invariably involves deciding if I’ve got reservations of the right kind.

As a rule, I resist (or try to resist) deferrals inspired by dread. If I suspect I’m avoiding a project because it looks daunting in prospect, then I’ll talk myself into proceeding (though it might take me a few days to get my skull on straight). Fear is a bad reason to punt. Revising the novel does seem to me like a sizable, significant thing, but it’s also an eminently manageable one–it’s work I’ve done before and I enjoy doing. I’ve jotted down notes since December to guide my revision, and I know exactly how I have to start. It will involve several weeks, but I’ve tucked into far more time-consuming work before. It’s decidedly doable, which of course means that a horde of smaller, more manageable projects are vying for my attention,

Some of them are bright and shiny–lots of anthology calls for short stories, for example, all of them with cool presses I’d love to work with. Some of them are also sizable and enticing. I have an idea for a volume of thematically-bound genre poems, for example, and in the process of sifting through the folders on my desktop as part of my three-week cleanup I realized I had a measure of the prep work already finished. Forward momentum seems like it should be well worth capitalizing on. But in the scheme of Wandlessian thinking both the shiny and enticing tend to be perpetually renewable resources. I could get more stories done for June deadlines, but then will I be able to resist new calls when July arrives? And completing a poetry manuscript would certainly involve not only realizing the bigger vision but also making sure that I’ve got plenty of stand-alone pieces to put into circulation. It’s the sort of thing that would be rewarding but would certainly stretch into next summer. And in both cases the work is on the speculative side–I’m not entirely sure what calls for stories I would answer, and I’m not certain what shape the collection will finally take. I’ll have to write my way toward those destinations in a loose, exploratory way. There’s heat to be had, but not light–not a clear sense of design and destination, a sense of how it would fit into the scheme of progress that will still see the novel revised in some definable amount of time.

The nail in this summer’s coffin for me, however, has been an opportune convergence, a more or less fully realized vision for a 30,000-50,000 word novella that grows a little sharper for me every day. It builds on the sort of impulse I generally trust: I had a vague recollection from my youth I wanted to flesh out, and it converged with a superficially unrelated idea that gives it shape, scope, and energy. If I just had a raw-yet-solid idea in mind I probably could set it aside. But this one comes with a sense of plot escalation right out the box. And a vivid sense of character arcs. And, as it turns out, a tone and a theme that very much vibe with my Wandlessian obsessions. That’s the sort of work I can’t easily turn away from. The heat is there, and so is the light, and I’d be a chump not to see where it leads me.

So my summer is off the rails, but I ain’t even mad, as the kids are wont to say. It’s not a trolley problem: I’m confident the new rails I’m on run parallel to the ones I planned to ride this summer. And if I learn a few things along the way that allow me to come at the revision of the novel with fresh insight and energy, then it’s a side quest well worth accepting.