I’ve been utterly swamped over the last stretch, but I thought I’d come up for air to let folks know that “Jake’s Acre,” a short story I’m terribly fond of, was just released by the fine folks over at Bourbon Penn. I’m delighted to have the story so happily homed–head over and check out the whole issue!
Plausibility and Beyond
(Image adapted from Bogomil Mihaylov at Unsplash.com)
I am an engaging, effective hypnotist. How do I know that? Because when I hypnotize myself, usually with the assistance of a light and sound machine, that’s what I tell myself. I’ve repeated that mantra in my mind often, and as a result, it’s as good as true.
If you’ve visited the Abbey before, you’ll know I’m fascinated by the machinery of the mind to an alarming degree. A goodly chunk of the literary theory I regularly study focuses on the ways in which our worlds are constructed by our noggins, no matter what Samuel Johnson might say. When I teach rhetorical analysis in my composition classes, I tend to focus on how writing effectively creates its own readers, pinning them down with a series of linguistic invitations and solicitations in even the blandest modes of expository prose. Reread the first sentence here, and you’ll see what I mean. And of course in hypnosis, where the work of conveying suggestions centers on phrasing and framing, it’s easy to indulge the impulse to build whole worlds out of half-truths.
There’s something vaguely counterintuitive about it, but it’s ridiculously easy to spot in just about every facet of our lives. Ever met a critter who imagines themself as an underdog but comes to the table with just about every kind of cultural, educational, and economic advantage? They had to dream themselves into being, dealing all the cards that were stacked against them, all the opposition they faced and overcame. If you’re asked to imagine a dog, do you imagine some freakish ur-canine, or do you conjure up a vision of your pooch of choice? Ever tried to break a habit but–alas!–you’ve convinced yourself that it’s simply too ingrained in your days and ways to shake? It’s that sort of thing.When we have a little time for critical self-examination, a set of self-inflicted patterns we’ve built and installed rises up to the surface like a secret Braille code. We impose meanings on ourselves–stories on ourselves, by and large–to explain why we are who we are and why we do what we do.
One of the simplest formulations of the act occurs in our creative writing classes, where all of our faculty communicates in terms of states of being rather than doing. “You’re an ingenious writer,” we’ll say, and then proceed as though it were true. Because it is, like it or not. There’s no sublime act of creation or naming going on–we’re just acknowledging a state of affairs that the writer might not already recognize, and we’re acknowledging it in a distinctive way. Saying “your writing is ingenious,” as the youth are wont to note, hits a little different; saying “you write ingeniously” might feel nice, but it has a different vibe. When I hypnotize a client I’ll throw several variations on the same kind of idea at them, and before long they find themselves surrounded by a legion of affirmative identities they can’t escape.
I find that most of my writing consists of plausibility strings, strings I follow as far as I can go before tying them in to something wiggedy. The trick for me usually involves making sure the wiggedy thing is plausible, too, at least at some level. Take, for instance, the image above, the curlicue of a particularly photogenic cucumber tendril. Those tendrils, as gardeners know, operate a bit like ivy, allowing the plant to latch on to something stable and pull themselves up to get more leaves into the sun. I can use a simple, natural occurrence like that as a foundation for the depiction of flora that acts similarly, perhaps for some more sinister end, pulling other things down rather than trying to raise itself up. Press the notion a little further–maybe add size or sentience into the mix–and you’ve got yourself a manageable monster.
The catch here is that I have literally no idea what kind of plant that really is. I started out with a little fib, and that fib was already predicated on snatches of truth. I’ve watched enough Gardener’s World to know how ferns work, uncurling from similar spirals, but that’s my only semisolid frame of reference. I’ve seen enough cucumber plants to know they have tendrils, so that might be true or truthy, and I’ve seen how ivy clings. That’s about as far as I can stretch. But if it felt true enough to go on, it’s functionally true. No point in quibbling about it. Eventually the reader will be able to see the seams of what I’ve stitched together, but they can be hard to spot when you’re working with two balls of yarn dyed the same curious color from the get-go.
I’m terribly fond of this kind of thinking, which I tend to think of as one of the most accessibly modes of creativity. And whenever I suspect I might have stretched my plausibility strings too far, I remember who I am as a reader myself, someone who’s willing to follow that slender tether into the minotaur’s maze, sure I can find my way back out.
And if it happens to break when I’m deep down in the dark? So much the better.
The Disconnected Self
There’s something rather magical about social media, at least in its more rarefied forms. After I logged on to Facebook for the first time I reconnected with friends from high school in a matter of weeks, and (as a sort of legacy platform in many way) I’ve been able to watch some of my former students grow over time, earning terminal degrees, writing and publishing themselves, becoming parents. After I joined Twitter I was more readily able to give shape and scope to my writing career (at least on the creative side of things). I found a writing community, found calls for submissions more routinely, and was able to support emerging initiatives for LGBTQIA+ writers, for BIPOC writers, for subjects that always struck me as criminally uncovered. I occasionally made contact with creators I admire, even if only incidentally. And of course there has been news and The Discourse, all the stories out there in circulation that one gains access to when people on the scene of major events can fire their observations off into the aether.
The darker side, of course, has reared up with irritating frequency, no matter how aggressively I curated my feeds. Like most folks in These Uncertain Times I rise each day with a little more weight in the downwardly-dipping side of the scales, so a couple of bad stories or grim predictions about the future can be enough to send me off on a sour note. And to feed various appetites I found myself breaking things down and diversifying in spite of myself, curating some feeds for my work, others for my private life, and others for my many, many niche hobbies. The current state of affairs, which seems to involve little more than vindictiveness dressed with all the trappings of free speech has me consolidating some personae and closing down others. The theories about why a billionaire would so aggressively and publicly undermine the foundations of his reputation are fascinating, but ultimately I’d rather be playing or making games, writing fiction and poetry, and hanging out with my partner and friends. I’ve been keeping tabs on Discord more regularly, and I opened up a Mastodon account so that I can hopefully keep a hand in, as the Brits say, but it’s one of those moments of existential whiplash: I need to make an array of changes, and while it’s pretty easy to see what I need to move away from, it’s harder to figure out what I need to move toward.
What I’m ultimately trying to do is make change in the right spirit, which can be elusive even with a witching board. One of the bedrock facts of hypnosis is that it’s incredibly difficult to change anything you don’t actually want to change, so at least part of the problem is mustering the determination to live a bit differently. The good news for me, at least, is that I have ready reference to a positive example in my partner. She’s in the process of launching her own business, which is a heady, anxious, exciting time. It’s not hard to understand why all those mingled feelings are hard for her to manage, but each day she navigates that maze of possibilities and settles on excitement. There are plenty of concerns she has to entertain, plenty of considerations she has to take into account, but at day’s end what she holds onto is that excitement–the thrilling possibility of being her own boss for the first time, of earning for herself rather than someone who inherited enough money to buy an existing business or purchase a sizable share of an already-successful partnership, of doing the sort of affirmative, self-determined work that she’s wanted to do so long. It has me thinking of bigger projects, of more involved work, of stretching my legs a bit to see how fast I can move and how far I can go.
It is, alas, lurching, awkward movement, like exercise my body is unaccustomed to doing. But I can see the shape of change taking place, since one departure from the usual order of things usually catalyzes changes in other areas. I’m a creature of habit, and it’s amusing to see old habits falling like dominoes, ceding ground to experiments with new ways of doing things. Whether or not those changes will also yield new ways of being is always a little uncertain, but I have enough faith in the process today to hold me over.
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.
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.
The Soft Constellation – A Bit o’ Fiction
(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.
As someone who just spent twenty minutes following up on a step in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness proceedings at the behest of the student aid hierophants, only to be told I am not at all eligible to do the thing I was specifically instructed to do, I have fairly strong opinions about data analysis and associated forms of number-crunching.
There are, of course, useful numbers. When a story or poem is rejected, especially with kind words from an editor, it can be comforting to know that your piece was one submission out of 250, 500, or 1000. There are Clifford Garstang’s Perpetual Folly rankings, indispensable resources for gauging the relative difficulty of placing a story or poem in any given publication. And there are the numbers I track on my own computer, which tell me what percentage of my fiction and poetry I’ve published. I’m not much inclined to get too bogged down looking at spreadsheets (I just use Word documents for tracking, truth be told), but anything that offers me a sense of the overall lay of the land is valuable.
I think there are also some advantages to be reaped from a bit of amateur analysis, too. When I look at patterns of acceptance and rejections, for instance, I can usually see errata–outlier stories that I probably ought to revisit before considering starting the submission engines again. I’m currently revising just such a story, one I find quite beautiful but (to my thinking) falls in the Neither Here Nor There category. It has speculative elements, but it’s not horrific enough to be salable horror, nor is it fantastical enough to be salable fantasy. It’s a subjective assessment, of course, but I figure any evaluation that prompts me to re-imagine the shape of an unpublished story probably arises from an intuition worth pursuing.
And at bottom it does my heart (such as it is) some good to look at a chronicle of rejections that ended in an acceptance. It took me a sizable quantity of saved-up gumption to start submitting my fiction back in the day, and while I’ve landed a couple of pieces in lovely homes on the first go, I think one of the more important writerly lessons we have to learn is pure, dimwitted persistence. I think it’s more than sensible to set a piece of work aside after a dozen rejections, but the creative marketplace really is–really and truly, no foolies–predicated on that elusive quantity called fit.
The fact that a story or poem doesn’t land right away does not mean it’s garbage. It just means a single reader (perhaps a screener, perhaps the editor themself) is not picking up what I happen to be laying down. And when I imagine that uncontrollable facet of the work in those terms, I sleep a little easier at night. I just get back to telling the best stories I know how to tell, and trust in time and persistence to tend to the rest.
Today’s post is something of a reminder to myself, as this spring I’m writing to spec a little more aggressively than I normally would. That means I’m keeping an eye out for calls for certain kinds of stories, ideally in publications that will carry the sort of cachet my university will recognize. I find that writing to spec–writing for a specific audience or venue without any guarantee the piece will ever see the light of day–keeps my creative juices flowing, and in many cases it helps me to drain my perpetually overfull Stories to Be Written folder.
I heartily recommend writing to spec when you can, especially when it seems your brainpan feels a little on the dry side. But I offer that recommendation with three asterisks.
First, try not to force it. I tend to do well under deadline pressure, and my mind likes to tweak, twist, and recombine ideas, which usually means I can come up with a good fit for a collection or a special issue on fairly short notice. There are times, however, when I recognize that my idea isn’t especially interesting or original, or when the topic involves an expedition well outside my wheelhouse. Sometimes it’s energizing to face and embrace that sort of challenge, but it’s also worthwhile to recognize that there are stretches in our lives when we’re just not ready. If you fiddle with an idea or start drafting a story and it just doesn’t seem to be working for you, it’s well worth saving the file and setting it aside for some other time. and you can be sure that another call for a special issue is somewhere on the horizon.
Second, going in it’s worth knowing that even a very fine story might not find a home at the destination you have in mind. This piece, for example, was written in response to a specific call, but the length of it, my sense that I didn’t have many profitable ways of expanding it, and a few other variables made me realize I’d probably have a hard time revising it or finding a home for it elsewhere. It’s not a bad idea to write with open eyes, knowing that your story (while tailored to a specific call) is best left open enough to travel well. One collection I’ve submitted to, for instance, has received 240 entries for about ten spots, per the editor. I wrote that story, however, with enough circumspection so that I can put it back into rotation easily if it doesn’t fit into one of those vacancies. It’s determinedly tailored to suit the needs of the collection, but it stands well enough on its own that I think it will find a spot in a different venue somewhere down the road.
And with that in mind, it’s a good idea to maintain a hopper so that you can sit on a story that doesn’t fit a given collection or special issue for a little while. In the case above, more than 200 writers are going to be left with 200 stories that are focused on a given topic, a given theme. Those pieces will flood the submission market as soon as the special issue is filled. Lots of editors are going to see lots of stories that look a little same-y. Knowing that’s going to be the case, I plan to set my submission aside for several months if it’s not accepted. I’ll revisit the piece to see if I can slough off any content that was tailored to the venue I had in mind, and with luck fresh eyes will sharpen and brighten the story. It doesn’t guarantee I’ll get the piece published somewhere down the road, of course, but I hope it will translate into fewer pieces finding their way into The Folder of Misfit Stories.
Respecting the Reader
Not long ago I finished a draft of a novel, and I plan to leave it in the hopper for a few more weeks so that I can look at it with fresh eyes when I’m between other writing deadlines. The manuscript is far too long, a bit over 115,000 words, but by the time I’m done revising it I expect it will be closer to 95,000.
In On Writing, which is a lovely and valuable guide, Stephen King recommends trimming by about 10% from the first draft to the next. In most cases, however, I find I can trim quite a lot more because of two pronounced tendencies of mine: I tend to use quite a lot of apposition, and I tend to overexplain the narrative state of affairs to the reader. Apposition is something of a stylistic tic for me. It’s never a pure echo or simple repetition, but an effort to add depth and tease out nuance. I’ll certainly snip away some instances of it, save a few words here and there. The real word-count savings will come, however, when I lop off slabs of prose I added to guide the reader.
That’s a hard habit to break. As a professor, part of my job is to reach both seasoned and less experienced readers, so that we can all take a long look at craft. I routinely loop back and recap so that folk can see where we’ve been and where we’re going. As a reader myself I often lean toward mysteries, where I know full well that clues are hidden away in bits of exposition. While it’s perfectly fair game to slip in a single surreptitious hint and never mention it again, I tend to enjoy the reading experience more when missing some critical bread crumb is not the end of my engagement with the game. The authors I like best tend to present the same clues in different guises, so the conclusions their detectives finally draw are foregone, if not obvious.
Deciding what the reader needs, however, always feels to me like finicky business. As the author I always know where things are going, so it can be hard to spot those moments when a little extra connective tissue would do the reader a world of good. At the same time, too many callbacks to passages past can make reading feel like a chore, or–the far greater sin, in my opinion–make the reader feel as though the author doesn’t trust them enough to piece the sequence together.
When I revise this time around I’m going to try to err on the side of respecting the reader, clearing away some of my overgrown attempts to steer them down the main trail. I hope that by doing so I can gently encourage them to look around and enjoy the prose a little more, trusting that the path will still get them to the end, even if they have to cross a few grassy patches. So that’s my little takeaway for the day: when in doubt, cut–but save the file before you do, just in case.