Here’s another true story that forms the basis of my magical realist novel, Blue Woman Burning, recently picked up by Red Penguin for publication this fall!
Reality was always being tested by my adventurous English professor parents, who couldn’t be accused of abusing us, with the globe-trotting upbringing they provided, but who might be accused of lacking empathy (My father is pictured to the right).
In 1975, our mother put me and my two brothers on a 24-hour plane ride to Santiago, Chile (just three years after a bloody military coup) alone, where my father met us with friends, Maria Ester (far left) and Rene. That’s me and my older brother in the center, and just the head of my younger brother at the door’s edge.
My father brought us that same afternoon to meet the principle of Nido de Aguilas (Nest of the Eagles), Mrs. Grover, (looking somewhat like Mrs. Partridge!), in the hills of Lo Barnechea, where we enrolled in that international School.
Finally, my father brought us to our new home in a modern, concrete development off Las Condes, Golfo De Darien, where Maria Ester taught us how to say, “Stop, please,” in Spanish and how to ride the public bus.
It was a beautiful house, unlike anything I’d ever seen, with a garden and patio at the center, red tiled floors which I later had to learn to wax, and sliding glass doors on every bedroom, opening to the little back yard. It was the first time I had my own room.
The very next morning, I donned my brand new national public school uniform (still creased from the suitcase), posed next to the lemon tree in the backyard, and smiled way more bravely than I felt at age 11…
Our father sent us off (again, alone, are you seeing a theme here?) to the bus stop on Las Condes to catch the public bus to school while he caught the bus in the opposite direction to the Universidad Catolica. Those are the snow-capped Andes in the distance, home to the Incas. This picture is from some time later, when we realized no one wore uniforms at Nido– or maybe we are going off to fly kites with the local kids.
Surviving the usual heckling and name calling that comes with being the perennial new kid, as we so often were, I eventually made friends. Hope to reconnect some day.
Most definitions of magic realism ascribe it solely to South America, and with this kind of daily scenery, it’s easy to see why a worldview might be tinged with magic. However, I think it’s spawned by the culture clash of the Spanish Catholic invaders and the indigenous people and by tyranny and political upheaval. You find similar surrealism in, say Kafka’s Europe.
Chile’s fantastical beauty, which lay casually beyond even the most banal settings, has, as I say about the children in my novel, written itself into my psyche.
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Ever heard of Shirley MacLaine and the UFOs in South America? My family had its own close encounters. My novel Blue Woman Burning, where a narcissistic mother magically vanishes in the Altiplano between Chile and Bolivia, is a blend of fact and fiction. The excerpt below is a memory the adult children in the novel have narrated in the voice of their vanished mother. The event narrated here, however is pretty much as it happened in real life.
The American family began their journey on a road not marked on any map that passed from Chile into Bolivia, a road through the fabled Altiplano, a desert plateau so high that the altitude made gringos sick, a road their Illustrious Mother had learned about from the circus master.
Strange goings on had been reported there. The ancient Nasca people had carved mile long spiders, monkeys, and airplanes into the plain. No one knew how they could plan and execute such drawings from the ground, nor why. Some preferred to believe aliens had visited them rather than that they were so advanced, while others speculated that they had ridden the thermals in giant fiber kites, using the pictures as maps of their territories.
Just wait, children. You’ll see. We are going to a magical place where the ground is so high it touches the sky. The air is thinner there, so I will be able to demonstrate to you the greatest mystery man has ever achieved. It will change you forever.
The children were eager to learn the mystery their mother would impart and eager to go home. The family drove north and stopped at all the military checkpoints above Santiago, but once they drove off the map, there were no boundaries or checkpoints to tell them when they passed from one country into another. That was how they forgot to say goodbye to their beloved country, never knowing how they would miss it until they got all the way home.
As they climbed the mountains, the landscape shed its vegetation until only a few low shrubs crouched near the ground. Higher still, the ground produced nothing but stones. The air thinned and the tightness in their lungs engendered a certain queasiness of stomach and dryness of mouth. As the road deteriorated, it churned up boulders and spat out streams. All at once, the road leveled out, and they found themselves at the edge of an expansive, sandy plateau rimmed by perfectly conical volcanoes. The road before them dissolved into two sets of deep tire tracks in the sand. Walter turned off the engine and the wind sucked up its rumble. All five of them looked blankly through the front windshield at the greatest expanse of nothingness they had ever seen. The sky was gray and the sun cold as gruel. The colors of the desert might have been named vagueness or loss.
The Intrepid Explorers, facing a vast nothingness, resolved not to turn back. Instead, they launched the car onto the sand at top speed. Within a few feet, the car stopped, blocked by the mound between the tracks, and the wheels spun uselessly.
Their brilliant mother and handsome father placed stones behind the wheels and got back in the car. Their father gunned the engine. The wheels spat out the rocks, the car lurched forward ten feet and stopped, blocked by the sandy center again.
Father and young god Ovid got out to push. Mother flipped her legs over the hump and wiggled into the driver’s seat. The car lurched forward twenty feet and stuck again. They continued working their way forward a hundred feet or so in this manner, before Mother finally shut off the engine. Silence rushed in, followed by wind. Now they couldn’t go back even if they wanted to, and they couldn’t go forward either.
Walter came around to the driver’s side. “What should we do?”
Something will come to us, she replied.
“I’ll walk to those hills. There might be a village,” Walter said pointing to low brown hills to the left of the volcanos. “I’m sure it’s only a few miles.” He kissed Mother on the cheek.
They watched him walk away. Vastness diminished his movement, and distance erased his height, until at last, he was only a tiny blue dash against the gray, barely discernible, blinking up and down, his movement indistinguishable from imagination.
As soon as darkness fell, the desert cooled. Mother got out of the car to set up the camp stove. The wind kept blowing the flame out, and her thin body wasn’t up to the task of shielding the flame, so the children locked arms around the stove while she lit it. They heated up some coca leaf tea, which was supposed to cure altitude sickness. Inside, Mother spread sleeping bags all around, filling the car with the downy scent of wet dogs. They sat in silence while the wind rocked the car like a cradle. Mother pulled out Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” to pass the time and teach them the truth beyond shadows. Brilliant Ovid leaned forward and listened with his whole body, interrupting her excitedly now and then to discuss an idea, but the words lulled Fallon and little Terence to sleep.
The wind outside rushed over the massive plain, diminishing their tiny car, whispering indecipherably into their ears, and eventually everyone dozed.
Oh look! Mother cried in the darkness. The children sat up, the air in the car warm with down and farts, tiny feathers sticking to their hair.
“What is it?” Ovid asked.
The mystery. Oh, children, the mystery!
She wiped their condensed breath off the windshield and pointed out into the absolute darkness of the desert. At first the children saw nothing. Then, far off, a bright orb or light appeared and moved horizontally in a perfectly straight line, then disappeared. The other children gasped. “What is it?
Another light appeared above and dropped straight down.
“It must be Dad,” Terrence said. “Coming toward us with a light.”
No, no. It’s much too high and too large.
“And anyway, that’s north. Dad went off to the west, idiot,” said Ovid.
“What’s over there?” asked Fallon, trying to remember.
Nothing. Nothing but volcanoes.
“Could it be a truck driving down the volcanoes?” asked Fallon.
“No, the road would be going diagonally,” Ovid said.
Further to the right, another light moved from east to west, again in a straight line.
“Helicopters?” said Fallon.
“Why would helicopters be flying out here at night?” said Terence.
There have been reports of spaceships, Mother said. I have marked the spot they appeared on the windshield, my dears. We’ll check in the morning. Perhaps we’ve forgotten what was there.
They watched the lights in silence and drifted back to sleep.
Later, the cabin light speared a hole the darkness, and frigid air blasted in. The slam of the car door returned them to darkness. Walter was back, teeth chattering. His hands were too cold to close around the cup of tea Mother poured from the thermos. She piled a sleeping bag around him, and they whispered. It had taken him hours to reach the hills. There had been a village, but no one owned a truck. Large trucks came through daily. They would have to wait.
Mother told him about the lights: had he seen them? He had, but he didn’t know what they were. There was no village in that direction.
They never did find out what the lights were. That mystery was eclipsed by the much greater one that occurred the very next day.
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If you’ve been writing for a while, you already know what flash fiction is, but if you’re somewhat new to writing, you may not have heard of this liberating form. Man, are you gonna love it! My students do!
Flash fiction is very short fiction – between 50-750 words, and it goes by a few different names, micro-fiction and short-shorts. It embraces extreme compression and is a literary hybrid between a short story and poem. It tends to bend, explode and reinvent genres and most writing rules. As H.K Hummel and Stepnanie Lenox say in Short-Form Creative Writing: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology, it is “trangressive” by nature. Traditional story elements found in longer stories, such as complex character development and a series of reversals of fortune, don’t always apply to flash. Nevertheless, they have an internal logic that makes them tick, and when you miss that logic, they fall flat.
One of the reasons I love the form so much is that it forces you to put every word under the microscope to see if it’s really needed. A few years of writing and grading flash fiction has made me much more confident about editing longer works, including novels.
A great online journal to explore the form is Wigleaf (linked here). Every year, they pick fifty very short stories they consider the best of year (one of mine was picked in 2015).
Usually, the trick is to write about the last few seconds of an event, as Joanne Avallon does in “All This,” a copy of which can be found at this link, also anthologized in the text above, published by Bloomsbury. This story provides us with the anatomy of a moment’s revelation when a woman’s three-year-old bites her and she slaps the child. Between the hand drawing back and the hand hitting the child, so much happens, and yet the whole thing is only 244 words — less than a page.
The most common mistake students make when attempting flash is to try to cram too much into the short form, resulting in bland summary. Nevertheless, it can be done if you use the fable form, as we see in the story “Row” by Charmaine Wilkerson, available here, about how a civilization responds to climate change. The story is only 100 words. The reason it works is that it uses third person plural, in which the people go from minor to major denial, and it uses just the right amount of concise detail: they “eat cactus and fried lizards” and they “tie their rowboats to the higher branches.”
Another exciting thing about the form is that experimentation appears to be inherent. Lydia Davis, who said she could never master the conventional short story form, found liberation in flash fiction. All those things you’ve written in which you can’t quite identify the problem — or don’t quite know how to turn into a short story– turn out to be great flash fiction. A great example of an experimental form is “Three Ways of Saying the Same Thing” by Leonora Desar. It is just what it says it is, three paragraphs, each with their own subtitle, that talk about states of non-being, but which also employ surrealism or fabulsm (also called magic realism), as we see from the first line: “One day my boss was talking to me and I just disappeared.”
So, I hope you enjoy this brief introduction and dip your toes in soon.
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One interesting characteristic of Latin American magic realism is that it often rejects the European and North American literary legacy of unified narratives. Unified narratives can sometimes unintentionally promote the hegemony of one class and culture. The Potbellied Virgin, written by Ecuador’s Alicia Yánez Cossío in 1985 and translated into English in 2006, is an interesting example of a communal narrative. The reading experience is fascinating though disorienting for a mind trained in North America or Europe.
Although Alicia Yánez Cossío is one of the better-known authors in Ecuador, only two of her books have been translated into English and she is virtually unknown in the United States. The Potbellied Virgin provides a social history of Ecuador between 1900 and 1970 blending voices of the indigenous, the Catholic Church, descendants of the ruling Spanish aristocracy, Marxist revolutionaries, and the military.
The plot revolves around a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary that is cared for by members of Ecuador’s white aristocracy, the Benavides family, specifically the women. Years ago, the Benavides came to the region and simply stole the land from the Pandos family, who were Mestizo landowners. The Mestizos were descendants of European conquerors who were born in South America and with whom some of the indigenous had married.
When the white Benavides laid claim to those lands, the Pando clan sued, but, in the words of the group narrative, “justice is slow and lazy when the rich man fights the poor” (94). Somewhere along the line, the Virgin statue becomes “pregnant.” The Pandos believe that the deed to their land and the proof of their ownership is being hidden on the Virgin’s dress, hence the belly. A series of military coups and Marxist revolutions ensue as the statue of the Virgin is bandied about amidst both carnage and humorous chaos, resulting in the spontaneous abortion of the deeds.
Yanéz Cossío uses four devices supplant the unified narrative. First, she makes copious use of proverbs, second, she slides the point of view seamlessly from the main characters to people in the crowd often with few identifying taglines, gestures or facial expressions. Third, she uses long plot digressions about things which have nothing to do with the main characters, but which sometimes reveal the animism of the indigenous culture or a bit of social history, a device often evident in García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. And fourth, she uses humor.
The fourth device is evident throughout the novel but mostly at the end, during a brutal yet comical military coup. Professor of comparative literature and writer Kenneth Wishina, quoting narrative theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, writes that the “absolute monoglossic unity” of narratives “can be destroyed by laughter which is rarely present in the majority of Ecuadorian Historical novels” but which is a “dominant motif” in Yanéz Cossío’s work (13).
Though people often hate “spoilers,” it will increase your enjoyment of this disorienting narrative to know that The Potbellied Virgin ends when one the Benavides’ female descendants runs off with one of the young Pandos who has become a communist, leaving his elderly relatives to sit in the village square as they have spent most of their life doing, unwittingly smoking the scraps of their land deeds, which are blowing about the streets after the coup. Thus the town will find liberty only in the intermarriage of their disparate voices and outlooks.
Cossío, Alicia Yánez. The Potbellied Virgin. Translated by Amalia Gladhart University of
Texas Press. 2006.
Wishnia, Kenneth. Twentieth Century Ecuadorian Narrative: New Readings in the Context
If you’re reading about dragons, chances are, you’re reading fantasy. But if you’re reading about women ascending bodily to heaven, you’re probably reading magic realism, or what New York Times reviewer Joy Williams calls “the new uncanny.”
Confused? You’re not alone. The most common definition of fantasy is “literature in which magical things occur” or, as the Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms defines it, literature which creates its own coherently organized worlds and myths” (82).
Of course, magical things happen in both fantasy and magic realism, so that doesn’t help us. I’ve heard people say that the big difference is that in fantasy, the characters are amazed, stunned and shocked by the magical events, as when the glass suddenly disappears at the zoo in Harry Potter, and everyone screams. In magic realism, by contrast, the characters react to the magical as though it is ordinary.
Complicating both these definitions is the fact that the concept of reality is culturally defined. Orthodox Christians consider God and the Bible real. Atheists consider both fantasy. Roman mythology was at one time was considered real; now the word myth is synonymous with lie. Native American writers such as Leslie Marmon Silko write about things that most Caucasian Americans would call unreal, but which are very real to her.
Gabriel García Márquez, the king of magic realism and author of the Nobel Prize winning 100 Years of Solitude, said, “Fantasy has nothing to do with the reality of the world we live in; it is purely fantastic invention, an inspiration, and certainly a diversion ill-advised in the arts” (quoted in Kroeber 130).
However, anyone who has heard a woman screaming in the forest and followed the sound into the mouth of a mountain lion will find the origins of fantasy very real. The flicker we all get in the peripheral vision, and secrets our parents tried to keep but which we all felt, is where ghosts come from. The amygdala is a crude but lightning fast instrument. So I have to respectfully disagree with the king.
I think the best way to consider the difference between fantasy and reality is to consider its impact on the reader. Tsvetan Todorov, a literary theorist famous for his treatment of the fantastic, said that magic realism disrupts the reader’s sense of reality whereas fantasy creates another completely enclosed reality. Whereas fantasy “imposes absolute closure” and “implies complicity on the part of the readers,” the literary fantastic seeks reader hesitancy” (Armitt 7). The story begins in the “real world” and when something unreal happens, and the reader is never sure if the cause is supernatural or natural, such as a psychotic break or a drug induced hallucination (Armitt 8).
According to this definition, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is an example of the literary fantastic: did the governess see a ghost or hallucinate it? Did the ghost kill the boy, or did she scare him to death? The movie Pan’s Labyrinth is likewise an example: Is she alive or dead at the end? Did imagination save her or kill her?
However, this definition doesn’t work for the poster child of magic realism, 100 Years of Solitude. No one doubts that Remedios the Beauty ascended bodily to heaven and that a man’s blood flowed out the front door, down the block, turned left and went into his mother’s house. As Lucy Armitt says in her book, Fantasy Fiction: An Introduction, there are no “competing readings of the text… revolving around two choices, the psychological or the supernatural” (Armitt 8).
However, you do feel ill at ease in Jorge Luis Borge’s short stories. In “The Garden of Forking Paths,” you aren’t even sure that anything magical happens, it’s just an incredible coincidence that a spy randomly walks into the house of a man who has been studying his ancestor’s life work. Is Borges just a bad writer, you find yourself wondering. Is this even a story?
That’s why you also need this other defining characteristic of magic realism to understand it. Jon Evans says magic realism “draws from the well” of political disruption, violence and chaos, where the “surreal becomes normal and the insane becomes rational.”
Magic realism is often the intersection of culturally competing definitions of reality, and that creates an inherent tension. In the case of 100 Years, it’s the intersection of indigenous and Catholic culture. This is the kind of tension you find in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (the tension between White and Black culture) and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (the tension between Native American and White culture), even Karen Russel’s story, “Reeling for the Empire,” about Japanese women sold into slavery and turned into human silk worms by poisoned tea (the tension between the rich and poor).
I’m not sure how I explain why I would put Aimee Bender and Amber Sparks in the category of magic realism rather than fantasy, especially as Bender has representatives of both in the same collection. Perhaps it comes down to a third distinguishing characteristic.
In fantasy, the magic is orderly and even predictable, rules apply. In contrast –and this is why I prefer it–mystery lies at its heart of magic realism. We don’t really know why the tigers come out of the forests with split skins, patiently waiting to be sewn back together by two sisters in Aimee Bender’s “Tiger Mending,” but the trope shimmers in our minds like an image on water, hard to grasp, unforgettable, and necessary.
So I’d say a pretty good, all-inclusive definition of magic realism is: literature which causes the reader to experience tension between competing views of reality, which is most often derived from violent political and cultural clashes, in which magical things occur, often with no clear explanation, and to which the characters in the story are often oddly accustomed.
Armitt, Lucie. Fantasy Fiction: An Introduction. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005.
Bender, Aimee. The Color Master. New York: Doubleday, 2013.
Childs, Peter and Roger Fowler. Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms. Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2006.
Evans, Jon. “Magic Realism: Not Fantasy. Sorry.” Tor.com. Tor Books. 23 October 2008. Web. 12 March 2014.
Kroeber, Karl. Romantic Fantasy and Science Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Critics, The Monsters and the Fantasists.” The Secret History of Fantasy. Ed. Peter S. Beagle. San Francisco: Tachyan Publications, 2010. 355-366.
When I grabbed Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude off the shelf to re-read, I didn’t realize it was the 50th anniversary. Stifling my academic urge to write a long literary analysis, I’ll just tell you a few things that struck me the second and third time through.
There’s very little dialogue in the novel. It’s almost all narration, more like a vivid summary rather than a series of scenes. He’s taking a leaf from his grandmother’s storytelling oral tradition, in which the beauty of the story is in its shape rather than the individual characters’ progress. Add to this the narrative’s digressive tendency and spiraling treatment of time, and you get transported.
The narrative describes event after event, covering years in a paragraph, pausing to provide half a scene, then galloping twenty years into the future, then spiraling back to whatever the present was, and twirling off in a different direction following another character’s trajectory. Sometimes, he’ll be talking about one character and he’ll digress into other character’s life and follow them up to their death, then return to the original time period, but not necessarily the original character, and then follow the line of another character, like he’s tracing the branches of an enormous tree, which of course he is, the Buendía family tree.
He doesn’t use the past perfect tense to make clear when he’s going into flashback, or the subjective tense to flash forward, or any other signal when he returns to the main time period, as the famous first sentence exemplifies, encompassing three time periods, the first of which is never clarified: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aurelian Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice” (1). It isn’t until the middle of the book that we get to the rest of the firing squad story, and then it’s almost a side note.
This tendency casts the reader awash in time, and develops the novel’s theme of time’s circularity and stagnant pockets, much like the mythical book Jorge Louis Borges wrote about in “The Garden of Forking Paths.”
The novel traces 100 years in the town of Macondo, from its founding by the Buendía family, through 32 civil wars lead by Colonel Buendía, through the arrival of capitalist enterprises in the form of the banana company with the attendant immigration of white foreigners, prostitutes and gamblers. The arrival of the capitalists culminates in a massacre of thousands of labor union protestors which the government hushes up. Then the town is washed away by “four years, eleven months and two days” (320) of rain, ending in the wildly decadent but transcendently pure lovemaking of the last Aureliano with his own aunt.
Having just recently traveled to Ecuador and studied Ecuador’s history and modern novels, I see better how the absurdity and circularity of the novel is shaped by Colombia and South America’s history.
Just like Ecuador, Colombia was invaded by the Spaniards who imposed an oppressive feudal system on the indigenous people, and it was both oppressed and liberated by the Catholic church. While Ecuador had 17 different constitutions since its independence, Colombia had nine civil wars between its independence from Spain in 1810 and 1850. Then there was the war of 1000 days from 1899-1903 in which 120,000 were killed, and then another civil war, “La Violencia” between 1848 and 1957 in which another 300,000 were killed, all between the liberals and conservatives (Britannica).
This is what much of the novel is about, and perhaps explains the theme of solitude that is the clear center of the book, though I must confess I don’t quite understand how. In what way is/was Columbia any more cut off from the world than any other Latin American country? Was he implying that Columbia is somehow more inbred and isolated than most countries? Is the rise and fall of Macondo an analogy for the whole country or just for Columbia’s rural past? Or just a certain kind of family? Why does he say that the Buendías were a “race…condemned to one hundred years of solitude” with “no second opportunity on earth?”
Though there are characters in this novel, they keep repeating, as do their names, so there are many Aurelian’s and José Arcadios, and after a while they all get mixed up in your mind, underscoring the circularity of time.
I love the character of “active, small and indomitable” Úrsula, Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s mother, who lives to be more than 100, running the household and family business until she is blind. I love the story Remedios the Beauty, who ascends bodily to heaven, and I love Úrsula’s great granddaughter Amaranta Úrsula who has a genius “for erotic mischief” and arrives home from Europe “leading her husband by a silk rope tied around his neck” and who shouts with laughter rather than alarm when she finds the family home is total chaos.
Though I can’t pretend to grasp it all, I adore this novel because of the whimsical blend of history, farce, passion, and magic typified in this winding sentence: “Jose Arcadio Buendía…gathered the men of the village… and he demonstrated to them, with theories that none of them could understand, the possibility of returning to where one had set out by consistently sailing east. The whole village was convinced that Jose Arcadio Buendía had lost his reason, when Melquíades [the traveling gypsy] returned to set things straight. He gave public praise to the intelligence of a man who from pure astronomical speculation had evolved a theory that had already been proved in practice, although unknown, in Macondo until then…” (5).
I think I’ll have to read it again.
Gabriel García Márquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Harper and Row. 1970.
With the Adirondack Balloon Festival around the corner, an excerpt from my magical realist novel, Fallon’s Truth, seems in order. The protagonist, Fallon, cannot reconcile her magical past in Chile with her banal present in New York City. In a sing-song voice, the past keeps retelling itself in her head at inopportune moments. In this flashback, Fallon is referred to as Sister, her older brother is Big and her younger brother is Little. Eustacia is Fallon’s mother and Walter is her father.
Things began to happen in Chile that could only happen in the land where the earth ends. One day, when Eustacia was supposed to be cooking a pot of beans and Big was supposed to be watering the lawn, they began talking about the Big Bang and black holes. As they talked, they salivated and gesticulated. They drifted away from their posts, down the tiny street on which they lived, and out onto La Avenida de Las Condes, with Sister worriedly following.
“Did you hear? Scientists picked up a hissing sound on their cosmic recorders. They thought it was pigeon droppings on their antennae at first. But do you know what it turned out to be?” Eustacia rhapsodized.
“Yes! I read the same article!” Big said. “In National Geographic.”
“It was the left over sound of the Big Bang!”they exclaimed in unison. Sister was puzzling over how they could possibly tell that this hiss came from the Big Bang, especially since it could so easily be mistaken for pigeon droppings, but Eustacia and Big were talking so ecstatically that they began to physically leave the ground.
Thinking quickly, Sister ran back into the house, rummaged through the utility drawer—such a mess—and grabbed a ball of hemp twine. By the time she caught up to them, they had drifted down the avenue, but were still hovering a foot from the ground, talking so fast that their breath was lifting them like hot air balloons.
She tied the string around their ankles, and just in time, too, because a surprise thermal swept them high into the air. The ball of twine spun so fast in the cage of her fingers that it burned her palms, but she hung on with all her might. Eustacia and Big were oblivious. Other children were out, flying their kites, and when they saw Sister with her magnificent kites, they flew theirs closer. Sister had reached the end of her proverbial rope and was leaning all her weight backward to keep Big and Eustacia from flying away when Little popped up behind to lend a hand.
“Look out!” he cried. He pulled his sweater sleeve down over his hand and wrapped the twine around his wrist, jerking it to the side. “The kids are going to cut the string.”
When Walter stepped off the bus that brought him home from work, this is how he found Sister and Little, flying Eustacia and Big high in the blue sky. They only became aware of his purple face when he reached over their heads, grabbed the twine, and began reeling Eustacia and Big Brother in, spluttering epithets.
“Walter, dear,” Eustacia said as soon as her feet touched the ground, “we were having such a lively conversation.”
“They could have been killed!” Walter raged, shaking his finger at Sister and Little. Sister began to cry in earnest now, and Little to blubber.
“It is all my fault,” Big said, stepping protectively in front of his younger siblings.
“What are you talking about?” Eustacia looked in puzzlement from Walter to the children and back again. “Why are you so angry?”
“I’m not angry!” Walter said, turning a deeper shade of purple.
“But you’re shouting.”
“I’m just trying to make myself heard!”
“Well,” Eustacia said as she drew herself up very tall and cold. “I never. Big, children. Let’s go. Father is in a most disgraceful state. There can be no good reason for such bad behavior.” Lifting her chin, she walked off with the children trailing behind her.
Walter immediately became apologetic.
But when they got back to the house, the kitchen was on fire and the lawn was drowning.
It happens more often than you care to admit. You type a computer document, save it, revise it, and save it again, then exit, only to return and find none of the changes are saved, or, more distressingly, that you are unable to find the document at all. You might have indulged a Where-the-fuck-is my-document-I know-I saved-it moment, or considered medication for Alzheimer’s. But before you go postal on Microsoft or commit yourself to the hospital for the typographically challenged, consider this.
You may have fallen victim to the Parallel Universe Syndrome (PUS), a hypothesis, posited and currently undergoing study by Dr. K. L. Davidson professor of English and the absurd. Davidson contends that there is a little known command reached by random key punching, which clicks you into a parallel universe, where you did indeed follow correct document-saving protocol. However, the save button clicks you back to your own universe, where you promptly exit, none the wiser. Meanwhile, all your revisions are still in that parallel universe, unsaved, unwashed, and unshriven.
While this revelation doesn’t actually help you save changes to your documents, it at least preserves the possibility that you are not necessarily technologically inept, or teetering toward dementia, though Davidson has been accused of these things in both the personal and professional arena.
Davidson has been able to repeat experiment results for PUS, though never on purpose.
She is confident that once she discovers the configuration of the PUS command, she will be able to program the shift key to reconcile multiple realities with one click.
In a recent interview with The Collagist, I spoke about how metaphor is the core magic of writing. For many, metaphoric thinking comes naturally, but more and more of my students have difficulty going there. Here’s a foolproof way to fall backwards into metaphor, and if you’re trying to overcome an addiction, it can be a good substitute high.
Acquire an orange or other fruit. Don’t do this from memory. Get the physical thing. Describe it physically using all five senses:
Look at it and describe it in extreme physical detail.
Touch it and describe.
Squeeze and chew it, listen and describe.
Smell it and describe.
Taste it and describe.
Next write all the things you associate with this fruit: smell, color, taste, etc. This is a a very quick exercise where you do very little thinking and choosing, you just blurt. Don’t worry about whether it makes any sense. The definition of brainstorming is that no idea is wrong or stupid. Put it all down whether it makes sense or not, but keep coming back to the fruit and branch out from there.
Answer the following questions to create metaphors. You are now being asked to free-associate like in question 2, but to go one step further…keep free-associating until you find a truly unusual correspondence between two things which on the surface are very different, but which in some essence are similar. In other words, brainstorm, but don’t always chose the first thing you come up with. Keep brainstorming until you find a certain resonance between the physical sense of the orange and the animal or thing you are comparing it to…when you find the right word, you will literally feel a sense of release or expansion in your body, an internal “ah” where the feeling and the words reverberate with each other and make each other seem bigger or more rich. If you don’t experience any of this, don’t worry, just be silly.
a) How does the smell move inside your nose?
b) If the smell was a kind of animal with a distinctive movement, what kind of animal would it be?
c) How does the taste move inside your mouth?
d) If the taste was a world event (a party, a war, a rally, a nap), what kind of event would it be?
e) What kind emotion is the color of this fruit?
f) If this fruit was a building, what kind of building would it be?
g) If you went inside this building, what would it be like?
h) If this fruit was a kind of weather, what kind weather would it be?
i) If the feeling or texture of this fruit was a certain habitat (beach, forest, desert, suburb, city), what kind of habitat would it be?
j) When you take the skin and bend it next to your ear, what does it sound like?
k) If this fruit were an instrument, what would it be and how would it sound if you played it?
l) If this orange was a form of locomotion, what would it be (a plane, a train, a flying dragon) and how would it feel to ride it?
See, who needs drugs? All the benefits and none of the side-effects.
Now look at all this mad scribble, and pull out the best parts. Fashion some kind of statement about this in a paragraph or three, making sure that it is full of surprising images and physical descriptions and associations.
5. Now see if you can fashion this into a poem. Start with the sensory information and try to end with a leap or discovery. Here’s something I wrote from it:
After her mother spontaneously combusted on the altiplano between Chile and Bolivia, Fallon turned her head, saw herself reflected, beautiful and male, in the face of her older brother Ovid and fell in love.
This is the opening line of my novel-in-progress The Ciphery, where the main character tries to figure out how a person can ever trust herself in a world where reality is a matter of perception and the improbable has already occurred. I hear the opening line to the tune of Pink Martini’s “Le Premier Bonheur Du Jour”.
In a former post, I said I would periodically post links to music from the playlist Ciphery theme music. Though I understand that many write while listening to music, I can’t actually do it for long, because hearing is my dominant mode of information processing, and my attention goes to anything audible first. However, music is a quick way to get back in touch with where one has left off, while it pleasantly promotes theme and tone continuity.
As I write this post, I’m at the Associated Writers and Writing Program Conference 2015 in Minneapolis, MN. Just listened to Karen Russell’s keynote address, “The Paradoxical Usefulness of Non-Utilitarian Motion AKA Play.” It was far too brilliant for me to absorb every word (especially after getting up at 3:30 to catch a plane to Minneapolis and listening to sessions all day), but the gist of it was that play – which by definition has no purpose and is done for its own sake– has a transcendent, revolutionary, and healing purpose. And that’s what we writers do.
She gave an example of how stroke victims heal more by trying to simulate the motions of a virtual dolphin than by repetitive goal-oriented movement. The seemingly random motions of a flailing baby wire our brains for language, and the air-bubble rings that dolphins make, for no other purpose than to have fun, distinguish them as having superior intelligence. She said play is the seedbed of all language and that it can’t be reduced to its effects, hence the paradox. We play to play, which makes us better writers. And, I might add, as soon as we play to get better at writing, we cease to play.
She said much more, but that’s all I’ve got for now. I’ll post a link to the written version, if she posts it.
I also attended a GREAT panel called, “Nerd Novels: Exploring Worlds of Knowledge in Fiction,” led by Peter Mountford, Jean Hegland, Michael Byers and Susan Gaines and another great session on the uncanny with Kelly Link, Steve Stern and Karen Russel, where I became aware of the magical realist oriented Small Beer Press, and I attended a session on why fairy tales continue to haunt us. More on all that in a future posts.
AWP was fab as always. The bookfair reminds you that the creativity thrives under the radar of “the market.”