"Ada's dreams smelled like fire. They floated away like Chinese paper lanterns if she didn't write them down. She had to trap them with a pen. That was how it started. Not a journal, exactly, but a deck of index cards, scribbled over with encounters..."
I've been getting up before the sun lately. It's a different world when almost everyone else is still asleep. And words are different, too, closer to dreams. A good time for pages.
Writing Exercise: Describe a person by their gestures.
"She was a curled woman, everything about her sinuous and unwinding. Standing near her you always felt a little as though she might wrap around you, like a vine or a constricting snake..."
"She was rigid even when she danced, her skinny arms flashing in the dark like scissor blades. I wondered if maybe I was in love with her..."
"The boy was chaotic, always everywhere at once; I planned I would kick him behind the knees as soon as his mother turned…"
Kinda useful way to make characters vivid, more memorable. Even if you end up scratching it out for being too 'purple', it helps you to visualize the character. Ideally, each should have a number of recognizable qualities besides their appearance.
Idea taken from a The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol 3: “He likes to describe people in terms of bodily attitudes, as if they were paintings or statues.”
Ada’s face and the front of her legs began to tingle and fizz. The muscles at the base of her spine contracted sensuously, wantingly, as though she were lifting into Christopher’s touch. Yet she could sense him nowhere near her.
“Something’s happening,” she thought.
“Yes, now breathe- breathe deeply, from the roots of your soul,” a voice said. It was Patrick’s.
“How are you…?” She did as he asked and felt an ecstatic lifting. The base of her spine became warm and liquid, and then dropped away.
It was her awareness which was lifting; a watery, pulsing current, rising out of her body.
“Like Peter Pan, peeling off his shadow,” she thought, inches above her physical self, which now looked dark and empty on the bed beneath her. She was a rootless, shivery ecstasy. Tidal and greedy, only a shuddering of energy: “I’m floating!”
“More,” Patrick said. “Still more. Breathe in, and let go- there!”
She rushed up through the ceiling, over the houses and into a pure whiteness where Patrick stood waiting, his hands in his pockets. He rocked back on his heels, a slight smile on his stiff face.
“Very, very good,” he said. He came towards her, shadowless; younger than in waking life.
Ada looked down and saw her own naked feet, the hem of her smock dress. She looked at the creamy palms of her hands. “Where are we?”
“We’ve come into the next plane, Ada. This is your first lesson in projection.” He walked past her, and after a moment she followed. “You’ve done it before, of course, but in your sleep.”
“I’m not sleeping now?”
“No, my dear, you were just about to wake- the moments before waking are when the veils are at their thinnest. You are at your most receptive, and I want to teach you how to protect yourself. By bringing yourself here, you are safe from all intrusions, even the boy- unless you invite him to you.”
“But how are you here, then?”
“Ah. We are in my mind, now. This is my house of protection. It is where I sleep, where I keep my mind to protect it from those who would hurt me. It is a house of mirrors; Ada. It looks blank right now, doesn't it?”
“Look again,” he said.
A column soared up beside her. It was the color of illuminated sand, and blood warm to the touch. The sun shone on her outstretched hand against it; she looked up and saw a pale, Mediterranean sky with an electric orange sun. They stood in the garden of an empty golden temple, surrounded by high, craggy rocks. In the distance, she heard the rushing of the sea.
“You built all this?” she said. Small, feathery shadows came over the grounds, a brief, flickering eclipse of the light. Luna moths.
“Everything on this plane has its corollary in the real. I merely gathered it together. As my spiritual guard, if you will. And I’ll teach you to do the same.”
Now they were in his temple’s interior, rich with the scent of sandalwood and cool, filtered light. Somewhere in the distance, water trickled, echoing over the roseate stone. “The items in your house need not come from the same time. On this level, past, present and future exist as simultaneous event. Everything that is, was, or ever will be- you need only know where to look and it will find you.”
She was still touching the same column, but now it had become an interior one, cool from the shade. Ada pulled back hastily and walked around it, looking up to where it joined the arched ceiling, which was shadowy, and dusty with webs. The ceiling was pieced together from huge slabs of polished stone, each of which was marked with depositional patterns and delicate grains. As a whole, the stones became a Japanese painting.
“So I can tell the future?”
“In a sense. There are many futures and many pasts. Ada, sometimes the fate of all mankind has wheeled on the single decision of a powerful leader; indeed; there are pasts in which we have ceased to exist at all.” He smiled. “Wondrous, is it not?”
Ada went up a brief set of wide stairs which led to a doorway flanked on either side by massive, grinning totems and peered into a hallway. There, the ceiling was tiled to appear like the watery surface of the ocean seen from beneath. It was masterfully made so light seemed to seep through it, although the hall was dim. At the far end, which opened into another vast space, she could see ghostly, monolithic roots stretching down the wall, pooling onto the floor.
“It looks almost like a giant squid, doesn't it?” Ada said. “You almost expect it to start to move.”
“Thou breakest the head of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness,” Patrick said. “King James. I brought him here for company, though, not to be cut into pieces. What you’re looking at is the ceiling of a temple in Rameswaram, India. The tree comes from the Ta Prohm of Cambodia.”
“So… there are some futures where we become extinct, and others where we go on, develop colonies on other planets, stuff like that?”
“Stuff like that.” He looked amused. “Most certainly.”
She paused. “There must be other versions of me, then, and you, and Christopher...”
Patrick folded his arms. “Let us concentrate on the topic at hand. You must learn how to rest from the Fetch and all other creatures, including me, until you are strong.”
“The Fetch- I still don’t understand why are you doing this. Why take the time to show me all this, to make yourself vulnerable? You are more vulnerable now that I’ve been here, now that I’ve seen this place...”
“Because someone helped me once. Because you have a rare gift, Ada. If exploited, it could change the path of the world. And naturally, I am simply curious about the limits of your abilities. Now. Your instructions. This evening, when you are alone, you will project yourself once more.” He held up his hand. “Stop, just listen. You will go alone, and build your temple with things precious to you. Let it be simple at first, merely a place to rest; and then call your defenses. These are things which you can call upon to protect you when you need them.
Do not let the boy see you go or let him know where you are going; you must never let anyone see the place where your mind sleeps. You have invited monsters, Ada; now they will invite you. You must take care not to become one. You must not ever be overcome.”
How could Christopher be a monster, her mind cried; he’d been murdered, how was that his fault? “Are there no innocent monsters?”...
I was asked to help with the Redux blog, and have been writing up interviews with artists.... I've done two so far, but we have to hold one of the profiles back until it's time to publicize a show. Just posted an interview with our Outreach Coordinator, Joshua Breland, and notes on a talk given by our Executive Director, Stacy Huggins.
I knew I'd love the process, but had no idea how much. I have a long list of questions prepared, but so far I've only used two.
It's absolutely lovely and humbling how much people will trust you with. The first profile I wrote (the one we're holding for now) was originally six pages long. I eventually had to curb myself- there was so much there.
I have this little silver recorder that I set down somewhere and then I scribble notes while we talk. It's neat how much actually sticks in your mind- I really only need to reference the recorder for direct quotes. I was surprised by this, because in my waking life, I'm a complete space cowboy.
Such a completely different beast from writing fiction. And sooo wonderful, too, to have someone sitting there and giving you your story, rather than having to make it all up!
Admiring the profiles in New Yorker now more than ever. This, in Nobody's Looking At You: Eileen Fisher and the art of understatement, by Janet Malcolm:
"... Eileen cut in, as we all laughed, perhaps a little too loudly and heartily. I found myself babbling about the ethical dilemmas of journalism, about the risks subjects take when they let journalists into their houses, and the pangs journalists feel when they write their betraying narratives, and saw Eileen and her colleagues looking at me- as I had looked at them when they talked about their company- as if I were saying something weird..."
(Apparently Eileen Fisher has a bad cat, one that's not allowed inside even in bad weather.)
I have learned its better if you don't ask the subject's opinion on the piece before submitting it, though. The first painter I spoke with ended up telling me all this fascinating stuff about his background, and when I later showed him the finished article, naturally, those telling little bits were the sentences he (politely) objected to. Well, oh well.
So, at the end of the last interview, I reiterated at the end: 'so, it's okay if I write about everything we talked about, right?'
We didn't touch on anything sensitive, but I figure I may as well start to lay down useful habits.
from the Diaries of Anais Nin, 1939-1944:
"We drove through the island to visit the stalactite caves. Far below a rather pale nature, a subdued tropical life, lay a scenery of dreams, a dream born out of a continuity impossible to an artist. We were never given a million years as the lime and water were to achieve such castles, spirals, turrets, flowers, gems. All carved of time and stillness. The earth enclosed this creation, safe from change, cyclones, disruptions, and created out of endless patience, an enchantment whose only music was the falling drop of water.... a dream entombed, reflected in pools of water."
"There are only two kinds of freedom in the world: the freedom of the rich and powerful, and the freedom of the artist and monk who renounce possessions..."
"I first met Beth at a party. She spoke softly. She was eloquent with her body. She lay on the couch as if it were time to go to bed rather than to talk or drink together. She placed her hand in mine as if we were old friends drawing comfort and companionship from this gesture, and the rest of the people were strangers. We agreed to meet again. She was the first flower like, plantlike woman in I had met in New York, with a yielding, pliant, sensuous quality quite rare in a place filled with wiry, nervous, high-strung women..."
".... rivers of dreams, of deeper and deeper selves running beneath...."
a wonderful name: Taillefer.
It sounds like a fox’s name, maybe a stag's. Anyway, its foxes I have on the mind tonight.
I love Tarot cards. Have I told you that yet? New deck came earlier this week; I can’t put it away. Readings for friends last night after dinner. Gypsy soup, homemade bread, too much wine.
It was a lovely way to tip into the weekend.
Tonight I’m writing late at the studio. There’s a band practicing in the gallery space. They don’t know I’m here, and I’m just here, scratching on my draft pages, listening to them.
Redux has a a whorl shape. My studio is at the center. You have to walk all the way past all the other studios to get to it.
In a little while the band will go out and turn out the lights, and I’ll write on in the dark.
I love it when no one knows where I am. When no one can see me.
It sends shivers down my spine, it really does. I love being alone. Not all the time. But most of the time.
When I’m finished, and I close my laptop, it’ll be really and completely dark. I’ll walk through the echoing, spiraling hall and out into the gallery, where there’s an giant installation of jellyfish hanging from the ceiling.
My phone only sends out a foggy little light, just enough to avoid the bench in the middle of the gallery. The jellyfish loom up all of a sudden in the blackness. It’s an underwater kind of feeling.
Outside it’ll be sultry and full of music from the bars.
Friday night, I love you.
Writing is dreaming with open eyes. After you get the initial pages down, you're reworking the details over and over in a trance until you get them right.
I'm trying to create a sense of shared dreaming, a dream that can be visited at will, again and again. Overall, I'm more interested in what people are thinking and sensing than what they're actually saying, which is an important disconnect....
After reading the excerpt below, my friend Sarah commented on its physicality: the gestures carry more weight than the dialogue. As a trained actress , she can't help but read for the 'stage directions' in a text, and enjoyed being able to visualize the scene. Although this can result in a cool hallucinatory feel sometimes, I need to work on my dialogue. Really good dialogue is so intensely satisfying- and so hard to write.
Do you ever go out and listen to strangers talking? I've never done it with intention, just by accident. I loved this recent profile about the actor Bryan Cranston. He likes to go out in disguise and study passerby, just to make sure he captures mannerisms and motivations which are outside his natural habits. "I used to just watch people at malls, to get out of that rut where there's too much of you seeping into your roles, where your character is 'Me, but with a hat!'"
This weekend one of Andrew’s buddies was driving us somewhere (carrying us, as they say in southmouth) and out of nowhere D launches into this crazy stream of consciousness thing about how he hates running because it makes him hate civilization- “really? this is what it’s all come to, guys? Broken signs and car exhaust and this dirty bridge?”
It was awesomely funny, all the more so because it came out of nowhere, and when he was done ranting, he acted like nothing had happened. I’m not doing it justice, but I did stick a variation into a party in my story.
I’m always culling names, too. I’ll write down street names, billboards, movies, everything. Graveyards are my favorite place for names, though. There are beautiful old graveyards everywhere in downtown Charleston, many with headstones dating to the 1700s. And sometimes there will be other visitors, which always makes it feel to me like a Fellini film, for some reason; the silence and slow movement, dramatic shadows.
Oliver’s last name, Roamery, is one Sarah gave me; she heard it in an old movie.
Jupiter Snowe came in two parts; Jupiter “Jupe” came during a conversation at Redux about great pet names (wouldn’t that be a fun bit of interactive art? A list of names. Who doesn’t like tossing out cool names?) Snowe came when I decided I needed at least a little bit of symbolism.
Jupiter’s a sweet girl, and in my head she looks like Jessica Hamby from True Blood.
Here’s some of my favorite names:
Last names: Ravenel, Crumbly, Olivegold, Grimball, Roamery, Bllitchridge, Adoro. Grimke, Finucan, Northcutt, Two Notch Road, Mr. Badfoot, Mr. Bitters, Mrs. Wormpie, Mr. Weirdbelly, Birlan, Neele.
Ransom Davis. Mary Juliet West. “Smoke.” Ava Mary. Cheshire Moon.
First names: Nell. “Bracky”. Basilica. Temple. Tyler. ( Esp. for a girl. I love boy’s names on girls.)
I named a guy Catfish Blitchridge in Astra, and Tyler, Roamery & Ravenel are in Ridiculous Kinky- Tyler Roamery, Oliver Roamery, and Haydon Ravenel.
Storm rolling in slow... I wrote under the magnolia all day, drinking chocolate tea. Pages below....
"He came behind her, put his hands gently on her shoulders the way her father had so many years ago. An electric place on her neck tingled as she touched the cross. He guided her hand as she opened her palm against the smooth, cool wood.
“Where did it come from?”
“A church. An ancient church. I had quite a time getting it.” He stepped gracefully between her
and the cross, smiling privately. “There’s something different about you, Mary, isn’t there?
She moved closer and he grabbed her hips, pulling her to him. “You’ve always been able to make the world around you tick just as you wanted, haven’t you? Your own private little windup toy.”
She only smiled.
“Don’t be coy. We’re the same, you and I. I can smell it on you. The other side- I’ve been smelling it on you all night.” He pulled her towards the bare center of the room, and placed his hand at the small of her back. “Dance with me,” he whispered. And now there was music, trickling up from the downstairs. His beloved Clara. She always knew.
“You’re a traveler. You don’t know how I’ve waited for this, Mary.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you-”
Studying her face, he fell silent as they moved quietly around the room. She felt for a moment that she’d said the wrong thing; felt him begin to draw back in his mind. The song came to an end and he bowed to her.
“You’re not what I expected at all,” she said, circling him, smiling. “I won’t tell you what I was expecting. You’re not it, though.” He stood there drinking the look of her, letting her draw round him like smoke, and she stroked his cheek. “You said earlier that I looked as though I wanted to be kissed? I didn’t know it then, but now I do. I want you to kiss me, Oliver.” His hand drifted to her face as she pressed back to the cool wall. She sucked the edge of his hand, looking at him. “Oliver Roamery,” she said.
A smile twitched at the corner of his mouth and her spine fluttered, answering his pull on her. His hand filled her mouth further; the other rose to her throat, squeezing it. He kissed her roughly, the peppery smell of his beard sharp in her nose as his tongue came over hers, searching, and she kissed him back as though she could flood him, overcome the cities of his mind, bring him to his knees. Desire welled through her, floating up veins and the doorways in her bones, floating her away. Blackness lapped at the edges of her mind as he pressed. She was passing out.
He lifted his hand. She slid away like a startled fish. “I can’t- I said I wouldn’t, I said things would be different here-”
“Mary,” he said, urgently, but she skidded out onto the porch.
The moon was a lush wedge hanging low in the sky, and the trees within the walls rustled together darkly, thicker than the night. She was sitting hunched in one of his wicker chairs, clenching her hands on her knees. The legs were knotted together, her soap-white face was staring up at the wedge of moon. “God I’m sorry. When I was with Jo earlier, I forgot everything, everything I said to myself I’d be.” She curled down over knees. “Am I making sense? I’m not making any sense.”
He sat beside her lightly, crossing his legs away from her as her pale hair fell on either side of her neck, revealing the top of her spine, which looked vulnerable, girlish, in the silver light.
“Jo has a way,” Roamery said. Clouds in his voice. “It is rare for a woman to be free.”
“I want to be free,” she said, numbly, still hiding her face. “My husband loves me. He needs me. He needs me like air.” She looked at him wildly. “Do you understand? It’s a crime to treat him the way I do. He’s never been anything but good to me.”
“Does he love you, Mary? If he really loved you- for exactly what you are- then you would be free. Don’t you see it? You’d be perfectly free, perfectly understood, to do just as you needed.” He sighed and looked at the moon, tapping his knee soundlessly. “You would be like the sun and moon, free to go far from one another, yet perfectly confident your paths would each forever circle the other.”
“You’re lonely, Oliver.”
“I’m free.” He looked at her. “If I had children- I would want them to know how to be free.”
Music trickled to them again, more faintly this time. “Clara’s songs,” he said. “She knows I like to listen to them, too.” He looked up at the porch’s ceiling, painted the traditional watery blue, to prevent the uninvited dead from crossing inside. “Sometimes I imagine it’s the way she talks to me. How she tells me things. She doesn’t like to say much, not with words.”
“I saw the painting of her. It’s wonderfully done.”
“I’ll give it to you.”
“I want you to have it. It would make me happy to know it was in your house, close to you.”
“I want to give you something, then.”
“Maybe you’ll come sit for me sometime.”
“Oh, now and then,” he said, sending a stab through her.
I do, too, she wanted to say. The night was thinning, wearing through. Where does the light come from, before the sun returns, she wanted to say- but what she said was, “I have a daughter. Clara’s age. She’s a wild animal.” She moved her hand limply, and she stared at it, thinking it looked like the blowing wing of a bird she’d seen crushed in the road. Strange thought, like a piece of falling paper; thoughts, and the source-less light before the dawn; where does it all come from, she wanted to say, to ask him.
“She hates me, you know. I can feel it all the time, like she’s just seething up at me. And I want to be a good woman. I really do. For her, as much as for him. I can’t stand it, the way she looks at me. She knows everything. Before I even knew it, she knew. That I’d be unfaithful…”
“Why not simply be a woman instead? Let it move in you. You stifle yourself, hold yourself apart from what you really want. That’s no way to live your life, no example to set for a young girl.”
“A young animal,” Mary corrected him. “She’s already that way. Being what she is. She’s strong, intuitive… I’ve never been like that.” She sat back. “I like rules. I don’t want to break them. But I do. I’m just blowing in the wind, all the time.”
“You want something to stop you, tell you what to do.” His hand drew an arc through the air to her nose. She smiled at him ruefully- realized he was holding something golden in front of her. Her watch, swinging by its clasp from his other hand. “How’d you do that?”
He gave it back to her and she fastened it blindly, smiling at him.
“Magic,” he said. “Rules are like magic. Neither is real. Or are they?” Now it was her locket he had in his hand.
She touched her naked throat. And that locket had a tricky clasp; she’d always had to fumble with it, but he’d whispered it away with an unfelt touch. She prickled all over, invaded, aroused.
“Next you’ll have my panties,” she said. “Magic man.”
“Is that all it takes? Could have saved myself some time.”
She wiped her face. “I guess. Rules...”
“Rules, yes. Perhaps they’re why you’ve found me. The reasons why you’re with me now, here in the dead of night, instead of with him. Your life is formless without your work, Mary. Without a lover who knows how to define you. Why do you think he took those things away from you? He’s jealous he can’t be more for you. He’s not enough.”
The lemon moon slid lower, dropping into the liquid trees and houses beyond the wall...
La! So pleased. Trying to cover more of the senses on the page. Picture's by the brilliant Joel Peter Witkin; thanks to the wonderful photographer Mariah Channing, my lovely studio mate at Redux, for telling me about him!
P.Z. West's first novel, EVENING’S LAND, is a Library Journal Self-e Selection, winner of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Award and recipient of the Carol Marie Smith Memorial Scholarship for the NOEPE Center of Literary Arts.
Pauline West's books on Goodreads
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