Monday, November 18, 2013
Write What You Know...and What You Imagine
I'll tell you my writing secret.
Nonfiction is my least favorite kind of writing. I even hate it sometimes, with utter and extreme enthusiasm. I write it, and I want to set the pages on fire. As much as I fight myself, though, nonfiction is my best genre. Essays and research papers, yes, but especially creative nonfiction. I write beautiful, starkly terrifying prose about sitting on the bed at night wrapped in blankets and three layers of pajamas, afraid to sleep, afraid to even turn out the lights for fear I might see him again, my dream-stalker and former real-life tormentor. I chose that kind of writing once, determined to set the demons of my childhood down on paper, and the aftermath as well. Especially the aftermath. I wanted to cast the words out onto the wind for other ears to hear because so many people don't realize that "It's over" really means it's just begun.
So I wrote.
As I did, pain coiled in a black lump in my chest and flowed out on the keyboard. It was a bloodletting, the act of writing, with the words pouring out from an open vein. On the final page I was left wounded, drained and oddly relieved. I had done it. I had looked in myself and said, "This happened, and it sucks." Bleeding was good. Bleeding was life and living...survival. When I reached the end of the story--the present--I started at the beginning and read what I had wrought.
I had to put it down and walk away, sometimes not returning for days. Twice, I threw up. It was beautiful and hauntingly triumphant--after all, the girl in the story had survived. In the end she thrived. I tried to edit it, to get it ready to submit to agents and publishers. I'm still convinced I could publish it, and it would sell. The words, though...the more I read them, the more I realized I didn't want anyone to have to experience this, even voluntarily and third hand, even for reasons of coming to a greater understanding, even in the interest of standing up for all the others like me.
It was too real, and I was too vulnerable.
I hate nonfiction sometimes, and I'm jealous of the bravery of others who have put their stories on the shelves of bookstores worldwide. I didn't burn the manuscript, though--believe me--I was tempted. It lies dormant in a temporary tomb, stuffed into my locker at work alongside half-filled legal pads and standard operating procedure manuals, waiting for me to decide what in Dante's nine hells I should do with it.
Fiction, now...fiction I love. Fiction is laughter and pain and utter decimation, but it's not mine. It's not real, and I'm not nearly as good at writing. I labor at fiction, toiling over words and emotions and how to move from plot point A to plot point B. Fantasy is my true love, and we've danced together a dozen times.
Step together, part.
Step together. Part.
I have three novels, all of them half-finished, and at least ten more in various stages of outlining and scattered snippets. I love them. I love the atmosphere of the various worlds. I love the maps. The characters are my friends and my family, my illicit partners in devilish misadventure. As much as I love them, there they lie--half-cocked, far from finished, and definitely abandoned.
I have the usual excuses, of course--work, marriage, children. Video games and books...the move theater. A thousand distractions that are easier than writing. Brush aside the distractions, though, and the truth rests at the bottom of the crate. I love the fantastic, but I was born to write reality.
It was seven in the morning, the sky blue and serene. I'd gotten to work an hour before, and my first call was a woman whose teenage son had taken a knife to his arm, slicing it from wrist to elbow. As I was typing the information the responding medics would need, I realized reality could overlap fantasy. There are heroes in fantasy, and in reality. There is devastation and magic and mystery. There are men and women who have survived terrible things, and there are those who have been destroyed by them. There are destroyers. There is an overlay.
My book is fiction. My hero--I reject the word heroine, as it always seems to describe something altogether different--is not me. She is herself, but I am there. My pain flows into hers, and she learns from it. She grows, and she suffers. The story is both familiar to and alien to me. Eclunae'via is a world unlike anything I have ever seen, and yet it is intimately linked with one I know far better than I know my own mind. Navelle is twenty-one. Her father is dead. She's a college dropout and afraid of developing the illness that killed her father. She hears voices and sees things in the shadows, and she has vivid dreams. Her best friends are a bird who is also an autistic man, a teenage mother, and a woman more than twice her age. Something hunts her, and she's in as much danger from herself as from anyone else.
Her truth--and her book--begins with an old man in Baton Rouge, and the sin he committed as a boy:
The woman inside him stirred, restless.
*It's time, Scilas.*
Scilas Evanson jerked awake, his body screaming with the effort of moving from slouched to jarringly erect in the space between two heartbeats. He was in the study. Scilas grunted. He was old, damn it, and he'd been retired from service for over fifty years. His body should have learned to appreciate laziness by now, instead of reacting to every wakeup call like it was a drill sergeant or a blast of gunfire.
That wasn't really the problem, though, and he knew it. Scilas trembled, not quite daring to believe what he thought he'd heard. He'd had plenty of dreams that were similar, after all. Wishful thinking, or desperation. He pressed his hand against his chest. She always felt more alive when he did that. "Mariko?"
Scilas sucked in a breath, his hand falling away. He hadn't been dreaming. She was here. Not Mariko, of course. Kai Mariko was dead, and had been for seventy years. She was here. He'd been wondering if he would ever find her, or if his sin would wrap itself around someone else after he died. Scilas cleared his throat and tentatively touched his hand to his chest again. He felt the indentations there, radiating out like a star.
The voice was a wind whisking through his body, a seed planted in his soul. Mariko had done this to him, had planted eight tiny shards of her soul inside of him, to ensure he would do what was needed. It had been an elegant punishment--forcing him to fall in love with something, and to watch as it died.
*Go where you can hear her calling.*
Scilas let out a the breath he'd been holding for decades. It was time, finally, to fix this. He grabbed a pen and bent low over the battered spiral notebook on his desk, flipping through the pages until he came to a blank one. He needed to get this book in order before he left. He paused, his pen poised above the blue-lined paper. "When?"
*Now. Maybe never.* Mariko's dead whisper was dripping sorrow, tightening his chest. *There's a hunter on her back.*
"No," Scilas growled, and the pen snapped in half, the plastic pieces twisted and splintered.
*If she dies...*
Scilas swallowed. "I know."
His muscles protesting every stretch and bend, Scilas pulled another pen from the top drawer and held it to the paper. There was no time to finish the book and make it pretty, but there was time for this. There had to be. 'Eclunae'via has had no soul,' Scilas scrawled, biting his lip until it bled. 'That's why it's dying. Protect her.' It didn't make enough sense, but what else could he say? All he knew was what Kai Mariko had left him with.
"I was a cold bastard back then," Scilas spit the words out--harsh, guttural--and rose from the desk, heading for the attic. He needed the shadows there.
He'd been twenty years old when it happened, new to the army and barely old enough to piss in a straight line, but that was no excuse. Orders weren't an excuse either. People had been kept in pens like dogs because he, and men like him, had been following orders. People had died. Kai Mariko had died. He'd told himself what the entire country had been saying: "We have to keep ourselves safe."
"Shouldn't I be safe too?" Mariko laughed.
The little whore was laughing at him.
She planted her hands on her too-round belly. "If I was safe, this would never have happened."
Sergeant Jones had warned him she was a liar. She was a mongrel whose mother had had the indecency to spawn with a real American. She was just like her mother, too, spreading her legs for any man who wanted a go. She'd even been making passes at soldiers. There had been no rape, of course. There was nothing but a little bitch scrabbling to keep from getting tossed back into the cage she'd crawled out of.
"She didn't much take to being caged," Scilas snorted, wincing as he fumbled with the door to the attic stairs. He was closer to ninety now than twenty, and he didn't move with the grace he'd had before. He shut the door behind him and felt his way up the stairs in the dark. It wasn't difficult. His footprints were worn into the wood. He'd spent too many years cultivating the shadows in the attic to bring a light with him now.
His foot thumped against the door at the top.
Scilas grinned. Urgency thrummed in his veins, laced with dread that he was too late and his usual fear of the pain that would hit him when he crossed the Shroud. Even all of that, though, couldn't suppress the schoolboy delight he felt every time he slipped into the mist. Eclunae'via was a savage world, a clashing of want and will, danger and beauty. His grandson was the only thing he loved more. He'd been terrified his first time, driven by Mariko's voice in his bones. He'd felt the snap in his chest as her body, fragile and too young, had given way to the birthing, two states away and three months after he'd last seen her. He'd felt her death, and then with a sickening twist he'd been in Eclunae'via.
Scilas closed the door behind him and stood in the dark room, breathing in the shadows and the hot, still air. There were no windows in the attic, no cracks in the floorboards or chinks in the walls. There were no lights, and no places for light to creep in. He'd driven Mariko to Louisiana and left her in the new camp, and then he'd made the too quiet drive back to his post and forgot he'd ever met her, a difficult task with eight scars as a reminder. "Mariko..."
She'd been mouthier than a woman had had a right to be, and clearly half-mad. It had been easier to look down on her as a grasping bitch than to admit that she had escaped for more reasons than madness. He had heard the whispers about her temper and her attitude, and he had heard the elbow-jostling snickers about how Sergeant Jones had put her in her place.
"My mother was mounted by a white dog too, her welcome gift to America," Mariko growled. Then she paused, her eyes solemn and dark. "It isn't the same, though. She had a husband. He loved her, and me too."
"So she had a husband. What do you have, little whore?"
"I have Eclunae'via, and honor. What do you have?"
Scilas spread his arms and looked out at nothing. It wasn't a spell. It wasn't even magic. It was just a different way of looking at the world. He'd seen nothing before Mariko. He'd been brash and cocky, but he hadn't had any balls. He'd called her a liar. He'd scoured the woods for her, dragged her by the hair and thrown her in the jeep, and he'd taken her away from her family, to a different state and a different camp. The man he'd been then would never have noticed the veil itself, much less seen beyond it.
Parting the Shroud was easier than breathing for those who knew the way, and Scilas did know the way now. He was a better man, and he'd had a lot of practice since Mariko's death throes had tossed him to Eclunae'via the first time. It was a simple shift in focus, like seeing the picture hidden behind a magic eye puzzle. Scilas concentrated his will on where he wanted to be, and shifted.
The blackness in the room blew about like mist at his feet, and there was the Shroud, the veil separating this world from Eclunae'via. He reached forward, parting it like cobwebs, puffs of shadow blurring the border between here and there. Steeling himself against what he knew was coming, Scilas stepped through the passageway.
Pain slogged him in the gut like a bullet, ripping through bone and muscle and singeing every nerve along the way. The attic was gone. His half-clean, half-cluttered brick house was gone. The marshy heat of south Louisiana had been replaced by dry wind that whipped his hair into whimsical snarls.
No...not hair, not anymore. Feathers.
Scilas gritted his teeth against the pain, closing his eyes and allowing the strength of want and will to flow through him. Focus was the key to this world. He could still feel Eclunae'via's slow death inside him, could feel the world's strength bleeding out drop by drop, but it was no longer at the forefront of his mind. Pain was the backdrop, and flight was his will, and his desire.
Scilas mantled his gray wings and dug his talons into the branch of the twisted tree clinging to the top of Kolvaryn, the whispering mountain. From here, he could see the desert that ringed the mountain’s base and the endless forest to the northeast. He could even see the vague, cloud-wrapped border of the avarie’s floating city, painted against the sky above the forest.
He hadn’t come here for the view. Kai Mariko had been fourteen years old, thin and far too pale. She hadn’t cried; she hadn’t begged. She had known he wouldn’t save her. There had been grief in her eyes, and regret at what she was about to do. She’d touched his chest, lightly, and the blossoming pain had left him weak and shaking, breathing far too fast.
“What did you do to me, you bitch?”
“I planted a seed. If I live, nothing will grow.”
Mariko smiled, her fingers brushing against his wrist in offered comfort. “I’m carrying a son, and a son can’t be a sieve for the dreams. Without a sieve, Eclunae’via will die. If you feel the dying inside you, you’ll look for her.”
“For the sieve. If you’re lucky, another will be born.”
That was why he was gripping the branch of this tree and struggling to stay at the center of a near-maelstrom even his will couldn’t soften. The winds were always fierce was strong enough, desperate enough, if it needed enough, then it didn’t matter where in Eclunae’via the call came from. It would be heard on Kolvaryn.
Scilas closed his eyes and became the calm in the storm. He breathed in the heat and let it flow through him, and he sent out his own call, allowing it to tear out on the winds and find the soul he wanted. *Featherhead, are you there?*
Surprise, and warmth on the air. *Scilas? I though you were taking the week off.*
*I had to make sure you weren’t making a mess of it.* Scilas let out a screech and mantled his wings again, anxious. *Listen, boy, I need your help.*
*No, I can handle it. It’s just…I heard a rumor there’s a girl being hunted. I’m going to help her, but if I don’t survive it--*
*If I don’t survive it, I need you to keep an eye on the Borderlands. She’s human. That’s probably where she’ll show up, and soon. Keep her safe. She’s the hope.*
*Don’t get all cryptic on me, old man. I’m coming now.*
*Don’t you dare. I’ve been waiting years for this, and I don’t have time to explain it. We need her, so protect her.*
*No questions. She is everything, and that’s all you need to know. Understand?*
Silence on the wind, and resentment. Then, *Yes, sir.*
Scilas closed his eyes, relief flooding his hollow bones. *Good. Then I’ll say goodbye. Everything is yours, of course, but especially the house. There are things in there for you to see when you’re ready.* He opened his eyes and looked down at the heat waves rising up the mountainside. *I love you, featherhead.*
Fear and confusion, anger and fierce affection. *Watch your back.*
Scilas swallowed thickly, tucked his wings against his body and clung hard, letting the wind whip furiously around him. There was no eye in the maelstrom now. There was only the wind and the heat, with nothing between him and the life of the realm. He was old. He didn’t mind dying, so long as he saved her first.
Scilas closed his eyes and listened for her call.