Grandma Morgan and the Wonder of Dialogue

My Grandma Jo (or, as I’m sure she would have preferred to be called, my Grandmother Morgan) was the kind of old-school Lady who took her appearance very seriously. Her outfits always matched, her shoes were classy, her waist was cinched, her lips were red, her eyebrows were drawn about half an inch higher than her actual eyebrow hair, and she went to the salon every Tuesday to have her hair done. I think every other week she had her roots done, and every single trip meant a very nice coif. She called applying her makeup “putting on her face” and I only ever saw her without it when she was very ill indeed.

Grandma Jo and I had quite a few debates about how girls should behave about their appearance. I was a wild thing as a kid, and I looked it. My hair was long, and always in a ponytail, because I was usually rambling through the woods or bent over a book. She was at least proud that the dance lessons she’d signed me up for at the age of three had given me impeccable posture, but otherwise I was a bit of a mess.

You might be getting the impression from this that my grandmother was stuffy and aloof, but you couldn’t be more wrong. She might have once told me that “a woman’s hair is her crowning glory”, but she was also the first person to sit on the floor and play with us grandkids. She cheered us on, sang, danced, and told us how special each and every one of us was. She was both indomitable about what she wanted, and the most cheerful damn person on the face of the planet. The only time I ever saw her get really upset was the occasion when I sprinkled baby powder all over the hardwood floors in the top floor of her house, and she wept as she said that the powder would never come out of the cracks.

Yes, I was a handful. But no, this woman who had a hand in bringing me up never raised her voice.

Grandma Jo also supported every single one of her grandkids. One of her favorite phrases that she delivered to my exasperated parents was, “Just keep loving them.” When we had trouble in math, “Just keep loving them.” When we were frighteningly bold, or oddly quiet, or too rambunctious, or later on when we were getting into more serious trouble, the solution was, “Just keep loving them.”

And truly, she did, but I was a bit tougher than some of the others. I had big thoughts that I seemed incapable of getting out without getting irritated that no one else seemed to grasp their import. I spent an inordinate amount of time scribbling in notebooks while the rest of the family watched football games. I read too much, and I just didn’t care if there were holes in my jeans, or if the kids at school didn’t like me that much. Grandma Morgan praised my academic skills and my dancer’s poise, but she sighed at my disinterest in my looks and rather pointedly took me shopping for clothes. She strongly encouraged belts, which I loathed.

I moved away after college, and we exchanged emails once a week. And then Grandma Morgan got sick. It was pulmonary fibrosis, and it was incurable, and it meant that the cells in her lungs were turning into scar tissue, which meant they were going to stop working. Cell by cell.

Soon after her diagnosis, I moved back to West Virginia. You can read my last essay for a broader view of that time, but to say I was a bit wound up almost all the time would be an understatement. And I never quite knew what to say to Grandma. I’m not so eloquent about my feelings in such situations, not without pen and paper, and even then –

We talked a lot about Madigan. Grandma loved the fact that she was so interested in being with people, even though I thought it was really only useful in large gatherings. Most kids melt down when surrounded by a crowd, but that’s when Madigan was at her best.

I was old enough to get the advice, “Just keep loving them.”

And meanwhile I was struggling to finish another draft of the novel I already viewed as a bit of a failure. It had taken way too long to write, and it wasn’t nearly original enough for me to be proud. And it was starting to feel like a slog.

Then one day I dropped into Grandma’s house. She was watching one of her favorite movies, a Hallmark Channel original. It was about some cute blond girl who had moved from the big city back to her home town and found love and belonging and an appreciation for where she’d grown up. I was groaning internally as soon as I walked in the door and heard the dialogue.

Then my grandma looked up at me while I was taking off my shoes, and said one of the most startling things I think she ever spoke to me.

“Megan, I was watching this movie last week, and I just couldn’t help thinking how amazing it is, that someone like you can sit down and think up all these things that people say to each other, and the things these people do. It’s all imaginary, and it’s all made by one person. And I just thought that was the most amazing thing. How do you do that? How do you think of all the things that people would say?”

As the characters onscreen delivered dialogue that sounded like nothing anyone would ever actually speak, I grinned. For real. And I have no idea what I answered. Something about observing the people around me, and then putting myself in the characters’ shoes. Even though the answer is something more like, “Grandma Morgan, I have no idea how the hell I do it. There are people inside my brain who talk to each other! It’s weird, but I swear I’m not crazy.”

My answer, whatever it was, pleased her, and she was proud. It’s the only question she ever asked me about my writing. And her astonishment that one of her grandkids could do something so complex as create dialogue between characters is one of the best moments I’ve had as a writer.

Grandma Morgan never read much more of my writing than a few college essays. I always sort of figured science-fiction wasn’t her jam, and besides, the thing wasn’t finished yet. I could be disappointed by that, especially when I’m finally about to publish it. But I know what her reaction would have been.

Pleased with the book, but even more thrilled that I actually do something with my hair, now.

Advertisements

I Don’t Even Like the Beach

This is an essay about a rather pitiful time in my life, but I’m not writing it seeking pity. The point is the stories that we tell about these times – and let’s be honest, if a story doesn’t have pain, darkness, struggle, it’s no story at all – and how they shape us. Which ones do we decide define those difficult times?

***

It was a hell of a summer.

I’d been dropped back in West Virginia after my husband (now my ex) deployed, and I’d realized within a week how much I’d loved Washington State. How much of a community I’d grown there. How much of a stranger I’d become to all the people I’d grown up with. It was nobody’s fault. It just happens.

Once you leave home, you can’t really go back to it. You change, and sometimes it doesn’t.

My paternal grandmother, the matriarch of the Morgan family, the center of our familial universe, was sick in a way that was only going to get worse. And

And my daughter, this little one-year-old girl, needed love. Love from a mother who was burned out, who was fighting to keep her head above water. Love from a whole family that was hurting. It felt like this girl needed a whole roomful of people, all the time.

My sister promised, in the midst of all this, a trip to the beach. Her husband’s family had a vacation house that they’d visited before, where they walked up and down the sand, and ate seafood they pulled from the water themselves. It seemed like the perfect escape from a tiny townhouse, where I lived a solitary existence with a one-year-old who needed more than I could give. And if you know anything about me, you will know just how desperate I’d become, to be looking forward to a vacation that involved saltwater, waves, and no tide pools or sea stacks. I’m not much of a “long walks on the beach” kind of person.

For weeks, I looked at this trip as one bright spot in a long expanse of hopeless darkness. The day of the journey arrived. I was packing when my sister called me.

As soon as I answered the phone, I knew.

She was sorry. Really sorry. One of the cousins had invited a ton of friends to the vacation house the weekend before, and the friends had trashed the place. The owners didn’t mind if family went to the house – but anyone else was officially uninvited. And that meant me.

My dear, sweet sister couldn’t stop saying sorry. And of course I reassured her that it was fine. I didn’t like the beach, anyway. Madigan probably would have decided she hated sand on a level to rival Anakin Skywalker, and we would have spent the entire trip indoors.

A couple of hours later, my sister’s car pulled up in front of my townhouse, where I was moping around with Mads while she scribbled on the concrete with chalk. Molly jumped out of the car, practically vibrating with contained emotion. She handed me a bouquet of flowers, and gave me a huge hug – which is a big deal for my claustrophobic sister. I told her it was all okay, and I understood. I don’t remember much about what she said. But I remember those flowers.

That little gesture of love. It was a tiny glimpse of light in what seemed like a long dark tunnel of disappointment.

She pulled away. And I spent the weekend struggling to keep my head above water. The flowers were there, on my kitchen island. I didn’t smile when I saw them – but they were there.

***

In the end, is this a story about a dark time, untempered by anything warm or good? About hits that just keep on coming, where everything good crumbles and falls away?

In the end, is this story about a bouquet of flowers that my sister gave me because she loved me? Because she was sorry, and she had to do something, and that was all she could do? Is this a story about appreciating that display of our love and our familial bond, in the face of disappointment?

Is this a story about sifting through the burned out shell of a life, and crafting something new? Is that the summer that made me who I am? That summer, when I felt so alone, when I turned, when I reached out, expecting somewhere to find something soft and sweet that could give me strength, and finding only thorns that drained me more? Is that the summer where I grew up, from a girl who needed someone else to watch out for her, into a woman who relied on herself?

When things get hard – really hard – like, the kind of hard where I don’t know how I’m going to get through this day and into tomorrow – those are the days that I need stories the most. Stories that tell me what this all might mean. Stories that make sense of what is happening. Stories that help me feel heroic in spite of the fact that there’s nothing to feel heroic about.

Stories that tell me that, even if there’s no reason for why this is happening, there is, at least, an identity to be found, there in the middle of it all.

Writing What You Need

I was recently asked in an interview I did about the common advice to “write what you know”. It’s something I’ve heard a lot, in nonfiction and in fiction classes, something I’ve read often from other authors. There’s plenty of sense in the advice. How can you accurately portray what you haven’t experienced? How can you dare to walk in high-heeled shoes you’ve never worn, smell the  tang of gunpowder when you’ve never held firearm, see the crash of waves on a shore when you’ve never visited the beach, hear the hush of  a crowd right before the band starts to play when you’ve never been to a concert? It would be audacious to try to present on paper something we ourselves have never known.

And yet, to tread into the genres of science fiction and fantasy, we’re required to do exactly that. These are lands of myth, where swords are buzzing lasers, magic overpowers entire armies, AI walks among us. None of these things could have been imagined if writers hadn’t been willing to create and describe things that no person could have experienced. And that’s a good thing, because very often, by diving into imagined realms, we discover important things about reality.

To me, there’s a balance to be found. A place where we take what we know, and we throw it forward, into what we don’t, and as honestly as possible, we create something wholly new. Because writers must make something worth saying – whether that be a plot, a character, a thought, a world. That’s the point, or at least one of them, to say something about the world that hasn’t been said before – and that can be revealing a truth that’s always been there, but we haven’t always been able to see, or seeing something entirely new that we might become.

The stories I write are pretty speculative, and lean science fiction. I have a weakness for tech and spaceships and science and possibilities. And at the same time, I love to write characters who mean something to me. They might be loosely based on people I know and love (or loathe, as the case may be), but they’re also very much people I’ve never met. And the closer I get to publishing my first novel, and the more my life changes as I do, the more I realize that I wrote characters that I needed.

I wrote about things that were happening in my life as I created Altered Wake, but I also wrote about what might come next. I wrote about people who were trapped and seeking freedom. I wrote about people who knew a great deal about themselves, and had a plan for their futures, but who also didn’t know things that were critical to their identities, things that could radically change that projected future. In among the swords and monsters, the very unreal things that I don’t know, and the cars and jobs and military life, the very real things that I do know – were these characters who were finding themselves.

I needed to put that struggle on paper, although I don’t think I realized it at the time. I was just writing something that made sense to me. Something that felt honest and true, even in this world that I made that was so much like ours, and radically unlike ours.

And looking at the stories that have been told by the people around me, my fellow writers and creators, I can so often see that those projects which are the most meaningful and have the most import to the audience, are those in which the creator is pulling from the things that are happening in their own lives, and trying to figure out what it means. Trying to see what might happen next. Trying to find their way through to what’s important about it.

These attempts to parse out something honest and meaningful from often chaotic and confusing experience is (I think) part of our responsibility as storytellers, but it’s also something that arises naturally when we make something that combines what we know and what we don’t know.

When we take what we have, and try to see how it might become what we need.

STAR WARS: More Than Hope

It is May 4, which, in case you did not know, is Star Wars day. Why, you might ask?

Because May the 4th be with you, that’s why.

We STAR WARS fans are an odd, torn-up bunch in the geek world. There’s the constant debate of which pieces of media are or aren’t valuable. There are purists who want the original trilogy completely untouched by any of the digital additions (that have not, by the way, aged well AT ALL, whereas the original versions absolutely do. There’s something to be said for practical affects, here). There are those who delve deep into the EU and obsess over characters like Mara Jade and Talon Karrde and who might even be okay with the fact that Chewbacca was killed in the war against the Yuuzhan Vong saving Han and Leia’s son Anakin, who was subsequently also killed by Yuuzhan Vong – it got convoluted there after a while and I’ll admit, I stopped reading. There are those who violently reject the prequels, and those who embrace Anakin Skywalker’s hatred of sand.

There are a lot of different ways to love STAR WARS, and the camps have powerful opinions about how best to embrace this franchise.

I think to understand any of this fervent devotion, you always have to go back to the beginning. And the beginning is a space princess, who knows she is doomed, placing the plans for a superweapon that will destroy any remnants of freedom in the galaxy, in a little blue and white astromech droid. The beginning is a farm boy staring at the pair of suns setting over his wasteland of a home world, dreaming of becoming something greater. The beginning is an old man, a Jedi in hiding, being called on to act even though he is well past his prime. The beginning is a smuggler with no interest in anything but payment, agreeing to take a boy, an old man, and two droids, to a planet that will be nothing but rubble by the time they get there.

The beginning is this little shard of hope, placed in the hands of some rag-tag nobodies – worse than nobodies. The nobodies are the janitors on the Death Star, the band members in the cantina on Mos Eisley, the cute couple that was out shopping at the farmer’s market you just know existed on Adleraan before it was blown to bits. Han Solo, Chewbacca, Luke Skywalker, Ben Kenobi, Artoo, and Threepio are like that bitter, gritty sludge at the bottom of a cup of French press coffee.

But just as these characters become something so much more than what they appear, so does STAR WARS.

* * *

There is, for me, life before STAR WARS, and life after STAR WARS. I was always a nerdy kid growing up, and had a reputation for being odd, bookish, more than a smidge stuck up. Then, in third grade, STAR WARS happened, and my status as a full-on geek was permanently sealed. Obsessed doesn’t even begin to cover how I felt about these three gritty VCR tapes that I checked out from the local video rental store over and over again. I lived and breathed The Force, and lightsabers, and Jedi Knights. Han Solo, the Millennium Falcon, Chewbacca. Princess Leia, the Rebellion, PRINCESS FREAKING LEIA. I had a quasi-religious relationship with the films, and while at the time it made the adults and even the other kids in my life (I grew up in those STAR WARS dead years, when the films had been out long enough to be old news, and the EU was just getting started) incredibly puzzled, looking back I totally get it.

STAR WARS begins with hope – that spark that we all crave, that shining light that makes any injustice or suffering bearable – and then grows into something so much more. The question is, what is the thing that it becomes? And I think to even begin tracing it, you have look to the central character. Luke Skywalker.

Here, we have the buoyant and more than a little petulant farm boy with a past he doesn’t understand. Which he can’t even begin to comprehend until Ben Kenobi places a lightsaber in his hands. He is a classic, simple hero, a normal kid (when we meet him he’s still playing with model planes and whining about not being able to visit Toshi station, “kid” totally applies here) who is handed a quest he didn’t ask for. He reluctantly accepts, and then everything gets way more complicated than he could have imagined. He rescues a princess; saves the galaxy; is inducted into a mystical order of powerful, sword-wielding magicians; discovers his dad is the most evil villain in the galaxy; and eventually redeems both himself and his father, all while tidily saving his friends.

It’s pretty easy to reduce Luke Skywalker to a whiney brat who just happens to have an incredibly potent ability with The Force. Entire YouTube compilation videos will back me up here. But there’s a lot more here that keeps the three original STAR WARS films moving from one dramatic moment to the next, and as necessary as all the characters around Luke are, when you lift them away you are left with a core story that’s downright transcendent.

In STAR WARS, Luke Skywalker is called upon to leave behind more than just the restrictive life that he didn’t want, anyway. He also gives up his dream of becoming a pilot, and any chance at a normal life. Sure, he’s going to get the adventure and excitement he’s always hoped for, but to take a stand against the Empire means that he will always be a fugitive, always in mortal danger, always fighting a losing battle. And like any good hero, he grows and he rises, one fumbling step at a time. We know very well that without Obi-Wan Kenobi, this kid would have been dead about thirty seconds after walking into Mos Eisley. He might have mad Force skills, but it’s also pretty obvious that application isn’t exactly his strong point. If it ain’t fun, there’s a good chance Luke Skywalker will be doing it with gripes and complaints that can be heard half a galaxy away. So he gallivants around the Death Star, leaving Artoo, the all-important bearer of the very plans that can destroy this monstrous planet-killing space station, alone to fend for himself, while Obi-Wan does the careful work of making sure they can all escape. If Luke is a hero at this point, it’s only because of sheer luck, the ferocity of a princess, the bravery of a smuggler, the cleverness of one small droid, and the sacrifice of a better man who for some reason believes in this reckless punk of a kid has something going on under the surface.

And it turns out, he does. Because when everything depends on him, Luke Skywalker doesn’t whine about how unfair it is that he’s in the cockpit of an X-Wing about to be blown to space dust by Darth Vader while trying to blast a proton torpedo into an exhaust port. He taps into the Force, pulls the trigger, and gets the job done.

Damn it, the whiney brat turns out to be the hero.

And then things get complicated and philosophical as hell. And while it seems like in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK our farm-boy hero steps aside from the main conflict to hang out on Dagobah, it turns out the journey he’s on there is as critical as the tactics of any general. Because this little green guy named Yoda asks this seemingly simple kid to take a good hard look at himself, and what Luke finds is something genuinely dark and scary. Our hero goes into a tree-cave, slays his enemy, and when the mask is blown away, finds he’s looking at his own face. There is more than a little Darth Vader there.

We’d expect, based off past experience, that when Luke abandons his training and goes to Bespin to save his friends, that his unlikely good fortune will carry him through. He survived the Death Star run, he escaped the wampa on Hoth, survived a crash landing on Dagobah. This kid is lucky and plucky.

But that is not to be. Instead, Darth Vader hands Luke’s ass to him on a silver platter. And it’s not even like Luke kept a cool head and did right by his training. There is almost nothing in this fight to redeem our hero, except his escape from the carbonite freezing chamber, and the moment where he chooses certain death.

It’s a dark day when the only thing your hero did right was throw himself down into the bowels of Cloud City with no hope of surviving the fall. So EMPIRE ended with a broken hero, brought down by his own impatience and fear, haunted by a vision of darkness within.

For some reason, when I was a kid, I interpreted Luke in RETURN OF THE JEDI as this sort of Zen figure who’s taken the lessons from EMPIRE and used them to restrain the fear and anger that nearly destroyed himself and his friends. But as a grown-up, there’s way more going on under the surface. What I see now is a man – finally grown up – who knows what lesson he’s supposed to have learned, and is struggling to apply it. The anger and fear are still there, but above is this fragile shell of restraint. In Jabba’s palace, we see a figure cloaked in black, carrying a lightsaber, shouting death threats at a drug lord. He’s planning things more carefully, sure. There was no rushing in to rescue Han Solo with guns blazing, but he’s not exactly quietly getting the job done as a Jedi like Obi-Wan or Yoda would.

And in the Emperor’s throne room on the second Death Star, we see this veneer crack wide open. And Luke Skywalker, our supposed Jedi hero, hacks at his helpless father with brutal rage. Ultimately, it is an odd moment of sympathy that saves him from succumbing to the darkness he carries. He cuts off the same hand that Darth Vader removed from him. Ah. That is my father who I’d hoped to save. He is like me.

I am like him.

And Luke Skywalker throws down his lightsaber, and once again faces certain death. There is no bright, shining, knightly hero’s journey here. There is no pure and good hero. There is a man who knows he possesses darkness, and chooses to die rather than to use it. It’s not like he confronts the Emperor a radically altered person, courageously plunging his lightsaber into the heart of this really, truly bad dude who is going to kill his friends. And this isn’t Obi-Wan, sacrificing himself to save someone else.

Luke Skywalker, instead, sees the darkness he carries, and puts down his weapon, and chooses not to act. It is only Darth Vader who saves him from the Emperor. And what does that leave us with? Is Luke truly a hero for what he does there in the Emperor’s throne room? Does he find goodness within him? Or just the ability to turn away from the darkness?

Of all the characters in STAR WARS, Luke is the one who takes the most epic journey – the one in which he confronts himself, and finds there something dark and angry, something which he must try to overcome. And when we see him in RETURN OF THE JEDI, what we realize, and what he realizes, too, is that this darkness is something he will not defeat, but rather something he must always live with.

There is a lot of talk of hope in STAR WARS these days. There always has been. But I think what captured me about this universe was the journey of Luke Skywalker. That even as a little kid left me wondering what it is that we do with the darkness we carry with us.

May the Force be with you. May you discover what to do with it.

To Stand in Open Spaces

Watercolor SkiesEarlier last week, I was feeling a little bit scared about how unsettled my life is at the moment. I’m not unaccustomed to change – I was once an Army Wife, and moving every three years to a totally new part of the country was not only normal, it was expected. Watching friends move away at frequent intervals was also standard, and living with a spouse who worked long hours or might get deployed to the other side of the planet with little warning were also constants. Change was to be expected.

Recently, just as it seemed like my family was settled, I made some major changes that altered the way I’m living today. I took steps that I knew would cause me hardship, but which I knew to be necessary. And it has been a difficult journey, even if it was the right thing to do.

So, on the day in question, I knew that I needed to do more than just cut myself some slack. I needed to take a few moments to celebrate how far I’ve come over the course of my adult life, how much I’ve grown, and how much I know I’m capable of. It was a day when I needed to stand up and shout into the wilderness that I’ve walked into, knowing full well that There Be Dragons, “Bring it on, I got this you scaly bastards!”

I went on Facebook, and did up a little post about what I consider to be my good qualities, and how proud I am. Self aggrandizing, I guess, except it’s something I rarely do, and look – those of us who tend to be hard on ourselves sometimes need to go out and publicly say that we’re not so bad. We all need to acknowledge that there are things we’re great at. It can give us courage to face the unknown. And the vast majority of my friends totally got this. We exchanged the equivalent of virtual hugs and high-fives, and I expressed my genuine appreciation for those who popped up to cheer me on. Their words were exactly what I needed to hear just then, and I was grateful.

And then – a few hours of the warm fuzzy love-fest, a hater popped up. With narrowed eyes and a rather bitter tone, they pointed out what they considered a major misstep in my life. They said, if I was as great as I thought I was, how could I possibly have allowed this horrible thing to happen?

The very changes that I had made to improve my life and the lives of my children, they viewed as a practically criminal act. Something that made me lesser, something that made me selfish. They did not see a woman who had taken courageous action to make her life better. They didn’t see someone who had sacrificed safety and security in order to seek a better life. They saw someone who had jumped out an escape hatch, taken the easy way out, and harmed my family in doing so.

And even though I know (and oh, trust me, do I know) that I did the right thing, the remarks hurt a little. I left the comment up for a couple of hours, and after some consideration, deleted it and unfriended the person in question. While I’m all for voices with a variety of opinions in my life, this was one occasion when I was being accused of something by someone who didn’t bother to speak with me first, and find out my side of the story.

Then I moved on.

Flying V

I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to be pleasant. Avoiding decisions that would give anyone the opportunity to say I was a bad person. Dancing lightly around people’s opinions, and keeping what I really thought to myself. I spoke my mind in a watered-down, socially acceptable way. The only thing about me that would be considered remotely edgy to the world at large was my pixie cut that I occasionally shaped into a faux-hawk. Even the friends who were trusted enough to hear what I really thought didn’t get the unfiltered blast of my opinions.

I certainly didn’t do anything that might proverbially rock the boat. I looked at a great many things that I wanted to do, and turned away, knowing that someone would have something negative to say about them. If I tried to learn to play the guitar, I would be reminded that I’d tried once before, and hadn’t stuck to it. If I talked about going back to school to further my education, it would be pointed out how useless my first degree had been, and that I had very little plan for what I would do with a master’s degree. Pursuing photography would take away time with the family. Pursuing my writing in a serious way would also cause hardship.

And then slowly, gradually, as my life shrank and shrank, I started to wake up. I started to get angry. I started speaking out.

And speaking out meant other people got angry. It exposed me to serious unkindness for the first time in my life. To disapproval rather than praise.

Then, when speaking my mind didn’t change things, I started taking action. I made choices that raised eyebrows and a million questions. I started pursuing the life that I wanted.

And at last I left the cozy life I’d known for so long. I broke away completely. And I was out in the wilderness. I began seeking the life that I wanted, and in so doing, I ended up in wide open spaces, exposed, for all to see. Every minor error, now, is dredged up for scrutiny. Some people wonder if perhaps I’ve lost my mind.

I get a lot of skeptical looks and comments.

I also get a lot of support, and love.

But the truth is that, whatever I do, I no longer do it in safety. I am unprotected, and visible. I have opened myself to the harshest of criticism. But only rarely have I looked back to the life I once lived, and even then, that safety looks like nothing more than a cage.

To be the person that I have always wanted to be, to do the things I have always wanted to do, I must walk out into dangerous, exposed places. I must accept that people are going to say and think things about me that are unpleasant. And that standing there, wind-battered on wide plains, I will finally have the freedom to become what I have long needed to be.

White Lanterns

 

 

 

 

Narrative and Reality

I’ve always been a bit of a skeptic. When I was a little kid in Sunday School class, I was the one the teachers hated, because when we read stories of creation, I was the one who asked why the Bible didn’t mention dinosaurs. When I got older, I asked why some of the rules people thought so important weren’t actually in the Bible at all. Then, if we were truly following the example of a benevolent savior who asked us quite specifically to give up all we had, why did churches fight so much about money? And ultimately, if God is such a nice guy, then why do the most innocent among his creations suffer so much?

Bit by bit, I like to peel back layers, and ask more questions, until sometimes what I’m left with is this stark, cold, core of reality. I find that destination beautiful in its own way, but I’ll be honest, the journey can feel a little bleak at times. But I’ve always hungered to know, to see what lies beneath the surface of things, to know how everything works, and so I pick and pull until I’ve found something that at least looks like the underlying structure.

You might think this means that my view of the world leans cold and logical, and perhaps in some ways it is, but I have found that the ultimate result of every investigation I’ve undertaken is the same conclusion: that the fabric of the universe we live in is stranger and more wonderful than we can know. Even if I don’t believe in a benevolent God, or in forces controlling my destiny, I certainly acknowledge, over and over again, that there are things beneath and above and around what we see that are a complete mystery to us. That quite probably always will be. Even if those hidden things are only the things inside the corners of our own minds.

I have a friend who claims an unusual ability. This friend (let’s call him Ron) says, with great sincerity, that he knows the instant he meets someone that he’s going to have a future romantic relationship with them. An alarm goes off, and he has no doubt that there will be dating, or unrequited love, or heartbreak, or marriage. And this alarm has never failed. Ron has never had a romantic entanglement without the warning, and he’s never had the warning without the ensuing romantic entanglement.

Now, as someone who is inclined to peel back and investigate why things work the way they do, I have a lot of questions about this warning system.

“Couldn’t it just be some chemistry thing?”

Ah, but there are people with whom I’ve had great chemistry, but no alarm, and no romance.

“Well, what if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy?”

Ron shrugs. Maybe. But then you’d think there would be some relationships without the alarm.

Ron believes. And to watch strange circumstances and chance fall into place around him, it’s not hard to see why. Even before I’d heard Ron’s description of this alarm system, I’d noticed that he seemed buffeted by an odd number of coincidences, that he seemed, in spite of his best efforts, unable to escape the consequences of not only this alarm system, but all sorts of other nudges that might, to the eyes of someone inclined to believe in such things, look like the pull of destiny. That even had a skeptic asking questions.

The human mind is a strange and tricksy place. As many wonderful things as it can do, as powerful as it is, it can also obscure and change reality.

Even the most level-headed scientist is susceptible to confirmation bias. We’re all programmed to reach a conclusion, and then bend our perception of reality around that belief.

A liberal decides that conservatives are the worst, and here are the hundred reasons why, and all those reasons over there why maybe they aren’t? Nah, they aren’t nearly as important as the proof.

The faithful decide that miracles are real, and of course they are, because here’s the exhaustive list of miracles witnessed either personally or by a friend of a friend, or printed on the internet. All those times people suffered the worst possible outcome, they just weren’t faithful enough, or there was some lesson to be extracted that will have meaning later.

A logical thinker decides that there is nothing in this world beyond what fact can prove, and all else isn’t worth attending to, and life is what he makes of it and nothing more. All those things that can’t be quantified, like love and touch and mysterious forces, have no meaning.

We all do it. None of us can entirely control it, even when we know it happens. The trick is to keep asking questions, keep changing perspectives, keep staring at what we think we know and flipping it upside-down.

So what does this mean about Ron’s romance alarm system?

It means that I don’t know. I’m of two minds, in the gray zone in between cold logic and fervent belief. To entirely reject it would mean embracing the idea that there are no mysteries, no chances, no unexplained phenomena in the universe. To entirely accept it feels like an act of blind faith, a thing I turned away from long ago. So I turn it upside-down, and inside-out, and ask questions that come at it from both sides.

Ron believes, though. And that’s a far more powerful force than all my questions.

I think that a lot of the time we view books, movies, comics, poetry, art in general, as frivolous things. Entertainment. This is what we do when we have downtime, to reduce stress, because we’re bored.

This idea couldn’t be more wrong.

Stories are everything.

We tell ourselves stories all the time, even those of us who don’t think we’re creative. We have the tales about how we fit into the world, narratives from our past that tell people we meet in the present who we are. We lay them out one by one, until someone unfamiliar becomes an acquaintance, a friend, a best friend, a partner. We create our identity with stories.

This one time, I abandoned a friend’s birthday party for no explicable reason, and drove lonely back roads for hours.

I’ve been coming to this restaurant since it opened.

I got my English degree to go to seminary, but now I’m an atheist.

When my kid was diagnosed, it changed my life.

This ring was my grandmother’s, and I wear it as a talisman.

And this doesn’t only happen when we’re talking to other people. We tell stories about ourselves to ourselves as well. We go through our daily lives, choosing who will be our friends because of this narrative, who will be our enemies because of that narrative. What we tell ourselves determines whether or not we have value.

I failed to get my book published, so my life is a waste.

Today my kid didn’t cry once, I was a great parent.

This meal is delicious, I’m an excellent cook.

Everyone I love is suffering and it’s all my fault.

The right narrative can drive someone to seek a life-saving medicine, even if it means sacrificing everything else in the pursuit. The wrong narrative can overwhelm someone with despair and leave them helpless. Stories change the world, all the time. Who we are as human beings becomes dry and empty without them.

So, when I pull back all the layers of meaning wrapped around the world, this is what I see, at the core. This is the meaning that I extract.

With stories, we make the world.

When we write novels and poems and screenplays, we are creating a narrative that builds into a truth about the world around us. We are taking events, people, places, things, and assigning them meaning through stories. We demonstrate the value of courage and selflessness when we write tales of superheroes. We emphasize the importance of love and binding relationships when we write romance novels. We confront monsters both without and within when we film horror movies. Stories aren’t mere entertainment. Stories are how we build our universe. And how we see the world changes how we interact with it, and that ultimately changes the world itself.

As much as I like to be a skeptic, I’m also a believer, and stories are the reason why. My writing is the reason why. My own internal narrative, and how its constant changings also change how I see the world are why. And this is why I make more stories. Because stories are more than frivolities.

Stories are everything.

BORNE: Love and Time

BORNE: Love and Time

The thing I’ve always loved best about science fiction, above even space ships, time travel, and aliens, has been the way it offers lenses through which we can see a little more clearly our own humanity, however warped the glass – in many cases because of that warp. By seeing ourselves alongside humanoids that are, in fact, extreme versions of human traits; by seeing the results of our own actions and inactions extrapolated out into horrifying or gleaming futures; by experiencing the awe of us at our very best; we can recognize what we are a little more fully. The best science fiction uses the unfamiliar and the strange to reacquaint us with what it means to be a person.

BORNE, by Jeff Vandermeer, is a novel that accomplishes all these things. It offers a view on climate change, genetic manipulation, the nature of love, and the strangeness of time, all the while being a strange narrative, brimming with enormous flying bears, alcohol fish, a wizard, children spliced with tech and animal parts, and above all, a shape-shifting creature dubbed Borne.

Shades of Love

Rachel is a scavenger clinging to survival in a strange city, where lives can be wiped out in one blood-misted instant when Morde, the giant flying bear that has overthrown its creators and runs rampant, gets cantankerous and sweeps his paw through a few buildings. Still, Rachel has a home in Balcony Cliffs with her boyfriend Wick, whom she loves in spite of his secrets.

Then she finds Borne. A small, plant-like thing clinging to Morde’s fur. She takes Borne back to Balcony Cliffs, where Wick suggests he be broken down for information, and salvage. Rachel refuses, and instead begins learning to care for what she thinks is a plant.

Very soon, that plant reveals its ability to speak telepathically, and begins to look more like an upside-down squid.

Rachel embarks on the task of raising Borne, innocent and tremulous and strange, as if he is her child. She helps him find food, she tries to pass to him the lessons her dead parents taught her, and in return he makes her laugh, he challenges her, and he reminds her of the things in her terrible world that are beautiful. Rachel’s relationship with Borne is one rarely depicted in science fiction with this sort of depth: it is that of a parent and child, with all its joy, tedium, heartbreak, and uncertainty.

Rachel is uplifted by Borne’s accomplishments. She laughs as they race down hallways. She worries that she isn’t teaching Borne enough. She sets aside Wick’s questions about what Borne is, ignores any warning signs that he might be dangerous, and doesn’t wonder too deeply about the fact that Borne’s droppings are never anywhere to be seen.

When Borne asks, “Am I a person?” Rachel always answers “Yes.”

She mourns Borne’s rapid growth, how quickly it seems he stops needing her guidance, just as any sappy parent would when their kid starts school. This relationship, between a woman and a shape-shifting piece of biotech, rings true because it is as difficult as it is wonderful.

Equally complex is Rachel’s relationship with Wick. Here is a couple often left wondering why they’re together, especially as Borne grows and inserts himself more and more into their relationship. They have a good partnership, with Rachel going out into the city to scavenge for parts, while Wick takes what she brings back and uses it to create more biotech to sell. But they also have secrets, ones that threaten to drive them apart.

Like a real couple, they struggle to communicate at times. At others, they synchronize well. There are moments in the novel when they both fight for what they want, rather than what’s best for the other person. And there are others when they make sacrifices to save each other. What they have is ultimately rich, dynamic, and in constant flux. And in the end, they need each other to survive.

 

Warped Time

Time in BORNE can be strange. Rachel often casts back in her memory to better times with her parents, especially when she is struggling to raise her murderous, tentacled pseudo-child, and so flashbacks abound. The miserable present frequently becomes all the bleaker juxtaposed against the moments when Rachel’s parents took her out for a celebratory meal.

But on a smaller scale, BORNE also tends to put events together based off their relationship to one another, rather than when they occurred. In one particular instance, Borne and Rachel are hiding on a rooftop, watching as the spliced children they believed would kill them are slaughtered by the giant bears who most certainly will kill them. The battle between these two groups is described in gory detail from beginning to end, and then there is a break in the narrative. Rachel then describes what Borne was saying over the course of the combat. And then the narrative jumps back into the bear now climbing the stairs, seeking them.

This arrangement means that the battle between the spliced children and the bears goes uninterrupted, and then the reader gets to see, separated out for emphasis, Borne’s commentary on this moment. If these things had happened together on the page, the horror of the slaughter would have been broken up, and Borne’s thoughts on it would have been lost in the chaos. Time jumps, which are very often done to challenge a reader to play mental hopscotch, in this case give the reader more clarity. There’s no need to recall that moment when the Wizard first appeared to Rachel as she encounters the mysterious figure’s meddling in her life: the two things are placed together, and so their importance is clear.

The way time is broken also makes a great deal of sense in light of what has happened to Rachel. By the end, we discover that Wick once removed the memories of her parents’ death, so that she could move on with her life. And so Rachel’s life is split, into a time before her parents died, and the time after. In order to bridge the gap between, she must hold moments up and compare them, tearing apart time to make sense of what is happening around her.

 

Adding Complexity

I think one of the best lessons a writer can take from BORNE is the importance of complexity in relationships between characters. This novel presents love in so many different shapes, even though Rachel only has two primary relationships over the course of the novel. The task of parenting Borne is full of missteps and successes, and moves rapidly from Borne as helpless plant-thing to Borne as threatening monstrosity.

There is all the tender love, all the dull frustration, and all the fear (rational and irrational) of a genuine relationship between a parent and a child. Nothing about this is distilled or simple. Rachel might defend and romanticize Borne’s innocence, but all the while she suspects that he is much more than he seems. She watches with thrill and discomfort as he grows. And ultimately, she is left feeling that she failed him even as she assures herself that she could not have done any differently.

Rachel’s relationship to Wick also has a raw realness to it. They each struggle for control, try to do what is best for one another, break one another’s trust, and ride all the ups and downs of a close partnership. It is only by accepting the things they can never know about each other, accepting the wounds that each has suffered at the other’s hands, that they are able to at last live together in peace.

BORNE is a reminder that we as writers will do well to look at the ways people love one another, with all its depth and uncertainty and trials.

The way time works in BORNE is a technique that requires less careful observation and representation of human behavior, but much more planning and consideration. Here, time is pieced out and broken up, and events are positioned according to their relationship with each other, rather than their chronological order. This is a tactic that could very easily confuse readers if it’s overdone, but BORNE achieves balance and remains effective.

This, quite frankly, is exactly the sort of thing that I find the most challenging to accomplish when I’m writing. I imagine that taking this approach requires either extensive outlining or very careful editing. Regardless of the technique, it is time well spent, because when it’s done well, events in the book reverberate much more strongly than they might have otherwise.

 

Calling the Reader

Ultimately, BORNE is a novel full of complexity, strangeness, and big ideas. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, less for its moments of tension (which it certainly has) and more for the ways it forced me to think. This is a book that trusts its readers, and even challenges them to keep up and consider more deeply. I appreciated that, and I dare to say that most readers do.

This is one of the greatest challenges of writing: to not only entertain readers, but also to trust them to follow along whatever strange paths we might take them.