Tag Archives: monsters

Multitasking

Happy almost 2019! This was a year of many changes in my life, as you may gather from the embarrassing dearth of actual posts on this blog. Didn’t exactly nail that particular 2018 New Year’s resolution. But 2018 was nothing if not a learning experience for me, and I will be taking what I learned into a hopefully slightly more work-life-writing balanced 2019.

By far the biggest change in my life this year was getting accepted to and embarking upon a PhD program in childhood studies. This is probably a decision I could have/should have made earlier in my life, but see aforementioned learning experiences, I guess. The first semester was INTENSE (everyone promises it will be the most intense, and I’m holding them all to that), but it was also such a welcome change after working jobs that really weren’t right for me over the previous four years. Even when academic work is ridiculously hard, it still feels like what I want to be doing (it’s like writing in that way). This also marks the time I’m being paid to do something I fully want to do, so that’s certainly an exciting development!

Still no one is paying me to write things, but, as ever, I’m working on that. I completed my first middle-grade manuscript this year (for varying definitions of “completed,” of course; revise til publication or death is my motto). I really enjoyed working on SKY CHILD. A good antidote for writing career dissatisfaction is to just write something your 12-year-old self would’ve been super into.

I also had my first publication this year, albeit not a creative one: my paper “Beyond the Collapse of Meaning: Narratives of Monstrosity in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials” appeared in University of Toronto Quarterly’s special edition on monsters. I actually had a really good first experience with academic publishing, which is saying a lot considering the first notes I received basically boiled down to “so you’re gonna need to redo this.” (They worded it very gently and helpfully, though.) Also I love the idea that maybe someone might cite me when writing a paper about HDM and/or monsters. Maybe someone already has! Maybe some student out there happened upon my paper while listlessly scrolling through Project MUSE and thought “finally!” (or at least “eh, that’ll work”). All of these scenarios delight me, so I’m going to believe that they’re true.

In the world at large, 2018 was often … rough. As a consequence, so was/is my anxiety. But another development this year was that I found a new therapist once I moved to South Jersey, like the good millennial that I am. I don’t particularly want to say anything else about that, but it felt like something I should acknowledge in a post about this past year, because I don’t want to only talk about having anxiety when it’s not really that present in my thoughts. So people dealing with their brains, I’m here with you and for you! Being a scared person and being a good, kind, interesting, original person are not mutually exclusive. I should know.

(In werewolf story, a minor antagonist tries to make my protagonist feel bad about herself by asking her how she can be so clever and calculating after a bunch of really awful crap went down. “Shouldn’t you be horrified?” She tells him that she’s always horrified, but “I’ve learned to multitask.” So here’s me, terrified and fabulous, multitasking.)

I hope that everyone who reads this blog has had a wonderful holiday season and will have a great New Year! I know that in 2019, I will be doing a lot of work that I really love, and I’m so lucky and grateful that that’s a guarantee in my life. I look forward to sharing it with you!

Now, as is becoming traditional, I’d like to leave you with a little fiction excerpt to close out the year. In honor of completing a working middle-grade manuscript this year, I figured I could share something from that story! Unlike the previous two New Year’s Eve excerpts, this is actually taken from the manuscript itself. Perhaps some of you will recognize my Ninna from Writing II at Simmons; literally everything about the plot has changed since then, and she herself has become considerably pricklier, but she definitely still loves flying. For 2019, I hope you all find and/or nurture the things in your life that make you feel as free.

 

The city of Zimbir awaited a hero. For nearly one hundred reigns, great princes and leaders had gone forth to fulfill their destinies and returned victorious to take their places on the throne. These men relied on their strength, their wits, and the favor of their patron god — usually Zaluru, God of Storms, who understood power. It was Zaluru who had revealed the trials of the First King Nameshda after the waters of the Deluge receded, and Zaluru who had told Nameshda how and where to build the high walls that enclosed the great city. Ever after, Zaluru’s champions had defeated monsters, discovered treasures, and brought great glory to Zimbir.

But these heroes did not come along very often. All of the kings of the past century had earned their throne simply by being the brother or son of the previous king. Now, the people of Zimbir were hungry for proof that the age of heroes was not yet over.

Ninna ignored the people of Zimbir whenever possible.

“Ninna?”

Unfortunately, she could not ignore her mother. Ninna turned wearily as Sunemi opened the bedroom door without knocking, narrowing her dark eyes as she took in the almost-finished clay bird in her daughter’s hands.

“I assume this means you have finished your homework,” Sunemi said, in a voice that meant she assumed the opposite.

“Mm.” Ninna turned back to her bird. She swiped her thumbnail along its tail, giving texture to the earthen feathers.

“Ninna, it’s late.”

“Good night, then,” Ninna said pointedly.

There was a pause in which an argument may have started, but Sunemi just sighed and said, “Clean your hands before you go to bed. I won’t scrape clay from the linens again.”

When the door closed, Ninna relaxed her shoulders, and her wings made a shushing noise as they slid along the mud brick floor. She completed the finishing touches on her bird and carried it to the window to dry alongside its flock. A dozen little figures stared up at the sky, their wings readied for flight. A careless observer might believe they were flesh instead of clay, and that they were simply waiting for the right moment to leave the windowsill behind.

Ninna washed the clay from her hands in the small basin she had used to wet her latest project. Her homework tablet, dry and unmarked, lay abandoned in the corner. The flames from her clay lamps illuminated her bed, clothing chest, and little table, which was cluttered with more creations: a bird’s nest with eggs, a mouse that Ninna had studied when it scurried into the room, and a handful of votive figures ready for dedication. If only Ninna had been born to unwinged artisans; then her station would match her skills. Yet if she had, she would not have been quivering in anticipation of what she was about to do next.

Ninna snuffed the lamps and flopped onto her bed, leaning her chin on her hands. Unwilling to close her eyes and accidentally fall asleep, she stared into the darkness. Finally, she heard the soft, dull thud of hooves outside her window. She smiled and threw off her bed linens. As quietly as she could, she crept into the cool hallway, down the stairs, and through the kitchen. She paused, straining her ears for any sounds of wakefulness above her, then felt for the lacquered wood of the back door and pushed, letting the starlight in to pool around her feet.

All of the fashionable houses had walled back courtyards surrounded by palm trees: a miniature city for each winged noble. Ninna’s house, so small and far down the Great Hill, could not necessarily be called fashionable, but it at least had the courtyard and trees. The flowers around the central shrine were muted shades of purple in the darkness. The moon was at the half; the mortal world never kept the Moon Goddess Sueniti’s interest for long, and she had begun to turn her face away. Still, her light was bright enough to allow Ninna to pick her way past the garden and shrine to open the back gate.

As expected, a lamassu was waiting for her, his black eyes glinting in the moonlight. His powerful bull body was still and relaxed, and the fierce face, framed by his thick, curling black hair and beard, could almost but not quite be described as human.

Ninna whispered, “Come in, my heart.”

The lamassu smiled. The expression sat strangely on his face, giving it a lopsided cast that most would have found unnerving, but Ninna knew not to fear. The gods had sent the lamassu after the Deluge to protect the hapless humans. The spirit beasts rarely took interest in individual people, but this one had shown up on the day of Ninna’s birth and had never really left. When she was too small to realize how presumptuous it was to name a lamassu, she had begun calling him Lugu, after his crooked smile. Lugu didn’t seem to mind.

Presently, Lugu walked into the courtyard and knelt by the wall. Ninna didn’t need his help anymore, but she stepped onto his broad back anyway, careful not to tread upon his small wings. She held her balance as he rose to his full height, and from there, it was easy to pull herself up onto the wall. The tops of the rough bricks pressed the remnants of the day’s warmth into the soles of Ninna’s bare feet.

Ninna tied her thick hair away from her face with a scrap of fabric, feeling the wind shift around her. Her wings responded, spreading out to her sides and pivoting minutely to catch the air. Ninna tucked her elbows in, grasped her wrists in front of her —

And jumped.

After one, two, three wing beats, Ninna took her place high above the courtyard and just below the tops of the palm trees. By day, a coiled thing lived inside her chest, but every night when she took to the sky, it finally unfurled.

The sky was hers, and hers alone.

The wind, cool and sweet as river water, flowed around her. The hem of her nightdress flapped around her knees. Ninna closed her eyes and waited for that perfect moment when she couldn’t tell where her body ended and the sky began. She felt as invisible as the air. When her eyelids fluttered open again, she realized that she had drifted well outside the confines of the courtyard and had almost reached the branches of the palm trees. Dipping her right wing, she turned into the wind.

The maneuver was less graceful than Ninna would have liked, though at least now she could turn without plummeting. She flapped clumsily, rising and falling like a toy boat in a swinging bucket, and landed heavily back inside the courtyard.

“I’m getting better, aren’t I, my heart?” she said.

Lugu didn’t answer. Lamassu never did. He rustled his own wings and looked towards the sky, yet he remained on the ground, and would forevermore. His wings were too small and weak to carry him, like the wings of all other spirit beasts — and humans. Except for a single set.

Zimbir awaited a hero, but it did not know that one had already been born.

 

A Halloween Self-Devotional

Tonight is Halloween. Tonight is a night for adorable pictures on social media of kids and animals in costumes, a night for candy and creepypasta and Jack-o-lantern printed socks. Tonight, I am trying not to think about the mountain of work I need to get done tomorrow or about the still-woeful state of my statement of purpose drafts. Tonight, I wish I could ignore the terrible things happening in the world, but I can’t really, because real-life terrible doesn’t move out of the way for the fun terror of Halloween. But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for fun or for proper Halloween-ing. So I want to urge everyone to make room in yourselves for a little monstrosity tonight.

Right now, I am many things. I am a woman who just got an IUD and is sitting encircled in heating pads and counting the minutes until my next dose of Advil. I am kind of tired and worried and frustrated about being so tired and worried and frustrated all the time. I think I could be doing better at this whole adult thing a lot of the time, but I made a nice new recipe yesterday and I’m having friends over on the weekend and I’ve realized I no longer get nervous before doctor’s appointments (unless they’re going to involve getting blood drawn, but listen). Small things. Mundane things. Person things, sad and happy.

But here is another thing that I am, though sometimes I forget.

I am a creator and container of monsters, and that means I am not small at all. They hide and fight and sleep within me. My bones are the columns and ribs of a long-forgotten cathedral, built as a prayer and fallen into glorious ruin. My muscles and sinews are the moss and weeds and pushy trees bursting through the open ceiling. Leaves and flowers stained glass skin, cracked baptismal font rain tears. Angry resting praying howling monsters heart. They are safe within me, and they keep me safe.

Big things. Bright things. Monster things, sad and happy.

As you’re drifting off to sleep, I hope you think about what makes you feel huge and dangerous and astonishing. Boundaries are permeable on Halloween, so take advantage of that. Push out and out until you fill all the spaces of yourself, and smile with sharp teeth and proud eyes at everything you see within.

Werewolves, Anxiety, and Me

I talk about monsters to anyone who’ll listen. I can figure out a way to introduce the topic into a truly impressive variety of conversations, and half the time it’ll even sound natural. I am nothing if not single-minded. As a result, I’ve had many people ask me what my favorite monster is, and of course it will come as no surprise that my answer is WEREWOLVES. I often follow this up with, “They’re just so versatile!” Depending on the audience, this is met with either a murmur of agreement or a really strange look.

Werewolves’ versatility is derived from their simplicity. They’re human ’til they’re not. They’re human ’til they’re beast. That’s all there is to it. As such, they embody some of the fundamentals of monstrosity, but what precisely it all means will depend entirely on the context of their story. You can explore just about any fear or hatred or taboo desire with werewolves. Consequently, there are countless werewolf stories out in the world. Some are terrible, some are great, but all are different. I can’t imagine ever growing bored with this monster.

One thing I have identified as an aspect of some werewolf stories that really speaks to me is the narrative of learning to embrace a formerly-rejected part of the self. I can get mad theoretical right here (and I’m currently revising a paper on monsters, so the temptation is strong), but suffice to say that when two (or more!) seemingly disparate points of view coexist within a single subject — and at least one of them is Wrong (for example, a giant bloodthirsty wolf) — that subject has a few options. The option that most interests me is the decision to embrace the Wrongness, to empathize with it, to take care of it, to expand with it. The werewolf (or any monster) who loves and is loved by their monstrosity is my entire jam.

Another thing that I doggedly insist about monster theory is that it has practical, real-life applications. Allow me to demonstrate with myself. I have OCD and social anxiety disorder. I talk about the former kind of a lot, so most people reading this probably already knew that. I talk about the social anxiety less, because it’s historically been less of a Thing (relatively speaking), but I can’t imagine anyone who knows me is overly surprised by this diagnosis. I consider my anxiety (of both varieties) to be mooooostly under control these days. This has certainly not always been the case, and I’m very proud of the work I’ve done to deal with my prone-to-screaming brain, especially on the OCD front.

Recently, I participated in an event that caused way more social anxiety than usual. It was an unpleasant reminder that general nervousness and disordered anxiety aren’t the same thing, and no matter how many times I’ve pushed through the former (and I have! a lot!), that doesn’t mean the latter can’t still knock me on my ass. It was a frustrating and disheartening experience, because I had been hoping to represent myself as a really interesting, thoughtful, and hard-working person. I am a really interesting, thoughtful, and hard-working person! (And clearly my self-esteem is fine!) So what the hell was going on? Why was I letting this thing — this anxiety, this invader — hide who I really am?

That’s when I started thinking about werewolves.

At first, I totally rebelled against the association. Anxiety disorders are medical conditions, not monsters. They aren’t coexisting points of view within me. They’re just chemicals and synapses and whatever. I didn’t ask for them and I certainly don’t have to let them determine who I am. I’m not all that unwanted stuff. I’m only the parts that I choose to be.

… Except substitute “curse” for “chemicals,” and you have the internal monologue of every newly minted werewolf ever.

And wasn’t my OCD the reason I did an AmeriCorps term? After all those agonizing months of obsessing over the effects of climate change, I chose to turn that pain into action and help actual victims of a natural disaster. I couldn’t fix all the suffering that our degraded environment has caused and will cause, but I did something, and it was something I wouldn’t have done without anxiety.

My anxiety has poured into my writing and made it so much stronger. I gave different parts of it to various characters (and all of it to one of them), and I also made these characters brave. Someday young anxious readers will read about these characters and see anxiety not only permitting bravery, but fueling it. I could not have done that without my own anxiety, either.

Hell, even my social anxiety is mostly focused on a fear of interrupting or inconveniencing people. It will make me uncomfortable, but it really doesn’t want anyone else to be. Both of my anxiety disorders just want everyone to be happy.

My anxiety is kind. How can I blame it? How can I hate it?

So all right. Come here, unwanted thing. Come here, chemicals, fear, monster. I got you. I am you. You love the world. So I’ll love you.

Continuity

When I was at my parents’ house for Easter a couple of weeks ago, my mother plunked a sheet of sketchbook paper in front of me. It was filled, front and back, with an elaborately loopy cursive scrawl that I recognized as my 10-year-old handwriting. I recognized it instantly: it was the first two (and maybe only two?) pages of a “novel” about vampires. I could remember the exact unit in Australia where I had scribbled it down. We were there with lots of family, visiting lots of family. Australia owns a lot of my heart and I really want to go back, but that is perhaps a different post for a different day. What I was delighted to discover/remember was that a) apparently my fondness for writing in hotel rooms started super early (the first thing I ever wrote down for story was on hotel stationary in Venice) and b) clearly so did my fondness for monsters.

I had not remembered this particular vampire idea in — well, probably about 18 years — but it immediately came back to me. It was written from the point of view of a kid named Dan, who has been best friends with Van (short for Vanessa, or “Vannessa” as I apparently thought it was spelled) for several years. They bonded over their rhyming nicknames. Van always came over to Dan’s house, though, because her parents were very “private.”

Of course, it turns out that the real reason is that they are VAMPIRES.

Van will be a vampire, too, but she isn’t one yet. You see, vampires can totally have kids, but they don’t start off as immortal creatures of the night, because then you’d just have a newborn with insatiable blood lust forever, and that’s not a good idea. So the process of becoming a vampire starts slowly around puberty (at age 10, I was morbidly fascinated with the concept of Puberty) and completes in early adulthood, at which point you stay like that forever. Van doesn’t want to become a vampire, or at least not the killing people variety, and so the story was going to involve figuring out how to remain partially human. I don’t know if I ever worked out those details, but I do know that substituting citrus fruits for blood was a major solution. For some reason. She did remain part-vampire, though, I know that; shades of Renesmee aside, I’m pleased that baby Kathleen knew that monsters had to stay monsters.

Also, I’m not sure if Dan’s “voice” is something that’s really detectable in two handwritten pages by a 10-year-old, but what little was there was pretty much straight up stolen from Marco in Animorphs.

All of this is to say that I was DELIGHTED by my mother’s discovery and also by my weirdo childhood self. If you had asked me before Easter when my love of monsters began, I probably would have placed it around age 13 (that was The Summer Of Thinking About Literally Nothing But Remus Lupin). Apparently, though, I was already predisposed to think about monsters — and to root for them.

I spent most of today working on an academic paper about monstrosity, and I couldn’t help but think about that 10-year-old in the hotel room. She wouldn’t like everything I had to tell her about age 28. She’d expected more to have happened by now. She’d thought that, at this point, everything would be settled and sure. Hadn’t she already done the heavy lifting of deciding what she wanted to be when she grew up?

(I wouldn’t tell her anything about the sociopolitical state of things in 2017, because I’m not a horrible person.)

But then I’d tell her that I still think about monsters every day of my life, and most days I write about them in some form or another. I’d tell her I haven’t stopped inventing girls with deadly bites who choose what kind of monster they want to be, and boys who are willing to do the dangerous thing and stand by their friends. I’d tell her that I have long and jubilant conversations about stories, like, all the time (because, oh yeah, I have way more friends now, and they all love to read). I’d tell her I still write in hotel rooms, and when I write longhand, it’s always in cursive (just a little less loopy now).

She wouldn’t be brave enough to ask if she really had to be as afraid of growing up as she was, and I wouldn’t be brave enough to attempt an answer. But I’d let her know that the things she loved are still the things I love, and that would make us both smile.

Holiday thoughts

Hello for the first time in a shamefully long time, blog! In my defense, it has been a VERY cloudy early winter in Hermit Land, and I am a solar-powered life form. All of my hastily dwindling energy has been going to typing (because I’m paid to) and writing (because I need to) with none left for anything else, including coming up with a coherent topic for this entry. But I wanted to check in, so this will probably just be a disjointed list of recent thoughts.

Draft four of werewolf story is going pretty well, though this is definitely where my desperation for sunlight is felt most keenly. Every word that I manage to eke out is written in direct defiance of the featureless gray sky. That is … not an enormously fun way to write. BUT I PERSEVERE, etc., etc. All my characters are generally angrier and jerkier at the beginning this time around, and I promise that’s on purpose and not just a reflection of my mood while writing them, although hey, maybe that’s actually helping. I would make a silver lining pun, but when the entire sky is ONE BLOCK OF CLOUD, there are no linings to turn silver. I’m going to stop complaining about the weather now.

I’m going public with werewolf story’s title, because it’s gone from “maybe????” to “I actually really like this”: Misbegotten Creatures.

I feel like I can’t say much more about werewolf story right now without explaining everything I’ve done in this draft so far, so suffice to say that I am in that state of being in deep and aching love with my protagonist. I love her so much. SO MUCH. She’s gonna be such a good monster, you guys. She’s always fought against being a monster, but one of the last chapters I’ve written has her monstrosity fighting her right back, yet not fighting against her, but instead fighting to be with her, and I’M SO EXCITED ABOUT THIS. Monsters monsters monsters monsters!

Speaking of monsters, I’ve recently read Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, and I am in agony waiting for the last one. That is some prime monster material there. I want to write a paper about them, though I should wait until the fourth book comes out to do that. Unnervingly, mystically, transcendentally powerful teens who are so bad at feelings = literally everything I love about YA fantasy. Also Stiefvater’s prose, pacing, and plotting are so perfect that if I think about it too long I will probably cry in despair. Teach me your ways, O Wise One!

Aaaaand speaking of perfect books and transcendence, I just reread William Nicholson’s Wind on Fire trilogy, and I cannot express how much I need everyone in my life to read them. They are very difficult to describe, because I’ve really never read anything else like them. The story begins with young twins seeking to restore the ancient “voice” to a strange statue called the Wind Singer, which they hope will break their city’s cycle of examinations and rankings and deep, unhappy selfishness. The scope only gets grander from there, and yet they stay so intimate as we follow the twins and their loved ones through “the time of cruelty” to the hope of a peaceful homeland. The world building and characters are phenomenal. Nicholson absolutely does not pull his punches, so there are are scenes of terror and violence and emotional anguish, but there’s also whimsy and wonder and beauty. Every time I reread them, I sob hysterically through the last 100-ish pages of the last book while also feeling — well, transcendent. Just read them already.

I will be spending the next few days with my family, and I am very excited about this. My sister, her fiance, and her dog will be here soon (I hope very soon, because we’re waiting for them to eat lunch and I’m hungry), and there will be many, many more relatives tomorrow and then again on Saturday. If you’re celebrating Christmas, I hope you have a great holiday. If you celebrate Hanukkah, I hope you already had a great holiday. If you’re not celebrating anything in particular, I hope you have a great week, and that we will all have a happy New Year!