Category Archives: Descriptive Language

In the Year 2030

So, folks, this week we’ve found ourselves the victims of an Internet hoax that claimed yesterday, 6 July 2010, was the very day that Marty McFly and Doc flew into the future from 1985 in Back to the Future‘s sequel.  The evidence of this was compelling:  a photograph of the time-traveling DeLorean’s dashboard (above).  Uh, well…see here’s the thing about living in the “futuristic” society that we do today:  computer technology has brought us a little something called “Photoshop.”  The actual date?  21 October 2015.

Do you realize what this means???!!! We still have five more years to invent the hoverboard.  Wicked.

In any case, I found this “news” of transcending time and space to be quite timely with regard to the next writing prompt…

The Prompt:

On page 36, Room to Write asks us to choose a fantasy of what our lives will be like in 20 years.  We’re supposed to “develop a reasonable plot that would make the fantasy work out.”  Otherwise, we can try the same exercise using a beloved character from either our own writing or a treasured story.

Response:

Well, I don’t know how “reasonable” this is, but in my fantasy future life, I’ll have published a few novels, earning not enough for a sustainable living on my own, but enough to supplement our travel budget—or, wait a minute, if this is my fantasy, I’ll up it and say that it’s also making the mortgage payments on that stone cottage in the English countryside that we’ll maintain so we can still get our UK fix after having returned to the States (eighteen years earlier) to start a family.

[okay, I’m grabbing the DeLorean’s stick and shifting this into present tense—it’ll be cooler, like I’m speaking to you from the future]

For we do have a family—Fate decided it for us before we managed to overcome selfishness and laziness on our own 🙂  Three children, two in high school, one in middle school.  Ever since the offspring have been old enough to poop and wipe by themselves, we’ve been travelling with them abroad as well as domestically (so they know how to appreciate their own country as well), taking them to London to show them where Maw-n-Paw started their married life together, pointing up to the very window out which Mumsy would stare and formulate her fictional storylines in penning her first novel.

Not much has changed with the old neighborhood, essentially as little as had changed in the century-and-a-half prior to then.  Well, the doors are painted different colors, and the streets need some paving—we have those hoverboards as well as hovercars by then, so they are no longer a priority!

“Roads?  Where we’re going, we won’t need roads.” – Dr. Emmett Brown, Back to the Future

[…oh, c’mon, I’m spotting the envisioners of Back to the Future an extra fifteen years here]

Wellll…no, okay, even twenty years out, I think we’ll be lucky if we’ve even converted to 100% alternative fuel automobiles, so I really don’t see the hover-anything happening.  Rather, every petrol station has outlets where we can plug in our electric cars, or hoses for those autos that run solely on baby shampoo.

I still sit at a desk tap-tappin’ my stories, even though computer keyboards are now archaic—replaced with laser light sensors that project from a paper-thin pad.  I decide to still play it old-school, vowing to use my last-generation Mac keyboard until it goes kaput, just as I had with my Jetta, dearly departed about thirteen years ago…(resto en paz, my little German car manufactured in Mexico).  I listen to my same old alternative rock 80s tunes, but not on the computer—I now upload my iTunes (just like the rest of my apps) by scanning the chip embedded in my wrist against my monitor whenever I order new music; the music then pipes into my inner ears through my veins, so no headphones necessary.  If there’s a video, it projects inside my eyes.  There is now an app for dreams.

My parents are still alive, and they are defying science with their amazing health and sharp minds.  There is no question they will be able to see our children off to university (not the one where I teach literature and film studies, though, having earned my PhD a decade ago), just as they did for my nieces and nephews.  Our Illinois home is a warm and velvety, pristinely preserved 19th-century house with a floor-to-ceiling bookshelved library with REAL BOOKS (they’re not obsolete yet) and a hidden door, an attic bedroom with a dusty sock monkey resting in a box, and an echoey phonograph reproduction playing my Artie Shaw—and, okay, my John Hughes movie soundtracks thanks to the vinyl records a friend gave me for my birthday way back in 2008.  My siblings still live near us and make me laugh as hard as they did twenty years ago, and the twenty years before that.  Some things never do change.

Otherwise, when it’s life at the English cottage with its durable thatched roof, it’s Wellies and soil beneath fingernails, raking the earth to make a garden bloom and feed us.  It is quiet.  The few cars along the narrow roads no longer make noise.  The iTune chip in my arm is muted.  It is only the insect-leg violins and fluting birds that orchestrate the score of a life of expectation now fulfilled.

Reflection:

Well, I had to stop it somewhere.  I look back on this and notice all the aspects of my life I inevitably left out—What job will my husband have?  What about friends?  In-laws?  Relatives?  What about the negatives?  The illness?  The loss?  What’s going on in the world?  Politics?  Other technologies?  Pop culture?  And on and on and on…it makes me ponder why I did describe what I did, what I chose to idealize and stretch as far as fantasy would allow me…and still feeling that I didn’t play with it quite enough or feel comfortable with what extent I could.  There was the temptation to write science fiction, yet the reality is that 20 years isn’t really that far out.  Though technology has made tremendous strides in the last couple decades (ah, to recall a time before email and mobiles), I don’t believe the same goes for people and lifestyles in general—so this is more a study in how an individual might evolve over time, the outcomes of choosing certain paths over others.

But if I did want to tinker with creative futuristic imaginings, I’d definitely have to leap waaaay farther out than 20 years…further than Back to the Future II‘s 30 years…something more like…the Year 3000:

So consult the crystal ball and do tell—what does the future hold for YOU or your characters?


If The Shoe Fits

Ever see the movie Citizen Kane?  Well, there’s a montage relatively early in the film following the marriage of Charles Foster Kane.  The photos above do not capture the complete sequence (please click on any photo or here to view the full scene), but what we see from left to right is the progression of Charles and Emily’s marriage.  There are a few cinematic devices at work to show us in less than 3 minutes’ time that this couple gradually grows apart from one another emotionally:  mise-en-scene (setting/props), music, dialogueacting (body language, tone, proximity), and costume.  To focus on this last element in particular, we see the neckline of Emily’s garments climb ever higher as the cut and fabric of her gowns likewise shed their romance to become increasingly structured and rigid.  In this way, what a person wears can speak volumes for who they are and how they feel at a given moment in time.

The Prompt:

Page 35 of Room to Write asks us to write about clothes today.  We can “take a character shopping,” describe clothing we like, dislike, or has otherwise made a strong impression on us, or simply free-write beginning with the words “clothes” or “clothing.”

Response:

Oh goodie.  I’m going to take my character “Margaret” shopping, or at least raid her closet to determine what it says about her.

During Part I of her tale, I would take her shopping at a vintage shop for accessories as well as a contemporary store selling vintage-inspired clothing such as Anthropologie.  After that, it’s shoe-shopping!

– In the first chapters, she’s seen wearing “eggshell white kid leather driving gloves,” a “cameo choker” and “kitschy rhinestone cocktail ring.”

– In the later half of Part I when she has temporarily moved, thus only packs what she would need for a few months:

“The separation from her stored goods had been achingly painful—her weakest moment being when she cradled a pair of claret suede leather stilletos before lovingly packing them away with assurances they would be okay, that Momma would be back, as though tucking children in bed and promising no monsters would prey on them in the night.”

– And though impractical, you can still at this point hear her “high heels echoing off the walls as they clacked on the wood and cobbles.”

Towards the end of Part I, however, we already see how a shift in Margaret’s lifestyle results in a shift of her wardrobe as well.  At this point, I’d probably still be taking her to vintage shops, but, instead of jewelry, it would be for clothing more in the vein of Urban Outfitters.  These shopping excursions would be infrequent, though…probably just the one time.

– Getting pensive in the shower one morning, she finds herself wondering:

“What if she fell out of the habit of nine-to-five, of suiting up in business casual and charging at the world in proactive high-heeled fury?  She had been gravitating quite naturally to the irregularity of her schedule and informality of denim and limp old cardigans thrown over graphic tees, of every-other-day unwashed hair thrown into a man’s tweed cap.”

– Though she doesn’t wear jewelry anymore, she still accessorizes her t-shirts with linen scarves (that’s an effort, anyway), yet after she compliments her friend’s appearance and doesn’t receive one in return, she “shuffle[s] one now glaringly plain denim leg over the other.”

– We frequently see her in “her cardigan—that worn, pilled one of charcoal grey that had been her uniform for some time.”

– When our dear protagonist eventually seeks counseling for an issue you’ll better understand when you read the book ;), we do see a brief return to her previous style at the first two sessions:

“Margaret sat up and, knocking over one of her classic black pumps (she’d made a decided effort to dress up to par for this professional appointment, and had only removed the shoes to protect the couch cushions), reached for her handbag.”

“Margaret self-consciously fingered the vertical ruffles and cloth-covered buttons that extended to just below her chin.  Her cap sleeves were trimmed in a dainty band of lace.”

In doing this, she admits to her psychologist:  “It’s like I’m acting the role of myself…I’d forgotten, though, how much faking enthusiasm can actually generate the real thing.  It’s like if I make myself smile long enough, I can convince myself I’m happy.”

– By the third session, however:

“Margaret whimpered as she picked at the pills on her grey cardigan.”

“She tapped her Converse All-Stars around with her striped cotton toes.”

Aside from that, Margaret really only window-browses now when we go shopping.  She’s got her comfortable, casual staples and has no qualms repeating their wear often.  This isn’t to say, though, that she doesn’t still know how to turn up the Attractive Factor in her new lower-maintenance way:

– “Before he had left, however, she did not catch directly at his sleeve just as he opened the unit door so much as produce an identical effect by the way she stood at her bedroom doorway in just an over-sized t-shirt.”

Reflection:

Now that I’m almost finished with Margaret’s story line, I can look back and reflect that I’ve certainly been making deliberate clothing choices for her to mirror her life stages and emotional states.  However, I don’t describe much more than what I have above, as I personally feel that too much physical description of a character makes me as a reader too conscious of the writer behind the story, and it inhibits my own imagination.  I want my readers to be able to flesh out characters with their own brushtrokes, guided only by occasional suggestion. Hopefully, the descriptions that are there seem appropriate and are not too cliche for what they represent.

What do you think about characterizing through clothing?  What does it reveal or conceal?  Are appearances always as they “seam”? (pun fully intended—you ought to know how corny I am by now)


Mood Music Musings…

It is an eerie thing—underlying the cries of children in the garden square, a sinister melody booming from an organ is seeping out of the Victorian church beyond my window.  The only music I ever hear from there is new age Christian rock on Sundays, never an organ, never on Tuesday, never of that magnitude and fervor.  Huh.  It’s creating an odd atmosphere for me inside my old Victorian terraced home, I must say…the computer desk and bed are disintegrating from sight, along with a century and a half of paint as I start to envision the dressing table and hip bath that might have once stood in here, this room that I believe was once used as a dressing room.  The unit we live in was once only the bedrooms of an entire four-story house, you see, which makes it quite laughable for me to think that what we now occupy as both our kitchen and reception room space was only the master bedroom.  It is a place in which every petal in the ceiling’s floral moulding sends down whispers to me of all they have seen through the decades.  Trees have grown tall around brick and stone that was once exposed, new, though sooty now and crumbling and left for fanciful folk like me to point to and sigh for a bygone era.  But, my, how my feet would have pinched, my organs been crowded and lungs bereft of a deep breath of air…the dust kicked up on my hems and the humid sweat on a sunny day bleeding into the tight-woven fibers of my sleeves to cake in my dead skin and bake my scent.  No, though I used to lose myself in imagination of how much simpler, more romantic a life back then would have been, I peer through the wormhole to see it as it was and feel quite thankful I won’t be lugging tins of water up and down all those flights of stairs, past the pretty banisters, thank you very much.  Burgundy velvets, trembling fringes, clinking china, flickering flames…all these and the incantations of a seance fade to ivory.  My computer materializes back into my field of vision.  The organ music is muffled beneath the waterfall sound of speeding autos. It diminishes into a pleasant tune or subtle nuisance, depending on which I will choose it to be.


Kiss-and-Tell


The Prompt:

* blush * Today Room to Write, that saucy minx, is asking us to write about kissing (p.34).  As Bonni Goldberg says, “Besides being fun, it is an especially good practice for writing scenes between two people.”

All right then, I suppose I can share a snippet from a scene that I previously wrote while under the influence of wine (when I feel my most floozy) and the very next day yanked from the story.  It really wasn’t the suitable direction for the characters, but I’ve kept it within reach under the file name, “The Gratuitous.”  At any rate, this picks up from when a couple of friends have fallen asleep on the sofa together.

Response:

A couple stirrings later, she felt within a tighter squeeze and then a light brushing of lips atop her hair.  She thought she’d been mistaken, but no; the puckering sound of a fully carried-out kiss had sounded against her scalp, then her forehead, and was now moving in slow succession down the bridge of her nose until—

Their lips met.  Both of their eyes closed.  Soft at first, then hardening and spreading with each contact, more slippery each time.  Their tongues met, and together they began to swell and ebb with one another, pressing and pulling away only to heave again toward each other once more as their tongues now spiraled and lunged against their mutual provocation.

Reflection:

Oh, there was more involved, but I’ve restricted it to only the kissing part.  I have no desire (“desire” being the operative word) to become the next Danielle Steel, though kudos to her for, you know, targeting a market well.  Granted, I cut the scene because I felt it wasn’t right for these two characters to hook up, but I do tend to be prudish on stuff like this and wonder why.  I have no qualms thinking it or feeling it or even writing it down, but when it comes to my finished product, I censor.  Is it because there is so much of the gratuitous out there when, by definition, it’s unnecessary in furthering plot or character?  This point makes me recall the film, The Player, with Tim Robbins, who plays the character Griffin Mill:

Griffin Mill:  It lacked certain elements that we need to market a film successfully.
June:  What elements?
Griffin Mill:  Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings…
June:  What about reality?

The film itself includes the formulaic “hope, heart, nudity, sex” elements, just not where you’d conventionally expect them to be, thereby turning the formula on its head as a means of satire.

That being said, there must be a reason why the formula does exist.  Human passions prevail for the masses.  And what about the story line that has a real message to put forth that necessarily requires a bit of physical relations?  My sister, who writes under the pen name Nicki Elson, addresses this in her blog post, “Should I Have Faded to Black?” with regard to her recently published debut novel, Three Daves.  Set during the 1980’s on a central Illinois college campus, its protagonist (Jennifer) is one of the last American virgins  who seeks compromise between coming of age sexually while still holding out for the elusive “one.”  Jen’s solution to this moral predicament is both a practical and hilarious journey for her as she navigates through three boyfriends who share the same name but entirely different personalities—namely, David, Dave, and Big “D.”  To tell a tale like this, it is appropriate for the details to be explicit:

“She tentatively licked at his lips with the tip of her tongue to try and coax him in.  He teasingly flicked his tongue at hers but refused to take the plunge.  Jen whimpered in frustration, and he ended his torture, finally pushing his way into her mouth.  Jen sucked him in gratefully and clutched his head to hers to make sure he didn’t get away.” (p.67)

Whatever other sexual techniques we might learn during such scenes, it’s in the simple kiss when Jennifer genuinely loses herself in emotion.  The kiss, though only “first base,” can truly be the most sensual, intimate, and affectionate act.  And let’s not forget that kisses can also merely be pecks on the cheek or an innocent idea blown off the palm of a hand.

I’ve spun the bottle and now it’s pointing at YOU.  How about parting your lips and saying what you think on this topic?  What are your thoughts on kissing as an expressive act between people and its role in literature?  Have you ever read/written an effective portrayal of two characters kissing that you’d care to share?


Slippery When Wet

Just returned from a long bank holiday weekend camping in Devon with some pleasant drives and strolls through Somerset and the Cotswolds as well.  The English countryside with its rolling patchwork of greens and yellows and occasional puffs of white sheep and dairy cows—all accessorized in dense hedges or stony walls and cottages—is certainly an isle of inspiration for a writer.  Be they grasses or cobbles underfoot, the paths one treads here are a return to the natural state and the fundamentals on which we build our lives and stories.

The last writing prompt I followed involved fire; today’s regards that other element that seemed to so dominate my camping trip, whether it surged onto the coastal sands or pattered against our tent in the night.  I speak, of course, of water.

The Prompt:

Page 31 of Room to Write asks us to “write about water: tap water, ocean water, rain water, any water or experience or dream of water that has both wet and whetted [our] imagination.”   Well, I’ve written about my water dreams already, so I’ll try not to be too redundant here…

Response:

WATER.  It multiplies the Mogwai or signals an approaching T-Rex, melts the Wicked Witch or freezes Leonardo to Kate Winslet.  It helps kids slip-n-slide and makes T-shirt contests more interesting.  It conforms to the shape of its container and yields both its clarity and taste to the color and flavor of what enters it; yet I would not call it submissive.  No, it fills the container’s inner space to empty it of air and weigh it down, and it dilutes the efficacy of what it absorbs, dissipating it in its solvency whenever it can play this advantage.  It carves canyons and fjords in its liquid and solid states, eroding away in its slow, subtle way of feigning innocence.  Water cleanses away the toxins, rinses the filth; it quenches our thirst and hydrates our cells.  It cools or it scalds, it cleans or it floods; it can keep us afloat with its density or yank us down with its current, hold us up on a wave or crush us under a whitecap.  It ebbs, it flows, it dips, it swells.  It can flush out mortal life or baptize into one everlasting.  In its glassy calm, its surface can reflect our being and the wonder of the skies as it refracts the perceptions that penetrate deeper.  Water contains mystery in its depths, holding it beyond the reach of light, and yet what it sprays forth to glitter in the sun can somehow reveal all the answers.

Reflection:

Water has always fascinated me…as a little girl, I wanted to be a mermaid, and as an adult, I found a new way of communing with it when I learned to sail (the capsizing drill in 50-degree Fahrenheit Lake Michigan being one bonding session I could have done without…it was less fun the second time around when the main sail came down on top of me and trapped me underwater—not to fear!  I was an apt pupil and remembered my survival strategy :)).

Anyways, I find I often allude to water in my writing as analogous to emotions and circumstances, playing on the ways it can be a subduing or overwhelming force, an annoyance like a leaking faucet, or perhaps a current that sweeps my characters along the tributaries that lead into their destinies.  It’s a recurring motif, for example, from the very first to the very last sentence of a short story I once wrote in which the narrator is literally unable to drink from a water fountain, which parallels her deeper “thirst” as she comes of age:

“Here she had the smartest guy in my physics club falling all over himself to impress her, saturating her ego with his deluge of compliments, but she gets all haughty and tense, as though struggling to ignore the persistent drip of water torture.

Girls like her just rinse and spit. They’ll spit out a mouthful and have the nerve to complain that they’re thirsty.”

I also can’t help but think of this element at the pen-tips of the pros, such as the way Stephen Crane wields water in his short story, “The Open Boat”:

“None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea. The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks. Many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea. These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall, and each froth-top was a problem in small-boat navigation.”

No matter how light or heavy the content of a story, there seems to be an abyss of options for describing water or using it metaphorically, especially as it shares the complex dualities of fire that I’ve discussed previously.  In this way, it is a tap that could never run dry, so to speak.

So I’m curious—what are examples of water imagery that you have found effective, either in your own or others’ writing?


Fire Walk With Me

The Prompt:

Given the prevalent symbolism of fire across centuries of story-telling, page 30 of Room to Write asks us to share “a personal story, memory, or belief about fire.”  Or, we can conduct a freewriting beginning with the word “fire” and let it spread from there.

Response:

FIRE.  It takes life and sustains life.  It guides our sight through darkness or blinds us to what else we might find in shadow, revealing and concealing.  It illuminates our romance and dances upon the page.  Fire attracts the moth and repels the mosquito; it swallows the air and laps up the tinder that shelters us, spiriting it away in climbing smoke, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  It licks our bones clean and sterilizes the needle, preens the prairie grasses and purifies the water.  It  casts menace upon our faces when lighting us from beneath, yet shrouds in angelic glow when lighting us from behind.  Fire converts raw food into nourishment for our bodies, or consumes nourishment for our souls into raw emotion.  It is an exclamation that will clear a room within seconds or signal a gathering to share stories round its warmth.  It thaws, it soothes, it burns, it chars; it can fuel our hope or ignite our dread.  It can whisper to us in crackles and snaps, promising safety and comfort in a cold, barren landscape, or it can hiss at us like wind against our eardrums or a stampede rumbling down the hillside to crush us.  Fire is an element embracing our passions, sweeping exponentially in our lust or our anger until it sizzles into dowsing foam or, when there’s nothing more upon which it can feed, coughs its smoldering death rattle as glowing cinders close their eyes on a bed of black.

Reflection:

Ah, this prompt brought me back to my teaching days, when fire was so often imagery to analyzeI’ve actually used this exact same activity in class so that students could reflect on what connotations fire held for them.  And, as I can see above, I personally muse over the dualities of fire in all its functions and figurative implications.

This dichotomy is evident in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, in which fire goes from being a symbol of a romantic love to that of recklessness:

“O! she doth teach the torches to burn bright.” – Romeo commenting on Juliet’s beauty

“These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume.” – The Friar commenting on R&J’s impetuous actions

In just writing about it above, I found how naturally anthropomorphism came, describing fire in terms of carrying out human/animal actions—e.g., “laps up,” “licks,” “preens,” “whisper,” “coughs,” etc.  This immediately brings to mind the figurative and descriptive language William Golding employed to depict fire in Lord of the Flies:
“Smoke was rising here and there among the creepers that festooned the dead or dying trees.  As they watched, a flash of fire appeared at the root of one wisp, and then the smoke thickened.  Small flames stirred at the trunk of a tree and crawled away through leaves and brushwood, dividing and increasing.  One patch touched a tree trunk and scrambled up like a bright squirrel.  The smoke increased, sifted, rolled outwards.  The squirrel leapt on the wings of the wind and clung to another standing tree, eating downwards. Beneath the dark canopy of leaves and smoke the fire laid hold on the forest and began to gnaw.  Acres of black and yellow smoke rolled steadily toward the sea.  At the sight of the flames and the irresistible course of the fire, the boys broke into shrill, excited cheering.  The flames, as though they were a kind of wild life, crept as a jaguar creeps on its belly toward a line of birch-like saplings that fledged an outcrop of the pink rock.  They flapped at the first of the trees, and the branches grew a brief foliage of fire.  The heart of flame leapt nimbly across the gap between the trees and then went swinging and flaring along the whole row of them.  Beneath the capering boys a quarter of a mile square of forest was savage with smoke and flame.  The separate noises of the fire merged into a drum-roll that seemed to shake the mountain.”
The similes and anthropomorphism above create such vivid sensory detail; this is the kind of descriptive writing to aspire for.
Okay then, your turn.  Does fire bear a personal meaning for you?  What images, emotions, or beliefs does it represent?


Cat’s Eye

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

– Antoine de Saint Exupery, The Little Prince

On page 27 of Room to Write, Bonni Goldberg tells us that it is not only with our eyes that we see.  Our inner eyes are comprised of three things:  instinct (“previous experience”), intuition (“gut reaction”), and imagination (“mental flash of possible  scenarios”).

The Prompt:

Look around at anything you literally see and visualize it more robustly by using the above three ways of “seeing.”  In doing so, we should observe which means of seeing is most difficult for us versus which comes easiest.  Today, I’m going to focus on a random image I viewed out the window two nights ago at a cocktail party.

Response:

Standing poised atop the intricately scrolling wrought iron railing of a second-floor terraced house window, the Ninja Kitty remains frozen with all four of its paws aligned in a perfectly straight line.  It holds its balance there for perhaps ten minutes, frozen in fear (or is it a calculating calm?) as it assesses the situation:  having tight-rope-walked itself to where the corner of an exterior wall juts out, separating the ledges of two different flats, Ninja Kitty stands with its two hind paws on the railing above one ledge while its front paws have traversed to the part of the railing where the second ledge begins.  At its middle, then, is the corner wall that, though an inch or two away, surely feels like a blade brushing against its fur, threatening the cat to jump as though it’s just walked the splintering plank of a creaking, renegade ship.

Ninja Kitty appears to have three choices:  1) leap off toward the sidewalk, testing the validity of the old conception that a cat will always land on its feet, 2) moon-walk backward to try getting back onto the first ledge, or, 3) keep easing forward enough that it can attain the leverage it needs to leap onto the second ledge.

Still the blonde cat hesitates, and I can almost perceptibly make out the “Fuuuuuuuudge” thought-bubble about to burst on the sharp tips of its ears; reflecting off the vertical slits of its pupils are the illuminated graphics of a mental decision-tree database, running through iterations of calculations as the cat sizes up its variables of physics.  Vectors and velocity methodically slide and sort and file away in Ninja Kitty’s mind until it’s the make-or-break moment.  This is happening.  And…NOW!  Ninja Kitty bows slightly and launches from its hind legs to alight gently and fully on the second ledge.

Victory is the feline’s, but, before it can even get its bearings and exalt in relief, there is a rustling at the shade drawn over an adjacent French door.  A flat occupant, I reasonably presume, who must have been looking on in peril from an unseen vantage, yet doing so impotently with no attempt at aiding in rescue.  Just as I judge the day-late and dollar-shortness of that cowardly individual, the dark pointed ears of another house cat materialize from underneath the shade.  Then and there, Ninja Kitty’s humility over its recent, dangerous, and embarrassing predicament is vanished, if it existed at all—within split seconds, the cats are rearing on their hind legs and clawing at each other through the glass, staking their outdoor/indoor territory as though it was one and the same.  Smack, scratch, scrape-scrape, they continue batting at each other with electric intensity, and, before I know it, Ninja Kitty is haughtily heaving itself back up on the railing (looking for a moment like it was about to do pull-ups) to no longer give this enemy the time of day.

And there it was, standing poised (in the opposite direction, this time) atop the intricately scrolling wrought iron railing, frozen with all four of its paws aligned in a perfectly straight line.  This was the point at which I looked away, disinterested.  That cat either knew what it was doing or didn’t learn from history and was thereby doomed to repeat it.  I conjecture it is living on its fifth life at most.

Reflection:

Ah, that was a fun little romp, though probably doing no justice to the profound quotation that opens this post!  And I imagine I could have taken it further and deeper if I’d chosen a human subject (sorry, PETA).

The whole scenario was amusing to actually watch, though (the glasses of wine I’d already consumed probably adding to the hilarity of the moment), and yet I can’t deny that I was simultaneously looking on in horror.  I couldn’t help but imagine the possibilities left to the cat in this seemingly impossible dilemma, yet my instinctive impression of how it was apprising the situation and would ultimately act was based on previous observations of cats and their cautious, arrogant mannerisms, as well as my intuitive understanding of what it means to be “catty,” as that feisty bitchiness is part of my own nature when I’m confronted 🙂  Monkey has claws!



The Natural State

“A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”    – Henry David Thoreau, Walden

The Prompt:

Today I’m skipping to page 26 of Room to Write, which asks us to write about Nature—we can discuss it in terms of either the outdoors or our human nature.  Or, as a third alternative, write about both and connect them together.

Response:

Life finding a way.

Nature peeks in at my window from the flower box, offering a contrasting visual to the street traffic that I hear below.  The roof that I otherwise view out our flat’s front windows is gradually becoming obscured by the tree buds that are cracking open to unfurl their vibrant sources of shade.  While Autumn will always reign as my favorite season, there’s no question that Spring is the one that consistently unleashes the euphoria…in Chicago, it meant the cessation of the bitter cold with no more fear of a surprise snowstorm to dig your car out of as you curse into the winds; here in London, it means more gaps between the oppressive cloud-cover that has given me mole-eyes with extreme sensitivity to this golden, natural light we’re delighting in now.  As opposed to the droning hum of fluorescent lighting that dulls our pallor to that of corpses, the sunshine has slurped up the puddles for the time being and is grinning at all the people glad to scurry about in lighter jackets and exposed toenails.

But I don’t mean to make this about the weather, just the effect that it has on the human psyche, making us feel an urge to interact with it, be a part of it.  Nature expands our lungs, colors our cheeks, infuses us with a sparkle that we risk losing when all we may come into contact with day-to-day is the plastic of pens, kettle handles, or keyboards pushing against our fingertips along with the cool metal of doorknobs and pocket change.  Even the natural grain of our wooden furniture’s once living existence is separated from our skin with a layer of varnish, the embalming fluid of trees.

I once attended a series of debates at St. Paul’s Cathedral during which theologians and scientists discussed the nature of the soul (if interested, you can read the full transcript here).  While they went on to distinguish the soul from the spirit, one panel member (Keith Ward, Emeritus Regius Professor of Divinity, Oxford University) had this to say of both:

“[A]ll living things—all animals, even vegetables, potatoes and tomatoes—have souls.  They all have living principles.  So having a soul, for the Bible, isn’t what makes human beings special.”

“Every living thing has the breath of life, which is the spirit.”

Regardless of anyone’s religious beliefs—that is what made these debates so fascinating after all, as panel members across the series represented Christianity, Judaism, Agnosticism, and Atheism, and found more common ground than disparate, as far as I perceived—I think the above captures a sense that people can share universally.  It is that “living principle,” that “breath of life” that we share with Nature, and this is what binds us together no matter how much we try to distinguish ourselves by our intellect and emotion.  If this is a way that we humans are not special, that means we can commune with Nature as our brethren, giving and receiving energy from one another in much the same way we breath the oxygen plants give off only to expel the carbon dioxide they need to photosynthesize in return.

When I stand on a mountain or swim in the sea, there is something so gorgeous about the vision and experience of it that I could cry, for it taps into my own primal nature that remains embedded in my core, nonmalleable to societal influences that may otherwise shape me for better or worse.  Nature vs. Nurture is a whole other tangent on which I could take this topic, but I shall hold off on that other than to say I personally believe both factors are at play when it comes to who we are and who we become.  Our nature, however, is akin to that persistent vine that finds its way through the cracks of a stone wall; aspects of who we are at our roots are likewise things to be nourished so that they can flourish or perhaps be plucked like weeds when we recognize the bad that could come of them (the very duality addressed in my “Mad Me?” post and your comments).  Think about it; we constantly address ourselves in terms of vegetation:  early or late bloomers, budding, blossoming, being planted, rooted/uprooted, fertile, and so on.  This metaphorical language doesn’t come from nowhere; we draw comparisons of ourselves to images we somehow intuitively understand, and, in doing so, better understand ourselves.

Reflection:

On looking back at this entry, I see that I automatically addressed the gentler side of Nature.  This is the hopeful, inspiring aspect of the outdoors that we can embrace for a healthier mind, body, and soul.  Yet I would be remiss not to footnote here that I stand in awe of Nature in a fearful way as well.  It has a tremendous force that humbles us through what we term “natural disaster”:  earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, tornado, and most recently, volcanic eruption.  I literally just jumped out of my chair to look outside at the first sound of an airplane I’ve heard in days—sure enough, I just watched it fly past.  It’s been an experience directly observing the impact of the ash, leaving people stranded in a way that didn’t occur 200 years ago when Iceland’s volcano last erupted (and did so for a year!).  We take our air travel for granted and have felt practically paralyzed at being sent back to an earlier time when such was not an option.  Of course, though, our next escape routes became our trains, cars, and boats.

But envision if we did peel back the layers of technological innovation and retreated to our more basic, natural selves:

“If we assume man has been corrupted by an artificial civilization, what is the natural state?  The state of nature from which he has been removed?  Imagine wandering up and down the forest, without industry, without speech and without home.”    – Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men

What are your thoughts on Nature (in any of its respects), and how do you think such contemplation impacts what and how we write?


If I Could Talk I’d Tell You…

Sometimes what is really worth saying is what is most difficult to say.  Perhaps anyone can tell a story, but it’s the unsayable that charges the tale with compelling if not conflicting emotion.  Writers write because they have something within that is urging to be said; the challenge, though (and the reason why I think not just anyone can tell a good story), is articulating what we feel so strongly when there may be no direct means of doing so.  This is why people use metaphor and simile or play off the sounds of words themselves to recreate an experience that is otherwise unrelatable.

The Prompt:

To help us say the unsayable, page 23 of Room to Write asks us to “choose a feeling, idea, or experience that you haven’t been able to express to anyone no matter how hard or often you have tried.”  In trying to convey this, we are encouraged to use any of the following writing strategies:

1. Comparison – compare the sensation to a similar feeling that it reminds us of;

2. Juxtaposition – describe conflicting aspects of the sensation, side by side; and/or,

3. Rhythm – structure the words/syntax of our sentences to audibly mimic the sensation.

Response:

At times, it felt my eyes would propel from their sockets, or splash out of them with the popping burst of a water balloon breaking against blades of grass…as if I might literally ‘cry my eyes out.’  My heart felt it might split open my chest cavity like a crab leg gripped in the toothed metal of a lobster cracker; holding my heart back from rupture, however, was an opposing anvil of pressure at my sternum, compressing my breast as though I’d plunged into ever deeper waters.  The dulling of other senses was likewise like treading below the water’s surface, looking up to see the pool of light above while deliberately sinking myself toward what was cool and black, obscuring my perception of life as it actually was through the dark and refracting depths and clogging my ears to reason.  At other times, it was like being strained through a sieve, dispersing the atoms of my being into the broader environment, a melding into the background as I soaked into the carpeting or evaporated into the walls, becoming more and more transparent from my own sight.  A water-logged cadaver deadened by apathy alternating with the quick-pulsing, hyperventilating, lurching engine of emotion that, either way, spun me off the road and left me paralyzed in the ditch, tangled within the weeds where no one could see or hear me.  This is what depression felt like.

Reflection:

Yeesh, I feel like gulping for air after trying to re-feel the sensation of a dark, momentary blip in my life.  Thank goodness this experience was temporary, triggered by a few too many life changes that occurred at once—good changes overall, granted, but changes nonetheless that entailed adjustment and sacrifice.  Ah, the bittersweetness of life…but as I learned in Istanbul’s bazaars last autumn, it is good for their elaborately woven Turkish carpets to be trodden on, as it only makes the knots stronger.  And thus we all strengthen into something of more beauty just when we may want to pity ourselves for being stepped on.

In any case, while I don’t have any issues talking about it (I prefer to, actually, as being able to speak of it in the past tense makes me revel in the happiness of my present and optimism for my future), I never feel I can adequately get the experience across.  And I can’t say for certain I’ve done so here, nor really approached it in the way that Bonni Goldberg has asked; all I can say is that I wrote what came to me most readily, and I know I could rewrite it through various other lenses.

I didn’t deliberately attempt rhythm, but if I want to grasp for sound effects, I detect some unintended assonance and alliteration in the penultimate sentence:  the repeated “aw” sound in “water-logged” that draws out the words like the slowed feeling of trying to run under water, the interspersed “a” and “eh” sounds in “cadaver deadened by apathy” that sound listless and whiney, then the “d” sound in “cadaver deadened” that falls with dull thuds.  The action words with strong, snapping consonants and short “i” sounds that follow (“quickpulsing, hyperventilating”) seem to then speed up the sentence a bit.  At least that’s my take on it…or maybe I’m just making this all up as I go along 😉  But seriously, though, although my little analysis here might be stretching because I didn’t try to strategically embed devices like this, I point out these examples just to show how the sound of language could be used for certain effects, and obviously more effectively when done on purpose.  I think this is at least the 2nd time I’ve bypassed rhythm as a writing technique in my responses, so I really need to start challenging myself more in this area.

But enough about me.  How might you say the unsayable?


Touch No Evil

The Prompt:

In wrapping up this series of writing exercises on sensory detail, today’s challenge (page 18, Room to Write) is to write through texture.  Again, we have 3 different approaches we can take on this:

1.  List textures;

2.  Describe the textures of a person, place, or thing;

3.  Reflect on how the textures help us find understanding.

I think I’m going to interweave #2 and 3 for this one, at least at the outset and just go wherever that takes me.

Response:

To lull myself to sleep at night, I often rub my fingers along the edges of my pillow case; it’s a habit I’ve had since childhood, one that I developed as a substitute for massage (I was very used to nightly back rubs from my mom).  So when I repeat this ritual as an adult, the tickling sensation of that thin fabric whispers kisses on my fingertips to assure me everything will be okay.  On the occasional night when I’m really sunken into a mode of regression, I’ll lay there in bed snugglng my panda bear, a gift from my parents when I was five.  Holding her close, I’ll run a thumb over the course, pebbly fur, matted down and hardened from decades of hugging.  Now and then I’ll still find a soft spot, a silken smooth patch that was not prone to friction and reminds me of the fluffy fuzz that once went up my nose and tickled my nostril hairs (and sometimes caused that sharp, almost stinging, muscle-constricting anticipation of a sneeze) when I sniffed the bear to find my own scent.  I run a finger over the rugged, scratched surface of its eye wondering when I would’ve let my guard down to have ever let harm come to there.  I feel how flattened and condensed the stuffing has become, the reason why this panda had actually grown an inch once on the family growth chart.  I roll onto my stomach and worry that the weight of my arm is putting the panda into a strangle hold as I feel its unyielding lump beneath, and as I turn my head the opposite way, the slippery straightness of my fine strands of hair slide across my cheek in feathery protection.  I nestle my face into the moon-cooled part of the pillow that I hadn’t yet laid on and sense its soft, suede-like fibers brush against my skin, which, newly cleansed and burning from an invigorating sandy scrub, prickles a bit at the thin fuzziness just skimming its surface, almost velvety after multiple washings.  I feel the thick raised bands of its pattern press into my cheek to stamp its existence into my damp epidermis.  Awareness of the tepid, downy pressure  of my breath upon the back of my hand distracts me from sleep, so I move my arm outwards, outstretched until it bumps dully into the warm life-force emanating from my husband’s back.  In short, vertical sweeps, my hand rubs up and down against his t-shirt, which has become flimsier and less abrasive to the touch after continuous wear has relaxed its threads.  Through the fabric, my fingers feel a twinkling of bristles as tiny needles of hair penetrate through.  Sensing a shift of the mattress below me with a tug of the sheet above me, I realize I’m waking him when not meaning to and so withdraw my hand to the top of the duvet and let it sink into cloudy puffiness as a brief escape of air from between the feathers huffs around either side of my wrist.  I lose concentration of the regulation of my breathing as, limb by limb, my body numbs against these textures and my mind delivers me into anesthetized dreams.

Reflection:

Huh.  So I didn’t really know where I was going when I started out.  At first I thought I might be listing different textures that have come to have meaning in my life and then reflect on that, yet when the pillowcase and panda that both connote safety and reassurance to me (in representing childhood nostalgia) also both coincide with bedtime, I found myself just running with that image in my mind.

I didn’t realize it until the very end how much the sense of touch comes into play at that time of night when it’s quieter and darker, and, therefore, sounds and sights are more subtle.  Touch logically comes to the forefront, then, as we try to situate ourselves in comfort conducive to fading from consciousness.   A challenge was searching for different adjectives to describe what basically boils down to a bunch of different fabrics–the textures within a bed are not all that dynamic, so I kept wanting to describe things as “soft” all the time.  On rereading, I notice how I used a visual word (“twinkling”) to describe a sensation of touch, and while that may be cheating, I don’t know, it works for me because there’s a sort of motion and sound that go with that word that lets me understand how it would touch against my fingers.  I don’t even know if what I just said makes sense, but I am realizing that the boundaries between the categories of sensory words can be crossed time to time, as the different senses so often work together to elicit a shared sensation, so that leaves us open to all the more creativity in how we spin our language into the thread of a story line.


%d bloggers like this: