Homecoming (Short Story)

For the first piece of my fiction writing on this blog, I wanted to choose something that was complete, not long, and gave a good sense of my voice. This one is maybe 1.5 out of 3? It’s complete except for the ending, which needs another line or two, and probably more fiddly edits. It is certainly short. It is rare for me to write in second person and the language in this is a big departure from my usual. Still, I like it a lot for no particular reason; so even though it’s a bit scary to share it, read on.

redwoods branchHomecoming

It is very early in the morning when she takes you away. Sheltered cups of fog in ground-hollows shine fat as oyster bellies. Your mother’s strong arms, smelling of sex and hazelnuts, carry you to your home of the next seven years – the witch-home, the green-home, the home of starving winters and firefly summers, the deep woods far from man.

Seven years of sun brown your round arms. Seven years of pine needles and riverbed shale harden your small feet. Seven years of witch-living, and you learn their morning and midnight prayers, their way of taking birds in the palm, their way of singing to sleeping bears, their way of stealing corn at night from the farmer’s fields that border your forest.

Among the trees one day is a girl smaller than yourself, smelling different than you, fat where you are thin, pale where you are rosy and brown. Even her words are strange to you but you know the word that she holds out to you like a talisman: home, home, home. It is not so hard for you to find it. She will not go the last steps alone and so you take her damp hand and lead her to the door. You dance away from the paws that reach for her and next for you, until you see the gentleness with which they touch her. He gives you frothy sweet milk in a bone cup. All that night you sleep on the ground as you always do. Never before has it felt cold or hard.

At first they tell you you have no father, that witches have only mothers. Then they tell you if you go you can never come back. Then they tell you that when you come back it will never be the same. The mice will not nibble from your hand again. You will not know the names of the red and white stars.

In the end you go alone. To witches, even little girl-witches, long distances are not so long and paths not easily lost. He lives far past the border of the corn. You find him alone in a house whose wood is peeling like burned skin. At table there is no foaming milk but hard bread and silence. Your father stares at you as though to cure his wounded eyes.

Instead of watching spiders weave moonlight silk, you watch your own hands make patterns with coarse wool. Your teeth discover the ache of sugar. You learn to sleep within walls. Sometimes your father crushes you to him so that you can feel the drumbeat of his heart against your own, keeping the same time. His love is the wonder the witches could not teach you.

In five years it is your twelfth birth-day. Twelve are the moons of the year, and it is on her twelfth birth-day that a witch girl is tested by her sisters. The ebb tide of your child life is over. The witches do not come when the mellow sun is burning. At twilight, rich with violets and washes of blue, not yet tinted by but a stage for a gibbous moon ripe on the edge of the world, is when they come.

At first they are a distant rumble. Cracks bloom through dry earth as if it were easy to shatter as spring ice. In your father’s house everything has fallen or broken or shifted.

They are coming like a storm cloud bound with great chains to the earth. The witches, more than you had thought there were in the world, are pounding with their bare feet a clear path through the fields of man.

Long nights brought you dreams of your mother the witch, of her sisters and yours. In the dreams you helped butterflies open their wings; you stood on the shore of a vast dark ocean; you were in the old forest, or on a mountain, washing your hands of hot deer-blood in a cold stream. You were not afraid then as you are afraid now. Your fear is digging iron fingers into your belly. You stand your ground until you can see their bright eyes and the wicked teeth glinting.

The only direction for running is away. You have not forgotten how to run so swiftly the wind sings at your heels. There are fields and more fields, fields stretching away past where you have ever been and beyond that too.

They come closer as the moon crests in the sky. The fields are ending and now before you is a hedge of bramble, a towering cage of thorn. The witches are so close their breath is a second wind warm on your neck. You cannot run forever.

The hedge seems endless. The thorns glint steely in the moonlight. It is unthinkable that the grasping hands should take you so you close your eyes and leap. Great pain. Stillness.

When you open your eyes you see through a filigree of fine points and slender curling branches. You are high up in the thorns; how did you come so high? Your arms, your shoulders, your face, your throat, your tender thighs are sticky with blood. You are weightless among the thorns.

One by one the witches call to you. Their faces shine like a thousand moons over the crashing sea of their welcome.


© Margaret Collins

Adult Beginner

Sticktoitiveness. I first heard this phrase on a radio program. The host was interviewing the author of a long-term study which showed that this was the only attribute that could be positively correlated with a student’s success or failure in school. Not socioeconomic status. Not the involvement of the parents. Not race. Not gender. Sticktoitiveness: An intangible quality that is something like determination, commitment, and brute will combined.

I have historically lacked sticktoitiveness. Breadth has always appealed to me more than depth and I move on to the next thing when the first thing loses its shine. I get bored or overwhelmed and poof! New thing.

My method of grazing through life has worked out just fine. I’m under no particular evolutionary pressure to change. And yet I have found myself, more and more, wanting to. I’ve always thought that sticktoitiveness was something you were born with, like a peanut allergy or freckles. I didn’t think it was a skill one could learn.

I’ve never been good at math. No innate affinity for logic, no pleasure in solving a puzzle. A certain amount of numeric dyslexia. And yet as study after study has now shown, math is not like freckles. You can learn to be good at it. I simply never did. Lurking behind that admission, though, is an escape route: I would have learned if I had had sticktoitiveness! If I had the gift of application even or especially in the face of obstacles. Believing that the art of commitment cannot be learned is a safety net for my ego.

I am trying to disentangle myself from that safety net. There are two things I am doing with my life right now that are making me look at that net with longing, though. One is a methodical, top-down re-write of 200,000 sprawling words of a novel. The other is learning to horseback ride.

Prestige Stables, Skippy and StrikerLearning to ride is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. While I worked with horses a great deal in my teens, I never really rode, and even that was close to twenty years ago. It has taken me months of consistent work to get back half the easy confidence I used to have around these intelligent, amusing, lively, and very very large animals.

Prestige Stables, Rowley MA
Me and Mylee at Prestige Stables

At the age of 35 I am old to be starting out. In the grand scheme of things I am still young, of course, but my body does not have the bouncy resilience it did at 12 or 20. I fell off a horse ten days ago and my bruises still look like an impressionist painting of the night sky. It was my first fall from a horse and I fell in the course of learning to jump for the first time. (Well, okay, I jumped twice and then pushed my luck.) Despite some pain which could only be described with a series of four-letter words, I did literally get back on the horse at the time. I’m still waiting to heal enough to go back in earnest and in this space of waiting, I have been doing a lot of thinking.

Do I have what it takes to learn to ride?
Do I have the dedication to build the athleticism necessary for even casual riding?
Can I overcome my fear of injury, of worse?
Can I stick with this when it’s not fun, when it’s not exhilarating, when it’s exhausting and sweaty and frustrating?

These questions lead to one major question: Why am I doing it at all?

With writing, I’ve never questioned my love or need for it. Even when I have only written in scraps of journalling every few months, writing has always felt as much a part of me as my limbs, as my senses. I can choose to pursue publication or to commit myself to finishing a difficult project, but I cannot choose whether or not to write.

I have that choice with riding. Contemplating the choice has made me look at my past with new eyes. Perhaps my historic lack of sticktoitiveness has stemmed from a failure to articulate the goal. Perhaps my little-used muscle of persistence only flexes when I truly desire something, and I have been afraid to or unable to figure out what I desire.

Prestige (3 of 4)Right now, where I am, looking ahead: I want what riding can give me. Confidence in my body, a deep connection with the horses I have always loved, a bone-deep awareness of the hard work it takes to be a good partner.

Right now I am willing to make the commitment and to accept the risks inherent to both my goals. (Finishing my twenty-year novel might not break any bones, but it comes with its own dizzying risk of failure.)

Can I learn sticktoitiveness?

I’m trying.

Woman horseback riding on trail

Who, exactly, wants to read my novel?

The reason I ask is because some days, I’m not sure I want to read my novel. Mostly the days on which I am editing it. Since I am currently engaged in a painful top-down restructuring of 200,000-ish words, that’s most days. That’ll teach me to never write without an outline again (I hope).

Here are a few criteria I have identified for readers of my eventual book:

  • Must enjoy speculative fiction or fantasy
  • Must like character-driven books
  • Preferably not care if characters kind of wander around for a while Doing Stuff for Some Reason
  • Enjoy detailed descriptions of Nature In All Its Glory
  • Be my mom

Do you fit these criteria? If so, comment here to be a beta reader!

Today I have been writing down the plot points for the Book That Will Be; I already wrote down the plot points, insofar as I could, for the Book That Is. I’ve done a lot of noodling with the desired plot plots but writing them down in an orderly fashion has had me spooked. I guess it’s because it feels like I’m committing to them now, and commitment is not my strong suit. Choosing one path means you can’t go down the others. But that’s what got me into this mess: trying to leave as many options for myself and my characters as open as possible led to a meandering, decisionless wasteland.

Do any of you who are writers, reading this, relate? Do you find it difficult to make choices for your characters?

Pop quiz! Is R2D2 here channeling me when I have:

  1. Been working on my plot map for 3 minutes
  2. Just re-read my extant draft after it’s been a while
  3. Decided to rewrite 40% of my book AGAIN

The correct answer is, of course, all of the above.

National Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month. I used to ignore this–as I ignored most such days and months of observation, deeming them occasions invented for the sake of selling advertising space rather than designed to promote the actual value of the thing being celebrated–until a few years ago. When I lived in Edinburgh I started to think about International Women’s Day and the point of having an entire month dedicated to the acknowledgment of women’s struggle for equality; eventually this pondering extended to the other things that have been nominated for celebration in the West. Some of these are undoubtedly commercially motivated–do we need a national chocolate chip cookie day? (Isn’t that, like, every day? Does one really need an excuse to make chocolate chip cookies, beyond the smell and taste of them when they’re just out of the oven? I thought not.) Poetry, on the other hand, very much needs all the promotion it can get.

I didn’t like poetry much when I was a kid. I grew up surrounded by books and have been an avid reader since before I could talk, but rarely did anyone steer me toward a particular writer or work. I studied the poems I was assigned in school, with varying degrees of success. It wasn’t until seeing Eric Stoltz recite some of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry in what was otherwise a fairly poor film (as I recall it, it’s been a while) when I was fifteen that I really appreciated the beauty of a poem. It had never occurred to me that poetry sounded different, could carry so much more meaning, when read out loud by someone with a good ear. (I am not such a performer, unhappily.)

After that, while I remained a hit-or-miss student as far as my assignments were concerned, my personal love of the form snowballed. I read as much of the Romantic poets as I could get my hands on, and started looking for recordings of poems as well as printed volumes. My only request for a high school graduation gift was the then just-released Fourth Edition of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, which my mother was kind enough to get for me. A friend gave me a copy of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of selections from Rilke before I left for university, and I spent most of the plane journey to Scotland devouring the book (it remains my favourite poetry, bar none). Margaret introduced me to so many poems and poets I can’t list them all here–Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Federico Garcia Lorca, Denise Levertov, Saul Williams. I trawled the university library shelves (and my treasured Norton Anthology), coming up with Hart Crane, Jorie Graham, Audre Lorde, W. H. Auden, Alexander Pope, Rupert Brooke.

Despite all this, I was in my late twenties before I could shake the notion that poetry, while still something people did, and did well, was not the art form it had once been, and not relevant to the way we live now. I felt like most of the great poets of the English language were gone. I liked the work of some of the living poets I knew of, but I didn’t find the same vitality and depth in them that I valued in the work of the older poetry I valued.

It took me some time to realize that this was because I wasn’t making an effort to look up the work of up-and-coming poets, not because it didn’t exist. If this ever does become true for us as a culture, it will be because too many of us have given up looking for poetry that speaks to us, and those with the promise of being great poets have given up in despair. (I hope we never make it to such a sorry state.) I do hear frequent comments about how culture is dead because of e-readers and rap music and [insert modern trend or convenience or bug-bear of your choice]. Because we don’t speak and relate to each other in the way that people did when Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Walt Whitman were writing; because all these new things and our own materialism are devouring us. The thing is, that argument has been going around for centuries; before it was video games it was motorcars and electric lighting and movies with sound; dancehalls and vaudeville, cosmetics and women’s clothing that could be bought ready-made; and so on, back to Gutenberg’s Bible and the fear that once anyone could read what they wanted, they’d soon be able to analyze it for themselves, and then it would be so much harder to control the masses. (Well, the doom-sayers were right on that score.) As for the rest of it–each new form that has arisen has given us new ways of telling stories. We lose when try to erase parts of our history, when we single out minority groups for persecution, denigration, and worse, not when we read an old text on an electronic screen or learn about the American Revolution in a show that incorporates rap music and a multi-ethnic cast.

National Poetry Month is important because it draws the attention of a few more people than might otherwise notice to the vibrant spoken and printed poetry being produced every year–and, like Banned Books Week, because it’s a good excuse to read more. I used to type up a poem I liked to post on Facebook every day in April, but my schedule no longer allows me such an indulgence; there are also copyright issues to consider. I will post a few poems and links during the course of the month–to start with, here’s a link to Ben Whishaw reciting John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, from the end of the film Bright Star. It would also be great to hear from others about poems / poets you like. So help a girl out, point me to some new stuff I might not have come across yet. What poetry do you like?

Reading: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Cover of Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me
Yes, it’s an actual book. All the better to be actually snuggled up with.

I am an escapist media aficionado. When I get into a good book or television show, I get dangerously into it; I may not emerge for days. So when I am trying to focus on writing, as I am now, I can’t give up reading entirely but I avoid my usual suspects of easy-to-lose-oneself-in novels. Right now I am reading a few non-fiction books as the spirit moves me. The one that has most of my mind-share and my full, boundless admiration is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

All quotes in this post are directly from that book.

The first thing I read of Coates was his groundbreaking essay for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations” (2014). It blew my mind. I had never fully considered (let alone been taught) the actual legislative bones supporting the horrible carcass of systemic racism in this country. I’m white, so I have had a life where I can control when and for how long I stare at the body, and this was the first time I couldn’t look away. If you haven’t read this piece, just go do it now, okay? Because the thing is: it’s gorgeous. Coates is not a man who writes simply to get his point across. His point is the writing. His control of style is pure, his reasoning crystal-clear. Truly, I can only compare his rhetoric to Dr. King’s. It was easily the best essay by a modern author I had read in perhaps a decade.

“I was learning the craft of poetry, which really was an intensive version of what my mother had taught me all those years ago—the craft of writing as the art of thinking. Poetry aims for an economy of truth—loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts.”

Okay, I haven’t actually talked about Between the World and Me yet, I know. I just needed to set the stage for my expectations going into this book. (If you couldn’t tell: they were high.) This was Coates’ first book and I didn’t read it when it came out. I don’t generally crave non-fiction, and I was thinking about it like I think about heavy documentaries: that is, bound to be overwhelming, depressing, and generally the worst possible thing to read before bed after a long day.

Then, Coates’ second book came out and I was itching to read more of his writing and I thought: Fine. I’ll do it. I’ll grit my teeth and be depressed because that’s how much I love this man’s art. I felt like I owed it to him, vaguely, notionally, to read his first book before the second. I knew it was supposed to be an intimate, personal sort of read, given that its structure is that of a direct address to his son.

And then I actually read Between the World and Me and felt like an idiot. Of course Ta-Nehisi Coates would not write a burdensome book. He might actually be incapable of it. The topic is serious. The insights and the honesty are often as heart-breaking as they are heart-opening. But there’s not a piece of it that feels “heavy.”

“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”

I have not quite finished it yet. I’ve been reading it for about a month and when I pick it up, two or three times a week, I only read a few pages. I remember reading Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again and describing it (probably to Ashley!) as very rich cake: I loved it, I wanted all of it, but I could only have a tiny bite at a time to really appreciate it. I feel that way about this book and I don’t want it to end.

“To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.”

Who but an American black man can understand what it is like to be a black man in America? But I am an American, and I acutely feel Coates’ criticism of our country’s history and of our present society. At the same time, his compassion for all the messy components of his own experience; his love for his son, and his worry; and above all his expert, lyrical writing create moments of pure human connection that are the hallmarks of every great artist.

Have you read it? What do you think? And if you haven’t read it: get to it.

“I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.”

Creation vs. Organization: A Writing Malady

There’s this book I started writing when I was 13. There have been times when I’ve thought, Gosh, it’s been five years since I started, I better finish this thing! Or ten years. Or fifteen. Now I’m up to 22. It’s not like I haven’t been working on it. To the contrary: my current draft is 165,000 words long, give or take, and it’s been through two gut rehabs. I’m in the middle of the third.

This time  for the first time  I’ve brought in professional help. My problem (one of them, ha) is that I’ve always simply written. I feel inspired, or depressed, or committed of an evening, and I pop out 5,000 words. I have never written to an outline. I’ve hardly written to even a vague idea of plot. I’m not saying this to be charmingly self-deprecating, get you to ask to read my MS, and hear you say, “Wow, it’s actually got great structure, what are you talking about, you crazy next-best-seller you?” No. This book is a hot mess. Let me tell you why.

For all the hundreds of thousands of words I have written in my life, and for all the Ivy League writing classes I’ve taken, until a couple months ago I had literally never spent time with the bare bones of narrative structure for fiction. I got the technical details for playwriting (not my milieu) and poetry (for serious not my milieu), but somehow, all of my fiction writing classes were built around peer review and a general sense of enthusiasm for Your Unique and Special Inner Voice. Turns out that knowing narrative structure really helps structure a good narrative!

Up until this point in my writing life, whatever movement a story had, it had because I’ve read so much that I’ve got some mute instincts for the shape of a story. Story is something I feel. Arguably, story is something you must feel, but being able to top-down critique or shape my own work is opening up whole new worlds of possibility for me. I know. Pity me. I’m in my mid-thirties and just figuring this out.

For me, this structural work is powerful not least because I have some native aversion to conflict. The inestimable Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a workshop book for writers; one of the voice exercises asks you to imagine you are an on island. What do you do? What do you see? Wallowing in the luxury of simply writing a scene for the pure sound of it, I didn’t put any pressure on myself to shape it. Here is what happened. I wrote a scene in which literally nothing happened. My narrator walks over the island, to the highest point of it, and looks out at the ocean. The end. Meets no boars in the brush. Begs food from no one’s campfire. Hears no voices, no distant gunfire, no rising storm over the water. This insulated, conflict-avoidance mentality which seems to be my comfort zone for writing makes for terrible stories. I mean, awful stories. The very nature of story is conflict.

Pulling back and doing this structural analysis of my hot mess of a novel has been empowering. And exciting. And overwhelming. Helping me keep such cool as I have and make progress towards my goal of one day not hating my own book is a friend of mine with tremendous powers of organization. She has broken my goal down into sensible, manageable, truly bite-sized mini-goals, and when I’m having trouble she seems to know exactly what I need to hear to keep going. (She does this professionally, by the bye. If this sort of personal project management sounds like manna from heaven to you, as it did to me, comment or message me and I will give you more info.)

So I’ve got professional help and I’ve got friends and family cheering me on and I’ve finally got the tools I never knew I needed to fix some of the gaping holes in this sprawling, under-engineered work. My goal is to have done with the gut rehab by my thirty-sixth birthday this summer. Since I finished my first early draft of this when I was 16, achieving this goal would have taken a cool twenty years.

Still  it’s better than thirty. Wish me luck, would you?

An Ode to Bread

Comfort food. In American pop culture, we interpret this as: fatty, salty, sugary, bad for you. Something you shouldn’t have, but when you’ve had a bad day, well damn it, you’ve earned it. But what about actual comfort? What food makes you feel better when you have it? Not guilty, not stuffed, not drowsy, but — good?

Comfort food for me is bread. I’m a starch-driven machine even on my best days. Buckets of pasta. Chips. Pretzels. Almost literally endless quantities of popcorn. Good bread is the high-octane version of my simple carbohydrate primary fuel.

Good bread is fresh bread. I prefer it with texture, with rich scents, warm, with butter. I grew up in a household where my father was the (excellent) cook. My mother could technically feed us in his absence but it wasn’t pretty. However. She baked. The sticky feel of dough slowly turning into the smooth miracle of a shaped loaf is an experience so deep and early that only my hands remember it.

Good bread, while it is baking and for a while afterwards, fills your space with a smell that in itself is nourishing. Any yeasted bread will produce this smell but I am fond of using sesame oil during the last rise, when a sheen over the surface of the dough will keep it from drying and cracking as it rests before baking, and it adds a dimensionality to the fresh bread aroma that might be described as exotic or heady or but however you phrase it you will never want to stop smelling it.

Good bread is a baguette from a market vendor in Barcelona, crisp-shelled with a tender, chewy crumb, eaten in chunks with salami and a blood orange while you sit on the quay with your friend and look out at the busy port and feel drowsy and lucky and sunned.

Good bread is sandwich bread from the store stacked around thick slices of cheddar, eaten with grimy hands on top of a flat rock in the middle of your hike that’s taking longer than you thought. You’re saving the apple for later.

Good bread is the champagne bubbles of sourdough popping under your fingers as you work flour into the sponge.

Good bread is a slice from yesterday’s loaf, nutty and chewy, folded around a still-hot piece of bacon and taken like the sacrament as you walk to work in chilly pre-dawn light.

Comfort food. I love that phrase, which sounds like what a friend might bring to your house when you’re sick. Bread in particular comforts not just with taste and texture but with the act of its creation. It is no exaggeration when people describe kneading dough as “grounding”: you are gently reaching, again and again and again, through the medium of one of humanity’s oldest nourishing substances, with your hands, to the earth.