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Mother

A short piece of fiction I wrote as a character study a few weeks back and am now dedicating to all the mothers out there (and most especially to my own mother). You’re each more courageous than I can dare to imagine. Happy (belated) Mother’s Day.

-Jessica


Mother.

The word echoes in my head and I almost forget what it means.

Suddenly that word to which I had dedicated so much consideration trembles on the tip of my tongue — just another confused collection of consonants and vowels.

I’m supposed to be happy. After all, we’d decided it was time to start trying.

But as I stare at the pregnancy test quivering in my fingers I can’t seem to move past the word.

Mother.

I realize that I’ve no idea how to be one. Or how I got to here: alone in my bathroom, clutching the test and all I can think is that I’m not ready to be a mother — that I might never be ready.

And how is it possible that I would only discover this now — in the moment when life has already been planted, seed sprouting into embryo — a tiny clump of cells dividing and differentiating.

Becoming not-me. Becoming other.

I smooth my palm over the flat planes of my belly. It seems unimaginable that soon I will swell with new life.

“Gravid” — from the Latin “gravis” meaning “heavy”.

I have never felt so grave, so heavy, as I feel now, in this moment in which my life seems to be pouring from between my fingertips, even as life is re-born of a single flickering spark — poised on the brink of bursting into flames.

I fear that there will be nothing left of me but ashes when that flame has burned its way into the world — borne out from between my blooded thighs.

Mother.

The word rattles around inside my head and I can feel my atomic structures reassembling to make room for some newer, bigger person I must be becoming.

My hand presses firmly into the flesh of my belly, knowing that there is nothing to feel. The baby (baby!) is not yet bigger than a grain of rice — hardly larger than a dream.

Mother.

I roll the word across my tongue, stretch it out over my skin and am surprised to find that it threatens to fit — just barely — around the size and shape of what it already means to be me.

 

As always, I’d love to hear from you! What did you think of this piece? Leave your comments below.

 

The shooter says goodbye to her love

Just a bit of fun this week — I’m participating in Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction challenge again. You can check out my previous challenge contributions here.

This week’s challenge was to use one of the following ten sentences in a 1,000 word story — but I went for the promised “bonus points” (and extra challenge) of using all ten!

Here are the list of challenge sentences, for reference:

  • “The mysterious diary records the voice.”
  • “The stranger officiates the meal.”
  • “The shooter says goodbye to his love.”
  • “A glittering gem is not enough.”
  • “The memory we used to share is no longer coherent.”
  • “The old apple revels in its authority.”
  • “Rock music approaches at high velocity.”
  • “Sixty-Four comes asking for bread.”
  • “Abstraction is often one floor above you.”
  • “The river stole the gods.”

I had to stretch just a bit to get them all in, but on the whole I think the story works surprisingly well!


 

The memory we used to share is no longer coherent. The thought echoes in my mind.

Nothing makes sense anymore — it hasn’t since our last big mission, the one in which we failed to prevent the River from stealing the Gods and I woke up battered and bruised and still reeling in the aftermath of machine gun fire that had sounded like nothing so much as rock music approaching at high velocity.

I’ve never entirely made peace with the way machine guns sound so much like drums — and the beat goes on, and on, and on like a nightmare I’ve forgotten to wake up from.

I woke up aching, and for blissful moments I remained unaware — entirely free of the memories of that mission and the way it had tipped my world over onto its head, spilling the pieces of my life across the floor like so many marbles.

Back in training the General used to say, abstraction is often one floor above you. Over and over he would repeat this — at every briefing, on every training mission. Abstraction is often one floor above you.

We never knew what he meant and he never explained himself, just peered dangerously over the rims of his glasses and spoke the words as though they were the most important message in the world.

Perhaps they were. Perhaps they were some kind of secret code passed down from him to us, from trainer, from teacher (we called him “the old apple” when no one could hear) to us, the pupils. If so, we didn’t get it. Every time he’d trot out his adage, we’d snicker nervously amongst ourselves.

Later we’d shrug off our incomprehension and murmur to one another behind closed doors, the old apple revels in his authority. But our glibness would taste hollow in our mouths, like false comfort.

Now, suddenly and terrifyingly, I think I know what the General was talking about. I used to think he meant for us to keep in mind the bigger picture, to always be playing the larger game. I used to think it meant, You’re a spy and you must think like one. Never forget.

Now I think he meant this: waking up feeling battered and awfully alone — unsure if the game you’ve been playing looks anything like the game you thought you’d been playing.

Suddenly nothing seems certain. Not this. Not you and me. Not our mission. I don’t know what I’m supposed to believe in any more.

None of it feels real. Not even the warmth of your body stretched out beside me in our bed.

You propose after that. Not immediately after, it’s weeks after and we’re out to eat — waiting for the signal, you said (Sixty-Four comes asking for bread). And so I’m shifting in my chair and picking at the roll on my plate, peeling off little pieces of the crust, snipping them up with my fingernails.

I’m anxious. It’s our first real mission since that one — the one that felt like the ground was falling out from underneath my feet and plunging me into some new and mysterious upside-down reality in which nothing makes sense and the memory we used to share is no longer coherent.

And then you pull out a ring and I realize the mission is a ruse and I’m speechless. I don’t know what to say because just a handful of weeks ago I would have said yes, but now the only thing I can think is that a glittering gem is not enough.

Except I can’t say that because you’re not just my partner, you’re my partner, and we have to keep working together and so I nod awkwardly and you slip the diamond onto my finger.

I cannot think that anything has ever felt heavier than the weight of that gemstone, dragging at my heart.

Which is how we’ve come to where we are now. You’ve gone out to dinner for “business”. I’m perched aloft, watching the meal unfold from an empty office building across the street.

A stranger officiates the meal. I don’t recognize him. He’s not one of our regular contacts. I would have remembered that face — grizzled and unpleasant. I would have remembered the way you lean back from his presence, as if in distaste.

I’m not sure if your discomfort means something good or bad. I’m not sure what anything means anymore.

Who are we really working for?

Abstraction is often one floor above you, the General used to say. Now I believe he meant that one day this day would come — the day when I finally saw the sum of our actions from such a great height that everything we’d done and everything we’d become all began to seem, not like a collection of random duties, but a purposeful progression animated by unseen hands. A masterpiece of puppetry on a scale that I find can hardly be comprehended.

I had no idea they might have this much power.

But now that I’ve seen and suspected, the only thing left to do is act.

I have to end the game. I have to put a stop to the madness.

I wonder if you know. I wonder if you saw it too. You were unusually sentimental when you left for this meeting — you’d whispered our old code phrase, the one we’d used back in training.

The mysterious diary records the voice. The syllables had brushed up against my ear, warm and familiar, and my heart had thrilled once more to the nearness of you, to the way you whispered I love you.

And love you, I do. But the time has come to do what must be done.

My finger tightens on the trigger and even as I blink back tears I’m already whispering goodbye.

 

Did you like this piece? Let me know in the comments!

(And if you did, please share!)

 

How to turn an idea into a story

Story is something I struggle with as a writer. By nature I’m a poet rather than a story writer. I enjoy painting with words more than I like telling stories. And I have a hard time turning my creative ideas into stories. For poetry this isn’t necessary — a poem captures a moment, a thought, a feeling. A poem doesn’t have to be a whole story.

In practice, I find that for anything longer than a poem you can’t just have an idea. You really need a story and a character if you are to have a hope of making it all the way through to the end.

Your idea is just an idea, and isn’t a story (at least not yet)

I don’t know about you, but my ideas almost always start off as just little fragments of thought. Maybe I’ll stumble upon a great opening line, an intangible sort of feeling-thing, or an image that fascinates — but I never have a whole story plop down into my brain as if sent from the universe (or at least very, very rarely).

So it’s important that, as a writer, I learn how to fan the flames of these creative embers and turn your ideas into stories.

And, as far as I can see, there are really only two ways to do this: you can write like a “plotter” or a “pantser”. By which I mean you can sit down and think your idea through until you find the story in it, or you can just start writing by the seat of your pants — putting that little ember down on paper and hoping that it catches fire.

I’ve tried both, and they both work — but I think there are important advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.

Pantsing: It works better with ideas for beginnings

If you’re interested in just starting and seeing where you’ll end up, it helps to know where to start. What I mean is the seat-of-your-pants approach works best with ideas that are already interesting opening lines.

If you’ve got a good place to start then diving in may be a perfectly awesome thing to do. Yes, at some point your momentum will run out (probably within the hour if you’re me), but why not charge ahead while the brilliance of the idea is still gathered close around you? Write down as much as you can, as soon as you can. See where the pen takes you. If you don’t like where you end up, you can always go back and re-work things later.

Which is all well and good, but probably only 10% of my ideas come to me as fascinating opening lines.

So what do you do when you don’t have a clear notion of how your story starts?

Plotting: For when you really haven’t the foggiest

If you don’t know where to start then I don’t really recommend pantsing it. You could, but in my experience where you’ll end up is with a quagmire of vague descriptions and unresolved details that will require massive revision at some future date.

So instead, why not do yourself a favor and set things up for success by giving a bit of thought to turning your idea into a proper story?

Let’s consider an example

Recently I had an idea that came to me as an image: unusually colored eyes under a niqab-like veil. Now clearly that’s not a story. It’s really not even a scene. It’s basically nothing.

I could have taken the pantsing approach and written my vision down as a first line: “The first thing I noticed were her eyes….” or “I watch how his brow creases as he meets my gaze and I turn away — I hate they way they always stare whenever they catch sight of my eyes”.

But you can see the problem already, can’t you? These opening lines are crummy.

For one thing, I’ve not said anything about what makes the character’s eyes weird, for another we’ve got not setting, no scene. Instead we’re floating adrift with no purpose and no reason why the reader should care.

Pantsing isn’t really going to cut it with this one. Maybe I’d get to something resembling a decent story eventually, but not before generating tens of pages of useless floundering that would later need to be re-written — and I don’t have that kind of time to waste in my writing life. I’m guessing you don’t either.

So here’s what to do instead.

Plotting: Using interrogation to turn your idea into a story

Here’s an approximation of my thought process for this eyes-under-a-veil idea I’ve been chewing on the past few days:

  • What if it’s not just women who wear the veil, what if it’s everyone?
  • What if they’re worn all the time, even in the home?
  • If all you ever saw of people were there eyes what would be different about their culture?
    • I posit: you’d have 1000 words to describe the color, shape, and texture of eyes & eyebrows
    • And maybe: you’d have an elaborate verbal/gestural etiquette to make up for lack of visual cues
  • How would you be able to tell people apart? Maybe you wouldn’t? (But it seems like differentiation would be necessary for a functioning society)
    • Maybe your veil would be unique, an emphasis on different colors or different fabrics by which people could recognize you
    • What if you wore your life story embroidered on your veil?

Now we’ve found something interesting

What if there was a society in which everyone was covered head to toe by a veil, but their life stories were painted upon them for all the world to see? What if you embroidered your own veil as part of a coming-of-age ceremony? What if part of what you embroidered was your name?

It’s an intriguing idea. But you’ll no doubt agree it’s still not a story. For one thing I haven’t invented any characters yet, and you really can’t have a story without at least one character.

With the world is better-defined, we can start to see what kind of stories are a good fit

For example, what if the character was transgendered? First, we’d need to answer how gender plays out in a society in which everyone is always veiled — but assuming a gendered society, what if as a teenager/young adult you made your veil in secret, beginning the task of telling your life story in color and thread? What if you were transgendered and made your veil for the gender you identified with, not the gender you were assigned at birth? What would happen when you revealed your veil at your coming of age ceremony? How terrified would you feel?

That could be an interesting story with a scared and vulnerable and very human character at the center of it. There’s obviously a lot more detail that would need to be fleshed out, but at this point I think you could start writing, but I think at  this point we’re getting close. Most of the rest of the details could be made up or figured out as I go along.

As much as I like pantsing it, I think it’s important to start with a story — and not just with an idea.

Now I’d love to hear from you — turning ideas into stories is something I’m still figuring out for myself, so if you’ve got any tips or tricks I’d love it if you’d let me know in the comments!

How do you turn your ideas into stories?

All about enjambment and caesura

Welcome to the second lesson in my live blog of Stephen Fry’s, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within. How does one live blog a book, you ask? — Well good question!  The Ode Less Travelled happens to be more textbook than easy reading book and comes divided into lessons and exercises — so I’ll share a summary of the lesson and my resulting attempts at the exercises. I welcome your feedback on my practice in the comments! If you missed lesson one, you can find part one here.


In the last lesson, we learned about meter and iambic pentameter. In this second lesson from The Ode Less Travelled, it’s all about end-stopping, enjambment, and caesura, or in simpler words, it’s about how the sense of the poem interacts with meter.

If you write a few simple lines of iambic pentameter, you’re likely to end up with an end-stopped line.

To grab an example from the lines I wrote last lesson:

It truly was a staggering of snow.
I stayed at home and watched it, blow by blow.

Here you can see that each line stands on it’s own. While they’re clearly thematically related, each line could stand on it’s own as a complete thought. The sense of the verse doesn’t flow between lines. This is what is called “end-stopping”.

If the sense does flow from line to line then that is called “enjambment”.

I’ll denote enjambment as =>. For example:

I ran away and in my running lay =>
A longing need, a desperate escape.

Here you can see that the sense does flow between the lines — neither line can stand as a complete thought on it’s own, making this couplet an example of enjambment.

And finally, the last way (for this lesson at least!) in which the sense of the poem can interact with the meter is by caesura.

A caesura is simply a pause in the sense of the line.

(Stephen Fry notes caesura is from the Latin (caedere, caesum, to cut) and stresses that it is pronounced as in ‘he says YOU’RE a fool’).

Both of my couplets above utilize caesura (which I’ll denote with a ^ here):

It truly was a staggering of snow.
I stayed at home and watched it, ^ blow by blow.

And in couplet #2:

I ran away and in my running lay
A longing need, ^ a desperate escape.

So a caesura is simply a place where the sense of the line pauses, but the meter does not.

Why are enjambment and caesura so important for the poet?

It all comes down to poetic effect. And effect is best illustrated with a few examples from the masters. In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare uses caesura and enjambment to great effect to capture Leontes’ scattered state of mind after he learns his wife has cuckolded (i.e. cheated on) him.

Go play, boy play. ^ Thy mother plays, and I =>
Play too; but so disgraced a part, whose issue =>
Will hiss me to my grave. ^ Contempt and clamour =>
Will be my knell. Go play, boy, play. There have been
Or I am much deceived, ^ cuckolds ere now,
And many a man here is, ^ even at this present,
Now, while I speak of this, ^ holds his wife by th’arm =>
That little thinks she has been sluiced in’s absence,
and his pond fished by his next neighbour, by =>
Sir Smile, his neighbour. ^ Nay there’s comfort in’t,
Whiles other men have gates, ^ and those gates opened,
As mine, against their will. ^ Should all despair =>
That have revolted wives, ^ the tenth of mankind =>
Would hang themselves. ^ Physic for’t there’s none.

I challenge you to capture the emotional tone of even a tenth of his desperate rationalizing and helter-skelter thought-jumble using end-stopped lines. So that’s the power of enjambment and caesura — they bring a kind of depth and breathlessness to iambic pentameter that might otherwise be hard to capture using purely end-stopped lines.

Which brings us to this week’s exercise

The rules are relatively straightforward. Summarized in brief:

  1. Write 5 pairs of non-rhyming iambic pentameter lines in which the first line is end-stopped and no caesuras are used.
  2. Re-write those 5 pairs, keeping the same meaning, but make sure to use enjambment
  3. Each new pair should have at least two caesuras

And to make things easier, Stephen Fry assigns a specific topic for each of the 5 pairs:

  1. What you see and hear outside your window (I’ve got curtains and the dullest view on Earth, so I went with “hear”)
  2. What you’d like to eat right now
  3. What you last remember dreaming about
  4. The uncompleted chores that are weighing on you
  5. What you hate about your body

And here’s what I came up with

1. Outside my window:

I hear the neighbors hauling out their trash
And crunching footsteps fall out in the snow

The crunching feet of passers-by, I hear
and hark! The scrape of trash out to the curb!

2. Eat right now

A nice hot cup of tea would suit me well
With a small scoop of chocolate pudding

A cup of tea, and make it hot! I would
like a small bite of chocolate pudding

3. Remember dreaming:

I know not what I dreamed about last night
I hope it wasn’t anything too dull.

The dullness of unremembered dreams! I
fear for my sleep — of interest it was not.

4. Unfinished chores

I need to sweep my bedroom floor today
And pack up for my coming trip up North

My clothes need packing! And my floor, it needs
sweeping! So many chores to do tonight.

5. Hate about your body

My ribs poke out from underneath my skin
I am a walking skeleton in clothes

A walking skeleton I am — my bones
protrude so sharply from beneath my clothes!

Now it’s your turn! Let me know how I did or try your own hand at enjambment and caesura in the comments below.

Disclaimer: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I make a (very) small referral commission from purchases made using my links. This does not affect your price.

What is iambic pentameter?

Welcome to the first lesson in my live blog of Stephen Fry’s, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within. How does one live blog a book, you ask? — Well good question!  The Ode Less Travelled happens to be more textbook than easy reading book and comes divided into lessons and exercises — so I’ll share a summary of the lesson and my resulting attempts at the exercises. I welcome your feedback on my practice in the comments!


The first lesson in The Ode Less Travelled has to do with meter in poetry and introduces the iamb and it’s classic form, iambic pentameter.

What is an iamb?

Simply put, an iamb is a pair of syllables that sound like “da dum“.

In poetry, such a unit is called a “foot”, and it can be thought of as akin to a measure in music — the basic repeated unit of rhythm in the verse:

In music we have: and one and two and three and four

And in poetry it becomes: da dum da dum da dum da dum

So that’s the iamb: a simple metrical unit (or foot) that goes “da dum“.

Introducing iambic pentameter

What about iambic pentameter? We’ll we’ve met the iamb and pentameter means just what it sounds like — “penta” being five and “meter” being measure. So a pentameter is merely a measure of five, and in this case we measure five iambs:

da dum da dum da dum da dum da dum

It’s a classic metrical line in English poetry, used by everyone from Chaucer to Shakespeare, to Byron and beyond.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall

That strain again! it had a dying fall

And another, from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe

Brought death into the World, and all our woe

Got it? Good.

Let’s move on to the exercise

Stephen Fry gives a great number of rules for this exercise, the most important of which I shall summarize in brief:

  1. Write 20 lines of iambic pentameter
  2. Write single lines and pairs of lines
  3. Do not use rhyme (I failed at this — oops!)
  4. Do not polish or strive for any effect beyond the metrical
  5. Use a variety of world lengths
  6. Write in contemporary English

Here are the lines I came up with:

I want to go, to where I do not know.

My mind was shattered there like broken glass.

I ran away and in my running lay
A longing need, a desperate escape.

It truly was a staggering of snow
I stayed at home and watched it, blow by blow

I yearn to go to bed and restlessly
to sleep, I am so tired I might weep.

Now wish me well; I shall return, I swear.

I tried to light a merry blaze, a fire.

My roommates are so noisy late at night
I cannot sleep in peace without a fight.

I wish to think alone, not fast or slow.

The door it creaks on hinges now so old.

The table is of fine and oaken wood.

I ate an egg for breakfast, overdone.

The day is young and I long to run and play
the way that children did back in my day.

What do you think? Catch any places my meter slipped?

Let me know in the comments. And feel free to try your hand at iambic pentameter, too!

Disclaimer: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I make a (very) small referral commission from purchases made using my links. This does not affect your price.