Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category

Nanowrimo 2015   3 comments

bard-with-luteBard-twoYes — at it again. A rough draft of a novel in 30 days. 50,000 words. No, you don’t need a concept or a website like National Novel Writing Month — Nanowrimo for short — to write any time. But the sense of a community and a horde (300,000 people online qualifies as a horde in my book) of other writers madly hyped on caffeine or other stimulant of choice, all tapping and scribbling out uncensored, fervent prose, can help stir the synapses towards actually getting the words down. Think of it as one possible demonstration of Bardic arts.

nano15pic“Not a problem for you — after all, you maintain this blog, right?” you say. Try 1667 words a day of fiction for a month. Not such an impossibility– serious writers often set something like that as their daily word limit every day of their writing lives. Never done something like it? It can firm your resolve or leave you in the dust. I’ve been in both places. “So how ya doin’ so far?” you ask. Well, everybody starts small. That’s an hour’s work. Onto the rest of the month!

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Images: bard on left; bard on right.

Druid in a Box, Part 2   Leave a comment

When the phone call came, she was standing bent over the kitchen table, up to her elbows in pumpkin innards.  A crop of volunteers had sprung up in a poorly-turned compost pile.  She thanked Spirit for the gift, leaving wherever she harvested pumpkin a small bundle of dried thyme in exchange.

At the first ring, she looked down at her sticky hands, then out the window.  A brief scatter of rain still sparkled on grass and leaves outside the kitchen window.  Calls these days were almost always marketers.  If it was Jack, she could call him back.  They still needed to sort out a few things.  But she would not rush the day, nor her mood, over answering the damn phone.  She did pause at the third ring.  Your worst arguments are with yourself, she remembered hearing.  No, let the machine take it.  She’d had it since high school, the black plastic housing cracked and duct-taped together.  The sexless mechanical recording came on.  She turned back to pale orange pulp and slimy seeds, slipped a couple into her mouth to chew, imagined them baked and salted.  She waited, half expecting the caller to hang up.

The raspy voice on the machine straightened her back all by itself.  Cassie, her father’s baritone said.  And paused.  Cigarette cough, the same. I want …  I’d like to talk with you.  She didn’t know how she felt.  He’d kicked her out … eleven years ago, it was.  They’d talked just twice since then.  All that weekend’s worth of argument over a festival she’d been determined to attend.  She couldn’t even remember its name.

No more of that Pagan crap in this house, he said, finally.  I’m sick of it.  You go and you don’t come back.  They didn’t yell, at the end.   Plenty beforehand.  Fine with me, she said.  She left about twenty minutes later. Didn’t even slam a door.  And that was that. But you could have bottled the acid in the air and scoured steel with it.

I’m in Sacramento now.  Oh, my number, it’s …  She heard him stumble over it.  I hope you’ll call back.  Another long pause.  As if he could hear her thinking, waiting.  Not answering.  Not wanting to.  Cassie.  The tug of her name again. Then a click and brief dial tone.  She stared bleakly at the red digital 1 that appeared on the messages screen.  How much of life was playback.

Outdoors the sky had darkened again, and her mood with it.  She knew she needed to breathe and stand in the open air, to listen to something other than her own thoughts.  Once outside, she knelt and rested her palms flat on the grass, to give her anger to the earth, not to carry it. Earth, take what I need no longer, teach through weakness what makes stronger.  She  breathed through the words, said them again, then a third time.  She would call him back this evening.  At nine, six o’clock his time.  Sacramento.  What was he doing there?  Well, she could wait to find out.

Druid in a Box, Part 1   4 comments

She was Druid.  When she needed to know things, a way would open.  She was learning to trust it.  Sometimes an opening way asked for patience, and that took work, still.  Waiting rarely looked hard when others did it, but she’d done enough herself to know better. A song made it easier, and when she listened a certain way, now and again songs came, tinkling on the air, or roaring out of someplace she didn’t know she’d gone to till she returned with a start, the phone ringing, or her cat Halfpint curled in her lap and kneading one thigh with paws tipped with needle claws.  Often the words came later, the melody already running ahead of her, in and around her attention till she got a version down on paper or on her music program.

She was Druid, she knew.  It was a long time coming, that knowledge.  Sometimes she’d resisted, convinced she was done with paths, and seeking and god-stuff, anything like that.  But through it all the gifts kept arriving.  Hard ones, and easy ones too.  Often enough it meant whatever the land gave her at the moment.  For proof, all she had to do was look at her house, filled with stones, bird bones, animal skulls, pressed flowers, carved branches, vervain and basil and mint, garlic and St. John’s Wort and other herbs she was learning as she went.  After Jack left with his secretary, she got the little ramshackle two-bedroom house and the six acres of pasture they’d planned to farm, and slowly the once-empty rooms filled with links to the green world outside the door.  Inside, too.  Spiders in the corners, mice in the walls, squirrels skittering across the tin roof, crows caucusing in the back yard.

Jack.  One of the hard gifts.  He left, and for a while the emptiness threatened to eat her alive.  A big hole she had to stop looking into.  No bottom, but walls dark with bitterness.  So she stayed busy volunteering and running the food pantry and substituting at the local elementary school, until one day a boy complained about the smell of incense that seemed to follow her wherever she went. “Witch” was the real reason, she heard from a sympathetic colleague.  Parents complaining about “that teacher.”  Though when the principal called her in “for a little chat,” what he said was they just couldn’t rely on her to be on time.  All she knew then was that her morning ritual had just cost her one needed source of income.  Hard gift.

A month of therapy, and “you’re stuck in a box labelled ‘wife,'” until she knew she could give herself better advice, and cheaper. When the box is the whole world, then I’m Druid in a box, she thought.  And thinking inside the box is a great place to start.  Hardly anybody else is in here.  They’re all outside, because that’s where they’ve been told they should be.  That’s where the clever ones are, the ones who want to be ahead of the curve.  Mostly people do what they’re told.  But almost always something held her back from doing what everybody else did, shoved her or kicked her sideways.  A kind of resistance, a suspicion, a compass set in her belly and spinning her some other way.  Ahead of the curve?  It was more than enough to be the curve, bird’s wing in the air, crescent moon, arc of water coursing over a falls.  The backyard junipers and oaks and one old willow bowing at the sky.

Then it was October, her birth month, and in spite of turning 30 in a few more days, her mood lightened.  She could feel a shift coming, something new trying to find her, a little blind, and maybe needing help.  She could help it.  Listen, she reminded herself.  It was one thing she’d finally gotten good at.

To be continued …

Dirty Words, Green Thoughts   Leave a comment

Compromises.  They get bad press. In this time of American public life, compromise is among the worst of bad words.  It’s true that we often seem weakest where we make one.  That’s OK, as long as we aren’t blindsided by them, as long as our compromises aren’t destructive to us, as long as we can make them and live with them as conscious acts.  But any one of those challenges can pierce us to the core.

As a case in point, I want to address a “local” issue that echoes everywhere.  Last December, over a thousand residents in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts gathered to protest the continued operation of the Vermont Yankee (VY) Nuclear Plant beyond its original 40-year licensing period. There were over 130 arrests, though the protest remained orderly — both protesters and police had prepared months in advance.

As Vermont transplants rather than natives, my wife and I inherited the controversy when we settled here over a decade ago.   So first, some details — as unbiased as I can make them, from sources on both sides. A Druid tries to find the multiple tertiaries or neglected alternatives between two opposed binaries, so bear with me here.

First, the pros:  VY has been through $400 million of upgrades since it was first commissioned in 1972.  These include a 2006 retrofit that allows the reactor to generate approximately 20% more energy than its original design specifies, obviating the need to build other plants or increase fossil fuel use.  Vermont relies on the plant for about 30% of its current energy use, and when VY is down for refueling, increased consumption of gas and oil must make up the difference.  Decommissioning the plant would require finding other (and mostly more expensive) energy sources to make up the shortfall.  Published estimates put the pollution savings over the past four decades  of operation at 50 million tons of carbon that VY’s nuclear capacity has avoided dumping into our atmosphere.  That clean operation contributes heavily to keeping our famously pristine Vermont air famously pristine. Employment statistics put the number of jobs directly connected with the plant and its operation at around 650 people, and the impact on the state economy in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  Obviously, shutting down the plant isn’t just a matter of pulling the plug.

Second, the cons:  VY’s design closely resembles the Fukushima reactor in Japan that failed in the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.   The 2006 upgrade that allows VY to generate approximately 20% more energy beyond its original design specs imposes unknown and unstudied stresses on a reactor structure deteriorating in spite of repairs — uncertainties the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) admits.  The plant stores its spent fuel in containment tanks that are now already at 95% capacity, yet the scheduled recommissioning is for another 20 years.   VY sits on the Connecticut River, whose waters ultimately empty into Long Island Sound.  An accident to either the reactor or fuel containment pools would not only affect the immediate area of mostly small towns, but carry radiation and waste downstream directly into the middle of  major centers of population like Springfield and Hartford, and numerous smaller towns like Greenfield, Deerfield, Northampton and Holyoke, MA, and Enfield, Middletown and Old Saybrook, CT.  It would then spread into the Long Island Sound and quickly impact eastern Long Island.  Tucking the spent rods and other waste away in “remote locations” like Yucca Mountain is no real solution, only a poor stop-gap measure.

Critics cite a string of mostly minor incidents at the plant over the years — small leaks, structural failures, and accidental discharges, as well as cover-ups, lies, bribery and arrogance in responses by the parent company Entergy, which runs eleven other nuclear plants around the country. Vermont governor Peter Shumlin openly says he wants VY shut down.  Entergy’s own website for VY (at www.safecleanreliable.com) addresses safety, somewhat obliquely, with a list of emergency contact numbers and the statement:  “The area approximately 10 miles around the Vermont Yankee is called the Emergency Planning Zone. Plans have been developed for warning and protecting people within this 10-mile area.”  Within this 10 mile radius live approximately 35,000 people. Yet after the Fukushima reactor meltdown in Japan, the NRC recommended that Japan extend its emergency safety zone radius to 50 miles.   The number of people within a 50 mile radius of VY is 1,500,000.

Here’s an aerial view of VY, courtesy of Entergy:

VY may well be shut down in some future election cycle, or it may face a spate of incidents that call into question its safety.  It may even run safely (for a nuclear plant) until its all of its operating extensions expire.  Until then, unless I and everyone else who benefits from the plant volunteer to cut our energy usage by that 30% that VY generates, and help subsidize a transfer to alternate sources of energy, can we justify our self-righteous claims to “shut it down” with no further personal sacrifice?  What are we willing to give in order to get what we want?

Though some people deride our Druid rituals and mock our perspectives about the earth, what we do to the world we do to ourselves in very real ways.  The facts can be disputed — the principle operates in full force as it always has.  What goes around comes around: we know this, which is why such sayings have penetrated the common language and consciousness.  We alive today are part of the world’s karma — our karma, the choices we make and actions we take every day.  I turned on the oven to heat my lunch earlier today.  Would I be willing to make do with a solar oven, or eat my meal cold, or … any of a number of alternatives?

A Wise One observed that in the last decade the entire world had the opportunity to accept a major initiation — a step forward in consciousness, based in large part on our accepting greater responsibility for our actions and their consequences.  As a single aware corporate entity, the world consciousness refused this opportunity.  (Was it majority vote?!) Individually we still all grow at our own paces, but we also take part in a world shaped by planetary consciousness as a whole, to which we each contribute a part.  We can plainly see the results all around us right now, and whatever we may think of the ultimate causes, they began in human choices. As Gandalf observes (and why shouldn’t a decent movie Druid get his share of press?), if we regret the choices we see and the consequences of those choices which we know many will suffer, “so do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”  And that is enough for any film character, or four-dimensional beings like ourselves.  Each life improved is a life improved, and within our circles we can accomplish much of value before we leave this world.  It is not our task to redeem the planet.  World-saviors appear in flesh and myth to do such tasks.  (Unless you’re signing up for the job, in which case you should have been told where to go and what to do.  Just don’t ask me.)  The time that is given to us is enough to fill with the best that is in us right now — not in some imagined future “when we — or our people — have the power.”  To leave the last words again to Gandalf:  “[I]t is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

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The Hunger Games — a Meditation   2 comments

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold,” says Katniss Everdeen, opening Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games as both narrator and protagonist, and launching a major theme and complex of imagery in the book.

The widely-anticipated movie version of the novel arrives in a little over a month, in late March.  The transformation of novel into film, with its inevitable directorial choices, budgetary limitations and too-specific casting of too-attractive young actors, will enchant some and disappoint others.  No film can perfectly incarnate the word-world of a book to everyone’s satisfaction.  (Here’s a link to an official trailer, in case you’re curious and haven’t yet seen it.)  But it’s the novel I wish to focus on here.

The presence or absence of warmth is a recurring theme:  heat — passion — violence — fire continually trade places throughout the story.  Human warmth is, after all, what initially launches Katniss into the story.  She volunteers on the spur of the moment to take the place of her beloved sister Prim, in the annual national lottery that selects a pair of youths from each of the twelve districts of a future North America and drops them into a televised death match.  It’s blood sport with a vengeance.

**Spoiler Alert**

Prim is now safe, thanks to Katniss.  But once Katniss is taken from her home, along with the other chosen youths who are now her rivals, she is pampered, buffed, polished, trained — and made over to show off an explicit fire imagery her stylists have conceived for her.  As part of the lead-up to the competition, along with her rivals, she is interviewed and paraded on a nationally broadcast special program.  But first, the finishing touches.

The team works on me until late afternoon, turning my skin to glowing satin, stenciling patterns on my arms, painting flame designs on my twenty perfect nails.  Then Venia goes to work on my hair, weaving strands of red in a pattern that begins at my left ear … They erase my face with a layer of pale make-up and draw my features back out. Huge dark eyes, full red lips, lashes that throw off bits of light when I blink. Finally, they cover my entire body in a powder that makes me shimmer in gold dust. (127-128, pprbk. edition)

After the makeover, Katniss is dressed in her costume for the evening.

I can feel the silken inside as they slip it down over my body, then the weight.  It must be forty pounds … The creature standing before me in the full length mirror has come from another world.  Where skin shimmers and eyes flash and apparently they make their clothes from jewels … the slightest movement gives the impression I am engulfed in tongues of fire. (128)

I’m not perceiving something new here — other authors have gone further — there’s a book out titled The Girl Who Was on Fire which explores this theme in the novel in depth.  Soon the gritty, violent death-match will replace this world of artifice and polish, and with the starkest contrast leave a trail of bodies dispatched bloodily, and even the survivors gashed, burnt, deafened, half-poisoned, dehydrated and starving.  But the elemental world the novel has conjured persists in these sharply unglamorous forms.  Fire of the spirit, the singular drive to survive.  Fire of anger at the political motivation underlying the contest which deploys needless violence and death.  Fire for cooking, fire as weapon, water for thirst and bathing, earth — a cave — for protection.  Fire of human passion, whether genuine or contrived for show.

The Hunger Games has already achieved the dubious distinction of banned book status, as if it advocated violence instead of patently demonstrating against it.  But violence nevertheless permeates our world, and the younger readers who have taken this book to heart and made it into a phenomenon respond enthusiastically to a story and an author who acknowledges this fact honestly. Further, Katniss offers a strong female protagonist in place of the one-dimensional tag-along female romantic interest more typical of plot-driven stories with male leads. She manages to confront imminent death, make hard choices, and still retain her integrity in the face of what is after all adult manipulation and advocacy of institutionalized violence for political ends. The same human capacity for strong feeling that draws us toward violence can also lead us to bonds of strong affection and loyalty that are one antidote to violence. If that is fighting fire with fire, it often works.

Images:  cover; banned.

Stranger than Fiction   Leave a comment

If you’ve read previous posts here, you’ve heard about my Nanowrimo experience.  One of the perks of such an online endeavor — beyond the solace of knowing that thousands are struggling right along with you, engaged in the same mad attempt, maybe chewing the end of a pencil like a trapped animal gnaws off its own leg to escape, or staring blindly at a computer screen, in either case despairing of ever writing another readable word — is the series of pep talks by published novelists.

Towards the end of the Nano-month, author Janet Fitch posted one such talk which I’ve copied and saved — both for my own benefit and for the writing classes I teach.  As I was re-reading it recently, it struck me as peculiarly applicable to our own lives.  You probably suspected we’re all just characters in somebody’s novel — it’s not a new idea.  But this should be no surprise in any case — we tell stories constantly.  Why shouldn’t storytelling advice also bear some connection to living IRL?

Here’s Fitch writing about “getting stuck” with a character, and what to do about it:

So you have these options, but which one to go for? When in doubt, make trouble for your character. Don’t let her stand on the edge of the pool, dipping her toe. Come up behind her and give her a good hard shove. That’s my advice to you now. Make trouble for your character. In life we try to avoid trouble. We chew on our choices endlessly. We go to shrinks, we talk to our friends. In fiction, this is deadly. Protagonists need to screw up, act impulsively, have enemies, get into TROUBLE.

The difficulty is that we create protagonists we love. And we love them like our children. We want to protect them from harm, keep them safe, make sure they won’t get hurt, or not so bad. Maybe a skinned knee. Certainly not a car wreck. But the essence of fiction writing is creating a character you love and, frankly, torturing him. You are both sadist and savior. Find the thing he loves most and take it away from him. Find the thing he fears and shove him shoulder deep into it. Find the person who is absolutely worst for him and have him delivered into that character’s hands. Having him make a choice which is absolutely wrong.

You’ll find the story will take on an energy of its own, like a wound-up spring, and then you’ll just have to follow it, like a fox hunt, over hill, over dale.

Imagine this as the rule of thumb that God (fill in your favorite entity to blame — corporations aren’t exempt, now that they’re people too) follows with us, and our lives may start to make a lot more sense.  If it’s true that all the growth is in the hassle, maybe we should seek out a moderate degree of hassle from time to time, rather than letting it back up and accumulate and swell until it spills over and clobbers us when we’re least expecting it.  Instead, take it on in smaller doses.  But whatever we do, you’ll have noticed that we end up in relationships with people who manage to uncover our weaknesses with uncanny accuracy and poke and prod them in their most sensitive spots, as well as with people who will love us regardless — quirks, warts, fetishes and all.  And we provide the same service to others.

As we become more fully conscious, and assume at least some of the responsibility for the characters we play, we even get to revise them.  Meanwhile, when you think your life’s a disaster, it may just be going through some heavy rewriting behind the scenes.  Whole chapters get chucked.  Motivations get rearranged.  You’re on your way to a normal daily ordinary even humdrum lunch, and something changes in your life forever.  Or, on the other hand, if nothing is happening and nothing just keeps on happening in your life, maybe the show is on a commercial break, or mid-season hiatus.  Don’t change the channel yet — stay tuned for the next episode.

Writer and AODA Archdruid John Michael Greer observes in a 1/11/12 blog post:

As human beings, we think with stories as inevitably as we eat with mouths and walk with feet; the stories we tell ourselves about the world define the way we make sense of the “blooming, buzzing confusion,” in William James’ phrase,  that the world out there throws at our sense organs. In what we are pleased to call “primitive societies,” a rich body of mythology and legend provides each person with a range of narratives that can be applied to any given situation and make sense of it. Learning the stories, and learning how to apply them to life’s events, is the core of a child’s education in these societies, and a learned person is very often distinguished, more than anything else, by the number of traditional stories he or she knows by heart.

In one very real sense, then, Druidry is “merely” a rich source of stories that provide alternative ways of understanding our existence and experience.  The important thing is to have, ready at hand and from a tried and wise source, an ample supply of story alternatives that teach us and help us and entertain us as they do so.  The “single story” of much modern life just isn’t enough.  I’ll be talking more about this in a coming post.

Nano Finale   6 comments

Did it! Amazing experience, helped by the online Nanowrimo forum, with 200,000 other people doing the same thing all around the world.  Dutch high-schoolers and Malaysian retirees and New Zealand farmers, Singapore lawyers and Hong Kong engineers.  Everyone talking about it as they’re doing it. Egging each other on.  Telling funny stories.  Making and soliciting suggestions.  Cries for help.  Competitions.  Excerpts for critiquing.  How-to’s for people writing about medieval French history, chameleons, murder by deuterium, dragon mating, the proper warping and beaming of looms, the spices in chicken tikka, etc.  Writing Buddies.  The online support videos and posts from published authors. The sense of an immense online community engaged in huge set of magical creative hopeful acts against the naysayers and wannabes and critics, and our own doubts and inner censors and resistance and procrastination and  sloth.

Word by word.  And now, 50,260 words of the first draft of a fantasy novel.  Or 106 pages in a Word document.  A month of writing.  Virtually no editing whatsover, beyond what spell-check does in true robot fashion.

Haven’t looked back at it.  Not sure I want to.  In any case I need to spend some time away from it.  Catch up on this blog, on laundry, dishes.

Free at last!  No, not free at all:  finished with the first step.  Let down a bit, to tell the truth.  Adrenaline and all.  Time to rest up, pull back from writing for a week, so the first symptoms of carpal tunnel subside (mostly my left arm).

Most productive day — over 5000 words. Had about five of those during the month.  Nice to know I can do it.  Wow.  OK, onward.  Get a fire built later (it’s sunny and in the 40s outside), shave, take a shower, write a letter, pay bills. Take a walk.  Breathe.

Thank you, Powers of the Worlds, human and incorporeal. Wife, friends, the earth, the gods.  And you, my readers, for all good thoughts. (It feels good to thank, to be grateful.  An annual holiday for it isn’t often enough, of course.  Daily.)

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Posted 30 November 2011 by adruidway in blessing, creativity, Druidry, fiction, nanowrimo, writing

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