Sunday, September 30, 2012

Stevie's Syntax

Stevie Nicks. She seems to be an artist that people either fanatically love, or loudly dislike. No middle ground. I’m happy to report that I’m on the absolutely-adore-secretly-wish-I-could-be-her side.

When we lived in Boulder, Bart’s CD Cellar was on Pearl Street, and there were several vinyl records I would constantly check on to make sure they were still up for grabs. Time Fades Away by Neil Young was one. Bella Donna by Stevie Nicks was another. Always relieved to re-locate those perfectly faded cardboard sleeves, I wrestled with my wallet and the other stacks of must-have selections to decide if this was the day to finally bring them home. For whatever reason, some other records would win out. But I found comfort in the fact that I still had the option to own those coveted albums some fateful day in the future. After moving from Colorado to Maine – and since returning to Boulder a few times for work, only to discover that Bart’s doesn’t exist in the same capacity anymore – I’ve always regretted not buying those two albums when I had the chance.

So when I stumbled across Bella Donna in a record store a few weeks ago (with a whopping $2 price tag!), I walked it straight to the register.

After listening to it a few times, I started to think about “Leather and Lace.” Particularly the “Give to me your leather/Take from me…my lace” line. I love the simultaneous simplicity and implied complexity of the leather and lace dichotomy. But I think what makes this line stick with me, what gives it a little extra weight, is the syntax. In conversations, most people wouldn’t talk in the way this line is presented. You might say, “Give me your leather, and take my lace.” Which sounds much more casual and not nearly as meaningful.

Maybe poetry and song lyrics are better suited to the type of word arrangements found in the leather and lace phrase. Less of a need to form complete, more "traditional" sentences. When you hear words aloud, without seeing them written down, you are less aware of what goes where. Maybe it's easier to sing, enunciate, and breathe in the right spots when the words are arranged as “Give to me your leather/Take from me…my lace.” Maybe it's Stevie Nicks, who in my opinion can sing almost anything and make it sound good. But even without her voice attached to the phrase, under silent repetition, the words flow. Enough syllables for the internal tongue to skip along, natural places to pause. It just works.

In my writing, I often find myself getting hung up on the syntax. I find the most freedom to play with word order in stream of consciousness moments. It is such a delicate balance to arrange words in a purposeful, innovative, and attention catching way - without creating a mangled mess that no reader wants to wade through.

Until I write that perfect sentence, I’m glad I can now listen to “Leather and Lace” on vinyl whenever I want!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Stinging & The Shining

Isn’t it great when something happens, and it reminds you of a book? (OK, OK – or a TV show. Because everything in life can be traced back to The Simpsons or Seinfeld, right?)

When we moved into our house, my mom gave us a coconut shell wind chime as a housewarming gift. It hung innocently on the front porch for almost a year. In early summer, I noticed that wasps had moved into the concave top of the wind chime and into one of the dangling bamboo tubes. Each day, as I went out the front door to water the hanging plants, I peered into the wind chime to watch the progress of the hive. As the honeycombed network grew, I vaguely thought about knocking the nest down before it swelled into an unmanageable mess. But the wasps dutifully trundled across their geometric home without paying me any mind. So we struck up a peaceful co-existence.

You see where this is going, right?

Beady face with no discernable eyes, 
abdomen curled. 
A few weeks ago, during a routine watering, I reached into the tangled tendrils of  a hanging plant. Half-sensed a wavering insect body inside - and as the realization formed – a sudden pricking. Quick needle stab, instant throbbing. I was stung.

I don’t think I’ve ever been stung by a wasp before then. Even though I knew the one that got me was simply acting on pure instinct – protecting its queen and the nurturing hive – I felt betrayed by those winged workers. And as my hand swelled to the size of a latex glove filled with water, The Shining popped into my head.

Down to the basement to find our copy of the Stephen King classic (which we bought here, just to make things extra creepy). I flipped to the part about Jack getting stung while working on the roof. Detonating the poison bomb to kill the wasp nest, then giving the now harmless nest to a delighted Danny – despite Wendy’s reservations. Even though it had been years since I’d last read the book, 
I remembered  the wasp nest coming alive in Danny’s room in the middle of the night. 
I eagerly re-read the scene, wondering if my new sting would lend greater intensity to the words.

Putting Danny to bed, Wendy is shaken by the nest in her son’s room. “She didn’t like the idea of that thing, constructed from the chewings and saliva of so many alien creatures…”

After Danny’s episode in the bathroom – where he sees Tony “way down deep” in the mirror – Danny settles into bed with his Snoopy night light, slips into a nightmare, then wakes with a start:

Something on one hand. Crawling.
Wasps. Three of them.

They stung him then, seeming to needle all at once…

After Jack and Wendy rush in and realize what all the shrieking and thrashing is about, I love the description of the wasps as “lumbering” creatures that “rise into the air, droning.”

Jack eventually goes back to Danny’s room to dispose of the pests. The should-be dead nest is inexplicably crawling with wasps. He takes the nest outside, where the 25 degree night chill will surely kill them once and for all. Comes back in and locks the door standing between him and nest, just in case.

Suddenly the hotel seemed full of a thousand stealthy sounds: creakings and groans
and the sly sniff of the wind under the eaves where
more wasps’ nests might be hanging like deadly fruit.

                They had come back.

I swear, I’m normally not freaked out by bugs or insects. But that night after my sting, puffy hand still pulsing and tucked between my pillows, moonlight extra bright and throwing unfamiliar shadows across the room, curtains billowing out from the open windows – my mind started to race. The air whirred with a constant hum. Maybe it was the fan at the foot of the bed. Maybe it was the de-humidifier outside the bedroom door. Maybe it was a cloud of wasps hovering by the ceiling. Beady faces with no discernable eyes, abdomens quivering. Ready to strike.

In the light of day, my momentary panic was silly. I spent a few days obsessively scouring the Internet, looking up tips on how to de-wasp a front porch. Tiptoed outside the door to water plants. Jumped out of my skin each time something whizzed by me. Started to recover my wits as the week passed, learning that wasps are actually beneficial to gardens and help keep away other pests.

Last night, I opened the door to our supply closet and discovered an unexpected guest inside. A live wasp. Clinging to the pile of cleaning rags. Its angular, black and yellow body curled tight against the white fabric.

All quotations and italicized text in this post were taken from The Shining by Stephen King.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Laura #2

The following is an excerpt from a work in progress by Fiona Clifford

Driving to the hospital, Laura and Fred didn’t have a name picked out for the baby. After the birth, someone eased the slippery, screaming bundle onto her chest. Fred’s face hovered into view, his voice excitedly informing her that the bundle was actually a girl. Maybe it was the drugs, but Laura had a vision of her baby girl as a bird. Swooping and dipping across a late afternoon sky. Fading to a speck, flying off to a place where it was always warm.
Laura had a vision of her baby girl swooping and dipping across the sky. 
Fading to a speck.
                  When the vision cleared, Laura returned to her sweaty, disheveled place in the delivery room. Fred still waiting for the name. So she named their daughter Wren.
                  Before Wren’s arrival, there were no arguments over what to name the baby. Fred simply washed his hands of the task. Listen, he liked to say. I’ve lived for 32 years as a Fred. Every last scrap of originality has been forced out of me. You pick the name. I know I’ll only pick the wrong one.
                  But each time Laura picked up the Name Your Baby book, the lines of neatly alphabetized options made her eyes cross.
                  Anxiety for the impending delivery swelled in proportion with her belly. Midwife Janie suggested finding a nice image. A Caribbean destination ripped from a travel magazine. A postcard. “Whenever you start in on those old fears,” Janie soothed, “take out the picture and meditate. You know, really feel yourself there. If you can train your mind to relax in the face of imminent pain, it will be that much easier to access your haven during the delivery. Create the haven in the picture within yourself.”
                  Janie, with her easy smile and welcoming face, looked as if she had never spent a single minute worrying about what would happen next.
                  Laura went home and heaved open the closet door anyway, one hand resting on her baby bump as she pulled down shoeboxes of mementos. Cardboard seams worn through, half-contained photos sliding against each other. Eager to be seen again. She found a photo of the beach with a misty quality, as if the photographer held a piece of gauze before the lens. A diminishing row of summer homes rose from spiked dune grass, their west-facing windows holding the fiery reflection of sunset.
                  Laura examined the beach picture, yet couldn’t remember taking it. She walked to the living room, where Fred muttered to himself over a crossword.
                  “Hey Fred,” she said, still trying to match a location to the photo. When Fred made no reply she glanced up. “Fred?” She moved over to stand by the arm of his chair, watching as he erased an answer – ASP – then carefully wrote it again. The sharp peak of his A, each letter perfectly centered within the puzzle’s white boxes. She touched his shoulder and he jumped, breaking his pencil in surprise.
                  “My God, Laura, you scared me. What’s the matter?”
                  “Nothing.” Maybe she shouldn’t bother showing him the photo. “Look what I found. Wouldn’t you just love to live by the ocean like this?”
                  Fred plucked the picture from her fingers, studied it briefly, then passed it back with a watery smile. “You know I can’t handle too much sun. And I love it here. I love you here. I could never leave this.”
                  Oh well, she thought, propping the photo against the lamp on her side of the bed. While Fred brushed his teeth, Laura braced against a dull wave of nausea. The sweeping flush of heat contrasted with the clammy line of sweat along her hairline. She waited for the twinge to bloom into a mountain of pain. Rolled onto her side and forced herself to walk into the beach picture. Into a scene where the sunset still held enough strength to color the world. Laura stretched out carefully across the sand, absorbing its comforting grains. Tides exhaled beyond the blank canvas of her closed eyes.