anne rice

NaNoWriMo 2016 Days 5,6,7

It’s Day 7 of NaNoWriMo here in Melbourne, Australia. What started out as a sunny spring day is now clouding over, as a north wind blows warm pollen-heavy air across the hills and into my sinuses. God bless the inventor of antihistamines.

I just noticed that the NaNoWriMo widget at the bottom of my WordPress blog is not refreshing. So far I have updated my word count every day and my current validated word count is sitting on 12,046 words. I am a full day ahead of the NaNo race against the calendar.

At this point, while I don’t want to over-inflate my sense of self-confidence, I am doing a far better job this year than in the previous three years. (more…)

NaNoWriMo 2016

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I awoke this morning to find that the crazy storm that ripped through Melbourne last night knocked the neighbours’ conifer tree over, and it fell right through one of their cars before landing halfway across the fence. The State Emergency Service cleaned up most of it last night, but it wasn’t until I opened the curtains this morning that I realised the top quarter of the tree has taken up residence right on top of our landlords’ nicely landscaped garden. I’ve sent off the photos and emails to the agents who manage the property and am awaiting their advice. But I don’t want to spend the whole day anxiously ruminating and time is running out for my NaNo plans. Normally by October I want, at the very least, a vague plot for my NaNoWriMo story. I already have the Hallowe’en decorations out and no workable story yet. Hopefully the looming pressure of the self-imposed deadline will fire up my creative gears.

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NaNoWriMo Journal 2015: 8

Note: this is a repost of this journal entry. The original had some formatting errors and then I accidentally shared an older draft version.

Friday, 13 November 2015

I missed writing yesterday. The predictable mid-Nanowrimo slump has arrived in full force. Aching wrists from typing too much. Compulsive refreshing of my facebook newsfeed, which always results in a slump in my mental health, lack of sleep from too much caffeine and staring at a screen at night, in-real-life responsibilities that just won’t take “no” for an answer – the school nurse calling to say one of my kids has a very high temperature and needs to be picked up immediately and will need to stay at home until the fever goes away, the other child having to prepare for the upcoming ballet school concert and all the fuss that entails. My response has been to deactivate my facebook account, and I’ve set it to automatically reactivate after NaNoWriMo ends, and conveniently just before my birthday, too, so I can revel in that annual influx of greetings while I eat complimentary birthday burritos from the local Mexican restaurant.

I told myself that this would be the NaNoWriMo when I would look after my health. But the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry and apart from taking a long walk that one time and a ten minute aerobics session and doing some mindfulness, I’ve managed to stuff up my sleeping patterns, come down with a severe headache, hurt my back from slouching over the computer, and binged on too much junk food. If the weather had been more conducive, and my sleep more refreshing, I probably ought to have taken a few bike rides. A half hour bike ride every two or three days would be a big help… if I could just get off my butt and ride.

In addition, while I’ve liked my story so far, it’s reached this significant stage in the plot that I’m finding difficult to tie up. Do I press on or just put it to the side for now and jump to my next major plot point, filling in the blanks when I need to pad out the word count in the panicked last day of nano? At this stage my main characters have just been married in an ancient ceremony inherited from the ancestors that doubles as a coronation. The questions arise: how much or how little do I describe the details of the ceremony? It’s an invented religion in what is essentially an alien universe – what sort of ceremony would they have, or is it basically a normal Western Earth wedding in a church except that I use the word “building” instead of church? (I can’t think about the word church in the sense of “ornate religious building” without the Pentecostal line I’ve heard over the years that ‘the “church” is us and not a building, and a building is just that, nothing more!’ ringing in my ears, and maybe that’s why Pente buildings look like grandiose warehouses without a shred of aesthetic beauty to them and oops, did I type that out aloud…). The ceremony, as I wrote it, was the first moment so far when I said, “This story is lame.” Then, as it went from wedding to the space where the newlyweds who have had no physical contact with each other so far somehow have to morph into husband and wife and King and Queen in an imagined egalitarian royal hierarchy and here I am the prudish housewife trying to skirt around the obvious in my writing and I’m like, you know what, I want my King to be an enlightened kind of guy who respects the Queen’s physical autonomy and refuses to coerce any kind of, um, conjugal benefits and then… well… you know. And then I find myself thinking, darn it, all of my characters should just be celibate… but that’s not believable because so much of the future plot revolves around Zaira’s tension between meeting a man she actually really likes and that’s going to be even worse for me to write.

'I can't even say the word

‘I can’t even say the word “titmouse” without giggling like a schoolgirl.’ – Homer Simpson, and also me, because I am totally like this.

So… Now, don’t hang me for this but I think Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series was not only better-written than people want to think, but it handled the wedding night scene pretty well… It wasn’t in any way graphic but it definitely wasn’t a sexless book. She just didn’t need to share the details.

I’ve said before that I’m an avid Anne Rice reader over here and anyone familiar with her work knows she isn’t just a maker of vampire, witch, werewolf, angel, and Jesus stories; she also writes erotica that makes Fifty Shades of Gray seem tame (though in Rice’s work the women have autonomy and there’s a whole lot more consent and mutual respect in relationships, where what little I’ve seen of Gray doesn’t appear to have that element), BUT that said, I don’t read Rice’s erotica because I just don’t. It’s not my literary interest. So it stands to reason, I guess, that writing sexually charged scenes simply isn’t within my skill set.

This is a really convoluted way of saying that I haven’t worked on my Nanowrimo for a couple of days partly because my main characters are now standing there on their wedding night wondering what happens next. And, in that strange way that happens when I’m writing and the characters start to take on a life of their own, they’re now looking to me and saying, “What do we do?”

The male character Aulay, who’s a lot more, shall we say, adaptable and comfortable around bodies after years of training as a Healer, is in my head saying to me, “You know what, Omniscient Narrator, I’m actually going to make the most of this marriage thing, and I actually find Zaira pretty attractive, so I want you to write this in.”

And Zaira, the Hermit, is saying, “No, Omniscient Narrator, I don’t want to do this. He’s hot, I’ll admit that, but I can’t just throw out a decade of being a nun because the plot demands it. Don’t I get to define the limits of my physical autonomy?”

And then Aulay says, “Well, here’s the dilemma, because quite frankly I do respect Zaira’s freedom to say, ‘No,’ because in my work as a Healer I saw what happened to women who didn’t have that freedom and it made me sick. My vows are to heal and help, not to harm.”

And I, Omniscient Narrator, am now stuck in a little showdown with my characters. “Now, come on guys,” I say to them, “I know this is awkward for all of us and I want to respect your privacy. But as you see from my plot chart over here in Scrivener, you actually need to make a baby at some point.”

“I don’t want to do that,” Zaira tells me. “I thought this was an adventure novel, not a maternity novel.”

And I ponder her and think, She has a good point.

“Don’t forget that I’m telepathic, Narrator, and I heard you think that,” Zaira tells me.

Aulay’s over there waving his hand. “Is a baby integral to the story or does it unnecessarily complicate things and… does that plot chart say Zaira’s going to fall in love with someone else?” He looks crestfallen. In my mind, of course, because all of this is happening in my head.

“Well, perhaps,” I say. “I am willing to alter that as the story evolves. After all, you two seem to have a clearer idea of what you want. I’m just telling your stories.”

Aulay looks grim. “You know, maybe it’s the dark and brooding music you’re listening to right now, Narrator, but I can’t help but think that we ought to skip to the next plot point.” He looks askance at Zaira.

“You know what, Narrator, I do very much like Aulay,” she says. “He’s been wonderful. I just need to adjust to the new circumstances. I miss my home and I’m not happy in this cold old castle. Do you think you could move us to a nicer location? That would help.”

I sigh, looking at my plot charts. And I look into my characters’ eyes, in my imagination, and say, “All right, but it will take me some time. I have to draw up some maps before I forget which town goes where. I’ll get back to you.”

“Thank you, Omniscient and Greatly Benevolent Narrator,” Zaira says. Then she frowns at me. “But keep in mind I would never describe you as Greatly Benevolent because I’m not the kind of woman that flatters people.”

“Oh.”

Aulay pipes up. “Thank you,” he adds, “but can you reconsider the bit about Zaira falling for someone else? I really like her.”

“No promises, sorry,” I say. “But I will be as kind as possible.”

“I don’t want to have kids,” Zaira adds hastily.

“We’ll see,” I say, and slink off back to my computer.

Anyone who knows me well in-real-life will know that my capacity for imagination almost overrides my capacity for engaging with physical reality. Those who knew me during my “I’m a Unicorn phase,” circa 1987, will attest to that…

Beyond that, the first person vs third person issue has raised itself again. The reality is that my story entails a whole lot of inner work and inner talk on behalf of the main character Zaira. The premise of my story is that she’s telepathically gifted and so a lot of the story is set on how she tries to balance the constant barrage of other people’s mental and emotional noise while trying to deal with her own personal battles as someone whose identity is shrouded in mystery (is she really the descendant of some abominable race of half-humans, half-aliens or is that just a rumour based on misinterpretations of ancient texts?) and who is forced into a position of immense social power and privilege when all she wanted was to be a Hermit and contemplative. Because so much of the story deals with her inner experience, as though she’s a female Thomas Merton with butt-kicking telapathy powers, the story is starting to sound like a series of, “Then she felt…” or “Then she thought…” or “Then she reasoned…” statements. While I like the story itself, the second draft process will likely involve rewriting the entire thing from Zaira’s perspective and in her own voice. So far the third person option has simply meant that some chapters centre on Aulay, but he’s telepathic, too, though not as strongly as Zaira, and it’s still a lot of, “Then he sensed…” or “Then he intuited…” statements. The only real value of third person is that it opens up space to explore the scheming and conniving of Torny, a woman who up until this point was the effective ruler of the planet… until she was forced to obey an ancient edict that would see Zaira and Aulay elevated above her in status.

Of course, I could try second person but the story would be clunky and absurd and would essentially sound like a letter I wrote to Zaira: “Then you went to the castle and found Aulay in his underpants and admired his rock-hard abs…”  (As I typed this, the characters in my imagination glared at me and said that if they’d known it was that kind of story they wouldn’t have volunteered to come into existence.)

Current word count: 17,655 / 50,000 words.

Today’s writing soundtrack: Griseus by Aquilus

NaNoWriMo Journal 2015: 3

Thursday, 5 November 2015

It’s not a morality tale, I remind myself as I sip my long black coffee and tap out some new dialogue. I don’t want to write some thin, barely-disguised thesis on the merits of social order or religious structures, nor do I want to write a manifesto on rejecting the ruling polis through sheer hard work and dogged individual agency within a hostile system governed by two-dimensional bourgeoisie. I want to write a story that’s just that, a story – a series of events that occur to a group of connected individuals, and the exploration of the meaning they derive from these events. Even if they will respond and react differently to me, the author, if I were in the same setting.

Even though I’m writing about topics that interest me, topics like religion, politics, social power and control, these are not the central issues of my story. Under all that I want characters with their own interests and motivations that might sometimes align with the interests of socially constructed powers, and sometimes might not. The individuals in the story have varying levels of autonomy and agency that they can express within their social system.

For many years I was strongly encouraged (if not forced) only to read Christian books by Christian authors from the approved Christian bookstores. Strongly encouraged in the sense that I was often told, “read this, you’ll love it,” in a tone that suggested that I’d better love it or else. Forced in the sense that as a stay at home married parent and part-time university student with no personal income, I was never in a position to buy books for myself. When the religious powers that be threaten serious spiritual and membership consequences if they don’t get their tithes and offerings and gift offerings and building fund offerings and missions giving and Christian school fees from the struggling single income family who can barely afford to put food on the table, luxuries like books are few and far between. To get to the library meant driving, too, as the nearest library was well beyond walking distance for a mum with a toddler and baby in tow; and as we had only one car that the husband used to get to his job an hour away in the city, opportunities to visit the public library were rare. In fact, the only bookstore within walking distance was the one owned by my then-church. At the risk of this sounding like a petty first world problem well, maybe it is – but literacy and access to information and knowledge and ideas is surely something all people need. Books not war and all that. Books are more than just an escape or a diversion, they’re a means of growth. I often think that if I had spent as much time on real books as I did on facebook in the last decade, I’d probably be a lot wiser. And definitely a lot happier.

I think of the lyrics from the Rage Against the Machine songBulls on Parade,” that said,

“Weapons not food, not homes, not shoes
Not need, just feed the war cannibal animal
I walk the corner to the rubble that used to be a library
Line up to the mind cemetery now
What we don’t know keeps the contracts alive an moving
They don’t gotta burn the books they just remove ’em
While arms warehouses fill as quick as the cells…”

Of course, I’m not going to get all my politics from song lyrics – though I can probably point the finger squarely at Rage Against the Machine and blame them for setting the foundations that led me to quit studying Education and Journalism, where I would’ve at least been employable, to Sociology, an education of the mind at the intersection of politics and history and philosophy… and no career money in it whatsoever. (I joke, I joke…) But I agree with their notion that a place without books is a “mind cemetery.”

As for having no access to “secular” books and all their supposedly evil ideas from roughly the time of my conversion in 2002 through until I finally went back to university, it’s hard to explain to observers who thought I was just intensely enthusiastic about my faith that deep down I was hurting for the loss of my books. I mean, I was genuinely enthusiastic, but I also wasn’t allowed to be anything other than wildly enthusiastic. To be any less than excited about Jesus was to be lukewarm, and at risk of being spit out by God Himself. It says it right there in black-and-white, Revelation 3:16, which I note is a whole lot more scary than John 3:16’s reference to God’s love for the whole world. The observers – both family and friends – may not have realised the extent to which I was controlled within that system by a handful of laypeople who had significant influence over my husband and I: me as a vulnerable and newly enthusiastic Christian and him as someone thoroughly raised and indoctrinated in that system (my prior twenty years of involvement in the Catholic church as regular mass attender and church volunteer were off-handedly dismissed by them, of course, as though it were entirely irrelevant).

This control spread over every aspect of my life. I was made to throw out my “secular” books, my university materials pertaining to feminism (of course, as I did a degree in feminism that meant most of it), my “immodest” clothes, and my “satanic” music collection. I had to dress in a way more befitting a mother: my jewellery was gone, my earrings, my make up, and there was talk that I ought to cut off my long hair (it’s too vain and impractical). I drew the line at that one.

Eventually I fought back against this drive to strip me of my personality and my autonomy in Jesus’s name, but by then many of my favourite books and nearly my entire music collection was gone. When my life and interests were withheld by the small group of people who controlled my access to, and use of, money, I gave up. I gave up on writing, on playing music (I used to play multiple instruments), I gave up on drawing, too, because my drawings were not adequately spiritual for these individuals. Drawings of Unicorns don’t resonate with the spiritually minded (though in the past they were sometimes used as a symbol of the purity of Christ). I lost most of my friends as I went from a vaguely interesting, introverted yet quietly sociable, intellectual, widely-read, open minded and creative person to a robot void of all personality. “Less of me and more of Jesus,” as we were told, as if that were somehow a core tenet of Biblical faith. Sometimes I wonder how I could’ve so easily complied, but the heady combination of severe-yet-undiagnosed mental illness, my enthusiasm for the discovery of a newfound love for Jesus, and my desire to be accepted into the community of fellow believers, not to mention being a newlywed and trying to negotiate the complexities of a new relationship and fit in with the husband’s intensely-Christian friends and family – well, basically, I ceased to exist.

There is a point to this. I guess in some ways the books I was allowed to read in those days are representative of that whole era of my life. Now I really did enjoy discovering the Christian book world and I haven’t thrown it out completely, though the authors and books I choose to read today have changed. My enthusiasm was genuine and my feelings towards church were very real. I read different styles of Christian spirituality books. Ten years ago I was buying up on writers like Frank Peretti, whose Pentecostal novels really are quite good, as long as you exercise reasonable caution and don’t reconstruct your entire theology on his intriguing fictional ideas; and charismatic/Pentecostal (not certain of his denominational affiliation) writer John Bevere, hoping that his writings would help me escape eternal conscious torment in everlasting Hellfire. In contrast, last month I voluntarily swung by the Christian book store to buy the Anglican Bishop NT (Tom) Wright’s book Surprised by Hope as a gift, and a collection of writings by the 12th century Catholic mystic, philosopher and composer abbess Hildegard of Bingen. The books I read ten years ago have virtually nothing in common with the books I read today, except for a common lexicon of specific terms like “Jesus” and “prayer,” but even then what they mean by this sometimes seems worlds apart. The books I read today breathe life instead of fear into me. Though the books I was reading upheld the framework of a very specific variant of non-denominational Pentecostalism in which I found myself, it was likewise books that led the way out again. When I finally did start going to the library again, three wonderful books let the light shine in through the ontological cracks: The Inner Experience, a posthumously published text by Thomas Merton; The Dark Night of the Soul; and the writings of 14th Century English mystic and anchorite nun Julian of Norwich.

It was the morality tale novels I read back then – when my reading content was being scrutinised and policed by my self-appointed “superiors” within the church community – that have really turned me off the notion of a morality tale. While I read many of these stories, and there were some real gems of stories published by Christian writers, so don’t think I’m throwing them all out; there were some that really began to grate on me. Novels written as blatantly obvious Gospel allegories, for example, without the nuance and magic of CS Lewis’s Narnia. Or stories where the heroine is unwaveringly pure, wholeheartedly non-sexual (not even in a fleeting thought) and whose intention to marry is entirely about selflessly fulfilling the mandate that it is not good for man to be alone, and who somehow sails through the evil worldly world with its myriad conspiracies against Jesus without once having a bad thought… basically, a cardboard cut out of a human who moves through a comically evil society that looks like a set of stereotypes of left wing political beliefs. Or stories that uncritically romanticise certain Christian sects, as representative of some imagined “good old days.” Or stories that draw heavily from specific culture-and-time-bound theological practices and present them in such a way that they’re accepted as truthful representations of Christian eschatology (but I need not name names on this one).

Of course, I have nothing against stories with ethical concepts and philosophical ideas woven through the narrative. For example, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky left me a changed person: that novel, somehow, communicated to me a love for a faith fully expressed in love and peace. The character Alyosha, a novice in a Russian Orthodox monastery, had this enduring faith that navigated the chaos of his family’s very imperfect lives and left me wanting to know more of the God that inspired him to live a spiritually richer life than the one given to them by their deadbeat father. Yet it seemed to me that he treated his brothers with incredible patience and kindness, despite their diametrically opposed philosophies. In this story, while there were morals, of a sort, the depth of the characters’ personalities, the strength of their emotions, the complicated results of their actions, the pain they suffered and the occasional joys they experienced despite their sorrows – these were the things that kept me reading. Were there strongly Christian religious and spiritual themes woven through the story? Absolutely; but they were included in such a way that they seemed the natural outflow of the characters’ personalities and experiences. And the non-religious characters were not demonised or singled out as the “Other.” The complexity and paradox evident in real mortal lives was present in Dostoyevsky’s characters.

Another one is Memnoch the Devil by Anne Rice, which I haven’t read in years (and certainly wasn’t allowed to in my ultra-Christian heydays) but which despite having a mostly “evil” set of protagonists – vampires and demons – ultimately presents them as complex individuals responding as best they can to the particular set of supernatural circumstances they encounter. I really appreciate Rice’s ability to write complex characters with a huge variety of motivations, interests and personality traits, all of them a mix of good and bad, so often relatable, and her refusal to reduce them to stereotypes. In the very wonderful The Wolves of Midwinter, which since I first read it last year is now one of my favourite Christmas stories, the priest Father Jim – the brother of the main character – is never presented as an anti-Catholic stereotype. Nor is he a two-dimensional character who only does priestly things as though he were a mass-saying robot. He is a very human character, one grappling with the stress of hearing confession from people who’ve experienced all kinds of horrors and from trying to do good in helping addicts in a corrupt society where powerful interests oppose his efforts. I love that even though Rice’s personal spiritual journey has led her out of the walls of organised religion, she never reduces her characters within religious contexts to moral examples, but allows them the freedom to have their own experiences and beliefs. In so many ways I wish I could emulate the writing of Anne Rice. Ever since I first picked up Interview with the Vampire as a teenager, her style and subject material has been a huge inspiration for me in my own writing journey.

When I write I hope that I resist the urge to limit my characters to mere moral examples in a world orchestrated to prove the point that the exact same worldview to which I ascribe happens to be the correct one. In the hilarious How Not To Write A Novel by Mittelmark and Newman, they make reference to stories that are written in such a way as they seem little more than the author’s own worldview communicated by proxy via their characters – they give the example of a very sympathetic male protagonist who despite his clear efforts to be an all-round wonderful human being, is confronted by the prejudiced, cruel and abhorrent behaviours of a group of feminist women living next door. The agenda in that kind of fiction is pretty clear. If I was writing agenda-laden stories, all my characters would be vegetarian intersectional ecofeminists with a penchant for heavy metal and a love/hate relationship with organised religion and who would find ways to insert references to Trinitarian Christian Universalism into conversations. Luckily for anyone who might read my stories, I try very consciously to not write blatantly autobiographical characters.

PS I must highlight, as always, that while it may often seem that I am attacking all of Christianity everywhere at everytime, that is absolutely not the case. I still seek to follow Jesus Christ, self-identify as a Christian, and I appreciate the humble, kind, God-loving friends I’ve made in my years of involvement in church and respect their faith and greatly appreciate the unsung heroes of Christendom who serve Jesus with honesty and integrity. The thing I am critiquing here is a very specific and statistically unusual yet very influential variant on Christian belief that has only existed within very recent history, within certain cultural contexts; and even then, I am not seeking to negate all that I have experienced within that system. I am merely attempting to process through a sometimes traumatic decade of my life in which this type of Christianity has played a very central role, and sort the good from the bad. I still believe in the teachings of Jesus, and that they are wonderful when shared by loving and gracious believers and when they are expressed as faithfully as possible to the original intent of His teachings, and I love the Bible and seek to read it in light of Jesus’s teachings. I do not think that being a Christian means we shouldn’t critique the socio-historical-political recently invented aspects of this religious system out of an understandable but false attempt to preserve the perception of unity. Every generation of the church needs to confront its damaging social structures and dysfunctional aspects as well as embracing its goodness – it doesn’t need to be a false dichotomy of “for or against.” Only then can we walk in integrity.

PPS I didn’t manage to work on my Nanowrimo yesterday. I made the mistake of saying, “Just a quick look at facebook won’t hurt.” Ten open browser tabs and a whole lot of fleeting annoyance at people’s opinions later, I really was my own worst enemy when it came to writing.

Current word count: 9,129  words.

Today’s writing soundtrack: 90125 by Yes.

Scenes from this year’s reading pile: Anne Rice and Lovecraft

 

 

You don’t have to spend much time with me before I’m quoting one of my all-time favourite authors Anne Rice at you. Now, I will up front admit that I don’t find all of her books to my taste, but that’s fine – she’s just such a diverse writer that her work can appeal to so many different readers. I recently went through a huge decluttering process with my excessively large book collection and am now pleased to say I have more shelf room for my Anne Rice books. Somehow H. P. Lovecraft snuck his way onto the shelf, too. While I was aware of Lovecraftian themes for years, it wasn’t until last year that I decided to explore his universe of non-Euclidean geometric forms entering physical spaces, octopus gods, and strange happenings in backwater American villages. It made me wonder why I took so long to read him!

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Sometimes my favourite thing to do on a cold, rainy day is snuggle up with an Anne Rice novel, a cat and a hot water bottle and start following the crazy immortal adventures of the wild rock star-esque vampire Lestat. My cat Riker very nearly ended up being called Lestat, until we quickly determined it didn’t suit his personality in the slightest!

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Oh, beautiful Prince Lestat is a masterpiece. I borrowed it from the library and finished it within a few days. But despite the book being nearly 500 pages, I lamented that it was simply too short. The complex storylines in the previous novels in the Vampire Chronicles series, which began in 1976 with the novel Interview With the Vampire, finds a lot of much-needed closure (from this fan’s perspective) in 2014’s Prince Lestat. I am a huge admirer of Anne Rice’s incredible mind, her compassion for people, and her excellent writing. Her Christ the Lord novels were spectacular works, and I highly recommend them as a starting point for people who don’t like vampires, witches or werewolves.

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