Establishing a Milieu. Or Trying, Anyway: A Tale of Much Woe

Thus far in planning Where The Light Gets In, I’ve had a good grasp on the friendship between Bernard Flynn

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I’ve cast Richard Ayoade as Bernard in my mind. Though he’s way too dreamy for the part, if I’m being honest…

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… on the other hand, this could be a quote from Bernard. I stand by my choice

 

and Jace Brock

— the backbone of the novel. My primary concern has always been, most broadly, the matter of the salvation of Jace’s soul. When he goes missing at the outset, this places him in a metaphorical purgatory while Bernard unearths the sins that led to the disappearance. The deepest questions I’m hoping to explore are ones such as: How do people become strangers to themselves as they age? What leads them to stray from the path of goodness? If you’ve lost the most important parts of your own self, how do you maintain relationships? Which kinds of secrets, held tight in the fist of the heart, seep into our blood like poison and corrupt? How do you continue to love somebody who has done unforgivable things — or cease to love them?

I’m good on that stuff. But the fact is that this is a mystery and, even if it’s not a traditional one, I still need the basic scaffolding of mystery plot elements to lend this thing shape. Otherwise it’s just a long, meandering story about two repressed college guys trying subtly to figure out whether they want to bang or not.

I know where I want to end up. Whodunnit, so to speak. I have the motive. I’ve identified groups of people close to Jace who are hiding things: his sisters, his ailing mother, people he’s slept with, a coworker, his frat bros. I’ve intimately explored the backstory of his friendship with Bernard, the slow dissolution of that bond, and how the history of their relationship actually holds vital clues to the circumstances of his disappearance, and subsequent murder. What I’m missing is the connective tissue. In my first draft the parts that are dismally, dismayingly bad are the actual “sleuthing” bits. Bernard just sorta wanders around until someone tells him something useful, instead of following compelling clues and leading readers purposefully, inevitably towards the denouement.

Boning up on the genre the past two months has led me to identify the main problem here: there’s no milieu in early versions of the story. There are people Jace knows, and people Bernard knows, but they are not connected to one another, which makes it difficult for the plot to have any cohesion. The best mysteries in the tradition I’m emulating have a deep sense of place, culture, history, secrets, and a web of relationships and interconnected motives that the detective-figure must unravel in order to identify the secrets relevant to the case. It’s also important that, even while misdirecting the audience, a red herring will lend something vital to the plot: relevant information in disguise, character shading, atmosphere, etc. Preferably it will accomplish several of these goals at once, even while leading the reader down the garden path.

Anyway, my problem’s been that there’s no easy way to connect these people, or create a sense of a closed community amongst whom it would be natural for Bernard to begin making inquiries. Jace’s sisters are much older than him, and therefore not likely to be friendly with his frat. It’s also necessary that they, his sisters, not have been in close contact with Jace for years (at least not to Bernard’s knowledge). Two other important characters live on the other side of the country, and whatever knowledge either of these women have of him, or how they’d have acquired such knowledge, is left in shadow for 75% of the novel.

What’s become obvious is that I need to move the frat to the foreground much earlier than I did originally, but to do so in a way that doesn’t arouse reader’s suspicion that Jace was a major part of any shady dealings Bernard suspects some brothers to have had a hand in. This could prove difficult… I feel anybody reading with awareness of mystery tropes will be on the lookout for clues that Jace was up to no good himself. I’m relying on Bernard’s tender affection for Jace to overpower readers’ good sense. Their relationship is often adorable; they’re funny; they look out for one another through difficult times. If I play my cards right, nobody will think that Jace could have done something too bad– that, at worst, he was a good kid who got in over his head by making a couple of stupid mistakes. I think the fact that the book’s more litfic than mystery will help me here. The manner in which Bernard relays the story will, hopefully, put people off guard and therefore not realize the type of story they’re reading until the ‘final revelation’.

But yes. The frat.

I like the idea of making these guys more central to the entire novel, because the frat itself is the type of inherently interesting, deeply historied, incestuously close community within which one should construct a delectably dense mystery. It’s associated with some of the larger concerns of the novel: toxic masculinity, gender and sexuality, homophobia, male friendships, old money and privilege, Southern culture, family, religion, community, closely-guarded secrets, growing up. And so on. The one thing my characters have in common is their ties to the university, so placing the frat so it’s woven into the college town’s culture is a good start in figuring out how Jace’s family and coworkers would be connected to these guys.

One of Jace’s sisters — Avery Brock, whom I’m hoping to cast in a suspicious light early into the proceedings —

has a history of drug abuse, and of dealing, so it’s easy to imagine how she might have come to know a few of the brothers. Also, while the Brocks are a large, poor family (Jace has seven sisters), I’ve always imagined that they come from old money and have lived in the town for generations. If the fraternity mostly consists of good ole boy types, and Jace is welcomed because of the Brock name, despite being a total nerd as a teen, I could establish some old ties between their families. Maybe some are the Brocks’ close neighbors. They see each other at church, at restaurants, community functions, football games. Many alums stick around after graduating and have children who go to the university, graduate, and do the same. It’s the kind of small town atmosphere that’s hard to escape from, even if you’ve gotten your degree and have the freedom to go anywhere.

If many of these guys are still around it also fits my portrait of a generation of young people who have stagnated, and in some way are stuck in time: unable to move on from their old, tired obsessions; the beloved objects of their childhoods.

This is also a good, subtle way to create an early schism between Bernard and Jace. Because even though Bernard is the more apparently privileged of the pair (his parents are wealthy and attentive, he’s a bright sociable child, he makes better grades, he’s always having to help Jace avoid bullies and navigate the rungs of high school hierarchy), he is an outsider. His parents are Yanks (NYU alums both) and work in academia. His dad’s Irish, from a lower-middle class family in NYC; his mom’s black, family from the affluent suburbs of NJ. Bernard’s at a twin disadvantage: because of his race, and because he reeks of being “not from around here” despite living in SC since he was 5 years old, because his family lacks that deep Southern rootedness. The fact that the Flynns are Catholic doesn’t help matters.

Bernard’s never quite able to get some of what drives Jace, because he’s not invited to be a part of the culture that shapes him. He never is subject to the pressure to conform (and, really, the desire for conformity at all costs is Jace’s fatal flaw) because, however subtly, Bernard gets the message his whole life “You’ll never be one of us, so don’t even try.” At an early age, he comes to peace with the fact that people will always regard him as a bit of a weirdo, and stops caring. If anything, he leans into his natural eccentricity as he ages. Jace, on the other hand, craves normalcy and acceptance after years of being bullied by the kids at his school, and by his own family.

It’s fitting, then, that choosing to join the frat should be the action that leads Jace down the path which ends in him becoming — ahem — a huge asshole. It’s something that literally only happens because of his privileges as a Southern white boy. Bernard never was given the choice. And that’s where their paths begin to diverge.

More to come. Off to do additional research on frats. God preserve my soul.

Social Anxiety, Depression, and Writing

Sometimes the worst thing about suffering from mental illness as a person harboring artistic ambitions is the banality of the whole business. At best, being riddled with neurosis seems like something to add to your list of writerly credentials. Mostly it’s a tired narrative. At least, that’s how I feel when I try to imagine myself as others see me (something I do far too much, thanks to said neuroses).

Oh, great. You’re some kind of tortured artist. How boring.

(Complaining about how cliche it is to be a depressed writer is also an unforgivable cliche.)

Especially since my perception of my talent is that I have very little of it. Some. Not enough. Not enough to outweigh the fact that I only write in fits and starts. When I’m in just the right mood where my desperation to practice and improve my craft is enough to overcome the fear and the inertia. Or the rare moments when I have genuine inspiration.

An embarrassing admission: it’s a disappointment to me how unpicturesque, and uncompelling, my mental health issues are. There’s nothing poignant or darkly beautiful about being depressed. I haven’t become unable to eat or sleep; I haven’t wasted away, become pale or thin like a Victorian consumptive; I haven’t gained insight into the human condition. I’m not mysterious, quiet, tortured. I’m just dull, dull, dull. Nobody would know I was sick if I didn’t mention it, which I don’t like to (even while entertaining shameful Hollywood-tinged baroque fantasies about finding a friend who begs for me to pour my heart out to them).

Instead, I disappear from my own life for months at a time, and then come back when it’s become more unbearable to be so lonely than it is to face what I can’t help but see as the scrutiny of my friends and acquaintances. I don’t try to hide my condition, but don’t elaborate on it either. Because really it’s just a list of ridiculous complaints.

Explaining that I’m almost always exhausted. Explaining that my attention span seems to get shorter and shorter as the years go by. That I struggle to express myself. That my vocabulary is shrinking with my memory (it took me 10 minutes to remember the word ‘inertia’ a few paragraphs up). That sometimes I’m so damn worried about how I’m coming across, I don’t listen to other people the way I should. That I’m worried I’m becoming a worse person, but that worry itself is what’s making me so selfish, so unbearably image-focused.

Unfortunately, all the things one has to do to launch a writing career these days align with those things that set off my social anxiety. Twitter, Facebook, message boards, WordPress — they’re perfectly calibrated Anxiety Production Engines. Social media is like a giant Skinner Box designed to condition me to satisfy my worst narcissistic desires. You know. Compose a poem, post a comment, tweet a ‘clever’ observation, cross your fingers, wait and pray for the likes to pour in, feeling like you might shatter if they don’t ever come. Going back, re-re-rereading what you wrote, analysing it, wondering — was it good enough? Did you put it right? Will people like you? Will somebody affirm your worth today? Or will you curl up in bed and try not to cry while you remember every awful, humiliating thing you’ve said or done since first grade?

There are plenty of days where you do get plenty of likes; plenty of praise… and you still can’t fight the nagging feeling that people are lying to you, or there’s something underhanded about their compliments. Or that you’re bothering people by posting at all. And you consider that it would be best for everyone if you just retreated back into silence. Because, really that’s what you do best.

Not sure what I’m trying to accomplish by writing this today. It’s nothing that hasn’t been said more eloquently by a thousand others.

I’m trying to be an active member of WordPress and the NaNoWriMo forums who contributes useful things, genuinely, out of a desire to share my passion with fellow writers. That’s who I am deep down, I think. Or who I was, once. But most days I feel so removed from my genuine self (if such a thing ever existed) that I feel I’m playacting at being that person. That there’s something unforgivably false about the way I interact with people.

I keep telling myself that if I just push through I’ll get past my fear. Put myself out there. It’ll get easier. I’ll develop relationships with enough trust and genuine regard between us that I won’t need to have… this gap… between what I feel and how I express it. But the more I participate in these online communities, the more my anxiety mounts. Every day I wake up and feel like more of a fraud. I don’t have enough perspective to distinguish whether that’s true or not, but I’m convinced that everybody I talk to and can see right through me, to all these glaring flaws that I’m not even aware of, despite how vigilantly I monitor myself for anything objectionable. It’s that very desire to please that, I’m sure, in the end, gives me away…

I know the pattern I go through, and I’m beginning to suspect that I’ve defeated myself before July’s even started. By the time it gets here, I might be at the point that I can’t bear to open my computer because I’m so sick with shame for imposing myself on others.

I guess I’m hoping my getting these thoughts out there I’m purging the poison in my system. Maybe having put them into words, they’ll lose their power over me, some of which comes from their vagueness; their unspeakable, unnameable quality.

Maybe if I don’t help myself, I’ll at least have helped some person reading this feel less isolated. I know plenty of you who follow this blog must have experienced similar emotions at some point, whether due to chronic mental illness, or just the demands of creating art for public consumption, which can be plenty burdensome in of themselves.

kk, bai

literary mood~

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Everything has turned sour, I’ll never be carried away with joy again. There’s a terrible clarity dominating everything. As though the world were made of crystal so that you only have to flick part of it with your fingernail for a tiny shudder to run through it all.… And then the loneliness—it’s something that burns. Like hot thick soup you can’t bear inside your mouth unless you blow on it again and again. And there it is, always in front of me. In its heavy white bowl of thick china, dirty and dull as an old pillow. Who is it that keeps forcing it on me?

I’ve been left all alone. I’m burning with desire. I hate what’s happened to me. I’m lost and I don’t know where I’m going. What my heart wants it can’t have … my little private joys, rationalizations, self-deceptions—all gone! All I have left is a flame of longing for times gone by, for what I’ve lost. Growing old for nothing. I’m left with a terrible emptiness. What can life offer me but bitterness? Alone in my room … alone all through the nights … cut off from the world and from everyone in it by my own despair. And if I cry out, who is there to hear me?

Spring Snow, Yukio Mishima

Don’t Disappear

A snowy field under an expanse of stadium lighting, glowing electric in the night.

I’m walking on the opposite side of the street, on a sidewalk crawling up a hillside in the quiet past the cheery downtown restaurants, so I’m looking down on the field from above. All around, the world is clouded with shadows and tiny flecks of snow stinging the wind like sand, but the radiant stretch of grass is clear and bright. There are students on the field, dark bulky silhouettes, cross-armed, shivering, or bending over and tossing snowballs. I can’t see their faces. I wish I could. I wish I could go to them, but the road is vast and black between us, and if I tried to cross it I would lose myself forever.

I stand apart and above, lonely, and I watch them.

I feel I am about to witness something significant. The field is clear and gleaming like the polished wooden boards of a stage, and the students’ movements feel rehearsed like something out of a movie, every curve of their faces well-lit, every turn choreographed just so, so the snow turned up on their heels splash up like the hems of swirling white ballgowns. The snow that falls between myself and the students like a curtain soaks up the sounds of life into a velvety silence; a silence that is somehow full rather than lacking; murmuring with the hushing of snowfall, which is a silence full of portent, like the footfall of the hunter stalking a hart on the mountainside.

The silent draw of his bow.

When life disappears into darkness, there is no sound. It vanishes like a secret that no one ever dared to whisper, and its meaning rots and disintegrates like a corpse.

I cannot hear the students’ games. They must be talking and laughing, but the words are insignificant, as are their shadowed faces. It’s the movement that’s important. The dance, the pantomime. The wide field is hallowed with streaming light, and it grants a holiness to their presences, so their snowball fight becomes an enactment of a ceremony. The field becomes and altar, or the stage of a nativity play. Soon the curtain of night will close, and the players will go home and sleep in soft warm dreams. The snowfall will melt. Most will not return, and any that do will no longer be the same.

Someday, it will snow again and the field will fill with revelers, basking in the snowy artificial light that vibrates like the hollow-humming sign above a cinema. The scene will replay, as before, on the same stage, in the same light, only the actors will be different. I too, will be different, somewhere else and far away, and, in an indeterminate number of years, dead. Dead as the snow. But the scene will play on, indifferent to its witnesses, like the tree felled in an empty wood.

Only the stars will bear witness to the scene repeated, again and again into perpetuity. The ballet enacted in a perpetual rehearsal for a showing that will never come, trying to find meaning in itself, repeating, repeating, stuttering itself into utter absurdity.

I look at the snow, and I find it beautiful, but I can’t imagine what this means. These streets are familiar. I’ve walked this path so many times, it feels like I’ve been pacing in circles. I hardly notice where I am anymore. The scenery fades into the background, until all that’s left is me.

This is how things fall apart. When you become too familiar. Like a well-loved book whose pages have been turned a thousand times, a million times, until they crumble from overuse. That is what my life has been. Still, I resist the urge to travel from this place. I lack the energy for futile endeavors. No matter where I go, it’ll still be me, with my same thoughts, my same life. Just a different place, a different room reflected around my edges in the mirror. And myself, a little older. I too am being worn. I am wearing out my face like an old costume that I can’t take off.

I don’t know what the seasons are trying to signify to me or anyone when they cycle again and again. I wonder if the earth gets bored of the same old dance, or if it looks forward to the day when it is swallowed by the sun. But we know that the earth’s death is not the death of the universe, just as my own death will not be the death of the universe, only my ability to perceive it. And it seems too that the death of the universe will not be the death of all things.

All things circle in on themselves. There is no end. Eternity grinds everything down to meaninglessness with its gravity; flattens them out until they’re featureless. There is death and there is birth and there is what exists in between before it forgets itself. The universe is a grinding, furious engine of perpetual forgetting.

It is. It is. It never stops being. It denies language or explanation.

I’ve left the stadium now, on to my destination. I walk out over the dam in the dark.

The earth is littered with snow. There are trees. There is water. There are homes in the distance, peeping out in the woods, stairs that lead to doorways that contain the secrets of human lives, but their movements are obscured to me. I’m closer to the people in this town than anything else in this vast stretch of meaningless star-scarred dark, but I’ll never know them. There are other people on the hill beside me, too, sledding down into the dark, drinking beers despite the cold, laughing screaming as they whisper down the steep incline, vanish into the dark and reemerge, grinning. I’m alone. I whisper past them like a ghost. I don’t think they notice me. I’m alone. The skin of the lake is cloudy with the first formations of ice. Molecules arranging themselves, according to the physical laws of the universe. That’s why everything’s here, according to an arbitrary rulebook written by no one, in gibberish, constantly trying to interpret itself. That’s how the world was born, by accident, a freakish unwanted child.

The snow falls for no reason whatsoever. Down, down, gravity grinding everything to dust, because it can, because it should, because it could have never been otherwise. The night is not dark. It is alive with lights. Snow gathers on the branches of trees, and every second is a still life, perfect, crystallized. The water is flat and rheumy like a stretch of polar emptiness. It is beautiful. It is impossible in its perfect beauty, and that keen beauty enters my heart like a knife, and it kills me.

I am not the same.

I decide I want a cup of coffee. When I turn and walk away, I leave a shade of myself standing perpetually on the hillside. She’ll never escape. I can never rescue her from the cold. It is cold here. The snow falls forever. I know it will never cease.

I try to remember a time when I was not alone.

Guess Who’s Back wit a Brand New Track?

This girl!

Hello, all. I apologize for my neglect. That’s just the way I am, I suppose; when it comes to my different modes of writing, I cycle through hot and cold phases. Not the most admirable trait, but I’ve been making decent headway on editing (for editing, read: completely rewriting multiple times) my NaNo 2012 manuscript. As a result, the book’s several million times better than it was on December 1st—still not near publishable, though, dammit. Too long; lacking structure; thematically confused… but it’s getting there. Maybe. It’s even got a title now! The Thin Blade of Heaven! How’s that for progress?! Ha.

This well enough makes up for my lack of dedication to blogging, right? Right?

Well.

In all seriousness, I felt it better to sink my efforts into writing and researching the novel than to spend half that time obsessing over my blog. The sad fact is that writing on WordPress provides me such immediate gratification that I’ve had trouble blogging in moderation. I get sucked in! I draft posts that are thousands of words long at least four times a week, and I spend untold hours poring over my feed, which is just too damn full of fascinating writers for me to handle it all responsibly. That’s why I quit cold-turkey for a good while. Still, I feel like it would be nice to keep up my web-presence. It’s good for me, I think, to write more in a more light-hearted, natural tone, and to keep up with some of my fellow writers. Maybe post a bit of poetry, or some short fiction. Sometimes my brain just needs a palate cleanser from the unrelenting seriousness of The Thin Blade of Heaven.

I’m really sorry for the terrible writing in this post. I sort of figured that writing in my casual voice would come as a relief after production hundreds of  thousands of words in my, er, “literary” style, but, honestly, I feel odd writing in this tone. Hopefully it’ll feel better after I warm to it. That’s how it usually goes for me.

That’s all I’ve got to say for now! My coming posts will probably be about my novel, since that’s the only thing occupying my thoughts these days. I mean that literally, unfortunately. I’m pretty sure my friends all find it a pain to hang around me lately, because it’s all I ever want to talk about.

I’ll post some excerpts sometime soon. It’ll be a grand time! It’ll be splendid!

*flourishes top hat* *bows elegantly* *exits*

FADE TO BLACK

 

Lights in the Water

Temperatures above 60. A sky of endless, eggshell blue. Trees: naked, shivering still. The sun is setting later these days, but its brightness and warmth still seem a ghost here. The wind carries the rumor of winter in her breath, still. Everything is grey, grey, grey.

I walked through Jaycee Park today. The water was high and bright, the lake swollen with the recent rains. For a long time, perhaps over a year, the lake bed has been dry. In the warmer months, it was a sea of crashing long grass– grass so green and lush it looked as if it were made of dew. In the winter it withered, and Lake Hartwell became a marsh of dead, spindly plants. It is good to see the water again, like a gown of sequined gold discarded and pooled on the ground amongst the bending trees. I imagine the trees slipping voluptuously out of their golden leaves as winter approached, greeting the startled air with their lush, white nakedness. The leaves shimmer and bead to the ground, and stire to become a lake of sun-breathed water.

The lake shines, I squint into the distance. The streetlamps on the other side have not yet been kindled. When they are lit, the far shore looks foreign and fey, all glimmering with stray lights among the trees like spirits hovering over the thin beach, reflected in the water. This scenery always reminds me of one of my favorite movies, Spirited Away. I always wonder, if I swim to the other side, will I be transformed? Will I find myself somewhere new– this place, but more magical?

I can hear the train howling its lonely, rattled song in the distance. This, too, reminds me of Spirited Away. The beautiful vision it left in my soul: a train tracks buried under a forbidding, dark lake. Lights in the water. Finding myself far from home, deeply changed. Losing the memory of my own name. Traveling, ghosted by a shadow.

Photo Credit: dangblastedcritic.blogspot.com

Whenever I hear a train’s whistle, I feel I am being summoned. Somewhere I belong, but haven’t found yet.

For now, it is daylight. The lamps are all blown to disuse. I can see to the other shore, lovely in its grey, winding paths, houses high on the hills, half-hidden in the swaying woods– but ordinary. This world is familiar. Joggers run past me on either side. I head to the bench-swing overlooking the water. I sit. There are three swings here, and the one beside me is occupied by two girls. They huddle on either side of it, knees pulled to their chests, facing one another. They look beautiful in the glow of the crazed bonfire of the sunset. Their eyes and hair catch sparks; their long shadows are pillars of smoke. Though my music is blasting in my ears, I can hear their laughter and talk, in the way that it sings from their faces in the twilit air.

I do not stay long. I’ve been sick, and the creaking motion of the bench stirs nausea in my belly and makes me cover my eyes with my palms. I know I need the fresh air to aid my recovery, but I feel better walking. So I rise, stow my book in my brown schoolbag, and head towards downtown.

I keep thinking I’ve been lonely. I seem to cycle between over-socializing (by my standards) and being a recluse. I felt crowded recently, and I retreated into writing and reading. Before I knew, I hadn’t hung out with anyone but Bear in nearly two weeks, except for seeing Colin a few hours last Sunday. Ron’s away again– first he was hunting, then he went on a cruise, and now he’s visiting a friend in Asheville. It’s weird that we had such a great time together on his birthday, then I didn’t see him for a long time, then he was very rude and indifferent to me when we saw each other next, and I haven’t seen him since– this sequence of events following a stretch of a few months when we scarcely went a day without some kind of contact with one another.

I’m not too sad about it. I felt like our friendship could use a breather, so I don’t mind this. I just hope that, when we do see each other again, things are still as happy and comfortable as they were before.

I wish Jeff didn’t live so far away. He’s a good guy, and I’d really like to see more of him around. I could call Colin, but since neither of us have a car, one of us would end up stranded at the other’s house. Bear’s working til 3 in the morning, or something stupid like that, so we’d pretty much be fucked. I’d rather not get into all this trouble, when I can just as easy hang out with him tomorrow.

Greg’s working.

Hmm, I wish I had some friends who were girls. I really, really wonder why I tend to befriend guys so much more easily than people of my own gender. It definitely wasn’t that way in high school… I think that maybe guys still just feel a bit more mysterious and fascinating to me, because I barely talked to any of them until I got to college and, even then, very few straight ones. I don’t know if that’s it though– for some reason I feel better able to have frank, funny, no-bullshit conversations with them, and I doubt that has anything to do with their relative unfamiliarity.

I think that, in the last few years, I haven’t met the right girls. I wish Lien Chau hadn’t moved away.

Oh fucking well :)

For now, I’m in Starbucks. I’ve got my computer, all of my research notes for my book, some volumes of poetry, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird– all the equipment I need to knock out a few thousand words on my rewrite. I feel very warmed-up after jotting down my thoughts here, so now, I guess, I’m ready to get to work. Onward and forward! Huzzah!