Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Shayna and the Bed


          Shayna woke with a start.

          She was lying in a pool of sweat in her old narrow bed, the one her father had brought back into her bedroom and pushed once again into its familiar place under the window and against the rose colored walls.  Defeated, he’d made the switch during the day when she was at school today, the movers coming and going in reverse of when they'd brought in the other - the one she couldn't stay in for fear that she would drown. 

          “This is a bed fit for a princess,” her father had said as he slid her silk blindfold off after he and her mother had guided her up fourteen wooden steps in their narrow brick row house.  Shayna ran her hands along the wallpaper to keep her balance and to get a sense of where she was, feeling the rough fleur de lis pattern scratch beneath her fingers, sending a slight shiver through her chest. Her right hand flew reflexively to her left breast. It was still there. Safely bound beneath her pink button down oxford shirt which had become untucked from her maroon pleated skirt.

          The bed had been a birthday surprise, a big girl bed for a big girl on her twelfth birthday but Shayna suspected that they were trying to do something, anything, to stop her screaming which would erupt every night at two o’clock then not stop until one of her parents, usually her mother, would enter the room quietly and begin the painstaking process of turning up the light slowly, using the dimmer switch her father had installed once it became clear that the sudden explosion of light would indeed take Shayna out of her nightmare but would shock her so badly she’d shake uncontrollably for an hour or more alone, pressed against the vinyl padded headboard. They knew better than to touch her.

          That day, her birthday, yesterday, Shayna let them place her mother’s paisley scarf across her eyes, though the sick smell of her mother’s perfume made her dizzy. She heard the knob click and the thin wooden door creak open seconds before her father whisked the blindfold from her head,  not noticing that she flinched, ever so slightly. He didn't notice that the scarf  had caught on a strand of her dense black curly hair which had escaped from the ponytail band. Swallowing her scream, Shayna looked away from her father as he let the scarf rest beneath his nose before tossing it playfully around her mother’s thin neck.

          “Well, what do you think?” her mother asked with desperate enthusiasm, pointing Shayna towards an enormous boat of a bed which had invaded her tiny bedroom. It was bathed in a pink silk ribboned bed spread, awash in dozens of white and lavender eyelet lace pillows.

          “How can anyone have nightmares in a bed like this?” her father bellowed and Shayna knew even before she heard his voice say those words that it was true. There would be no nightmares in this bed. She would never let herself fall asleep there.

            No nightmares. 

            No screams.
            And her parents' sleep remained peaceful and uninterrupted and they were happy that they had banished their daughter’s monsters, until one night, her father couldn't sleep, itched awake by some vague unease gnawing at him in the unfamiliar nocturnal quiet and he crept down the carpeted hallway, creaked open his daughter’s bedroom door to check on his peaceful princess asleep in her new queen sized bed when his heart jumped into his mouth and nearly knocked him to the floor. There plastered to the wall, her arms splayed in terror,  her eyes glowing vacantly in the dark was a frozen figure in white.

           His zombie princess. His sleepless little girl.

          The old skinny bed with the worn out faded ice cream sheets and puffy pink plastic headboard was back in Shayna's room the next day. 

Reflections and lessons learned... 

I am fortunate to be part of a wonderful writers group, Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio, led by Alison Hicks, herself a talented poet and fiction writer. The workshop method employed by Alison has been a Godsend to me in my struggle to transition from full time teacher to full time writer/artist.  While writing itself  is such a solitary act,( case in point, I have been alone at this computer for over five hours today!)  the presence of other writers as careful and critical first responders to our drafts can add depth and dimension to our writing. 

I shared the above excerpt with my writing group last night and was really gratified by their comments. It is really interesting to read raw work aloud to a discerning audience, who are listening not to critique but to amplify and deepen and help you, the writer see what is there.  I was struck by the comments about the fairy tale quality to the story. One woman said it reminded her of both something innocent like the Princess and the Pea and something less innocent like the Lady for Shallot.  I must admit that I was unfamiliar with that poem and a quick googling of it lead me to some immediate resonances... including this illustration  -- the boat of a bed... 

I will read the poem soon, but my immediate connections to this image makes me wonder... what is it that Shayna is afraid of?  There is definitely something sexual about this enormous bed overtaking her narrow bedroom. And the fact that this is her twelfth birthday, coinciding with the onset of menses... along with the curious way in which Shayna's breasts have begun developing ( only on one side ) seems to fit with some kind of ( resistance to) coming of age process.  Another woman commented about the parents.. how she liked how they were depicted as trying to help and ease the pain of their troubled daughter and that was good for me to hear because I had been focusing so much on Shayna and her point of view that I hadn't really thought much about the motivations of the parents. Another woman picked up on the ritualistic nature of the entire excerpt, from the blindfolding to the counting of the stairs, to the repetition and timing of the nightmares, to the changing of the beds themselves. 

Later in the second half of the workshop, we had a conversation about issues that we are facing in our writing. Jill raised a question about changing the first draft of her novel from first person to third person and the difficulties she was having making that conversion when writing about her main character's thoughts. 
Alison gave us a good way to think about the difference between how to write first person narration and what is called a "close" 3rd person which lets the writer and reader into the thoughts of one particular character in a story told in third person.  "Indirect free discourse," she called it and told us it had been pioneered and identified by Flaubert.  In general, you can take a direct thought like "I am thirsty" and change it to the third person and move it to the past tense. In a third person narrative, "Shayna was thirsty" would give the reader the same inside information.  I realized that I had been doing that all along in this book, writing alternating chapters in close third person from different characters point of view.  It did raise questions for me about times when I might jump to an omniscient narrator or play around with shifting points of view in chapters where two or more of the main characters are interacting with each other...

so much to think about!!!

Finally, Alison Hicks shared an essay on craft entitled The Geography of Sentences by Emily Brisse, published in The Writer's Chronicle.  This beautifully written piece discusses the importance for writers of understanding the complex and almost magical ways grammar and syntax work in the construction of beautiful prose. Using one of my all time favorite writers ( Louise Erdrich --- I would give anything to be able to write like she does) and one of my favorite books (Love Medicine -- what I wouldn't give to be able to write a book like that!!!!! ) as examples, Brisse deconstructs the rhythm, pacing, shape and patterns of Erdrich's sentences to reveal the craft behind the magic. Using the language of geography to describe sentences, Brisee shows us how Erdrich controls sentence length to guide us on a journey -- short sentences stop us cold, long ones push us along and sweep us off our feet. The use of parallel patterns work like metaphors make complex and surprising connections for us, and the use of first and last words and images in any given passage open and close each segment of the trip we are taking with the author and characters. 

Revision, Brisse contends can be magical. 

Her closing image from her essay - A sentence can seem so simple. But we know better. There are so many possibilities. Our drafts, those wide open landscapes wait. 

I know I am not here yet. I am not ready to traverse the landscape of my own drafts.. at least not in the sentence by sentence way required in this type of focused revision. But is helps me to know that I am creating a landscape here even if right now I am mapping out the big picture. When I am ready to hone in on the nooks and crannies, the rocks and flowers that live on my land, I will be better prepared now with new skills to reveal them. 

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Voice and the Living Spirit of a Character...

If you are writing a book in the third person limited with alternating chapters from different characters' perspectives, how can you use language to create voices that are unique to each character? 

I hadn't given much thought to this .... not at this stage of the writing... but a comment by my friend Elizabeth after she read Shayna's chapter Chain of Words really got me thinking.  Elizabeth said that she loved Shayna and the prose poem genre.


It hadn't occurred to me that I was writing in a prose poem genre, but I went back and reread this piece and other pieces from Shayna's point of view and said, "Yes!"   Of course these pieces could be prose poems.  And it made sense organically for this particular character who lives in her own rich, deep and complex inner world, a girl who is obsessed with words to have her story told in this poetic way.

So Elizabeth's comment ( shared on Facebook) became a spark for me to think about my other characters. As the book is writing itself now, there are three main characters whose lives intersect.  Without realizing it, I have been using language slightly differently depending on which one is the focus of a particular chapter.

Now that I have seen the way in which the Shayna chapters read like prose poems and how that makes sense for the kind of interior dreamy girl that Shayna is, I can be more conscious about the choices I make with form and language - not just for the dreamy Shayna, but for the practical Tiger Mendelbaum and the lost and confused Bobby ( Oh Say Can You See) Olansky.

Elizabeth also felt the magic surrounding Shayna and told me that she's seen a girl like her dreams.

I definitely believe there is magic Shana -- an ineffable connection to something larger than myself that I have tapped into.

My daughter Ali is expecting her first child. After she learned she was having a boy, she told me this. "If I were having a girl, we were going to name her Shayna."


Ali didn't know that I was writing a book. And she didn't know about this magical girl who's come to live in my dreams along with her friends Bobby and Tiger.

Shayna is my mother's Yiddish name. Ali didn't know that either.. just felt some kind of mysterious pull to that name.

Shayna means pretty and this girl who has come to live in my dreams is beautiful in an other-worldly way, coming into the full power of her beauty at adolescence, a time when other girls become awkward and all out of proportion.

Shayna -  who sees the world like a prose poem.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Chain of Words

Chains of Words.

          Shayna was at a loss.

          Not just a loss for words. 

          That she’d been since way before Egypt,

           before the boy with the  wiry wayward hair standing up and swirling in every direction like a dizzy compass and the eyes that turned into empty black pools,

          before that half naked boy was rescued by the other boy, the one in the orange and black striped shirt, a cartoon cat in corduroy pulling a red Radio Flyer wagon down a rock strewn path,

           before she found her shirt lying on the wet soft ground near the licorice root of the  weeping willow tree whose branches offered her the protection she sought when she needed to examine her lopsided body,

           before she put that dirty knitted shell back on, to shaken to remember to rewrap herself, not able this time to rewind the movie and do the backwards dance with the long strip of torn sheet that made her look like every other girl with the washboard chest all ribs with two buttons, not this aberration with on soft mushy mound marring her perfect silhouette, not the freak that she was.

           Yes, Shayna was at a loss this time for sure when not even the words worked to bring her out of the darkness, when even the letter game couldn’t bring her to meaning, the connections too fleeting, the synapses snapped.

           valor    repel   lightning   gesture  evolution   nada   absolution   nest     triumph  

           she wrote furiously, on whatever scrap of paper she could find, torn from the dream catcher book with its colors running running running together with the water she’d dripped on the pictures she’d drawn with colored magic markers, pictures which gave substance to the barrage of images that flooded her when she closed her eyes and dropped down, down, down into the canyon of herself.

            hermes     salvation      nether     reality

            she wrote, not even looking at the paper, playing the game she’d created soon after Egypt to quiet her mind, to make the other words go away- the ones that the compass haired boy screamed into the void.

         Take a word any word and write it down then write the next one starting with the last letter of the one before it. Make a word chain. Forge meaning beginning with the ending. Make a perfect circle.
          yesterday   yonder     ruthless     stethoscope    ├ęclair  

           When it was working she could hear the words snap into place, releasing the hidden story  trapped inside the chain.

            But Shayna was at a loss.

            Yonder yesterday the stethoscope ate a ruthless ├ęclair.  

           Shayna began to panic.

           Hermes has no salvation in the nether reality, while lightning and valor gesture at the nest in triumph.

           That’s better, Shayna thought, exhaling and as she did, she realized she had been holding her breath.

           For a very long time.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Meet Tiger Mendelbaum......

Tiger Mendelbaum was flummoxed. Stopped dead in his tattered high top Chucks. He closed his eyes, thinking maybe some new scene would appear after the rigorous automatic rubbing of both the sockets, and sure enough, when he reopened his deep set blue eyes, what he thought he had seen before was gone.

He stood next to his red Radio Flyer wagon in the cracked concrete driveway that connected the backs of the brick row houses on Solly and Hoffnagle Streets, a place he knew well having lived here for most of his twelve years except for the time when his parents lived in an apartment with his older brother which they outgrew when Morris aka Tiger was born. But that didn’t count because they moved before he was two and all he can remember about that time in the apartment on top of Rubenstein’s Pharmacy was a vague uneasy memory of screaming in the dark.

He’d slept with a night light after that for as long as he can remember, this latest one in the shape of a cowboy whose white hat constantly shone from the wall on Tiger’s side of the small bedroom he shared with his older brother Bernie, aka The Brain, now fifteen and a senior in high school. Bernie stopped making fun of Tiger’s need for that light after their father beat The Brain for destroying Tiger’s last night light, the one he’d had since he was three, of the cow jumping over the yellow moon, because the light bothered him. That night, Tiger woke up screaming in sheer terror, and that was the only time Tiger had ever seen his dad hit anyone and the only time he had seen Bernie the Brain shed a tear.

Back in the driveway, seconds before, Tiger had seen something, but what? He stood peering intently at the spot at the end of the driveway. Fidgeting beside his wagon, Tiger was waiting for Mr. Krumpnick to come lumbering down the driveway in his battered red and black Chevvy station wagon, like he did every afternoon at 4 o’clock, and dump the 100 Bulletins into his Raido Flyer that Tiger was going to deliver to his neighbors the way he did since Bernie had joined the Chemistry Club and started staying after school and passed his paper route down to his little brother. Tiger didn’t mind at all. He loved money.

Tiger looked towards the corner again. The small figure wearing the a Phillies’ cap and those unmistakable Coke bottle glasses seemed to have been sitting atop a large wheel, and with his arms outstretched to the side. And before the image could even register, the boy and the wheel whizzed past Tiger towards the end of the driveway and effortlessly made a perfect right hand turn onto Lorreto.

Tiger Mendlebaum was flummoxed. He reached into the pocket of his brown corduroy pants and turned off the transistor radio while taking the plastic bud out of his left ear. He needed to concentrate. Had he really just seen Bobby Oh Say Can You See Olansky riding a one-wheeled bike down his driveway? The last time he had seen Bobby…. Tiger shuddered. There were some things that were better left in the dark.

The woods, that day, for one, and Tiger’s identity for another. He was sure that Bobby had no idea who had untied him, helped him onto a wagon facing backwards, and pulled him out of that nightmare.

I guess he found his way home, Tiger thought, for an instant, knowing only that when they made their way with the wagon through the woods and onto Algon Avenue, Tiger told his passenger to get out now.

“Do you know where you are?” he had asked the boy with the vacant eyes and stone face. Then he turned on his heels and stared his walk home, without looking back, convincing himself that he had seen the smaller boy nod.

Sometimes at night that summer, when Tiger would wake up in the dark and turn for comfort towards the illuminated cowboy ( one of dozens of cowboys keeping watch from the fading wallpaper) he would feel a chill and his stomach would flip, hearing the pitiful sound of Bobby’s pleading and the angry words of the boys of Egypt. Those were the nights that Tiger wanted to go back into the woods and find Bobby’s glasses, that the biggest boy from Egypt grabbed from his face, snapping the elastic strap that encircled Bobby’s small head and then tossing them carelessly towards the creek.

But, when daylight came, Tiger never did go anywhere near the woods. He tried not to think about it – the helpless shamed boy tied to a tree with his wet pants around his ankles and his hat pulled over his face. He knew that that boy was Bobby Olansky, but who was that boy with Bobby’s stone face and a new pair of glasses flying like the wind, his little yellow jacket forming wings as he disappeared around the bend on a unicycle?