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.
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.
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.