Writing Update

Over the past year, friends and acquaintances will ask me ‘ So, how’s the writing going, Derek???’. I usually grimace and give some sort of a half-answer. I sat down today to write a seven-eighths answer, and this is what I wrote.

A traveler came to a city on the edge of a forest. The windows were dark, the chimneys were cold, the few people he passed had empty faces and sharp teeth. This was a place where Hunger wed Time, and he could see that soon their vicious children would be born. He had no wish to enter this city, but his shoes carried him down into its red tile streets all the same.

The traveler carried with him a box — a box wrapped three times in cords of silver. He did not know what was inside. Along the path, next to fire and  under the moon he had told himself many times what the treasure might be. He knew it was no heavier than so, no more fragile than so – but the silver cord was wound too tight for even the tiniest peek at the contents.

A long time ago perhaps, he had promised to carry the box to the city. Of that he was sure. But as Night gave slaughter to a legion of days, the rest of his charge had grown hazy. Was he to give the box to someone? Was he to perform some task with it? Were there other preparations he had needed before arriving at the city? He did not know, was not sure if he had ever known. Only the familiar weight of the box in his pack, only the road blooming in front of his feet, only the city waiting on the edge of a forest.

He wandered up and down a few streets, uncertain. Fewer and fewer people could be seen – and those he did see were walking knives. The sun was dying, so he hurried on. He found an abandoned house on the end of a narrow street and slipped inside. He laid out his bedroll in what must have once been the dining room of the house. He ate a few meager bites of his provisions and listened to the wind hoping it would have some suggestions.

The traveler went to sleep, his pack and the silver-wound box tight in his arms.

In the dark he dreamed of nothing, the lonely house swaying in the wind.

He awoke and his arms were wrapped around nothing. His pack was gone and the box.

The traveler cried out in fear, then in anger.  He ran to the door, the morning sun beaming down on him and an empty street. Not even stopping to retrieve his meager bed roll he ran out into the city. Up and down streets, past empty buildings and broken windows. He saw no one. Not even the few hollow people that he had seen the night before: the city was empty. Nothing but red tile streets and shattered doors and the sound of his feet hitting the ground. He ran for hours, until at last simple exhaustion brought him to a halt.

The traveler sat on the edge of a dry fountain and felt the sun’s heat. His charge was gone, he was alone, and there was no one to explain. He groaned into his hands and took a long breath.

After a time, the traveler stood. He took one last look around and then shrugged. It took him some time but he retraced his steps to the abandoned house where he had slept and found his bedroll tangled and waiting. He folded it carefully and slung it over his shoulder – it was all he had left to carry.  Taking a loose nail from a broken cross-beam he took a few minutes to scratch his name on the outside of the front door.

Then he shut it behind him and walked out of the city, beyond the city. Into the dark forest, the road blooming underneath his feet.

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Free Fall in 1000 Words

I have to start somewhere. Here is as good a place as any. This dot, this sentence, this word. What did Archimedes promise?

  • Give me a firm spot on which to stand, and I shall move the earth.

Yes, I know. Some versions of the quote he mentions the lever or the fulcrum too. And already the sand runs through my fingers.

I’m in free fall – I built myself specifically to ignore problems like these. I left the real world to its own devices. I have always believed, needed to believe, that we beat back the darkness with art. That making makes light, makes heat, makes a calm rhythm on the street. Everyone else can go to work, go to church, go to the store and buy milk. I do some of those things, but not really, not truly – I’m a phantom in this world, or I want to be. I make enough to live, I own very little. If my girlfriend threw me out I’d be gone without even a mattress to my name. I grew up in nowhere Georgia, which is to say a place dreaming itself. I grew up in books, flinging myself further and further away through any door, through every door. The most revolutionary act is Transformation – new eyes, new lives, new skin and bone. Every time I was ripped back here it was an insult, an umbrage, a soggy disappointment.

But I grew older. A four word opera. There were things I wanted here in this world, so I learned to Appear. To Seem. When you’re a ghost pulling levers it’s easy to pull together a pleasant machine. Take this laugh and that rhythm and those lines of words unspooling across his brow and cobble together an Almost Person. And I lumbered forward and I crammed a lot of this world into my gob. Take this part and that part and this smile and that heart and the machine is without chink.

Until one day. Three word tragedy. A bullet broke the machine, right over my heart, and I remembered I was a ghost after all. And I was here again and could feel again and I was falling. Like now. Like then I wanted out and the ghost that is me remembered the trick of opening the doors, always another door, always another Transformation. And I found, to my true surprise, that other people wanted to find the doors, needed help opening the doors, would follow me through if I sang just right.

This is it, I said. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m addicted to narrative, and we always want to find out we are the Hero that Hides. All the time in the mines, running through the shadow, all the time wandering on the edge of things, it was all for this. The real world has enough people watching it – I have my own worlds to tend.

But it’s not true. It wasn’t true. It was lucky and privileged and ignorant and vain. I’ve had time and peace and food and roof to scrawl dragons in the dirt. I have white skin and hazel eyes and can walk where I please in This world or That. I have lived idly on the edge of a great battle my entire life and have barely even offered to wear the colors of justice.

In my stories, though it may not always be clear, I’m trying to give something, say something – something useful. The power of the bonds of love. The nobility of the fight against the inevitable. But what good is it?

I’m a ghost and I’m falling. I can open door after door but I’m only bringing forth more phantoms. I can sing you a story about a city on fire but I can’t get more tax allocations for the fire department.

Because here. Now. I don’t know what to do. I called my Senators, I called my Congressman. It helped, it was worthwhile. But it’s not enough. The amount of my relief far outweighs the amount of good I did. I’m reading up on my entire state federal legislature, desperately trying to cram knowledge that I should have already mastered. I voted, I’ll vote every time, I’m ready to throw myself behind any true-heart champion on any level. I have some money I can donate to the right side of the important fights. It doesn’t feel like enough.

I’m not looking for absolution, I’m just stammering out a resolution. I’m a ghost and a broken machine and there are so many doors – but here is where the fight is. With people. With blood and bone and fire and stone. I’m falling like before, but this time I don’t have the lightning bolt in my belly. I don’t have the secret gift. I have no elixir and it’s getting dark.

I’m looking for that firm place to stand. The spot, even a dot where I can rally. There isn’t one, this isn’t a song or a fable or a run across the jazzman’s table. Just falling and air and fear. And this is where I was content to leave the rest of the worldNo door, no light, no dancing in the twilight. 

I can’t stop being a ghost or a broken machine or a sad little boy on the edge of a forest. But I can do more. I can do my best. I can keep making, I can keep opening doors, but I have to find my way into the fray. The most revolutionary act is that of Transformation – I’ve changed to suit my own purposes, I can change to better suit the times, to better suit the defense of my fellow humans.

And here we are at the end. This was mostly about me, I don’t know if I can shed that. Help me get in the fight. Instruct me. Inform me. I come from a people that love means duty. I have not done mine.

Attack – Magic – Item <

I don’t know if there’s a term for this, but it’s a sensation I’ve been keying on a lot lately, so I’ll try and describe it. It’s something that happens in JRPG’s – generally when you’re younger, playing for the first time – before you’ve mastered the mechanics, or have played enough of them to really GET the need for grinding or system mastery. You just get pulled forward by the story, by the colors, by the sense of momentum – until you find a point in the game, generally a boss battle – where you hit that first difficulty spike.

final-fantasy-VI-screenshot-1I’m thinking turn-based Final Fantasy style games here – so you know the sort of boss I’m talking about. Stratospheric HP. They attack three or four times as much as you can. They have special attacks that target the entire party and reduce your health by 60-70%. They cast DOOM too early in the game – long before you can easily heal that status. They take out Sabin in the first turn, then Terra – and you get trapped in the Phoenix Down Loop of trying to bring your characters back to life, but then the boss goes again and knocks them right back out. You finally wear the boss down to half and IT HEALS ITSELF.

Turn based games are all about developing patterns. Little algorithms. Little pathways of strategy and victory that carry you to the next turn of the page, the next point on the horizon, the next treasure chest gleaming in the dark. This boss battle EATS your algorithm, shatters your pattern. The plans you’ve laid, the habits you’ve developed – nothing works anymore. You’ve got to scramble, improvise, and —

Now, here’s the part I’m trying to describe.

All of your old patterns don’t work anymore. Most of your party is dead – the gambler, the rune knight, the ninja. You just have one random character left and they have no healing abilities – so you start digging around in your Item screen.

In games like this – you pick up all sorts of things. Potions, tonics, elixirs, shiny rocks, trinkets. And in these moments, you desperately start digging through your bag – hoping there’s something in there you’ve forgotten, some random bottle gathering dust that can save the day – or at the very least get you back on your feet to keep fighting. It’s a feeling ctbattle3of desperation. Your best characters – the best pieces of you- are toast and all you’ve got left is that final slot trying to play it cool while they are elbow deep in the item sack. Magus is casting Ice 2 every turn with grim patience and watching you falter.

And sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you find an Elixir  you forgot about. Or an X-Potion. But most of the time you’re just throwing whatever you have – Phoenix Downs and Tonics, the better characters breathe and then die again under the boss’ onslaught. Maybe you can hold out, but every time you reach into the bag you know there’s less and less to pull from – less and less of a chance of the perfect solution.

Then there comes the moment. The moment when you know.

You know you can’t win. You know that there’s only so many Hi-Potions left, only so many turns before you fall. The logical choice would be to quit. Reload from the last save and try again. But for some reason, I don’t. I keep throwing whatever is left in my bag – turnips, sacks of candy, broken nails, status effect causing items that never ever land on a boss. I think it feels like if I can buy more time, more moves, more turns – that the boss will falter. A new strategy could reveal itself, a chink in the armor of the world. I’m locked into a Hi-Potion Standoff – all I can do every turn is choke another one down. Heal up just enough to survive the next attack, then crack open another. Until they are gone.

Life is not Final Fantasy VI. It’s both way more complicated – and seriously moogle deprived. But I wanted to describe that feeling – that weird hopeful desperation. No moves left but this, hoping for a forgotten chance somewhere deep down in the bag. And the determination to make the boss earn it.

 

A Servant of What?

“What did it want?” Coracle asked.

“I’m still not sure,” the mage rubbed her tired eyes. “To destroy, clearly. But it seemed important that we destroy ourselves, that our own hands, our own works be our undoing. It claimed it was a servant.”

“A servant of what?” Sand asked quietly.
“The Dark.” Rime shrugged. “Whatever vague, nebulous thing that is.”

-excerpt from The Riddle Box

I haven’t felt moved to say much about Orlando. I’m not going to question that lack of impulse – better voices than mine have spoken and will speak.  And this is something I talk about a lot, whether I wish it or not. It’s not hard to squint when you’re reading The Riddle Box and figure out what I’m talking about.

So, I’ve said what I thought before – but today I don’t have anything to say. But, I also didn’t want to let it go unmarked. I may not speak, but I will listen. I will see and I will remember.

Hold On, I’m Getting At Something

The backer copies of Asteroid Made of Dragons have all shipped and the wave is crashing down on the East Coast. By tonight – tomorrow maybe – they will have all arrived. My Facebook profile is awash with pictures – pictures of my friends with their copy, the copy they bought a year ago because I asked them to. Some have one, some have three, or five, or more. A gesture of love, of confidence, of faith and it wrecks me.

Writing is lonely. Being a human is lonely.

I don’t do well with moments of connection. Socially, sure. Joking, sure. But a real moment? Something important and true? Not my scene. We’re so unstable, the most unsuitable of symbols. How can I know the things I say are being received in the moment, in the blur of memory and sense and thinking of the next thing to say while half-hearing what you are saying now while also feeling the echoes of other versions of this conversation from before and beyond  on TV, in dreams, from splinter-blinks of fragmented now? I mean, how? Maybe it’s just me.

Being lonely is writing. A human is.

Hold On, I’m Getting At Something. This should be my coat of arms. I’ve written three books now (THREE!), and thousands of other words off in the Grand Margins.  And all in the service of this dimly perceived quest of discovery of meaning – of this THING I’m trying to say, but cannot express. Only glimpse the edges of as I travel forward and back in time. It’s hard to connect with humans – but with words, you have a puncher’s chance. This word connects to that, shapes form. Things stay where you put them. Mostly. Rime is Rime and Jonas is Jonas and Xenon loves graham crackers and Linus snores just a little bit. Now, on my desk is a red ball, the color of summer sunset and it is red, red, red. And it will stay red as long as I believe that it is red.

A lonely human is writing. Being.

So now – I see these pictures, I see these signs of love and faith. And all I can say is – do you see the ball on my desk? Is it red? Is it summer sunset or is it more of a cranberry? Why are you listening? Why are you picking up the signal? Why are you dreaming with me of the three moons that have no name and the Lost and the stupid, stupid power of friendship that keeps the dark at bay?

Being human is writing lonely.

Ah, the simple words. I’ve already said them – but they don’t land right. Thank you. Thank you. You thank, you are thanks. Thanks You. A tic, a nod, a thing we say to strangers and waiters and cats when they heed. An empty thing, not enough, a hollow gourd. A blob of ink at the end of emails and yammering sales pitches. Useless, sere, not enough. I pick up the pieces and slam them together, that’s all that I am, all that I do – all that I can do. With whatever art I have I try to say the Thing.

Lonely is being. Human is writing.

Thank you. You thank. You are thanks. Thanks are you.

Lonely human thanks you. You are writing.

Writing is you.

You are thank.

The ball is red and it is not so lonely. Thank you for coming so far with me.

 

Straydog Papers I

When I was a child, I lived by a creek. That was the first time I saw them.

My home was surrounded by trees, so they were difficult to spot at first. They seemed tall and thin, swaying just like the pines in the wind – but opposite to the breeze. The Five.

I was eleven. I was standing on the porch. There was no rail yet, that was built later. The Five walked through the trees and knelt at the base of the stairs. I stood at the top and blinked. They were almost there, but not quite. Sliding out of view – shifting between eye-blinks. Here, there – never quite complete – hands shifting, the drape of cloaks different, eyes red now black. Not as tall as I’d first thought, at least not all of them.

They were all different. They were all of a kind.

The Five stared at me and I said nothing. I held my breath. They seemed to have no leader, but at last one of them spoke.

“We have traveled far and have no home, young sir.”

This one was gaunt and sharp, like a briar thorn. Courtesy demands the same, at least in the earth where I was grown, so I bowed and asked if I could get he and his companions some water or food.

“No water. No food. Our kind has no need for such things, but thank you for the offering. No, we come to ask of you a different thing. We have no home, young sir. We come to ask if we can live in you.”

The others all shivered at his words, but not from the wind. I answered quite politely that my home was full – my mother, father, and brother. We had no room for five more guests.

The thorn ran a thumb across his chin, to banish a smile. His teeth were green, I remember.

“Not a home of wood and steel, not a roof of woe and weal. Your family will never know we share your roof, young sir. We ask to live in your heart, not in your spare room.”

And then I was afraid. These were wolves at my feet.  I took two steps, grasping for the brass handle of our front door.

Another of the Five spoke. She was dressed in white. She was beautiful and empty as the moon.

“We shall not harm you if you refuse. We are bound by the laws of the City, even as you will be.”

“We have ridden far, far from the gates and we are tired. Let us rest here, let us live in your heart.”

I was still afraid. I was afraid and sick to my stomach. But I was also eleven. So I asked. I asked why? Why should I let them live in my heart?

The woman dressed in white began to speak, but the thorn stopped her. He spoke, his eyes in mine.

“Because. Because it is the perfect home for us. You will see and know and your heart will beat all the wiser, will ache all the sweeter. You will hear the music. You will walk the secret roads. And, in time, you too will ride back with us to the City.”

The thorn’s words were honey and the Five knelt at my feet and I was alone and afraid and eleven eleven eleven.

I asked one more question.

Get Back into the Fight

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And so we begin again. Careful and slow, the embers spark and the cold howls the ramshackle hovel I call me.

We begin again. With the dull swords and halberds of rust we clutch and stammer in the wendigo afternoon. Turn and face, about-step and lunge.

I remember the way. My demons have taught me well. Cruel mentors are the surest sages. Rime knows this and Jonas will learn.

Again the weight and again the City of Rain. Again the fading halls and the broken sunlight. I have built my army well, I am not just what you see. I give my words away but the doors remain shut.

Keep faith in the gatekeepers.

We begin again. I am not alone. I have miles to go. From black earth risen, I burn like the Third Moon.

Stand shoulder-wide with me and shout. This is not the day we die. Jangle skeletons and foul-diamond horde. Ogre-pain and empty wind. We stand to face you. You, and your master, the Patient Dark.

This is not the day we die.

We begin again.