This poem was originally published in Vita Brevis, and was chosen by the editor as a favorite, so I re-read it again today, and it still tugged at me the way it did when I first read it. It begged me to take it apart.
Dismantling/deconstructing a poem is not as horrific or callous as one might think. I find intention and value in almost all creative endeavors, and to presume to know whether a poet made a mistake or didn’t execute something that is free-verse is, to my mind, arrogant. Of course, if it was a particular form, that might be up for critique for some people who feel they must stay true to the “correct” form. But to my mind, even that is absurd.
The point of poetry, to me, is to take what cannot be conveyed with simply a word or emotion, and attempt to capture it using words; capture it in a way that evokes something deeper from the poet, and within the reader, than what might be taken at face-value.
So I approach poems like these (like the plumb tree of which the poet writes), with the intent of plumbing the depths of how a poem impacts me, subjectively, and it is, for me, akin to entering a secret, sacred garden.
And it’s not mine and mine alone. It is one that the poet and I create together. A shared intimacy that poets create—unknowingly, perhaps—with readers like me.
(Please find the original at the link above and read VB’s other wonderful published pieces).
And so we begin.
The poet’s voice is conversational as she writes about one of the most universal themes in art: romantic love and loss.
So why this poem? Well, why not?
To be clear, many love poems speak to me—I am in love and have been for over a decade. But I’ve also lost love, as this poet and poem describes. This poem speaks more of the bitter loss than of the sweetness. Yet the poet deftly captures the bitter without hitting us over the head within the sweetness of longing.
I re-read the first stanza, and as I read, I had a bit of a struggle with the line (or lack thereof) breaks. The rhythm felt a bit “off.”
However, whether Ms. Lyberg intended this or not is interesting to me, because there is also a dearth of other format and punctuation “hints” that would make the poem clearer. I can only assume this poet did not want clarity for artistic reasons, and that is interesting to me on several fronts.
For me, it adds a layer of ambiguity and depth to the dissonance of not only the meter, but the words—which at first seem simple and straightforward enough. But taken as a whole, I think this poet attempts to go deeper than the tried-and-true formula. And in this writer’s opinion, she succeeds.
The dissonance of rhythm aside, the use of assonance and rhyme is clear throughout the piece. I think this dissonance is, in the end, why this “love poem” reads—and conveys—what it did and does for me. The almost cold way she conveys the interactions between the poem’s narrator and former beloved are, to me, clear and almost unnerving in their implications. I found this to be a wonderful device and she uses it well.
Mostly, the imagery she evokes is what has my attention and what, in the end, makes this poem so rich.
When you see the white clover sprawling in the meadow
do you still think of me even though our love
once treasured, is now with regret over?
This first stanza seems to say, simply enough, “What reminds you of me? What do you see that stirs within you, our love, “once treasured”? But what’s more interesting, is the use of white clover in a meadow.
Each stanza begins with the introduction of a new flower, up until the final one.
White clover is, in some places, considered ordinary, hearty, and invasive. It is used as an almost-throwaway “filler;” a “living mulch,” planted within irrigation systems of vegetables. Hardly romantic. However…
On some level, don’t we all wish our love was as hearty and vast as a meadow of white clover? But when it becomes so, it is no longer romantic love, however, filled with promise and fluttering hearts. It is the mature love that one either commits to, or abandons.
So, the first question to her lost-love reads, to me, as this: “Do you recall our love when it was so vast, it sprawled across our lives like a meadow? It provided nourishment for the foodstuff of the roots, the foundations, of a love I once thought to be forever?”
Or does the poet set the stage, from the very beginning, of a love that will never recover, because it failed to continually bloom?
The second stanza, she once again introduces a flower:
As for me I can tell you, the plum is blooming now
I remember the promises we made
underneath its burgeoning boughs
And I will wonder ever after
if you remember too.
Many plum blossoms are delicate and susceptible to frost; the opposite of the hearty wild clover. So, then, were the promises made under its boughs as brittle and fragile as the blooms?
When the first wave of springtime cold came, did the promises made wither and shrivel in the throats of the lovers?
The phrase “hope springs eternal” comes to mind, as spring=hope, and the blossoms of a plum tree are the first, early signs of spring, thus they symbolize hope, the return of warmth from the wintry chill.
Love blooms, boughs, depending on the age of the tree, either bear or break under the weight. The tree is an umbrella for the young love, but the boughs, burgeoning, becoming. Was this the first sign that the love was transforming, even as promises were made under the young, promising tree?
The yellow roses came today and I read the message within
Can we please forgive and forget all we said back then
I beg you my love can we renew our cherished love again?
The introduction of yellow roses is significant to me because yellow roses hardly speak of love or passion. In the language of roses, they not only symbolize platonic friendship, but they speak of infidelity. Given to a former lover, they are an expression of regret for being unfaithful in some way. Sometimes they speak of the joys of friendship, but in this context, they are the palest form of emotional expression (in the language of roses), which tells me, the reader, that his gesture is simply that.
So, her lover sends her a bouquet of yellow roses, and without anything to denote his “voice” at all, the poet incorporates his “message,” although she’s careful to omit anything written, such as a note or card.
Hence, I conclude that the roses are the message, unto themselves. The words, “forgive and forget,” and the lack of passion in the way the poet conveys his message, “I beg you my love can we renew our cherished love again?” with an almost flat intonation, a rote I’m sorry. A message she has or had heard too many times before. An expression of regret that, perhaps, was also delivered in the same tone and within brittle promises under the boughs of the burgeoning plum tree.
And so today, I measured and took stock of all we shared
with my heart still longing, and my lonesome soul laid bare
I sent to you the dried red rose you first gave to me
with this simple note, let’s meet tonight
when the moon is bright under the plum tree.
The poem’s narrator takes “stock and measure.” She did not think or consider with her heart, but with her mind. Is it possible her heart is a barren meadow, now that he left it scorched with too much sun, too many dry, vapid vows?
And although her heart, “still longing,” her loneliness, apparent, she sends back to him what remains of their once-treasured passion and love: a dead, dried, red rose. His first gesture, a live, robust bud, now only a skeleton, a lifeless memento of what was once new and deep.
Her note, again without the emphasis one would normally use in formatting, asking him to meet her at the place where they’d once promised so many things—too many things—to each other.
Did their first meeting under the plum tree happen in the daylight? In early spring? And the moonlight here suggests to me that perhaps she is willing, even after all of it, to begin again. Her longing and loneliness too much to bear. So, under the shadow of night, of lids and a mind’s eye, dark and half-closed, she will again listen to his promises. Will she promise as well? Will she meet him, if only to mitigate the bare soul of her lonely life? Or will she meet him to remind herself of what was lost, and what can never again be.
I can’t help but think the return of that rose to her lover will be fraught. To open the box and find his first profession of love, decayed and dusty, possibly shattered en route, with only a stick for a stem, and thorns, the only thing unchanged. Will he come to see her under the moon’s light?
Even more vital a question, will she? Or does she lure him there with her note, a symbol of his broken promises within the returned, crackling petals, surely blackened with age, to sit alone under shivering blooms and a cold, calculating, moonlit sky.
I find it interesting that some poets feel the need to tell me what’s really behind their poems after I’ve posted a deconstruction. As if I somehow “missed” their intent, and therefore on some level I’ve either failed to deconstruct it properly, or they somehow failed to convey their poem’s significance and essence.
I’d like to suggest to these poets that neither you nor I “failed” at anything. In deconstructing your work through my lens, I’ve revealed as much about myself as you, if not more.
Once your work is “out there,” you lose control of how it’s perceived. So, you may very well have meant something totally different than what I gleaned.
Keep in mind: that is the beauty, and I daresay, magic, of the written word and poetry itself. We don’t read poetry to see you. We read it, and all literature, to see parts of ourselves, whether more clearly, or for the very first time.
Your job is to tell us what you see in the mirror when you look at yourself, reflected in your words. Ours is to see ourselves with your words superimposed on us.
And that is a gift that leaves us, if you do it right, forever changed.
I’d like to thank this poet, Linda Lee Lyberg, for sharing this piece, and of course Brian Geiger for his literary endeavors with the wonderful journal, Vita Brevis. You can find Ms. Lyberg’s blog, Charmed Chaos, a blog that promises “Charmed Musings on Life, Love, and Linguine,” and one I look forward to exploring more.
Thank you for reading, and as always—
Je te vois—
by J.A. Carter-Winward
Read the poem HERE on Poets Unlimited.
Did I grab your attention? Good. Look, I love writing and I love words. I really love poetry and prose that are accessible, and it’s how I try to write my stuff.
But sometimes when I deconstruct poetry, I sound like a pretentious asshat, and you need to know: I only sound like that on occasion, and it’s based on the tenor of the piece I’m reviewing (not that the piece is pretentious, mind you, but I want to give it the gravitas it deserves out of respect to the author.)
I have different writing voices, styles, and tenors, and they run the gamut. I’m a nightmare to market. I’m inconsistent in every way but one: I always write from my guts, my emotional states (which fluctuate according to my chronic, incurable human nature), and my skilled-but-skewed left-brain, which is in charge of making sure what I write makes sense.
In other words, I could be totally full of shit. I’m okay with that. You can be, too. Or not. Up to you. I got my B.S. degree in writing, and it’s taken me a good 40+ years to get it. I’ve got a CV void of publication creds from obscure (or even known) undergrad journals or literary magazines, and my knowledge and experience with life, writing, and being a person comes from my actual vitae.
I write what I know and love. I write stuff I make up in my head. I write stuff based on what I think is interesting. I don’t have a process or formula. I know the rules just enough to break them on occasion. I know what I like and what I don’t. I happen to use a vocabulary filled with words I love and use all the time, and if it sounds like I use them to impress, I don’t. It’s how I speak and write.
On that note, I’d like to share a poem with you from my last published collection called “parts.”
It’s in the third book of my “No” trilogy. The poem sums me up, and I use lots of rude words and naughty themes. Brace yourself and deal, or not.
Oh, and enjoy.
You can listen to me read it in my soft-FM-jazz voice by clicking the link below from the Audible version, or read it (below), or hey, do both…whatever tightens your nut sack or rocks your tits.
Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Peace, and as always–
Je te vois (which is French and as you’ll hear in the poem, it’s not pretension, it’s just that I speak a little French, and I’m a Francophile [aka wannabe French], stuck in fucking Utah. That is all.)
i am made up of parts
that don’t match,
these parts make up a cohesive self—
my brain is made up
of a mormon woman scorned
by her male-centric church,
crossed with charles bukowski,
carol brady, and cat woman.
the other part of my brain is
a metrosexual caveman
who plays rugby,
classical piano, and who jerks off
to porn on sunday afternoons.
my arms are soft,
yet cut like a body-builder’s
when i flex.
my torso is an hourglass
half full of creamy stout,
broken glass and bruises.
my ass is brazilian.
my tits are scottish.
my legs are short,
muscular tree stumps
that hide in skirts,
never wear shorts,
and can lift two-hundred lbs.
on the seated press.
my lungs are from the netherlands
my heart is french
my soul is bohemian
my cunt is a hungry whore
who hails from spain.
my feet are chinese
my hands are miniature
my eyes are darts
seeking a board to impale.
my mouth is a cupid’s bow
linked to my quivering spanish cunt.
are warlords from mongolia
crossed with visigoths.
my words are sirens
hailing the coming
of a shit storm.
–j.a. carter-winward, “parts”
Good morning and welcome to another edition of Writing in Blood’s deconstruction of a poem entitled Delmarva—A Poem by Katy Santiff.
I enjoy the unfolding of a new dimension. When I open a book of poetry, never at the beginning, but in the middle, it’s an immediate immersion.
You don’t do it with a novel. You don’t even do it with a short story collection. You do it with poetry books.
Now, when I wake up at my usual time, a time most people who are not me—people 25- years younger than me are just getting home, or who wake up and think, “Ahh, two more hours before I have to get up—” I’m greeted by a new poem from Vita Brevis.
I’ve enjoyed almost all of them since discovering them a few month’s ago, which is a testament of Brian Geiger’s tastes—meaning his subjective appreciation of poetry aligns closely with much of my own, nothing more. There are all types of poetry, and some enjoy others, while others enjoy some, and so on.
But the recent poem by Katy Santiff grabbed me and held me.
Not only does it work on the page, but to fully appreciate the skill with which it was crafted, it must be read aloud in my opinion.
Please find her poem HERE and visit Vita Brevis for more wonderful poetry.
(For the purposes of deconstruction today, I’ve written between the lines, just how I read. Please refer to the poem as a whole from the link above on Vita Brevis.)
Although there’s a plethora of beautiful poetry to be found on Vita Brevis, today I’d like to talk about Ms. Santiff’s poem, Delmarva.
I didn’t know of the Delmarva Peninsula until I read the poem. I began reading about the area and history of not only the name, but the culture her poem invoked, and the history of the people and their ties to this ethereal, tiny slice of the American northeast coast.
What I read brought even more full-color brilliance to the poet’s clear, emotive imagery, and the hypnotic cadence of her words. Beginning with the first lines, I immediately felt “warmer.”
I read the poem silently, then aloud. I knew then, because of her affinity for sound, I’d discovered another layer: the sensual-auditory experience that transcends the visual mind’s eye. The poem reads, and appeals, to my own musical ear—almost like a lullaby:
For the souls that we’ve folded into these
broad, fat lands, laid out like my grandma’s quilt;
An instant-auditory mug of warm milk with cinnamon and sugar—the many “l’s” I couldn’t help but elongate, just as I said, like a lullaby. It’s so comforting, in fact, one could lose the meaning of the first two lines, because they speak of the dead: whether they be long gone, or newly “folded” into the land of which she speaks throughout the piece.
But unlike the conjured images of the typical “grave,” the dead are not in some cold, dark, unwelcoming place. They are wrapped in the loving embrace of that well-recognized literary archetype and one of her well-known symbols: a grandmother’s quilt. And not just any grandma: her grandma. This is personal, and the poet welcomes us into her world and her grandmother’s embrace. Grandma’s quilt as our tombs: what an elegant and comforting image of mortality. Wonderful.
The quilt, made by hand, of course, thoughtfully stitched, but without Spotify playing, without the television blaring. No, Grandma stitches and hums melodies from a day when songs, hymns, chants, maybe, lullabies, cuddles, and cooing did the work of Band-Aids and technological distractions.
Even though the archetype and image are often used, the poet deftly uses them in a fresh way, and they are anything but tropes in this piece. This is fascinating to me.
Within the lyrical assonance and flow, the poet introduces this dissonance: the universal fear of death, reframed and repurposed to combine the elements of the poem that follow, which include the eternal “why” of mortality. Ms. Santiff pulls it off beautifully with skill and focus.
These lines make me want to go there, to Delmarva, and be buried among those souls. But I can’t. It isn’t a place for strangers, because those who live there are the sky, are the land, are the breezes and sea, and it is theirs. But Ms. Santiff has graciously invited us to visit her within her world.
So, the dissonance of the imagery of death as her Grandma’s quilt, removes the uncertainty and fear of the usual depictions of the grave, and into a realm of comfort. And this comfort is found in “fat lands,” not fLat, although on first reading, I found myself correcting to “flat” automatically and quite on accident. Which shows the poet chose each word precisely and with purpose.
“Fat lands,” because they are rich like cream, bulging with the comfort of a warm, down, or batt-filled blanket, made with the uncompromising love of Grandmother. Next:
for the living still wandering here below
these clouds that pillow up over us like
fluffing–billowing mat-stuff lining with
a wonder, a cotton question:
Beginning with the preposition For, this piece, then, is written for these souls sleeping under the quilted lands, as well as those who wander on them, and under/below the cloud-ly, heavenly quilt, above. Weaving in the motif effortlessly from the first two lines Ms. Santiff gives us the tactile word within her stated query: cotton.
Cotton: the cloth of a thousand tactile sensations and uses, from the ordinary cotton rags of pragmatic utility, to the softest jersey and knitted sweaters, cotton is as “Americana” as the region the poet writes about.
A cotton question: used with the word question, it then a no-nonsense, pragmatic question. But it’s as pure in intent as billowing clouds and the cloud-like, snowy-white quilt stuffing that makes the beauty of the crafting of the quilt also useful and practical.
So, her question is so rich because of how she leads up to it. I found myself dying to hear how she attempts answers it for us, and for herself. Or rather, is she even tries.
what’s patterned above, and who would know to
answer us, the some-numbered billions left
traipsing down here, so strangely encumbered,
The question begins with the imagery of a pattern, the continuation of the quilt motif, but we have no idea, do we, what lies beyond, other than what we see and imagine.
I love the word-use: traipsing. As practical a word as her use of cotton because clouds float, cotton sheets billow in a clothes-lined breeze, but the utilitarian “cotton question” aligns with traipsing: plodding, slogging, as if we all carry an invisible weight, so paradoxically laden with unique, “strange” even, burdens.
And we traipse because what we carry is heavy, whether we travel alone or with one another, or perhaps never fully alone because of these strange burdens we must shoulder.
Again, read aloud, the musicality is mesmerizing.
We ask through the
sky’s thin walls–hear the way some dark brilliance
calls–but the only answer back to us
is the blowing of our coastal plains, the
pressure of our bay-hills’ rolls,
Ah, more “llls,” and the cotton question suddenly becomes a prayer. And it’s a prayer we all intone as we press our heads to the breast of someone in whom we trust or into clasped hands as we kneel in isolation, desperation, perhaps, at the sides of our bed.
And even though we might have abandoned the God of our childhood faith long ago, memories of a white-clapboard shoebox church, a sharp, knife-like steeple reaching its point into the sky as if to cut its way through those clouds, demanding answers for all of us. That is why we congregate together, encumbered, yet alone. And a tiny, single, stained-glass window might be the only adornment, a small complexity and hint of dark within the simplicity of our understanding and faith.
The “dark brilliance” of the starry sky matches the dark brilliance of our beseeching. The poet introduces her discord, her dissonance, not only with the “dark brilliance” of that mysterious beyond, which remains silent, but is the contrast which we “hear”: a silence that seems to echo within us and in the oceanic winds. This darkness, the only imagery not made of white, cozy, fluffy, warm, loving comfort.
Our question falls on the deaf ears of a being who has, perhaps, cotton batting or clouds stuffed effectively in his or her ears, and so we look to the poet’s hilly land and sea’s breeze and aromas, the Mother/ Grandmother Earth, once again, to give us the wisdom—and answers—we seek. Answers we all seek; prayers we all pray when we believe no one hears or sees.
of a thumb pressed to our minds as if God
made print-marks on the Sun:
These final lines, so incredibly rich within the words Santiff chooses, because “thumbs pressed” into eyes is an act of self-defense, a way to blind an assailant, and the God of many Northeastern Americans is the God brought to the shores in the minds of the Western European stoics, people seeking freedom, and in turn, taking people who lived here on the land and effectively pressing their thumbs in, not just to blind, but to subjugate.
So, a thumb, pressed to our minds to blind, to subjugate, but also as a communication, because the blinding light of the sun is antithetical to that dark silence from the heavens, isn’t it? And the god of those people was male. The sun god has always been male, the gods of light, male.
But the native peoples of the region had both male and female deities. However, Christianity influenced many of the old tales, which were different, not just for each tribe, but for each faction of each tribe, orally handed down, and changed to fit the events of the time. And there was a time when Sky was Woman and then, she was killed by one of her twin sons.
The “good” son shaped the sky and created the sun from his mother’s face, telling her she will rule in the heavens and her “face would shine forever.” The “evil” son created a great darkness that pushed his mother, the sun, down each day.
So, an interesting twist that the sun is female in the Iroquois mythology, and she was subjugated, as so many females are in mythology as well as historically, by a male deity, who, in a way, pressed his thumbs into her glowing eye, forcing her to kneel into the eastern sky for a time. But she always returned through that thin sky and eradicated the dark with her own brilliance.
I don’t know what, if any relevance this had on Katy’s poem. I doubt if it did, consciously. But the poet herself seems so much a part of the very earth, sky, sands, wind, of her setting, I can’t help but wonder if indeed those blowing coastal winds did not whisper to her that her prayers—our prayers—are heard and have been, are answered.
we lived here, once.
When we once lived here—and where is here? The Sun, the earth, and then beneath the earth, all going ‘round and ‘round. When Grandmothers quilted and told stories of a time, and times to come: we lived here, once, yes, but we live here still, we are all here, and what is above is below, and what is inside is without.
And while we may have once inhabited the Sun, we are now those who wander below the Sky Woman’s quilt, together, alone, plodding heavily with our burdens, but all is well.
Because when we are beneath the fat lands, the “pressure” of the hills will comfort like the gentle pressure of a hand, providing a feeling of safety and warmth on a newborn’s back.
This is a beautiful, nuanced piece by an intriguing poet, one I hope to read more of going forward.
I believe Katy Santiff does not answer, nor profess to know the answer to our eternal questions of “…what’s patterned above,” nor “…who would know to answer us…”
These questions have been asked by humanity since the beginning, and when we attempt to answer them for ourselves and everyone else, it’s turned disastrous. Like the evil twin, forcing the light of curiosity and vision from our mind’s “sky,” while attempting to convince us that the darkness of ignorance and blind obedience holds our answer.
But this poem reminds us that comfort is found in the cotton questions, the simple, profoundness of the heavens, earth, and below, and the holiest acts of communion are right in front of us, in the land around us.
We all seek answers to these questions: the very-human need to trek our deeply personal, meaningful paths we all walk within the human experience. This poem could have gone the way of so many others and been lost in the din.
Yet the questions Ms. Santiff poses in this beautifully crafted piece, despite their eternal, ubiquitous presence throughout human history, are questions human beings were never meant to have answered, and I believe she shows us that.
What remains vital—and what this poet reminds us is this piece—is that we must never stop asking.
Thank you, Katy Santiff, for sharing this beautiful work, and as always, thanks to Vita Brevis, for bringing it to me in the earliest hours of each unfolding day.
Peace, and as always–
Je te vois–
I want to address, briefly, how we, as human beings, think. Not what we think, but how.
This is a huge area study, and as a writer, it’s important to know. For example, why do we make decisions, time and again, that have negative impacts on us, yet we never seem to learn our lessons?
Because when you write a character, you must know why they behave the way they do, so your reader will understand and know why they behave the way they do. To do that, you must understand human behavior, in its many permutations, and then—dig deeper than even that.
We’ve all watched horror movies. As we cling to the blanket, or shirt of our cinematic compatriot, we, the audience, find ourselves shouting warnings to the celluloid, digital, or HD character:
“Do not open that door! Do not—WHY is she opening that—no, no, no, no… arrgh!”
Well, wouldn’t be much of a horror movie if she didn’t open the door, right? And the movies that are the campiest, cheesiest variety of horror are ones we ride like a rickety-roller coaster. Within our own senses of actual, physical danger, as it creaks and groans with each rise and fall, there is a sense of recklessness. Yet we know the ride is safe, to a degree.
It’s why we love those B-movie tropes. We know just what to expect, but in the end, the hero or heroine will never die (not a hard and fast rule, mind you.)
So, behind that door…
Will it be the “jump-scare” technique? Or will the sharp-object wielding maniac be there, waiting?
Depends on whether the movie is almost over, yeah? The predictability factor is, for many who write or create stories across all media, one to which we must pay especially close attention, so we might avail ourselves of—or avoid—the devices or tropes, respectively.
And the traps. When the character is behaving in ways no sane human being would do in the face of true insanity or danger, we’re not totally invested in whether he or she walks into an empty room, comes face to face with another character and shares a startled scream, or the maniac. Why? Because as the audience, we would never do such a stupid thing.
So, what about the stories/movies where you not only know why the character must open the door, but you find yourself reeling from the fact that you can’t seem to find any other way they could or would proceed?
Those are the stuff of real nightmares, because they must open the door, and you know you would, too. This is because the writer has set up the character and story in such a way that they bridge that gap. The constant refrain, “suspension of disbelief,” takes tremendous skill if you want people to care deeply about your characters.
You write each line, each paragraph, each scene so the character has little or no choice BUT to open that door, and if you were in their shoes, you’d do the same thing.
Back to human behavior, social studies, and writing.
Besides the lack of relevant music, the pervasive “horror track” telling us we are about to open a very bad door in our lives, we know, on some level, when we’re about to do something incredibly stupid, don’t we. Yes, we do. Most of the time.
So why do we do it?
Human beings are riddled with biases, beliefs, paradigms, and implicit memories (a neuro-fancy way of saying how we view our pasts and the personal narrative surrounding those memories), that play a huge part in why we do what we do.
In fact, our subconscious mind is doing most of the “driving,” every day, while less than 15% of our prefrontal cortex (the most complex, conscious portion of our brains) is actually participating in our daily lives. That means that all day, every day, 85% of our actions are totally, inherently, unconscious. And we act before we think, even when we think we act because of what we decide to do.
No, don’t go run to the Bodhi Tree and wait for Enlightenment. It’s how we’re supposed to work.
Imagine if you had to concentrate with everything in your to do every, single thing you do, all day long.
“Okay, I hear the alarm. I’m going to open both eyes. Whew. Good job, guys. Now, I’m going to roll my body to the right: so, back, butt, neck, shoulder, leg, are you all ready? Okay, annnnd… roll! Now, left arm, please mobilize for movement. Great. Now, reach. Hand, are you paying attention? Open your fingers. Eyes, focus on the phone, please. Thank you, good. Now, index finger, please extend and touch the ‘x’ on the phone while swiping…”
Man. Gives a whole new meaning to, “Sorry I’m late. Had trouble getting out of bed this morning.”
So procedural memory is the automatic things our minds and bodies do together, no prefrontal cortex needed, thankyouverymuch.
But there are things we’ve shoved out of our prefrontal cortex that need to be brought back. And much of the time?
We don’t WANNA.
“Ugh… I don’t want to have to think about dinner tonight. Just pick something up at the drive-thru. Again.”
Hardly an example of procedural memory, but it is the abdication of using our prefrontal cortex and giving in to the very basic desires we all have for ease, comfort, and habit.
If you ask people whether or not they believe fast food is bad for them, they will undeniably tell you they know it is. Then, if you ask them how often they eat fast food, they will tell you, “Oh, hardly ever. Only on rare occasions. You know. On the go…”
But we all know that can’t be true, can it? Matter of fact, the average American eats “out” between 4-5 times per WEEK.
And despite their expanding waistlines, the lack of nutritional value in the food, the long-term risks of heart disease, and the expense of fast food or take out, they do it. All the time. They make a choice to put that in their bodies instead of planning ahead and having a healthy meal at home. With an average 3-4 meals per day, and approximately 4-5 times per week…
Holy shiitake mushrooms, Batman. And we’re wondering why we’re overweight, fatigued, and sick?
Someone said to me once: “It’s a trade-off, you know? If I pick up the drive-thru, it saves time so I can get to the gym after work.”
Yee-ah. The magical mind-contortions we’re capable of when we really, really, want to believe something, and we really want to stay in integrity with our personal values.
Now, this isn’t about judging yourself, or anyone else. I’m not judging, either. This is what you must know—a very tiny portion of what you, as a writer, must know—about human behavior, and how we think.
Which brings me to writing complex, three-dimensional characters.
THERE ARE HEROES AND VILLAINS (and… then there’s everyone else)
As a budding writer, and even as a more experienced writer, I’m always reading about writing (when I’m not reading or writing, of course). There are a lot of popular writers and writing books that tell you to create characters who are likable, but beware of making them “perfect,” because who can relate to that? That’s not me, over there…
And still another popular writing strategy is to begin your story with your “imperfect” character doing something “heroic,” right in the first chapter, thus ensuring that when you show (don’t tell!) how “human” and imperfect they really are, their flaws will be seen by the reader with a more compassionate, understanding eye.
So, perhaps we create a “hero with a haunted past,” (clichéd, but take a really good look at novels in the “thriller, suspense and mystery,” genres, specifically series-books, and you’ll note this trope is a trope within a trope.
One series I read, a wonderful “drive-thru mind-meal,” while I recovered from a long bout of mono, was a detective series written by Sue Grafton, her Alphabet Series, featuring the lovable, highly imperfect PI, Kinsey Millhone, a sassy, “I-don’t-give-a-shit-how-I-look-but-I’m-irresistible-for-some-reason,” woman with—you guessed it—a mysterious, slightly trauma-filled, haunted past, who survived on Quarter Pounders with Cheese®, fries, Coke, and coffee.
To add some quirk, Grafton had her character thrive on Kinsey’s famous peanut butter and pickle and hard-boiled egg sandwiches with gobs of real mayo. And yet, Ms. Millhone manages to stay size-6-fit with her three-mile-a-day run. Fiction, indeed!
Below, a young Sue Grafton, strangely close to the book’s description of the spitfire PI, Kinsey Millhone.
Image courtesy: https://www.ocregister.com/2017/12/29/mystery-writer-sue-grafton-creator-of-private-investigator-kinsey-millhone-and-the-alphabet-novels-dies-at-77/
But dammit, it was fun. RIP Sue Grafton. Hats off to you for giving me, and millions like me for over 30+ years, those of us who really “de-serve a break [some] days,” from the work of LIVING, and all the stress that comes with it.
Continuing on, you don’t want to fall for the stereotypes, so you decide to go a little wacky and write a female protag who’s a lovable food-a-holic with a penchant for rescuing stray kittens. Ah, but she’s constantly having to learn new ways to deal with her addiction as a pathological shoplifter, even though she only steals things for the rescued kittens, of course! And who wouldn’t do that? Well…
Or perhaps you write a classic anti-hero, like Batman or TV’s curmudgeonly (Dr.) House.
Bottom line? If you follow the guidelines of genre writers, and those who write books on writing who write genre fiction, you’ll get generic characters, no matter how many quirks they have. You must. Because no one wants to pick up a Kinsey Millhone novel and have her do something we cannot relate to.
That’s the point of genre fiction, and why it’s so wonderfully decadent to enjoy it. But if you aim to write stories that go deeper, and characters that people will never forget—not because you wrote 26 books featuring that character—but because they are so complex, you actually transform your reader’s world-view with an entirely new world-view as seen through that character’s eyes—then you’ll need to break the rules.
CREATING A HUMAN BEING, NOT A HUMAN “DOING”
In my last novel, Grind: A Novel, which was voted one of the top-5 literary novels from an Indie press in 2015 by IndieReader.com, I used several POVs, male and female, to create a world. Each main and secondary character had unique personalities, lives, personal histories, motivations, and personalities. Sure, there were quirks, peccadilloes, but they were not what made the characters stand out.
I’ve been told I have a knack for writing multifaceted male characters, specifically, something women writers struggle with at times. I’m especially deft at understanding and portraying, realistically, the psycho-sexual minds of men.
While most of my characters are extremely complex, even the minor ones, the one way I accomplish this is by doing the opposite of what most writing books, or genre writers tell you to do.
One specific thing I don’t do is show my character’s “hand” too soon. When you meet my characters, they will grab you. And I can’t guarantee where, or how you’ll even feel about that.
Two characters from Grind that jump out at me specifically, are named Jeremy and Wayne. These men are immediately unlikable, especially to women. Now…
Why would I do that?
I do it because they are not two-dimensionally “unlikable.” They are full-color, alive, and most importantly, compellingly unlikable characters. Sure, we don’t like them, but we want to know why. Why are they so compelling? Why are they the way they are? And honestly? Many female readers realize, well into the book, they don’t want to know.
They keep reading, believing these men will continue to incite their indignation, rage, and be the very stereotypes they, themselves, hold within their subconscious minds about “men like that,” and they keep reading, comforted and sure that certainly justice will prevail, and the men will get their “just desserts.”
The cliché above? An object lesson. Because the entire idea that this “justice” happens in real life is a flight of fancy. Shitty men, shitty women, shitty people, rarely “get what they deserve.”
Hell, some people make it into the highest offices, leaving a trail of slime behind them, don’t they? Yes, they do.
So, this is why literary fiction and genre fiction are different experiences. It’s why campy horror movies are what you watch when you wanna “Netflix & Chill,” not when you want to be kept awake for nights on end, an unseen terror crawling up your spine because you watched something that really, really got into your head, under those first few layers of skin.
And the thing is, as a writer, you’ve got to understand this difference. If someone reads a novel expecting things to go as planned, in other words, play out the opposite of real life, and then they realize not only is that not how life works, not how people ARE, they stop reading. They don’t stop reading when the characters are totally distasteful and true-to-form. They stop when I suddenly make them human.
Still not likable, still distasteful, yes. But human beings. Not villains. Not black or white, but as complex as every one of us is.
Again…why would I do this?
Confound everyone’s comfort zones…challenge when I could make it so easy…I mean, it’s cruel, isn’t it?
Well, it depends on what kind of literary experience you want to have. And let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with wanting a comfortable book to read. Not at all. But, like a balanced diet, too many Quarter Pounders® will leave your mind like a drive-thru side dish in a combo meal: fried and void of nutritional “mind-expansion” value.
THIS IS YOUR BRAIN. THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON A COUCH
Image courtesy of Men’s Health
As David Foster Wallace said/wrote:
“Good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
So, the reason I do what I do with my characters is that, as a literary novelist, it’s not my job to give the reader what they want, if what they want is a Literary QP w/C®.
Going back to fast food, people want easy, totally effortless reading sometimes, too. And we can go anywhere to get a QP w/C®—anywhere in the world. Even in Paris, QP w/C®? Same as the QP w/C® in Detroit.
So, if I write male characters as heroes or villains (or anti-heroes, who are both, depending on how the writers want the series to end) from the get-go, then flesh them out with flaws, or conversely, imbue them with a modicum of “relatable” qualities, or “appeal,” respectively, (think Showtime’s anti-hero Dexter, then I’ve made my bed, haven’t I? They must, in the end, BE what I made them out to be. Gun on the mantle.
But that’s not how human beings truly are. And a person’s actions or personalities are not the gestalt of who they are, and not even close to how they became who they are. We are beings, and our being is more accurate to who we are than what we do. That’s why we’re called “human beings,” not “human doings.” How your characters think and behave should be as complex and nuanced as how you think and behave. You and other real human beings.
And although their back stories might never make an appearance, save a few choice “showing” (not telling!) details, we, as writers, need to know every inch of their psyches—even the spaces the characters themselves might now yet be aware of.
Why we open those doors is not because it’s in our script, and not because it’s a convenient plot device.
We open them because of a thousand unconscious and subconscious things rippling within our psyches.
We have no real idea why we reach for that ill-fated knob.
CREATING WORLDS WITH THE WORD
The themes of Grind center around sex, power, money, and the role those dynamics play in the dance in which men and women have been engaged since the beginning of time.
Jeremy, a young, successful attractive man, who, for all intents and purposes, is every woman’s worst nightmare as a prospective husband, but we’ve all had a “Jeremy” in our lives, I’d wager: charming, handsome, charismatic, and slightly sexually dangerous.
Then we have my other character, an older man, Wayne, who is controlling, creepy, vindictive, and clearly an antagonist to the main female protag, along with her mother. And we hate him. We hate Wayne. But then, it’s a lot more complicated than that after we learn what makes him who he is, what motivates the things he does, and it changes…well.
It changes everything.
Like the birth of an actual human being—which happens every 4.2 times per second on this planet—that human being, while the same in many ways to every other human on the planet, he or she is utterly, completely unique.
And no matter how imperceptible or history-altering that individual turns out to be they change the world. Each of us impacts the world in millions of ways we never consider with our prefrontal cortex, or even our primitive amygdala.
The only choice we’ve got in the matter is in how big or small we want our ripples to be. Then, once we make our splashy entrance, every decision, every door, every unconscious, subconscious and conscious action and thought (in that order, mind you, more than the other way around) determines how wide those ripples go out.
As soon as my readers discover what makes Wayne tick, what made Jeremy the Jeremy, in and of my world—that discovery will impact every reader in totally unique, unexpected ways. And it changes the course of the world I created in Grind, irrevocably—not only objectively, but from and through the lenses of each reader, who comes to the table with all of that baggage, warping those mind-lenses. And I challenge them. All of them.
For those who want that kind of reading experience and are ready to force themselves out of their self-(cultural/societal/world)made zones of comfort, then read books that do just that: Disturb, challenge, expand, provoke, and ultimately, change everything in your worlds.
As a lover of both reading and writing literary fiction? Well… talk about power. Sexy power.
Because when my readers read my work, whether they hate it, love it, or somewhere in between…
They are forever changed. And in an oddly disturbing, yet comfortable sense of wonder…so am I.
(Cue music track)
Ah, but just what music ought to play? Up to you. Thank you for reading, and as always—
Je te vois—
Excerpt of Grind featuring “Jeremy.”