I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.–William Butler Yeats, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”
Hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away–Pearl Jam, “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town”
“Write what you know,” they say, whoever they are. I think this is why I write young adult fantasy. I haven’t yet figured out much about how to be a grownup, despite nearly two decades of practice, and the reality in my head seems more immediate than the facades outside it.
I’ve been revising a story about a girl–a girl in high school, for the first time, as opposed to a warrior-girl or a dragon-battling girl or a girl whose best friend is a wizard. It’s funny how life and art like to intersect–sometimes gracefully, sometimes running smack into each other, leaving a lingering, throbbing headache. I finished my current revision a couple of weeks ago, and, as Fate or The Universe or total random chance would have it, two other things happened at about the same time: 1) I found a note in a closet. 2) I found an old friend.
Before I get into that, though, I need to back up. This story I’ve been working on is the story of a girl. On the surface, she’s a version of my teenage self, if my teenage self had had all my teenage problems as well as all my sister’s. But she’s also every teenage girl I’ve ever known–so consumed with what’s outside her that she has no idea what she’s worth. As I’ve been writing her story, I’ve been reliving my own awkward teenage years, with all their mortifying dances and agonizing social blunders and soul-wrenching little earthquakes. As I wrote, the girl I was rose ghostlike from the pages.
She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away
I seem to recognize your face…..
A couple of weeks later, getting ready to repaint the room that was mine in childhood and is now my son’s, I removed a shelf from the closet. Wedged beneath one end of it was a note, folded in that intricate origami that only the graduates of American middle-schools can produce. I was certain it was my brother’s, left over from his school days after I left for college, when he took over my old room. I almost didn’t open it and sent it straight to him in Winnipeg, but instead, overcome by my own nosiness, I unfolded it, trying to remember how to fold it back into its neat, tiny packet.
It was a note to me from a high school friend, a note from nearly twenty years ago. It mentioned other friends, along with some obscure stuff that must have been inside jokes I understood at one time, and covered nearly the entire page of notebook paper in small, cramped handwriting. Two of the people in that note are married now. One of the friendships mentioned was a casualty of time, one of those circuses of desertion that should be funny after years but never quite manages to be. The note was awkward, hopeful, embarrassing, silly–all those iconic qualities of people in the liminal teenage zone of becoming–fumbling towards ecstasy, in the words of Sarah McLachlan.
The second thing that happened was the rediscovery of an old friend, one I’d completely lost touch with over the years. Discovering an old friend long-lost is a kind of resurrection. It catches hold of one of your past selves, pulling it forward into the light of the present. That light is simultaneously glaring and soft, casting a flattering haze of nostalgia while somehow also managing to throw quirks and faults into harsh relief.
The note and the friend remind me of who I was. They pull my attention backward to another time, a time that in some ways was magical and in other ways horrifying.
Magic and horror are the fabric of fantasy, so it makes sense to me that this is how I make sense of my world, my past. Those stilted boys I’ve known, those elderly women behind the counters in small towns.
What can I but enumerate old themes
Lifetimes are catching up with me
I was ready to leave the high school story behind and get back to another story. The world of high school was too much with me by this point, and I was relieved to delve back into a world populated by sorcerers and scaly things, where people carry swords and live in drafty castles as God intended. This story–“Kip’s Story,” I have titled it, because it is about Kip and it is her Story and I stink at titles–is one I stuck in a drawer months ago, certain that it was unequivocally The Worst Thing Ever Written. My relationship with Kip and her story was then in its “teenage” years, and we had had a nasty breakup. But when I went back to it and reread it yesterday in its entirety, I surprised myself. It’s actually okay. I do not say this lightly, as I am a Writer and therefore plagued by constant psyche-gnawing self-doubt. It’s definitely not perfect, but it’s also not the ugly, gangling, spotty-faced disaster I thought it was. I don’t think it’s destined to die alone in a tiny apartment filled with a thousand cats, or to still be living in my basement when it’s forty. It might even manage to snag a date to the prom.
I was thinking about all these things–about my past, about pasts in general, about how a writer can be too close to the present of a story. And I was painting walls, and listening to Pandora, which thinks that if you like R.E.M., you stopped listening to music after 1998. At some point the R.E.M. station morphed into the Pearl Jam station, and Eddie Vedder and Yeats started having a conversation in my head. It sounded like this:
W. B.: I sought a theme and sought for it in vain.
Eddie: Cannot find the candle of thought to light your name.
W. B.: Winter and summer til old age began my circus animals were all on show.
Eddie: Lifetimes are catching up with me.
W. B.: I thought my dear must her own soul destroy.
Eddie: I changed by not changing at all. All these changes taking place…..
W. B.: Those masterful images because complete grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
Eddie: Hearts and thoughts…..
W.B.: Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can, old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut who keeps the till.
Eddie: Elderly woman behind the counter in a small town.
W. B.: Character isolated by a deed to engross the present and dominate memory.
Eddie: Memories like fingerprints are slowly raising. Me you wouldn’t recall, for I’m not my former.
W.B.: Now that my ladder’s gone, I must lie down where all the ladders start, in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
Eddie: Hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away…..
Memory is a tricksy thing. In a small town, it’s tricksier still, and in a small town in the South–well, it’s the stuff of which fantasy is made. It’s like our childhoods, those strange countries where there be dragons and princesses, and where sometimes it is impossible to tell the one from the other. If we’re lucky, we survive them, and if we’re luckier still, we remember, trailing them after us like ghosts, like strings tied around fingers, like the scent of a familiar perfume wafting back to us on the warm air of a summer evening a thousand years ago.