The Inkwell

“A steaming beverage is often the friendliest of muses. To the creator of such, I owe this work.”

The Inkwell

My journal burst into poetry today. That’s how I know things are getting serious. Whenever I’m being reasonable- which is most of the time- I write my personal narrative in ordinary (though rather eloquent) prose. But on occasion it explodes into poetry and that’s when I know I either am going to be brilliant or mad.

This time, it’s both.

I was writing as I am now thinking: linearly, in understandable syntax.

But then, it happened.

Poetry happened, for I suddenly realized what it was I had been trying to figure out, the cause of the underlying discomfit I’ve felt over the past few months… No. Not months. Years. My whole life. This unsettled feeling has simply climaxed as I have neared the age others look forward to but I dread as a creative death sentence: retirement.

The poem is scarcely legible and rather terribly written, in my professional opinion. And, glancing with no small amount of pride at the wall of books which I myself have authored, I believe my professional opinion is one to be trusted. Yet, regardless of its disappointing review by Yours Truly, this poem exists; it was born of my brain, fighting its way above its sister and brother ideas to be singly born of my pen. My own ink and thought, almost as dear as my own flesh and blood. Poor as it may be, it is mine. And, poor as it may be, it has something of genius in its fibre, like a great mind in an ugly body (which, in my professional opinion- being just such a mind in just such a body- is often more useful than a brainless beauty.)

I tore the little scribble from my journal and tossed it, but now regret aborting this pitiful brainchild. This pitiful, promising brainchild.

I extract it with care from its underserved cradle, the rubbish bin, and hold it in my hands. This, this I can use.

I tack it to the bulletin board above my desk and I skim it once more. The intrigue of this idea becomes lovely to me. The more I consider it, the more the brilliance of its suggestion washes away the gore of a hasty, unmetered birth. I like this little idea of mine, in all its ragged swaddling clothes of free verse, and I intend to raise it. I intend to put it to use, my last great creation. This little idea will grow from larval poetry into something marvelous. I see the site of my plan, craft it with the stuff of my mind and furnish it to suit this idea which I have raised from reject to ruler…

Only a week later, I have a venue rented, large enough to show that my career  has paid me well and small enough to have a cozy atmosphere. Within another week, I have a small staff, just a young man to assist in my new art of espresso brewing and a grad student to advise on making the place ‘hip.’

A couple more days pass and I’ve furnished it with the coziest chairs that have sat long unused in my vast, empty, overpriced home.

Two days later, my cafe, the Inkwell, has customers. Better yet, my ideas have writers.

____________

What can I get started for you?” I ask, my voice a third higher than normal. Its my customer service voice; I use it whenever taking  -or, rather, giving- orders. It’s a slow day at the Inkwell Cafe and I ought to be extra service oriented; it is not a slow day for ideas, after all. And those ideas are my real business; Selling coffee is just a side gig- if you will- to make this first business possible.

The customer blinks up at me, squinting at my face for a moment before blushing and looking away. But she is not quick enough; I saw it in her keen, steel-blue eyes even in that split second of contact. This is a writer. Or, at least, she will be: I asked for her coffee order, but she was not thinking about that right then. She was trying to decide how old I am. Or where I am from. Some concrete detail that she could use for a character sketch.

I like her already. I’ll brew something extra innovative for her. 

“I’m not sure.” She blinks. There is no menu in sight. She makes a show of looking around.

“We don’t have a menu.” I am blunt, dropping the service voice for a moment.

“Oh. Good to know I’m not crazy,” she laughs.

“No, just me,” I say, winking at her. She blinks in surprise but laughs again. She either doesn’t believe me or is undaunted by lunatics. If the latter, she will make an outstanding writer.

“So what’ll it be?”

“There’s no menu,” she says. “What do you suggest?”

“Hmmm.” I stare at her and she stares right back. We are analyzing each other, I can tell. Oh, I have not had such a perfect customer in ages. Not since the young man who went on to win a Pulitzer. Too bad he never could account for his inspiration. My eyes flick upwards in annoyance as I remember him. I should not be angry, though. I knew the price of sharing ideas. I cannot reasonably expect any credit.

I return my attention to the girl. I had an idea earlier that would just suit her. She would give it a superb voice…innocent yet with gumption. Yes, she would do nicely for just such an idea.

“We have a terrific blonde roast,” I say.

She side eyes me, bold now, and tosses her fair hair. “Ironic, isn’t it? Never been a fan of blonde roast.”

So much for that idea. She needs something a little more bitter, but also frothy. Rather paradoxical, really. I have to think back to ideas I’d long tucked away. “Spanish latte with almond milk. It’s exotic yet homey, sweet yet spicy. It’s got a nice foam to it, but its espresso flavor is strong and clear.”

“Delicious,” she says. I smile and she pays. Nailed it.

“Name?” I ask.

“Austen,” she says. “With an ‘e’.”

I am more certain of my choice than before. She goes to sit beside a sunshiny window and whips out a notebook from her overstuffed purse. I blink and when I open my eyes again, she is scribbling furiously. She stops, grimaces. It appears the muse is not coming easily today.

I can help with that.

I sprinkle spices over the steamed milk. It’s a slow day, so I take my time, enjoying being able to not only give the recommendations and take the orders, but prepare the brew as well. I find it is more effective that way…gives it a personal touch.

“Austen, your Spanish latte is ready,” I have an employee call out for me. I’m the owner. I might take orders and make orders, but I also give them and, as I do not like shouting, I have Matthew to do it. He’s a terrible writer I’ve found out, but he’s got a good shouting voice so I keep him around.

The girl moves slowly, her face scrunched up against the sunlight pouring through the window and the ideas that are apparently refusing to come to her. She glides back to her seat with the brimming latte and takes a timid sip.

I blink and she is writing.

She takes another sip and writes faster.

She gulps and writes with such speed it is as if the coffee is flowing directly into the words on the page. Remarkable. She might be the best yet.

The latte is finished and she has turned the page in her notebook four times.

Eight pages.

Not a bad draft for only a ten ounce latte.

But then, there was a lot put into that one latte, just as there must be a lot in that one story. Both are a great little idea, full of sweet spices and surprises, strong espresso and expressions. She slaps her notebook shut in victory, licks the rim of her cup, which is caked with dried foam, and marches out of the Inkwell Cafe with her head held high. I recognize the bounce in her step. It is the dance of a writer who has just written something with which she has fallen wholeheartedly in love.

I take a sip of ice water and sigh contentedly. It was a brilliant little idea and a delicious little latte. I’m glad I found such a customer to enjoy both.

____________

“What can I get started for you?” I ask.

The young man before me stares blankly for a moment, not replying. I smile, understanding.

It’s a busy day. Finals week is hitting the university students hard and they have long since discovered the Inkwell to be a haven for the studious and procrastinating alike. Its armchairs- once forlorn in my lonely home- are by now well-worn but still smell faintly of potpourri. They are filled with tired, caffeinated bodies, each scribbling away at a term paper or skimming a textbook long ignored.

The wear and tear of exams is heavy upon them, so I made a pact with myself: no specials. Only regular coffee orders this week. Rather than recommending elaborate beverages suited to a story, I use my gift of analysis and prescribe drinks like a doctor. Or a dealer. Either way, it gets the job done.

I turn back to the exhausted, still-determined-to-pass-his-classes man before me. I ought to stick to my self-made pact and assign him a simple drink: caffeine and calcium sprinkled with cinnamon to liven his spirits and a protein bar on the side.

But one look into his eyes, one peek into the windows of his soul, and I know. He doesn’t need something to get him through this week. He needs something to get him through life. And coffee- just the regular cappuccino I was already beginning to ring up- cannot do that. This young man needs a story, a vacation from himself but a journey of self-discovery nonetheless. And I know just which type of story he needs. I can see it now, inside my mind, buzzing lonely and patient by itself: an age-old idea, but suited to a young person in desperate need of something to care for and, in the caring, something to care for him. 

“I know what I can get started for you,” I say, answering my own question before he can open his mouth. This whole realization and reversal of plan occurred in a moment. Two blinks of the eye and I have decided to do something that might well change his life.

“Okay, thanks.” He does not protest. There is a longing in his eyes and I see clearly that he wants for something but is too weary to ask for it. My decision is confirmed.

“Name?”

“Telemachus,” he says, not missing a beat.

“Is it, really?” I raise my eyebrows, already scribbling his name onto a cup.

“No, but it’s fitting.”

“Waiting for Odysseus to return, are we?” The idea in my mind could hardly be more apt. Hints of home, undertones of growth, a wistful flavor… it’s perfect.

“Something like that.”

He looks into my eyes and beyond my eyes. They are just another set of window panes that he is straining to peer through. This present and vacant expression is one I’ve seen once before in a mirror during a time when I had no ideas. The one time in my life when not a single inkling buzzed in my mind and begged to be written.

I had never felt so useless as I did then…so lost. I was a writer unable to write, a creator unable to create. A queen bee without a hive.

If I had any doubts about my decision- concerns for his final grades, for instance- they are erased now. His look, whether he knows it or not, is one that begs for an idea. His eyes are the mirror I once stared into despairingly. I cannot deny a starving man his bread. Or, rather, his coffee.

He does not ask what it is I am making. I do not charge him. We understand each other, this young man and me. He goes and sits in a corner, at the bar lining the wall, facing nobody and staring diligently at a book he has already read to pieces.

“Telemachus, I have your dark chocolate orange mocha with extra cinnamon and single origin espresso,” calls out Matt. He looks at me, quirking an eyebrow. This is perhaps the most original and ridiculous order yet. I roll my eyes and shrug, as if the brooding young man had ordered it of his own accord…as if the mocha was not one of my most unusual ideas distilled into liquid form.

The young man rises and sullenly picks up his cup, the ship that will bring his Odysseus back to him, though he does not yet know it. I watch over counter as he takes a first sip. Nothing. Just a scrunching of his face as he tries to decide whether he likes it or not. But liking it is not what matters. What matters was that he keeps drinking and his mind begins buzzing. A barren hive no longer, I swear I can see the new little resident flit behind his eyes, which are no longer half-curtained but rather startled awake, thrown open by the light of dawning inspiration.

I smile and, before he realizes it, he smiles back. The grin does not fade from his tired face, but instead props up his sunken cheeks as he flips open a laptop and begins pounding furiously, euphorically, at the keys; his Odysseus, his muse and identity, at last has returned and he is typing furiously to meet him.

____________

It is another busy day. Finals are over and the university students, like flowers poking their weary heads out from under a snow of papers and tests, are slowly coming to life again. I like to see them laughing again, going on dates again, reading for pleasure again. Sometimes and best of all, all three at once.

Just such a couple is here today, two lovers of words. I don’t slip them any ideas but I do help nudge their romance along a little. I work best as a secret muse, but I enjoy trying my hand as a subtle cupid once in a while. I find that latte art is as useful as the mythical arrows and that I am particularly skilled at making foam hearts. Subtle, but it might help nudge them along. Some dark chocolate shavings further set the mood.
I sneak glances at them, my own heart warmed to hear that they are flirting by arguing playfully whether Jane Austen or Emily Bronte is better. I hope they settle on Austen as any relationship founded on Bronte is doomed from the start.

“Austen!” calls a voice. I start, sure someone has read my mind.

I find the speaker, a brunette with eyes that are deep in both set and in expression. She is waving to a blonde girl in a green sweater. Austen. I remember her. Well, I remember the coffee I prepared for her anyway. A lovely sweet idea but with plenty of spice. I wonder how it turned out.

“Lynn!” she calls, waving back at her friend. She jerks her head toward the bar and her friend nods, saving her a seat so she can order.

“Hello,” I say, pretending I don’t remember her, pretending I am not anxious to ask after the charge I had entrusted to her. “What can I get started for you?”

“I liked what you made me last time,” she says, not missing a beat.

“Which was?”

“Spanish latte with almond milk.”

“Ah, of course.” There is a gleam in her eye that cannot be attributed to coffee alone. I cannot help my curiosity. “And, ah, how was it?”

“My best yet,” she says. An odd way to describe a coffee she did not have any hand in making, I think. Unless, she is not describing the coffee.

“What would you recommend this time?” she asks. “I am thinking something a bit…darker.”

“Darker would not suit you,” I say before I catch myself. I should let the girl order whatever coffee she wants, but I know that there is more than bitter taste at stake here.

“Oh, but I think it would,” she persists. “Nothing too dark, of course, but perhaps something with a little more suspense. A little more mystery to its…flavor.”

I flinch as I catch her eye. Those steel eyes are wide and lovely, like a cartoon princess. But they are also piercing, direct, and unavoidable.

I nod. “I have the perfect drink in mind.”

“I thought you might,” she says. She moves to take her seat beside her friend, but I stop her.

“Miss?” she turns. “Would your friend like anything? One of our regulars or perhaps a specialty?”

“Certainly a specialty,” she says without delay. “But nothing too bitter. She’s more of a warm and sweet sort…needs to ease into the idea of…coffee.”

A man behind her quirks an eyebrow at this, but if Austen realizes how strange her words sound to anyone besides us two, she does not show it. Rather, she flashes him a smile and blinks up at him with her enormous, focused eyes. He drops his wallet and, flustered, mumbles an apology as he picks it up, but she is already seated with her friend and chattering away. I get the flustered man a house roast black coffee. Nothing too creative for this one. But maybe he will make something of it. Sometimes my customers surprise me with their originality.

“Austen, I have your tall dark roast with a pump of sea salt vanilla,” calls Matthew. Then, when I finish the second drink, “Lynn, I have a lavender London fog with sugar sprinkles.”

Both girls retrieve their drinks. I can feel Austen’s gaze graze my downturned head, but I remain focused on the drink I am creating.

When they leave, I pass a peppermint tea latte to Matthew and go to busk their table. Under Austen’s saucer, I find a napkin with words scrawled over it in the hasty script of a writer whose mind outpaces her pen. I tuck it into my apron pocket and only later, during my dinner break, do I decipher it. An idea I know all too well stares up at me, though it is adorned in different words, dressed in the voice of another writer.

And it is all the more beautiful than I could have imagined.

____________

A package lies on the counter when I arrive at the Inkwell. It is a cold November day and the rain is drizzling, not committed enough to pour nor whimsical enough to mist. The skies are foamy with dark clouds and I know by their London fog color exactly what drink will be most popular today. Well, what drink I will most recommend today.

“What’s this?” I ask, picking up the package. I expect Matthew to respond, but a dreamy voice floats over from the book-lined corner.

“It could be any number of things,” says Dahlia, the resident philosopher. I hired her at first to give marketing advice and keep inventory of the little library in the corner, but she has since nested in the oldest armchair and read her life away. I can think of worse jobs.

“Who left it?”

“I didn’t see.” Her owlish eyes are hidden behind thick glasses and a heavy book I wonder if she actually understands. Aristotle’s Physics.

“Some help you are,” I mutter.

“Thank you,” her voice murmurs drearily.

I open the package. It is wrapped in newspaper, I notice, letting it fall to the floor in a crinkly mess. A sight I have grown to love stares up at me: a new book, freshly published and swaddled in a colorful new sleeve. As is my habit, I raise it to my nose and inhale the smell of fresh paper and ink. I would always remember the smell of my own books, yet this one – born by the pen of another – smells familiar too. Perhaps it is silly, thinking that books made of the same basic materials can smell different, unique. But then, I see the author’s name:

Austen J. Steventon.

I open the back cover and the picture on the sleeve confirms the idea dawning in my mind. It’s the blonde girl with the steely eyes, the regular customer and the owner of the napkin covered in hasty scribbles that I have pinned above my desk.

The lover of coffee, writer of ideas.

I turn to the dedication.

“A steaming beverage is often the friendliest of muses. To the creator of such, I owe this work.”

That is all. It occurs to me she never would have known my name. I had long ago made it another principle for myself not to wear a name tag. It would be too easy then for customers to find that the letters on my apron matched those on the spines of their (maybe) favorite books. I am no Shakespeare, but I have enough of a following that working here, in my own cafe, could become unbearable. After all, it is small enough to have a cozy atmosphere and that does not accommodate crowds of celebrity hunters.

Still, one of the joys of being an author is that I have been able to whisper into the minds of many without ever showing my face. Few think to check the back flaps of books for author photos and I never thought to add one. My writing sells, but my face never would. And, of course, nobody expects their favorite author to be brewing coffee in a shabby cafe.

I read the dedication again and smile, my heart warming as I look upon the work I helped to generate. The best cup of cocoa could not have made me so comfortable as looking down on the collection of ideas I hold bundled in my arm. To think, I once despaired that these ideas would die before their birth but have now been nurtured to maturity under the creativity of another!

I turn the pages, stroking them fondly. I let them fall open to a story in the middle, reading it from the inside out. Even out of order, I find myself utterly lost in a story I thought I knew but has grown to be more beautiful than I’d ever dreamed. I flip back and read the title of this brainchild:
“Telemachus.”

I nearly fall off of my barstool, but keep reading until I finish the story of a young man I remember all too well. Then, I am up and out the door, racing back to my house.

“Watch the cafe!” I shout to Dahlia.

“Any day,” she replies, chuckling to herself about the accidental rhyme before returning to the confusion of philosophy which she has chosen as her vocation.

I launch myself from my car as soon as I arrive, racing upstairs to my office. It’s here somewhere. I know it. I left it pinned up here. I shove aside the napkin Austen left behind once, nearly three years ago…so  many drinks and so many stories ago.

There. I find it. The paper, the poem. I write no letter. I simply sign my name at the bottom of the sheet which bears the bastard idea that started this all, that saved the lives of so many of its siblings, the stories I feared would never be written. Austen will understand, I tell myself. We share a mind, though I almost like hers better based on the words that I cannot shake from my vision.

I package it in an envelope and am on my way back to the cafe before I realize: I have no address and I cannot send the poem, this explanation I owe to one who has taken on the demands of the muse in my stead. I slow my frenzied driving, waving at a cop and hoping he will let me by on account of the lazy weather. He does. I reach the cafe and enter to find it as empty as before, Dahlia still buried in her book, Matthew puttering away in the back humming along to music I cannot make out.

I sit at the bar and unfold the poem. I might as well read it again.  I murmur its words, tasting them once more, though now with the guild of success to sweeten their sounds.

“My mind is a hive,

Swarming with ideas,

But I am no queen bee, busy though I keep.

I cannot bear them all

And so they fall,

Stillborn with wings yet twitching,

Larval thoughts that had already sought to fly,

To soar, to grow,

To spread their honey and seed

The thoughts and ideas of others…

But I am their failed ruler

And- worse-

Their failed mother.

I cannot nurture them all

And it’s Darwin’s dream

To watch them wrestle in my sleep,

The victor, the most compelling idea

(At the time)

Clambering over its fading siblings-

Those glimmerings of inspiration

That rise and fall,

Shine and die,

Knit together and unravel

In the twinkling of the mind’s fickle eye.

But the victors-

They grow.

They live and, in their freedom,

Are born and raised and bound

And rest in triumph on thrones

Of store shelves and night side-tables.

But the little ideas,

The miscarried, unborn,

Are what drive me mad

And always have.

They fade and fall

But never leave.

Small ghosts

That linger though ignored

As I focus on their more petulant siblings.

And yet.

I love them

And in so doing

Go mad.

I hear their buzzings,

Though they are supposedly still.

And I love their voices

Though they are supposedly mute.

I ache to ignore their infant mews.

I want to watch them grow,

To feed them nectar of ink

And have them pour out as honey

Onto a white page.

And though I know not how they might turn out,

I love them,

For they are my little ideas

That I captured in butterfly nets

And window glimpses

And moonlit nights

And crisp old grandfather books

Who might have given them an inheritance

Of literary greatness.

But they fall,

Smoked into restless sleep

By their own creator

Who has more bestselling ideas

To write and send forth.

If only I could share,

Could find a host

For these baby ghosts,

For these tiny ideas that deserve to live

And yet are crowded out by each other.

If I could but whisper them

Into the ears of another writer,

Another mother who might nurture them

With milky ink

Or a father who might provide them

A papery home.

I am prideful in my work

But I am not jealous of my ideas;

I love them too much to want to keep them

When I cannot give myself to them.

And I’m tired. And old.

The books on my shelf have multiplied.

They’ve become sequels and trilogies

And I am a grandparent unto them.

I can raise no more of my darling ideas.

They are too many for me.

But, perhaps.

Perhaps…

I can work some sweet magic.

I wrote of such once before.

If I could but pour these ideas into the minds

And into the hearts

Of others…

Find hosts to drink them in,

Internalize them,

Feed on them as bees on nectar…

If I could make such a flower,

With ideas as its drink,

Then they – these starving stories-

Might have hope

Of growth and flight

And I might send them forth

Without having to write.

Mad, perhaps.

But brilliant as well.

The flower I craft will serve as

A true “Inkwell.”

As I read my poem for the first time since its conception, I know that this little idea has saved its siblings. The thoughts of this ragged poem blossomed into a plot that lead to the realization of stories I was preparing to abandon, stories that were translated from drink into ink and that I now am reading in published print.

I open to the first story in Austen’s book and pause and read the title. It reassures me, balm to my aging spirit and worrying mind. She knows. I need not send the poem. In her soul she must know, for it is all here in her words. I am relieved to realize this, but, better yet, I am relieved by the promise that this book and especially this first story offer. It seems to whisper back to me, saying:

“ Though you are growing older, the ideas that fly forth from my mind will not be forsaken. So long as the Inkwell Cafe exists and people like my author exist, the ever-buzzing muses will have lovers and homes.”

I whisper the title to myself again, savoring the honey of its sound as it drips from my lips:

“The Inkwell.”

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Beautiful Lines

As a writer, I spend a great deal of time editing and lamenting over my own work. Admittedly, I probably should spend more time revising papers than text messages, (yay, overthinking!) but in either case I am painfully aware of my weaknesses as a writer.

However, sometimes I surprise myself as the ink on my page forms something truly lovely. My next story will not be published for at least a few more days, but in the meantime, here are some lines that I found to be beautiful (or, at least, intriguing) as I reread my first draft:

“I recognize the bounce in her step. It is the dance of a writer who has just written something with which she has fallen wholeheartedly in love.”

 

“On occasion [my journal] explodes into poetry and that’s when I know I either am going to be brilliant or mad.”

 

“I like this little idea of mine, in all its ragged swaddling clothes of free verse.”

 

“She either doesn’t believe me or is undaunted by lunatics. If the latter, she will make an outstanding writer.”

 

“Finals are over and the university students are coming to life again…I like to see them laughing again, going on dates again, reading for pleasure again. Best yet, all three at once.”

 

“They are flirting by arguing whether Jane Austen or Emily Bronte is better. I hope they settle on Austen…any relationship founded on Bronte is doomed from the start.”

 

“A steaming beverage in a warm mug is often the friendliest of muses. To the creator of such, I owe this work.”

 

Writing: Expectations vs. Reality

  1. Expectation: Showing off your stellar vocabulary. Reality: Spending ten minutes trying to remember how to spell “potpourri” because you’re too proud to look it up.
  2. Expectation: Writing elegant rhymes to express your emotion. Reality: Sounding like an angsty Dr. Seuss.
  3. Expectation: Writing free verse poetry that seems authentic and avant garde. Reality: Sounding like an angsty and, now, drugged Dr. Seuss.
  4. Expectation: Scribbling thoughts on random scraps of paper because inspiration strikes at unexpected moments. Reality: Looking like a conspiracy theorist at best or a serial killer at worst as you frantically try to assemble your notes.
  5. Expectation: Making keen, discrete observations of your surroundings for later use. Reality: Looking like a creep when you make eye contact with a potential character and being mistaken for a critic as you analyze your favorite cafe.
  6. Expectation: Having movies and theme parks made after your bestselling novels. Reality: Writing silly blog posts late at night. (Unless you are J.K. Rowling, in which case the reality is still “having movies and theme parks made after your bestselling novels.”)
  7. Expectation: Carefully crafting characters that perfectly follow the planned plot. Reality: Controlling your characters is like herding winged cats. Not only are they cats, but now they can fly.
  8. Expectation: Planning a time to write and doing so in an orderly fashion. Reality: “THE VOICES IN MY HEAD SAID I MUST WRITE NOW!” (usually “now” is in the middle of another project, late at night, or somewhere without any form of writing material whatsoever)
  9. Expectation: People reading your silly blog posts all the way through and gaining an internet following. Reality: Your fan club continuing to consist mainly of your grandma, your best friend, and the fake cat lady blog your mom made to spam you.
  10. Expectation: Having many writing woes to blog about. Reality: Only being able to come up with nine and realizing that is also a problem you can add to the list.

I had fun jotting this down and think this might turn into another #WriterProblem series! Do you have any writing expectations vs. realities? Share them in the comments!

____________ Publishers Release New “Mad Lib” Editions Just in time for Holidays

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An excerpt from Gone with the ________, one of the classics scheduled for rerelease in Mad Lib Edition by _________ Publishers.

NEW YORK, NY- Prominent journal and book publishing company formerly known as Weakly Publishers has changed its title to “________ Publishers” in light of their new initiative, the ‘Mad Lib Editions.’

Books and journals formerly published by this company will be reprinted in new, special edition ‘Mad Lib’ format during this holiday season. Or, should we say, this __________ season.

“‘Mad Lib’ format is a new style we are very excited about,” said chief editor Richard Washy. “Basically, the reader is able to make the book or article into whatever they want!”

Mr. Washy went on to explain that this new format is simple in design but sure to thrill readers of all tastes because it has the capability of appealing to all by saying absolutely nothing definite. Any adjective, pronoun, or even name that is potentially off-putting to readers is replaced with a ___________ in which the reader may insert whatever word they would  prefer. This allows for a comfortable reading experience, which is perfectly in line with _________ Publisher’s mission statement of “Making the World a __________ Place, One _________ at a Time,” as well as their belief that reading is intended to be, as intern Kale McBirkenstock describes it, “a sort of silent Netflix, but with less thinking.”

Marketing specialists at ____________ Publishers predict that bestsellers of these new releases will include titles such as:

  •  Make America _______ Again
  • To ________ a Mockingbird
  • The Origin of ________
  • Moby _______
  • and, of course, the highly anticipated second edition of __________

The publishing agency declined to release more titles, but promises that upwards of 50 books will be reprinted as official ‘Mad Lib Titles.’

“I’m really excited about this initiative,” commented a popular paranormal romance author who preferred to remain anonymous. “It could really help the sales of my books to cut some of the actual writing.”

Focus group results are positive as well, with feedback such as:

“Wow! I never knew reading could be so much fun!”

“Wait, it says to insert a noun. What’s a noun?”

“I had no idea that all of the hobbits in the Fellowship of the Ring were female socialists! Wonderful plot twist!”

And, to the delight of Mr. Washy and the board of executives, “I’ve never before felt so comforted by a novel! Who knew that Where the ____ Fern Grows had such an uplifting ending!”

“It is wonderful to hear that already ‘Mad Lib’ books are making reading a pleasant, affirming experience for people of all preferences,” stated Mr. Washy at the close of his interview.

In the spirit of Mad Lib books, it does indeed seem that there is a bright, if indefinite, future for the _____________ of literature at _____________ Publishing.

Unravel

The irony is that I was unable to write this story for several months due to the demands of the everyday… enjoy! 😉

 

Unravel

Not another! she thought, plucking at a thread on her favorite navy blue jumper. It hurt her to pull on it, she was so fond of the old sweater. With a sigh, she tucked the mutinous thread back into the cuff of her sleeve. She could get away with at least a few more days of wear if she just didn’t make it worse.

The thread still poked out of her sleeve, casting a hairlike shadow over her exposed wrist. Even the shadow of it seemed the same navy color as the sweater itself. She squinted at it.

A scratch? Her declawed cat yawned innocently at her from across the room.

Ink?

Ink.

She laughed, fingering the Pilot G-2 gel pens (the only acceptable pen for writing, in her opinion) that sprouted from her pencil cup like a bouquet of blue and black flowerless stems. There were a few red poppies for editing sprinkled in between.

She clicked an old G-2 blue, the small sound echoing in the still room. The clip was broken off and the grip worn down to almost bear her fingerprints. A few shallow bite marks from either boredom or contemplation scarred its top. It was a loyal pen and something in her hand and heart relaxed as her fingers curved around it.

Oh! it was so tempting…

A fresh journal lay beside the pencil cup, its covers closed demurely yet the alluring white of its pages peeking out like petticoats.

Oh, falsely-shy journal! It was flirting with the pens!

Now, there was an idea, she thought. Suggestive yet sweet…it would make a delicious poem.

Without realizing it, the writer drew the journal across the desk toward herself. Catching her breath in anticipation, she peeled open the covers, relishing the sticky, creaky sound of an unopened book, when-

No! shouted a voice. That is, if voices that only exist in one’s head can shout.

What do you think you are doing?

Although audible only in the writer’s mind, it felt to her as if the voice were speaking from the planner that lay open on the center of the desk. Its covers, a gaudy pink, beckoned shamelessly, demanding attention and spreading its pages wide, boldly revealing ribbons of to-do lists, fake jewels of unchecked boxes, and tattoos of scribbled dates and numbers.

Look here! it called. Do you see all that’s written in me? Why write fancies anew when there’s so much to do!

It taunted her in rhyme, that imagined sing-song voice of her brazen planner.
But it convinced her all the same.

With a resigned sigh, the writer slid the disappointed journal aside and turned to study the planner, which seemed to blossom with pride.

To-do, to-see, to-call, to…, to… , to… she muttered. Between each “to,” she took a large swig of coffee, not even pausing to grimace at its cold bitterness. Only a few weeks ago, she would have been savoring a cappuccino in a cozy cafe, turning espresso into expression as she wrote the day away.

But not now! No. Now it was only black coffee to get the job done. Bitter, strong, and quick. Like her. Down it went and off she went. She rose and was out the door, planner in hand and gloating at the abandoned journal, before the final drop of coffee reached her throat.

When that last drop reached her stomach, two things were forgotten: the scorned journal that yet waited for her and the pulled thread on her sweater, which, hidden up her sleeve, was growing longer by the minute.

__________

Out! Out I say! The writer scrubbed vigorously at the dark line of navy ink on her left wrist, inadvertently channeling the spirit of Lady Macbeth as she wrestled with her own “damned spot.”

Why would it not come off? The shower, usually an everyday School of Athens for the introspective soul, provided no answers. She scrubbed at the stain until her skin was raw, but it only seemed to stretch further, winding around her arm and up towards her collarbone like a long, wet hair.

She gagged at the simile and began to worry about this seemingly permanent stain. And then her worry turned to wonder. It is, after all, the business of a writer to convert fearful “what ifs” into sources of intrigue; they lead to the best stories.

Soon she found herself lost in just such a story. The inexplicable, growing ink stain was forgotten once more as she explored a host of what-ifs that would have driven any non-writer mad.

She laughed at this.

The thoughts of a writer would drive a sane person mad, she shook her wet head. Not at all! A writer is a sane person driven mad and enjoying it quite heartily.

She rinsed her hair and sank back into wonder at her own imagination, not noticing that one of the hairs she rinsed was not a hair at all, but a winding blue thread.

An alarm shook her from her reverie. Slapping a wet hand over her phone on the counter, she stumbled into dry clothes- never mind that her hair was still crinkly with shampoo and her mind still lost in a brainstorm. The alarm, the bugle cry of her planner, had sounded and she must to arms! Or, at least, to-do lists. Wandering through wonderings would have to wait.

She jammed her ink-lined arm into her faithful sweater and, gasping as the autumn air nipped at her wet scalp, stepped out into the real world to begin her daily race of classes and errands and work. The chilled air and burdensome weight of reality warded off any lingering twinklings of inspiration. She did not even notice that the thread of her sweater and the ink on her skin were stretching and intertwining themselves like a double-headed snake.

She was a student by trade and a writer in spirit. She went to university classes to succeed, but wrote to survive. Words were her sustenance and product, the very stuff of her soul.

But time and cold practicality have little use for the substance of souls, especially those of the poetic material. So to class she went, shielded by a planner and marching alongside people who talked too much and read too little.

Stifling a yawn and planning her best route to the campus coffee shop for pick-me-up number three, the writer endured her first lecture of the day. She passed the time fidgeting with her pen, her fingers dancing like a baton twirler as her mind juggled her massive list of tasks, prioritizing and categorizing and thoroughly boring her into a daze.

But twirl and juggle as she might, she dared not touch the brand new Pilot pen to her notebook for anything other than bulleting lecture notes in uninspired print. Cursive and complete sentences were just too alluring…

She was startled into alertness by a change in the professor’s tone. His pitch sharpened and his words were accelerating. It turned suddenly from a monotonous, bagpipe-like drone to the exhilaration of a Dvorak symphony. How had she never heard his passion before? Her ears prickled and her mind whirred into action.

She was captivated. How had she not seen it before? That her professor was the epitome of the quirky, scholastic archetype? The soldier-straight busy work that passed for her notes veered sideways into looping script as she launched into a character sketch. But then-

“Your assignment is…” said the professor, droning once more.

The writer’s heart sank as her pen’s dancing died with the music of the professor’s impassioned speech. It returned to its steady, uninteresting procession as she recorded yet another task to complete, another deadline to meet.

Class was dismissed. She rose to leave, but gasped as the snag of her sweater caught on a rough edge of the old desk. She heard it rip as it stretched longer and felt a tear leap into her eye. Why had it hurt? Had she imagined that it hurt?

Carefully, she untangled the thread from the splintered desk and tucked it back up her sleeve. It was almost too long to hide now. As she pushed it out of sight, the ink stain caught her vision as the desk had caught the snag. Was it darker than before? And where was the hole in her sweater? But then the sight of her watch, ticking away her all-too-short lunch break sent her out the door without a second glance.

__________

Not again! shrieked the writer, wincing in pain as if she had received the worst paper cut she had ever had- and, being a writer, she had had many.  She reached down to unhook her sweater from the knob of her bedroom door, pushing her glasses up her nose, scrutinized the sleeve for the hole that must certainly have grown larger.

But there was no hole in the sweater. It looked brand new- albeit a bit faded from over a year of near-constant wear.

She pushed up her sleeve.

The ink line was still there, but thicker. It almost looked like a vein that had lost its place and was making its way to the surface. She rubbed it and cringed. An ink stain should not hurt.

She rolled her eyes at herself. It didn’t hurt. She was imagining things.

She pressed at it again, but this time a sharp pain sent stars across her vision. She cried out.

Her cat brushed against her leg, meowing in what she imagined was concern but knew was just annoyance that he had yet to be fed. He meowed indignantly.

Blinking back tears, she reached down and booped him on his pink nose. Patience, cat. Just one more assignment to submit, one more email to send.

He hissed. What cares had a cat for deadlines? He pawed at her hand.

Not now.

Meow?

Not now. Meow. Not now. Meow. The rhyming words and sound echoed in her mind as she scanned her planner. It was the closest thing to poetry she had been able to write all month. She felt a pang in her chest at the realization.

The cat must have felt a similar pang in his stomach, for he welcomed himself onto the desk, pawing at her hand and knocking the G-2 from her grasp. She ignored him. He was not to be ignored. He pawed at her wrist.

Good thing he’s declawed- might have snagged my sweater again, she thought absently.

The cat let out his most pitiful meow and nudged her writing hand with his nose again. He opened his mouth to protest once more, but it was her scream that filled the room. 

The thread was caught on his collar. It pulled. She watched it lengthen through vision blurred with tears. Why, oh why, did it hurt?

She fumbled to unhook it from his collar, but her movement startled him and the cat leapt from the desk, taking the caught thread with him. It pulled longer, yet the sweater remained in tact. She squinted down at her sleeve, baffled.

And then she saw – too late.

The pulled thread and the ink stain. The wandering vein. One and the same.

But the color was all wrong. It was navy at first, but then black like her hair and then speckled with the red of revising, the red of poppies…the red of her blood.

Blinding pain followed by a bizarre sense of release cut across her body as the cat drew the thread around the room. She felt for it and, grabbing it, pulled. Unsure what she was doing, she pulled the thread for what felt like forever, feeling it continue to stretch and grow like a magician’s scarf.

But it was not a scarf. It was not even a thread. And it was most definitely- she knew that now- not coming from her sleeve.

The horrid thought struck her as more and more poppy red flashed across her star-studded vision: it was not the sweater that was unravelling.

But it was too late to stop. She could not stop. Like picking a scab. She knew it was wrong, that it would not end well, but there was a morbid satisfaction in it. And so she continued to pull at the strand until it came to an end and was abruptly cut off and she, in snapping her own thread, had acted as her own Fate.

But she was no longer there to enjoy that poetic realization.

__________

The planner’s to-do lists sat as forlorn as the untouched journal, busy mistress and lonely maiden united in their abandonment. The bouquet of pens said useless and wilting.

The watch and alarm continued to tick away the minutes, but there was nobody but the cat to hear them. And what cares a cat for deadlines? He simply wanted his dinner, but was placated- for now- by his new toy. He had made it for himself- wasn’t he clever?- out of a loose thread. It was not quite as nice as a ball of yarn, but a pile of blue and red and black thread was just as interesting to a kitten; it felt just as nice batted between his soft paws.

His playtime was interrupted by a knock on the door.

“Rae? called a voice. “You in there?”

“Meow,” answered the cat.

“Not you,” laughed the voice, entering the room and wondering aloud where her roommate was. She’d missed dinner.

“Do you know where Rae is?” she asked the cat playfully, giving him a scratch behind his velvety ears.

He meowed innocently, continuing to tangle his paws in the mess of thread.

“Oh dear,” muttered the roommate. “She left her sweater behind!”

She picked up the sweater which lay crumped on the desk chair and folded it neatly before turning her attention back to the cat.

“What is it you’ve got there?” she reached down to untangle him from his creation. He bristled indignantly and strode out of the room.

She studied the pile of thread she held in her hands but then abruptly let it fall to the ground again as she felt a liquid seep from it onto her skin.

Bending down, she examined it. Were those-

They were.

Was it-

It was.

As she carefully fingered the thread, she saw that it was bent in unusual shapes- letters, words- strung together in a cursive script she knew all too well.

And the moist residue. It was ink. And something worse than ink. Navy, black, and red gel ink from the pens that were always scattered around the apartment.

She took a step back, staring in horror at the pile of thread on the floor. She could not bring herself to read the words written in the inky remains, but she knew whose they were.

A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.

She recalled a quote Rae had shared with her just a few days ago.

A non-writing writer is bound to unravel.

The Road Part Taken

In reading the poetry of Robert Frost for my honors college curriculum, I found myself hit by a wave of nostalgia. (Not to be confused with a “wave of nausea”- I’m not reading Nausea quite yet…)

Throughout the formative years of my adolescent life, Frost provided guidance and comfort. I did not read his work extensively, but I remember my initial delight in “The Road Not Taken” as my sixth grade teacher made her class memorize it before embarking into junior high school.

And I recall with warmth how “Tree at My Window” provided solace during the tragedy of my favorite tree being chopped down.

And, of course, I remember with delight singing the choral arrangement of “A Girl’s Garden” in my first choir and falling in love with the union of literature and music that has since become my life.

As I revisit the beautiful and intriguing world of Robert Frost’s verse, I am not only reminded of these memories, but convicted: Am I still journeying down the road less travelled but ultimately more worthy? Am I appreciating the beauty of the world around me as I used to love that scrawny tree? Am I pursuing the artistic philosophy that began brewing in my mind years ago?

Oh, Mr. Frost…you know how something as simple as a tree or a path or a garden might inspire a world of contemplation and I am in constant awe of such poetic power.

 

 

 

The Girl in the Red Dress

23517777_1510531702365350_5454757495854809805_nI am a pianist, but I have long suffered from stage fright. My junior undergraduate piano recital was yesterday and, true to my philosophy that no art is complete without a proper understanding of other art forms, I used literature such as Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to create program notes to give greater depth to the pieces that I played.

As I was writing these notes, I realized: Why not also use literature and this wonderful union of my two arts to ease my stage fright? What if I wrote a story tracing the ideal progression of  my recital and pretended that I was an audience member?

So I did. And, to my delight, it helped exponentially! Although I was still incredibly nervous, as soon as I stepped on stage, I was no longer scared little Ryanne, but the Girl in Red that I had seen perform her recital through the eyes of my narrator. It was marvelous! I felt like I had already seen the recital and so was able to imagine I was listening and enjoying the musical and literary journey rather than sitting on stage performing.

Obviously no live performance is perfect, but I felt that by writing this, I was able to play my repertoire more confidently and thus communicate their themes more effectively.

So, my dear musical readers, here is my recital in literary form:

Oh! I should tell you my program as well so this makes more sense:

  1. Piano Sonata No. 17, Op. 31 No. 2  I. Largo-Allegro by Ludwig van Beethoven  (1770-1827)
  2. Miroirs  II. “Oiseaux Tristes” (“Sad Birds”) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

  3. Années de pèlerinage II, S. 161 No. 7 Après une Lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata by Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

So a piece about the storms of life, lonely birds, and Dante’s Inferno. Fun, right?

The Girl in the Red Dress

We came by invitation, to see a girl we know. She’s quite a character…lanky, blonde, eyes that are intense one minute and twinkling with laughter the next, always writing or dreaming of writing, usually stepping in a limping time to a tune nobody else can hear. But she’s anxious. She overworks herself and doubts her work. She is likely trembling backstage now, her hands nearly purple with cold from the frigid hall and her nervous heart. Likely she is pacing and wringing these hands, trying to calm herself and warm them.

I send a quick prayer up past the cracked ceiling of the hall for her. Lord, calm her nerves and let her play with the excellence and emotion with which she has practiced daily.

As I whisper “Amen,” my hands join the chorus of clapping. She has stepped onstage.

But this is someone different. Still her…and yet not. She’s taller. Her arms are stronger. Her lips match her blazing red dress and yet the blue of her eyes flash and burn the brightest. The click of her heels echo through the hall, a measured drumroll for her own performance.

But she looks upward when she looks outward, as if her audience is not below but somewhere beyond the ceiling’s crevices, in the region my prayer just ascended.

A bow.

She sits.

Silence.

The audience scuffles, trying to hush the murmur of their program notes. Program notes…about books, of course. I glance down at them but it’s too dark to read now. To the glow of the stage I return.

The ghost of notes begin; substantial yet ethereal. How? I hardly dare to breathe, unsure whether I really heard them and yet they are resounding gently through the hall. It’s a mist of sound. And then the mist is broken by the steady gallop of a frightened yet determined human tread.

But the mist is back.

And now the running. It’s an uphill run- not fast but intense and ever moving.

And suddenly it’s a battle cry interchanged with a plea. And now a whirlwind. All melting seamlessly into each other.

But the mist comes again, for the adventurer has reached a peak in the mountain range. It is cold, yet clear, colors of sunlight radiating softly through the curtains of mountaintop clouds. Peace descends like a gentle rain, drawing us upward.

Then the battle rages once more, startling and yet not surprising…Did not we feel in our souls the same ever-present struggle of this piece? Beethoven was too knowledgeable. He knew himself- that is, he knew all of us – too well.

Another moment of peace…yet not peace. It’s a cry. The sound of an oboe as the sound of our very hearts. It is a recitative and it is reflective, but it is not weak.

And then a piercing urgency and pain returns, then whirling and, before I knew it, the piece concludes; urgent and yet not rushed. It is reminiscent of intentionally restraining the racing heart. Controlling our steps if we cannot quite control our fears.

Silence falls. I can see the moth-like breath of the girl in red; it flutters, shaky, but soft.

The scene changes. It’s still a mountain’s peak… Grey swirling mist abounds, but the girl in red leads us above it. We are alone. I am alone. She is alone. Everyone is isolated and alone. No man is an island? False. All men are mountaintops calling in vain to each other, wandering birds forever losing their nests.

It is beautiful but sorrowful. Something tugs in my heart at the harmonies, so blended and subdued but for a sudden flurry of frantic wings. And then faded again, as if the great shroud of mist has descended over us all, sealing out loneliness and separating us from the enduring and interconnected nature in which we have no part apart from our lost nests.

This silence is lighter and heavier at the same time. Something is coming. Something terrifying.

And then it does, in a trumpet blast. It is evil. Or no…not evil…something more terrifying than the evil that has become familiar. It is the best good. It is the Good. And I cannot stand to it and thus cannot but think it evil. The mountaintop that seemed a hermitage is opening up as a gaping prison beneath me and I stumble into it with a crying utterance too deep for words.

Is she bringing us into this inferno? Is she the girl I know or some spirit sent to administer justice of the most fearful kind?

The lament continues, more rhythmic than melodic and each note is a beat of my own heart, which is pounding at the walls of my chest in an effort to escape, but my ribs constrain it and it holds its time.

A reaching for higher aid falls back into lament. We have all killed an Albatross in our lives and this is our recompense.

Drum-rolls and rising tides. Shivers of terror more substantial than chains run down my spine and suddenly it is the distant beating of drums as they approach a funeral pyre…my funeral pyre.

But something is changing… the tonality is richer. Something of gold is in the flames of judgement and real gold fears no fire…but who put it there? Can it – this gold – be enough to pay my ransom?

And then in a burst of light made of every color, my soul is bathed in the burning purity of F-sharp major. It peels back my mask of sin and I realize this mask hid not my face but hid me from seeing the face of One too Great for My Sight.

But I can hear Him. Though I may not yet look, I might hear and feel and sense that the Almighty has won a victory. The victory. And I might dare to hope that He shall make me a soldier to share in this victory.

I take to arms within the deepest part of my being and when the trumpets of fearsome judgement sound again, there is something of my own determination in them.

And this determination brings the strength which is grace.

It is beautiful. I am swept into a lulling dance which turns to the song of Him singing over me. The powers of darkness might whirl around, but this song holds me fast, anchoring me.

It gives way to a beautiful dancing flurry which concludes with a declaration of coming victory, if only the judgement first comes.

Drums again. I feel the darkness creeping forth from its pit. It will not be contained, it says. It inches its way toward the hearts of men.

But that Great and Only Goodness is not touched. It’s dignity and perfection reign and the throne is not overthrown by these creeping, oozing things. It’s perfect order and rhythm and timing subdue them with a fear greater than any they could evoke.

And the song sings again, restoring my strength to finish this battle.

And I see it. I see this Light. Distant, but it is coming for me. I tremble yet rush to meet it.

Oh, glorious victory! Surely it is won!

But are those the trumpets of perdition I hear once more? Oh! the dwellers of the pit sneak forth again in chromatic slyness. They dance, the demons do, dance with a syncopation that is too easy to fall into. They crescendo in their final push.

But their frantic, Bacchic celebration of their own undoing is overthrown by the grace and gentleness of a waltz, which crescendos along with them into their end and its everlasting beginning.

The drums return, but no longer accompanying lament. Rather, it is a drumroll toward triumph. And the horns declaring this triumph continue longer than expected, but, after all, are they not to resound throughout all eternity?

Yes, Lord.

Amen, Lord.

I am shaken. Something has been purged from my soul. I barely register my hands applauding. How does one applaud the victory of the Lord?

But then I remember. This is a piano recital. An ordinary girl in a red dress is performing. This is a piano solo, not a divine judgement. But perhaps they are intertwined after all. Perhaps, even more than the Steinway grand, she herself was an instrument of the true Master.

Flowers and bows and the girl in red smiling as if she has won a victory herself, yet blushing and laughing with an innocent, overwhelmed delight at the same time.

She exits.

And returns.

More bows. More golden laughter, trilling softly beneath the thunderous applause of her loved ones below.

She winks at a friend, signaling him to stop clapping and waits for others to follow before she invites us to tea and scones.

Tea and scones? After this moral turbulence?

I glance at my watch. It’s only been thirty minutes.

Alright, then. Tea time it is.

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Also in the interest of combining arts, I used this stunning painting “Le Femme en Rouge” by Impressionist artist Giovanni Boldini for my recital posters. People kept asking how I got someone to paint me…