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Changing Narratives

In a world of changing narratives: The hero always gets the girl. And sometimes that hero is also a girl.

The bad guy always gets what he deserves. And sometimes what he deserves is to be seen not as categorically bad.

They ride off happily into the sunset. And the next day, they have the minutiae of life to attend to once again.



We Could Not Stop for Death

This is a reprint of a previously published article (circa 2007), but given the recent spate of deaths in both the public and private spheres (including the incredibly swift passing of Podiobooks author PG Holyfield) I felt these sentiments needed to be brought back up.


A friend of a friend passed away earlier this week. The young man in question was 29 and had died due to complications from a blood clot. Although my friend was only calling for a shoulder to cry on, I offered to take him to the viewing and then to the funeral, because I knew he did not have many people he could rely upon for support.

The last time I had dealt with anything funeral related, it was when we were finally burying my mother. I say finally only because she had struggled with cancer for nearly thirteen years. Throughout those thirteen years, the doctors had warned us repeatedly that she had only months to live, and then she would rally and fight the odds. Because my mother's death was something I had learned to expect and even plan for, I was pretty placid throughout the whole affair. She called me up right before she went, and although she could barely talk, we could each feel the other through the connection. Later, I believe she appeared to me immediately after she died to offer a final goodbye.

As much as I was in a good emotional place to deal with my mother's funeral, it was still stressful. I had a lot on my mind, and I wasn't really able to detach completely from the situation and observe. But at this ther fellow's funeral, someone I didn't even know, I had no emotional investment. I was there as emotional support for my friend, but otherwise, I was simply a detached observer.

What I saw bothered me a little. Now, I'm not bothered by death myself -- it is an inescapable reality -- but I realize that we live in a culture that has a very unhealthy attitude toward death -- we try to avoid it, ignore it, pretend that it's just not there. What this meant at the viewing and later at the funeral was that there were a lot of people between the ages of 20 and 35 who were just wandering around with this lost look, not knowing what to say, how to say it, or even where to begin. There was a lot of hugging and holding and crying from the older folks, but as for the young man's peers -- well, were we ever taught how to handle death?

My friend kept looking to me and asking about protocol. Since he was just a friend and not part of the family of the deceased, was there something different that was expected to him? When was it appropriate for him to view the body? Should he leave something as a token of remembrance? Should he go and offer his condolences to the mother, even though he didn't know her? What -- aside from stand around awkwardly along with all the other GenXers in black -- should he do?

I didn't have a whole lot of answers. What is expected of us when we stand in the face of death? How are you supposed to respond when you are reminded that death is not just something that happens to the old and the frail? It made me wonder how I would handle things if the person in the casket were a relative of mine. (I didn't cry for Mom but her death was so obviously a release from pain, how could I have?) Shudderingly, I wondered how my reaction would be different if the casket was one of those tiny, tragic coffins that cradled the body of an infant or child. Has anything in this modern life adequately prepared us for the reality of death?

Personally, I think that we are at a disadvantage when dealing with these weighty issues because our culture's widespread policy on death is to pretend it isn't really there. We hide it away, passing the bodies of our dead into the hands of strangers to be prepared and sanitized and made all pretty for the viewing. We run from the shadow of the death as time stamps it inevitably upon our own visage with anti-aging creams, facelifts, Botox. And even our cemeteries now look more like golf courses, the memorials flush to the ground so we can look upon a field of the dead and pretend that there are no bones curled sleeping beneath the verdant waves of grass. But unless we acknowledge death, we will still fear it, and when it happens, we will find ourselves at a loss of what to do and what to say. Like so many things in this modern world, death is something we need to talk more about so that when we must confront it in our own lives, we are not taken by surprise.



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The Writing Process

Writing is a madman's art.

(or mad woman's, or mad gender-non-specific's -- the madness doesn't care).

I usually reserve this blog for the finished product of that process -- stories, snippets, little prose windows into larger narratives that may be finished in some later form. But I think there's some value in talking about how those words come to be.

And they ain't kidding when they call it a "process." It's not a particularly pretty one.

Sure, there are days where the story flows like water and the fingers race to keep up. But that's not every day. And if you want to be a writer and you only ever write on those days, you will probably be one of thousands of "aspiring writers" who never makes it all the way to the end of a book. Because books don't flow like water. Parts of them do, but rarely the whole thing. The parts that don't flow like water are born in blood -- you rip them piece by piece from your screaming brain and reconstruct them on the page.

That reconstruction takes a lot of work. Blood, sweat, and tears -- it's a cliche because it's true. 

There are "writing process" memes that circulate on the Internet. If you write or you know a writer, you've likely seen some variation. It's a list that describes the cycle of "I love this, I hate this, why do I do this to myself?!?" that every writer goes through. That meme is pretty spot-on. I don't want to say you're not a "real writer" if you never reach a point of utter loathing for a work - a work that excited you just the day before - but it might be fair to say that you've never been fully swept up in the process if that hasn't happened yet.

Stories, when they still live, unrealized in your head, are easy. They're beautiful and perfect because they are not yet real. Bringing them into reality takes us right back to the bloody work. Victor and his monster. You stitch the words to phrases, graft the phrases into chapters, and when you have something vaguely story-shaped, you cut and cut and cut, deft as surgeon so the scars are never where the reader can see.

And sometimes, you end up with a piece close the vision that once lived inside your head. Sometimes, you get Victor's raw-boned and misshapen Adam, a miserable creation that shrinks from the world.

And every once in a while -- when the qualities of persistence and skill and imagination achieve elusive balance -- something tremulous and breath-taking arises from that pile of blood-ink and verbal viscera. It stretches impossible wings -- and soars



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The Scorched Circle

A snippet, from a world where a young woman who thought she'd escaped from her past returns home only to discover her mother's secrets were much stranger than she ever dared to believe. Gingerly, I approached the flat expanse of lawn stretching on that side of the house. At one time, I seemed to remember a garden there. That was a long time ago, however, and now the smooth square patch was covered with over-long grass like everything else.

“Do you really want to do this?” I asked myself. But I kept walking, so obviously, some part of me did. That, or I was too exhausted to know any better.

The patterns I’d seen from mom’s studio weren’t as obvious up close. I had to bend and brush some of the grass aside to see any vestige of the strange markings. Once I did, however, I pulled my hand away in shock. The ground wasn’t just a little discolored. It was scorched. In a long, arcing line maybe an inch across, the grass was burned down to its roots.

None of the grass on either side of the line was even singed. That made no sense. I wasn’t even sure it was possible. I ran my finger along the dry, dark earth. My whole arm tingled like I was gripping a live wire. I jerked away, reflexively shaking my fingers. The sensation seemed to cling to them even after I withdrew.

Around me, a wind gusted up, whipping suddenly through the grass. The great bare branches of the oak creaked, and the heavy wind chimes on the porch clanged like alarm bells. I stood at once, my hair blowing wildly around me. The wind was coming from the northeast, the direction of the cemetery. Maybe that didn’t mean anything, but I hurried to the front porch anyway, feeling uneasy.



The Nature of Fire

This is one of those unclassifiable pieces that is neither poetry nor prose, yet combines elements of the two. A short insight, pensive and lyrical. The file, drawn from my "Fragments" folder, is dated 4/13/2004. The Nature of Fire

A force of nature is neither wrong nor right. It simply is.

Fire can either destroy or renew. It depends on how it is used. What acts upon it to achieve the end result, that is where praise or blame should lie.

If you reach out and touch the fire, its flames will burn you. Does this mean you should hold the fire accountable for your pain? Judge yourself rather for putting your hand in the way of something that can do you harm.

And even so, if you have learned henceforward not to touch the flames, is it so terrible a wound? A small pain now can forego a larger disaster later.

--M. Belanger


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The Rose Garden

Author's Note: This is from the unpublished collection Fairy-Tales for the Disenchanted, the same anthology that holds both the Long-Suffering Queen and Pills and Potions. The Rose Garden

A woman once tended a glorious rose garden, which blossomed all the year with huge, white blooms.  This woman had a daughter, and when the daughter was old enough to go out into the rose garden, the mother reluctantly agreed to let her go out for a bit each day.

However, the woman feared for her daughter for she knew that the roses of the garden had sharp and wicked thorns.  So every day, the woman went around the rose garden, plucking off the thorns.  The garden was big, and so she could only attend to her task in stages, and for this reason, she forbade her daughter from going into any part of the garden where she had not first pulled off the thorns.

Then one day the woman had to go into town on an errand.  She was gone longer than she expected, and her daughter, impatient for her chance to view the splendid blossoms of the garden, opened the gate and went in alone.  Without her mother, however, she did not know what part of the garden was free from thorns.  She determined not to let her fear of being pricked keep her from enjoying all the beauty the garden had to offer, and so she roamed around it all day and late into the evening.

As she explored the garden more thoroughly than she ever had before, she became aware of a particularly comely rose bush twining upon itself in the very center of the garden.  The white blossoms were huge and heavy with fragrance, and the daughter determined to have the largest one for her hair.  She pushed past the grasping canes, stretching herself out to her full length to pluck her prize.  Just then, her mother returned from her errand, and, seeing what was about to transpire, she called out for the girl to stop for she had not yet taken the thorns from that particular bush.

Either the daughter did not hear her warning or she did not heed it, for she grasped the blossom in her hand and plucked it from the bush.  As she did so, her finger caught on a thorn.  She gasped in surprise and wept a little, but held the blossom all the tighter for the pain.  Once she had plucked it, she marveled at her prize, for the flower she held in her hand had been stained a deep crimson by the blood from her wound.

Her mother admonished her severely, but the daughter grew to love the thorns on the roses. Certainly that first crimson rose was more precious to her for the pain that it had caused.

-- M. Belanger

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Author's Note: It's no secret that I'm a fan of H. P. Lovecraft. I discovered H.P.'s weird tales through Stephen King, who cited Lovecraft as one of his own influences (thanks to my grandmother's love of his work, I was reading Stephen King from the tender age of 9 onward - which may explain a few things).  Several of my early short fiction pieces were written in emulation of Lovecraft's style, such as this bit of flash fiction, penned in 1994: Sacrifices

I do not know whether you can hear me, my love. I do not know whether you can understand. Your glaring eyes gaze sightlessly into my own as I clasp you to me, but I cannot overlook their heretical glint of reproach. It stabs at me even as death steals the luster from those twin orbs that so recently read the truth in the pages that led us both to this glorious and forbidden ritual.

Your final lack of faith was the ultimate treachery. I only did what was necessary. I did what needed to be done. You agreed up until those last few moments. You understood that sacrifices had to be made. It was in our power to usher in a wholly new age, to awaken a force which could shatter the barriers of our narrow little world. With just one sacrifice, and we could lift this petty little world up to realms where the gods themselves fear to tread.

Together we agreed that our fear was merely a symptom of ignorance. Together we agreed that we could not withold that gift which was ours to give to blind humanity. We had endured so much to gain the necessary formulae. We shared in gathering the materials for the ritual, we chanted the forbidden syllables in glorious unison. Never, until that final moment, did your voice falter. Not once. But didn't you realize, my love? We all had to make sacrifices. Why must you glare at me so bitterly? You got the better end of the deal, I assure you. I had to sacrifice the thing I held most dear. You -- all you had to sacrifice was your life.

I will miss your scent and your soft, soft touch as I walk through the shadowed corridors of this brave and terrifying new world. And I will think on you fondly every time I lay eyes upon the eldritch creatures born of your spilt blood. What price is a little pain to become the mother of terrible new gods? What all-too-human weakness could possibly have prompted you in that last moment to cry, "No!"

Despite your repulsive instant of cowardice, I shall continue to kiss you and, as is my duty, spill my seed. The old world crumbles around me, and in just a few breaths, I will look upon the new world with the lambent eyes of a darkling god.

I promise: I shall carry your memory with me eternally. And in time, I know that you will forgive me for what needed to be done.

As for myself, I have aeons to decide whether or not I shall ever forgive you.

--M. Belanger