A Writer’s Notebook: NaNoWriMo 2011, week 2

This has been a strange week. If you’re following my daily word counts, you’ll see a lot of spikes and dips: on days I teach, my word count plummets, sometimes into the mere hundreds; then, on days I don’t teach, it leaps up as I try to make up for lost time. So far I’m running slightly behind par, but maybe this weekend I’ll catch up again.

Another thing that’s strange about my writing: I’m rewriting a lot. That’s technically against the rules, and really, I’m not deleting much of what I’ve written even as I change course in the story I’m working on. But I’m changing course a lot.

This is turning out to be a good thing, though, because I’m cutting a bit looser and tackling some strange ideas I hadn’t expected and might not have tried otherwise. Like telling a story in the form of artist’s notes on the gallery he’s inventing in his head, or telling a story from the perspective of elephants.

from “The Bones of the Long Forgotten”

We are elephants. This is a human. This human is dead. This human was tall but frail. This skin is drying, this skin feels like my skin. These bones — some are underneath this skin and some are poking free — were old. This human did not die of disease. This human died in pain. I remember this human. My sister remembers this human. My uncle remembers this human. We remember this human. This human was a woman. This human woman was called a name, other humans called this woman a human name. We will remember it. Together, we will remember it.

This human’s name was Martha. She was with us many days, but we have agreed she was not someone who belonged to our zoo. She was a visitor, but not like the visitors who come to point and talk about us and click boxes aimed at us. She wore different coverings on most days but always one piece the same. It smelled the same. We cannot make out the shape or the color very well, but it smelled the same and felt the same. She is wearing it now. It is dirty, it is covered in burned earth and rock dust and there are small holes in it that smell charred, it is thinner somehow and we think something has been eating its fibers, small insects or maybe a mouse. But beneath all that it is the same covering. It is something she wore because she was here, on the days when she was here.

[…]

But here is Martha. She has come to us. All the other humans left. Our friends and feeders and washers and carers. We remember the days when they gave up, two or three at a time. They cried. We cried. They shouted at us but not in a mean way. They were distraught. We could tell. We felt the same way. But you get a sense of these things, and after the first several humans left, we discussed it and realized that they were leaving to be with their families. We are with our families. So we understood. We wished the humans well. I think they understood.

We aren’t sure how much family Martha had. She spent so much time with us. She was not in here, in our home, the way the feeders and carers were. But sometimes she came inside. We let her. We liked her.

We are sad that Martha has died.

from “Like a Cold, Heartless Whore”

We said they’d kill each other in the end. Now we argue about how true that was. It’s up for debate. It’s hard to say.

We all started out in the Seaview, a whole bunch of us up on the top floors. There were six rooms. Well, four. Three of the rooms lost the walls between them and everyone wound up living together. None of us is sure how many rooms there were to start with, before the waves came in. That’s just not one of those things you remember.

There was the older couple on the outer wall, who we all expected to die of exposure right away but who’ve turned out to be heartier than any of us. Ruth and Friedrich. That was his name, insisted we all pronounce it correctly. Not Frederick, but Friedrich, with a lilt on the first syllable, drawing it out. We were not allowed to call him Fred, nor Ruth Ruthie.

There was the larger room next to us, the peak of a separate building, where the family was. They’d rented a whole two-story building, three bedrooms and a kitchen and a large living room. When the waves started, they headed upstairs, and then the water climbed higher and they broke through to what would have been the attic space if there’d been an attic, and they clung to the rafters and the roof supports. The outer walls facing us sheered away, same as all the buildings, and the ceiling dropped out from under them and they were all left straddling wood beams like playground equipment, frozen in some bizarre family snapshot. Two dads and two kids, a boy and a girl, the boy ten and the girl eight. We asked. Took them a while to get chatty, focused as they were on hanging on, but soon we learned all about them.

from “Everything Created Will Be Joyously Destroyed”

I walked my neighborhood today. No stockpile runs or scavenging. I just needed to get out. The winds are quieter and the ashfall is less, and the air is wetter which keeps the worst of it on the ground instead of in the air. I think the forest fires must be dying down, or the volcanoes are settling, or both. I remember old weather reports, the problem of warm fronts meeting cold fronts and all the unstable wind that could produce. Down south it made tornados. Made a few up here, these last several months, but I bet the south really got hammered. I remember a few years back, when it was just our own shitty weather that made all the storms and the wildfires and the flooding, and there was this one summer that had just hundreds of tornados all through the south and the midwest. I think there were two or three whole towns and half a big city that got just flattened in those storms. That one in Missouri wiped clean off the map. I remember the photos on the news, the only sign of the city the grid the streets made. Nothing but shattered lumber like pick up sticks, plastic bags caught in the stripped limbs of the two or three trees left standing. Man, that was a horror to look at. And we had no idea.

I bet the whole south, the whole midwest must look like that now. It must be like Mad Max down there.

Here the tornados stayed mostly east of the Cascades. Which I figured. I figured on a lot of things: I knew people would panic, I knew they’d run. I knew once they’d gone I’d have the place mostly to myself. I knew they’d raid a lot of the stuff I needed but I knew they’d leave plenty behind. I’m like that Oklahoma landrush in reverse. Used to be the first man into a place gets to claim as much as he wants, as far as he can see. Now it’s the last man standing. And I do love my neighborhood.

It’s nice to get outside like this. I think in the coming weeks I’ll start a formal inventory. No sense letting all this space go to waste.

from “When I Sketch a Clean, Measured Line”

Day 112: Self-portrait (reflection).

Soap scum and dried suds on a broken mirror.

This piece is unlikely to last long. Even in the best museums, with their humidity controls and their giant vacuum-seals on all the gallery rooms, sooner or later someone would breath on this wrong and the moisture will melt the soap away. That forelock I still insist on styling in my bathroom each day, it will come undone, will slide over my forehead until I look less like Christopher Reeve in Superman and more like Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. Until I look like Peppermint Patty in Peanuts. And my face will begin to dissolve, too. My cheekbone will droop, my iris will slip from my eye, or my eye from its socket, and will spill down the surface of the mirror, down my drooping cheek. My arm, which I’m holding crooked around my neck to grasp the back of my head in an imitation (I won’t say how good) of Schiele, it will relax and unfurl across the glass, a slow wave as from a parade float. Perhaps my hand will remain in place and I’ll be waving with only a stump. My pectorals will descend, my stomach will sag, my penis — yes, that’s my penis — will soften. With enough time, or enough people there to gaze upon it, this piece you see now will simply dissolve to become just a streaky cloud on an old mirror.

[…]

Day 154: A dead beetle (found art).

Mixed media in ash-plaster.

On the trail that runs past my studio in Forest Park, among the fallen twigs leaves and now-ancient tracks of mountain bikes half-buried in wet ash, I found this beetle, dead but whole, collapsed head-first into the ash. No deep-treaded hiking boot had crushed his black shell; no surviving forest bird had snatched him from the leaves. He was exactly as you see him here: pristine, glistening like a gem, like the onyx oval in my class ring. (I can’t believe that I still think of things like class rings. But there it is, an association with a forgotten world.) He is the first insect I’ve seen since this all started, though of course I hear them in the undergrowth at night, sense them crawling the old stone walls of my studio. And the more I studied him there in the ash, the more sure I become that this was probably the first insect I’d ever seen who had died of old age. I bent down to see him, thought how wonderful it must have been for him to lay there in the dirt, sucking last oxygen through his shell, and think, This is it — I’ve made it unmolested, I have reached the end. Through all the world has witnessed, not just in the months since the impacts but before then, the wars, the weather, the human swarm marching over the earth. And here he has made it, like the rest of us, grateful to die quietly.

Total word count as of this post: 17,827 words.

For more about my NaNoWriMo project, check out my NaNoWriMo page here or my profile on the NaNoWriMo website.

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