Here’s a confession: I’ve been writing poetry on the sly, not just poetry, but poetry for grownups, emotional poetry, with little held back. Some poems are lighthearted, some intellectual, but most follow my obsessions: aging, death, fairytales, family history, and my mother. You would make discoveries about me if you read these poems, although not so much that you could be blindfolded and pick me out at a party!
This is a cheerful-ish poem. Kids can read it too, maybe best at Halloween. Truncated means shortened, like a skull’s nose is. Lurid means gruesome. If you don’t know what gruesome means, look it up. You’ll be glad you did.
I bought a wooden skull in Mexico City, big
as my own skull, weighs over a pound and a half.
I have no clue what my own brainless skull will weigh.
This skull’s home, where it doesn’t live (ha, ha, yuk, yuk),
is my bookcase. I could hang it from the ceiling,
but it’s better recessed. Its eye and ear sockets
are bright red inside, red up its truncated nose,
red outlining the mouth and each widely spaced tooth
(ten of them), pink blush on its cheekbones and blush
on its scalp where a Mohawk would be, a black line
across the eye ridge and circling the ear sockets,
flirty eyelashes, squiggles drooling down the chin,
stippled stubble under the cheekbones. The jaw, once
articulated, is stuck, but I can chatter
the teeth. If you can’t picture it, I can say it’s
lurid but likable. I named it Death, Mister
Death or Missus Death, hard to tell which, its gleeful,
gap-toothy grin alive while it croons, Come to me.
End of poem. You’ve learned about something in my office. The skull makes me happy. It’s the funny side of death
Fiction reveals the author too, although not in such a direct way as my poems do. I used to read a lot of science fiction. One of my favorites was Robert Heinlein. Looking back, I’m aware of themes in his books, of government, an individual’s relation to society and authority, and group cohesion. I wonder if his friends could detect these interests without reading his novels and short stories.
In some of his books, Frank Herbert was into group-think and hive mentality, which he portrayed in a gossamer style that fascinated me. On the other hand, Isaac Asimov seems Herbert’s opposite: logic over emotion, disciplined plotting, full of surprises, but no confusion.
The books of all three are worth sampling. Heinlein wrote for children as well as for adults. If you’re under thirteen, I’d say, stick to his children’s books. In my recollection, Herbert and Asimov are fine for kids ten and up, but check with a parent or a librarian to be sure.
These writers are dead. However, if we could know them, live with them for a while as a guest, we might nod and say Ah ha! I get it. If we could watch each of the three of them brushing his teeth on You Tube, we might see confirmation of what we find in their books. Would Asimov be systematic (front side of the upper teeth first every time, back of the upper teeth next) and fast (he was an astonishingly prolific writer)? I imagine Heinlein talking with toothpaste in his mouth, and his brush is a contraption he invented. Herbert brushes with his entire household. If I were living there, the bathroom counter would be long. I would line up with Herbert, his wife, and two sons. After a few strokes, we would automatically and unconsciously be up-and-downing in unison.
What can you learn about yourself from your stories? Well, are you a conscious writer? Do you figure out in advance what your theme, perhaps your moral, will be and then work your story around it? Even if you do, what creeps in and infuses the ideas without your knowledge?
Do you write about a character who wants something that is hard to get and shape your story out of your character’s approach to obstacles? What kind of main character appeals to you? What kind of obstacles?
Are you pulled into a story idea, first and foremost, as I am? How do you play with the idea? What kind of characters do you build to fill the roles your story calls for?
I’m convinced that no matter how we writers approach writing stories, our deepest feelings get into the act. We can’t avoid lowering a net, often without meaning to, deep into the quiet lake of our – whatever – mind, spirit, subconscious, soul, emotions. Strange fish swim into our stories, stir the plot with their swishing tails, light the water scape with their incandescent scales, and let us enter behind their strange eyes, where we see colors not visible to merely human vision.
I don’t know what I’ve really been writing about until after I’ve finished a book, which serves the book well. If I understand what’s going on, I’m likely to shape events to follow the underlying thread, and then predictability results. Usually my books are about problems I haven’t been able to resolve (like obedience). Writing the book doesn’t fix anything. I’m still too obedient, but now I’m more aware.
Of course, the meaning I discover eventually is often entirely different from the meaning my readers come up with.
This isn’t a writing prompt; it’s a return-to-the-scene-of the-crime prompt. Reread a few of your stories, or just think them over. Consider what meaning they have for you, what you may be telling yourself. Ask friends to say what they derive from your stories. An unacceptable answer is that you write well or don’t write well. You want to know how the story added to their understanding of you and of themselves. This is hard, so don’t push if they come up with nothing, and don’t conclude that your stories have no depth, just keep the question in your mind. Ask other people. If your curiosity grows, make a pest of yourself. When you write your next story, after it’s finished and you’ve been away from it for a month or so, go back to it and ask yourself the same question. Have fun!