I am starting off the new year with a writing push: this week and next. Yesterday was one of those terrific and productive writing days, which means it was also overwhelming and I got lost and could scarcely drag myself out to fetch a glass of water. I’m not sure there’s another way to do it, however, not if I want to get deep into the really good stuff, the access to the underground.
When I finished writing, around eleven o’clock, I was a restless ball of nervous energy. So I picked up a book. I gave it to AppleApple for her birthday (age 8), signed by the author, who is local: Plain Kate, by Erin Bow. Erin warned me that the book, written for young adults, is too dark for younger children, and should be read only by more mature adolescents and teens, but AppleApple is an avid and wide reader, and she wasn’t frightened by the Harry Potter series, which seem pretty dark to me. So, AppleApple started Plain Kate, and got nearly the end, absolutely devouring it; and then suddenly stopped, shut up the book, and could not go on. It was too scary, she said. Since she’d obviously been taken by it, I wanted to know why it was so scary. She couldn’t articulate it. When I picked up the book, I understood why.
Plain Kate is a gorgeously written evocation of a dark imaginary world that nevertheless feels not invented but real: the setting is vaguely Eastern European-feeling, and the time is time past, when superstition flourishes, and magic is real and feared. Kate, the protagonist, is an utterly unprotected and orphaned child with a gift for carving, an outcast accused of witchcraft who must flee the only town she’s ever known. I won’t give away more. (I should also add that, inspired by Kate, AppleApple requested “carving tools” for Christmas, which we tracked down, along with protective leather gloves, so she now has her own carving kit; one evening, while she was reading Plain Kate, we found her sitting outside, in her coat, in the cold, on the back porch, whittling a stick; let me tell you, I love this child!).
So, a dark world; and having now read it, I do understand why AppleApple was too scared to go on (my plan is to read her, out loud, the last little section, because, not to give too much away, the book ends with cathartic brilliance). (And to quibble with the young adult designation, please know, adults, that this could just as easily be a book for you).
I was most intrigued by the author’s conception of magic: a witch possesses true power, but has to give of him or herself in order to receive or use the magic. In the book, the giving is quite literal: there is blood, and a lot of it. And as I read obsessively to the end (staying up till all hours), I thought about the magic that I attempt to access, when writing; I know it’s there, and I know I can get to it, but not without sacrifice.
In order to open my mind to the words, I have to open all of my emotional self: it feels, when I’m going through the process, that I am raw, that by opening my mind, I am exposing myself to the darkness and danger depicted in Plain Kate’s world. Margaret Atwood writes often, especially in her poems, about going underground, going down, and that’s what it feels like to me, too; that the underworld of the Greeks is more real than not. That the passage between here and there is always waiting. I don’t mean that I write about horrible and sad things, or that underground and underworld are synonymous with a kind of hell or darkness, only that so much of human experience sleeps under the surface, and we all know it’s there. Is it something to be feared? Maybe, sometimes. Anything powerful can overwhelm, for good or for ill. Power/magic/the divine isn’t to be sought out lightly. But anytime you’ve been moved by a ritual or a work of art, you’ve been touched by something under the surface, a powerful human connection held in common. Someone has gone under to bring back a piece of light for you.
That’s what Erin Bow has done in Plain Kate.
As I work today, I recognize what it takes to do this work: that in order to receive, I have to give of myself. I’m making it sound perhaps more exalted than it plays out in reality: sitting still and thinking and searching around for the words and placing them and then going back and replacing them, many times over, rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat. The toll it takes is on my body (restless, cramped, and still), and my relationships (my children miss me: “You’re working again?”; my husband misses me; I’m largely shut off from the outside world); and on my mind. I staggered down last night for a glass of water, finally, and I thought, good grief, I could not live like this. Imagine having all the time in the world to write: I’m imagining a nightmare. But I’m not a magician of brilliant creative powers, I have a more modest gift: I aspire to be a healer. I hope I remember this when writing time is short, and I am complaining about the ordinary everyday: folding laundry, feeding children, exchanging hellos in the schoolyard, racing to meet the demands of routine. That is where life happens. Just because it happens up here, out there, on the surface, doesn’t mean it’s superficial. I couldn’t go under, from time to time, without all the spirit-feeding everyday to sustain me.
Now. To see what’s waiting for me today.