The Mister and the Miss:Update 2

Here we are! Second instalment, up and available. For those who missed last week and want to catch up, I’m keeping an archive here. This week introduces our other main character, Caspian. Chapter titles will always clarify from whose viewpoint we’re looking. All feedback is always welcome. Enjoy!

2: Caspian

Caspian swore angrily and wiped one grease-stained hand across his face, smudging the dirt and sweat that had gathered there. He had already rewired this bike three times, and it still fizzled every time he tried to start the engine. The hydronic tubes kept overheating, and he knew that if he pushed them too hard they would shatter, and this would go from a fifteen hundred dollar job to a four thousand dollar job, not in a good way. He needed to get this done today, preferably before Lewin came out to check on his progress, and definitely before his customer showed up expecting a fully repaired Hydra. He’d already been looking at this for three hours, though, and it was starting to make his head spin. Groaning, he turned away from it and ambled towards the other side of the garage, haphazardly kicking a pair of pliers across the floor in the process.

He’d been here three weeks, and while he felt comfortable, he missed the familiarity of his father’s workshop in the Inner Circle. It was spacious, professional, a well-oiled machine, and for any question he could ask, there were at least six senior mechanics who would be happy to sit him down and talk him through the answer. The lack of resources in his current situation was, by comparison, castrating. He had limited motor plans, limited vehicle manuals, limited tools, and no one to ask for help. There was, of course, always Lewin, but it seemed counterintuitive to ask for assistance, when it was Lewin’s job to assess his capability. He had one year to prove himself, one year to earn his license, and every day and every job counted. He could feel the pressure knotting up in his shoulders, his mind stretched like a rubber band, and he wondered if he had been wrong to do his internship here, as an unknown, instead of taking his father up on the offer to do it at home. The Guild wouldn’t have minded; they were looking forward to accepting him as a member either way. He had insisted, though, that he be allowed to earn his title the same way as everyone else. He knew he already had an advantage, he knew that he was ahead of the game, but he hadn’t anticipated just how lonely it would be to run at this all by himself.

The door creaked open slowly, too heavy to allow for any quick entrance, and he straightened up, expecting to have to report a failure. Instead of his master, though, it was his master’s fourteen-year-old, and Caspian had to work to keep from rolling his eyes. Derek had been on his tail every moment since he’d arrived, and while normally he wouldn’t have minded, given that he had learned in much the same way, the kid was undisguisedly looking to cause trouble, especially for the young man whom he perceived was usurping his father’s otherwise undivided affections. Caspian couldn’t imagine what it would be like to grow up as an only child; he was the youngest of six brothers and one particularly fierce sister. They had all raised him as much as his parents had, but the constant chaos of their household had also made him embrace independence as early as he could. He’d never had a quiet moment at home, but in all the noise and colour he learned rapidly, adopting attitudes and ideas not expected in someone as young as he, and his eagerness and his curiosity had turned him from the annoying little brother into the favourite pupil, a happy receptacle for any lesson that might be taught. Given that his family had been so crucial in his formation and education, in some ways Caspian was puzzled as to how Derek had ever managed to learn anything. Did he go to school? Did he just hang around his father’s shop? He had no idea, and Derek had gone so completely out of his way to be a nuisance that he no longer cared to find out. Therefore, when The Pest entered the workshop, Caspian kept it short and straight to the point, uninterested in whatever “clever” banter the teenager might have in mind. “What do you need, Derek?”
He let the door close before he answered and leaned against it, the movement attempting to convey nonchalance but his darting eyes betraying his painful self-consciousness, and for a moment Caspian almost pitied him—only for a moment, though.

“I don’t need anything,” The Pest sneered. “Father sent me to check on you.” Caspian just waited, one eyebrow cocked into a display of skepticism, and The Pest nearly faltered, but then pressed on. “Perhaps he doesn’t think you’re up to the task. I still don’t see why he needs you for an apprentice.” There it was, the complaining, laced with whining, and the familiar insult. Caspian grinned broadly and pulled a relatively clean rag from his back pocket, sitting down at the workman’s bench and proceeding to scrub at his face and his hands. Nothing bothered Derek more than when his complaining was disregarded, and Caspian had started to enjoy it as a game, wondering how far he could wind Derek up before he imploded. In this case, his face turned red, and he abandoned his lounging posture to storm farther into the garage and look at the bike critically, still clearly in a state of disrepair. “This looks like crap,” he declared bluntly, and as much as he wanted to, Caspian couldn’t disagree. The bike had so far been impervious to virtually all of his attempts to get it running again.

“It could be better,” he admitted, and regretted it immediately when he saw Derek’s eyes gleam. The last thing he needed was the brat running to tell tales of his incompetence. “Tell your father that I already finished the Krasvitch project, and that Thornwell and Berrin should be coming by today. All I have left is the Hydra, and its owner won’t be around until late. Near the Venus hour, I think.”

“Wait, it’s a Hydra?” Derek asked, his surprise breaking through his facade of condescension, and for a moment Caspian wondered if perhaps there was more to this scrawny kid than his mortifying experience of puberty.

He simply nodded, and with a sigh pushed back on to his feet, stepping over and then squatting next to the bike, staring at the cluster of tubes and wires that he’d been trying to patch back up all morning. “Yeah, it’s a Hydra. Some kid was riding it around and managed to shatter the crossover tubing in three places, and now I have to figure out how to reconnect everything so that it doesn’t stall, put too much pressure on the hydronic cylinders, or lock into overdrive.” His voice reached something like despair as he spoke, reminding him of the enormity of this particular task. He knew he’d figure it out eventually, but he was running out of time, and what he really wanted to do was sit down the idiot kid who’d originally wrecked the bike and give him a long, thorough lecture on how to motor without putting himself, others, and most importantly his bike at risk. He couldn’t imagine how someone that young had even managed to get his hands on a Hydra, anyway, and he was shocked to be working on one so close to the Canal. The majority of the corporate shops were closer to the capital, and while the individually owned workshops were by no means lesser, with a model like that, most people would have chosen to stick closer to the manufacturer. It was a delicate piece of work.

Delicate piece of work. What about a piece of glass? If he could initially replace the shattered energy field with a glass pane and get the blue energy to interact with it, then maybe the two sides would reconnect. He would have to change the wires around again, though, which would take at least another couple hours. He pulled on one of his discarded mechanics’ gloves and scrolled through the applications to check the time—just past noon. He could manage it, but he’d need to start now.

His new approach firmly in place and his mind set to working on whatever problems he might encounter, Caspian began resetting his work station, clearing all the loose materials that had accumulated over the course of the morning. “What are you doing?” a voice demanded, and he belatedly remembered Derek, still standing next to the bike. Apparently the absence of the whiner had expired, and the sour expression on his face announced a return of his more sour attitude.

“I had an idea,” Caspian answered simply, and continued. How to get a piece of glass thin enough? He wondered, and pulled the laser cutter from underneath the counter.

“So can you fix it or not?” Derek asked, and Caspian sighed, realising that he wouldn’t be able to get any work done so long as The Pest was still in the garage. He turned around and leaned back against the counter, eyeing his adversary critically. Derek’s posture was always defensive, often angry, and always nothing more than a show, and this case was no different. He would draw his head up high, trying to show off his height, but his self-consciousness kept his shoulders crooked inward, and as a result he simply looked uncertain.

“Of course I can fix it,” Caspian said calmly, “that was never in question.” He saw Derek open his mouth to protest and raised a hand to silence him before continuing. “It was never in question. The question was only of how long it would take me, and if my idea works, then the answer is not above five hours. If my idea doesn’t work, then I have to start all over again.”

Derek glanced at the bike, and then back at Caspian. “My father won’t be happy if you don’t get it done on time,” he said, but it was an empty threat. Lewin wouldn’t be pleased, but he wouldn’t be the one dealing with the irritated client, so it hardly mattered.

“Your father trusts me to do my work.”

“My father—“

“Your father would love to know why it takes a half hour to simply ask the boy if he wants some lunch, as would your mother. She has sandwiches waiting.”

Caspian raised his eyes to the door and saw Lewin standing there, arms folded across his chest but an expression of clear amusement on his face. Derek straightened up as well, all combativeness fading from his pose.

“I just—“ he began to explain, but his father waved his words away, and he faded again to silence.

Caspian offered a short bow. “Master Lewin,” he said formally, and then relaxed after his patron gave a nod of his head in return.

The senior mechanic went over to look at the bike, unknowingly imitating Caspian in his squat from a few moments before. “What are we looking at?” he called over his shoulder, and Caspian glanced briefly at his notes, strewn across the work counter, before replying.

“Significant damage to the body, port and star, acquired in a multiple-motor accident. Separation of primary and secondary energy sources, and a shattered blue field. The superficial aspects were easy to take care of, but the reconnection of the two halves has been more of a problem.”

Lewin nodded slowly, his pale blue eyes still fixed on the body of the bike, and Caspian wondered what he saw, what missing links might be apparent to the master that had eluded the apprentice. Finally, Lewin stood and planted his hands on his hips, and he looked to Caspian. “So what do you intend to do?”

Instead of answering, Caspian simply gestured to the sketch he had started and his preliminary calculations regarding the thickness of the glass and the necessary strength of power needed to jump start the motor and fuse the two circuits. Lewin smiled broadly at his work, and Caspian felt a swell of pride at his master’s approval, even if the idea hadn’t yet worked. “You think it’ll work?” he asked, trying to keep his eagerness from colouring his voice overmuch.

Lewin shrugged, but his expression was undeniably pleased. “I don’t see why not, if you keep your figures squared. Better get to work, though, don’t you think?” and Caspian grinned, acquiescing.

“Do you need lunch?” Lewin asked, remembering his original reason for coming out.

“Thank you, but I’m fine,” Caspian replied absently, already lost to his work, snapping on his goggles and unwrapping a sheet of glass which would have to be reduced by at least half, no maybe a third would do it…

His master recognised the lure of the craft and suppressed a chuckle, remembering his own enthusiasm at that age. Once upon a time his world had been like that, shiny and inventive and curious, and he envied Caspian his youth.

Derek had stood by through this exchange, watching his father talk to Caspian with growing sullenness. He couldn’t comprehend the degree of trust that had been bestowed on Caspian, with full access to the house and garage and all his father’s tools, access that had always been denied to him.

He lingered, though, even after his father had returned to the house, and watched Caspian work, lining up the laser precisely so that the thin blue beam cut a line perfectly parallel to the surface of the glass. He kept quiet, knowing that if he drew attention to himself Caspian really would kick him out, especially with a deadline to meet, and he wanted to watch the rest of this process.

It didn’t make much sense to him. As far as he could tell, there were two systems at work in the bike, and due to the damage, they had separated. The trick was putting them back together— and there he lost track of the train of thought that had apparently made sense to the older mechanics. He supposed that it had something to do with the charge of the blue energy, and he knew that port and star described some sort of opposite qualities, but he hadn’t paid particularly close attention to that portion of Energetics last trimester.

Caspian knew, of course, that Derek had stayed. With an operation as fragile as he was performing he had to be in perfect control of his environment, and he resolved that if The Pest spoke even one word he would have to go, but as long as he was quiet it didn’t matter. Once the glass was cut, he set it carefully to the side and then went back to the diagram he’d done earlier of the bike’s wiring. It was some of the most complicated he’d ever seen, with four or five thin microwires where on most bikes there would be one thicker wire serving multiple functions. This specialisation in energy direction made the bike more efficient, and therefore faster. The fibres used were lighter, so they tore more easily, but the entire machine wasn’t as heavy as most motors, so it was also good for tricks. It was a beautiful piece of engineering, and as Caspian applied himself to once more adjusting the complicated colours that marked different energy functions, he despaired at the thought of turning the Hydra back over to its careless owner. That was the job, though, and he did his best to distract himself from the low standards of responsibility for motor owners.

Derek grew bored eventually, as Caspian figured he would. It wasn’t interesting work to witness unless you knew what was happening, and beyond the occasional spark, the bike appeared unchanged. Having stifled yawns with increasing frequency for nearly a half hour, Derek finally slid out without a word, and Caspian continued with his work.

Nothing compared to the reward when, a quarter to seven, the motor finally roared to life, and the grin that cracked his face bore all the satisfaction of a clever youth well-pleased with himself. Daedalus himself couldn’t have done better. With a sigh of complete contentment, Caspian stretched up from his place on the floor, his knees popping back into place, and went to collect a clean rag to erase all the marks of his labour from the varnished portions of the bike’s body. He hadn’t paid much attention to the paint job on those thin pieces of metal that held all the mechanisms together up to this point, but he had to admire the deep tones of onyx and purple that sparkled subtly once he’d wiped all traces of grease away. He wiped another rag across the seat, and then carefully set to work on the headlights, picking out any dirt that had collected in their crevices.

When he finished, the bike was beautiful, probably more beautiful than when it had rolled out onto the streets for the first time. It glimmered slightly in the white neon lights wrapped along the ceiling, and Caspian stood back for a moment just to admire it. Perfect.

With the adrenaline of the job fading, he finally realised how tired he was. He’d been at this since eight that morning, and besides the brief interlude with Derek, he hadn’t bothered to take a break. His father had often been guilty of the same behaviour at home, but his mother was there to bully him into eating or resting, and then there were seven children to burst into the workshop and distract him, make him smile, require his attention with school projects or scuffles. The joy of a job well done was a reward by itself, certainly—but Caspian wondered if his father hadn’t enjoyed those moments of interruption even more.

He didn’t want to regret his choice to come here. He didn’t want to miss home, miss the workshop and the capital, his father and his brothers and all their friends, their extended family. His mother and his sister, rolling their eyes endlessly in a house of boys while simultaneously indulging them, joining in their silliness. He wiped off his hands absentmindedly, but in his mind he saw the glowing table set with his mother’s dishes, given to her by her mother, and he heard the deep rumble of the mechanics’ voices in the front room, waiting for the dinner bell to ring, he heard his brothers’ laughter and saw his sister’s blush.

The scene he saw was so radically different from the bright, sterile light in the garage, the steel countertops and unfinished stone floor.

But the bike still glimmered there, and any glow that he felt the lack of, it magnified twenty times over.

He sank so deeply into his contemplation, running the same rag over his knuckles over and over again, that he jumped slightly when the knock finally came, and he scrambled to put away his gloves and goggles, the ledge he’d had the bike propped on, and as he hit the button to raise the garage door, he grabbed a broom and sent a few spare shards of glass scattering.

The night air rushed in on the heels of his client, and he gulped it down gratefully. Lewin preferred to keep the house shut up for the most part; they were close enough to the Canal that the humidity had the potential to accelerate any rusting. The constant air conditioning drove Caspian crazy, though. It tasted stale and stuffy, and the wind that rolled off the water was his bliss. Until, of course, the door has crept up high enough that the owner of the Hydra could duck under to reclaim his bike.

Caspian took an instant disliking to him. He looked like he was seventeen or eighteen, with blonde hair that hung too far into his eyes and surveying eyes that glanced around the workshop and then instantly dismissed it. Closer to the capital, copies of this exact individual owned the streets, and Caspian remembered all the days of posturing, the drag races, the endless jobs that made his father shake his head and his mother purse her lips, and the flashing lights of emergency vehicles spiralling down the streets to collect the remaining limbs of whatever idiots had crashed. The owner of the Hydra was just such an idiot, and Caspian wished dearly that he could simply refuse to return the bike. This kid could buy his way out of any cell and any rehab, and with one look Caspian knew that he hadn’t learned anything from the last crash he’d been in. Or caused.

“Is it done?” the kid demanded, and Caspian gestured to the bike without saying anything in response.

“It should run like new, Mister…”

“How much do I owe you?”

Caspian barely managed to keep himself from rolling his eyes too visibly. Most of Lewin’s clients were old friends who had been coming to this shop for years. Most of them wanted to chat, wanted to know how their vehicles had been fixed, what they could do for upkeep. Several of them had wanted to know his name and his father’s name, and he was hopeful for the networking opportunities this apprenticeship might give him. This apparently nameless boy was clearly not one of those clients.

“It’s 1500,” he told him, and watched with his arms folded across his chest as his guest counted out bills, handing them over in a clean stack.

As soon as the transaction was over the boy straddled the bike, experimentally revving the motor. It flared blue for a moment and then settled into a steady hum, and the kid laughed his approval and grinned. “Thanks,” he called to Caspian, and then ran off into the night, leaving the exasperated apprentice staring after him, pissed that anyone that thoughtless should own a Hydra.

He sighed and rolled his shoulders forward, trying to shed some of the day’s stress. The popped and creaked, but they didn’t feel any better. This was ridiculous. He needed a smoke.

He locked the boy’s fee in the cash box and then went over to his jacket, hanging on a rack by the door to the house. It was an old, beat up, brown leather jacket with scars all over it, a hand-me-down from his oldest brother. It would fall to pieces eventually, but for now it did the job. He pulled a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from the right hand pocket, and strode back out to the entrance of the garage, the door still gaping wide open. He glanced behind him, at the work he still had to do. It would wait. He had done good work today, he knew it, and for now he would let it all rest. The morning would bring new motivation to strap his gloves back on and get to work, but for now he was tired, and the darkness seemed incredibly inviting.

He turned his back on the garage and walked easily towards the water’s edge, the blue street lights giving everything a slightly surreal glow. For a moment, the blue and gold patterns on the water held him mesmerised, but as his eyes lazily followed along the shapes he realised that one of them was a murky silhouette. He looked across the way, wondering who else might be out here with him, when most of the waterfront had already closed down for the evening. Closer to the centre of the city, he knew the streets would still be alive with laughter and music, but out here the evening’s peace was an unspoken agreement, emptying the streets and sidewalks as early as seven, and leaving them deserted until morning. He found that he mostly didn’t mind it— it provided good time for reflection, for unwinding at the end of the day. His work hours required enough exertion that he didn’t necessarily want to be stimulated through his leisure hours as well.

But who else was out here, tasting the night with him? No one leaned against the railing on the other side, and most of the windows stood empty. Except one— there it was. She was three or four floors up, he couldn’t tell, with one leg curled around a bar in the balustrade, shoulders scrunched up and leaning forward on her elbows. She was dressed all in white, but her shoulders were bare and she looked cold.

He squinted at her, trying to make out her face, but the stationary street lamps on the Gallery side didn’t cast light high enough that he could see any detail. Was she looking at him? His stomach did a weird flip at the thought, and before he could overthink it, he waved.

She waved back, her small white hand just darting out to brush against the air, and he grinned. He decided he liked that she was there, sharing his solitude. He shook out a cigarette and fumbled with his lighter. His granddad had given it to him when he turned sixteen, along with his first pack, and had laughed when his mother pursed her lips in disapproval. She couldn’t stand the smell; her family didn’t smoke at all, but she had married into a family where the after-dinner light was tradition.

The lighter sparked when he clicked it open, and he had to try three more times before it flared to life. A moment later he exhaled a cloud of smoke, revelling in the taste of it. He would have to do some repair work on the lighter soon. The internal blue energy was nearly run dry, and the wiring was ready to burn away. He examined it more closely, running his finger over the delicate silver engravings that had been smoothed down and nearly worn away over time. Maybe in his spare time he could touch them up.

He leaned heavily against the railing, the cigarette slowly burning away and tumbling into the Canal slipping past. The scent of cloves hung thick in the air, and the familiarity melted away the tension from the day that still clung to his shoulders. And as he relaxed, the world expanded, the horizons rushing out until they vanished into the darkness, and he grinned. Here he was, already a few weeks into his apprenticeship, successfully completing his jobs and running his master’s garage. His brothers had all chosen the way of familiarity, and they were all happy and well-situated in the Capital, but he had to wonder if they realised how much they were missing. It was on nights like this that he could taste the possibilities, that the air was electrified with novelty and eccentricity. There had been moments, back home, when he had grasped at this kind of exhilaration, staring up at the constellations swirling around his head. He had dreamed of carving a new road into the world. His unadulterated optimism, still innocent of any touch of reality or cynicism, swelled up in him until he thought he would burst. The entire world glowed around him, the blue discs of the Garage bobbing slowly up and down and the ornate lights of the Gallery bathing the world in gold.

He’d grown up thinking that the Gallery was simply impractical, but staring out at it now, his breathing slow and steady, his cigarette dangling loosely from his fingertips, he could see more clearly practicality had specifically been sacrificed for beauty. Recolouring the blue light to make it burn gold was a waste of energy, but it softened everything it touched. Every curve in the railings or columns on the waterside buildings wasted materials, but they flowed together so sweetly. He had thought the Gallery must be dull compared with the electrified Capital in the heart of the Garage, but looking out over it, he revised his assessment. No, it didn’t spark, like the Garage, but it…pulsed. He couldn’t explain it, his sense that something was alive over there, but it made his heart beat a little faster and he leaned forward more eagerly, eyes desperately trying to pierce the shadows.

He glanced up again, at the balcony girl. She was still there, clinging tightly to her ledge, apparently lost in contemplation of the night, just like him. He squinted at her, trying to make out more detail, but it was too dark to tell. It was just as well. He imagined her with small, pink lips and wide eyes. Her hair was pulled back, he couldn’t even tell what colour it was. He wanted to call out to her, or wave again, or something— anything to acknowledge that they shared this moment.

He was still contemplating what he might do, how he might draw her attention, when her balcony was suddenly flooded with light. For a moment she glowed, the golden background causing her to swell in the darkness, like a queen overlooking her kingdom. In the next instant, though, she spun around, and he watched in rapt attention as another figure stalked into the scene.This one was tall and dark, too slight to be a man, but with a presence that made Caspian shiver even from his position safely on the other side of the Canal. The first girl, his quiet companion of the night, curtsied deeply to the intruder, and then stood stiffly while they spoke. She scurried into the light-filled room beyond them, and a moment later the black villain stalked after her, vanishing behind a curtain that swept against the balcony’s floor.

Caspian took one last long drag of his cigarette and then with a flick of his wrist let it tumble into the water below. His senses swam with the clove-coloured cloud long after he had walked away from his place along the railing, just as a small white hand darted behind his eyes long after he went to bed.

First Draft Tips

o-kay, es-say!

One of my brothers is currently a high school student in his junior year, and English is not his thing. He prefers math because it has definitive right and wrong answers, with formulas to follow that work every time. Now, he has to write an 8-page term paper worth like 20% of his grade, so I offered to help.

The other night, he came up to my room with his thesis paragraph, which he had to submit in advance. I remember thinking that having to submit at multiple points through the writing process was a huge pain during high school, but looking back I see the point. It’s incredibly easy to get overwhelmed with big projects like that, especially your first or second time doing them. Just writing a thesis statement, though? Not quite as terrifying.

My brother’s thesis paragraph was…a start. I don’t want to knock him too hard, but he said himself that it was a lazy first draft. I don’t think he realised when he brought it to me how much more work I was going to make him do, in part because he didn’t even realise how much work needed to be done. He started making what I call plaintive sighs, and then when he asked what “plaintive” meant, I made him look it up in my handy-dandy dictionary. I was highly amused. He was highly exasperated.

So, I’d like to throw out a few recommendations to make the whole “first draft” process easier. I know it’s supposed to be a no pressure thing, because it is, after all, only the first draft, but in working with my brother I realised how much more work we set ourselves up for when we don’t even try in that first writing.

Without further ado (that’s my phrase of the day), I present Madeleine’s First Draft Tips!

1) Brainstorming

This probably sounds like an obvious one, but I always used to dismiss it. Even now I don’t care for “brain webs” or whatever other kinds of diagrams they used to teach us. However, I am a HUGE fan of the free write.

This isn’t even just for first drafts; really, it’s for any time I’m stuck. I take a fresh sheet of paper, and at the top I write my prompt, or the sentence I left off on, or the question I’m trying to answer. That helps to direct my thinking and it gives me something to go back to. Then, I set a timer. Sometimes it’s for five minutes, sometimes it’s for ten, but whatever the length I keep my pen moving and my ideas flowing for that time. I know that I’m not going to use every single concept that I jot down, but some of them will be useful. The act of writing and just trying to keep up with my thoughts gives a voice to the connections that might vanish like smoke if I tried to take my time and analyse them.

I like this method of writing over webs or bubbles because it’s more transferable. I’ve already put my idea into words in a sentence, and if I can just re-pot into like a shrieking Mandrake into my paper, I will. Sometimes it needs some tweaking, but I think it’s easier than trying to fill out an idea floating in a bubble.

2) Answer questions

This goes hand in hand with brainstorming; it gives me somewhere to begin. If you told me to sit down and write a paper about Middlemarch right now, that’d be similar to throwing me into the sea without a lifejacket. “Write about a novel” isn’t much of a direction, but oftentimes that’s all we’re given. So, I narrow the topic for myself. If I have complete freedom in choosing my topic, I start with a scene I like. Then the question is, what do I like about that scene? What themes can I pull out of it? Why are they important?

Asking questions is a good way to squeeze out any general or generic statements, as well. My brother is writing about status, its limitations, and its factors in Mansfield Park. If he starts with a statement as simple as “Social status is an important element in Mansfield Park“, that’s not saying anything (he didn’t do that, thank goodness). We’re all guilty of writing those vague, filler statements. They rarely make a final cut. So, why not skip a step and avoid them from the beginning? Answer the questions that the filler statement begs. Whose social status? Why is it important? What kind of commentary does that offer, that social status is a primary aspect of the novel?

That’s a simple example, but I hope it accurately demonstrates the idea.

3) The BAR method

I hesitate to offer this one, because I relied heavily on it in high school, and then at college I realised it wasn’t flexible enough to fit every paper. Not everyone is writing a massive academic paper, though, so for high schoolers or those taking a Gen. Ed. Sociology 101, this might work.

I learned the BAR method my freshman year of high school from a history teacher who was, unsurprisingly, big on writing. It stands for Background, Argument, Roadmap. Your thesis statement/paragraph starts with background, or perhaps more accurately, context. DO NOT do a “From the beginning of time…” or “Through all of history…” statement. I know it’s tempting. Nothing is going to irritate a teacher or professor more, though, than a statement that general, and usually inaccurate, at the very beginning of a paper. If you have a fun fact or a quotation, this is the moment to use it. Think of this statement as a set of brackets: This is the space I’m working in! This is my context!

The argument is the heart of the thesis paragraph. It’s your actual thesis, what you’re trying to argue or display or analyse. If you’re having trouble because things are feeling too spread out, try to fit your thoughts into a one-sentence “this is what my paper is.” Or, try explaining it to a friend. Start with “I’m arguing that…” and then put it in as few words as possible. Whatever sentiment comes out is the one that’s most important, and that’s where your argument is.

The final piece, roadmap, is the piece that I usually abandon in favour of other formats. In high school, though, it worked. This is where you introduce your subtopics. Suppose I’m writing about the use of scenery in Jane Eyre. I want three different scenes that demonstrate the scope of my argument, so my roadmap specifies that I will be discussing the Red Room, Lowood School, and Jane’s bedroom at Mr. Rochester’s. Now my reader knows exactly where we’re going, and more importantly, so do I. It’s like planting an outline right there in your paper.

This is the disclaimer: sometimes, a three-pronged essay isn’t going to make the cut. Most of my BAR papers maxed out at four or five pages; I never could have stretched them to the eight pages I started needing last semester. When you have those bigger projects, don’t be afraid to mess with your format. If you can’t figure out a format at all, then write the rest of the paper first! It’s easier to do an intro when you already know what’s going to happen.

4) Use short sentences

First drafts are all about ideas and the connections between them. I tend to get lost in my thoughts, and then when I write them down they’re incoherent, hardly decipherable to anyone, including me. If I try to fit too many ideas into one sentences, I’m likely to lose all of them. My solution is to try and keep sentences short and clean in the first draft. Every idea has its own space that way, and nothing slips through the cracks. This way, in my second or third drafts, it’s easy to see clearly where my focus shifts or where it gets off track. I can delete superfluous ideas and combine or connect related ones easily.

It’s much more difficult to unravel a lengthy sentence of four or five clauses and try to remember what I was thinking when I wrote it– what were all the nuances I was trying to capture? Lengthy sentences tend to pop up in my brainstorming, when I’m writing as quickly as possible in order to keep up with my thoughts, but I try to keep them out of first drafts. I’m not as likely to lose concepts or connections from my brainstorming, because I almost always brainstorm and draw up a first draft in one session. I usually take a break between my first and second drafts, though, so I can’t rely on myself to remember exactly what I was thinking in writing the original. I need it to be crystal clear in order to confidently pick up where I left off.

5) Grammar

I know that some of you groaned at this point, and I apologise. It’s tempting to throw grammar and other technical considerations out the window when you know you’re not writing a finished product– no one will ever know. Every single draft, though, is an opportunity to clean up grammatical and syntactical errors. The fewer I make to begin with, the fewer I’ll have to find when I’m polishing. At every stage of writing, it’s important to look for those tiny errors that are the difference between an A paper and a B+. The more times I proofread, the more confident I can be that there are no typos or incompatible noun and verb tenses flying under the radar.

I also consider every draft as an opportunity for writing practice. I used to have a dance mistress who would say “Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.” Practicing something wrong develops bad habits that only become more difficult to break the longer they’re permitted. When I write in any capacity, papers or fiction, texts or diary entries, I’m aware of my grammar and the mistakes that I’m most likely to make, so that I can train myself out of them.

While we’re talking proofreading, I also want to share my favourite proofreading tip: read backwards. Start with your last sentence and work backwards to the beginning. That way, your eyes don’t glaze over technical issues because they’re following content.

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I hope this helps, O writers of papers! These methods have helped me grow as a writer, so if I can offer them to anyone else and speed up their process a little, I’m glad to. If you have any other good tips for first draft writing, let me know in the comments below!

The Mister and the Miss

This is the first instalment of what I hope will be a successful system of weekly updates. The Mister and the Miss originally came into being sometime last year, I think for NaNoWriMo. This is a story set in a city divided into two halves: the Gallery, focused entirely on the arts, and the Garage, focused on the sciences. The perspective flips back and forth between the two main characters, Caspian and Priscilla. Chapter titles will tell you whose voice you’re reading. Enjoy! All feedback is always welcome. ~M

1: Priscilla

As rehearsal ended and the other girls filed out, Priscilla let the chiffon of her skirt float back down, the overextended muscles of her body slowly relaxing and her pounding heart resuming a more natural pace. For a moment she followed them listlessly into the dressing room where, free of Madame’s glare, they gabbed and shrieked and laughed liberally, hair flowing and warm-ups covering their pink tights and bodies that glistened with sweat. Priscilla lounged in the doorway, arms wrapped protectively around her midriff and white-blonde hair remaining in its bun. Kristine and Lyla edged past her without a glance, speeding down the stairs arm in arm. Claire followed, calling for them to wait, and Violet, and one by one they all trickled out until only Penelope still stood there. Bobby pins littered the floor, and the heavy, sticky scent of hairspray clung to the air. Priscilla watched impassively as Penelope fastened the clasp of her pack and slung it over her back. She didn’t move as the other girl straightened and headed for the door, but her eyes lit up when Penelope touched a soft hand to her arm and whispered, “See you tomorrow, Priscilla,” before breezing past her in pursuit of the rest of the company. Only then did Priscilla move, turning to lean over the rail at the top of the spiral staircase, watching Penelope go around and around, until finally, without looking back, she slammed into the opera house’s back door and stepped into the sunlight.

The door swung shut and Priscilla took that as her cue. She turned out the dressing room’s lights as she passed, ignoring their tendency to spark wherever the wires hung exposed in the ceiling. Madame had already turned out the lights in the studio, but the mirrors still sparkled with the natural light bursting in from the open wall to the west. The sun was just beginning its descent, its golden hue giving way to red. Priscilla stepped quietly across the dance floor, spun once, then twice, perfectly balanced on the box of her pointe shoe, and as she gracefully tombéd out of her turn, she slipped through the long gauze curtains, the soft material clinging to her like a cloak, and moved out on to the balcony.

The balcony was a single, solid marble piece, artfully crafted and painstakingly installed. It was off-white, the floor sanded to look soft before giving way to the smoother texture of the walls and columns, and, staring at the ground, Priscilla could make out a huge spiral pattern in the unrefined grain. In this lighting, with the faintest hint of dusk spreading across the sky, the stone glowed a pale pink. The air typically began to cool at this time, especially here, right over the Canal, but the building was releasing the heat it had gathered through the day, and Priscilla loved the warmth. She paused and bent over to untie her pointe shoes, ignoring the deep pressure marks the ribbons left on her ankles. She abandoned her shoes there in the middle of the floor, relishing in the feel of the stone beneath the calloused pads of her feet, and went to lean over the balustrade. She could see the entire city from here; or at the very least, the entire Garage. The Gallery stretched along to her right and left, all safely on the east side of the Canal, but the Garage lay before her, beautiful in its symmetry. The streets were laid out in distinct blocks, with clearly defined intersections and an obvious pattern, the shortest buildings on the outskirts, growing taller and taller as they approached the city’s centre. The Capitol towered over it all, easy to see even from this distance. She watched as the sun caught the edge of the great golden dome, sending its light shimmering in every direction. By night, she knew the streets would all be lit with neon, cutting eerily through the darkness, and the Capitol would still glimmer, but with spotlights the size of the moon lighting it up from below. It seemed a whole other world at night, with the blue sidewalks and the hydropower street lights floating on every corner. It was a world no less bright, but far less transparent. Priscilla preferred it as it was now, with the brick buildings in the inner circles of the city giving way to the white-washed workshops and labs, leading all the way down to the waterfront.

If any part of the Garage could be called picturesque, and Priscilla admitted that even in this case it was a bit of a stretch, it was the narrow street and narrower sidewalk that bordered the west side of the Canal. The buildings there were all short and squat, many of them mechanics’ shops or plants that oversaw energy generation and distribution. Some of them, she had heard, led to fairly extensive setups underground, but from where she hung on her balcony, she never would have guessed. The street on that side was the same as the one on this side, with white railing along the edge and huge hexagonal blocks fit snugly together. There was a line of flower beds between the sidewalk and the street, displaying early summer blossoms of pale pink and white and red contentedly arching towards the sun. A few people moved here and there, disappearing back into houses or strolling slowly alongside the lazy water, but none of them approached the pristine white bridges that led to the Gallery, in the same way that none of the figures on the sidewalk directly below her perch even motioned towards the Garage. Looking out over that forbidden half of the city, it seemed bizarre that it should be so close and yet occupied by people so different from her that they might as well be aliens. The government propaganda liked to claim that the Garage and the Gallery weren’t so different from each other, that the people were the same, two halves of a whole, mirror images, but everyone left those illusions behind with childhood. How could they be the same, when even the architecture proved their difference? How could they be equal, when all the government funding flowed towards the lab rats, and left the studios to fend for themselves? None of the girls in the company had ever been to the Garage, and it was unlikely that any of them ever would, even though they spent twelve hours of every day not even a block from the border.

Priscilla lost herself in her thoughts as the sky continued to darken, red like wine and rapidly turning purple. The lights across the entire city came on all at once, but she could still see the line between the two halves perfectly— on the Gallery side, the streetlights were yellow, in ornate cases that hovered high above the street, while on the Garage side the lights were blue, balanced on thin metal discs that bobbed slowly up and down. They all came on at eight exactly, though, the Venus hour, and their combined effect reminded Priscilla that she was still gazing out towards the horizon, and had been for the last two hours. Worse, it was time that she was supposed to have taken to work on her variation. Madame Vautour would be back soon to check on her, expecting to find her flitting across the floor like a fairy, but at this point she was so relaxed that she couldn’t bring herself to care. The season hadn’t even begun yet, they were miles ahead on rehearsals, and why should she stay here and continue to practise when the other girls could go home, could see their families and their boyfriends and embrace reality for an evening?
This was her reality, though, she reminded herself. The reality was the ballerina, and Priscilla the person was only a figment of her imagination. She exhaled deeply, noticing the briskness of the night air for the first time, and considered heading back inside, when a light caught her eye.

At first, it wasn’t even the light source itself that caught her attention, but the reflection off the water that still swirled past. It was a cloudy night, and there were no stars out to reflect, but the Canal still spun out light victoriously, a perfect square made muddy by the current. It was a garage, she realised, and scanned the waterfront buildings quickly before realising it was right in front of her. The enormous aluminium door rolled up slowly, each panel a different colour, and Priscilla watched fascinated as it disappeared. There were two figures silhouetted against the light, but they both had their backs to her. She could see them gesticulating at something in the garage, but it wasn’t bright enough to see what. One of them went deeper in, momentarily stepping out of her gaze, and when he returned he was wheeling along a bike, two glowing blue cylinders on either side of its frame. He bent over it for a moment, and then it revved to life, temporarily lighting up the entire street before it settled to a steady hum. She heard the other person’s laughter, his excitement, and she didn’t know why, but she shared it. She could practically feel the energy that the hydrobike was emitting, and she itched to feel it roar underneath her fingers. She’d never seen anything like it before, not this close. In the Gallery, motorised vehicles were only for the upperclass. She’d been in one, once, when she was originally brought to the Meritant Palace, but since then she’d never travelled far enough to warrant such attention. The other girls tended to take tumblers, she knew, huge wheels that could seat nearly fifty people and rolled down the street like unchained Ferris wheels. Other people cycled, and there tended to be an eclectic collection of bicycles, tricycles, and occasionally unicycles weaving through the vast majority that travelled only on foot. A motor, though? It was practically unheard of, and yet across the street she watched as these two men admired the vehicle and shook hands, and eventually she saw the second one pull a cluster of bills from his back pocket, hand them over with another nod of thanks, mount the bike, and shoot off into the alleys. She watched him until he disappeared into the darkness, and then her eyes darted back to the silhouette remaining in front of the garage.

He was looking away from her, so she couldn’t see his face, but he had broad shoulders, slumped at the moment, with his hands in his pockets. He was tall, but his shirt and pants were dark, and she couldn’t make out any detail. He shuffled to the side slightly, and she conjectured that he was contemplating a larger vehicle resting inside, jacked up with its underside exposed. For a moment she imagined that he would go back in to work on it, but instead he turned and started walking towards the Canal.

He passed under a streetlamp briefly, and his face lit up. He had brown hair and eyes set wide in his face under dark eyebrows, a straight nose and a telltale scruff to his cheeks that showed he hadn’t shaved in a few days. Priscilla stalked him with her eyes, like a cat intent on her prey, willing him to come closer. For an instant a vision of meeting him in the middle of the bridge, looking past him to a foreign city and looking behind her to the fragile familiarity of home, flashed past her eyes. In that moment, she longed to become intimately familiar, but she wasn’t sure with what, and she shifted uneasily, her hands clenching down on the railing. And then he waved.

He waved, and she froze, thoughts grinding to a halt. The one-way mirror that she’d set up in her mind shattered, and it occurred to her that he might’ve been watching her the entire time she was watching him. She waved back, her hand just darting out to taste the air, and then she leaned forward farther, trying to make out his expression.

She realised that she was cold, that she was still wearing her white leotard and skirt from earlier, and she wondered if she looked bald to him, since her hair was so pale and pulled back, emphasising all the harsh angles of her face that she tried to disguise whenever she could. She looked down at herself, at the body that she paid so little attention to despite her dependence on it, and she folded her arms over her meagre chest. When she looked back up at him, he was leaning against the railing, a cigarette hanging loosely from his fingertips with its spark falling slowly down into the Canal. So he smokes, she mused, and wondered if it made his teeth yellow, and if she would be able to smell it on his breath.

He didn’t seem so far away, as just another boy who smoked and leaned and waved. The other girls talked about boys, and she imagined that this one couldn’t be all that different. In another few moments she almost forgot about him, even though her eyes still lingered on his hands, drawing the cigarette to his lips and then letting it fall. She let her shoulders loosen a little, and her weight melted into the thick stone supporting her, mind spiriting away with the current. She hadn’t been downstream since her mother had sent her away, and when she looked north she wondered about her father and her older brother in the back workroom, with the sun roof and the clutter all over the floor, the cracked screens piling up in the bin to be worked on in “spare time” and page designs taped up to the walls. They were always backed up on work, with deadlines to meet and clientele paging in, but she had a few memories still living of her, bouncing into the room and giggling, grabbing her father’s hands and asking him to dance with her, and her brother laughing and watching bemused from the corner. The room was always stuffy, too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter, but her father kept blankets to fight the frigidity and a cooler stocked with juices to beat the heat, and the work that went on in the room was matched only by the indulgence, the unrecognised desire for comfort, the light that her father so cheerfully embraced despite the orders piling up on his shoulders.

He had never minded his banishment to the Dirge, or the fact that outside his well-kept home the streets were filthy. He had never had the same desire as her mother to move south, and Priscilla couldn’t tell for herself anymore whether or not she wanted to be here, either. It had seemed like the only choice to make, when her mother took her aside and told her that she could dance on a stage instead of in the living room, that she would have a beautiful bedroom in a palace. She hadn’t understood, then, that she wasn’t the princess of the palace— she was just the entertainment. She hadn’t understood that she would dance because she was told to, and while she didn’t mind, she sometimes wondered what would have happened if instead she had run to the workroom, if she had asked her father to stop them from taking her away.

Sparks fell again from the cigarette and she watched them disappear into the Canal, for a moment burning like the lost flares of fireworks, and then melting into the patterns of blue and gold that coloured the water’s surface.

The light came on behind her, and for a moment she couldn’t see because the whole world lit up brilliantly, the brightness behind her rendering the darkness in front of her absolute. She spun around, and there stood Madame, holding back the curtains and breaking through into the bubble of perfect isolation that she’d created. The silhouette had her hand on her hip, her hair pulled up to the crown of her head and vicious heels stabbing into the ground, and, as Priscilla’s eyes adjusted, had a deep scowl burning on her face.

Priscilla averted her eyes out of habit, straightened her shoulders and stared at the ground, at the long shadow stretching towards her. “Bonjour, Madame,” she said, knowing that the longer the silence wore on, the longer she’d spend in the studio tonight. Then she remembered that her shoes were still in the middle of the floor, and she drew her feet back, trying to make them less conspicuous.

“Priscilla,” her mistress replied, ice in her tone. “Have you already finished your work on the variation for L’Prince?”

“I will never be finished working on it, Madame,” Priscilla replied mechanically. “Our art strives towards the most unattainable standard of perfection.”

“The most unattainable standard of perfection,” Vautour repeated, the displeasure in her eyes softened just slightly with her disbelief. “Well,” she continued, “then let’s see what we can do about attaining it. Go set the track.”

“Yes Madame,” Priscilla breathed as she rushed past, scooping up her shoes on the way and all but running into the studio, thankful that she hadn’t gone so far as to let her hair down. She didn’t notice how Madame watched her as she passed, critically, analytically, eyes running up and down her body, and narrowing on her feet as she sat and pulled her shoes on hurriedly.

“Priscilla, what’s wrong with your feet?” she asked calmly, her heels tapping out a staccato pattern on the resined floor, and Priscilla paused in her flurried movements, one set of ribbons tied and one set hanging loosely in her hands. She looked up at the Madame, who hovered over her with arms folded.

“Madame?” she asked questioningly, wondering what the mistress expected besides the callouses and blisters characteristic of all the girls.

Madame Vautour squatted next to her, her long skirt, falling open at its slit to reveal one powerfully toned leg, evidence of the life of dance that Vautour had never truly left behind. She grabbed at Priscilla’s left foot and pulled the shoe off of it, turning it over in her hands. “Look,” she commanded, and Priscilla looked, but did not see, which must have been apparent on her face, because the Madame scowled her irritation. “The ball of your foot is growing too wide; you’re putting too much pressure on it. And look at your toes, how far spread out they are. We want a perfect foot, no? And how are we to attain it if the pointe shoe cannot move in one slender line? What is the width?”

“An E, Madame,” Priscilla replied quietly, because she’d realised where this was going. She had hoped that if she didn’t mention her choice to change her shoe size that it would go unnoticed, but she should have realised that she wouldn’t be able to conceal it for long.

“An E,” the Madame repeated, brow furrowed, and then shook her head decisively. “No, that is not acceptable. I will speak to the Doctor.” And with that she stood again, going to begin the record. Priscilla hastily grabbed up the offending shoes and pulled them on, bending the box experimentally. It would probably break before the night was over.

“Ready?” Madame called, and in response Priscilla ran to the corner of the room, reciting stage left, upstage in her head, settling into her tendu, arms in a relaxed second, head turned downstage. Her body found the rhythm of the waltz before the needle even scratched the surface, and when the music began she stepped into centre stage without shame, with a smile on her lips and arms begging the audience to share her story.

The Missing Piano

Last week, I played my first proper Mass. For those who don’t know, Mass is the Catholic service. I sing two Masses every Sunday at my church, one with the folk group and one with the schola choir, and I’ve been singing liturgical music since I was seven years old. One would have thought that I would be well-prepared for my own gig.

Not so.

To clarify, when I say “played a proper Mass,” I mostly mean that I was paid, and therefore directly accountable to my employers. I’ve played Masses before; my high school does a week-long retreat junior year, and as a senior I was the liturgical director, so I played every day. It didn’t have quite the same kind of pressure.

I received the offer one week before the event, which would typically be considered a little late, but still enough time to practice. For a professional, or at least someone more experienced than me, it would be easy. Hymns are not difficult to play or difficult to learn, and most of them are held in common. I ended up playing songs that I already knew, with the exception of the psalm.

The problem with this one week notice was that I am not a professional, or particularly experienced when it comes to playing piano and leading the service’s music all by myself. Most of my experience is safely under the helm of someone else who gives directions and makes decisions. The other problem was that I wouldn’t have the full week to practice. I had a friend staying as a house guest Monday through Thursday, and it’s hardly acceptable to ask a guess if they mind listening to you practice church music on the piano for several hours.

So, I started preparing on Thursday. I made most of my song decisions, I could play through the hymns, and I made the mistake of feeling confident, when I realised that I needed to learn Mass parts. During the second half of the Mass, when we celebrate Communion, there are specific responses sung as part of the service. The only musical setting I have of these parts is one that I don’t particularly enjoy playing on piano– I think it sounds bang-y and abrupt. It’s better on organ, which I can’t play (not well, at least).

I had to work Friday lunch. And on Saturday, I would be going straight from work to the gig. I was out of time, out of ideas, and starting to panic.

By the time I went to bed on Friday night, I was back to feeling mildly confident. The hymns were good at least, and I would be able to fudge my way through Communion.

By the time I woke up on Saturday morning, my hands were shaking and my stomach was in knots.

I worked through the brunch rush, I was out by 3:45, and at the church by 4:15. I checked in with the event coordinator and went into the chapel to find– no piano.

I did a lap around the chapel. Nope, no piano immediately in sight, and definitely not set up with a mic, as I had been assured it would be. On the outside I was trying to project an image of calm, experience, and maturity that I don’t possess, and on the inside I had already jumped to catastrophising, wondering how I was supposed to play a Mass without an instrument.

On my third walk around the entire outside aisle of the church, I finally found an electric keyboard stuffed in a particularly dusty corner. This, at least, was an improvement from no instrument at all, but it still wasn’t set up, and there was no mic.

What followed was a game of telephone, which I lost. I talked to my event coordinator, she talked to the security guard, and he talked to– no one, as far as I can tell. When I checked back with him, he fumbled out a few words about not being able to get away from his desk, and not knowing where the people in charge were, but he’d just be a minute. It’s a good thing I didn’t wait for him.

In my time of despair, I, appropriately, went to the priest. The celebrant wasn’t from the church anymore than I was, but the seminarian assisting him stepped in, and I am gratefully indebted to him. He rolled the piano out to the appropriate spot, he hooked it up, and he stole a mic from the ambo. As far as makeshift solutions go, this one was pretty good.

I sat down five minutes before Mass started, mentally gearing myself to play on an instrument that I had never touched or heard before.

My hands shook the entire time, and I made what I think were some very obvious mistakes, but I happy to report that at no point in the service did I burst into flames. I played through, and by the time we finished with Communion, I couldn’t believe that it was almost over. I have virtually no recollection of what I sounded like, because I had whatever the musical equivalent of tunnel vision would be, but I received quite a bit of positive feedback. To the gentleman who pointed out how wonderful the acoustics were, I admit here that I agreed with you but really hadn’t thought about it until you said so. I paid virtually no attention to anything except for trying to estimate how badly my hands were shaking and how to best put them where they were supposed to be.

I’m glad to have this first experience under my belt. I expect that my next few times will be just as scary, but I also vividly remember the first few times a sang a solo at Mass. My voice used to shake just like my hands do now, and every mistake I made felt glaringly obvious. It all just takes practice, and I look forward to having similar opportunities in the future.

Book Review: Middlemarch

finally finished Middlemarch a little over a week ago. I started it around the same time I finished Lolita, which was…over a month ago? I think so. After the vulgarity and intimacy of Lolita, I wanted something to clean my palate. The rigorous civility and propriety of George Eliot’s nineteenth century provincial English society was perfect.

Mary Ann Evans, the woman behind the pseudonym “George Eliot,” actually ignored the propriety by which most of her characters abide– she was an object of scandal. In 1854, she and George Henry Lewes, a philosopher and critic, decided to live together, having met three years earlier. The catch was that Lewes was already married. According to Wikipedia (which I admit that I used to find the particulars of Evans’ affair), extramarital affairs weren’t at all uncommon in the Victorian era, unsurprisingly. What was uncommon was that Evans and Lewes publicly acknowledged the quality of their relationship.

A while ago I was reading a Brontë biography that discussed the sisters’ decision to use pseudonyms. All three were attached to their anonymity, and Charlotte didn’t come out to her public until Anne and Emily had both already died and could no longer be affected by exposure. Generally, when women use a male pseudonym, the modern reading public assumes that they needed to assume a male identity to be published. For both Eliot and the Brontës, this is only partly true. By the Victorian era, women were being published under their own names. The Brontë sisters chose anonymity for the sake of public reputation. They were the conservative daughters of a clergyman, and any variety of publicity would have been indecent.

In discussing the Brontës’ identities as Currer, Acton, and Ellis Bell, the biographer (I’m sorry I don’t remember what the book was. I was browsing at the library) brought up George Eliot, particularly because her pseudonym did not act as a buffer against publicity, or more accurately, notoriety. Mary Ann Evans became a scandalous figure, and she experienced the ostracisation that the Brontës wanted to avoid.

Why the pseudonym, then? Because Mary Ann Evans didn’t want to be trapped into the box of light fiction that women had carved out for themselves by the time she was writing. She wanted to write and to be read seriously.

Middlemarch is beautiful in that it perfectly walks the line between the serious and lighthearted. It’s sheer scope is incredible; if a picture paints only a thousand words, this novel is equal to a gallery.

Now, I would never call Jane Austen “light fiction.” She can be read as such, solely for the entertainment value, and I’m sure that experience is very pleasurable. As an academic, though,  I would never constrain any of her writing to mere entertainment. In comparison with Middlemarch, however, Pride and Prejudice does seem very limited. There are fewer characters and fewer settings, and the plot doesn’t require nearly so much effort to keep in line. Please bear in mind that P & P is one of my favourite novels. Middlemarch is astonishing in a completely different way. Eliot runs the gamut of classes, introducing her reader to the landlords, the knighted gentlemen, the discontent tenant farmers and the merchants’ daughters. There are doctors and bankers and horse salesmen. The picture painted is so complete and so detailed that at some point in the novel, it was as if the gossip had become my own.

My mother was initially under the impression that I didn’t enjoy Middlemarch, because every couple hundred pages I would celebrate how much closer I was to the end. I suppose from an outsider’s point of view, it did look like I wanted to be through with it. With a novel of that size, though, it just felt like such a feat to get through a chunk of it. It’s impossible to read Middlemarch only ten pages at a time, in my opinion. Besides the fact that you’d never finish, the story is so interwoven and complex, the ideas discussed are so expansive and intricate, that it would be impossible to feel the full effect reading it piecemeal.

I realise this is turning into a ramble. I’m going to press on, though, and explain how, contrary to the impression I gave my mother, I slowly but surely fell in love with the world that George Eliot conjures.

One aspect of literature that has often confounded me is that of quotations. I generally don’t understand where they come from– how does someone take a work and find those nuggets that can stand alone and still contain a world of thought behind them? I can sometimes pick out passages to love, like the luncheon scene in A Room of One’s Own, but never before have I managed to find a single quotation that popped out at me as I read.

In Middlemarch, I found them. I found those instances of pure wit and wisdom that made me pause and read them aloud, regardless of whether or not anyone else was in the room. What struck me was the incredible relevance of characters and situations placed 150 years ago. There’s this wonderful moment when Eliot is describing Rosamond’s budding infatuation with Lydgate, the new doctor come to town. Lydgate had already become a standard guest in the Vincys’ household when he stays away for ten days, and Rosamond descends into the depths of despair. I would have accepted this as totally plausible, but then Eliot pauses, and remarks on it. She informs her reader that if they think it’s ridiculous for Rosamond to react so violently in so short a time, they should be aware that in cases of young love ten days is an eternity.

I laughed out loud when I read that, because it rang so true. Currently, I’m sitting in bed and chatting with a friend as I type this, and she hasn’t heard from her guy in a couple hours. We’re considering lesbianism as a potential solution to the inability of the other sex to do better.

It’s those moments of such genuine angst and emotion that make me love Middlemarch. It’s the moments where Will Ladislaw worries that a simple instance of awkwardness ruins his relationship with Dorothea irreparably, or the million times that Mr. Brooke tells us that “it’s possible to go too far in these things.” George Eliot captures not only the social and economic breadth of nineteenth century provincial England, but also the depth and variety of human emotion and character. Middlemarch is astounding because in the wide cast of characters Eliot makes use of, she offers every one of us a looking glass in which we can find our own reflections.

Swimming in the Rhone

This is my first time posting any of my original fiction. I wrote “Swimming in the Rhone” my senior year and entered it in the Scholastic Art and Writing Contest, where it earned a Regional Gold Key (not to brag or anything). To be perfectly frank, for a long time, it wasn’t my favourite of my own stories. It’s definitely the most polished, having undergone the most intense editing in preparation for the contest.

I sincerely hope you enjoy it. A little background info before you dive in: “Starry Night Over the Rhone” was painted a couple years before the more famous “Starry Night,” and it’s one of my favourite paintings. Shortly after its completion, Van Gogh officially lost his mind. This story, then, takes place during his downward spiral.

All feedback is always welcome. ~MK

starry night over the rhone

Swimming in the Rhone

Van Gogh stepped back from his canvas, eyeing the three figures he’d etched into the corner thoughtfully. “I suppose we’ll be getting rather well acquainted over the next few weeks,” he told them formally, and one smiled softly, while the other frowned. The third remained silent, eyeing him with a wary curiosity reminiscent of Van Gogh himself. “Don’t look at me like that,” he snapped at the frowner, his mind already racing ahead, giving him colors, brushstrokes, shapes and details and patterns, all burning into his eyes until he couldn’t even see the sketch anymore, only the finished product. It would be a masterpiece. It would be perfect. What else was there, but perfection? How could he settle for less? None of the trash that cluttered his soul would dare leave even a fingerprint on this slate; no, this one would stay exactly the way he wanted it. He brushed a finger over his lips, the waters of the Rhone rushing through him, and he steadfastly ignored the third figure, the one with the frown, staring at him in distaste with cold, unyielding eyes.

The next few days he spent with a brush often stuck between his teeth, his green eyes squinting at the few color patches he’d managed to pin down. Right now, the water was bright blue, the way it would be in the daytime, and the edges fizzled out, unfinished, and the few blobs of buildings he’d put on the horizon were orange. Already, the painting wasn’t going the way he wanted it to, and the three figures were still only sketched in, not a stroke taken to them, just lurking there in the back of his mind, at the edge of his canvas. Some days they wouldn’t shut up, and some days they refused to speak, and while the smiling woman and the curious stranger tended to be more sensitive to the needs of their creator, the man with the frown would always look at him angrily, and Van Gogh could see curse words staining his lips. He was foul, and ugly, and the more Van Gogh looked at him, the less pleasure he took in the prospect of painting him.

There was something intrinsically, unnaturally unhappy about him, that third figure. He lurked to the right of the woman, whose smile, Van Gogh realized after putting a few more lines in, wasn’t just soft, but also sad. And the curious stranger had a touch of humor to him, looking at his painter slyly under a wide brimmed hat. The third, though? There was nothing to him but blackness and the pain in his blurred eyes, and Van Gogh couldn’t understand that. What right had he to be unhappy, living in a perfectly painted world? “You bastard,” the man seethed, “You loathsome, arrogant, bastard.” That was all he ever did, yell and swear and call names, and when questioned, he would refuse to answer. He had no backstory, had no motivation, he was simply angry. He was that dark portion of the soul that is impossible to deny, that discontent that Van Gogh could feel growing in his stomach night after night, when he dreamt of a perfectly painted world and woke to find a perfectly ordinary one.

Finally, one morning, he walked into the studio, his bare feet on the ice cold floor and his ratty robe barely hanging onto his shoulders. There was still sleep in his eyes that he hadn’t bothered to rub out before stumbling from his bed, and this time, when he squinted at the painting, he realized the angry man had grown too tall. He was casting a shadow that didn’t belong there, skewing the painting, drawing far too much focus to a corner that would otherwise have remained hidden. So he shrank him. First, it was one inch. There, now he was only slightly taller than the curious stranger. But why should he be taller? So he shrank another few inches, and now he was slightly shorter. He couldn’t be on height with the woman, though, and so he went smaller, with Van Gogh making tiny strikes with his brush without really even thinking about them. It was early, he wasn’t quite awake yet, but the truth, the truth that the dark man had grown too tall, couldn’t be delayed. It had to be fixed, immediately. He stood there, in his bare feet and ratty robe, for hours, just adding miniscule dashes of paint here and there, and it wasn’t until after the sun had fully risen and peaked and his stomach was rumbling from the meals he’d ignored that he realized the dark man had vanished completely. Where he once stood, there was only the same blue-grey color that made up most of the scene.

The woman’s eyes suddenly started to look sadder, and there was something flinty, something hard about the stranger’s face, but at least the monster was gone. Everything felt more balanced, and if the water was a little murkier, so be it. The sky was a little darker, but that was okay. At least he had balance.

“Balance,” he said aloud, like a question for the air. The word rolled around in his mouth and stuck to his lips, like a bit of glue that clung to the end of his finger and refused to be shaken off. It was such a curious concept.

He went back to his room, and never mind eating, he could do that later. Right now, he needed sleep, and it obliged him. He dreamt in blurs that only he could decipher, strange tastes and smells flavoring the scene, and somewhere there was a hole, a hole that he poured gallons of paint into but never managed to fill. He could see the colors glinting down there, like coins in the bottom of a wishing well, but the level never rose. There were more swirls, more hues and where the colors had mixed the edges had turned sick, but no matter how much he poured in, the volume stayed the same. Only the quality ever really seemed to change.

It was still dark when he woke up, the stale taste of night coating his tongue and the fine hairs around his ears and neck plastered to his head with sweat. His eyes were wide in the darkness, wider than a child’s. “Balance,” he breathed again, this time a revelation. “Balance,” he murmured, and rolled over to bury himself against the pillow, his eyelashes fluttering shut and settling against his pale cheeks.

A few days of shading and coloring later, he sat down with the stranger and the woman for a long conversation, determined that they should all be on the same page if his vision was to succeed.

“Vincent,” he said to the stranger, “why wouldn’t you put your arm around her?”

The voice that came back to him was rough and hoarse, grinding against the vocal chords before crumbling into the air. “She walks behind me,” the stranger told him. “How can I hold her if she’s walking behind me?”

And unfortunately that made sense, so Van Gogh massaged the bridge of his nose before turning to the woman, hoping she would be more helpful and less opinionated.

“Give him your arm,” he instructed, placing her where he wanted her. She only nodded, slipping her arm through the stranger’s, their dark frocks overlapping and mingling.

“You can’t fade too much, though,” he muttered, and they both had the sense not to speak. His brow furrowed in concentration, the brush shaking in his hands, but a few moments later the woman had a cloak.

“There.” He was satisfied, for now. She would walk behind him, but she had her own place. She didn’t need to be a shadow. There were more than enough shadows everywhere else.

The boats were docked, and the water moved. The houses were dark, but the lanterns were lit, and the sky shined. He was content for a few days, adding only small bites of paint here and there, determined that the details should be perfect. Nothing less than perfect.

He started to despair, though, that his perfection would fail to be expressed truly uninhibited when he woke up one morning to find the stranger sick. He’d pulled away from the woman, crossed in front of her in fact, and he was leaning heavily against one side of his frame, his hat hanging by his side and his forehead covered with a sheen of exertion. The woman stood by quietly, hands distractingly empty, when they should have held something out to him, or rested on his shoulder, or at least folded together, if she hadn’t the consideration to do anything else.

Needless to say, Van Gogh was not pleased. “Vincent,” he thundered, “why have you deserted your post? We discussed this. We talked about this. And yet you stand hunched in the corner like a coward. Explain.”

He couldn’t explain, though, or wouldn’t, he just shook his head, breathing too hard, with one hand pressed tight against his gut. He was absolutely infuriating. And the woman watched, helpless to assist, eyes wild and beseeching, wide in a silent prayer.

“Are you a man?” Van Gogh snarled at the stranger, and the painted figure’s eyes stretched open, bloodshot and red-rimmed.

“Of course I’m a man,” he told Van Gogh in his rusty, underused voice. “The trick is that so are you.”

The painter had been about to sneer again, but he stopped short, disconcerted by this last comment. He rocked back on his heels, one finger tracing the soft curve of his lips in thought, his eyes glassy and unfocused. The man and the woman waited, the only sound in the room the man’s ragged breathing. Finally, Van Gogh spoke again, and his tone left no room for questioning. This was his painting, and it would be as he decreed.

“Stand back up,” he commanded, and the stranger glared at him from under his wide-brimmed hat, but silently complied. He didn’t look the same as he had before, though, and Van Gogh gave a shout of frustration. Everything was lopsided now. The stranger was slouching where before he’d stood strong, and the woman was holding him up instead of leaning against him. They wouldn’t move anymore, though, no matter how much he shouted at them, and eventually he threw down his brush in disgust and walked away.

He stayed away for days before he would deign to even look at the canvas again, and every day that he walked by without so much as a glance, the stranger and the woman shivered a little from the strength of the ice in his eyes. Finally, though, he returned, having tumbled into the house at witching hour, weaving wherever he walked and mumbling nonsense under his breath. His hands shook when he held a match to the candles scattered about the room, but when he picked up his brush they were still, not a tremor touching his fingers.

Fog and light competed in his eyes, the haze of vision matched by the crazed glimmer of desperation, and the scent of the Rhone clung to his shabby coat and worn shoes. He spoke to the woman and the stranger as he worked, no longer demanding, no longer questioning, just sharing whatever came to mind and laughing at their bemused expressions. The water started to fall behind them, and he put out the candles so that the starlight could shine, the strokes coming faster and faster and the stranger and the woman shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot at this change in circumstance. They exchanged wary glances, nodding when Van Gogh spoke to them, moving in a way they hoped would please him, and glancing behind them now and then at the scene that had finally washed up from the shore.

Van Gogh fell asleep with his brush still in hand, unaware of the finished painting sitting within arm’s reach. He slumped over in his chair, still mumbling, reeking of drink and the river he’d poured into his art. The sun hit the window, showering through the glass and brushing over the room and its occupant, and when it touched the woman and the stranger they stirred, having fallen asleep hours before, waiting for Van Gogh to finish.

“Vincent,” the woman whispered, holding him tightly, “are you ready?”

“Yes,” he said hoarsely. “I think we’re ready.”

Ready, Set, Go

In my last post, I mentioned my intention to do a marathon: a week where I post every day. This past week it wasn’t practical, because I had a friend come and stay on Monday for a few days, and Thursday and Friday I spent practicing music for a Mass. The marathon will therefore commence tomorrow!

For the next five days, I’m going to post every day, AT LEAST once a day. I have two book reviews lined up, a fun tale about my experience playing Mass for the first time, and I’m finally going to post some of my original short fiction. That leaves me with one day still a mystery. Anyone with an idea or request, please let me know in the comments!

I know this is short; I just wanted to post a blurb, and now I’m off to work on my material for the rest of the week. I intend to plant some details about what I’ve been up to recently through everything else, so if you’re curious be sure to browse through.

Happy Sunday, everyone!