Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Feather And The Fang

So, where was I?

I did a lot of writing during my semester in Bruce's class, all of it about Ian Becker. I still have those pieces, but they're buried in storage at the moment. I will dig them out, I promise, and maybe even share some bits and pieces here if it's not too embarrassing. 

What strikes me most strongly about him now is something I struggled with at the time, because even though I didn't understand it at the time, I felt compelled to write him this way: not as a predator, but as an observer of life. That is what he does, how he spends his time. Embodied death, watching the living from the shadows. 

He's not a killer, Ian. Or at least, he tries not to be. It's the classic romantic vampire's conundrum: the desire for love and human connection vs. the unquenchable thirst for blood. He longs to be included but must remain forever apart.

I'd been reading Anne Rice since early high school, years before I even owned a Volkswagen, and I had always been drawn to the reluctant hero, Louis de pointe du Lac, the one who hated his dark desires and longed to exist without taking life. Louis is the vampire, of "Interview With The Vampire" fame-- the sensitive soul who reaches out to tell his story before Rice's vampire universe gets absconded with by Louis' much flashier creator, the arrogant, selfish, attention-hungry Lestat.

I never understood how anyone could prefer Lestat to Louis. 

It wouldn't surprise Dr. Oz, I'm sure, and it no longer surprises me, that the seeds for these things didn't spring up post-impact. The traits I already had were magnified by the PTSR, and that includes, I guess, a rather romantic nature of the sort disposed to wearing black clothes and hanging out in cemeteries and listening to music like this (I apologize for the ad and the German. Hang in there for a second if you want to hear the song that owned my little Goth heart!).

So the vampire idea didn't come completely out of nowhere. Where my subconscious mind was doing its real work, I think, was in the story's gimmick: the idea that this character, real and not real, dead and yet impossibly alive, comes to his creator to discuss the nature of his existence and figure out a way to live with his circumstances. And the writer is both terrified by him and inexorably drawn to him. He is her creation and, for all she knows, her destruction, but she can't turn him away. 

He is a part of her-- a very dangerous part with sharp teeth, but still, a part-- and she wants to help him even as she wants to run screaming from the room. 

I think that even in those early years, I knew there was something dark lurking inside of me; an alien force with a mind of its own. And that some day it would come knocking, and I'd have to deal with it, for better or for worse.

There's no escaping the monster in the closet.

Anyway. Ian was modeled on Louis, obviously, like all the fashionable soft, sensitive vampires that win over the hearts of teen girls these days, whether they know it or not (I'm looking at you, Edward "Sparkles" Cullen!). 

I developed Ian's character in a series of vignettes over the course of the semester, and it began to be clear to me that I had a novel on my hands, although I didn't have a clear idea then  of where it was going or how to get there. I continued to work with Bruce, whose commitment to his students and thorough, thoughtful attention is as awe-inducing today as it was then (maybe even more so now, having been a college professor myself).

Every class session, twice a week, Bruce would burst into the room carrying a milk crate piled with rubber-banded stacks of used books and copied pages from magazines, anthologies, textbooks, or who-knows-what. Each bundle was marked with a student's name, and each student got a stack often, if not every time, along with a personal comment from Bruce: "I saw these short stories and thought of you. Read them for ideas on how to develop character," or, "Here are some thoughts by female writers on creating believable love scenes. I thought they might be useful for your next chapter," or, "These essays are relevant to the things you're doing with point of view. See what you think of them."

Halfway through the term, however, something happened, and everything changed.

Bruce left.

It was a "health crisis," they told us, although we never found out what kind. Cancer. Thyroid. Nervous breakdown. Rumors flew, as rumors do in small communities, but we were assured that Bruce was okay; that we'd have a sub for the remainder of the term; that Bruce would have oversight and give us our final grades.

I wrote some more in the final weeks of class, but I'd lost some of my focus, unsure of how to shape this strange story I was spinning. I didn't have the belief in myself or my work that Bruce had, and I didn't see the "magic thread" as clearly without him. I knew I had something, but I didn't quite know what it was or how to get it out onto the page in a way that made sense.

At the end of the term, right before Christmas, I went to the department office to pick up a packet I'd been told was waiting for me there. It was an envelope and a small box, both from Bruce.

Nearly twenty years later, I still have the contents.

The envelope contained a letter from Bruce to the entire class. It was strange and rambling and vulnerable and powerful and intense, like Bruce himself. He was ill and suffering side-effects from medication and it was too difficult for him to write, he said, so he had begun to make visual art instead as a way of remaining focused:

"As I worked on this "art" (because making something was better than making nothing at all-- a truth that would turn out to be much truer than I ever imagined) I found I could think about each of you-- your writing, your lives, and where I sensed, in deep places, you were heading. I found that what I made, for me at least, became you, an "objet"-- a koan, a totem, a two-sided mirror perhaps-- or, more accurately, a symbol of our touching in passing on the journey of our lives. I discovered in each case, too, things about myself, and in turn (as in any giving and taking)... making what I was making for you gave those things back to me." 

Whatever he'd been going through during those months-- and it was clearly affecting him profoundly and he'd become a bit unhinged by it-- he was still channeling his energy toward us, his students.

"May what I am giving you mean at least something. It is, I know, a poor substitute for the curriculum you deserve but at least it is a giving, a making (as any teaching is) in response to your own "making" and struggles and victories and destinies-- your own life." 

Inside the box was an ornament: a small, winged cherub, painted gold. One side of its face was painted black, and bright red drops dripped from the corner of its mouth. A vampire on one side, a smiling angel on the other. Hanging from the cherub's feet on golden threads were a white feather and a smooth, polished stone in the shape of a fang.

Along with the ornament was a card with a picture of Shiva on it, and on the back, in red pen, a hand-written note from Bruce:

for Katie: Vishnu and Shiva (the Hindu god of preservation and goddess of destruction)

Without her dark brother, the Angel of Roses cannot understand death. Without his sister, the Angel of Dead Children cannot understand life. Only together (and that is why they are in love) can they understand what it means to be truly human.

For your writing and your life.



The card. The cherub ornament is packed away in storage somewhere. I will find him ASAP and post a picture!

I am still moved by such a pointed effort to connect, to reach out and shed light in the darkness and make meaning from chaos.

He may have been doing it, in large part, to find meaning in his own personal chaos at the time, I don't know. 

What I do know is that I carried that cherub with me for years, like a talisman.

I still have it tucked away in a box with the most precious keepsakes from my life's journey, and every time I look at it, I remember his words in his office that night, and I marvel that someone said those things to me-- to me!-- and I am grateful to have such a visceral, physical memento of one of the most important moments of my life.

I never saw Bruce again. 

He didn't return the following term, and I graduated that spring and moved away shortly thereafter. I thought of him often over the years, especially in grad school, when I showed up to my first MFA short fiction workshop with a piece about Ian and was nearly laughed out of the building.

MFA programs are notoriously unfriendly to anything but the most mainstream fiction. "Genre" fiction, I learned very quickly, was a) not real, serious fiction, and b) not going to be received well by... well, anyone. 

But if I really wanted to, I was told, I could take the occasionally-offered "genre" class, where people who wrote things that could be described with words like "mystery," "horror," "science fiction," "fantasy," or anything else not typically found in the pages of the New Yorker huddled together under a bare, flickering light bulb beneath a damp staircase and whispered their shame to each other.

Or at least, that was how they made it sound.

By that time, I was long accustomed to choosing the path of least resistance to keep things calm and manageable in my head, and so I shifted my writing to fit the mold. And I left Ian's story stranded where it was, even though I knew by then that it was my story I was trying to tell, and in that way it was not really a "genre" piece at all.

I had no fight left in me for such things by then. I was too busy marshaling resources for a different battle all together.

A battle that I will talk about in a future post. Not ready to go there yet. 

Not yet.

Update: Astonishingly, the Bruce story has a new chapter! Tune in next week for more!


  1. Bruce lives? i hope so i like him:)

  2. Bruce was obviously someone possessed of immense psychic energy, and probably, as a writer, accustomed to long, foreshadowed, well planned and executed closure.  Leaving your class so suddenly must have been like removing a downspout on a house's gutters during a torrential downpour.  All those thoughts about his students just pouring down the side of his house, soaking the ground, seeping into the basement, and making a hell of a mess.

    Also, it is kind of marvelous to have such richness added to a picture I already admire.  There's something in reading ~about~ you writing about Ian --a character who confronts his author-- which is just wonderful.

  3. "I think that even in those early years, I knew there was something dark lurking inside of me; an alien force with a mind of its own. And that some day it would come knocking, and I'd have to deal with it, for better or for worse."
    Ah yes.  The dark shadow that comes "rapping at [one's] chamber door," then makes itself comfortable.  There's a Florence and the Machine song that reminds me of what you are saying here.  It's one of my favorites.  In the spirit of music exchange (thanks for the Mission song, goth girl), here's Florence:

    Yes, share some Ian Becker with us!  I'm dying to read it.  

    "Every class session, twice a week, Bruce would burst into the room carrying a milk crate piled with rubber-banded stacks of used books and copied pages from magazines, anthologies, textbooks, or who-knows-what." This is compelling as hell.  You know how Kerouac loves the mad ones, the manic ones, the firecracker people?  These are the people I love:  the strange, rambling ones with the demons and the hyperawareness and the milk crates full of photocopies.  

    The photo of the card isn't displaying for me, but I'm sure it's amazing.  

    I look forward to the continuation of Bruce's story, and of yours.