In-Between Place in Life and Fiction

By Lisa Alber

A few days ago, a friend sent me a recording of her pastor’s sermon. She thought I might be interested in the discussion about “liminal spaces.” In a world where the old normal is gone, yet we don’t know what the new normal will look like, we’re caught in a liminal space. A waiting place. Transition. Hopefully, transformation. This space is bewildering and disorienting and highly uncomfortable. Feelings of anxiety, crankiness, and demotivation are normal.

I’m not a religious person, but I like Richard Rohr’s description of the liminal space as “God’s waiting room.” Rohr is a Franciscan friar and writer. In this post, he wrote: “This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy.”

“Idealizing normalcy” is interesting, isn’t it? I’m assuming this means idealizing the old normal. We all know people who talk about good-old-days eras in their lives, whether that’s high school, or the Obama era, or even further back when things were “simple.” (Often code for before life got complicated with civil rights and equal rights and Black Lives Matters and Me Too and LGBTQIA and saving the environment and so on.)

Many of us are using this in-between time to ponder our lives. For thinking people, this strange place we’re in can lead to profound change.

I think about the folks affectionately (heh) known as “covidiots,” who refuse to wear masks, who go to rallies and packed bars, who protest their right to live free. (Sigh. No use telling these dummies that with our freedoms also comes civic responsibility.) I’m thinking these are people who hold on to the past, who avoid discomfort at all costs, who aren’t using this time to look within.

Whatever the new normal will be is coming at us at a rate of change that’s scary, and I suspect a lot of people aren’t going to adapt well. Discomfort is part of the dealio with the liminal space. I use my journal to face the discomfort, but then on other days I use Netflix to avoid the discomfort. A rollercoaster, but to be expected. I try not to beat myself up about the Netflix days. I also spend hours gardening, talking to friends, cuddling my pets. Coping mechanisms, and that’s OK.

Fiction is a huge solace for me. In fiction, we call the liminal space a “threshold.” This comes from the hero’s journey plot structure, which itself is inspired by Joseph Campbell’s HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES. Our stories would be pretty boring if we didn’t force our protagonists to grapple with transition and uncertainty and stress.

A while back, I landed on an oral storyteller’s website. (I wish I’d noted down the website so I could credit her now.) She described threshold moments as turning points in your life when you face a difficult decision or life event, or a surprising pivot that changes your life forever. Same goes for characters. We write stories about turning points. Perhaps living through a global/national turning point will help us with our stories. Like actors, we can mine what it feels like to live through this historic moment to deepen our characterizations.

Here’s an article on the in-between space that might interest you. Stay safe! xoxo, Lisa

The Hashtag, Mr. Griffin, and the Magic Metolius River, by Eric Witchey

The Hashtag, Mr. Griffin, and the Magic Metolius River

Eric Witchey

Peeing in a urinal underneath a print of Van Gough’s Starry Night feels a bit sacrilegious, but when you gotta go, you gotta go. At least I wasn’t staring at advertisements for drugs for erectile disfunction. I could only hope that the women’s bathrooms were as classy as the men’s, but I wasn’t going to check. Karen would have to deal with whatever neo-bohemian bullshit they used to decorate there.

Staring at Starry Night and a little grateful for having the bathroom to myself, at least until some other coffee shop denizen decided it was time to release their inner tensions, I decided my scouting trip had succeeded and The Hashtag would be fine for her writing hangout during our planned getaway.

By the time I had finished, walked back out through the minefield of tables, sofas, loungers, and spindle rocking chairs creaking away on the worn plank floor, I was sure. The last vestiges of doubt driven out of me by the low, slow tunes of Postmodern Jukebox’s “All About that Bass” streaming over the speakers. I reached the sidewalk outside absolutely certain that my search for her lair of creativity was over. In my imagined near future, I would go fishing, and she would create a nest in The Hashtag. It would be the perfect romantic getaway.

And, since I was already near the river, I got in my car and headed out in search of an ever-elusive bull trout.

#

Some rivers begin high on a mountainside and roll downslope like they are trying to win a sprint. When they come to the flats, they slow down and drop the mineral loads they carry as if they are too tired to carry their burden any further. Sandy bottoms, local runoff, and rotted vegetation give way to insect life, and trout are the inevitable outcome of that mad rush and panting effort.

This river, though, appears full and alive out of the side of the mountain. The fish may spontaneously generate in some hidden cavern space deep inside the dormant volcano. For all I know, they come through from another dimension all grown and hungry for insects.

Nobody can tell me they don’t.

The river sure as hell is magic, and everybody who fishes there knows it.

So, I spent the few hours I had flipping fly line before I had to drive home to the other side of the mountain.

Since the river is born inside the mountain, it has the same temperature year round. Because of that, the fishing is restricted to the gentle form, barbless lure catch-and-release only. And, because of that, the fish are huge and smart.

So, I often catch nothing, but I always love the experience of trying. And, after a couple of hours of trying, I sat down on a grassy spot a few yards from the water and just let the feather cirrus clouds, the scent of drying grass, and the sound of the riffling water fill me. I closed my eyes and lay back, and I just floated there for a while, full of river song and confidence that when Karen came to this place, she would have a magical place of her own to go to while I let my soul float over the water and the forest.

Maybe I fell asleep. Maybe I just found that meditative space that lets time slip by unnoticed. When I opened my eyes, the sunset had begun to turn the cirrus clouds a salmon red, a color I savored while gathering my vest, pole, and net.

The net tangled on a box—a green plastic box about the size of the cube of 64 crayons I had given my niece for her birthday. The oddness of the thing made me untangle the net and pick it up. I brass plate on one side said, “Robert M. Griffin. July 26, 1934. – Aug. 20th 2008. People’s Memorial Funeral Corporation, Seattle Washington.”

My WTF moment subsided as I realized what I might be holding. I almost dropped it, but instead I cautiously opened it to see if what I thought I had was what I actually had, and to my surprise, disgust, and concern, it was.

Mr. Griffin, or at least some of him, because I think if he had been there entirely there would have been more of him, was inside the box, rendered down to whitish-gray powder.

More carefully than I had picked him up, I closed the box, made sure it was sealed, and put it back exactly where I had found it, which I suspect is exactly where Mr. Griffin had instructed his loved ones to put him.

For a few moments, I considered opening the box again, pulling out the plastic bag, opening that, and loosing Mr. Griffin on the waters of the magic river, but I didn’t.

I couldn’t.

I hadn’t known him. I didn’t know where he wanted to be or why.

I did know that I had likely lain on the bank of the river in exactly the same place he may have once lain, and certainly where he now lies forever and ever—the cirrus clouds’ feathers and salmon-color overhead, the smell of the drying grass surrounding him, and the sound of the ever restless magic river washing across the land.

#

Five years passed before I once more sat on the grass where I had found Mr. Griffin. It calmed me deeply to find that he was still there, though he was harder to find because the grass had covered him and a small blackberry bush had pushed out in his direction to protect him.

Karen hadn’t liked The Hashtag. She hadn’t liked the river, either. The magic of it coming fully born and full of fish from the side of a volcano had somehow been completely lost on her. Eventually, the magic of us had also dissipated, and she had headed off downstream in the river of life while I still sat on the bank inhaling, watching, and listening with Mr. Griffin.

That was it. That was why I hadn’t tossed his ashes in the river-why he hadn’t had his ashes tossed in the river. To ride the water downstream would have been the death of the silence of the river in his soul.

I decided to revise my will when I got home. I hoped that someday, when it was my time to let go of the march of days, Starry Night bathrooms, and an endless succession of pointless places like The Hashtag, Mr. Griffin wouldn’t mind the company there, hidden in the grass under the blackberry bush on the banks of the magic river.

-End-

How Not to Become Clutter

by Christina Lay

Like most people in this era of the New Weird, I’ve found myself stuck at home with a lot more time on my hands. And, like most people, I suspect, my eye has turned to the many neglected projects and pockets of irritation in my house. One dire enemy of my serenity is clutter. Being a writer, I have enormous piles of paper everywhere. Even though I rarely print out entire manuscripts anymore, I still have an abundance of notebooks, random papers, sticky notes, folders, and all sorts of failed attempts at organization. My cabinets and closets overfloweth.

And then there are those piles. You know the ones. Books. Teetering towers of to-be-reads covering coffee tables and blocking passageways.  Now normally, I don’t consider books clutter. They have a clear reason d’etre and are not to be filed away. Each one is like a little work of art just waiting to be opened and savored. Nevertheless, at some point one has to acknowledge the growing fire hazard and do something to organize the stacks.  This process got me to thinking on a certain phenomena: the abandoned book.

Most of the books stacked around are still waiting for me to crack the cover, but there’s another class of book altogether: the ones I started but never finished, usually with a bookmark or feather stuck somewhere about halfway through the pages.  They create a sense of unease in me as I pick them up, read the back copy, and try to remember why I stopped reading.

I’m a writer, so I can’t help analyzing books as I read, even if it is on a low simmer in the back of my mind.  If a book really grabs, I whisper to myself; how did the author do this? How did they get me to forget these characters are fictional and convince me stay up late, read just one more chapter, worry about their fate even when I’m not reading? And then I look at my own work and wonder if I’m achieving that magic.

The flip is also true. If I find myself losing interest, or being kicked out of the story too often, or actually getting pissed off, I ask myself why. That’s usually more obvious. It’s been a while since I’ve flat out thrown a book across the room, but I have decisively put certain books aside.  More common though is the Slow Drift.  The loss of interest. The putting down and actually forgetting to pick up again. I didn’t really mean to abandon those books, I just found something better to read.  These books for the most part are well written, and good enough to get published by a major publisher, but they stumbled when they could’ve soared.

I’m not really interested in giving bad reviews, so I’ve been gathering notes and keeping them to myself.  I’ve got a compendium of mental notes on “How These Books Became Clutter”, and thought I’d collect them to share them with you.  Mostly these are books that I received for free at writers’ conferences, where publishers will give away large stacks of books in order to create buzz. Mostly they don’t. Learn from their mistakes and don’t do these things:

Spend a lot of time building up to one big event or conflict, and then have it happen off-stage, or not at all. In the particular book I’m thinking of, I was stunned to realize the author had jumped ahead a decade or so, completely bypassing the big conflict (a war) that all the dramatic tension had been leading toward, or so I thought.  Stoking the fires of expectation and then dousing them with disinterest is never a good idea. And yet, I kept reading, because the author was very good. And then, they did this:

Suddenly switch genres.  This again plays into readers’ expectations.  Up until the point where I lost interest in the book, it had been an alternate history in the steampunk vein, with little hints of magic here and there. Then, after the above referenced time jump, a new cast of characters was introduced, one of which was a magician cat shifter. Now normally, I’m all over that sort of thing, but it was like I was reading an entirely new book and everything that had happened before didn’t matter. I lost interest.

Develop interesting characters and then abandon them. Multiple points of view are awesome if you’ve got a good knack for voice and characterization and I don’t mind chapter-to-chapter head hopping at all. However, I do expect to revisit a character after I’ve spent a lot of time getting to know them. In the book in question, there were several POV characters and imagine my surprise when I discovered that one who I’d considered a major protagonist was dead, murdered off stage with barely a mention.  I never did find out what happened because I set the book aside and forgot to pick it up again.

Have allegedly smart characters make mind-numbingly stupid choices. I shouldn’t even have to point this out, but it continues to happen. In service of the plot, a writer forces a character to do something that is so obviously wrong, bad and doomed to crushing failure that even the least attentive reader will be going “No, no, no!” Now, characters are human, they are flawed, they make big mistakes, sometimes whopping ones, but they have their reasons.  Might not be something we’d do, but we can understand why they might do it. The choice that enrages your reader is just never good (although kudos on making them care!)

Create a relentless atmosphere of gloom and doom and fill it with hopeless, unlikable people.  Now if you’re writing grimdark horror, maybe this is okay, but in your average novel, the reader needs something to root for.  Sometimes protagonists are not likable. Sometimes we might root for their failure and comeuppance. Sometimes a dark and evil world might be fascinating in it’s own right.  But if the main protag is a jerk, and everyone else is a jerk, and there’s no hope of any redemption, then at some point I’m going to ask myself why I’m reading this story. And then I’ll stop reading it.

Explain to the reader in excruciating detail all of the protagonist’s emotions and the historical reasons for those emotions. Repeat ad nauseum. I’m exaggerating this particular flaw, because that’s what I do, but I find a book is so much stronger if I feel the emotions alongside the character, rather than having them explained to me. This is one of the trickiest and most rewarding skills in writing; creating emotion without saying “Fred was sorrowful because his parents died horribly when he was a wee lad”.  Instead, let me know about Fred’s parents and then show Fred acting out in his own special way, or not. Show the reader how that event affects him to this day.

Hide the fact that the book is part of a series and not a stand-alone. Boy, does this one grate on my last nerve.  I’ll be about two thirds in and start to notice that the remaining pages are rather thin. There’s no way the author is going to be able to wrap this up in that many pages, I think. And then, I get suspicious. I start scanning the interior matter and that’s when I’ll find buried somewhere in a tiny font that this is Book One out of fifteen.  Perhaps I don’t abandon this book if I’ve been enjoying it, but if it ends on a cliffhanger without warning, I’m much less likely to rush out and by Books 2 through 15, because I’m pissed.  This is easy to fix. Just put Book 1 on the cover. Or the name of the series, at least. Hiding the truth will not earn you any fans.

I suppose that’s enough for now. I’m sure I’ll have another long list of not-to-do’s as I work my way through these piles, but hopefully, I’ll have a longer list of to-do’s.  Readers want to love your book, they really do. Don’t make them set it aside.