Dirty, wet, stinking trash built into walls, bits of forgotten wood and metal forming narrow, crooked lanes, like little streets down in the dark places, where respectable people did not go.
A pale flicker, dirty bare feet and a ragged gray hem, that is all I had to follow, like a pale tongue of flame playing hide and seek in burning wood. I chased her on quick feet, dodging grabbing hands and kicking boots. A group of boys took up chasing me, filthy fingers swinging for my tail until I turned, girl-face snarling and fists striking jaw and gut. They flinched away from my fury, melting into the chaos of the underground city, disappearing between rusted sheets of tin and splintered bits of rotting planks.
A few more corners and I caught a glimpse of a skinny leg sliding behind a ragged tarp cast over a low heap of broken wood.
I paused, one hand smoothing silvery waves back from my sweaty face, heart hammering; if there was going to be a trap laid here, this was a good place. No-one would lift a finger. If paid enough silver, they might even help. There is no desire for honor when you are starving.
Then I ducked into the dim damp under that tarp, eyes searching for the tripwire to bring the cage door slamming shut.
There was no girl. At first, I thought the small space was empty of all but the eye stinging scent of urine and rotted things. Then a small heap of blankets cast into a corner shifted. Ratty, straggling gray hair, skin like paper, milky eyes that stared up at me as if they could still see. “Alice?” she rasped.
A thousand Londons. A million fates. Do any of us know how many possible shadows flicker, dancing around the existence of our names? Some dead, some alive. Some in Oxford, some in Paris, some in Not-London’s shadowed underbelly, who knew how many Alice’s there had been.
She fell back, trembling hand trailing over wrinkled, sunken cheeks, a woman who might still be somewhat young. But tragedy had aged her, made her elderly and infirm. Her filmed eyes never left me.
“What is it?” I asked her. The old woman, the way she looked at me, it reminded me of our mad, Red Queen, the way she had looked just before, eyes glittering with a different sort just before, eyes glittering with a different sort of madness, mouth a red frown unlike her usual, puckered fury.
“Never more than this,” she had said. “Never more than right now.” And the old woman in her heap of ancient blankets echoed that strange and painful sentiment. The worst part of Story’s bonds and chains is that you can never be other than what you are. A hero is always a hero. A villain is always a villain. Unless you are Hook. But even he is feared beyond the seven seas and all the Londons that ever were – and a few that weren’t – and always there is a sense of villainy. Even he can’t escape what Story wants him to be.
“Trapped,” the old woman whispered. “Right here. In this moment.” And all the pain and all the sorrow is forever. I remembered the Red Queen, perched upon her throne, face pale and eyes gleaming with some sort of shock, as if she’d been hit with a weight she couldn’t quite assimilate. “He told me. He told me. Never to see my sweet Alice again except in dreams.” And a chill ran twisting fingers up my spine and I shrank, fur stiffening, teeth barred. It felt too much like a prophecy. Too much like a grim portent spoken by the grayed lips of Fate herself.
It was a relief to hear the whispered exclamations of fear. To hear the name running through the undercity like a wave of black water. Hook. Hook. Hook. It was welcome to hear the breaking of wood and the cursing of a man who had only one hope and had lost sight of it.
I backed away from the woman, from her empty eyes and clenching fingers. “Find Alice,” she hissed, reaching out and dragging ragged nails over firm, girl arms. “Find Alice and find what you need.”
I jerked away with a cry; the Alice she spoke of was dust and spider webs. The Alice she spoke of was more grave than grace. And it felt like asking for trouble, it felt like accepting the death I had taken my name to fight.
I stumbled out of that dimness that stank of grief and resignation, eyes burning, blinking in the low torchlight because even that was bright compared to the narrow enclave behind me. Witch, gypsy, fortune-teller, never did a happy Story fold them into the Words. And Hook caught me. Sword roughened hands around thin wrists, periwinkle eyes shining without a fleck of crimson in sight. Kneeling down, mustache ticking fast, fast, fast. A father. A man with a softness for little girl tears, arms to hold and hands that knew what it was to soothe away midnight fears.
Hook. The pirate, the villain, the father. He hugged me to him so that I could smell the sea salt ingrained in his skin, so that it was easy to forget that he wasn’t my father, the Cheshire, who hugged me just so and grinned until I knew no gray coated man with a cage would ever get past his flashing teeth and quicksilver claws, until I remembered that Mother would eat such an intruder, swallow him down into the black universe of her belly where his soul would never, ever find the way out.
“There,” Hook said, patting my back. Men without children are awkward and tense, possessing none of the natural grace every girl learns with her plastic babies and painted dolls. But men with daughters speak a different language, learn a gentleness and ease to soothe away frightened tears and shredded nerves. “There, now.” And he picked me up and walked away. When I looked back, the shelter was gray with webs and dust, a tattered curtain of spider silk hanging over the open mouth of the door, not a tarp, and there was a cat sized hole torn right through. Nothing else moved there. Nothing else breathed. And no living flesh had walked there before me for a very long time.
I could almost envy Wendy; no mother, perhaps, only fierce pirate captain whose black temper was well feared, but never had I felt safer than when he picked the dust and webs off me with quick fingers while he sang a low pirate tune.
“Do you ever feel trapped?” I asked him when he was quiet again. “Shackeled to the will of Story?” The questions we don’t ask. The things we don’t talk about. But Hook does not and never did care about the rules.
“Once.” He leaned back. The strange and jumbled city was silent. Not empty, just quiet. Full of fear; none would wish the wrath of the mad sea captain. “One story is never enough for the wild spirit.” His smile had no edges and, for the first time since that night outside a lamplit window, I saw a different Hook, a kinder Hook. The protective father, not the black hearted pirate. “But I have a thousand names and each one its own story to tell.”
“But what about the rest of us?” I asked him.
His smile never faltered. “No-one has just one story,” he whispered. Our names are many. You are only trapped if you believe it so. If you don’t remember all the rest.”
I laid my head on his shoulder. “We have to find Alice,” I whispered. Then understood; Alice is herself and any name she bears, she is still just Alice, Wonderland Alice. “Not-Alice, I amended. It didn’t make me feel less frightened to tell myself that, just like London or Oxford, there were other Alice’s that weren’t her, but their own thing with their own Stories to obey. But it did still my grief. Not-Alice might be dust, but my Alice still lived and needed me to save her.
“Where do you think we will find her?” Hook asked.
“Wherever they take the un-wanted dead,” I replied.
Tick, tick, tick. Then: “The catacombs under the church.”
If you’re going to write, expose your soul.
I still remember the first time I came across the term ‘write naked’. I was a teenager, so, of course, my brain went right into the gutter. I was shy and a bit terrified of my own body, so I also did a lot of blushing and giggling. You would think, then, that the truth of the phrase would have made me relieved. It did not. If anything, it made me more frightened.
I am from the midwest. We work hard and we don’t complain. We do what we have to and we don’t argue about it or play the victim. We just get it done. We don’t talk about our feelings, for goodness sake. We don’t expose ourselves. Hell, I made an effort to pretend I was so well armored that I’d come out kicking ass. Anytime I failed, especially in high school, it seemed there was always someone who was ready and willing to take advantage of the exposed soft spot (and I had a lot of them, back then). Yet now I was being told to completely open myself up on paper.
The whole idea of opening up to all the things inside scared me silly; the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, laying it out for everyone to examine gave me the shivers. The very thought of pulling out all the pain and letting people see it damn near made me back away from the entire idea of writing. I didn’t and I’m glad that I didn’t. But it was a close call.
Writing naked is one of those things that, once you start doing it, you can’t imagine a time when you didn’t. It isn’t about what you are giving to other people. I have gorilla cases full of notebooks that no-one will ever see, full of everything I felt from the time I was eighteen on. There are some gaps in there, years where I couldn’t quite get myself to write because writing is about truth and, well, I was invested in lying to myself about some pretty big things, so writing became impossible. On the whole, though, the entirety of my being is in those cases and anyone patient enough to read through the notebooks (after they get past my Indiana Jones patented security system) would learn pretty much everything they wanted to know about me.
Naked writing is scary. You have to open up doors you want to keep locked. You have to look through windows you intentionally shuttered so you didn’t have to see the monsters lurking outside. You have to climb up into attics, go down the steps into the basement, and run headlong at the demons you find there, tackle them to the ground, and beat the truth out of them. If you do it right, you come across things you didn’t even know existed within you. Whole worlds can explode and you will learn things that startle, shock, and horrify. You will learn just how much of a stranger you are to yourself and all those pretty lies you tell so that you can get on with being you without having a daily meltdown are stripped away.
Don’t worry. It only hurts for a little bit. Yes, you will discover things about yourself you aren’t proud of. All your weaknesses will be exposed. Lying to yourself will become impossible and you will find yourself faced with the painful truth that you are not perfect after all. Is it worth it? Yes. Definitely. Because you will also find your hidden strengths. At the risk of sounding like a bad self-help book, I can tell you that you will find your truth. If you dig long enough and deep enough, you will find out exactly who you are and the beauty is that, once you know the truth, you can change it if you need to.
Naked writing starts with grabbing hold of something that bites and holding on to it as tight as you can. It doesn’t always hurt, but, if you start with the things you are most afraid of, the things that have porcupine quills and hooked teeth, it gets easier faster. Once the painful things are beaten senseless, you don’t have to be afraid anymore.
I handwrite everything because I feel more of a connection to the words that way and sprint for as long as I can about whatever part of my life I’m examining. This is not structured writing, this is not writing about fiction, this is looking into your own life or the world, finding something that makes you feel, then sitting with it. Handwriting, to me, feels like it creates more of a connection to that. However, I really do handwrite everything, so this medium may work best for me just because I am most comfortable with it. Use whatever suits you best.
Natalie Goldberg says to do these writing practices for ten minutes at a time, but I’ve gone whole days doing ten minute to an hour sprints, each new exploration exposing something else I want to think about on paper. And I have filled notebook after notebook in this manner, ripping myself open and spilling it all out in ink, the good, the bad, the ugly. Why have I been so dedicated to it and how does it pertain to being a better writer? Remember how my ex used to ask me where I got the blue vases? This is where. When you do writing practices like this, you have to have plenty to write about. I start looking at the world more intently and living more fully in it. This practice has made me a better writer, not because it taught me grammar skills or made my handwriting nicer, but because it taught me to let go of rules, be wholly present in everything, and just trust my own self while giving me the chance to find my own way to describe the world. It has developed what everyone calls ‘voice’. Every fiction piece I write echoes the years I’ve spent playing with words, some better than others, and this practice has allowed me to develop the quirks of my writing that make it completely mine.
As humans, we tend to avoid things like naked writing. Don’t poke the bear, don’t get eaten, don’t do anything dangerous, don’t think about the things that hurt you. But, as writers, our job is to shine a light into the dark corners and figure out what is hiding there. You can’t have the courage to do that if you don’t first poke a light around in your own corners. Trust me, once you find the monsters hiding in your head, you’ll never be quite as afraid of the ones you find outside of it. The good news is that it is sort of like lancing an infected boil. Once you start to drain it, you realize you can heal, that you don’t have to keep avoiding those negative thoughts because you are able to steal their thunder and use them in a positive way. In Buddhism, we call this turning poison into medicine. Is it painful? Yes, especially the first time. But do it anyway.
My first writing was done with my best friend, sitting at her kitchen table, drinking her mother’s (amazing) sweet tea by the gallon. I don’t remember exactly what inspired our first writing sessions together, just that it became our normal. It began with poetry, so, naturally, we traded poetry a lot. I grew numb to that terror of someone else reading what I wrote. Then I remember picking up Natalie Goldberg’s ‘Writing Down The Bones’ during a bookstore visit. I had an obsession with ghosts and death and anything paranormal, so the title grabbed me. I was hooked from page one, from those first words that drew me in because everything Natalie Goldberg writes is naked. And there, in that book, were those exact words. Write naked. Strive to write from way down deep, where you know exactly what you want to say and don’t be afraid of it.
My best friend and I would sit for hours, reading Natalie’s book out loud to each other, writing page after page, seeking out the dark places. Each time we thought we’d hit bottom, we’d find new depths to explore. We would trade our notebooks, reading what the other wrote and that would inspire new things to write. We had whole conversations that way. That was back when I understood the value of writing vs. speaking, something that I struggle with now. When you speak, no matter how eloquently, the words run out into the air and are quickly lost. Writing keeps them safe. Writing keeps them where you can capture the power and harness everything good about it while forgiving yourself for the bad. A good portion of our discussions were written in paragraphs, almost poetical in their emotion, with barely a single spoken word passing between us. It was a beautiful way to interact with another person; her passion for writing matched my own and sitting there with her, getting right down into the mud of who I was, I felt like I was answering the question of what I was meant for and had pretty damn good company for the ride.
Over time, I’ve gone through periods where this sort of writing has been nearly impossible. Back when I knew my marriage was a sinking ship, I would be lucky to write twenty pages in a year and none of it was good. I shied away from those things that I didn’t want to know about myself, that would have just made me more exposed to the criticisms and constant disapproval of my ex. I shied away from letting myself know that this was a hopeless battle, that we were the Titanic and nobody could close a hole that big. Had I accepted it then, I would have had to leave and I wasn’t done telling myself that loving him was enough. Of course it wasn’t; nothing I ever did was good enough for him and there was no-one there who could tell me I wasn’t worthless because that is the nature of the military; nobody ever gets to know each other all that well before they have to move again. So I ran away from my notebooks, avoided them like they might bite me, told myself I’d write the next day, or the next, and managed, for months at a time, to be okay with that. It didn’t last, though. Always, I seem end up back here, pouring myself out on the page with my ballpoints and my desire to figure out what is really going on and, better yet, find the poetry of my life.
I encourage you to go pick up all of Natalie Goldberg’s books on writing. I encourage you to dive into everything that you are. Be silent, be still, and look deep. All those things you don’t think you can face? They aren’t really that bad. And, even if they are, a festering sore can’t dry out until you cut it open and expose it.
You might ask what the purpose is. How does this make you a better writer? After all, it isn’t like you are writing a memoir, so what good does it do to examine your life, to write poetry, to do these exercises? Because, in connecting with yourself, you are connecting with the divine. You are reaching in and talking about your life, about all the things you know and finding beautiful ways to say them. You are teaching your brain to think in deeper terms. And it will come out in all your writing. You are finding the voice inside you, the one that is always there, because you alone think like you. Writing practice gives you the rock to grab on to when it feels like writer’s block is trying to suck you under and drown you. It isn’t always easy and it sometimes hurts like hell, but practice will always reward you, if you do it enough.
So go on. Go spend ten minutes writing about the dog that died when you were ten, about your grandmother’s habit of shutting you in the closet, about seeing a ghost when you were eight. Write about anything. Write about everything. Find the words that make you fall in love with your whole life. Go find all the blue vases.