The whole point of the Daily Riff is to provide a moment of inspiration, an opening line to a song only you can write. A bit of back story on this habit of mine: When I first started writing, my best friend always had music on. We would snatch a lyric from Jim Morrison, the Eagles, Eminem, or Sara Mclaughlin. It didn’t matter where we got it, just that we found something that echoed in us and pulled us into our own lives. Sometimes we’d read poetry aloud or happen upon a line in a book that rang out and caught us in its flow. We’d read them out loud, swooning over the richness of these words that kept us awake and loving – or hating – our own existence.
Like a true musical riff, the line isn’t a prompt. It is an invitation. Take this line and let it echo through your life, catch it, and, as fast as you can, build a house of words upon it. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense. This writing isn’t for anyone but you. Let it flow through you and see what comes up. The whole point is to put you in connection with yourself and strip your writing naked. It is meant to remove all those pesky fears about what sort of writer you are or how you good you are. This isn’t a place for caring about that. I know that a lot of people don’t understand the point of writing practice, so think of it this way. What is basketball practice? What is football practice? Anything you want to do well, you practice at. I used to play the guitar – and I’m trying to get back into it now. I remember hating those endless practices, running up and down chords, trying to learn a new song, playing over and over until my fingers were numb. But. When I had to perform, the music flowed out seamlessly and there was a sense of confidence that came with it; I knew exactly what I was doing. These days, I practice because it is all for me. I love the sound of the strings, just like I love to write until I trip across something that both surprises and delights me.
Writing practice is preparation for the big game. It is preparing for the small games and the halftime shows. It is writing no-one else will ever see because it is all yours. I am currently reading a published version of Anais Nin’s journal. I love how, in the introduction, the author points out that this journal is like seeing what went on behind the stage; here you can catch all the things that made her writing so rich and vivid in their original form, her daily life and thoughts. The daily riff is meant to help you in a way that isn’t a writing prompt; if that line from Nirvana reminds you of your childhood, go on and follow it down, but there is no firm direction here. Like any poetry or music, the meaning is personal to you. Follow that. Embrace it. Being a writer is about looking inside ourselves. Truly good writing – the sort that is naked and unapologetic – comes from within your own life. That is why writers are never really in competition with each other; I can’t write like you because I didn’t have your life and you can’t write like me because you don’t know what goes on in my head. It is a simple concept, but one that you should embrace. Find the things that shake you out of your apathy. Fall in love with who you are and what you’ve been through. When a true hunter brings down an animal, they use every part of the carcass. From the meat to the bones, there is nothing left to waste. Be like that with your life. Leave it all out on the page, use every part of it, right down to the worst thing that ever happened to you. When you get nervous or scared, remember that the best part of writing is that, if you don’t want to share it, you don’t have to.
As much as I love my magnets, they are a bit limiting and limiting is never a good thing in creativity. So, while they might still make appearances, I’m going to be providing other sources from now on.
For our first Riff, I feel it is only fitting to start with my first riff (or the first one I remember).
Can you picture what will be
So limitless and free
Desperately in need
-The Doors; The End
Write a story. Write poetry. Write about everything you know about Jim Morrison or just write about all the endings in your life. The whole point is to catch the rhythm that speaks to you. Now go! Rap it out, play with the words, figure out what it is that you want to talk about and just do it for ten minutes. Happy Writing!
Hook walked. Long, swinging stride that ate streets in huge, hungry bites. Cobbles gleamed with melted snow, which fell in thick veils that shifted and billowed, turning the gas street lamps into golden, shimmering stars. The rows of buildings that framed the streets could have been walls for all the details I could see.
Hook was unfazed; his sharp eyes were focused ahead, as if he see something in the falling snow to which I – cat or girl – was blind.
The cold wind bit deep, snaking past my heavy fur, which grew damp and heavy as the snow melted upon it. I climbed down into Hook’s crimson coat, only my eyes and nose exposed. I wondered if Hook knew where he was going or if his rage alone carried us through the warren of streets.
All Londons have their churches. St. Pauls and Westminster, though, follow them all. And so I assumed one or the other was our destination. The catacombs beneath either loved the wealthy in this dark and soot stained world. I wondered how we would find a child no-one wanted to remember. But I was tired, heavy with the memory of the undercity, so I curled close to his black heart and blinked sleepily in time with its beating.
When did it change? With the snow and the exhaustion, I cannot say. I only knew when I looked up and saw the ragged, broken tooth walls. The splintered and undone arches of flying buttresses stood sharp against the blowing snow. The famed window was naught but brightly colored shards. Nothing moved among the scattered gray of loose stone. The stunned silence hanging thick around us was the quiet that comes after an ear splitting scream. Or a bomb.
Broken Paris. Silent Paris. Paris Of The Dead.
“Under the church,” I whispered, understanding; not a church that London owned. The church. The only one the whole world – all of them – owned. Notre Dame. And, beneath it, hundreds of snaking miles of labyrinthine dark where the dead hold sway and the rules are all changed.
This is Paris dreaming. Lying empty beneath an ashen sky, silent, still, full of the memory of life, but only the memory. The braided steel tower stands crooked, an icon knocked off balance and forgotten. Loose papers blow through the unwalked streets, frozen on a day that had started out with news of celebration and ended in screams for mercy. This is a city caught in the aftermath, a city that never recovered itself. For Dead Paris, time is frozen. It feels like it exists in an ended world, but who can say? I’ve never seen another city so fully transformed into a tomb.
Hook moved toward the church, once grand, once a symbol of human determination. Two hundred years to build it. Two minutes to break it. And now here it was, lying like a crumpled and mashed can beside the slow, black Seine.
Hook paused, tipped his hat in a gesture that suggested the salute an old sailor gives a well respected captain at his funeral. Sleep well, may you find rest, sorry to see you go.
Then we were stepping down on hidden footholds, into the canal where the rotten water moved slow, thick with something that made my eyes burn and my skin itch. And there was a doorway, of sorts, an opening into the darkness beneath the city.
Hook’s mustache ticked. “Light,” He said, reaching out to take the lantern waiting there on a hook. It still swished with plenty of fuel. He hung it from the gleaming curve of his deadly hook. He lit it with a snap of the flint he slid from a hidden pocket. Then he stepped in.
There was a musty, earthy smell, the scent of mausoleums that house tier upon tier of the dead in coffins that weren’t made well enough to keep the smell in. It was more than a tomb, this place. It was where the living fell and no-one ever came to give them proper rights. There was no-one left to put up headstones or pray.
“They fled here, in the end,” Hook whispered. “Down into the lightless dark with their children and their treasures, but Death was all that lived here.” His boots crunched on the floor. Bones, scattered in mindless jumbles, skulls, jaws unhinged, screaming panic, begging still, even though the flesh had gone and the life they wanted was stolen years and years before. “Those that didn’t die by violence wandered here in the dark, lost, forgotten, starving.” He walked on, unafraid of the tunnels and the endless turnings, unafraid of a death found in the dark after all the light ran out.
At first, there were other openings, glimpses of the world above. Sometimes bright and sunny, full of voices and life, but mostly, they just reflected that sad and broken Paris left silent beneath the dead sky. Even those brief flickers of other Paris’ did not cheer me; it wasn’t real. It was only the memory, not the reality. All those laughing voices would soon be silenced; I could hear the low off throbbing hum of a thousand planes carrying death like birds clutching fish in their claws. It wasn’t a different Paris we saw, just a different when.
Such is the way of the catacombs. They lead you in mystic circles to show you fortunes of future and past. They twine around and around to create that magical window through which you can see all the terrible things you can’t change. We could fly out, into that sunlight, screaming the warnings the sirens would give too late. But they wouldn’t listen. They’d go on drinking their wine and laughing their triumph as they wait for the rain of fire and fury that will tear Notre Dame apart, knock their tower sideways so that it spills the people from it’s top like a glass tipping water on the table, and turn the Louvre into a fire that burns until there is nothing left but shifting ash.
I prefer to see the dead city; at least it is over, when we are there. When we pass the small crack where screams pour down like rain and the air raid sirens howl their high warning, I close my eyes so I don’t have to see the orange-red flicker of fire and I cover my ears so I don’t have to hear them dying, those merry, laughing French who thought it was all over, who believed they were safe.
Finally, it is just us in the dark, Hook’s boots crunching on bone, scraping over loose dirt and stone. “Do you know how to find her?” I ask.
“What we need will find us,” he says.
“We must lose our way.”
I frown. “Madness.” A comment on him or our quest? I don’t know.
“Sometimes getting lost is the only way to be found,” he says in a tone that tells me I’m being purposefully dense. And I am. These are Wonderland rules; what is down must go up because up is really down. I shouldn’t be surprised; I am a Cheshire, a riddler, daughter of the Sphinx and Grinner.
I’ve seen little girls shrink to an inch then grow ten feet tall. I have seen playing card soldiers shuffle themselves and blue caterpillars nine feet long puffing calmly on their hookah. These are the laws when you are down the rabbit hole; no science can calculate, gravity goes often on vacation, and two and two might equal six. Or ninety-eight. Or apple. It’s Wonderland. Madness is our daily routine.
But. Down through the twisting, musty dark which is not Wonderland and which does not love me like my home, there comes a new sound. “Here kitty, kitty.” My muscles clench tight, my whole body a fist squeezing into a knot, ready for flight. “Come, puss, come sweet kitten.” All around, coming from every tunnel, the drone of a hundred gray voices. The grate of a thousand cage doors opening. “Here kitty, kitty.”
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.”