Posts Tagged ‘gaia’
It’s impossible to sort out my thoughts about Gaia from my feelings about her to write anything objective on her as a character. I thought I could do a profile about her, but that feels too detached, too clinical. It involves seeing her from the outside like a reporter, which I can’t do because I only know her from the inside out. I thought of doing an interview with her. After all, I once asked Chardo Will a few questions while he was working on his barn, but even Will soon withdrew from me, and Gaia would never play. Neither would Leon.
Here’s what I do know. To get into Gaia, I look up away from my computer, gaze vacantly out my window, and let the feeling of her come into my body. It’s natural to start with her in her parents’ little home, with wood smoke and firelight and the danger of a guard who has invaded her familiar space. That’s where she first came in conflict with the forces of the Enclave, although her first inner doubts had started before then. Gaia awakens in me fully at the moment when Sgt. Grey searches her midwifery satchel, taking every item out and inspecting each seam until there is no thread left unexamined.
It seems so horrible to me now. The incident passes without violence, but it’s an absolute violation and a clear demonstration of power. Sgt. Grey, as an agent of the Enclave, has every legal right to enter Gaia’s home, take her parents, throw wood on her fire, pick through her personal effects, and interrogate her alone. That he does so politely only emphasizes that both of them, midwife and guard, completely accept the power structure they’ve been born into. Gaia’s wariness, resentment, trust, fear, and sharp intelligence all surface during their exchange, and from deep in the corner, I feel my own determination rise. I will beat this. I will not give in.
Back then, Gaia’s troubles were only beginning. Taking this girl through three books has been intense. Her raw, inherent potential was always there, but I had to discover how it would surface when Gaia was faced with different challenges and losses. I like that she’s not perfect. She’s not always right or always strong. She’s impulsive and loses her temper. But she’s also fair and lonely and quick to learn. She craves belonging, and wants to do the right thing. She’s honestly slow to commit where she loves, and she’s torn by conflicting responsibilities.
She’s real to me. Yes.
It’s been good knowing her.
One of my worst memories of third grade was when Sr. Mary Frances asked me to go check what time it was for her. A small clock was on the counter near the sink, so I went over to look, but I couldn’t read what the hands were telling me. I didn’t yet know how to tell time. Sister sent over my friend Leslie to help me, and Leslie knew right away what time it was. She told me, I told the teacher, we went back to sit on the rug, and class went on.
Not a big moment of shame, you might think. But it was for me. There are odd things about this memory, but I don’t question them because the feeling remains real. I was ashamed that I couldn’t tell time. It didn’t help me that my teachers kept teaching me the hour and the half hour because in real life, the clock hands were almost never (only twice an hour) on those precise positions. It didn’t help when they said to ignore the second hand, like it didn’t matter. That speedy red hand was the most exciting thing up there.
By fourth grade, I still couldn’t read clocks. It wasn’t until my dad took off his watch for me to hold and taught me the whole system, minute by minute, from the second hand and all the way up, that I finally understood the pattern. He let me ask questions, like what time would it be if the hands were here, like this? And he showed me that the hour hand couldn’t be quite in that place if the minute hand was there, because of the relationship between the hands. So I learned the system by which we count time, and I felt safe. I’d never again have to be embarrassed by not knowing how to tell time.
People ask me how much of Gaia from Birthmarked is in me. Who hasn’t felt ignorant? Who hasn’t been an outsider? If I can still feel my father’s heavy, warm watch in my little fingers, I can know how deeply Gaia felt her father’s love. Some things are universal. Or timeless.
This is a bit story about characters from the world of Birthmarked. I wrote this “new beginnings” story in honor of Eve’s Fan Garden, which is celebrating its one year anniversary this week. I’m also joining their live chat on Thursday, January 20, at 8:30 EST if you’d like to drop by. Happy Birthday, Eve’s Fan Garden!
As Emily braced her palm against the pottery wheel and started it spinning, her foot picked up the rhythm of pressure on the treadle to keep it going. Wet, mobile clay spun beneath her hands and she concentrated to keep it centered in a circular mound, small enough so that her thumbs met easily over it and the slickness smoothed in a supple form inside her fingers.
“What are you doing working so late?” Gaia asked.
Emily kept her gaze on the spinning gray clay, but she heard Gaia coming in the door to her left and walking around the little studio, blocking light from one lamp after another as she moved. Gaia slunk down the wall to sit on the floor, just at the edge of Emily’s peripheral vision.
“I’ll splatter you there,” Emily said.
Gaia moved her loafers. “No, you won’t.”
The wheel made a steady hum. Emily pressed her thumb down in the middle of the clay and gradually worked the indentation outward toward the edge, where she pulled up a lip of clay to form a thick, small bowl. She grabbed a wet bit of sponge. Frowning, she leaned over to peer at the form at an angle while she smoothed outward from the center again, easing her wet sponge inside the spinning shape, applying equal pressure to the outside edge of the bowl as she firmly, delicately modified the shape. She lifted her hands away, watching the little bowl spin, and then finally took her foot off the treadle. The wheel spun slowly down to silence, and Emily wiped a strand of loose hair back off her forehead, not caring that she was smearing a trace of clay along her face, too. She was already filthy.
“You okay?” Gaia asked.
“I have five more of these to make tonight.”
“Why aren’t your parents making them?”
“They worked all day,” Emily said. “My dad had to use my wheel because his was broken, so now it’s my turn.”
“To do your share?” Gaia asked.
“You know how it is. Way too much work or not enough. We have to get it while we can or they’ll go to another potter.” Emily reached her arms over her head to stretch. “I can’t talk long.” She looked at Gaia closely for the first time, noting both the tired slump of her shoulders and the radiance in her expression. “Were you delivering a baby with your mom?”
Gaia nodded. “It was great. A little girl.” She smiled, hugging herself. “It’s just the most amazing thing.”
“She was so little! Right here in my hands,” Gaia said, holding them up reverently as if she could still feel the invisible infant there.
Emily reached for a wire to slide under the bowl to cut it from the wheel. “You’re lucky you like your work. Bring me that board, will you?”
Gaia stood to reach for it and passed it over. Emily gingerly lifted the bowl onto the board where it would dry and harden.
“Look at how pretty that is,” Gaia said. “I could never make that in a million years and you just tossed it off.”
Emily could see nothing graceful about what she’d just made. Competent work that would satisfy her mother; that’s all it was. “It’s passable.”
Gaia laughed, and then her smile faded. “You’re serious. Look, if you don’t like working as a potter, why don’t you tell your parents?”
Emily cleared off the wheel and reached for another block of clay that she’d pounded for air bubbles, and gave it a couple more smacks before she settled in the center of the wheel and wet it down.
“Emily,” Gaia said, “don’t ignore me.” She was sitting on the floor again and she gave a little wave.
“I’m not ignoring you. This is the only thing I know how to do.”
“That’s not an answer. If you don’t want to be a potter, don’t be a potter.”
Emily started the wheel again, and the awkward, lumpy clay jerked under her hands, resistant and stubborn. She made her hands strong and forced the clay to yield until it gradually morphed into a small, symmetrical mound that spun evenly. The basic, pre-bowl shape. She could close her eyes and feel it in her sleep.
“I mean it, Emily,” Gaia said over the noise of the spinning. “You could quit this.”
“You’re making it worse,” Emily said.
“I’m not. Would you just listen to me?”
“No, now. Now, when you’re miserable.”
“I’m not miserable,” Emily said.
Gaia laughed, and Emily released the clay to look across at her. Sometimes she hated the way Gaia could see right through her and laugh at the same time.
“Okay. I may be miserable,” Emily admitted. “But there are worse things than being miserable, and I don’t need you coming in here telling me I have choices, because I don’t.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Like what? Tell me, genius. What else could I do?”
Gaia shrugged. “You could be a midwife like me, or a weaver, or a teacher, or own a restaurant or a store or anything. You’d be a great teacher, actually. You’re super smart and patient.”
Emily scoffed out a laugh and kept her foot going on the treadle of the wheel so the clay spun before her. “A teacher. We don’t even have any schools in Wharfton.”
“You could change that.”
Emily laughed again. “I can’t read. Remember? Do you know any teachers who can’t read?”
Gaia came to her feet again. “I’ll teach you.”
Emily reached for her sponge and dipped it the water. “We tried that once before, remember? That stupid silent ‘e’ thing? No, thanks.”
Gaia came nearer, crowding Emily’s light. “We’re older now. I hardly knew how to read myself back then, but now I do. At least look at me.”
Emily bit inward on her lips and kept her focus on the spinning clay, but as Gaia continued to stand there, waiting, and Emily contemplated making more bowls like the last one every day for the rest of her life, she allowed herself to look up. Gaia’s kind, challenging expression was almost more than she could stand.
“Oh, Em,” Gaia said quietly.
“Could you really teach me?”
Gaia nodded. “Of course.”
“You won’t make me feel stupid?”
Gaia leaned nearer and set her clean hand on Emily’s slick, dirty one. Emily took her foot off the pedal and let the wheel spin down to motionlessness again, and the little studio had never been so quiet.
“Watch,” Gaia said. “It’s just putting together sounds.” Slowly, carefully, guiding Emily’s own finger to make the marks, Gaia drew a word in the muddy clay that covered the outer surface of the wheel in a gray film. “This is a ‘Y.’ It sounds like ‘y-y-yellow,’” Gaia said. “And this is ‘E,’ which is the start of ‘Emily.’”
“I know that one,” Emily said.
“And this one’s ‘S,’” Gaia said, still guiding Emily’s finger. “It’s the snake letter, making the ‘s-s-s’ sound. Put the three letters together, and you get an entire word you know.”
Emily pulled her hand free to trace the letters again herself, sounding them out softly. When comprehension came, she couldn’t say it. She could only think it, deep in the loneliness of her own heart: yes.
She didn’t want to move. She didn’t know what to say. She should have been grateful to Gaia, but somehow she felt enraged. Reading was so simple. Why hadn’t her parents let her learn? Many, many times Gaia’s parents had offered to teach Emily along with Gaia, and every single time Emily’s parents had declined, too proud to be in their debt. Worst of all, they’d also taught Emily to be too proud.
Now she moved her hands to the pile of clay on her wheel and slowly gripped her hands into it, ruining her work. She wanted to throw it, to smash everything around her, but instead she slumped backwards on her stool and hid her face in her messy hands. All she could see was clay, all she could smell was wet clay on her hands. She closed her eyes tight.
Then she felt her friend’s arms go around her and this girl, this neighbor girl that Emily had once secretly pitied for being so ugly and friendless, now seemed more powerful than any other person on Earth.
“It’s okay,” Gaia said.
Emily held onto her. There was really nothing else she could do. “I’ve tried so hard,” Emily said.
“I know. You’re such a good person. You work so hard. This won’t change that. We won’t tell your parents until you really can read, okay? Whole books.” Gaia let go of her to peer at her, still visibly worried, and Emily nodded, wiping at her face with the corner of her smock.
Whole books, she thought. It hardly seemed possible, and at the same time she felt both famished and exhausted.
“You’ve got clay all over you now,” Emily said.
Gaia gave a crooked smile. “So?”
Emily laughed. “I still have five bowls to make,” she said.
“Right. I’ll go. But you won’t change your mind? I’ll see you tomorrow?”
Emily was already scraping the destroyed clay off the wheel so she could start fresh with a new pile. For an instant she was afraid to smear away the word she’d learned, but then she realized she knew it. For good.
“Yes,” Emily said. “Good night.”
She started up the wheel again as Gaia slipped out the door.
Someone asked me recently how far my characters would go. It made me laugh. Gaia’s sixteen, and there are two more books in the trilogy, so theoretically, where she could go romantically and physically is pretty wide open. I was thinking of ninth graders when I first wrote Birthmarked, so I was surprised when it was published for age group 12+ because I knew that meant that avid ten-year-old readers would find their way to my book, and they have. Then again, I’ve heard from quite a few grandmas and grandpas who have liked the book, too, so while I feel a responsibility not to make kids squirm, I certainly have readers who can read between the sheets.
I’ve written romances. I know what that takes, and my YA novels are not romances. In a traditional romance, the relationship, with its growth and tension and conflicts, drives the plot. The boy had better show up early and often, and he had better be the focus of the heroine’s thoughts, even if she’s resisting thinking about him. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is for me to be writing books where my protagonist is concerned with other very real problems. It makes it all the more delicious when some cute, brooding boy shows up to get slammed by the real plot, too. When a relationship has political consequences and brings disaster, I am beyond happy.
So, what do I do with the actual scenes? How far does the romance actually go? I’ll tell you one thing. A romantic scene had better feel as real as the rest of the book. Since it’s a time of peak emotion, I have to be especially careful not to gush, or use clichés, or explain too much, or have someone say something that doesn’t match his or her character. But I can’t skimp, either. It has to be long enough and in real time, so that the reader can live it along with Gaia. It had better be good.
I’ve been working on three pages of Prized. This is my twelfth draft, but this particular scene I’ve revised between twenty and thirty times. We’re past copyedits now, so I’m only going to get one last chance to put in changes and they can only be minute. That’s all right, because most of it is fine, but I’m looking at two lines of dialogue, and they’re just wrong. The boy says something that has the right disappointment, the right humor, the right longing, but the words themselves would be better from someone who’s thirty and he’s a teenager. Reading quickly, you probably wouldn’t even notice, but it bugs me. I’ve been trying for days to figure out what he’d say instead, and I’ve come up with a dozen other lines that are wrong, too.
It can’t sound too studied. It can’t be too blunt. It has to be in his voice. My characters aren’t the types to say “I love you” to each other. They don’t seal anything with a kiss. I finally backed into the scene again with a more specific sensory detail, so I could really see myself there, really hear what they were thinking, and at last he said the right thing for me to write down. I’m very happy with him, and so is our girl Gaia. At least in that scene.
Sigh. It kind of makes me wonder if it would be fun to write a YA romance, straight up and for real.
Nan Mercado, my editor, asked me the other day how I came up with Gaia’s voice and how I developed it, and I had no idea how to answer her. What’s strange is that I know Gaia inside and out. I know her personality, and how she talks, acts, and thinks. Her belongings have history. How she perceives her world and how that changes are all part of her, too. I know her so completely that when I wrote a little story about Gaia at age eleven last week, the younger version of Gaia appeared to me whole and ready to go, entirely consistent with the more mature version in Birthmarked.
Yet knowing a character completely is not the same thing as knowing how I came up with her voice, let alone how I developed it, so I’ve been pondering this. It’s hard for me to isolate her voice from her behavior or gestures, as if it were coming at me over a phone line. Voice, I realize, isn’t just what Gaia says and how she says it, although there are words that have sounded wrong from her so I’ve changed them. It’s also what she thinks, and the gap between what she thinks and what she says. It’s what she doesn’t say.
Writing in third person, as I did for Birthmarked, doesn’t allow for many opportunities to deliver Gaia’s thoughts directly. I did, occasionally, with italics, but italics risk being distracting, especially if they’re too frequent. I’m looking at a passage here and I see that what I did instead was give Gaia’s reactions, and when they’re important, her feelings. I don’t usually notice this when I’m writing, because it’s all mixed in with imagining the scene, but take a look.
Here’s a passage from Chapter Two, when Sgt. Grey is examining the satchel Gaia keeps her midwifery supplies in:
He then turned the satchel inside out and examined the cloth, every seam and ripple of the brown, gray and white fabric. Gaia’s father had lovingly sewn each stitch, making a thing of beauty as well as a strong, practical bag that fit comfortably over Gaia’s shoulder. She felt like the satchel was part of her, and watching Sgt. Grey’s examination of the cloth and its contents felt like a keen violation of her privacy, all the more because his fingers were meticulous and careful in their movements.
His hands stilled on the cloth and he looked over at her finally, his expression neutral. She couldn’t tell if he was relieved or disappointed.
“You’re young,” he said.
His comment surprised her, and she saw no reason to answer. Besides, she could say the same thing to him. He straightened, then exhaled with a sigh and started putting her things back in the satchel.
“It’s okay,” she said, stepping forward to the table. “I’ll do it. I need to clean my things anyway.”
She hardly says anything, but she’s vulnerable and watching intently so we know what she’s thinking. There’s a pleasing little mental turn in the word “Besides.” Around that word, we get to see her mind move from surprise, to privacy, to a sort of annoyance, and then when she finally speaks, the only thing she reveals is her competence.
I’m afraid what I’ve discovered is that I can’t separate voice from the rest of the way I write. It’s completely enmeshed with character, scene, and plot. I’d be curious to know what other writers think about voice.
(Here’s a bit story about a character from Birthmarked when she was a kid.)
Gaia plugged the last jug with its stopper and tied the handle to the end of her pole. Once more, she tested the grip of the faucet in the great wall to be certain it was off tightly. Spilled water had absorbed into the dust already, making it a richer brown, and she messed her bare toes into it for the coolness before she lifted her yoke pole and balanced it over her shoulders. With two water jugs on each end, she could have taken more weight, she knew, but her father didn’t want her carrying more. “Bad for your back,” he’d said. It only meant she had to make more frequent trips.
She turned towards the path that dipped back down into Wharfton, feeling the weight of the water give the pole a heavy, slow-motion balance all its own. She liked the pleasing proof that she did her share for her family now that she was growing. Low, early sunlight streamed in sideways from her left, and though she wanted to tip her hat to keep it off her scarred cheek, it would have meant setting her water pole down again to have a free hand, so she bent her face low.
She didn’t see the older boys coming up the path until it was too late to sidestep them.
“I believe it’s little Gaia,” Ralph said, and he set the tip of his pole directly in her path, compelling her to stop.
There were two other boys as well, both as dirty as Ralph, and burdened with over a dozen empty jugs. She knew their families from the other side of Western Sector Three, but she’d never talked to them much. She’d never wanted to. The other two spread out on either side of Ralph, and their poles made a crisscross pattern around them. The shortest one had a couple teeth missing in front when he smiled.
“Get out of my way, Ralph,” she said.
“What’s your hurry?” Ralph said. He lifted his pole, but only to give one of Gaia’s water jugs a nudge. She had to swivel heavily to keep her balance.
“Don’t,” she said, but she was getting scared.
“How’s your scar?” Ralph said, flicking a finger at her. “I heard sunlight’s bad for scars.”
She stepped off the path to try to go around them, but Ralph only maneuvered his pole to block her feet again.
“Don’t leave us,” Ralph said. “We’re just trying to make friends. It looks like you need a hand with your hat there.”
“Don’t touch me,” she said.
Ralph laughed. “I’m just trying to help. You’re so sensitive.”
When he came a step nearer, she rolled her pole off her shoulders to set down the water, and put up her fists. She was trembling and she’d never felt so small. “I don’t want your help,” she said. “And I’m not sensitive.”
The other boys laughed.
“You going to fight a little girl, Ralph?” the gap-toothed boy said.
“This isn’t a fight,” Ralph said. Then he frowned at Gaia. “You’d be pretty if you smiled more.”
“And you wouldn’t stink if you washed more,” Gaia said.
The two other boys laughed again, and the taller one started on up the path towards the wall. “Let’s go, Ralph. Leave the warp-face and come on.”
The gap-toothed boy also moved around Ralph to continue onward, but Ralph leaned down for a little yellow flower in the grass and picked it. He twirled it idly, looking at Gaia, and still his yoke pole waited beside her feet, ready to trip her.
“I could have liked you, you know,” he said to Gaia. “It’s not too late.”
She shook her head.
“Just say please and I’ll move it,” he said.
She looked down at the pole, where the end lodged in the dry, spiky grass. Even the rope tied at the end was dirty, fraying, like nobody in his family cared about such details. She met his gaze again and beamed all her hatred at him. It made her feel stronger, this anger.
“No,” she said.
Slowly Ralph pulled his pole away from Gaia’s feet. “Just to be clear,” he said, “the mean one here was you.”
He flicked the yellow flower past her face and walked backward up the path, still watching her. She jammed her hat lower on her head and reached for her pole. Relief was making her shake worse than her fear had, but she didn’t feel like she’d won exactly. It took her forever to get her yoke pole balanced right again on her shoulders, and even as she started down the path again, she knew she’d have to come back for more water the next day.
The important part was going to be not telling her parents, so they wouldn’t prevent her.