J. Grace Pennington

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Behind the Mask

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I wrote this poem two years ago, but for some reason I’ve been feeling nudged to share it the past couple weeks. It’s very unusual, but I like it, and I hope you will, too.

Behind the Mask

the high school reunion’s perfect
too perfect
full of color and light and songs
that make you want to dance
and laughing people
women in bright dresses of varying lengths
with perfectly manicured nails
men with hair slicked back
and immaculately creased pants

you’re just like any of them.
hair gel still sticking to the back of your neck
freshly ironed slacks still warm on your legs
you see an old friend
you haven’t seen her in years
bright red lipstick and dark mascara catch you off guard
last time you saw her
she was in shorts and a Beatles t-shirt
huddled against a tree
with tears making little trails down her naturally pink cheeks
her forehead splotchy red from crying

she sees you at the same time
bright blue eyes sweeping you over
seeming to remember that same occasion
when you were in your faded blue jeans
and scuffed-up tennis shoes
kicking your toes in the fresh mud
not knowing what to say
then kneeling down
feeling your knees slip in the mud
and putting your arms around her

she flashes a lipstick smile,
then swishes over to you in her purple flowered dress
asks how you are, and offers her hand
she smells like some kind of exotic flower
just like every other woman in the room
you shake her hand
wishing to give her a hug
but knowing it simply isn’t how things are done
everyone else in the room sees another man
another woman
just like everyone else
smiling
shaking hands
reuniting

you both talk
but neither of you hears a word
you’re still just looking into each others’ eyes
hers as blue as ever under all that mascara
yours feeling flat and dull, but searching for something in hers
you don’t find it
her soul is shut off from you
just like everyone else’s in the room

you remember how once
those masks weren’t there
you want to see behind all that now
past all that makeup
and know how she is
not what she’s doing with her life
not how her job is going or where she lives
but that’s all she’ll say
and you can’t really blame her
because when her eyes speak for just a moment
begging you to let her know you still care
you can’t seem to take off your mask, either

you wonder
would she still show you the tears
would she let you see
she’s not okay, that she doesn’t think
she can handle this life anymore?
show you the scars that trace down her arms
you glance at her arms now
but her purple dress has long sleeves
you wonder if it’s on purpose

but then you also wonder
would you get down on your knees in those slacks?
would you let them slide around in the mud
ignore what anyone tried to say about your relationship
and put your arms around her
one human being to another
knowing that she’s beautiful
more beautiful in shorts and a t-shirt
with pimples on her face
than she is now, unblemished
in the purple dress that shows everything
except her arms
and her heart

now she’s turning to leave
you know
you can’t let this moment pass without caring
for all you know, there are still scars on those arms
and worse scars on the hidden heart
you reach out, and take her hand
clasp it tightly in your own, strong one
not caring who sees or what they think
she turns back, caught off guard now
and looks into your eyes again

now you don’t see blue
and mascara
this time you see a slowly fading shield at first
and then
you can see it
the confusion and hurt and fear are there
just as they were on that day years ago
nothing has changed
she’s still that little girl
scared in shorts and a t-shirt
and like you did years ago
you pull her close into your arms
and hold her tight
the way everyone should have
but never did

you don’t want to let go
but the emcee begins to announce the party is over
and you have to
you loosen your hold and she pulls back
and then you see
tears making trails through her makeup
you hand her your handkerchief
and whisper for her to keep it
she thanks you
and runs away
dabbing at her eyes to save the mascara
high heels clicking against the hard, cold floor

you watch her walk away, your hands in your pockets
wishing that you were in the mud
in blue jeans again
inwardly cursing the masks you wear
and the world that makes beautiful girls
feel they have to wear them
then you reach up
run a hand through your hair so that it’s no longer quite so stiff
and leave the school
more yourself than you were
when you entered

It Happens Every Year

At least, every year in my experience of life thus far. What is “it”? “It” is a month which happens to be called “August.” And that particular month-name happens to be the name of the most popular character from my Firmament series. The first August after Radialloy came out, I did several August-themed posts, including an interview and contest, special artwork, and an excerpt, and last year I did posted a little chat with the character. So of course I couldn’t let August 2014 go by without at least a mention of the mild-mannered navigator.

I’ve also been meaning to do the Beautiful People blog event ever since it started back up in June. I love Beautiful People, and I was ecstatic to see it going again, but my brain is a colander these days, and the most inconvenient things tend to slip through the holes!

So, I will take this opportunity to slaughter two feathered creatures with a single mineral and let y’all get to know August Howitz a little better through this month’s Beautiful People questions.

1) What does August regret the most in his life?

He sometimes wishes he’d stood up to his father more often. Erasmus Howitz was very controlling and demanding, and had August followed his own instincts, he would probably have gone at a slower, more careful pace and would have sought a less stressful job. However, his job did allow him to meet Andi, and now that his father is gone, his memories of him are softened.

2) What is his happiest memory? Most sorrowful memory?

His happiest memory is the day he heard he had a baby sister when he was five years old. He sat in his father’s recliner and got to hold her for a few minutes the day she was born. His saddest memory is just a few months later, when he awoke to find his father shaking him, demanding to know where his mother and the baby were. Of course August had no idea, and it scared him.

3) What majorly gets on his nerves?

He’s not a very irritable person, but if there’s one thing that gets him frustrated, it would be being pushed to do something he isn’t comfortable with, or seeing others pushed around similarly.

4) Does he act differently when he’s around people as opposed to being alone? If so, how?

Not much. He’s pretty much always his quiet, mild self, though he is definitely more relaxed when he’s alone. He also talks to himself quietly when he’s by himself. He doesn’t realize he’s doing it.

5) What are his beliefs and superstitions? (Examples: his religion or lack of one, conspiracy theories, throwing salt, fear of black cats.)

He is a recent Christian, and thus is still acclimating to those beliefs. He still carries with him a vague sense of superstition and general pessimism, but he is working on correcting that. He has a lot of fear, and tends to be wary of hoping too much.

6) What are his catchphrases, or things he says frequently?

“I’m not sure…”

7) Would he be more prone to facing fears or running from them?

It depends on the fear. Most he would face, even though he is very fearful. But some, such as fear of loss, criticism, or confrontation, he would much rather run far, far away from.

8) Does he have a good self image?

Not in the least. He thinks of himself as weak, cowardly, selfish, and altogether unworthy. He doesn’t dwell on it, but the feeling drives him to work and try much harder than he truly needs to.

9) Does he turn to people when he’s upset, or does he isolate himself?

He definitely isolates himself. He doesn’t like to be vulnerable, but more than that he doesn’t want to bother others. He’d rather shut himself up in his room and spend time thinking through the issue than vent about it to even his most trusted friend.

10) If he were standing next to you would it make you laugh or cry?

Certainly not laugh. But I don’t know that it would make me cry, either. But I would probably sense his awkward feeling of unworthiness, even if he said nothing, and that would make me sad.

The Moral of the Story is…

There’s a lot of discussion and disagreement among writers about whether a story should have an intentional theme or message, or whether every story even needs to have one. Some say that a story can be more honest and well-crafted without a single, intentional theme, and others say that a unified message makes a story stronger and gives it meaning.

I am personally in the latter camp. I believe that as Christians, we should be writing with purpose, to glorify God, and that our writing, like everything else, needs to clearly point to Him in some way. Not that it has to be explicit. But I believe it’s much stronger when it’s intentional.

That said, I realize that tacking on a blatantly stated moral a la Aesop is usually not the best way to get through to the reader. Disneyesque epiphanies and stories that are forced to fit a theme artificially can be frustrating and very ineffective, not to mention just bad writing.

So how can one be clear while still being natural? Is it possible to communicate what you mean without being explicit? Of course it is. It’s not easy, but I’ve seen it done masterfully. And in my studies of such examples, I’ve noticed a common attribute — the story and the message are so intertwined that you can hardly tell where one begins and the other ends.

The best example, I think, is Jesus. (Isn’t He always?) The tales He told were allegorical, a form often scorned by writers as being “too obvious.” But what I see when I look at His parables are beautifully concise examples of story and message being one. It doesn’t look like He had a nice story and glued a message on top, nor does He seem to have forced the stories to tell His messages. The stories are the messages. The two cannot be separated. It’s not possible.

Charles Dickens is another good example. In most of his novels, he wanted to raise awareness of certain aspects of the impoverished classes of his time. That’s why his books exist. They are unified, with every arc and plot point being a part of something he feels very strongly about.

This is how I try to craft my stories. I try not to think in terms of message-first or plot-first. I try to keep the two so interdependent on each other that they are a single entity; the story. I have yet to master it, but I will continue to study the masters, to practice my craft, and to write passionately about things that deeply matter.

How do you deal with message and theme in your writing?

You Asked For It

When I recently asked for ideas of what to post on this blog, the response was unanimously in favor of Firmament posts, especially about the writing process or sneak peeks at the upcoming book. I’ve been pondering different ideas for things I could talk about, and I hope to get back on a consistent blogging schedule.

Thinking about Firmament these days is almost synonymous with thinking of Machiavellian for me, since that’s the book I’ve been immersed in for the past several months. And thinking about Machiavellian always makes me think first of a particular new character in it, who just happens to be one of my favorite characters I’ve ever created.

One issue that comes up when writing a series is the need to keep each book unique, to avoid following some formula that makes each episode a slight variation on the last. For me, one of the major ways I seek to achieve this is by the character and motivation of the opponent.

And I said opponent rather than “villain” for a reason. I rarely write what I consider to be actual villains. Even though I’m a firm believer that there are people out there who truly have been overcome by pure evil, I don’t believe most antagonists are that way. Everyone considers themselves the hero of the story. Most people still have at least a germ of a working conscience, and must come up with some fairly genuine way to justify their actions. And most fascinating of all are those opponents who really do not have any more wrong motivations than the heroes. The two simply have mutually exclusive goals.

In my first few books I went more of the “evil villain” route, with my first unpublished novel sporting a despicable filmmaker whose only real goal was to protect his own malicious agenda. The first draft of Firmament: Radialloy involved the typical “I-am-evil-and-I-want-to-take-over-the-world-mwahahaha” type bad guy, which I toned down significantly by the time I reached the publishing stage. And even Never, which I think has a fairly good villain, tends more towards the twisted psychopathic side. But with In His Image, I wanted to break that trend.

Those who have read In His Image know that while there are huge opposing forces, some of which are people, the story lacks a traditional villain. The people who are against the Surveyor crew are only against them because they believe the crew poses a serious threat to their society, and even then, they treat the outsiders completely within their laws. Basilius is no more inherently wicked than Crash is. And the other antagonists are the sun, the wind, and atomic forces, none of which are capable of evil motivations.

I wanted to continue exploring more unique antagonists in Machiavellian, so I brainstormed a human being who is both completely genuine and completely misguided. A compassionate person with a severely skewed moral compass. An unexpected evil — one that does not think itself evil in the least.

In the long run, “hero” and “villain” are at best subjective terms. In the real world, one man’s hero is another man’s archenemy. There are those who act righteously and those who act unrighteously, there are people everyone loves and people no one can stand, there are individuals who assist and individuals who oppose.

Because heroes and villains, like everything else, are meaningless without an unchanging standard to be compared to. And that, in the end, is what Firmament: Machiavellian is all about.

Get In Late, Get Out Early

I just finished writing a short story I started writing almost a year ago. It wasn’t exactly a steady, continuous process, though.

It started when I was doing some medical research for another story, and one particular process got my wheels turning, and I started writing.

I got about three paragraphs in and there was a problem. I realized that the story — was super boring.

So a few months later, I scrapped it and started over, trying to add interesting details and empathetic situations and lyrical syntax. This time I got perhaps five paragraphs in before I could no longer deny that gut feeling that this was not a good story.

I pondered it often in the months that followed. Despite how badly it had turned out in my prior attempts, I couldn’t get rid of the idea that if I could just find the right way to tell it, it could be a powerful story.

Then, about a month ago, I had a breakthrough.

My screenwriting books are always preaching that when writing scenes, one should “get in late, and get out early.” That means that when writing a scene, start it as far into the situation as you possible can without missing important information. And as soon as you have all the information, get out pronto. If the point of your scene is to show how Wilma is manipulating Fred into getting a new car, don’t start with several paragraphs of small talk about how Bam-Bam and Pebbles really should have a play date sometime soon. And after Wilma finishes convincing Fred that they really need a new footmobile, don’t hang around the scene while she cooks dinner.

Basically, trim all extraneous information.

Thinking over this rule sparked an idea for my story–what if, instead of leading up to the event I was trying to show the results of, I cut straight to the results? Eliminate the event itself altogether. Deal only in the aftermath.

I sat down and wrote a page, which worked well, the next week I wrote a few more paragraphs, and a few days ago, I drummed out the rest of the 3,000 word story. And I’m really happy with it.

Are you having trouble keeping your writing from being boring even though you’re passionate about your topic?

Try getting in late and getting out early. If it doesn’t matter to your story, it has no place in your story.