The Tongue Stud Epiphany

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John Clark here. I bet many of you read at least part of Carlos Castenada’s books about Don Juan the Yaqui sorcerer. One of the things I remember most vividly is the idea that there are places of power in the world. As a writer, I’ve discovered places where my creativity is much stronger. When I was the library director in Boothbay Harbor and I got stuck on a plot element in The Wizard of Simonton Pond, all it took was driving past Edgecomb Pottery and something to advance the story popped into my head. Our back yard has similar magic. I have written dozens of newspaper columns while pruning, raking, mowing or weeding the garden. Despite living in town, the back part of our property has woods on one side, a little wetland on the other and an abandoned railroad bed with a couple miles of fields and woods beyond it. All this makes it feel completely un-townlike.

Neither of these places of power are as productive as the spot in front of our kitchen sink. I find that the act of washing dishes frees my mind as I’m gazing into the back yard. In mid March, I was waiting for the coffee to brew while staring at three feet of snow when what I’ve come to call God’s Pinball Machine fired up. Here’s what followed and I share it because I think it’s useful to learn how other writer’s minds work.

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I started wondering why people like one of my volunteers have tongue studs. The whole idea of a piece of metal in a hole through your tongue, particularly in view of how irritating the post and backing underneath must be, makes no sense to me. It was at that point when the uncensored writer kicked in and I started imagining the erotic possibilities inherent in having one. Don’t know, haven’t asked, but the thought was there and quickly bounced off a bumper and hit another one.

I started thinking about the number of similar themes in YA fiction I’ve encountered this year. Take leukemia for example. I’ve read five books already where one of the main characters has this illness. Some die, some live, all are different, most are good reads.

That got me thinking about what aspect of illness hasn’t been part of a YA plot yet. Laurie Halse Anderson owns PTSD this year thanks to The Impossible Knife of Memory, but what aspects of mental illness haven’t had their day and what plot twist hasn’t been used yet?

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By the time I could pour that first cup of coffee, the snow on the back lawn was covered with imaginary plot elements and character sketches. My next project, the juvenile mystery I’m calling Shear Pin Summer, got kicked aside by a new YA contemporary I’m calling Finding Ginger.

Here’s what was written out there in the snow. Suppose you were fourteen and living with your parents in Baltimore, Maryland. You attend a private school, your parents are well educated government employees and you’re an only child. Your life has been unremarkable, you get along with your parents and you love reading and writing poetry. One night you wake up in the grip of utter terror, convinced the devil is coming up from hell through a tunnel which opens under your bed and he’s about to drag you back with him. You have never had anything this horrific happen and it seems so real, you react by jumping out of bed and smashing your head into the full length mirror on your bedroom wall. You’re in a dazed state when a voice starts commanding you to grab a shard of glass and start cutting yourself so the devil will see blood and retreat. When your parents find you, you’re lying on the floor, bleeding from numerous self-inflicted slashes across your abdomen.

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You have just met Twyla, who has had her first psychotic break and will be diagnosed as having bipolar disorder. Unlike many who have this illness, she tends to cycle into severe depression instead of mania. When she gets out of the hospital, her life is irrevocably changed. Her classmates are leery of her, her parents are scared at what might happen in the future and she’s realized that she can’t stay on the medications prescribed as part of her treatment because they kill her soul. At fourteen, this is a pretty bleak future, but it gets even bleaker. Over the next three years, she’s hospitalized three more times, is assaulted by two street people, kills someone and is so depressed at one point that she receives ECT. School is no longer an option and the only place she feels anywhere close to normal is when she’s working under the table at a job in a pawn shop run by a a recovering addict biker babe who escaped her own hellish existence in California.

When Twyla realizes that her parents are never going to understand how awful she feels when on prescribed medication, she steals her mother’s ATM card, withdraws $600 and buys three bus tickets to different locations, using the card to confuse anyone trying to track her and giving tow of the tickets to girls about her age to further confuse anyone looking for her.

Twyla ends up in Boston, doing the live in shelters and work for cash when you can routine. She knows it’s just a matter of time before she cycles again. This time, she uses crack, alcohol and various pills bought on the street to help her survive. When she stabilizes, she’s broke and has done things she’s not proud of, but has survived on her own terms. Boston’s too big and scary for her, so she finds enough cash to go on another bus ride. When she arrives at the bus terminal, she’s trying to decide between going to Burlington, VT., or Bangor, Maine. She’s leaning toward Burlington and even gets in line to buy a ticket, but when the couple in front of her starts fighting and the guy hits his girlfriend, that sends her to the Bangor ticket window and she ends up on the streets of Bangor in early November.

Her trials have taught Twyla to be a survivor, but in many ways she’s still that frightened fourteen year old kid. She’s never been kissed voluntarily, never had a boyfriend, never even been on a real date. After she discovers a loose panel on the Salvation Army donation bin, she makes it into her home, saving various items in a couple trash bags which she hides in a snowbank when she’s out and about. This ensures that she always has clothing and bedding in case she returns and the bin has been emptied.

Twyla survives on the coins people lose in the Bangor Mall parking lot, the returnables she retrieves from snow banks and trash cans, as well as on the two or three free meals available to the homeless every week. When she arrived in Bangor, she remembered something her biker babe friend got her involved with back in Baltimore and starts going to AA meetings. She knows that the next time she cycles, she’ll use again, but in the interim, she likes the feeling of hope and safety she finds at meetings, makes a couple friends with women who have similar stories and knows the free coffee isn’t bad either.

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There’s a stretch of pretty severe weather at the end of February that makes finding coins and returnables almost impossible, so Twyla stifles her pride and starts dumpster diving behind the mall food court. She soon discovers that the one shared by the KFC franchise and a Chinese fast food place is the best bet, but it almost seems like someone’s leaving untouched and freshly cooked food at the top of a KFC trash bag every night.

She’s eating a chicken wing while crouched beside the dumpster one evening when she hears a door slam and realizes someone is approaching her with a garbage bag in one hand. She doesn’t have time to escape, so she pulls out her switchblade and flicks it open. The young man who looks about her age freezes, but doesn’t look scared. Instead, when she looks at his eyes, something deliciously frightening hits her and she lets the knife fall to her side when she realizes two things. This is the person who has been feeding her and she hasn’t ever felt a pull like the one between them.

You have just met Abel, who is also nineteen. He grew up in Greenbush and is an only child whose parents had to get married when his mom got pregnant at sixteen. He was born with a defective eye, but because his parents had no health insurance, it was never treated properly. He lost it when he was five and started kindergarten with an eye patch over the empty socket. The class bully hauled him down on the first day, ripping off his patch so everyone could see the sagging lid over an empty socket. That set the tone for his entire school life. Abel never had a girlfriend, or even any close friends for that matter. When he did get an artificial eye six months after losing his, it was a donation from someone in Boston through the local Lion’s Club and was just enough off in color to call even more attention to his face.

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Abel could have turned out to be a very bitter person, but went in the opposite direction. He’s amazingly compassionate for his age, something that Twyla picks up on immediately. After he graduated from high school, he moved to Bangor because he needed to feel independent and he’s used the library there ever since he burned through everything at the little library in his home town.

He works the late shift at KFC and gets around Bangor on a second hand bike. He has a good friend and mentor, Josh, who is a librarian at Bangor Public. Josh is ten years older and came from Greenbush. He saw the hidden talent in Abel and got him hooked on reading science fiction and fantasy as well as reviewing books for the library website. When he encouraged Abel to submit some of his short stories to a local contest, Abel won and this started him thinking about writing as a career.

All that was written out there in the snow back in March. It has since taken over almost every bit of my free time and the story now stands at 78,000 words. It’s a very edgy, but at times sweet love story about two young people who have become survivors after getting kicked in the teeth by life. I know how it ends, but there are still some events I’m not clear on. That’s fine because every so often Twyla and Abel grab me by the arms and hustle me off to that magic place where characters start dictating unexpected events to the author. There’s no better time in a writer’s life than those moments. Stay tuned to see what happens.

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2 Responses to The Tongue Stud Epiphany

  1. Lea Wait says:

    Wow, John! Best of luck with the new project! (And — Agatha Christie once wrote that she got her best ideas while washing dishes. Me? Driving, alone … and taking baths!)

  2. Gram says:

    Great story…even us “seniors” will enjoy that one. Thanks

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