alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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Ekphrasis

MD_2_4_cover_small

Ekfa-wha? It sounds like a skin condition, but stick with me for a moment. Ekphrasis is literary commentary on a piece of visual art. In this case, it refers to a short story that I wrote influenced by a sculpture.

A while back, I participated in Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s 2014 “Art & Words Show” held in Fort Worth, Texas. It was sort of a writer-artist exchange program. I submitted a flash fiction story and and an artist produced visual art inspired by the story–in this case, two paintings based upon my piece “Keith Crust’s Lucky Number.” In exchange, I selected a piece of visual art that appealed to me and wrote a story inspired by that art.

I chose–and I mean chose. When Bonnie released the artist selections to us writers, I was there on the second so I could get my first choice–I chose Pam Stern’s sculpture Tuscan Women. It was just so haunting I was sure I would have something to say about it. Pam’s work combines portrait busts of women with architecture. I know, right? So compelling.

tuscan_women_pam_stern

It took me a while to work out the story I wanted to tell about the women holding a Tuscan village on their heads, and about the much darker forces implied by the heavy black sketching at the base of the sculpture. Finally, I discovered that it was an origin story that I had to tell.

The result, “We Will Hold,” is now available to read online in Mythic Delirium 2.4

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Picture Thursday: Monsters of the Library of Congress – Part IV, Silly Monsters

After posting on other topics for a few weeks, I am back with the fourth and final installment of “Monsters of the Library of Congress.” This week is silly monsters. These guys just aren’t very scary.

“Les deux ne font qu’un.” Hand-colored etching, France: 1791

Contrary to popular (American) opinion, the French do have a sense of humor. This 18th-century etching shows Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as a two-headed monster pulling in opposite directions. He appears to be a goat, while Marie is a….dog? Her feet definitely have toes. The caption describes her as “Medusa-headed,” but those snakes look more like long-stem roses made out of pipe cleaners. You’d think if you were going to poke fun at your rulers as you worked your way up to killing them, you’d intensify your cause by making your caricatures of them more grotesque, and not quite so toothless. Maybe the French don’t have a sense of humor after all.

“They thought I was one of those fire belching dragons.” Pen and ink, by Daniel Carter Beard [1889?]

This guy reminds me of Sir Didymus from Labyrinth–cute, earnest, hapless, valiant. But with a tail. And a longer nose. And can I tell you that we had free HBO for a while when I was a kid and before it went away I taped Labyrinth and watched it over and over until I wore out the tape? Because monsters! Castles! Cheeky talking snails with Australian accents! Sinister masquerade! The Bog of Eternal Stench! David Bowie in eye-makeup and breeches! Every frame of that movie has been indelibly etched into my head and–<…..Long pause while I dash over to YouTube and waste an hour of my afternoon watching clips of the movie and reliving my dreamy adolescence….Goodness, but the costuming in that movie was gorgeous! Although, I am unsettled to find that a 16-year-old Jennifer Connolly looks disturbingly like Kristin Stewart….>–um, sorry, where was I? Right! Cartoons, monters, Library of Congress. I’m on it!

Nude, hairy monster

Details from “Represantant d’une grande nation,” J. Cooke [1799]

The French are much funnier when it’s the English drawing them. According to the catalog description, the guy on the left is “a grotesque monster, nude and hairy, representing the Constitution of the Year III.” The description also notes that the monster has “upraised hands.” Really–that’s what they noticed sticking up? His hands?

“The sea-serpent season upon us again,” by Frederick Burr Opper. Cover of Puck magazine, July 31, 1895.

My personal favorite. More political cartooning, this time lampooning President Grover Cleveland. The house in the background is  Cleveland’s summer home on Cape Cod, ‘Grey Gables’. I’m just going to state right now that I have never lived in a house that has a name. What is it about this monster that I find so endearing? I think it’s the collar and tie. Also the gap-toothed smile and the one-eye-open, one-eye-closed configuration. This mammoth sea serpent is at least as big as Prez Grovie’s Grey Gables, but I bet if you gave it a corn dog and petted its whiskers, it would totally take you for a ride in the ocean. Of course, since it also looks like it has a brain the size of a dehydrated pea, it might forget about its passenger and do a deep-sea dive, leaving you to freeze in the Atlantic currents, but, hey– you befriends your sea serpents and you takes your chances.

That concludes this offering of ‘Monsters of the Library of Congress’ (Shockingly, all images are courtesy The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs) Missed an installment? Want more? See Part I – Humanoids,  Part II, Beasts, and Part III, Machines.


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3 Things I Learned From Lynda Barry

Lynda Barry, June 2012

I’ve been a reader my entire life. I love books and I love stories, but I have always been jealous of my older brother because he can draw. When I was in junior high, I was so excited that we were given the option to take art classes. I thought that taking the class meant I would BE an artist. I wanted to get myself all paint-smeared and arty and make strange and beautiful things. But as some of you other daydreamers may also have learned by now, the pictures in my head didn’t much resemble the real world. Or the pictures on the page. When I drew a horse, it looked like a pig. When I drew a still life, it looked like a plate of spaghetti. My brother? His horses, people, skiers, hot rods and spaceships not only LOOKED like what they were, they had energy and style–you know, personal artistic interpretation. I kept hoping that these skills would suddenly erupt in me like a superpower, and that the next time I put pen to paper, I would blow my own socks off. We had the same genes, right?

Guess what? I’m still waiting for that art volcano.

Volcano erupting

Photograph by B. Chouet in December 1969. Courtesy USGS.

So, what was I doing signing up for a class with Lynda Barry, a cartoonist*? Well, for starters, it said right there on the application that she was teaching as part of the Indiana University Writers Conference. Not Cartoonist’s conference. Not Artist’s conference. Not People Who Can Draw a Horse That Doesn’t Look Like a Pig conference.

Lynda was teaching her ‘Writing the Unthinkable‘ class — which was incredible, and I urge you to sign up if she brings it anywhere in your vicinity. You might learn to write, you might learn to draw, and if you’re not interested in those things, Lynda will tell you stories about her Filipino granny, teach you a poem by Rumi, and sing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ without opening her mouth.

Marlys gets inspired. Drawing by Lynda Barry.

So here are the best things I learned from her class:

1. Play with your food. Lynda told a story about watching a kid eat. The boy is moving his breakfast around the plate, and each time he brings a piece of bacon to his mouth, he holds it up and says, “I’m going to eat you” in a scary monster voice. Eventually, his mom notices what he’s doing, and he gets in trouble.

That’s the creative experience in a nutshell. As children, play and creativity are everyday things–you can’t separate them out from life. Playing and story-telling make stuff like eating a warmed-over hotel breakfast waaay more interesting by introducing power, fear, danger, and fun voices. You know, that conflict stuff writing teachers are always going on about. And this kid? He’s doing it naturally. But what’s his reward–a book contract? A movie deal? The praise and admiration of his peers? Nope. A nasty look and a sharp word if he’s lucky, and quick smack if he’s not.

What’s the message his mom is giving him? “Cut out that nonsense and get down to the important business of living your life without making it any more fun than it has to be.” Most of us internalize that message sooner or later (some of us a lot, lot later) and that’s what makes it hard to write. Or draw. Or make movies. Or whatever creative play that some stunted part of us is longing for.

2. Use the phone. Lynda has a great method for getting into a remembered scene and extracting the good stuff. She asks a whole set of questions like ‘What is behind you, What is under you feet, Where is the light coming from, etc.” (The exercise appears in her book ‘What It Is’ –sort of a companion to the class, but with autobiography and drawings. Or you can pretend you’re in the class and follow along with her instructions in this video on her Tumblr.**)

The questions are designed to prompt recollection of important events or “images” from your own life. But, you can use it for a story, too. You just call your characters on the phone, and ask them the questions. I mean, everybody has a mobile phone these days–it’s not like you’re not going to be able to get in touch. So, you’ve got your depressed suburban mom, your post-traumatic Afghan war vet, your streetcart vendor, your cheerleader, etc. all stuck and scared in the middle of the page, because you don’t know where they are, or where they’re going. So you call them up and say, “Where are you? What’s the temperature like?”

And my absolute favorite:

3. Pretend that you’re writing the story. “Wha?” you say, “Of course I’m writing the story. Otherwise, somebody else would be yelling at the dog for the unforgivable crime of breathing, and throwing their notebook at the wall.”

Are you sure? When we write, we listen to all kinds of voices. Ones that want to win the National Book Award, and ones that want to be published in Clarkesworld, and ones that want to write a best-selling trilogy, get a movie deal, and move to Key West. Those voices are loud, and they can lead you pretty far astray.

When you’re slogging through a story and it’s not going well, when it’s like marching neck-deep through the Cold Molasses Sea of Doubt & Obstinance, that’s the time to ask yourself, “If *I* were writing this story, what would I do?”

Lynda hanging out & drawing with us after class, May 2011. That’s my piece of brilliance in the lower left.

I had the good fortune to attend Lynda’s class twice, once in 2011, and again in 2012 (I know!). In 2011, Lynda only had a 50-minute teaching slot each day, and she generously spent the afternoons in an empty classroom, hanging out and drawing with anyone who wanted to stop by. This was about a month before I was about to head off to Seattle for Clarion West where I was going to meet 17 other aspiring spec fic writers and have to prove that I deserved to be there among them. This time spent doodling with Lynda was the best mental preparation I could have asked for.

My horse may still not look like a horse, but I had a good time drawing it.

*Besides having a complete fangirl meltdown. Ernie Pook! Fred Milton, Beat Poodle. Marlys the Greatest!
**Also don’t forget to watch the amaz-tastic time-lapse fungus videos. Fungus love–yes!!


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Picture Thursday: Monsters of the Library of Congress, Part III – Machines

Short post this time, because the dominant monster of this week has been the one inside my maxillary sinuses, gumming up the works with all kinds of intangible crud. I’ve been on a strict regimen of two naps a day, and I rouse for the hour when my desperate fingers scrabble open another blister pack of Tylenol Multi-Symptom Cold & Flu.

For today’s feature, I have two machine monsters.

Locomotive threatens an automobile at a road crossing

“The grade crossing monster,” by W.A. Rogers, 1911.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any additional info on this one. It looks like a pretty straightforward commentary on the perceived danger of railroad crossings to the fledgling automobile. In 1910, only 200,000 cars were manufactured in the U.S.* I like how the train, while clearly mechanical, has taken on the characteristics of a snake, with two stabbing fangs and a forked tongue.

Fierce machine monster rolling over a city

[Smoking monster engine destroying town], by Wladyslaw T. Benda, circa 1922

Straight out of a steampunk nightmare, this creature is a smoking, clanking ravener of humanity. Its relentless metal wheels roll over the houses and culture of the tiny towns below. Monstrous & mechanical, though it has headlamp ‘eyes,’ it is clearly indifferent to the lives it shovels and crushes. Presumably a metaphor for the First World War, I actually find it really disturbing.

Benda was a Polish-American artist and illustrator. He was proud of his heritage and often drew heroines in Slavic costume. He designed propaganda posters for both Poland and the U.S. during both World Wars. Later in his career, he turned from illustrating to making masks.

That’s all for the day. My snot-filled brain just can’t take any more.

Want more? See Part I – Humanoids, and Part II, Beasts

[All images from The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs]

*http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Motor_vehicles


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Picture Thursday: Monsters of the Library of Congress — Part II, Beasts

Welcome to the 2nd installment of historical monsters. Up today–animal and other ‘beast’ monsters.

7-headed beast from 'Revelations'

Woodcut. Apocalypsis Sancti Johannis. [Germany : ca. 1470].

Starting with some classic beast-action from the Christian bible, this 15th-century woodcut shows “Saint John seeing a…seven-headed beast that looked like a leopard rising out of the sea.” You can tell it’s a leopard because of the spots. I like how each of the seven heads appear both feline and human.

Sea monster

Sea monster, by Udo J. Keppler [1872-1956]

The sea, being all big and fathomless and salty, is a popular place to store your monster. Here, in a political cartoon from 1901, this cranky-but-not-violent looking sea monster in the shape of a lion (?) references Odysseus mythology to comment on the Tammany Hall corruption scandals in turn-of-the-last century New York. I think today’s political cartoons would benefit from more sea monsters. It could only raise the standard of discourse.

Carolina Fertilizer advertisement

Wood engraving, advertisement for Carolina Fertilizer, 1869

Sea monsters aren’t just useful for scolding naughty politicians into more moral behavior, they’re also good for….selling fertilizer? Apparently so. This ad dates from just after the Civil War and shows “prehistoric monsters” tussling (& dying) in a swamp. According to Carolina Fertilizer’s promotional strategy, their fertilizer “…is made from the PHOSPHATES of South Carolina, and is pronounced by various chemists one of the best Manures known, only inferior to Peruvian Guano in its FERTILIZING PROPERTIES. These PHOSPHATES are the remains of extinct land and sea animals, and possess qualities of the greatest value to the agriculturist.”* So there you have it: only inferior to Peruvian Guano. Can’t argue with that.

Lithograph of minister in boat surrounded by demons

“A minister extraordinary taking passage & bound on a foreign mission to the court of his satanic majesty!” Lithograph by Henry R. Robinson, 1833

I love the skeleton horse at the top – I kind of want one myself. I’d  feed it raw hamburger & the ashes of carrots. I’d always keep a supply of sugarplum fingertips in my pockets and…um, sorry. Pony love gone wrong. Where was I? Okay, so actually, this drawing is tabloid journalism, 19th-century-style. According to the catalog record, this is [a detail from] “the second of two prints surrounding the scandalous trial of Methodist minister Ephraim K. Avery for the brutal murder of factory girl Sarah Maria Cornell.[…] Avery has departed the scene of his crime where his victim, now expired, still hangs strangled from a post. Her shoes, kerchief, and a note reading “If I am missing enquire of the Revd. Mr…” lay nearby. As monsters fly overhead, Avery is rowed toward a shore at right where an inferno blazes and a man is boiled in a cauldron.”

Illustration showing 'drug habit' as a 3-eyed monster

“The new morality play exit demon rum–enter drug habit,” by W.A. Rogers, 1919.

More social commentary. This 3-eyed, fanged, and ugly dude with forked tongue appears in a pen and ink drawing published in the New York Herald, Jan. 23, 1919, representing fears of a new threat of drugs (as opposed to the familiar old threat of alcohol) to U.S. society. What you need to know is that the Constitutional Amendment (18th) kicking off the Prohibition Era in the US was ratified by Congress on Jan. 16, 1919. The fez and billowing pants presumably reference the idea that drugs such as opium and heroin hail from the Ottoman East.

And now I leave you, good readers, with this horrible, hideous, fantastical, impossible beast. Machine mosters and comic monsters are yet to come.

Woodcut of a rhinoceros, by Albrecht  Dürer, 1515

“The Rhinoceros,” woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, 1515

[All images from The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs]

*From Lives Between the Tides, by John Leland. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002. p38-39


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Picture Thursday: Monsters of the Library of Congress – Part I, Humanoids

I like words as much as the next writer/reader but, hey, sometimes I just want to look at pictures. Today, I have some Monsters from History!

Monster with crossed honrs by Thomas Rowlandson

Study of monsters, by Thomas Rowlandson, 1756-1827

According to the catalog entry on this one, Rowlandson was “sometimes accused of being coarse and indelicate.” The other figures in the same study do show acrobats or gymnasts oddly placed on top of lizards.

Monster by Oliver Herford

“A horrible monster glared at them.” Illus. by Oliver Herford, 1863-1935. From “The Woog and the Weez,” 1895.

This guy is from a children’s book. He’s also carrying a large book. Is he trying to scare them with reading? I hope not!

Monster on a raft collecting Buddhist worshippers, by Kobayashi Kiyochika

Harvesting in an enemy river, by Kobayashi Kiyochika, 1847-1915

Now we’re getting serious. Our man on the raft has some demon teeth, and he’s scooping up the bodies. Interestingly, the catalog calls this “a humorous picture.”

Monster holding knife and bomb

Bomb-throwing monster on German anti-Bolshevist poster. Illus. by Julius Engelhard, 1883-1964.

In some ways, the most disturbing. This is a propaganda poster from 1918, dehumanizing a political opponent with visual scare tactics. The [translated] original text reads: “Bolshevism brings war, unemployment and starvation.”

That’s all for today. Stay tuned for more monsters: beast-monsters, monsters of the machine age, and humorous monsters.

[All photos from The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs]