Archive | August, 2012

Ars Poetica

23 Aug

Ask me to paint you a picture

in sweeping lines,

a malleable and downturned Degas

or a stark Picasso in moon hues –

at this I am useless, nothing,

a child, my hands utterly without

skill –


but give me paper and a stub

of slick candle-wax for light

and I will shade the angles of your

face in metaphor;

pencil in your ash-tree eyes

with pearly alliteration;

daub in the shadows under your

cheeks with black-tipped

assonance –


let me draw the earthen thorn-curls

of your hair

in hyperboles and oxymorons,

bring you to life on a canvas woven

of seething anastrophe.


I dug up this poem from my old files – it’s maybe two years old.  Not the best in terms of technique, maybe, but it really expresses how I feel about writing in general.

I’m moving to UVA in two days, so my posts probably won’t be regular for the next few weeks!  Wish me luck, WordPress.


The Study of a Disassembled Room

20 Aug

Part of the Monday Musings collection

Trying to pack nineteen years of living in one city into a few boxes and duffel bags is more difficult than I had imagined.

I started cleaning out my bedroom a few days ago in preparation for moving to Charlottesville, where I’ll begin as a first year at the University of Virginia. Neatness has never been a strength of mine, and my drawers and closet brimmed with a jumble of ill-fitting clothes, books I hadn’t read in years, and mementos whose significance I couldn’t remember anymore. Adele’s honey-smooth voice poured out of my iPod speakers, filling the corners of my room with the lyrics of “Hometown Glory.” On the piles that topped my desk, I discovered a shirt whose hem I had half-altered a year ago, some stale-smelling Victoria’s Secret perfume (and to think, I used to scorn people who bought the stuff; apparently I own a bottle), and programmes from every theater production I had appeared in during high school. Wedged in my closet were a wealth of objects: old jewelry, half a pair of flip-flops. A clumsy painting of a rabbit from middle school. A gauzy purple shirt I had always admired but never worn. A Greek urn in miniature, its sides adorned with thickly-outlined men whose chins jutted like spears. A gift card to Barnes & Noble that I had never redeemed. In my nightstand drawer, I came upon heaps of yarn and dusty string from my knitting obsession from fourth grade. Next to it was a pile of shells, reminding me of my old obsession with conchology (when I was eight, I asked for nothing but mollusc shells for Christmas).Under my bed I found a binder full of old geography and Spanish tests from sixth grade. A picture on the front reminded me of the time when I refused to cut my hair and parted it exactly down the center so that blonde tendrils swept in front of my face, obscuring it.

I’ve never found it easy to distinguish between what I should keep – what truly holds significance – and what I should throw out. This week hasn’t made it any easier.

I used to be intensely proud of my book collection. Packed into a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf that dominates my room are over three hundred books, ranging from Interview with a Vampire to Lolita to a few Star Wars tie-in novels. Yesterday, I sat down in front of the shelf with a few boxes in hand. I ruthlessly tossed any book I hadn’t read in two years into the bags, then carted them up to my dusty, dreamy attic. Then I ripped posters of Alexander McQueen and Iron & Wine from the walls. I bundled up bags of clothing I had bought but never worn.

I have dissected and neatly boxed up my Richmond years, which are all I’ve ever known. What I couldn’t bear to part with will either accompany me to college or has been tossed into the trash can. Waiting on the floor to be packed into the van on Friday are new sheets, cleaning supplies, a vacuum cleaner, a surge protector. On Saturday, I will cart them up to a 12′ by 11′ room in a city that is not Richmond. I will parse the walls from the floors from the standard-issue dorm furniture, learning the anatomy of this new place. I will construct photo montages and fresh arrangements of the books I’ve brought with me.

I will enjoy college. I’m not sad to live in Charlottesville. But nineteen years in one city are a lot to let go of.

* * *

And now for something completely different – I want to make a reeeaaaaal quick announcement about interviews with a few of my insanely talented writing acquaintances.  Rich Larson, who writes all sorts of snazzy speculative fiction, has been interviewed here at Underwords.  Peter LaBerge, the seventeen-year-old mastermind behind the glorious Adroit Journal, was similarly interviewed here on Figment.  They’re both wonderful writers, so take a gander at their words of wisdom!

And a wonderful Monday to the lot of you.  Thanks for stopping by!

Six Little Red Caps: Epilogue

17 Aug

Young Grandmother

in the forest

ivy grows thick over an unmarked grave

where six red sisters sleep with eyes open

dirt in their mouths

feathers where their hearts once were

and the howl of a wolf in the night.


That’s it – that finishes up my series on Tale of Tales’ “The Path!”   Many people interpret the game endings as meaning that all six sisters died.  However, that’s not how I see it – I believe that each sister has to pass through a sort of trial in order to mature and pass on to the next stage of life.  What do you think?  Do Scarlet, Carmen, Ruby, Ginger, Rose, and Robin die or not at the end, and what do their ‘wolves’ signify?

Written with the permission of Auriea Harvey.  Other poems in the series include:

Six Little Red Caps: Prologue

Six Little Red Caps: Scarlet

Six Little Red Caps: Carmen

Six Little Red Caps: Ruby

Six Little Red Caps: Ginger

Six Little Red Caps: Rose

Six Little Red Caps: Robin

Thanks so much for reading!

Swan Song

15 Aug

Part 4 in the Pilgrims Series

Everybody knows about Alzheimer’s, after all. It had happened to friends, great-aunts, geriatric celebrities. But I always saw it as a distant concept, as faraway as Saturn spinning in its orbit. Never us, I thought. Never Sam. But I should have expected it. It was the supremest of ironies, after all: I, who forgot nothing, watched while my husband’s mind fell into ruins.

The forgetting was swift. First where he had left the keys, then what days to take his rainbow array of pills, and then the month he was born. Next came the year, which was 2001. Last were the names: our children’s. Mine. His own. It seemed that as his memory decayed, mine grew finer, like steel sharpened on the whetstone. I had brief flashes of recall: the color of the shirt he wore the day we met (kelly green). The flowers he got me on our first date (lilies, not roses). The aftershave he used on our honeymoon (Kiehls).

I committed him to hospice care. And what else could I have done? The average teacher’s salary in Maine is $35,000. Sam had the whimsical mind of any poet – we had no 401(k) or hidden bank account filled with his book royalties stashed away. It was that or sell the house, the one Sam built, with its arching gables and hidden staircases and walls decked with obscure local art. But that was unthinkable. Even if he didn’t remember that it had been his hands who pieced floorboard to floorboard until a dwelling began to sprout, seedlike, from the ground.

I visited Sam every day. His case was acute, the nurses told me, and he had far more bad days than good. It made me tremble to to see him wearing an adult diaper and struggle to recall the words that used to give him so much joy.

Rose? he called me two months before he died.

I’m not Rose, Sam. That’s your sister. I’m Grace. Your wife.

His were unfocused and milky like cirrus clouds. Who?


Rosie, what did Mr. Roosevelt say on the radio last night? I can’t remember.

I’m Grace, Sam. And Roosevelt hasn’t been in office for sixty years. This is 2001.

Where is Rose?

I clenched my teeth. Rose is fucking dead.

He stared at me, his jaw quivering. A tear dribbled from the corner of one eye. No. Oh, no. Not Rosie.

Never mind, Sam, I’m Rose. I’m here. Forget what I said. I felt nauseous with guilt.

When I came back a week later, he was bent double over his desk, his pen dashing across the page like it had before he ever got sick.

He’s feeling better today? I asked the nurses, my heart light.

Yes, they told me. But, Mrs. Hensley…

What is it?

See for yourself.

Pages of notebook paper covered his bed like a second blanket and coated the Formica table under the window. All filled with one word.

Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie

Sophie was a tiny woman with wrists like a sparrow and hair as thick and white as fresh snowfall. She lived at the other end of the hospice, and her memory had been gone for years. The nurses said she never spoke anything but a steady patter of glossolalia. She was as enchanting as a child.

Why are you doing this, Sam? I asked, though I already knew the answer.

He stared at me, his face sunny. I’m in love, Rose.

Oh. I swallowed. What about me?

Don’t you worry, Rosie, I’ll never forget about you. His hands swept over my cheeks, the touch of a brother.

The nurses told me to bring in objects that might jog his memory of me: that azure blouse of mine he liked to run his hands over, shaky-handed candid shots of us, bottles of the perfume I had used for years. They did not tell me that he was beyond saving, but I did not need them to. You never know where you’ll find the things that make him remember, they said. Look for meaning everywhere.

So I searched for meaning in the fall of water from the tap, and the ceaseless shift of red numbers on the digital clock, and the graying of my hair. I searched for it in my students’ smooth faces. I even searched for it in the pages and pages he filled with Sophie’s name.

But I never found it there. I never found it anywhere.

When he died, I ordered lilies (not roses) for the funeral. I wore kelly green and dabbed on some Kiehl’s aftershave that I found buried in a bathroom drawer. The memories pricked at me, pin sharp, but I preferred it that way. Maybe somewhere it meant a remembrance, Sam recalling my name, a swan song of thought.

Check out the other stories in the series:

Letty Greene, Queen of Hearts

The Angry Feminist Manifesto

Babes in the Wood

© 2012 Elizabeth Ballou

Why Video Game Writing Makes Me Swoon

13 Aug

Part of the Monday Musings series

I have something to admit: I like video games.

I am not a hard-core gamer by any stretch of the imagination, but I do.  I like them.  And I like some of them a lot.

I am the first to admit that I likely do not fit the stereotype of someone who plays video games.  I routinely wear makeup, know how to carry on a conversation, and am even somewhat adept at dressing myself (no pleated pants and ill-fitting t-shirts for me, thank you).  I don’t sit in my parents’ basement, hunched over my computer and maniacally jamming the WASD keys as I grow attuned to the darkness like some cave creature.  (Few people who play games fit that cliched image.) Also, I am a girl.  That seems to throw a lot of people.

More seriously: also, I am a writer.  And I like video games because some of them actually have good writing.

The pinnacle of game writing. Clearly.

In conversation, most people seem to dismiss video game writing with a wrinkle of their noses, as if I have just declared Fifty Shades of Grey to be the next Booker Prize winner.  Video game writing is supposed to be vile quality, filled with nameless lunkheads shooting the socks off anything that moves (and often anything that doesn’t), scantily-clad damsels in distress, hackneyed fantasy or sci-fi worlds, and terrible, terrible dialogue that all sounds like it was lifted from Attack of the Clones.

And I’ll admit, that can sometimes be true.  But I have found just as many memorable characters in games as I have in books, movies, or plays.  Characters, as the venerable Shrek once said, should have a lot of layers.  Like onions.  You’d be surprised how many video game characters and plot arcs have enough layers to make them so engaging that people play the titles over and over again.

My first game with an actual story was Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic.  Set 4,000 years before the Star Wars movies, it had a cast of characters I found that I cared about.  My ten-year-old self was entranced by the Jedi Jolee Bindo’s wisecracks about Wookiees, Mission the young street urchin’s daring and occasional foolhardiness, and the sarcastic assassin droid HK 47’s quips about killing…well, anything.  More to the point, I could hardly fathom the scope of what I was playing.  Here I was, shaping and controlling the person who would save the galaxy.  I molded his morality, chose his dialogue, and watched the implications of his choices play out across solar systems.  When The Big Plot Twist (you will know what it is if you have played it) came, I think I actually fell off my chair.  Then I cried.  (I was ten, okay?)

The characters that first made my little heart swoon.

The next game franchise I encountered was the Elder Scrolls series.  They’re known for their amazing graphics – rolling hills of volcanic ash, craggy mountains covered in snow, a quiet sunset near a seaside town – but their characterizations aren’t too shabby, either.  In Oblivion, my character joined the Dark Brotherhood, a clandestine organization of assassins.  Honestly, the Dark Brotherhood was more like a cult than anything: they could be summoned by a secretive blood ritual and lived alone in a dank underground lair.  They even worshipped the god of evil and death, for chrissakes.  But here was the kicker: all the members of the Brotherhood were smart, talented, and welcoming.  Gradually, my character came to feel more at home in a den of killers than she felt anywhere else.  If that’s not good writing – to let your character fall under the sinuous sway of such an inherently evil cult and hardly even realize it – then I don’t know what is.

But by far, the most memorable characters – by that I mean the most human and the most flawed – are those from the Dragon Age and Mass Effect titles.  Let’s take, for example, the companion and alien Garrus Vakarian from the Mass Effect franchise.  In the first game, he’s a wayward cop who doesn’t want to play by the rules and can act far too impulsively for his own good.  But by the third, he has learned when to be a leader and when to be a follower.  Over the course of three games, he has sharpened his sense of morality, and he ends up becoming a pillar of support for the player character as he/she attempts to literally save all sentient life.  (Although he never does finish those calibrations.)  And did I mention that he has a delicious sense of humor?

Can it wait for a bit? I’m in the middle of some calibrations.”
Tell me you wouldn’t hit that. TELL ME.

Garrus has a legion of fangirls, and for good reason.  Although he looks like someone threw a cat, a komodo dragon, and a peacock into a blender, he’s managed to convert thousands to xenophilia and send thousands of panties flying.  The reasons?  His warm, down-to-earth voice acting, his snappy, sarcastic dialogue, an awkward but endearing romance, and a layered back story that exposes a good deal of his species’ culture (he’s got that whole Shrek-onion thing going on).

Then we’ve got Dragon Age‘s Oghren.  It’s hard to pick a favorite in terms of good writing out of such a stellar cast that includes characters like Sten, Alistair, Leliana, and Zevran, but there’s a reason I chose him (other than the fact that he’s probably the most quotable character ever made).  Everybody’s favorite foul-mouthed, flatulent, and constantly drunk dwarf also happens to be far more complex than he lets on.  This pint-sized, hairy ginger comes from an intricate caste system in which he used to be a promising warrior.  However, after his wife, a brilliant smith who was a heroine to the dwarven people, deserted him, he turned to drinking.  Oghren was eventually booted from his House and stripped of his weapons.  During the course of the game, he goes from a whiny drunk looking to pick a fight to a man who has regained his confidence and pride.  And he does all this while firing off the funniest one-liners ever written.  Like Garrus (but to a much greater extent), Oghren’s marvelous writing depicts a character demoralized by the culture he’s from while revealing key parts of that culture.  His journey during the game is both physical and mental, and his heartbreaking encounter with his wife provides the sort of emotional catharsis that makes a character arc feel real.

“Well, fart me a lullaby!”
Oghren also has fangirls. But for different reasons.

So when you stack up these kinds of video games against other genres of storytelling, I’d say they do pretty well.  The characters are just as complex.  The quality of the dialogue is higher than most Hollywood blockbusters.  The plot arcs are, if not the most original, at least suspenseful and exciting.  As a writer, all this combines to make me feel like I am immersed in the worlds these games create – and that’s exactly what they should do for everyone.

Now, am I going to ditch all my writing dreams in order to throw myself at Bioware and beg them for an internship?  Of course not.  (…well, maybe not.  Bioware?  Bioware, are you listening?)  But characters like Garrus and Oghren have certainly given old favorites like Han Solo, Merry and Pippin, and Tyrion Lannister a run for their money.

Tyrion is unimpressed by your silly video game characters.

What do you think?  Do you agree or disagree about the quality of game writing?  Did I write about your favorite character, or did I miss someone?  And, most importantly: what’s your favorite Oghren one-liner?

Six Little Red Caps: Robin

10 Aug

gramma gave me a coat today!


It was red, and soft like momma’s hands in the summertime

and a little small for me

(the doctor says i’m having a growth spurt)

but scarlet said i shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth

so I smiled and smiled and said

thank you Gramma this is real Pretty.


It’s to protect you from Wolves she said.

Don’t you believe me Robin?

I said yes Gramma i believe you.

but I didn’t.

i am Seven Years Old and

the forest doesn’t scare me anymore.


sometimes weird things do happen in the forest, though.

like this one time.

I found a baby Bird under a tree

with its wings squished up kind of not-normal

and it made my heart feel like it was full of sand, so

I took it home.

even though it smelled funny.

you dumb shit this bird is dead, said ruby,

which made Rose cry.


i didn’t cry though.

I just Stared and stared at that little dead bird

and finally i asked Ruby what death really meant.

it means they put you in the ground

cover you up with a coffin lid and mud and flowers

so you can’t get out. it means you’re nothing

forever and ever the end.


that’s what she told me

and then I did cry.


dear Lord, please don’t make me lie in the ground

forever and ever Amen.


Note: This one is a little different from all the others, simply because I was trying to write a poem the way a seven-year-old might.  Thus the change in tone and voice.  Whether I succeeded…eh, who knows?

Written with the permission of Auriea Harvey.  Other poems in the series include:

Six Little Red Caps: Prologue

Six Little Red Caps: Scarlet

Six Little Red Caps: Carmen

Six Little Red Caps: Ruby

Six Little Red Caps: Ginger

Six Little Red Caps: Rose

‘The Path’ is an incredibly complex game with a lot of different interpretations.  If you have views regarding the meaning of any of these characters, especially Robin, I’d love to hear your comments!

In Defense of Makeup

6 Aug

I am an unapologetic makeup addict. In my bathroom are cheap Target containers overflowing with enough beauty products to choke an elephant: gem-colored eyeshadows, a sunset’s array of lip glosses, and eyeliners darker than Sharpie ink. The pearlized containers are embossed with the kind of names that you can suck the marrow from, rolling them around in your mouth until you’ve absorbed the fluidity of the words. Guerlain. Nyx. Estee Lauder. Revlon. Tarte. And we haven’t even gotten to the shade names yet. Lipsticks with sobriquets like Russian Red or Bombay seem to contain a thrilling seed of the places from which they take their names. The shocking green of a Graffiti eyeliner or the iridescent white shimmer of Polyester Bride delight me. In my spare time, I surf beauty blogs like Christine’s Temptalia or Karen’s Makeup and Beauty Blog to figure out how to apply the latest trends in beauty.

But what I truly love about makeup is its power to transform. In fifteen minutes I can go from my normal appearance to a 1950s pin-up vixen with a flick of liquid liner and some matte lipstick. Or I can draw a line of electric blue on my lower lid and revel in the satisfaction that such a pure, forceful blue gives me. Each day, with a tap of the brush, I am someone different. Each day, lips painted incarnadine or fuchsia or simply left bare, I am playing a new part. For me, makeup doesn’t shackle me to any standards of beauty we may have. Instead, it frees me.

The Story of Makeup

I’m not the only one to feel so enthralled by beauty products. Cosmetics have been in use for at least 4000 years, so I can’t be the first to fall under their sway. Jezebel, that harlot queen whose name I’ve always found gorgeous, painted her face in 2 Kings, a book of the Old Testament. Egyptians lined their eyes with breathtaking blues and greens the color of the Nile River Delta in springtime. Chinese royalty stained their nails silver or gold from as early as 3000 B.C. European women plucked, waxed, and redrew their eyebrows and their hairlines as thin as the blade of a knife.

In the early 1900s, as the film industry took off, so did makeup. Stars as diverse as Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, and Katy Perry wouldn’t be able to achieve their iconic looks without its aid. Now makeup is, in my opinion, omnipresent – women or men can use it or not, and expect little judgment either way.

The Significance of Cosmetics

A Rainbow of Eye Shadows

A Rainbow of Eye Shadows (Photo credit: cybertoad)

I don’t seem to be the only one who holds these views, though, and I am constantly surprised at the rancor of those who think differently. In Target, a gaggle of college boys once stopped me to tell me that my red lipstick and dramatic purple eyeshadow was “slutty” and that they “wouldn’t pay five dollars for me.” Lilac lip gloss, according to one of my classmates, was “ridiculous.” Flared eyeliner, said some of my friends, made it look like I was “kind of whorish.”

Perhaps I’m behind the times, but in this modern age, when did wearing vibrant makeup become directly correlated with one’s sexual promiscuity?

I’ve seen countless sites and beauty counters that promise to match you with your ‘perfect eyeshadow shades’ or your ‘Holy Grail lipstick.’ But I don’t believe them. Just because I happen to have cool-toned skin doesn’t mean I’m going to wear all cool-toned products. Just because I have green eyes doesn’t mean that I’ll only wear earth-toned shadow. If I did, I’d only wear spiritless pink lipsticks and a sprinkle of bronze on my lids. Don’t you think I know that bright orange lip gloss perhaps doesn’t suit me the best? But on the days when I wake up to see the incandescent sun rising over sharply outlined trees, and I think that I want to take a little of that radiance with me, I will.

So when I wear my cerise-colored lipstick with a swipe of tar-black liner, I’m not asking for someone’s approval. I’m not particularly concerned if I’ve ‘overdone it.’ With every shade I add to my face, I act a new part. I delight in wearing hues like Aquadisiac and Girl About Town. And I enjoy the liberty it allows me.

I’ve decided that on Mondays, instead of posting poetry or fiction, I’ll talk about my personal thoughts instead (although all three of those things essentially come from the same place.)  If you like this sort of writing, check back on future Mondays to see what else I’ll manage to come up with!

Also, if you have any opinions on makeup, I’d love to hear your comments!