Isn’t It Poetic?

Surprise, surprise: the answer isn’t as straightforward as it might first seem. I’m pleased to share with you Douglas S. Jones’ thoughts on the matter.

Doug  Jones is well known in local writing groups and has taught dozens of students in the Richmond area. Full disclosure: Doug taught and mentored me for years! I especially appreciate Doug sharing his thoughts on what makes writing poetic because, as many of you know, I don’t “do” poetry.

Is it poetic?

When asked to define poetry, I thought: This is my punishment for not writing a dissertation.

Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines poem as “1) a composition in verse, especially one that is characterized by a highly developed artistic form and by the use of heightened language and rhythm to express an intensely imaginative interpretation of the subject.” This sounds like what my high school English teachers probably taught me. But then–rather like graduate school–the second and third definitions contradict and deconstruct the first: “2) a composition that, though not in verse, is characterized by great beauty or expression; 3) something having qualities that are suggestive of or likened to those of poetry: Marcel, that chicken cacciatore was an absolute poem.” So a poem is a composition in verse; a poem is a composition not in verse; chicken cacciatore is a poem (when Marcel makes it).

The same dictionary defines poetry as “1) the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts; 2) literary work in metrical form, verse; 3) prose with poetic qualities; 4) poetic qualities however manifested; 5) poetic spirit or feeling; 6) something suggestive of or likened to poetry: the pure poetry of a beautiful view on a clear day.” So poetry is different from prose, except when it is prose; it is written in verse, except when it is not; it is qualities or spirit or feeling or a beautiful view on a clear day.

I won’t bother listing the eighteen definitions of composition, or the fifteen definitions of verse. But I do think it’s worth noting that the word “verse” can be stretched in service of both “poetry” and “metrical composition distinguished from poetry because of its inferior quality [my emphasis].”  It may be “one of the lines of a poem” or (rarely) “a line of prose.” And verse and composition are both related to structure and music–elements which I suspect have more to do with what poetry is than beauty or elevated thought.

I turned from definitions to word origins. A poem is “something created,” John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins. “The word comes via Old French poeme and Latin poema from Greek poema”–which comes from poiesis, “making.” Writers may enjoy poetic license, bring characters to poetic justice, and aspire to become poet laureate. The latter also comes to us from Greece: when Apollo fell in love with Daphne (the daughter of a river) and tried to seize her, she escaped by turning into a laurel tree–which thereafter was sacred to Apollo. “The god ordered that laurel be the prize for poets and victors,” Robert Hendrickson writes in his Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, “this leading to the belief that laurel leaves communicated the spirit of poetry (the ancients put laurel leaves under their pillows to acquire inspiration while they slept).”

The notion of a “spirit” of poetry raises questions. Among them: Does a poem possess or suggest spirit more or other than that of the poet? Is poetry–as Samuel Coleridge famously suggested–“the best words in the best order”? If so, why should this apply only to poetry? Shouldn’t the same be equally true of good prose?

In his wonderful book How to Read a Poem (And Fall in Love with Poetry), Edward Hirsch writes:

Lyric poetry is a form of verbal materialism, an art of language, but it is much more than “the best words in the best order.” It is language fulfilling itself, language compressed and raised to its highest power. Language in action against time, against death. There are times when I am awestruck by the way that poems incarnate the spirit–the spirits–and strike the bedrock of being.

Other times I am struck by how little the poem has to go on, how inadequate its means. For what does the writer have but some black markings on a blank page to imagine a world? Hence these lines from the splendid Florentine poet Cuido Cavalanti–

Noi sian triste penne isbigottite
le cesoiuzze e’l coltellin dolente.

We are the poor, bewildered quills,
the little scissors, and the grieving penknife.

In his preface to Obra poetica, Jorge Luis Borges writes “the taste of the apple … lies in the contact of the fruit with the palate, not in the fruit itself; in a similar way (I would say) poetry lies in the meeting of the poem and reader, not in the lines of symbols printed on the pages of a book.” Poetry is interactive. Reading a poem completes it, like closing an electrical circuit. Although we can return and refer to it on the page, I think of poetry as fugitive. While you are reading it (or hearing it read) it travels through time and space. Consider the following:

Detail

I was watching a robin fly after a finch–the smaller bird
chirping with excitement, the bigger, its breast blazing, silent
in light-winged earnest chase–when, out of nowhere
over the chimneys and the shivering front gardens,
flashes a sparrowhawk headlong, a light brown burn
scorching the air from which it simply plucks
like a ripe fruit the stopped robin, whose two or three
cheeps of terminal surprise twinkle in the silence
closing over the empty street when the birds have gone
about their own business, and I began to understand
how a poem can happen: you have your eye on a small
elusive detail, pursuing its music, when a terrible truth
strikes and your heart cries out, being carried off.

Eamon Grennan

The poem flies: we follow it from bird to bird to “terminal surprise.”  It begins not with the abstract, but the specific–and the accumulation of specific details is what makes the poem ring true. There is movement in every line: watching, chirping, blazing, shivering, scorching. Even nouns and adjectives move: “a light brown burn/ scorching the air,” “the stopped robin” (my emphasis). The “I” observing the bird becomes the “you” with “your eye on a small elusive detail.” Then the reader becomes both poet and bird, observing and observed: “a terrible truth/ strikes, and your heart cries out, being carried off” (my emphasis). In the end we have not only read or heard the poem: we have in a sense experienced it, flown with and been snatched away by it. The poet meanwhile is self-effacing, claiming only to have begun “to understand/ how a poem can happen.” The poem happens–it is an event, shared between speaker and listener. As Robert Frost notes: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.”

Hirsch continues:

Poetry alerts us to what is deepest in ourselves–it arouses a spiritual desire which it also gratifies. It attains what it avows. But it can only do so with the reader’s imaginative collaboration and even complicity. The writer creates through words a felt world which only the reader can vivify and internalize. Writing is embodiment. Reading is contact.

We can teach poetry by reading poems, reading poets, and reading what they write about what they do: from Aristotle’s Poetics and Horace’s Ars Poetica to Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism”; from Wordsworth’s Prelude to Kenneth Koch’s “The Art of Poetry.”

And of course we can also teach poetry by encouraging students to write poetry of their own, to experiment with form, to write poems “in the style of”–and by helping them to find their subjects.  Towards this last goal, consider the following from Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, authors of The Poet’s Companion:

We’ve been told again and again to write about what we know, but we don’t trust that advice…. John Keats wrote to a nightingale, an urn, a season. Simple, everyday things he knew. Walt Whitman described the stars, a live oak, a field. Elizabeth Bishop wrote about catching a fish, Wallace Stevens about a Sunday morning, William Carlos Williams about a young housewife and a red wheelbarrow. They began with what they knew, what was at hand, what shimmered around them in the ordinary world….

The trick is to find out what we know, challenge what we know, own what we know, and then give it away in language: I love my brother, I hate winter, I always lose my keys. You have to know and describe your brother so well he becomes everybody’s brother, to evoke the hatred of winter so passionately that we all begin to feel the chill, to lose your keys so memorably we begin to connect that action to all our losses, to our desires, to our fears of death. Good writing works from a simple premise: your experience is not yours alone, but in some sense a metaphor for everyone’s.

In the end, I think poetry communicates something like Whitman’s barbaric yawp. We are, in fact, not alone on the planet. The ordinary world is, in fact, extraordinary. The spoken word is not how we compare ourselves out of community or fraternity or sorority or society, but rather how we find our place within. As Appalachian poet Charles Boyd writes:

As you are reading
this–now, in the same moment
I am writing it.

Touchstones
  • Aristotle: Poetics.
  • Horace: Ars Poetica.
  • Barthes, Roland: The Pleasure of the Text.
  • Bloom, Harold: Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism.
  • Brooks, Cleanth: The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry.
  • Calvino, Italo: Six Memos for the Next Millenium.
  • Frye, Northrop: Anatomy of Criticism.
  • Heidegger, Martin: Poetry, Language, Thought.
  • Mill, John Stuart: Dissertations and Discussions.
  • Pascal, Blaise: Pensees.
  • Plato: Collected Dialogues.
  • Santayana, George: Essays in Literary Criticism.
  • Sapir, Edward: Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech.
  • Wimsatt, W. K.: The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry.
  • Zumthor, Paul: Oral Poetry: An Introduction.

Douglas Jones has written and seen produced more than forty plays and screenplays, including the musical Bojangles (music by Tony Award-winning composer Charles Strouse, lyrics by Academy Award-winning Sammy Cahn), The Turn of The Screw, and his award-winning Songs from Bedlam–which Backstage declared “a triumph,” and D.C.’s Studio Theatre said “achieves a rare and magnificent balance between brutal reality and sublime fantasy.” His docudrama 1607: A Nation Takes Root plays daily at the Jamestown Settlement & Yorktown Victory Center. 

He was awarded the Virginia Commission for the Arts Playwriting Grant in 2006, the Martha Hill Newell Playwrights Award in 2015, and the Emyl Jenkins Award for Promoting Writing and  Education in 2016. He teaches memoir, playwriting, and other classes at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and The Visual Arts Center, and is a member of The Dramatists Guild. He lives in Richmond with his wife actress Harriett Traylor.

INSIDE A MIND WITH PTSD

Today’s blog is written by a fellow writer who wishes to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.

Among the many odd things I’ve done in my life, one that has had the most lasting impact is being a linguistic and cultural ambassador posted to a country that shall remain nameless here. Because of various regional disputes, a massive prison outbreak, less-than-polite national elections and regime changes, and a general culture of aggressiveness, I found myself living in conditions that were much more dangerous than I’d been led to expect.

When I eventually returned home, among the souvenirs and keepsakes I brought back with me, I found in my luggage a serious case of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). As Vivian’s blog is for writers and writing, I thought perhaps a guided tour inside the warped and broken mind of a person with PTSD might be of interest to you all.

Please keep hands and arms inside the cart at all times, and don’t feed the negativity gremlins as we go past.

Very Important Disclaimer: Neither Vivian Lawry nor this guest author are psychiatric professionals or are qualified to provide medical assistance. The information contained herein is not intended to be used for diagnostic or treatment purposes in any way, shape, or form.

This is basically what the inside of my mind looks like.
(It’s actually the Soul Cairn from the Dawnstar plug-in to Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim by Bethesda.)

Before the ride begins in earnest, you can look to your left for some basic information about PTSD. The most common association people have with PTSD is of veterans of military combat, but it can result from many different experiences, including natural disasters, abusive relationships, assault (sexual or otherwise), prolonged insecurity, traffic collisions, and so on. People can even develop second-hand PTSD from witnessing these events in other people’s lives. A patient may develop PTSD immediately after an event, but sometimes symptoms don’t appear until well after the event itself.

Common symptoms of PTSD. As soon as I can cultivate a substance abuse problem, I’ll have BINGO! (That’s how it works, right?)

With all of these possibilities, there are loads of ways in which the inclusion of a character experiencing PTSD can enrich, complicate, drive, or drive, or even resolve your writing. There is a lot of information available about the causes and effects of PTSD, but remember that each case is different. Every person will have different triggers, coping mechanisms, involuntary reactions, etc.

You may notice the cart shaking violently as we enter the tunnel; this is simply the result of uneven neural pathways, nothing to be alarmed about.

As a writer and a reader, I’ve found myself thinking of ways in which my warped thoughts and behaviors could fit in with other common narrative techniques. I have also found some absolutely infuriating stories out there in which a character has a traumatic experience (usually rape or sexual assault) simply so the hero can come to the rescue or to establish a villain as a villain… and victimized character goes right back to skipping through the tulips. Don’t be that writer!

If you look out on either side of the cart, you may be able to make out (through the erratic strobe lights and general gloom) a few of the ways common behaviors of characters with PTSD could be very useful in your writing. Please remember that these are only glimpses from one mind and do not necessarily reflect every patient. Also, hold on to the lap bar as there are some sharp curves coming up.

Unreliable Narrator: What I see and hear is always filtered through the PTSD in my mind. If a story is told from the point of view of a character with PTSD, this is a good way to demonstrate the disconnect from reality. If another character is getting information from a character with PTSD, it could skew everyone’s opinions and affect the plot moving forward.

What it feels like to walk down the street.
  • Social interactions are a minefield of side-stepping physical attacks (handshakes, hugs, pats on the back).
  • Random strangers only ever approach me with violent intentions, such as petting my dog, asking me to reach something off a high shelf, or walking past me on a narrow sidewalk.
  • People waiting in parked cars are obviously armed, most likely on the lookout for potential victims.
  • Anyone who stands in a doorway must be trying to block the exit or prevent escape.
  • An approach from behind must be someone trying to sneak up on me, and anyone who surprises me from behind is an attacker and will be punched.
  • This isn’t helped by chronic sleep deprivation giving me the same symptoms as early-onset Alzheimer’s: How can I be trusted to provide accurate information when I lose time and forget everything?

Mistaken Motivations: Objectively, I know there is nothing wrong with mental illness, nor should there be any shame attached. Still, I try to hide it or play it off as no big deal. As a result, family, friends, and strangers all have reason to assume my coping behaviors are something very different. Having a character reveal midway through or near the end of a story that their actions were motivated by coping mechanisms could be a plot twist, a clue for investigators, a reset of other characters’ attitudes, or plenty of other ways of adding narrative interest.

  • Friends frequently ask if I’m cold because I can’t stop shaking.
  • Constantly scanning for threats and possible exits sometimes makes me look like I’m trying to find someone or looking for an excuse to leave a boring conversation.
  • Being hyper-vigilant in general makes me look twitchy, itchy, over-caffeinated, or paranoid, depending on who is providing their opinion.
  • My brother thought he’d done something to offend me when I repeatedly moved away from him or left the room when he entered.
  • After I repeatedly panicked and cancelled plans at the last minute, many friends thought I was just blowing them off.
  • Arriving late to social gatherings, hiding in the corner, and leaving early have all led acquaintances to assume I’m too stuck-up to mingle.
  • To make it through particularly important events that I cannot miss, I’ve sometimes taken extra doses of anti-anxiety medication. My slurred speech, unfocused gaze, less than ideal balance, and inability to follow conversation looks an awful lot like I’ve shown up to the baptism or wedding drunk as a skunk.
  • I escape to the bathroom a lot when things get overwhelming, sometimes for extended periods of time. Most of my family now thinks I have severe digestive issues.

Affects in My Life: In order to be diagnosed as a disorder (the D in PTSD) a patient must have symptoms severe enough to disrupt their ability to live a normal life. A character who develops PTSD midway through a narrative would almost certainly show changes in behaviors. These are some of mine.

This is perfectly normal.
  • Chronic insomnia and nightmares: Years later, I still sleep in a separate room from my spouse, with the lights on, with distracting or soothing music playing… and I still manage to wake the household at least once a month by screaming in my sleep.
  • My ability to concentrate and complete tasks on time severely impacted my job. Twice, I responded to a coworker trying to get my attention by panicking and attacking them. Going into the office grew increasingly difficult as it became harder to leave the house. I am now unemployed.
  • Weeks at a time go by when I cannot leave my house, even to go into the backyard. I feel threatened every time I open the door.
  • Side effects from different medications I’ve tried have included weight gain, headaches, heartburn, memory loss, drowsiness, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseam. These could also be examples of mistaken motivations!
  • I no longer participate in hobbies I once did, especially anything that involves leaving the house or interacting with other people.
  • Suicide and suicide attempts are very common among patients with PTSD.

Anxiety Attacks, Panic Attacks, and Flashbacks: These can be triggered by almost anything, depending on the person and the situation. Smelling cigarette smoke, walking on an icy sidewalk, being in a room of people speaking another language I only halfway understand… any of these can send me spiraling. Being under stress increases the chance that something will hit that switch.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we’d like to remind you at this time that motion sickness bags can be found under your seats and to hold on tightly.

It doesn’t look quite as cute when I do it.
  • Anxiety or Panic Attack: It’s really bizarre to be terrified and not know why. Why is my heart racing? Why can’t I breathe? Why can I not stop screaming? When I have an anxiety attack, I don’t think rationally but I can speak and respond to people around me. When I have a panic attack, it feels like I’m about to die. I can’t feel anything but the absolute terror that completely takes over my body. Usually, I am able to leave a situation when I feel one of these about to happen so that I can mentally implode in the peace and quiet of a public urinal.
  • Flashback: These are even more bizarre. Anxiety attacks often segue into flashbacks. I am completely unaware of my surroundings and respond to threats that are long gone. I’ll switch languages to talk to people who aren’t there; I’ll be able to smell the food or feel the cold from specific memories. Sometimes, I have flashbacks that aren’t tied to precise events, more an amalgamation of similar threats that get lumped together in my head. It’s very embarrassing to come out of it and realize that I’m hiding behind a clothes rack in Target, desperately fighting off the attack of a stiff coat sleeve.

Treatment Options: There are many different types of treatments for PTSD, with varying degrees of accessibility, cost, success, and side effects. I’ve tried just about everything: some worked, some did not, some worked at first and then stopped. I can’t stress enough that every person will respond differently to different treatments. The information here is simply what undergoing the treatments felt like for me.

He still can’t change the printer cartridges.
  • Therapy Animal: My dog trained himself to be a therapy dog because he was just that awesome. Before I was eventually laid off, my boss let me bring my dog into the office with me. He learned to impose himself between me and anyone getting too close to my personal space. When I had anxiety attacks, he’d put his head in my lap and nudge my hand until I pet him. Focusing on the feeling of his fur, his cold nose, his super stinky breath worked to calm me down and remind me that I was safe. He passed away in April, and it felt like going through all the trauma again.
  • TMS (Trans-Cranial Magnetic Stimulation): It felt a bit like sitting in the dentist’s chair while a woodpecker tapped on my head. I went every day for three months, and the only side effect was a minor headache when I first started.
  • EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing): My eyesight is so bad that I couldn’t do the actual eye movement part of it; I held a buzzer in each hand and felt the vibrations in alternating hands at different speeds. In each session, I relived particularly traumatic events over and over while the therapist guided me through sense memories and varied the speed of the buzzing. By the time the hour was up, I was usually an exhausted, damp, shaking mess running to the bathroom to vomit.
  • Medication: I think by now I’ve tried every different medication type on the market. I can’t even pronounce most of them and have to stutter and hope at the pharmacy. Most gave some relief for a little while and then stopped working.
    • There is now a way in which doctors can send a sample of your DNA to a lab, where people in white coats and shiny goggles can magically determine which medicines will or won’t work for you. I have no idea how they do it; I assume it involves cauldrons and eyes or tails of newts.
  • Ketamine: I was very hesitant to try this method because there have been so few long-term studies. When I started, I went in every day for a week and a half. After that, I went in every three to four weeks depending on how the doctor thinks I’m doing. Ketamine treatment is available through aerosol or intravenously. I sit in a comfy chair with a needle in my arm for about an hour while geometry loses all meaning and everything becomes either fascinating or hilarious. Everything in the universe swirls in front of my face, and the feeling of my hair is the most amazing sensation I can remember. According to the nurse, I tend to wax rhapsodic about how much I love every person who comes through the door. For some reason, they won’t let me drive afterwards!
  • Healing Crystals/ Salt Lamps/ Essential Oils: I had a lumpy pillow, a pink wall, and everything tasted like lavender.
  • PTSD is expensive!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour through the mess inside my head. Please wait for the ride to come to a complete stop before unbuckling safety harnesses. Be sure to gather all personal items and take them with you as you exit down the ramp to your right. Don’t forget to check the photo booth for a hilarious souvenir memento of your trip. You can also find resources for actual help; as I’m sure you remember, this has just been an example of some personal experiences for your writing toolbox.

Keeping It All Straight in a Mystery Series

On this day of mashed potato sandwiches and ten dollar televisions, I offer you another reason to give thanks: good friends, good friends who write very good books, and good friends whose latest very good book is now available! Today’s blog was written by my good friend and fellow author (and pet lover) Heather Weidner.

Guest Blog by Heather Wiedner

Many thanks to Vivian Lawry for letting me be a guest on her blog. Vivian and I met when the Sisters in Crime – Central Virginia chapter formed. Through the years, we’ve served as officers, worked on committees and anthology projects, and most recently, as part of the mystery critique group that Vivian chairs.

I have loved mysteries since Scooby-Doo and Nancy Drew. I write short stories, novellas, and mystery novels, including two mystery series. While the short stories and novellas are stand-alones, the novels are in two separate series. The first is the Delanie Fitzgerald mysteries (Secret Lives and Private Eyes, The Tulip Shirt Murders, and Glitter, Glam, and Contraband), about a sassy private investigator in Richmond, Virginia. She and her computer hacker partner, Duncan Reynolds, and his sidekick, Margaret the Wonder Dog, work with a variety of clients in Central Virginia to solve crimes, capers, and murders. I am also working on another new cozy series set in Charlottesville, Virginia.

When you write novels and a series of novels, you need to keep the details in order. I make a chart for each book in a word processor, and I list all characters and key places. Then I make a column for the book, and I add all the details. This helps me keep the character names organized and avoid duplication. I also put a lot of backstory and details here. It helps me remember likes, relationships, and descriptive details. (You don’t want a character’s eye color to change between books.) I review and update it as the book goes through the writing process. Then, when I’m ready to start the next book in the series, I add a column and the characters. It also helps me show where all the characters appear. Also, if I change a character’s name during a revision, I use the search/find feature in the word processor to make sure I made all the updates.

In another file, I do a brief outline for each book with what I think appears in each chapter. Then I color-code the crimes, clues, humor, and romance. This gives me a visual sense of the story’s progress. Then I start writing, and that is when all the plotting and planning take a back seat. I find that some of my characters take on a life of their own, and the story progresses down another path. I also update my outline when I’m going through the editing stages. I use this document when I write the synopsis later for querying.

Church Hill in Richmond, Virginia

When you write a series, you also need to think about how much previous information from the other books you want to include. It’s like a skirt: it needs to be long enough to cover the subject. But you don’t want to go on and on and derail your current work with too much backstory. You want readers to remember things from the past books, but not to feel lost if they started reading your book in the middle of the series. You also need to introduce your characters with a brief description when they first appear, but be careful not to do an information dump on their life that reads like a police report.

The details are important. Your readers will notice if things change inadvertently between books. My critique group and beta readers also help me with early reads to make sure particulars are accurate.

When I’m not blogging, I’m working on my next book. The third book in my Delanie series came out in November 2019, and I have a novella in the next Mutt Mysteries (dog-themed mysteries) that comes out in March 2020.

Author Biography

Glitter, Glam, and Contraband is Heather Weidner’s third novel in the Delanie Fitzgerald series. Her short stories appear in the Virginia is for Mysteries series, 50 Shades of Cabernet, and Deadly Southern Charm. Her novellas appear in The Mutt Mysteries series. She is a member of Sisters in Crime–Central Virginia, Guppies, International Thriller Writers, and James River Writers.

Originally from Virginia Beach, Heather has been a mystery fan since Scooby-Doo and Nancy Drew. She lives in Central Virginia with her husband and a pair of Jack Russell terriers.

Heather earned her BA in English from Virginia Wesleyan University and her MA in American literature from the University of Richmond. Through the years, she has been a cop’s kid, technical writer, editor, college professor, software tester, and IT manager.

Synopsis of Glitter, Glam, and Contraband

Private investigator, Delanie Fitzgerald, and her computer hacker partner, Duncan Reynolds, are back for more sleuthing in Glitter, Glam and Contraband. In this fast-paced mystery, the Falcon Investigations team is hired to find out who is stealing from the talent at a local drag show. Delanie gets more than she bargains for and a few makeup tips in the process. Meanwhile, a mysterious sound in the ceiling of her office vexes Delanie. She uses her sleuthing skills to track down the source and uncover a creepy contraband operation.

Glitter, Glam, and Contraband features a strong female sleuth with a knack for getting herself in and out of humorous situations like helping sleazy strip club owner, Chaz Smith on his quest to become Richmond’s next mayor, tracking down missing reptiles, and uncovering hidden valuables from a 100-year-old crime with an Edgar Allen Poe connection.

Contact Information

Book Links

The Author and the Guest Author

DUOMAIEUSIOPHOBIA – DOUBLE TROUBLE

A suspected publicity stunt for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children terrified London commuters.

Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, teacher, writer, editor, favorite auntie, and reluctant sister, niece, and granddaughter of twins.

Even they cannot tell who is who in this photo.

Duomaieusiophobia (literally the fear of double childbirth) is the scientific name for the fear of twins, though it can refer to the fear of any multiple birth.  Twins are a very common element in movies and TV, whether identical, fraternal, or imaginary.

I bet they share absolutely everything!

In the horror genre, twins often serve to add an extra element of creepiness even if their relationship is not the primary driver of the plot.  Consider the twin girls in The Shining or the Merovingian’s twin assasins in The Matrix: Reloaded.  Though they are minor characters, their appearance on screen is chilling.

And this is before they turned into glowing electric ghosts

A big factor for this (beyond saving money by only paying one actor for two roles) comes down to our own subconscious: twins pose a threat to our understanding of self-identity and to the way the world works.  In some cultures, twins are seen as lucky or even venerated as having a direct link to the divine.

The Yoruba people have one of the highest concentrations of twins in the world, and they celebrate all of them.

In other cultures, twins are seen as the result of or the bringers of evil and are ritually killed.  At either end, twins are outside of the norm.

The Twins Days Twins Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio. Just being there was very unsettling.

The Evil Twin

Anthropologists have theorized that twins were originally seen as personifying the duality of nature – day and night, summer and winter, birth and death, etc.  This carried over into mythology, in which twins often played opposite roles, such as Apollo and Artemis controlling the sun and the moon.  Opposite moralities are also a common element in mythology; one twin is good and the other is evil: Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, etc.

Jonah and Seth Trimble in Seconds Apart. Can you spot the evil twin?

Many horror movies play on this trope.  Twins are identical in every way except for the body count.  This idea is so common that an entire page of TVTropes is dedicated to good and evil twins or clones.  My sisters like to claim that they are both the evil twin.

Bette Davis played both good and evil twins in Dead Ringer.

Margot Kidder played a twin who was so possessive of her sister that she murdered any potential rivals in Sisters.

Twins of Evil starred actual twin sisters Mary and Madeleine Collinson, one of whom is turned into a vampire.

Closely linked to the idea of one twin being good and the other evil, there is a common theme of one twin taking the other’s place.  In comedies, this generally results in zany hijinks, as when the Marx brothers all put on Groucho Marx’s iconic mustache and glasses and caused mayhem all over the mansion in Duck Soup.

They weren’t actually twins, but Groucho, Chico, and Harpo could certainly pass!

In horror movies, the evil twin generally steps into the life of the good twin for personal gain or allows the good twin to take the fall for nefarious deeds.

Good twin Holland is punished for evil twin Niles… or so it would seem in the 1972 film The Other.

Blood Rage features a psychotically evil twin who frames his brother for several murders.

The Devil’s Double (2011) features both the good/ evil twin trope and the impostor/ scapegoat trope as well as being based on a true story.  Dominic Cooper plays Saddam Hussein’s son Uday as well as the soldier called up to be Uday’s fedai (a political decoy and body double).

Letif Yahia is rumored to be living in Ireland or Germany now.

Both Twins Are Evil

In many areas of the world, particularly West Africa, twins (or triplets or quadruplets) are viewed as harbingers of doom or even inherently evil.  Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart mentions the village custom of abandoning twins in the forest to die.  Some even blame the devastating 2016 earthquake in Tanzania as the work of angry twins.

June and Jennifer Gibbons are a real-life pair of twins, born in 1963, who spoke only to each other and committed several acts of theft and violence.

Despite a concerted effort by government and foreign aid groups, twins in Nigeria and Madagascar are frequently buried alive with their mother or sealed in a room to starve to death.  Though for different reasons, Hollywood shares many of these ideas of twins being unnaturally synchronized, lacking empathy for all others, possessing some form of supernatural ability, or even providing a gateway for evil spirits or ghosts.

The twin boys in American Horror Story: Murder House are condemned to spend eternity trapped in the house where they tormented others.

Jeremy Irons played both psychotic doctors in the film Dead Ringers, horrifyingly based on a true story.

Legend was also based on a true story, of the London gangster twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray, though Ronnie was arguably a little more evil.

The German film Goodnigt Mommy features a pair of twin boys who torture and kill their mother when they think she is an impostor.

Twins Separated or Left Alone

Because twins are so close, strange things tend to happen when they are raised separately or when one dies.  This is often called the Twinless Twin effect, and it touches the parents of twins and other siblings as well as the twins themselves.  Both Elvis Presley and Liberace lost a twin very early in life, and they both cited their missing twin as having a major influence on their creative work.

Both performers felt that they were living for their twin as well as themselves.

This particular grief felt by twinless twins, coupled with the assumption of twins’ psychic link, creates perfect fodder for horror movies.  Several of the films listed above have a surprise ending in which it is revealed that one twin has already died and is a hallucination or delusion of the remaining twin.  No spoilers!

A stillborn twin comes back to haunt his sister and serve as a bridge for the ghosts of other twinless twins in The Unborn.

Alone is a Thai horror movie about a conjoined twin who dies during separation surgery and comes back to possess her sister. It also features the trope of the good/evil twin pair.

Calling upon her supposed twin bond, the heroine of The Forest enters Aokigahara (the “Suicide Forest”) in Japan to search for her sister, whom she believes is planning to commit suicide.

The film Jonathon is an interesting twist on the idea of the twinless twin: both brothers inhabit one body, switching off every twelve hours, so they can never meet or interact.

Every year, at the Twins Days Twins Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio, an entire section of the festival grounds is set aside for researchers looking for volunteers.  Twins throw balls into cups, test their memories, fill out questionnaires about mental health, and let themselves be weighed, measured, observed, and questioned to shed light on all those pesky questions people can’t answer by experimenting on babies.

Most researchers offer gifts or money in exchange for participation. My sisters won so much cash in prizes that I made them pay for the hotel.

Scientists are fascinated by twins because of what they can reveal about genetics and the role of environment in supposedly hereditary traits.  Anthropologists are fascinated by twins because of what they can illustrate about a culture’s understanding of self-identity.  Doctors are fascinated by twins because of what they can demonstrate about the contraction or treatment of illness.

Is the ability to play the harp standing up and backwards hereditary? You’d have to ask Camille and Kennerly Kitt, the Harp Twins.

Artists, filmmakers, writers of any sort are fascinated by twins because of what they can show us about human nature, because of the opportunity for wacky confusion, because they have a bond that is very rarely found in any other grouping of characters.  Twins are a source of comedy, drama, terror, tenderness, and every other aspect of writing… doubled!

This is by far the most terrifying image I found online. Can you tell which one is Bruce Willis?

Story Nuggets: Where Does a Writer Find Them?

by Jayne Ormerod

Jane Ormerod author

VL: When I invited the four authors who have stories in To Fetch a Thief to contribute something to my blog page—interview, blog, rant, whatever—I was hoping for diversity. And they are coming through!


I’m a writer. I write cozy mysteries. When I’m not huddled in my writing hut, I’m out and about, either physically or cyber-ly, mingling with readers. The number one question I am asked is “Where do you get your ideas?” My answer: I collect “story nuggets” everywhere I go and in everything I do and all the crazy stuff I see in the news. All it takes is a teeny tiny event  and my imagination is off and running. It’s no secret I am particularly influenced by things in my life and events that occur in my coastal community.

For my most recent publication, I was challenged to write a novella (about 15,000 words) that involved a dog, a theft, and a murder. Two years later, a book was born. To Fetch a Thief is a collection of four novellas. My story is titled “It’s a Dog Gone Shame!”

Fortunately, I had a cache of “story nuggets” at the ready.

Jane Ormerod

The “dog” part of the story was easy. Although dog-less at the time, we’d been lucky enough to have been adopted by four wonderful rescues over the years. I knew how to write “dog.”

The “theft” part of the story was a snap. We have a wonderful place in our neighborhood to honor dogs that have crossed the rainbow bridge. It’s called The Dog Gone Garden. A local artist paints a colorful rock to represent each dog as it passes. The rocks are huddled under the shade of a Crepe Myrtle tree. Our own Norwegian Elkhound, Jamaica, has a rock there. One summer’s day all of the rocks disappeared! Just gone! Nobody knows where or why or how. (There were a lot of them so it was a heavy load!) Aha! my mystery-writer self said. A theft! I tucked that into my carton of story nuggets. (Although I solve this little mystery in my story, the real rock theft remains on the loose.)

dog gone garden

The murder part? We live on the Chesapeake Bay. It is a semi-annual occurrence for a body to wash ashore. Mostly they are traced back to a drug gang further up the bay. Sometimes it’s a result of too much drink and too little sense when a person climbs aboard their trawler to sleep it off. One misstep and they splash in the bay and end up sleeping with the fishes. The beauty of being a cozy writer is the amateur sleuth only has to discover a dead body. We don’t have to know how to kill. Interviewing neighbors who’ve discovered the “floaters” has given me enough “nuggets” for a dozen mysteries.

To answer the perennial question, “Where do you get your ideas?”; I get them from life. Once the “story nugget” is planted, I turn it over to my imagination. I then stand back and watch the words fly! (Most end up on the cutting room floor, but that’s another story for another day.)

VL: Big thank you to Jayne Ormerod! No doubt readers have enjoyed this peek into your writing process—and some may decide to emulate you! To read more about the stories in To Fetch a Thief and the writers who wrote them, check out www.MuttMysteries.com 


About Jayne Ormerod:  Jayne Ormerod grew up in a small Ohio town then went on to a small-town Ohio college. Upon earning her degree in accountancy, she became a CIA (that’s not a sexy spy thing, but a Certified Internal Auditor.) She married a naval officer and off they sailed to see the world. After nineteen moves, they, along with their two rescue dogs Tiller and Scout, have settled into a cozy cottage by the sea. Jayne has penned over a dozen novels/novellas/short mysteries.

Website: www.JayneOrmerod.com

Blog: www.JayneOrmerod.blogspot.com