The Writing Life: On Mermaid Hands and Bezoar Stones by Lisa Ahn

“Step Right Up, and Don’t Be Shy”

Imagine, if you please, a room of strange, exotic objects. Step carefully inside. A glass-eyed alligator observes you from the ceiling. Look around. Shelves weigh heavy with a monkey set to fly, a mermaid’s hand, and several jars of teeth. A stuffed fish poses by a preserved raccoon sniffing at an armadillo who is, in turn, examining a bezoar stone.

You’ve stepped inside a Wunderkammern, or “Wonder Chamber”, filled with the mysteries of the European Renaissance. Such collections might span an entire room, or simply fill the intricacies of a small, glass-fronted cabinet. They are an early encyclopedia, in three dimensions. A pre-museum. Marvels.

There is no rhyme or reason to the placement of these objects. Art and science and myth all intermingle. Paintings of oddities keep company with nautilus shells. Small skeletons hold handkerchiefs, while foreign coins rub up against a dragon’s egg. Clockwork automatons make a pass at birds and stones. A poisonous toad perches on wide antlers. There are colored minerals, medals, bowls and coral specimens. A set of phoenix feathers shares top billing with the remains of conjoined twins.

In a Wunderkammern, you are free to imagine a world where anything is possible, where everything exists. You are free to ask, “what story do these object tell?”

“Tickets Please”

One of my favorite bits of advice for writers is to “write the book you’d like to read”. In that case, I’ll write wonder chambers, cabinets of curiosities. I like books that question the placement of dividing lines, books that throw me unexpected curves. I like to turn a corner and find an alligator hanging from the ceiling.

I recently read Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers. It entranced me from page one. Here’s a book that unravels commonplace assumptions about foster care and communication, character and love. There are secrets — juicy ones — but it’s the characters, flawed and lovely, who propel the story forward, as they perform the unexpected.

Sometimes, the Wunderkammern is the narrative world composite. In Rabia Gale’s brilliant novella Mourning Cloak, I wandered in a universe so complex and marvelous that I couldn’t look away. Gale blends science, myth and legend into a seamless, face-paced adventure where every corner brings a revelation.

Not everything inside the Wunderkammern is pleasant to behold. Sometimes you want to turn away from the eyeballs in the jar. In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn puts crazy front and center. Still, you can’t help but watch the speeding bullets, waiting for the impact.

My favorite Wunderkammern books are filled with creative juxtapositions. Turn a corner. You never know what you might see.  The unexpected curve. Just bring your curiosity along.

“Curiosities Abound”

Writers are a curious lot. We eavesdrop on other people’s conversations. We take notes in sidewalk cafes. We get lost in libraries and Google, amidst all the shiny facts and details. We like evidence of marvel and amazement.

We like to play “what if”. My favorite current writing project is a collaborative venture with the photographer Brenda Gottsabend. She sends me photos every month, and I make up stories to go with them. We call it Wing-Feather Fables for the whimsy at the heart. Almost every fable that I write begins with a “what if.” What if a lion and a magician ran a city according to their whims? What if vengeful naiads lived in city fountains? What if you could put your dreams in banks? Unlucky leprechauns, retired witches, frozen angels and forgotten oracles line my mental shelves.

My head is a very noisy place with all those characters inside. They rile and clamor. Like the objects in a Wunderkammern, they want their stories told. The Renaissance collectors tried to make sense of the cosmos by gathering the world, in representational form, onto shelves and tables. They collected evidence of grace. Each small piece revealed the complexity of the whole. Their wonder was a sign of reverence for creation. This is what a writer does as well: collect and harvest, organize, display. We create a world in miniature, populate its shelves with life. Then we let our creatures play their games, hoping they’ll surprise us. Make us wonder.

“Wonder Never Fades”

The objects of a Wunderkammern never fit inside clear categories. They were a mark of pre-Enlightenment Europe, before the scientists arrived. They made no lines between the real and the imaginary. A unicorn’s horn was as viable, as worthy of your credence, as a common butterfly. Each was evidence of the world’s complexity and marvel.

Inside a Wunderkammern, anything is possible. Nothing is excluded. The agent Donald Maass frequently tells authors to pull the rug out from beneath their characters. Throw the curve ball. Raise the stakes. Make it dicey. In this way, a story can take the vast potential of a Wunderkammern and channel it towards precise implosions, narrative twists, the conflicts that keep a reader turning pages. Stories thrive inside the unexpected, the this-and-that combined in ways you’ve never seen.

But the Wunderkammern changed once the Enlightenment arrived. Instead of jumbled rooms of mythic objects, they became carefully ordered cabinets of scientific categories. Shells on this side. Coral on the other. No mermaid hands or bezoar stones in sight. The unicorn’s horn became the narwhal’s tusk. Wonder became a sign of superstition, a mark of ignorance. You didn’t need to wonder or be curious once it was possible to Know.

Now, don’t mistake me here. I’m something of a science geek. I love quarks and event horizons, early smallpox vaccinations with a threaded needle, heart transplants and non-Newtonian fluids. But I love them for their wonder, for their stories. At heart, I’m still inside the Wunderkammern, but with my laptop and the internet so I can watch videos of Neil deGrasse Tyson and research the side-effects of an acetaminophen overdose. You know, for a story. In this cabinet, the shelves are never full. There’s always room for a surprise. And that alligator on the ceiling? I’m sure he follows my every movement with his eyes. I don’t need to prove it. Just step inside. Look around. Imagine.

Lisa Ahn, Columnist emeritus

Lisa Ahn's writing has appeared in Quiddity, PANK, Limestone, Prick of the Spindle, Toasted Cheese and Literary Mama, among others. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two spunky daughters, three cats, and a dog who steals everybody's socks.

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