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Congratulations to our Competition Winners!

photo(8) A few weeks ago, we challenged readers to write a short story, poem, or short play about Anne’s Coronation, told from one of three viewpoints:

1.) Anne’s viewpoint
2.) Henry’s viewpoint
3.) An observer in the crowd’s viewpoint.

All of the entries were excellent, and we thank all of you who took the time to write a piece for the contest. Two, however, stood out for their creativity, style, and fidelity to the period.
The winners are Peggy West and Alisha White, whose pieces can be found below!


The Guest

By Peggy West

From inside the sewing room of a dressing room in the depths of the Hall, my mother whispered that people call the new queen “Nan Bullen”.

She said, “Highborn but it makes no matter. Getting round with the king’s baby before a marriage blessing. And now crowned queen. Nobody scolds the pope. In the Spanish days, we knew who God was. God was not a fat man wearing furs and clucking about with coiled beet skins for hair.”

She turned the dress inside out. “More velvet for the new queen. Days and nights of royal feasting and plain people are to pay a good sum for their fancy meals but first run alongside the coach, calling out hosannas to a whore.” My mother’s lips were so full of pins that who can tell what words she spits? Still, I wish my father was here to shush her.

I said, “The king is who the king says he is.” But I know that we have had stolen from us our best idea of God.

We shook out the dress. We felt along the seams, our knuckles crawling. We gripped the bodice in our fists. We lined up the pins on a footstool. I counted them to make sure we had removed them all. It would never do for the new queen to get a stick from a pin on a day like this.

Servants should never be seen. We save the noble from triumph that slides too quickly to tribulation, as is nature’s course. Would the new queen blame us if a pinpoint tapped her skin? The old queen never held us to our faults. Her disdain was thrilling. They say the divorce will kill her.

Myself I am to be married days from now. For one afternoon I will be the princess of the day. They say I will have have 5 children because my mother did. Will I please the people of my husband’s family when I am their princess? Through alertness, I have learned to count. They say I will never learn to read because my husband does not.

At my wedding, something will be said of God. Guests will ask me for a story of Anne Boleyn.

A flock of ladies let go at the door and suddenly the new queen stood before us. She was a spire of beauty. She wore silk underthings and a crown and the bump at her belly strained against the fabric. Her eyes darted about as we stood on stools above her. She raised her arms high in the air.

“Be careful of the crown,” she said. She twitched her hips to get the dress past the bump at her waist. We fastened her in.

We trailed the ladies into a room where men jumped up to standing and bowed. Others withdrew into the drapes. The ermine cloak shot with gold was caught about the new queen’s throat, the starpoint broach affixed but her eyes went wild. She pulled off the clip and threw it to the tiles, letting the cloak pool about her new queen slippers like melting snow. The new queen screamed for water. She coughed again and again into velvet. People ran toward her. She took a cup from me. (As she drank, her fingers tapped a book on a table.) She said, in french I suppose, the word “fatigue”.

My mother was called on when the new queen could not sit in comfort on the coach seat. Footman pushed and pulled us up. We could not curtsey to the king because there was no room on the floor. Our elbows settled in each other’s knees as we groped for the new queen’s waist to pull out stitches and sew new ones. The king pinched the new queen.

The new queen leaned out and looked behind her. She leaned out and looked ahead of her. She gave off the clear-eyed look of an adventurous woman who has lost everything yet hopes that what she has lost can be found ahead. I sighed for the human race.

“I am finally grand,” she said to me. “Stay with me. I may need you because I swell by the moment. Put your head on the floor.” My mother handed me a needle then stepped down to the ground.

The coach pulled out into a shoutless crowd.


Maid of Revenge

By Alisha White

The witch from Kent sits on St. Edward’s Chair under a canopy of gold cloth. She holds a scepter in one hand and a golden rod in the other, a double strand of pearls about her neck. A few yards away I stand in the congregation with nine other Maids of Honor trying not to faint under the weight of heavy Baltic fur. The English nobility, the French Ambassadors, and the Heads of State fill the gallery of St. Peter’s chapel in a sea of red, purple, and gold. It is sweltering in here and my legs are beginning to cramp.
I gaze up at the High Alter where the Archbishop of Canterbury is placing a bejeweled crown on the head of Anne Boleyn. Her eyes are sharp, catlike, tilted on either side of her nose. My attention is immediately drawn to her hair. Thick, long, black, it slithers down her spine with the sheen of a water serpent fresh from the Thames. She is heavy in the middle for she is six months gone with child. And she best pray the child is a prince.
While the mass is being sung I close my eyes and let my mind drift back to the previous spring at Richmond Palace. It was a warm morning, much like today, and I was sitting with Queen Catherine in her state apartments busy with needlepoint when King Henry barged in unannounced. His large face was red and sweaty from the morning hunt. He was matter of fact, sparing Catherine’s feelings none, as he said, “I’ve come to tell you the divorce is final. I am to marry Anne Boleyn.”
The prideful daughter of Isabella of Castile was reduced to a blubbering heap of black velvet right then and there. She clung to the king’s broad waist with her frail arms pleading with him. I remember the scene vividly.
“My King!” she wailed from the floor. “I beseech you! Do not give up on our marriage. There is still hope. I can give you a son. I can give England an heir. I will forgive you this folly like I have the others before and we shall be happy again, my love, you will see.”
“My decision is final. I will wed Mistress Anne and you will remove to Kimbolton Castle at once. Be gone from me.”
And that was that. Queen Catherine was queen no more.

I open my eyes and scan the vaulted ceiling of St. Peter’s chapel espying a circle of latticed screen from which a flicker of candle can be seen. I know King Henry is up there watching from a secret passage, happy and eager, while poor Catherine is withering away, far from court, in a country castle.
Poor, poor, Catherine.
I bring my eyes back to the High Alter where Lord Talbot announces the removal of the queen to Westminster Hall where a feast has been laid in her honor. A warm June breeze floats through the corridor and briefly, ever so briefly, the scent of honeysuckle sweeps in from the garden.
Falling in step with the other Maids of Honor I throw a cursed glance in the direction of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. He leads the queen into the hall on a parade of victory with us maids following behind. I do not partake in their celebratory nature. Together they are responsible for the bereavement of my beloved Catherine. They have brainwashed the king and convinced him not only to divorce Catherine but to declare the Princess Mary a bastard. I curse them both with the flees of a thousand wild boar.
I come to stand along a back wall and the Lady Howard draws up beside me. She holds her stubby nose high and wears a sarcastic smile on her lips. She too is a Maid of Honor, but we are not friends. Lady Howard is loyal to the Boleyns and I am loyal to Catherine of Aragon. It is likely we will be enemies.
“Mistress Margery,” a male’s voice interrupts the awkwardness.
I turn to see the handsome Duke of Suffolk holding out his arm.
“Would you allow me to escort you to your seat? The queen has requested you dine at her table.”
Ah, I think to myself with a smile. Let the games begin.

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Labor Pains

In my writing space

I’ve never actually given birth (my daughter is adopted) but from what I’ve heard and read, there are some similarities to writing a book—which I have done.  Of course, there are many huge differences. Discounting cramped hands and a neck and shoulders locked in “flight or fight” position despite ergonomic equipment and regular massages, giving birth to a book doesn’t usually bring much in the way of physical pain.  And true, your book, once delivered, doesn’t require regular diaper changes, and won’t eventually cast withering glances at you when you do something uncool. But just like a child,    your book only truly belongs to you so long as it is not yet in the world.  Once it has left your body, after a long process of struggle and labor during which you have alternatively cursed and cried and, perhaps, required some numbing anesthesia (pimento cheese and “Dance Moms” worked best for me), your literary baby is no longer yours to dream about.  What will she look like?  What will her future be?  Will others embrace her warmly or handle her roughly?  Will others love her the way that I do?  The time for fantasy is over.  Like a real baby, your literary child has become a separate being and will have a life of its own—a life that you cannot bend to your will, no matter how hard you try.

Of course, the timetables for gestation and early infant development are hugely different. The Creation of Anne Boleyn took six years for the DNA to become fully formed flesh, and the birth itself is taking over a year.  Of course, this is because I’m doing it the old-fashioned way—with a press rather than a home-birth and straight to an e-book—and like other methods of birthing, may eventually become obsolete.  I hope not—for reasons that I’ll save for an editorial some day.  But the old-fashioned way certainly requires patience!!  You may be told, mid-way through the pregnancy, that you need more exercise (my original editor, an inspired midwife, packed me off to England to do interviews.) You may think you are about to give birth several times, only to be sent back home and told it was a false labor.  During the last stages, you are cranky and temperamental, you eat too much, you cry easily, you get into fights with your loved ones.  And finally, when the baby emerges—at first only seen by those close to you–she is still a mess, covered with your blood and requiring a good clean up before she can go out in public.

And then, even though she is all tidy, you have to wait a long time before you can present her to the world.  And there’s still so much work to do!!! Permissions to obtain, author questionnaires to fill out, proposed outfits (covers) to decide among, and birth announcements (blurbs) to be arranged (a process during which you try not to think about how many such requests you have turned down yourself).  And then there will be copy-editing (largely a matter of making sure the child learns to speak in grammatical sentences) which can be tedious and contentious if you are attached to your own odd ways of putting things.  Page proofs!! Public Relations!  What to do when the rights to the illustration you really, really want can’t be obtained!  Decisions about this, decisions about that.  And most difficult: continuing about your business while you wait…. and wait…. and wait.

It’s the waiting—where I am at now, with a March 2013 pub date–that’s the killer.  As when you are expecting a baby (or awaiting an adoption, as I was when Cassie was born), it’s hard to think about anything else, or DO anything else.  This stupendous event is on the horizon, and they expect you to continue to go to work? To have normal social interchange (i.e. not about your baby/book) with friends?  To brush your teeth, take a shower, get dressed occasionally? And worst of all, to WRITE ANYTHING ELSE? I don’t wanna!!! I can’t!!!! I won’t!!! And so, the articles that I am committed to write stare at me accusingly, glowering in their pre-conception state: “So you think now that this baby is coming, we can just be ignored?”

My daughter, Cassie

I’m struggling to concentrate on anything except my two babies: the book one and the human one (now thirteen) to whom I remain faithful.  She will always be more important.  As for my husband, he’s fine with my state of distraction; the Tour de France is on the television.

And, as with many pregnancies, although just a few months ago I couldn’t imagine ever going through this again, the idea for my next book is already beginning to gestate.  She’s just a little bubble of thought at this point, a “hmmmm…” more than a plan.  Even so, it startles me to think that I actually am imagining bringing another book into being.

Socrates/Plato believed that some of us get pregnant in body, and others in mind.  The ancient duality is false, of course, for pregnancy is not mindless and many women manage, quite successfully, to birth both kinds of babies.  I once mourned the fact that I was not able to be one of them.  Not anymore.  I have my wonderful Cassie, and a new book baby soon to jump out of my arms and into the world.  May the world treat both of them warmly!!


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Writing Journal, #5 – Apollo and Dionysus: Gods of Writing

An ancient image of Apollo

I’ve been in absentia for a while…. at first because I was finishing the book (got it done the day before Thanksgiving!), then because I was in recovery, then catch-up with other stuff.  But also, writing for me is like making a fire.  It can be very hard to start up, and may have to smolder awhile before it catches.  Then, when it does, the blaze is fierce, consuming everything standing in its way.   As it dies out, sparks remain that still can be ignited.  (I was tinkering for days even after I’d sent the manuscript off.)  But now that it’s been dormant for a couple of weeks, the fireplace is stone, cold dead.  I even have trouble writing emails!  It’s another reminder for me of how much the writing process, even when you are extremely disciplined, is organic:  although we can harness it, train it, contain it, we can’t really bend it to our will.  And that’s the way it should be!

In my graduate writing seminar, I introduce the notion that two “gods” govern writing:  Apollo and Dionysus.  (You can make them female if you like!) Apollo is the critic, the editor, the pruner, shaper, bringer of order to the chaos.  He clarifies, sculpts, is ruthless in getting rid of the extraneous, the unbeautiful, the ponderous.  It’s essential for the writer to make friends with him, to learn that nine-tenths (probably a conservative estimate) of writing is actually re-writing.  Unfortunately, too often we grow up experiencing him as the cruel “red pencil,” cold and unforgiving, who cuts at the heart, deflates the spirit, and robs us of our confidence in what we think and say. To escape his wrath, we cover our ideas with pretentious prose and verbal fog, learn to play by the “rules”—or just stop writing altogether.  It breaks my heart—truly, I’m not indulging in sentimental exaggeration here—to see how many of my students have been depressed and deadened by the would-be gods of “rigor” and “professionalism.”  We spend weeks in my writing course bumping those tyrants off their thrones.

Dionysus, the god of intoxication, is that unruly source of inspiration, creativity, desire, love, hunger that makes us want to write something in the first place.  And after too many years being caged (by school, by lack of confidence, by self-doubt) we have to learn to release him, have to get in touch with what we really want to write about, what we love, what we fear, what we dream. For those of us who went through graduate school, this can be much harder than making friends with Apollo! (Actually, a lot of academic writing, while it looks like Apollo, in fact needs a good editor desperately.)  But Dionysus can get out of hand, too—when we fall in love with, get drunk on our first ideas, our first drafts, or indulge in narcissistic self-disclosure (the most popular form of writing today, it seems), or are unable to hear criticism.   So we spend a lot of time in my course learning to give and receive each other’s responses honestly but warmly.  In this, I’m helped by two other metaphors: the sweetheart and the editor (I think these come from Natalie Goldberg).  The sweetheart—who always speaks first! –looks for what is lovable, the editor looks for what could benefit from the clear (not cold, but clear) eye of Apollo.  We never offer critique that doesn’t have both of these elements.

Experiences of your own to share?


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Writing Journal, #4, The Jig is Up

I had just had a huge fight with my daughter, which ended in my physically wresting her iPad away (not easy; she is very, very strong), when I received a one line message from my editor: “You’d better get that book in if you want it on the fall list.” The jig is up.  Major panic. Heart thumping.  All my previous reflections on writing process seem like a farce at this moment. The ony reality right now: I had an October first deadline, and I can’t possibly make it. To make matters worse, my husband is going off to Paris on a research trip for five days starting thursday.  Can I write two chapters in two days?  No way. Although I know exactly what I want to say in them and all my research is done, I’ve never been that kind of writer. I have to pause and catch my breath at (ir)regular intervals.  I call my agent, and find myself in tears on the phone with him.  It’s embarrassing; at the beginning of the evening I was the mom, and now I have become the twelve-year-old who doesn’t have her assignment done. He is very understanding (he has three kids) and will call the press today and find out exactly how much lee-way I have.  But one way or another, I’m going to have to dedicate myself to this book with single-mindedness over the next few weeks.  So: I will now take out the garbage, make a second cup of half-caf, and disappear from the regular world.  I will keep you posted (in a minimalist way).  Wish me luck.  As one of our members, Cris Gomes says, “May Anne be with me”!

PS, After sending this to Natalie earlier in the day, my agent talked to the press today, and I have until the end of October if I want to get it published on schedule.  I’m pretty certain I can do this, so long as I stay focused and don’t get too unmeshed in my daughter’s adolescent angst.


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