They say you can’t go home again — but in today’s story, making that effort might be Daring Do’s most important adventure yet.
When The Levee Breaks
[Sad] • 6,581 words
Daring Do returns to the Riverlands, the home she left behind years ago. On the road to the farm where she was born, she wonders if you can ever truly escape the past. Sometimes, the river comes up, the levee breaks, and you have no place to stay. No amount of crying can stop its inevitable progress.
FROM THE CURATORS: Many Sad fics tug at the heartstrings, but there’s something special about this tale of a wandering archaeologist returning to her roots. “I literally broke down crying,” Horizon said. “It is rare literature that gets me that invested, but Levee’s sense of place, its rural despair and displacement, just sucked me right in.” We all agreed on its exemplary approach to that homecoming. “It’s a very emotional story,” JohnPerry said. “It’s full of regret and loss amid the core theme of ‘you can never go home,’ but it always feels right in its tone. Never overwrought or sappy, but with a distinct maturity that makes one feel that Cynewulf knows what he’s talking about.”
That power alone would have earned it a feature, but there was even more to appreciate here — such as the story’s tightly-woven presentation. “Everywhere in the story the themes layer on top of each other like fertile flood-plain soil,” Horizon said. “The ambiguity and pain of outgrowing your roots, and confronting it all at once like lancing a boil. How Daring’s childhood made her what she is, and the inexplicable difficulty of leaving that behind. The river that claims ponies, and the cycle of life it creates.”
The author’s “magnificent writing,” as Present Perfect put it, illuminated both the landscape and its characters. “One thing Cynewulf does consistently well is use the smallest hints — a raised hoof, a distant gaze, a wordless glance — to advance characterization,” Chris said. “I was surprised by how well I got to know Daring, and not just through the flashbacks.” JohnPerry agreed: “There’s a nice bit of worldbuilding, and the characterization of Daring in this one is very solid.” Horizon went even further: “This story is Cynewulf at his finest. It reads like something out of Steinbeck.”
Read on for our author interview, in which Cynewulf discusses philosophical waifus, roiling mental seas, and the Hedgehog’s Dilemma.
Give us the standard biography.
I’m an English major at the oldest college in the state of Mississippi, codenamed Fancy Schmancy Baptist School. Born in Louisiana, raised in Mississippi, I say Amarillo and yellow like Amarallah and Yell-ah and think Rarity is the best Scarlet O’Hara stand in. Also minoring in Philosophy. Kierkegaard is my waifu. My goals in life are to smoke pipes leisurely at least once with a certain professor of mine, to get a pledge in our fraternity I can give a pony-related pledge name to, and to touch Claudio Sanchez of Coheed and Cambria’s beautiful majestic hair.
I’ve been writing since I was a child. The first story I remember writing was a fanfiction based off of the X-Wing series of novels when I was mad that my first ever OTP, Asyr Sei’lar and Gavin Darklighter, were made a NOtp when Asyr faked her own death. Dude I was so mad about that. My frown broke records. It stretched on into the sunset and stuff. Miles of sads.
It’s hard describing yourself, you know? I’m kinda weird, but describing oneself as weird always invites scorn. It’s so overused, da? But I always kind of have been. I had a good childhood, interesting one too. My dad has been the music minister of the same church for two decades now, almost my whole life, and I spent much of my childhood wandering those vast halls, drinking the coffee with like a bajillion sugars, climbing in the catwalk over the vast sanctuary looking down at the red carpet below. I learned how to walk in the Bahamas while my parents were shepherding youth on a mission trip around Nassau, walked through south China as a child (and ate like fifty dumplings in one sitting), got to see Marathon and Sparta. I can’t really complain. Creation was formed Good.
tl;dr: Come to Mississippi and find the guy smoking a pipe in the corner on the porch of the coffee shop. I’ll talk a lot. A lot.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
Cynewulf was the name of a character I invented a long time ago. Werewolf guy. But he’s also sharing a name with the poet of “Crist” where Tolkien found the line “Hail Earendil brightest of stars” which was one of the things that lit a fire under his imagination and led to some of the best things I’ve ever read.
Who’s your favorite pony?
Rarity. RARITY is my favorite. A look at my gallery shows this pretty well. hehe. AJ comes in close second because of my Southern sympathies and RD because I can ship her with Rarity.
I kinda like all of them. I like characters. I write around characters. People/ponies are neat, you know?
But I like Rarity because I really value generosity. I like that she can be silly and overdramatic, but she can also be surprisingly mature.
What’s your favorite episode?
Oh goodness. Well, I’d reckon it’s… um… I’m gonna have to say that it’s the one where Daring was introduced, actually! Or maybe Sonic Rainboom. Winter Wrap Up used to be my favorite. I like lots of them!
I have always been partial to the first two parter. It was the first bit I watched, and from the beginning I was hooked. Everything I could ask for! Lore! Fantasy! I mean, Nightmare Moon and Celestia is straight up cutesy pony Paradise Lost. And on top of that, it was friggin’ adorable, refreshingly wholesome, and over all the quality was solid.
What do you get from the show?
I get a wholesome, colorful, entertaining, and mostly well written cartoon to watch and look forward to! I also get to be a part of community that had problems, yes, but which is for the most part a nice thing to be a part of, and a place to write and read. I’m very grateful for FiMFic and EQD and such as a way to grow as a writer in a low risk and fairly high-reward environment.
The community is alive. It changes. It’s changed from 2011, but it has not been all been bad or good. Some things are better. Some are worse. Mostly it’s just different. EQD is no longer fic Mecca — that’s the weirdest thing.
What do you want from life?
The Westminster Catechism sums up most of what I want out of life in a fairly succinct and rather beautiful way. Beyond that, on a far more superficial level, to write lots of books, have a pretty ginger wife, a big house in the Peloponnese/Gluckstadt, MS, and a few cats.
Why do you write?
I write because I feel like I have to, to be honest. I have way too many ideas and not enough time to do stuff with them. A phrase or a song or a picture will set me off. I “see” ideas long before I write them. My mind becomes this roiling sea until I exorcise the idea, one way or another. I am addicted to story. If I’m reading one, I’ll eventually get stircrazy and make my own.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
Same as most everyone else. Read. Write. Read. Most of the problems I see as a story approver could be completely solved if only the writer had… well… read a single book, like, ever. Find books you love and think about *why* you love it. What works? What doesn’t? Learn from the success and the failure of others, and write all the while. You become a better writer as you write. You are a craftsman. Act like it! Work at this like you would work at any other skill, with devotion, with all your heart, with any skill you can muster and with every little bit of attention you can spare. Make it important. If you don’t make it important, it won’t be, and you aren’t going to be better.
On the more idiosyncratic side of things: Character, character, character. It’s important, people. Write good characters and they will help you engender good stories. Plot should flow, I think, from who these characters are and what they are and what they do. You can write plot driven books with horrible cardboard-cutout characters, but unless you’re Michael Crichton, AKA amazing, it’s gonna be pretty terrible. People are important.
Also, for the love of god, read. Read a lot. For your father’s sake, sai FimFic.
What inspired When the Levee Breaks?
My grandmother, to an extent.
This is a bit maudlin… geeze. She was dying, you know? She lived in The Woodlands, off in Texas, which is quite a drive from my native central Mississippi. When I wrote the story, she was doing pretty badly. We all kind of wondered if the promised end was around the corner. I couldn’t help but look into the future and see… well, exactly what happened. A frail old woman, slowly being robbed of the dignity I remembered. And she was a Duchess, make no mistake. I dealt with what I feared would happen through a story. It’s something I’ve done quite a few times over the years.
Fittingly… I did most of the editing for the story’s EQD feature while she was in the hospital. When she was asleep, I sat in the little waiting room. I went back and forth a few times from school to Houston, waiting for the inevitable. I remember leaving out of the Jackson airport with Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying as the only book I’d brought with me randomly. I remember crying on the plane because it was just a bit too perfect, you know? I did what Daring did. I came too late. She died while I was away, and I found myself all too aware that I could have been a better grandson. That there was no more time.
The other thing that helped inspire this story was definitely where I live. Central Mississippi is not quite as agrarian as, say, the northern half of the state… or the place that the Riverlands is more or less based upon: the Mississippi Delta. Anyone who knows me knows that I have a rather overly large chip on my shoulder about my state. If I don’t love it, sometimes it feels like no one will, and I’ve always thought that a man without a city/home to love is impoverished spiritually. I had been wanting to write a story about my own home. I had been doing it little by little before and after this story. When I write about Ponyville, I’m writing about the small towns I’m used to, the better half of living in small communities.
But mostly… I was sitting there one day and I saw the Riverlands in my imagination and Daring Do slowly walking down the road and I wanted to know why. Besides, I really wanted to do some worldbuilding.
What was behind your choice to use Daring Do for this story?
Good question. I’m actually not sure how to answer. Partially because that was the original image that came to me fully fledged, and I tend to be as true to that original image when I write as I can bear to be. Partially because I had really wanted to write something with Daring at that point because she’s hella rad. Lastly, because she was a blank slate at the time. Where is she from? Who is her family? Why does she do what she does? We had nothing to go on at all when I wrote this. We have a liiitttlleee more now, but I think I could have still written it the same after seeing the real Daring Do in action.
The setting in this story is almost a character in and of itself. I was wondering if you could talk a little about the Riverlands.
You can go to the Riverlands, actually. It’s still just as hot, just as humid, and just as impoverished. The magical damage ain’t quite so bad anymore. All you have to do is go to Greenville, Mississippi and walk around.
The Mississippi Delta is the inspiration for the Riverlands. It’s a land defined by the great Mississippi, just like the Riverlands. Like the Riverlands, its people are peculiar set who don’t really leave their poverty-ridden agrarian home. Delta people don’t tend to leave the delta–that’s the stereotype, and I’ve found that its true in a way people don’t expect. Even when they leave, the Delta never quite leaves them. They talk about it, compare things to it. They live there even when they’ve come down to Jackson. The heat and humidity of the Riverlands is true in most of Mississippi, but the Delta is even worse because there is a lot more open land.
Rosedale, Alligator, and Greenclover are three towns mentioned in the first section, and two out of those three are actual towns. Greenclover was a new name for the real town of Greenville. Rosedale and Alligator are north of where I sit typing this, up in Bolivar county, quite near the river. Like it’s Delta inspiration, the Riverlands has jukejoints and tiny town squares. (Jukejoints are where the blues got started, by the way. In my mind, I see the ponies of the Riverland being known for their own music, much like the Delta was known for the blues).
What’s unique to the Riverlands is the intensity of it. The problems and characteristics of the Delta have been enhanced a dozenfold. I imagine that Discord probably did quite a bit in his reign over the realm, and with so much time on his hands… it just seems that not all of it would be fixable, you know? Because of the nature of the show, and it’s fairly bright vision of its setting, we don’t see deep magical scars in the land (and probably shouldn’t!) but I tend to write in a GrimLight vein, and so I took some inspiration from a setting whose name I forget in the game The Legend of Dragoon, an ancient battlefield that is still ruined from copious use of wild magic. So we have the riverlands, south of Ponyville, first marred by Discord’s whim and then later by the titanic struggle between mages of the Moon and Sun, a place that is livable but not stable, inviting but not welcoming, full of hard people and with never enough shade. I think it used to be a good place. Not unlike the Delta was, before Chimneyville.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention this story’s powerful themes. For you, what is the most important message of When the Levee Breaks?
Kierkegaard said once that life is lived forward, but only understood backwards. I think that people are nebulous, uncertain, opaque, and they live in an alarmingly irrational, beautiful, mysterious world. Ponies are no different! heh. But they are going to hurt each other. All the time. Every time. Whether they mean to or not. Have you ever heard of the Hedgehog’s Dilemma?
So we have that in common, and we all die. It’s not much to bind us all together, but it’s a start. Death is the great leveler, and the great teacher–one I wish we had not been given, but we were wayward. Sometimes we only realize how much we have missed, what great fields of possibility we have just skipped over like oblivious idiots right there at the end, when someone we love is dying on a bed in a cramped little hospital room. No matter how good the life was, to stand there and know that you missed far, far more chances to be kind than you took is unmitigated tragedy. I loved my grandmother, I was good to her and she was good to me, but I know that I was so wrapped up in my own comfort and my own desire that I failed a good old woman. If you have parents or grandparents living, you may know the same feeling. You may already know. You and I, we can’t stop them from dying. We can’t bring them back. We can’t step back through some mirror and be young again and do everything right with the knowledge we have of how it all turns out, in the end. But we can try while we have people. We can be kind. We can try to break through that layer of absolute terror we shroud our Selves in and look out at that irrational, mysterious world and the irrational, mysterious people in it that we love and try to understand.
You won’t. Understand, that is. But you can try–if this story has a message, it is that you should try. That you will regret more than anything not having tried. Man was not meant to live alone.
Another would be home. Another soapbox, yay. But Home as a concept is important to me. Where does the hero go when the adventure is over? You know why heroes are so often unhappy? I think a lot of it has to do with the fact they have no homes, no place to call their own. The happiest heroes have their own lives. But Superman? His home planet is gone. This new city isn’t his homeland. He isn’t a part of it as others are.
My absolute favorite fanfic writer (and one of my favorite authors ever of anything) Shortskirtsandexplosions, wrote a magnificent story called “The Rainbow Face Up” which I think does a much better job of saying everything I wanted to say. A person needs a home to go back to, hopefully a family, friends, the presence of other minds to love and be loved by, and the more we try to live alone the more we will regret when it all comes crashing down. To not act is to be alone. The human connections that make life worth living are excrutiatingly difficult to both create and maintain, but they are not impossible. It requires effort and intentionality. Daring didn’t even bother to visit, and now she’s empty. Maybe not forever, but certainly for now. Kierkegaard says to risk is to lose one’s footing temporarily. To not risk is to lose one’s self entirely.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Cardcaptor Sakura is pretty neat. Just finished it. You all should watch it. I’m a huge weeaboo. I bleed desu. But somewhat secretly! It’s the bane of my writing, especially now that I have Crunchyroll on my phone and can marathon like 80 episodes of anything nonstop all day every day. Girls Und Panzer was pretty rad too. Finished that like a week and a half ago I think.
If you liked this story, I highly recommend reading SSE’s “The Rainbow Face Up”. Or anything he’s ever touched with his beautiful weird fingers, period.
And because I can… I encourage you to come along for the ride! I’m 150K into a longform story called “The Night is Passing”. Dark adventure, romance, at least one drinking party, and far too many references to the Aeneid.
Thank you for the feature, and I wish you all the best. Godspeed.