Today’s story brews up some potent emotions.
Twilight Sparkle Makes A Cup Of Tea
[Sad] [Slice of Life] • 1,671 words
Sometimes, a cup of tea is just a cup of tea. This is not one of those times.
FROM THE CURATORS: “Yeah, it’s another one of those fics,” Present Perfect said when he nominated the story. “A ‘Pony Does X’ that has no need for a more thought-provoking title, and a story where tea is just the be-all and end-all of everything.” Appearances, of course, can be deceiving — and beneath the surface clichés lies a story that’s “quietly poignant, and dense in a way that’s a joy to unfold,” as Horizon put it.
A large part of what makes it exemplary is the measured way the story dribbles out. “It traipses along spilling its secrets without putting them together for the reader, and it left me feeling like I’d been tapped by the unknowable finger of God,” Present Perfect said, and Horizon added: “This is one of the finest pieces of indirect storytelling you’ll ever read. Ghost has written a story that’s a pony-shaped hole.” Chris, meanwhile, complimented the story’s balance between brevity and depth: “I believe that there’s no best length for stories, but that every specific story has a best length, and Ghost of Heraclitus found it here.”
Cup of Tea‘s other core strength is an authentic look at a pony out of her depth. “This felt more like a scientific experiment than a hallowed tradition, but that’s because Twilight is approaching her daily ritual as a scientific experiment, one in which science can provide no answer,” JohnPerry said. “She’s grasping at something — the nostalgia of her youth and the memories of her mentor — and she wants to recapture it. And being Twilight, she attempts to do so the only way she knows how.”
While Twilight might be blindly flailing for answers, the clues are all there for us. “There’s something to be said for the ending,” Present Perfect said. “It peters out like the last few drops poured from a teapot, as if to say, ‘You’ve got all the pieces, you figure them out.'”
Read on for our author interview, in which GhostOfHeraclitus discusses Twilight as confessor, the cut of genoas, and reading irresponsibly.
Give us the standard biography.
I was born in 1986 in an undisclosed Balkan country—I’m a private sort, which is why I keep things like my ethnicity under wraps. English is not my native language (which is probably fairly easy to spot) and I picked it up through use. Television and computers, at first, but mostly through books. Most of my preferred literature—I am a massive science fiction fan, which shouldn’t really surprise anyone—wasn’t translated into my native language and so I had to read it in the original. In time I got to like English as a language quite a bit.
Well. Not the spelling system. And I’m being charitable with the word ‘system’ here.
I’m a computer scientist by trade and work as a researcher and teacher at a university. The unhealthy hours that job demands are the chief reason I haven’t written more stories. I got into the fandom by way of TvTropes, mostly, though the initial trigger for knuckling down and watching the first episode was actually a My Little Skyrim video I saw. I got into fanfic by following a few links from the TvTropes recommendation page thinking, I remember quite distinctly, something along the lines of, “Well, it’s only My Little Pony fanfiction. How good can it possib—Oh. Oh.”
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
It’s actually sort of funny. You see, when I get into online communities I tend to be very quiet and I hardly post anything at all. Hence the ‘ghost’ part. I don’t join online communities so much as I haunt them. And when I did haunt a place, I tended to be a bit of a grump, generally speaking. I’d only chime in if I saw something that annoyed me to such an extent that I had to complain, which I did generally by way of gnomic little jabs and barbs, much like Heraclitus (of Ephesus), a noted Presocratic philosopher and world-class grump. Thus I expected that I’d mostly lurk around on FimFiction, chiming in only very rarely in order to carp about something and I named myself accordingly.
Of course my actual behavior was pretty much nothing like I expected and so now the name doesn’t really fit, but it stuck anyway as names tend to.
Mind, that’s not the only reason I picked Heraclitus. I also happen to be a bit of a fan of the old grumpy bastard. Part of it is that it’s oddly amusing to read him badmouth… ah… just about everyone in Ancient Greece, actually. And part of it is that he occasionally said amazingly fascinating things. The one that holds particular significance for me is a fragment usually designated B40, the first part of which is πολυμαθίη νόον οὐ διδάσκει, or rougly translated “The learning of many things does not teach understanding.” As someone who shovels new information into his head rather indiscriminately, I find that I often need to remind myself of that quote, lest the Universe do that for me with the cosmic equivalent of a two-by-four.
Who’s your favorite pony?
Rather predictably, Twilight Sparkle. Being a nerdy bookworm myself—shocking, I know—it’s hard not to empathize with her. But aside from that, there is something in Twilight’s character that I find fascinating. In a very real way, it is a story of a fundamentally broken person rising up. Twilight has damage, and while it is played for laughs more often than not, neither the show nor the fandom leave any doubt that there is a fundamental pain at the root of her isolation at the beginning of the show and her neurosis about her studies.
Now, this is, of course, overanalyzing a children’s show well past the point of madness, but that’s rather what we do around here isn’t it? :)
What’s your favorite episode?
“It’s About Time.” I love time-travel yarns, and this one also manages to be funny, and feature some nice bits of world-building, too. I also quite like “The Crystal Empire”—it feels like an astonishing amount of things happen during what’s basically 40 minutes of television.
What do you get from the show?
Hm. The answer to that question has changed quite a bit as time went on. Originally, I got a funny show delivered with a sort of positive, cheerful, philanthropic (philippic?) attitude you could see hardly anywhere else. The show managed to show good people being good and make it compelling and not saccharine and boring. That alone made it worth the price of admission.
Today, however, the answer is different. I mean I still like the show, don’t get me wrong, but the real benefit from my point of view now is that it affords me access to my very favorite fandom ever. As much as I like ponies, it’s the people I met on FimFiction that keep me firmly in the fandom.
Huh. Whaddaya know. Friendship is magic! :)
What do you want from life?
Oh, wow, that’s a big question isn’t it? I’m not sure I’ve entirely figured it out. I’m not sure I ever will. I mean, yes, I could say I want happiness, love, success, understanding, world peace, and a chance to make the world into a better place and that would be truth but, honestly, is there anyone for whom it wouldn’t be the truth? I’m not saying much about myself if I say I want to be happy. People generally do.
I could also say I want to write and have my writing appreciated but… even then I’m not really saying much, since the only reason I’m being asked the question in the first place is because I’m a writer (of sorts).
Let me focus, instead, on things I want from life that I expect are (while not unique) at least characteristic of me as opposed to humanity at large: I want to always feel that I am helping. That things I do serve to make the lives of others better in some way. Even if it is through empathy for a fictional sad unicorn.
Why do you write?
Because I have to? Really, it’s mostly because I feel driven to. I’ve been making up stories all my life, and trying to write them down ever since I could hold a pen. Not with any great success, mind, but still. I’ve always been fascinated with words and I’ve not yet exhausted the wonder that they exist and can be put into order to such glorious effect.
Up until now, I generally destroyed everything I wrote quite thoroughly (it was for the best, really) but with the MLP fandom I was, for the first time, encouraged to write by people who read my comments and liked the cut of my jib (joke’s on them—I actually have a genoa). This gave me the courage to actually show people what I wrote for the first time. It was then that I discovered the joys of having editors and, acting as the mature, sensible adult that I was, promptly decided I would never write a single word again.
I eventually got over myself and what helped me do so is that I found that I really liked people responding to what I wrote. I mean, yes, I’m always overjoyed when people like my writing and always glad if it puts a smile on someone’s face (that might be my favorite thing of all) but it goes deeper than that. I find I really like someone thinking about something I wrote, interpreting it, analyzing it, and, yes, even criticizing it.
I mean it stings but it is an interesting sort of sting.
This craving for people’s reactions is a big motivator for me. I like when my story gets in the featured box, of course, and I love that it can make people happy, but what I secretly crave most of all are comments that show someone really thought about my words and saw things there that, perhaps, I never put there on purpose. Luckily I’ve not only had a wealth of such comments (my commentariat is really quite magnificent) but a few people actually took some of my characters and used them (to a lesser or greater extent) in their own stories.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
That rather depends on the author, doesn’t it? A few general ones: Get a good pre-reader if you possibly can. Read widely, wildly, and irresponsibly, and as much as you can outside your own genre and/or comfort zone. Make a project of finding deliberately weird and out-of-the-way things to read. Do not neglect nonfiction—it helps quite a bit, especially with worldbuilding. You don’t have to write stories in the same order you read them—feel free to skip to the bits you really want to read if you are feeling stuck. You may be less stuck later.
If you fret about sucking all the time, give yourself permission to suck, and write. Editing can fix a lot of problems. In fact, just about the only problem you can’t fix in editing is not having anything to edit in the first place. If people tell you they don’t like what you wrote, don’t go off and sulk (I’m terrible at taking my own advice) instead, nail down why. If you just ignore them, buoyed by your own brilliance, you might as well as not have bothered asking, and if you take to heart everything everyone says you’ll never write another word again. Find people you trust (see above about finding pre-readers) and listen to them above all.
What was the inspiration for Twilight Sparkle Makes a Cup of Tea?
Um. I’m going to apologize ahead of time because I’m going to sound a bit… annoying when I talk about this story. Y’see, normally, I hem and haw about my stories, toying with ideas, abandoning them, experimenting and so on. And, normally, the process of writing is even worse, full of setbacks, writer’s blocks, and petty despairs. But this story I wrote with hardly any effort at all. I just woke up one morning and had an exact idea of what I wanted to write, some days later when I had the time, I sat down in front of my computer and just wrote it. And what you’ve read is pretty much exactly what I wrote down that first time. There was an editing pass, but hardly anything got changed. I’m not claiming any talent here (for I have none) it just… happened that way.
Anyway. What inspired me was an image. Twilight Sparkle in a cold kitchen bathed in dim pre-dawn light, sleep still clinging to her eyes, listening to the murmur of a kettle as it just begins to boil and taking some measure of comfort in the sound. It’s this image that brought about nearly the whole story. I knew exactly how it would go except the very end. When I wrote it I got to the very end and just then realized that Twilight doesn’t really like jasmine tea and that she doesn’t really make it in order to drink it, so I had her pour it all away.
Now, the way I got the story from an image is actually simple. At the time I was thinking about two things: How Twilight (who clearly cares for Celestia very much) coped with just up and leaving her for Ponyville. I was reminded of the Ticket Master episode and the Gala episode in Season 1 where the one thing Twilight wanted more than anything was to just spend time with Celestia. It’s not just hero worship (there’s a bit of it, yes). It’s deeper than that. And so I wondered if Twilight might not be privately sad about it, and how she might express it.
The second thing is a bit metafictional. I noticed at the time that there was an astounding number of sadfics in the featured box. And these sadfics generally started with something unspeakably horrible happening to a character. There’s death, maiming, disease, despair—a whole grotesquerie of hideous fates for beloved pony characters. And, thus, I began to wonder about a sad story that has absolutely nothing sad happening in it at all. I wanted to write something about the sort of day-to-day sadness all people experience. A sadness that’s commonplace, but no less interesting.
The form of the story (which is quite unlike anything else I ever wrote) was actually a self-imposed challenge. When I sat down to write it, I decided to eschew all the stuff I usually do, and so it has no jokes, no footnotes, and no dialogue.
There’s a lot to unpack in this story… I guess I’ll start with: Why tea?
I really like tea.
Okay, the reason is a bit more complex. A part of it was the image I already mentioned—that had boiling water in it to begin with. Secondly, I knew from the start I wanted Twilight to reflect on the absence of Celestia using a shared ritual as a proxy. And fanon always held Celestia loved her tea—so much so that Skywriter could write an excellent story subverting that notion. So making the leap to a shared cup of tea was really quite obvious.
The reason it’s jasmine tea, is because I happen to really like it. Especially when I wake up. There’s really no special reason beyond that.
Of course, as the description says, the point isn’t the tea but what it means. Or rather, what Twilight and Celestia saw in that shared ritual. Twilight—especially the Twilight in this story who is based on the Season 1 version—has self-esteem issues and so she saw this morning tea as a gift. More than a gift, really. A persistent, recurring miracle, an injection of wonder and mystery that she did not truly deserve. As can be glimpsed in the story, Twilight has already tormented herself by imagining that her absence hasn’t been noticed at all, or that she was only ever a poor replacement for somepony else.
I never wrote what Celestia’s point of view was, but I did imagine it. She didn’t see it as something she did for Twilight at all. Quite the opposite. In her mind, it was something Twilight did for her. In those not-quite-night not-quite-night moments, Celestia saw Twilight as her confessor most of all. In the version of their relationship I developed for the story Celestia sees Twilight as someone pure. Someone whose great power and knowledge did not come at a terrible price. And so sharing bits of her past—the good parts—with her protégé is a subconscious attempt to give her something Celestia can’t have: magic, power, wisdom, and wonders but with a clean conscience and peaceful dreams. And whenever she would share her past and tell her stories she’d always fret, at least a little bit, that she has somehow gone too far. Said too much.
 In my stories, the backstory has a backstory all of its own. It’s a personal obsession.
Did you run into any challenges while writing this story?
Honestly, not really. Normally I do, but this story was quite the exception. The one challenge that I did come across was when I tried to shorten the story during my editing pass. I spent a lot of effort trimming and cutting and so on, and when I was done I discovered—to my dismay—that I had lengthened the story by about eleven words.
I quickly left off any future efforts to shorten the story, lest I make it a multi-chapter one.
What would you want your readers to take away from this story?
Aside from empathy for a fictional sad unicorn? I guess an appreciation for everyday, non-melodramatic sorrows in themselves and others.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Only that I wish to thank my friends and pre-readers without whom none of my stories would exist.
Oh, and people should drink more tea. :)