On my very worst writing days, I can still hear John, a member of a long defunct critique group, chastising me. “Where’s the emotion?”
“What, no emotional reaction?”
“Emotion! He has to have an emotional reaction.”
This was during the heady days when I still believed I was a great writer. Our critique group had gathered in the cafe of the late, lamented Borders Books and Music in East Brunswick, New Jersey — the bookstore where, in 1993, I met the woman who would become my wife.
Any writer knows how brutal a critique session can be. One by one, the other group members slowly, methodically, murder your “baby” with an unfeeling brutality akin to the torture scene from Reservoir Dogs, when Michael Madsen cuts off an unfortunate police officer’s ear. I can hear “Stuck in the Middle” as they point out all of those weaknesses in my plot, or the illogical actions and reactions of my beloved protagonist. “Where is the emotion?” John asks, until I wish I could go back in time and murder him in his crib.
The thing is, John was right, as he invariably is (not to mention generous, kind, and exceedingly skilled in the use of the English language.) Without his input, I would likely have sold less than half the amount of stories that I had published during the 90s (30, but who’s counting?).
I recently looked at some of those old stories, and suddenly, all of those flat emotional non-responses glared back at me, so very obvious. Over the following days, I turned those weaknesses over in my mind. I found it disturbing that my characters — my protagonists!— lacked any significant emotional responses, often to horrific events. Gradually, the truth emerged.
I was mortally afraid of my own emotions.
During the era of those critique sessions, it was still only a handful of years ago that I had attempted, twice during the same year, to end my own life. A sadness and anger that ran deep beneath the waters of my consciousness had led me to those two fateful decisions. Was it any wonder, then, that my characters avoided feeling…well, anything really. For years, I thought of it as equanimity, but there is a vast chasm that lies between evenness of temper, and outright numbness.
One thing stood out for me in Tom Savini’s 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, though in a different context than that intended in the film. Barbara (played by actress Patricia Tallman) stands over a funereal pyre, her face gilded by reflected flames, and watches the zombies burn. She utters the cryptic line, “They’re us. We’re them and they’re us.”
That is the crux of the matter: we are our characters, and they, in turn, are us. If you’re a writer whose characters remain obstinatelytwo-dimensional, take some time to examine your own feelings. If the view of your own past makes you flinch, talk to somebody about it. There may well be more at stake than the verisimilitude of your characters.
My short story, “The Night Kingdom” (some of you may recognize that title, there is no connection between the two projects) is included, right before that of the exceptionally gifted John Langan. Does talent transfer through proximity? We can certainly hope!
The entire cast has provided stellar performances. Editor Michael Kelly is certainly to be congratulated. You can also purchase a copy on Amazon(available October 6th). Try it on. If it fits, if it makes you feel comely, then subscribe!
Our Exquisitely Gifted Cast includes fiction, commentary, reviews, and art:
David Bowman, Shikhar Dixit, Steve Duffy, Inna Effress, Tom Goldstein, Orrin Grey, John Langan, Suzan Palumbo, Ian Rogers, Naben Ruthnum, Lysette Stevenson, Simon Strantzas, Steve Toase. Please do check it out!
It’s got to have been 10 days since I last did any writing. The issue is pain.
Since about ‘17, the pain (see AGONY) has been steadily increasing in my hips, and two points on my lumbar spine (and my left ear—but that is another story) such that I cannot sit at my desk, lean into my work, without triggering a landslide of torment. Early-onset osteoarthritis.
I rely on my writing as treatment for my bipolar disorder (same with drawing) so 10 days without writing is destabilizing for me, rendering me, at first, as irritable (ask Sherry), then proceeding towards sadness, yielding to feelings of insecurity, outright anger, and finally to moderate-to-severe depression.
I am writing this on my iPhone, btw…
There are few real solutions: surgery, surgery, and surgery. As diabetic, I’m especially susceptible to coronavirus (haven’t left the homestead in a few weeks) and other infections.
I’ve heard many writers, great and small, say that they often (always?) feel that there is not enough time. Joyce Carol Oates, whose body of work could fill an old-fashioned phone booth, has stated that.
I’m a long way from done-for, and if I have to finish my novel on my IPhone, I will. But that presents its own problems….
I am not the only writer in my family. We Dixits are a rather literary and artistic bunch. My cousin Pooja had the following article published in Salute. Pooja has been a journalist for several decades and worked as staff writer, (and at times as editor) at Times of India (India’s equivalent of The New York Times.
Pooja’s daughter, Ananya, at the age of 17, has had an article tackling equally weighty issues in feminism on Livewire (sister publication to The Wire.)
The Story Behind the Most Difficult Story I’ve EverHad to Write
In late 2003, I started a short story tentatively titled “The Clacker.” I had the bare bones of a religious concept, itself based on my bare bones knowledge about the Cathars, a branch of Christianity wiped out by the Roman Catholic Church. (If this behavior by the RCC comes as a surprise, you probably shouldn’t be reading horror fiction, or science fiction, or fantasy or…look, just pick up some history books from your local library. Concentrate on books aimed at young adults.) Of course, I had internet access, just like the vast majority of Americans. Usually, research plus imagination crystallizes into some kind of story! It isn’t necessarily a good story, but at least it has a middle and an ending, to keep the beginning company. After several hours in which I wrote, and rewrote (moved around some words) the same two or three paragraphs, I surrendered.
But this wasn’t exactly a surprise.
You see, my creativity had been slowly leaching away, like a vital nutrient washed out of the soil by heavy rains. Creativity is, perhaps, the most vital nutrient required in order for writers and illustrators to grow their respective works of art. I was both, so the losses were doubled.
Fast forward to 2013, when a fortuitous change in my medication started growing that essential creativity once more, and without warning. I found myself suddenly deluged, not by rain, but by The Nutrient. Potent stuff that the desire to create is, I was overwhelmed by ideas. Stories I wanted to write and drawings I wanted to do wouldn’t just materialize; I had to grow them. I had a LOT of work ahead of me. I did a bunch of drawings, mostly of women and elder gods, and stuttered through the beginnings of half-a-dozen stories that were essentially going nowhere. I was all over the place, writing horror, science fiction, dark fantasy…but just their opening paragraphs. Drawing came naturally to me. I’d been a visual artist first, having picked up crayons at approximately the age of five. I didn’t write my first story until high school—during senior year, no less. Writing required more focus.
I don’t remember how I got the idea to go looking through my old fiction folders, but it was the trigger, or the key, or even the electron microscope (focus, get it?)—choose your metaphor. I opened many old files, which my latest version of Microsoft Word needed to translate into the new century, second decade. I found myself aghast at such amateur writing, and absurd, old tropes from the 1990s. The only ones that held any promise were the seeds of classical material: ghosts, apocalypses, cosmic horror, Lovecraftiana (no, probably not a real word), etc. You get the picture.
Ultimately, I settled on two stories: the apocalyptic “Sacred Glyphs” and one of those Lovecraftian pieces, entitled “The Clackers.” First thing I did was rename it “The Bible Black,” a title I stole from Ronnie James Dio’s final project, Heaven and Hell. The fact that he died before the album’s release just gave this song a creepy pathos that no musician could, or would, be able to pay for. If you want to hear the song that would ultimately inspire “The God Whom No One Worships,” tap here.
To deflate this bloated blog post, I will hurry along, now. I asked both my wife, Sherry, and my good friend, author/artist Dean Italiano, to give it the metaphorical red-pen treatment. They both gave me a lot of good advice. I think it was around then that I renamed it “The God Whom No One Worships.” But as I read it over, again, I felt something was wrong. I was too close to it, though, had worked on it too recently, to be able to see it clearly.
So I hired Mary SanGiovanni’s MSEditing to help me improve that story, and it was worth every penny. When Michael Kelly was seeking a short work of pulp fiction, I sent, among other things, “The God Whom No One Worships.” He accepted, asking only that I retitle it “The Night Kingdom.”
So, “The Night Kingdom” (It just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? That’s why he wins the awards, folks.) will appear in the inaugural issue of Weird Horror #1, along with twelve other chilling tales, this October. I urge writers to pick it up in order to get an idea of what they’re looking for, and I urge everyone else to pick it up because it will undoubtedly be good spine-tingling fun.