The Struggle

Antique pen and inkwellWriting is a struggle. It is a struggle of fighting and letting go, of allowing yourself to fail and not failing. It is a struggle of faith, that what was lost may be found, and that what is known may be forgotten. It is the struggle of man against time, for things cannot be written forever, and yet the worlds we make are as eternal as the one we inhabit. It is a struggle of your soul, and another soul.

And when you find that you know your creations more intimately than your lover, your imaginings more completely then your child, and when you realize you don’t know the damndest thing about who you are, you will know you have made something worthwhile.

And all that you wrote without those struggles was nothing to write at all. Its purpose was only warmth, as the flame takes it from you.

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The Worst Thing About Christmas

Small Red Tree

Small Red Tree (Photo credit: Velvet Elevator (Pandy Farmer))

I didn’t think there could be a “worst” thing about this wonderful time of year. But leave it to the Spanish – the same folks that brought us the Inquisition – to once again tarnish the national religion. His name – the Caganer.

I found this tradition hard to believe, after discovering it here. I’ll let you read the link if you are brave enough to encounter a tradition that – if there is anything good and holy in the universe – will never spread to our county.

I feel sick now, and have the urge to wash my hands.

I Must Know

English: A view of Bethlehem Royal Hospital, L...

English: A view of Bethlem Royal Hospital, London, from Lambeth Road, published before 1896. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lately I’ve been reading about readers “preferences” when it comes to a particular genre. For example, mystery readers prefer the Victorian era, and horror readers prefer things to be set in modern times. I’m not sure if I agree… but my opinion in this doesn’t really matter.

I write horror, not because I am a dark, brooding person obsessed with death, but because that seems to be what comes out most of the time. I have to admit, though, so far I haven’t written anything in a present setting. My stories occur in the 1800’s. One novel involves pioneer settlers in a lonely mountain outpost, and the other regarding a man held in Bethlem Hospital in London.

So here’s my question – according to the “reliable sources” I’ve  encountered, no one will want to read these stories, because they’re most likely going to fall into the Horror category, and neither are set in a year 2000-something. Are they right?

Headless

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane. ...

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane. oil, 26 7/8 x 33 7/8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“On mounting a rising ground, which brought the figure of his fellow-traveller in relief against the sky, gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horror-struck on perceiving that he was headless!–but his horror was still more increased on observing that the head, which should have rested on his shoulders, was carried before him on the pommel of his saddle!”
                     – Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”
Happy Halloween…

Prophetic Animals

Version of the flag of Animalism, in Animal Fa...

Version of the flag of Animalism, in Animal Farm, by George Orwell. The flag of Animal Farm consists of a green field with a hoof and a horn. According to the book, the green represents the fields of England, while the hoof and horn represents the Republic of the Animals. This version is based on the hammer and sickle and the red flag of the Soviet Union, probable reference of the green flag. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We do well to remember there were those who came before us, and that there is nothing new under the sun. What is fiction today, has been reality in times past, and can be again.

“They had come to a time when no one dared speak his mind, when fierce, growling dogs roamed everywhere, and when you had to watch your comrades torn to pieces after confessing to shocking crimes.”
―     George Orwell, Animal Farm

The Dark Room

Opening of the cave of Debliške Livade in Koče...

Opening of the cave of Debliške Livade in Kočevski Rog (Slovenia) at the site of mass murder of Slovenian domobrans, Ustasha and Chetniks by Jugoslav partisans after WWII (May and June 1945). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I hope you didn’t look here to see a post about photography. I’m not sure if dark rooms even exist anymore. For developing film, anyway.

But they do exist.

Writers often hear the mantra: “Write your passion!” More often, it’s compressed into a more digestible idea: “Write what you know.”  Now let me ask you, how could any horror writer possibly adhere to that concept? I can think of no horror writers who are personally experts in mass murder, or becoming werewolves. And more than that, who could be passionate about psycho killers, and possessed children? Certainly not me.

And yet, my first frightening, and disturbing, novel is complete, and my second is well underway.

I sometimes feel like the accidental horror writer. In life, I’m a regular guy (well, almost). I like puppies, sit-coms, french fries and Disney movies. But when I sit down to write, I often find myself writing things that leave me unable to sleep.

I would suggest a different manta for writers. “Write what comes out.” Sure, there are several very successful authors that write what I would call “format novels.” Commercial fiction – Thriller, Horror, Sci-Fi, Romance – all of it adheres to certain themes and structure accepted in the genre. I love them all, but sometimes people think that to write it well, you have to follow a predictable plot outline. Some people have made that work, but the really good ones do more.

I think what is inside you is what will come out on the page, if you let it. That doesn’t mean that a romance writer has to be a virgin with a thorough knowledge of the Marquis de Sade, nor does it mean a horror writer has to be a serial killer. But there are things that come from somewhere deep inside, from a dark room, that give meaning to your words that is greater than the activities on the page, if you let them.

Horror for me seems to be a way to confront those things that are too terrible to confront in life – suffering, pain, death. I’ve known them all, up close and personal. If I told you how it really happened, you might not want to hear me. But when I re-read my stories, I see my experiences disguised in every character, in every conflict, and in every nightmare. And I sure didn’t plan on writing about those personal things, not ever. It just has a way of coming out, and sneaking on to the page.

Every story has the potential to be that way. But if a writer misinterprets “writing what you know” as “write what you know about,” nothing that matters will come out on the page. You have to write what you know, deep inside you, in places you don’t realize are there. You have to write who you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve seen, what you love, what you fear, and what it all means to you. And you have to do that while telling a story of child wizards, or dragons, or a zombie with a hatchet.

To write what you know, you really have to get out of the way and let your voice come out. Some people call it a muse, others call it instinct, and still others call it your subconscious mind. I don’t call it anything, except whatever is down there in that dark room. You just write for that “whatever it is,” and it will take care of the rest.

Part 9 – The End

English: Stephen Road - Beacon Road

English: Stephen Road – Beacon Road (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Berta knew it was because of the letter.

She’d gotten the call at her office no more than an hour after Franklin had left for school. She recognized the panic, and allowed it to rush through her like a wildfire. She couldn’t stop it if she’d wanted to.

It wasn’t unexpected. Franklin had been breaking down for a year now. But the letter… they hadn’t expected the letter.

The steering wheel was hot when she got in the car. It wasn’t even noon and the heat was blistering. She sat there for a long moment and wondered what she would ever do with her life now.

She remembered the night when Stephen had attacked him. She’d rushed to the hospital knowing that this had been her fault. She didn’t know why she’d done it, why she’d lied to Stephen. Was she that petty, that insecure that she feared her husband helping a young, lost girl?

Yes, she knew she was. But she had never wanted this.

Stephen had been hiding in his car when Franklin and Crystal got in. They hadn’t even noticed him until they’d left the parking lot. Franklin had heard a voice from the back seat: “Drive.”

They’d driven down to the river where they’d parked. Stephen had a hold of Crystal’s hair as they drove, the knife pressed into her throat. Stephen told Franklin to get out of the car.

Stephen locked the doors. Franklin watched as he pulled Crystal by the hair over her seat and into the back, with him. She pushed away, cowering with her knees up to her chest.

Stephen looked at Franklin through the glass.

He said he was going to rape her, and Franklin would have to watch. He was going to reclaim what was his.

They say that the memories of war remain real in the mind of the soldier. Those distant dreams become present nightmares. Often Franklin would wake up in the night and hide behind the door, like he was waiting for someone to burst through from the other side. Once she had found him in the bathtub, naked and dry, crying and pulling at his eyes. But those were all just little steps on the way to madness.

Stephen tore at her clothes and pushed himself between his legs. Franklin was frozen, but just for a moment. And then the war came back to him. Not the bullets or the fear, only the rage. He smashed the window with his fists and grabbed Stephen. One hand in his hair, one hand clutching his jacket. And he pulled the boy from the car, through the window, across the shattered glass, tearing his face and neck until the blood covered him and ran down Franklin’s wrists.

Stephen lay dying. Crystal was silent, dreaming in her shock and unable to move. Franklin looked down at what he’d done, this life that was now in his hands. And he’d told her, told Berta, that’s when everything changed.

He held the artery shut. It felt like he was choking the boy, but he stopped the blood. He’d done it for a friend in Afghanistan, a friend he’d saved who died on the transport to the field medic when the truck he was in ran over an IED. Franklin didn’t see Stephen, he saw Manny. And there, in the park, just the two of them in the dark, Franklin saved Stephen’s life.

Berta met them at the hospital. It was chaos.

There were doctors, police, a whirlwind of commotion. She found him, standing in the corner of the room checking his pockets again and again. In the scuffle, Franklin had lost the ring he wore on his little finger. A boy lay dying, his student hysterical, parents of two children asking, no, demanding an explanation, threats of lawsuits, screams, all Franklin could do was look frantically around for his lost ring.

That was a year ago. Stephen had suffered mild brain damage from the concussion and extensive loss of blood. He would never play football again. He was also charged with attempted rape.

Crystal became withdrawn. She never went to visit Franklin again. She stopped attending rehearsal, and eventually dropped out of school.

Franklin was on the mend – both physically and psychologically – when Stephen committed suicide. Franklin quit going to his therapy group. He would brood about things he should have done, recite all the mistakes he had ever made. Berta had endured it, but she didn’t know why. Perhaps seeing him with another man’s blood on his hands made her realize that he was strong. A man who could protect her. Maybe she felt proud of it. She didn’t quite know.

And then the letter arrived. It was there on the table when she’d gotten home last night. A dirty, thick envelop with a dozen stamps from faraway places. It was addressed to him, but only his first name was written.

She’d asked him about it, and he said he knew it was there. He didn’t want to open it for some reason. He was angry all night.

In the morning when she came down for coffee he was already dressed. He looked nice, like he’d really paid attention to his grooming and attire. He hadn’t look that nice in so long. He gave her a kiss on the cheek, grabbed his briefcase and headed out.

She saw the letter on the table. It had been opened.

She drove out of the parking lot and headed home. There was no need to go to the hospital. She knew he was dead, even if the officer on the phone had only said she needed to hurry. She would go home and see what was left of her life, see if there was anything there or in this world left for her.

The letter had said someone he used to know in Afghanistan, a girl, had been killed.

She knew Franklin was dead, and she knew why.

Because he couldn’t save anybody.

Part 8

afghan-girl-beautiful-eyes 3He didn’t know how he’d become her refuge. Perhaps he was the only one she could confide in. Whatever the reason, it had become dangerous.

Franklin had listened to Crystal, how she wanted so much for herself, but had become afraid of the boy who told her he loved her. She’d made the mistake of being more than his friend, and now there was no way out. That was how Crystal described her relationship with Stephen. A mistake. Mistakes were something Franklin understood.

Crystal had found him one night after rehearsal, buried in work that he didn’t enjoy. Technology Applications was an important sounding name for what he’d learned in computer science class no so long ago. Was he really that old? Sometimes he thought the best years of his life were wasted on a battlefield. And the kids he spent his days with couldn’t possibly understand a man who had sacrificed so much and gained so little for it. But Crystal listened, and he thought maybe she was different.

It was dangerous, opening up to her. But as she shared her fears with him, he began to tell her stories. About the man he’d wanted to be, and the man he’d actually become. And when she found him that night, he was thinking about her again, the girl in Kunar, the girl who he’d killed.

Crystal had asked him why he was crying. He didn’t see her come in, she just appeared at his desk, her eyes frightened. He told her that he was sorry for what he’d done. She’d sat and listened to him talk about it – God, he couldn’t even tell Berta. His company was sent to Asmar, a small village north of Asadabad, where they’d patrolled in the day and took fire in the night. They’d been ambushed, and he somehow became separated from his platoon, lost in the mountains. He saw a light down in a pass, and headed there, not knowing if he was walking to rescue or to his death. He was delirious, thirsty, and lost. He woken up in the stables, a frightened girl staring at him with a bucket of chicken feed in her hands, the seeds spilling onto the ground.

Her family had taken him in. They called it Pashtunwali, an honor system that protected strangers, even if they were your enemy. The Army had negotiated his release, but by that time he’d fallen in love with the girl. She came to him at night, and although they’d never spoken, she’d brought him food and milk, and had smiled at him.

He’d showed Crystal the ring she’d given him, just a small plastic thing that would only fit on the second knuckle of his little finger. Crystal listened to the story, and when Franklin began to cry, really cry, she’d held him. And then something unexpected happened. She took his face in her hands and kissed him. He didn’t know what to do. He told her that he appreciated her being there for him, but God, what had he done? That was the night that Crystal told him Stephen had said he was going to kill her.

And now, here she was again.

She said that there were fourteen missed calls on her phone, all from Stephen, and all within the last two hours while she and Franklin had been at rehearsal. Franklin gathered his things and asked if she was walking home. It was late, maybe 8 o’clock. Too late to walk home, given the circumstances. He said he’d take her home, just his once, and they left the school and walked to the parking lot, toward Franklin’s car where Stephen hid in the back seat with his knife.

From Whence It Came

I’ve been writing a story without thinking about it. A few of you loyal ones have been keeping up with me from Part 1 to Part 7, and now that we’re this deep together, I thought I probably owed you an explanation about what you are reading.

I have a novel waiting for me on my Mac, and it’s been collecting dust and spider webs for almost a year. I spent most of this past year trying to get industry interest in an earlier novel, so far without luck. I began to wonder if I could write anymore, if I had lost the spark, or if the spark was ever there to begin with.

One day I was sitting with my laptop after reading three miserable short stories, and thought I would try my hand at one. But I made a rule before I started. Actually two. The first was I would write without getting in the way. That meant no plot, no editing, no notions about what I would write. The second was to not interject myself into the story. That, to me, meant writing strictly from my muse, or to say it a more sane way, not to think while I was writing.

After each section I would stop, put the computer away and not think about the story again for a week. At times my mind would come up with ideas. I’d throw them away. I didn’t want to know what came next until I wrote it, and every section so far has been a surprise. Surprisingly, the story continued, week to week, with no effort or planning.

And here it is, well, 2/3rds of it. It’s longer than I thought it would be, and I’ve lost some followers along the way. But I’m going to finish this, because I want to see what happens when I don’t try, don’t think, don’t want anything. It may be good, it may be bad, but it’s writing at its very essence.

If you’ve liked anything along the way, or have read any of the “parts” please leave a message or let me know. I have no idea what you see.

Part 7

A Highschool American Football game

A Highschool American Football game (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It had taken four months for her love to die. Four months of watching him avoid the girl, four months of his absence while he thought about her, four months of her name in their bed. It became his obsession, this girl who he had to avoid at risk of her safety. This girl who he trained to act out on the stage the confidence and determination she lacked in herself. This girl who began to take her place in his thoughts.

He said it was innocent, it was nothing, it wasn’t what they had. And it wasn’t, not in most ways. But it was something, and innocence was a matter of degree and perspective.

Franklin was staying late. Of course, there were the play rehearsals, and those took time. But what wasn’t explained away was his focus on the girl, how he talked about her as if she was a part of their life, how he expressed his concern for her.

She’d come to school once, to surprise him, but mostly to see if he was really working. She was almost to his office when she heard a girl’s voice. She stopped. Finding a place behind the bend in the hall, she peered to the other side and watched this girl in his arms, laughing, and then their lips met.

He’d said that night they were rehearsing lines, but the love was dead by then.

So Berta decided to make everything stop.

She thought it would be the quickest way to end this, even if the girl would have to suffer. It would be a share of the suffering she herself had been feeling. The neglect, and anger, the loneliness. So she found Stephen after football practice. He was wiping the sweat away from his face, looking at her with concentration, as if he could see her eyes behind the sunglasses she wore. Dark, so he wouldn’t see her lie.

“Can I help you?” he asked her.

“I don’t know. I didn’t come here for that.”

“What did you come for, then?”

Her lips tightened. “Now listen here, you tell your little slut of a girlfriend to stay the hell away from my husband.”

She could see his smile fade like the haze of an October morning.

“What are you talking about,” he said, his voice cracking.

“I’m Mrs. Ray, and you know damn well what I’m talking about. If I ever find her lipstick on his shirt, or smell her perfume on his crotch again, I’m going to do what you should have done a long time ago.”

The words dying as they hung in the air, she turned and walked away. She didn’t give him time to respond. She knew he’d have no response anyway.

And so she couldn’t see how Stephen ripped his jersey from his chest, then the pads, and then ran inside the school.