Am I Still a Writer if My Stories Aren’t Screaming to Escape?

Lately, I’ve been posting my writing-related success stories on Facebook. If you look at my wall, it’s mostly bubbly entreaties to check out a piece when it gets published, or a bit of I’m-so-excited news about a story acceptance.

And, yes, I’m proud of what I’ve done since quitting a full-time startup job about a year ago: I’ve gotten stories into three pro-paying markets and three semi-pro-paying ones. Each of those acceptances has felt like a huge, delicious nugget of validation.

But I still can’t shake the feeling that I’m not moving fast enough. I feel displaced on my own timeline, like I was shoved back to a starting point when I should be years’ worth of work ahead. This wouldn’t be so maddening if I didn’t also feel like I could get to where I want to be, if only I wasn’t a passionless slug-person. Sometimes I am stymied by this feeling to the point of paralysis, wherein I think that too much time has elapsed for me to ever hit the maximum of my potential, and so I should just flump around and consume media rather than create it. (Weh. Weeeeh.)

A huge part of this feeling stems from the (obviously unhealthy) practice of comparing myself to others. When it comes to output, I see myself as a doddering tortoise who lays a single, coveted egg once every blue moon, and others as gloriously feathered phoenix-chickens whose eggs pop out with supernatural speed and regularity. When someone complains on Twitter about only writing 1,000 words that day, I cringe with shame. I don’t write every day, and I’ve written 1,000 words in a day perhaps…twice?

It seems like many of the greats have a conveyer belt inside them that cannot be slowed or shut down. They excrete stories—good ones, amazing ones!—uncontrollably. They speak of the story’s need to be born, of the undeniable autonomy of the idea, a force that possesses them and precludes any action other than furious typing. It’s true that I’ve been in the grip of “flow” before—but these authors seem to live in flow. I envy them for it, every day.

Of course, envy will get me nowhere, and it’s not a good motivator. Some people just write slowly! Some people don’t (always) experience writing as a single fiery breath of inspiration that must be expelled, lest it char their brains! I have to remind myself of this fact often because I haven’t found many authors who talk about it. (Daniel José Older is one, though, and this piece gave me much solace.) A lot of writing advice is a bit boot camp-y in its insistence that you write ALL THE FUCKING TIME because otherwise your VERY BLOOD won’t TURN INTO INK.

If you don’t feel like writing all the time, that’s fine. It doesn’t mean you’re a passionless slug-person. Passion has no true form, and it doesn’t always involve breakneck urgency. For you it might mean that writing is often a slog, but you believe that you have a knack for it and you would really like to see something emerge from your brain, however shyly it does so. When I’m feeling good about my current M.O., I think of it as thorough, not lazy. (That is, unless I actually do need someone to say, “Just start writing, you whiner.” No one’s above some old-fashioned procrastination.)

It’s hard to let go of the hunch that I’m missing some sort of integral zeal that Stephen King, a personal hero of mine, has in spades. I’ll probably always long for it because it’s something I can’t pin down in myself (yet). But whether I realize the secret one day or not, there are pros and cons to every writing approach. The only thing that ends up mattering is that you wrote. You can release the words like drool or like projectile vomit, so long as they end up outside of you.

When I forget this fact, I become scared that I’m not cut out to be a writer. I get scared when I can’t write a new story every month (or every three months), and I get scared when the stories don’t feel like they’re erupting from my body, cackling as they achieve freedom.

So, I wrote this as a post in my “What Scared Me” blog, hoping it’ll function as a reminder that passion doesn’t have a set pace or face. I have no doubt that other people have written posts/essays/tweets with a similar slant, and I would REALLY like to read them. Please, share likeminded pieces if you can!

 

“Blessed Be the Bound” by Lucy Taylor

Lucy Taylor’s “Blessed Be the Bound” appeared in the January 2015 issue of Nightmare magazine, and was originally published in NOCTULPA in 1991. You can read it here.

WHAT SCARED ME: Out of all the gruesome possibilities offered by horror fiction, the “forced surgery” subgenre of body horror may hit me the hardest. I’m not sure why! I do know that occupying a body feels gross enough, and that having it painfully altered without your consent until you’re something shambling and alien is one of the worst fates I can imagine. It’s why I still haven’t seen Tusk or any of The Human Centipede films—even though their premises are absurd, dwelling on their details is unsettling for me.

Lucy Taylor lends terrifying specificity and gravity to this fear of mine with “Blessed Be the Bound,” and she does it in 2,000 words.

The reality of it still stalls my mind: two bodies of the same or opposite sex, snipped and sliced and stitched together in a gruesome flesh-garment of jigsawed limbs, split bones, and sutured skin, afflicted with the vacant gaze and shuffling, stumbling gait peculiar to their maimed condition. Worst of all, the monstrous final hours of the partner who outlasts its mate, since Binding is forever, even when the so-called “living” one is fused to a decaying, putrid corpse.

Binding is a punishment reserved for this world’s worst criminals and sexual deviants. The narrator, who has been sentenced to undergo the procedure after committing incest with her brother, fears both the physical deformity and the utter lack of solitude that Binding promises. However, she has a secret plan that could grant her freedom (of a sort).

Taylor doesn’t pull any punches in this story—sex, drugs, and mutilation mingle into a perverse celebration of all things fleshy. The Bound themselves are viewed by some as purified, holy beings, and by others as the ultimate carnal conquest. I won’t give anything else away here, except that I read “Blessed Be the Bound” over a year ago and I haven’t been able to shake it since.

“Some Breakable Things” by Cassandra Khaw

Cassandra Khaw’s “Some Breakable Things” appeared in the September 2016 issue of The Dark. You can read it here.

WHAT SCARED ME: It’s hard to say what’s more horrifying in this story—the beautifully visceral, almost audibly squelching descriptions of the narrator’s father’s ghost, or the awful emotional manipulation perpetrated by both the living and the dead.

The plot is simple but devastating: after his death, the narrator’s father haunts them, first following them and then screaming at them. The ghost starts with a blur in place of facial features and gradually becomes a shambling, gory mess of innards. Requests for help from friends and family are met with dismissive diagnoses or upsettingly casual (even smug) reactions. Breathless snippets of backstory tell of emotional and physical abuse from a deeply disturbed man.

I cannot get over how Khaw renders this haunting. I mean:

Intestine drool from the base of his breastbone, a spiral of nesting pinks.

I am incredibly here for this kind of gut stuff. The ghost in this story is a dripping mess, depicted with prose that makes his ribs jut right out of the text.

But just as frightening as the dead father is the narrator’s isolation. They can’t find understanding anywhere, and their family—including the ghost—expects them to shoulder the spectral burden, or at least to admit that it’s the natural way of things. Many ghost stories center on the haunted party’s guilt, justifying the trauma of being tailed by a vengeful spirit. But this is no Telltale Heart; this is gaslighting by ghost, a much more abhorrent prospect.

There’s no relief in this piece, no escape from an awful network of cruelty and blame. Help seems unreachable and, tragically, by the end, undeserved. The sheer bleakness of this ghost story makes it a heartbreaking, terrifying read—one that you should definitely attempt.

“Cuckoo Girls” by Douglas F. Warrick

Douglas F. Warrick’s short story “Cuckoo Girls” appeared in Apex Magazine in June 2016. You can read it here.

WHAT SCARED ME: Truly creepy monsters (yup, one’s 9 feet tall and has a baby-doll mask for a face) that hunt their “assigned” women through amazingly vivid scenes.

I first read this short story on my phone while I rode the train home at night. The atmosphere was perfect; lights flickered around me in tandem with the fireflies in the piece, and it was hard not to wonder if they, like the bugs, spelled the presence of something sinister.

This story follows Nikki and Samantha, two women on the run from monsters that have killed their loved ones and saved the girls for last. Each monster is grotesque in its own unique way (though they both seem to wear masks), and each doggedly pursues its designated woman. Oh, and Nikki and Samantha aren’t the only ones who have attracted otherworldly attention—there are internet forums where other women post descriptions of their monsters, plus theories as to why they’ve been singled out for inevitable death.

“Cuckoo Girls” is a phenomenal horror story that does what so few can: take inhuman beings that seem to be stitched together from familiar tropes, and make them entirely believable and threatening. Nikki’s long-necked monster has a baby-doll mask for a face, and Samantha’s wears a burlap sack. (Perhaps they’ve seen The Strangers?) But the inclusion of these accouterments doesn’t render the monsters cliché; Warrick’s way better than that.

Nikki never stops smelling it. Manure, wet asphalt, baby powder, bonfire smoke, the ripe sweetness of garbage long past needing to be taken out. That scent has haunted her since the moment it loomed over her in the unfinished basement of her parents’ house, its smiling baby-doll mask so close to her face that she could see that it wasn’t a mask at all, could see the way it pulsed and rippled as alien musculature clenched and unclenched beneath it.

It’s not just the masks that evoke horror movies. “Cuckoo Girls” plays out like a masterfully self-conscious film, from its initial scene wherein the girls load their guns and hit the road to a slow-mo strobe-lit (well, lightning-bug-lit) showdown in a motel hallway. Samantha even recounts one forum-goer’s hypothesis that the hunted women are film characters, and that their monsters refuse to die because someone up there keeps writing sequels.

“Cuckoo Girls” really stuck with me, enough that it partly inspired the creation of this blog. It’s deliciously scary with as satisfying of an ending as you can get when you’re dealing with unexplainable, unstoppable monsters. I feel elated when someone can pull this kind of story off, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for Warrick’s later works!