I’ve had stories appear now in six horror anthologies. Some of those books, in full disclosure, I had a hand in designing the covers or page layouts, though completely separate from my story submissions and inclusions. A few more horror-genre publications containing my work are on the way to print in the next few months, but I still often wonder whether I am truly a horror writer.
Before anyone lambasts me for such a self-serving ponderous statement, I’m being completely honest about this question, and this is my personal blog. All organization and personal blogs are self-serving regardless of their intents and purposes, don’t blind yourself to this one truism.
Thing is, I never set out to be a horror writer. I am always drawn toward dark material for the books I read or TV shows I watch, which in turn influences or inspires what I write. I’ve tried my hand at happy stories and they never feel authentic to me. Difficult decisions, personal conflicts, and imperfect flaws that lead to dramatic and usually tragic conclusions are what drive me. They are sometimes allegories, other times criticisms on or responses to our current day culture and society. The messages may not be obvious to everyone, and I don’t expect them to be; they typically serve as starting points from which a story takes on its own life. As a story should for every writer.
These statements or criticisms on the world, our society, or our culture come from a perspective of gritty realism, they are neither optimistic nor pessimistic. They just are. The world exists as we shape its existence, both good and bad. This perspective spawns the perpetual evolution of my creativity: a dark point-of-view mired in grit and horror; a creative process carried by a glimmer of hope that challenges an ominous darkness and crushing fear. Think Baroque music and painting. Think Gothic architecture and literature.
Looking back at these paragraphs I just wrote I realize just how subjective it is to define one’s work in any particular genre. This is art and not science after all, there are no mandated axioms on the natural world’s behaviors that dictate creativity, just concepts and ideas.
So my stories may not contain much gore, graphic sex or violence, or the standard supernatural creatures that account for many horror movie and story tropes, but they do contain accounts of mental anguish, trauma, shock, and the deterioration of one’s mental faculties. In that sense, these attributes are real life everyday horrors of the human experience, whether they are set in a dystopian backdrop or a current-day real-world environment that may or may not be affected by a supernatural influence depending on the protagonist’s perspective.
The answer, then, is yes. I do write horror.
I cringe when I hear those dreaded words. You should too. No creative ever wants full creative freedom. We need parameters, deadlines, timeline, budgets, brand identity guidelines, licensing guidelines, whatever. You might as well be clearing snow from the tarmac at Liberty International with only a toy beach shovel knowing a 747 could come barreling in from any direction at any moment with no notice. Yes, the idea is really that stress inducing.
So why do I bring this up? Because I’ve heard this probably a billion times now and I bet you have too. It’s not out of malice mind you, it’s not like your manager or the VP way up the line intended to cause you turmoil, they think it’s what you desire. To the outside world, the one thing all of us creatives desire more than anything else – more than a pay raise, recognition for our hard work or a long overdue promotion – is full creative freedom. They can’t be more off the mark.
It’s a simple fact for those not in the know: full creative freedom paralyzes us with fear and anxiety. And that leads to less than desirable execution of the job at hand. And an even less than desirable job performance flag on our annual reviews.
For everyone else in the know trying to curb this problem from damaging your ego and corrupting your portfolio, I offer you these recommendations derived from my many years of trials and tribulations:
1. Ask for parameters, i.e. deadlines, intended goals, all that stuff you need and want to know.
Demand it, set a timeframe for reviews. Confirm the intent of the creative work at hand. When they say, “whatever works for you” tell them tagging your street name on each of the south-facing cubicle walls probably won’t accomplish the goal. Fun, yes!
2. Be polite and respectful, but don’t be a doormat.
It’s easy to feel compelled to say yes to everything the boss tells you. The reality is, saying yes to everything creates two problems: 1. you take on more work than you can or should handle for the timeframe; and 2. you become the go-to-guy for doing all the garbage work because no one expects you to say no. Bottom line: learn to say no, respectfully, and for valid reasons. Most importantly, don’t be pompous about it.
3. Be honest.
Tell the boss that full creative freedom is much too broad and therefore vague. She or he should appreciate this perspective, most likely having to endure a similar matter in their own job history. Honesty goes a long way in the professional world, and is often appreciated and admired.
4. Don’t bitch and complain to your co-workers about the burden you allowed yourself to take on.
First, if you allowed it to happen, you have no one to blame but yourself. Suck it up, deal with it. Don’t complain. Secondly, if you do complain to your peers, guess what? Rumors spread, faster than that blood rush to your head during that dare to hang from the hotel balcony by your feet at Spring Break. No, I never did that, I just had to create a far-fetched scenario to make sure you’re paying attention. Point is: follow the first three steps and this fourth will not need to apply. You’re a smart person, do the right thing.
Whether you follow my advice is your ultimate decision. I share it based on a career’s worth of successes and mistakes made in the creative field. And my goal is to help you, the reader, learn from my experiences. All I ask is that you accept or decline what I have to offer with respect and dignity. I wish you all success in your creative endeavors, and to pay it forward.
Never underestimate the power your mood holds over your creative work. I put mood up there with inspiration and incentive. Good moods lend themselves to producing good work, great moods for even better work. However, bad moods not only lead to poor work, but unfinished and post-deadline deliveries, and that’s why you need to take notice.
Self-awareness is a valuable attribute for anyone producing creative work. It should be part of the standard art school curriculum alongside other relevant subjects including psychological health and well-being, placed at the same level as Art History and Aesthetics. A holistic approach to a positive mindset can mean the difference between success and failure in the creative business.
Artists carry a stigma of brooding and general moodiness in American culture. An unfortunate contradiction to the celebrated and enlightened artist found in other cultures around the world. Perhaps this is because their efforts go unnoticed and under-appreciated in our society where hype is valued above integrity. Think summer blockbuster films and the huge overpriced video game releases each holiday season. The brooding artist stereotype does a wonderful disservice to creative folk of all types, as any other stereotype does. It will only change if enough artists consistently present themselves in a more positive light.
In the spirit of giving, because that’s the popular phrase to toss around at the moment, here are my suggestions on building your self-awareness to avoid becoming creatively oblivious. All actions that I have found to work well for me and I hope will benefit you too. By the way, I wasn’t intending to turn this into a touchy-feely confidence-boosting self-help thing; that would be so out of character for me.
You can’t change the people around you, but you can change whom you are around.
If someone else’s actions or behaviors are negatively affecting yours, do yourself a favor and remove yourself from the situation. Be respectful and respectable. Don’t pick a fight or complain. Don’t even consider trying to change the person to meet your immediate needs. If another person inquires about your removal from a situation, respond honestly about your needs with everything else in this paragraph in mind. Do not unload your frustrations unless you’re itching for a fight.
I bet you didn’t already know any of this. Right? Maybe in a different context. Or it has gone forgotten.
Recognize that you have full control over yourself.
Don’t be an ass towards others about your creative needs. Respect is key here too. Treat others no different than you expect them to treat you. This is groundbreaking advice you should have learned in kindergarten and from the people who raised you, even if wolves raised you.
Establish your creative space.
You need your quiet alone space. An environment you have complete control over where you can shut the door and not be disturbed. Where you can blast the Dropkick Murphys, Rihanna, or the Boston Pops when the mood hits. Where you can write by candlelight and an open window during a thunderstorm or paint under a full spectrum balanced floodlight rig. Whatever works. You’re full in control, and if you complain, do yourself a favor and punch yourself in the gut and stop complaining.
Pay attention to the quality of your work. Always.
Now you don’t want to enter the bad practice of editing as you create, that will stunt your flow and productivity. It’s expected that a first or rough draft is far from perfect, so let it happen, be shameless. However, as you revise and edit, take notice of how the work is shaping up. Is the quality sub-par in comparison to your usual output? If so, take a look at yourself; chances are the problem lies in your outlook. Straighten it out before you get back to work. Remember, you are in complete control. The same applies to writer’s block or other analogous scenarios in any medium.
Don’t spend your energy venting frustrations to others, use that energy for your art.
You woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning? That’s nice. No one wants to hear about it at work or the coffee shop or the bar. Seriously, no one does. Don’t bother trying. Refocus that kinetic energy toward your creative work. Take that anger, frustration, sadness, anxiety, whatever; fashion it into a galvanized six foot spike and drive that passion into your art so hard the room is splattered in a colorful array of your creative juices. It feels great!
Whether you choose to take my advice or run amuck with your brooding self, just remember: the quality of your work is effected by how you feel.
In my usual efforts to avoid the work I really need to do – write my book – I find myself reading all sorts of articles related to writing. All offering positive advice with the best intentions appearing on blogs, and educational and professional writing sites. I like to see what’s out there hoping I might learn something new. And I’ve come to a conclusion: there are a lot of overthinkers out there offering superfluous advice to aspiring writers. In turn, these nascent writers are online seeking quick solutions to their questions and hurdles allowing them to become passive about their art. Not good.
Overthinker on opposite gender writing.
One overthinker’s piece snagged me with its barbed hook; I needed to read it. His article was built around the idea that male writers need to be in touch with and comprehend feminism in order to write female characters. But it has to be right kind of feminism, otherwise it means some entirely different vague thing that was never clearly described.
Look, I’m paraphrasing here, and I’m intentionally not linking the article in question as I’m not looking for a fight. There are hundreds more like it, if you don’t believe me I challenge you to see this Google search. This is a genuine link to Google and will not show anything bad. It’s safe for work, it’s even safe for preschool. I promise.
The article was overwrought with justifications for the apparent complexity of the female character issue, playing off the idea that male writers just can’t write female characters. Rather, they write about their ideals of what women should be or their disdain for women. Essentially creating archetypes, not characters, or more likely stereotypes. Male writers spend all of their time describing male characters by carefully not making them female because they can’t overtly give male and female characters certain anatomical parts to define their genders. And it went on and on and on. I wondered if Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates would agree with this guy’s perspective.
I stopped halfway. My brain produced an agonizing scream as it processed this convoluted mess. I’ve underestimated its vocalization capabilities all these years. It was brutal. I hope it never happens again. Ever.
So, here’s the deal, my advice to you.
Ignore that overthought stuff, it’s not helping you. If you’re male and you need to write a female character – do it. Don’t overthink it, don’t make assumptions, just write what feels right. Write what you know, what you don’t know, what makes sense for the story, what makes it a great story. Reality will reveal itself. The female character will come across just as authentic as your male character. It doesn’t hurt to make sure one of your readers is female. There are those little societal gender cues that are easy to miss. For example, you’ll rarely ever hear a woman say, “I gotta go take a piss.”
This advice is multidisciplinary and cross-functional. And universal!
No subject escapes the death grip of overthinking. Overthinkers are another manifestation of what we know as red tape in government and multiple layers of bureaucratic management in a corporation. I’m still searching for the source of these unnecessary convolutions, my current theory is that they are rooted in human nature. The fact that everyone feels a need to have control, to have a say in how things are done. To be armchair philosophers and basement dwelling anthropologists exploring the human condition with nothing more than the tool that gives you access to all things, the Internet. Laziness combined with ego. A dreadful combination.
I mock and joke. But in reality, ninety-eight percent* of the time I ignore that stuff when I write. And so should you.
Don’t overthink, just write.
* That other two percent is used for locating source material for blog entries like this. Time well spent.