Steady As She Goes

“Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” Ludolf Backhuysen, 1695.

Writing and I have had a tumultuous relationship, and throughout the course of our affair, I’ve had the tendency to oscillate between emotional extremes. One moment, I’ll obsess over something I’ve just written, convinced in the most private chambers of my heart that I’m the next William Shakespeare. The next, I’ll regard whatever project I happen to be working on with contempt, convinced I’m nothing but a fraud, that it’s only a matter of time before the world sees me for the hack I truly am and it’s all over.

It turns out that many writers, as well as artists of every other discipline, exhibit this curious emotional duality. We love our projects, our children of the mind, with all of their many quirks and imperfections, and for a time we have eyes only for their potential. But then we scrutinize them more closely, become increasingly sensitive to their flaws, magnified so that they blot out everything else, and soon we wonder how we could have ever considered our work “good.”

Either extreme left unchecked will wreak havoc on an artist’s creative aspirations, and could even shipwreck them altogether. Excess pride leads toward stagnation and a refusal to acknowledge thoughtful criticism, for how can one perfect something if, in their eyes, it’s already perfect? On the opposite end of the spectrum, excess despair leaves one feeling as if there’s no point, that they might as well give up while they’re still ahead.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that emotions are fickle, that there’s no logical reason for why one moment you should feel one thing and the next something else entirely. Amidst the billowing gale of conflicting desires, passions and the ever-shifting perceptions of my artistic value, I’ve realized that in the end, how I feel is really rather pointless. All that matters is whether or not I write.

When I’m feeling haughty, high and mighty, I acknowledge the emotion, set it aside and continue writing. When I’m feeling dejected, depressed and full of despair, I acknowledge the emotion, set it aside and continue writing. I write, I write and I write. I write through the good feelings. I write through the bad. The willful choice to act regardless of this transient passion or that becomes a moderating force, a lighthouse that illumines the way forward in a dark and unstable sea. I have no control over how I feel. But I do have control over how I act in spite of how I feel.

If you’re an artist of any stripe, do what you love to do. Do you believe that you’re invincible, that you and the vision you carry around inside your head have the capacity to transform the world? Recognize the feeling, let it go and make art. Do you believe that you’re a hack, that you have nothing of value to share with the world and that you might as well not even try? Recognize the feeling, let it go and make art.

Emotions will come and emotions will go. Like the explosive gusts of a hurricane or a typhoon, they’ll buffet you from every side, threaten to bowl you over where you stand. Fine. Let them come. Do what you love to do anyway. Stand your ground.

Do what you were made to do, always do what you were made to do, and even in the midst of chaos, you’ll find peace.

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What Can Fantasy Teach Me About Reality?

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Who doesn’t love a good story?

Fiction is an indispensable part of the human experience. Without it, the world would be a dreary place. Imagination is essential for one’s sanity and happiness. But we always go into fiction with the understanding that what we’re experiencing isn’t real. Though we choose to suspend disbelief, there’s always that part of our brain that maintains the distinction between reality and fantasy. A vast unbridgeable chasm exists between the two: one is real, the other is not.

You might reasonably ask yourself, “what can fantasy teach me about reality?”

Fantasy teaches us about real people.

Though fictional characters are spun from the thread of dreams, their underlying natures are based on real people. Authors must always draw from a massive catalog of real-life experience; if what they want to write about can’t be found within its pages, it must be labeled as unbelievable and cast aside.

Fantasy is, in fact, an exhaustive study of humanity. It offers lessons from three unique angles:

  1. We learn about the characters. We’re privy to their thoughts, we observe their actions and we witness the ways in which they relate to others.
  2. We learn about the author. The way a storyteller’s characters think and act is a reflection of the storyteller himself. They can teach us about his cultural heritage, his upbringing, his prejudices, his interests, even how he might have gotten along with others. An artist’s creation is as much an expression of the artist as it is of the art itself.
  3. We learn about ourselves. Given that a realistic fictional character is based on authentic human nature, and that we are in fact real people, it stands to reason that we would find ourselves at least partially reflected in their image. We experience bits and pieces of ourselves in the characters we encounter, and we have the benefit of an outsider’s perspective. As a result, we discover more of who we are.

Fantasy teaches us to appreciate the extraordinary within the ordinary.

All good fiction no matter how whimsical is rooted in reality, because we can only relate to something that aligns with our understanding of the universe and how it works. There might be magic, but that magic is always governed by rules, and the basic laws of nature, though extended, always remain backward-compatible with our own. People don’t walk through walls or breathe under water unless they possess special powers, and in such cases they are the exception rather than the rule.

Unfortunately, we take reality for granted. Because it’s something we interact with every day, because it’s no longer new as it once was when we were children, we disregard it. Thankfully, fantasy reorients our perspective.

Free from that thin veneer of mundanity that ordinarily coats the surface of reality, we’re involuntarily struck by the raw beauty we encounter in the world of our dreams. We take these experiences with us and assimilate them into who we are. Gradually, we become accustomed to seeing things through the lens of childlike awe. Eventually, without ever realizing what’s happened, we rediscover the extraordinary that lies hidden just beneath the surface of the ordinary.

We become sensitive to the great emotional epics that play out within the confines of real relationships. Our hearts are smitten by the jaw-dropping beauty that manifests itself in real landscapes. We become aware of the magic that’s existed all along, operating under the name of Science. We become sensitive to a hidden splendor that’s always been accessible to us, but was until recently outside our once narrowed field of vision. Imagination is like a mirror: the mystery and wonder we encounter in fantasy is reflected back onto our perception of the world, flooding it with new light so that we can see the world anew.

Fantasy teaches us to accept difficult truths.

There are uncomfortable realities we prefer not to think about. We’re faced daily with poverty, hunger, war, mental illness, even the evil within ourselves. Life is much easier when we allow ourselves to forget that the world is a dark place. As a result, we erect mental walls when sensitive topics are broached. Our eyes glaze over and we assume the mental stance of a three year old, covering his ears and singing “la, la, la…”

Reading fiction is one way to become more receptive. Because stories aren’t real (at least on the surface), we have a much greater tolerance for controversial ideas. We open the gates and we allow the author’s beliefs to make a home inside our hearts.

Because good fiction is grounded in reality, it’s inevitable that we begin to apply these beliefs alongside our own. Like Inception, the ideas communicated through stories bubble up into our conscious minds as if they were our own. In this regard, artists wield a very real and profound power over the rest world, and therefore have a grave moral obligation to always tell the truth.

Fantasy teaches us how to approach and solve real problems.

Simply put, fantasy makes us better problem solvers. We observe how different kinds of characters respond to adversity, learn from them and apply what we learned to our own problems. Fantasy teaches us to be creative, to think “outside the box,” to be more adaptable.

Neil Gaiman cites an interesting example. In an article for The Guardian called Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming, he writes:

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Conclusion: Fantasy is reality remixed.

Fantasy is only fictional on the surface. Humans may be capable of imagining things outside their immediate scope of experience, but they can only do so by forging new connections between existing ideas. Like so many songs on the market today, stories are nothing more than reality remixed.

If it’s not real, it won’t make sense. If it doesn’t make sense, we won’t connect with what we’re reading. And if we don’t connect with what we’re reading, we’re going to get frustrated and put the book aside.

In order to concoct convincing tales, authors must resort to unabashedly plagiarizing reality, and in the end all they can do in their never-ending quest for originality is to hope and pray that they were clever enough not to get caught.

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Why I Write

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Why do I write?

Writing isn’t easy, especially for those of us who work full-time in a completely unrelated field. You come home from work exhausted. Those very rare moments of explosive inspiration aside, you have to force yourself to sit down and work some more, when all your body really wants to do is eat and go to sleep. You have to face the demons of self-doubt, which hover over your shoulder in the darkness, whispering that you’re not good enough, that you’re a hack, that today is the day everyone will discover you’re a fraud. You have to recognize that you will fail, and you have to do it anyway.

You then have to be brave enough to confront the crap you wrote the next day. You have to take this rough source material, this hunk of dark grey clay forged from the jumbled stilted dreams of the insubstantial mind, and mold it into something half-way decent. You have to revise. You have to revise again.

After the number of revisions rivals even the number of stars in the galaxy, you have to break out of your shell and share your work with others. You have to not only accept but embrace rejection. You have to allow your heart to be broken, and then you have to pick up the pieces and try again. You have to revise. You have to revise again.

If you intend to publish, your not even close to finished. If you go the traditional route, you still have to send out hundreds of query letters to agents, be rejected over and over again, and hope that at least one will take an interest in your work. And whether you go through traditional channels or self-publish, if your book is to have a prayer of succeeding, you’ll still have to hand your work off to an editor, who will point out all the many things that are wrong that you didn’t catch in the first bazillion and one revisions. You have to revise. You have to revise again.

After all this, there’s nevertheless the very real possibility that nobody will want to read what you spent months or years writing. Bookstore shelves are littered with books that will never be purchased, books which will be returned to the publisher for a refund, books written by authors who will never have an opportunity to publish again. The Amazon Kindle store is bursting at the seams with self-published titles that will all suffer a similar fate. And if your books do sell, they likely won’t make anywhere near enough to financially justify all the blood, sweat and tears that went into your writing.

Why would anyone subject themselves to such a torturous and thankless routine? I can’t answer for all writers, but I can answer for myself.

I write because that’s who I am.

It doesn’t matter if I have an audience of one million, one thousand, one hundred, one or even zero. I write for my Creator, the author of the cosmos, because it’s what he called me to do. I in turn write for myself, because it’s my purpose, because composing new stories is what fulfills me as a human person. I feel compelled to write, even when it hurts, when I’m busy, depressed or lacking inspiration. It’s built into my DNA. It’s written indelibly upon the mandates of my soul.

I write because it’s in our own pale and imperfect reflections of the universe that we come to know and love the universe itself.

I write because beauty is important to me. I know that nothing I create will ever be perfect, but I strive for perfection anyway.

I write because I’m haunted when I don’t. The days I spend away from my notebooks and computer are days that I feel anxious and restless. Ideas back up in my mind like a clogged up sink, and their continually increasing weight begins to burn my soul like wild fire. I eventually have no choice but to huddle up in the dark after hours and yield to this all-consuming force.

I write because I have a passion for creating things. I liken the difficulties encountered when crafting a new tale to the pangs of childbirth. When the pushing is over, when you’re finally laying down in bed exhausted, sweat beading on your forehead, when the challenge of giving birth to an idea is finally over, you can at last gaze upon the child of your mind with stupid giddy love and wonder. It doesn’t matter that your child isn’t perfect, because the child is yours and you love it anyway.

In short, I write because I’m a writer. In the end, that’s the only reason that should matter.

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Does Reading About Evil Make You Evil?

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I love dark fiction. I’ve always been fascinated by the problem of evil, and literature that grapples with diabolical themes gives me an opportunity to explore this very difficult subject in all of its many facets. I get to enter into the minds and souls of those who do evil, and am able to witness first hand the torment and destruction wrought by their wicked hands.  Is there something wrong with me? Is my fascination with evil the sign of a disturbed and demented mind?

Critics of dark fiction argue that stories which address sinister themes outside of a strictly didactic context necessarily glorify evil, and conclude that the act of reading such literature is, by extension, also evil. Conversely, proponents of dark fiction argue that evil is an inescapable part of life, and that we should not be afraid to tell the truth about it in literature. Which of these two voices should we listen to?

A distinction must be made.

Critics of dark fiction make the mistake of conflating two separate and distinct desires. They argue that because one hungers for an understanding of evil, that they must therefore hunger for evil itself. This is a non sequitur. Is a police officer evil for his fascination with the criminal mind, regardless of the fact that his motivation stems from a desire to prevent further criminal activity? To the contrary, his desire to know evil is rooted in a desire to do good.

FIctional characters enable us to know the mind of evil without becoming evil.

A desire to understand is an inextricable component of our human nature. We don’t just want to know what people do. We want to know why. What motivates someone to make certain choices? Why does one man decide to save a life while another decides to commit murder?

By entering the mind of a fictional character, we can discover answers to these questions. We are privy to their thoughts, their emotions, they’re motivations. We aren’t just exposed to the evil deeds they commit. We’re exposed to the rationale behind those evil deeds. This is very important, because only when we understand the causes of evil can we ever be in a position to do something about it.

Learning about evil teaches us how to be good.

One of the most potent ways to learn is by example. When we see a person act a certain way and observe the result, we take that experience with us as if it were our own. When a person’s actions have a positive outcome, we’re conditioned to emulate their behavior. Conversely, when a person’s actions have a negative outcome, we learn to avoid it.

An accurate portrayal of evil will necessarily showcase the consequences of bad behavior. Sometimes, these consequences will be practical in nature. A bank robber, for example, might slip up during a heist and leave behind clues that eventually lead to his arrest. Sometimes, the consequences will be more spiritual or psychological. A character in a novel might, for example, get away with murder. But if the author has a firm grasp of the human psyche, he will, simply by knowing his character well, reveal the terrible transformation that takes place inside his mind, now irrevocably tainted. From this devastating case study, we are given an opportunity to reflect on what evil can do to us if we allow it into our own hearts.

And, we witness first hand the pain and suffering that evil inflicts on others. We see lives reduced to ruin by greed and malice. We feel a deep sense of desolation and loss. We walk through a desert of despair, barren of all things good, and our hearts howl from their deepest depths for something better. Prolonged exposure to darkness makes the most miniscule act of kindness blaze like the sun. It makes us more sensitive to a right way of living.

In short, reading about evil makes us better people.

Encountering evil in stories reminds us that evil exists outside of stories.

It’s easy to drift through life, comfortable, complacent, apathetic to the suffering of others. Unless we’ve experienced hardship personally, it’s difficult for us to sympathize with those who have.

But when we encounter terrorists, thieves and murderers in fiction, we are reminded that these same criminals also exist in the real world. We are forced to confront an uncomfortable truth that we would otherwise prefer to brush aside. We are forced to watch as innocent characters weep and wail and gnash their teeth in unending agony at the hands of evildoers, and we are reminded that the same thing happens to real people. This awareness breeds empathy, which in turn breeds a genuine love for the rest of our human family and a desire to act against the injustices that afflict them.

Refusing to acknowledge evil is untruthful.

The world is not all pink fluffy bunnies, sunshine and rainbows. Art that intentionally ignores or attempts to sugar coat the darker realities of human life is a distortion, a twisted half-truth that is not only deceitful but dangerous. A selective view of the world through rose colored glasses enables us to look away as innocent people suffer. It allows us to pretend that the world is better than it is, that it’s ok for us to withdraw into ourselves and ignore the plights of others who are less fortunate.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with art that zeroes in on goodness and innocence, any more than there is something wrong with art that doesn’t. A balanced outlook is essential to a healthy understanding of the world, and we need also to be reminded of all the things that are good and right. But we must never turn a blind eye to evil. We must be willing to stare it down, to meet its malignant eyes gaze for gaze.

There is tragic beauty in dark literature.

When characters suffer, we cry for them. When an evildoer gets away with murder, we flush with anger and outrage. A good balance of light and dark allows us to explore the full spectrum of human emotions, which in turn leads us to a better understanding of ourselves. This is why the ancients devised great epics that dealt regularly with death and loss, as well as why great tragedies like Romeo and Juliet resonate so strongly and continue to persist throughout the ages.

Conclusion

Critics of dark fiction misunderstand us. They perceive a great multitude of maligned individuals prancing through the streets, approving of and even praising evil deeds. But nothing could be further from the truth. As lovers of dark fiction, we are those who are most sensitive to the devastating effects of evil. We are those who are most profoundly disturbed by its manifestation in the world. We are those who recognize more than anything else the terrible evil within ourselves. We are the ones who desire most of all to be better than we are.

We can respond to evil in one of two ways. We can bury our heads in the sand, sing Kumbaya and foolishly hope that evil will someday pass us over, that we can somehow wish it away, conquer it simply by refusing to acknowledge that it exists. Or we can face it, study it, try to understand our adversary so that we can better prepare for the task of striking it down. Which will you choose?

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