I want to talk about this, but even thinking about talking about it is hard. It’s been a while since I wrote anything for the Brain Babies column on HorrorTree. Some of that is because I’m busy, some of it is laziness, some an utter lack of ideas for topics. But the main reason I’ve been quiet is that my life was torn apart on June 9 of this year.
My wife Liz died suddenly.
She had high blood pressure, and was taking medicine for it, for a long time. She’d been suffering headaches, off and on, for as long as I’ve known her (21 years). But, nobody had any idea this was coming. In her sleep (thankfully), her brain hemorrhaged, and she died.
She was 43.
The death certificate said the time elapsed from “the event” to “actual death” was seconds to minutes. So, she likely didn’t suffer. Small comfort there.
Her family and mine, and many good friends have stepped up to help take care of me and my kids, for which I am profoundly grateful. Another comfort.
She left me a substantial sum in life insurance, and Social Security is paying survivor’s benefits for my kids. So, we’re not in trouble financially anymore. Comfort number three.
But, she was more than just my spouse. Liz was my best friend. She was my sounding board for ideas. My audience for new jokes. My barometer for what’s too fucked-up for mainstream readers (if she hated it, only a few publishers were gonna touch it). She was my touchstone. My go-to for comfort, solace, laughs, snuggling, sex (she really, really liked sex. I miss that a lot).
I’m sure you’ve all heard of the different stages of grieving. I’ve hit ‘em all. But, the two overriding emotions, the two defining characteristics of who I am now, are anger and pain. They are my constant companions.
Sure, I can joke (usually gallows humor, but that’s not new for me). I can laugh, and play, and have fun. I go to work, five, sometimes six days a week. I function. People tell me I’m doing well. They’re impressed. But, they don’t know. They have no idea how fucked-up I am. Always.
I am writing again. And, just like before, sometimes it’s easy; sometimes it’s pulling teeth. But, here’s the thing: when you lose your partner, when your life has been shattered by something so catastrophic, it affects you in every way. My grief bleeds into my fiction. I see death everywhere. This is actually a plus for a guy who writes mainly horror, I guess.
I edit, too, for a small press in Washington State. It’s uncanny how many horror stories feature a dead spouse (or partner) as a pivotal plot point. Every time I read one, it triggers me.
I don’t want to be a tragic figure. I don’t want to make people uncomfortable when I walk in the room (“Oh jeez. There’s the guy who lost his wife. What do I say to him?”). I don’t want pity.
I do want people to cut me some slack, which they mostly do. I might miss deadlines. Don’t hate me for it. I just can’t seem to get motivated to work on stuff right now. Seems so unimportant. Once your spouse dies on you, pretty much everything else in life fades into who cares?
Except my kids. My kids are still paramount above all else. I mean, of course. Also, we’re all we have left, me and them.
I’m not sure I’m going to submit this to Stu. I’m not sure I want this out in the world. It’s not even so much about writing through grief as it is about just coping with it. But, maybe that’s enough. Maybe someone out there reading this is going through something similar. Maybe seeing that you’re not the only one feeling this, not the only one suffering a thing that cannot be abided, will help.
I’m trying to keep it together, and most days I do a passable job. But, it’s a thin veneer between me and despair. I have help. I hope the rest of you do, too.
So, there you go. My rambling, semi-coherent rant about grief with a nod to how it affects my writing. Thanks for listening. I don’t know if any of you will get anything out of it, but it helped me a little to write it. It helps to articulate my pain. A little. Comfort number four.
I’ve been submitting (and occasionally selling) fiction for more than six years now, and I’ve learned some stuff. One of the most important was to be myself.
I read a lot, across several genres, and ‘literary’ fiction; I even read nonfiction now and again, but usually it’s about writing, or it’s really, really funny. Or cool.
Some of the stuff I read is terrible. Once I know beyond a doubt (usually only takes a few pages, but for a novel, I’ll go as far as fifty to make sure) that I’m not enjoying it, I put it down and read something else. I don’t have time to read bad writing (unless I’m being paid to edit something; then, it’s a job, and I’ll see it through no matter how painful).
Some of it is magical. Some writers are so good at what they do, you can’t help but smile at their sentences. You get a warm, tickly feeling from their prose. I love it when I find that. Makes reading a genuine pleasure.
Now, here’s the thing: I want to be that good. I want readers to freak out because they love my words. I mean, who here doesn’t? But, I’m not those writers whom I adore. I’m me. And, some people are going to like what I write (hopefully some already do. Doesn’t matter, though. I’ll keep screaming into the void regardless). Some people are probably going to hate me. That’s fine, too. I write a lot of nasty stuff. I don’t expect it to be universally appealing.
In the past, I have come away from reading something amazing, and metaphorically smashed my head against the wall, because I’m convinced I’m never going to be that good at this. I’ll never write that well. Ever.
And, you know what? That’s okay. I’m not going to try to be one of my heroes. I’m not going to try to emulate any other w, iter, no matter how much I love them. Because, that wouldn’t be me.
I’d like to win awards. I’d like to sell thousands (nay! Millions!) of books. Of course I would. And, someday, maybe I will. Maybe not. I can’t really control the vagaries of public opinion or what’s popular at any given time.
You know what I can control, though? I can control what I write. I can try to make each story better than the last. I can fall in love with my characters, and enjoy putting them through hell. I can tell stories I want to read, and hope at least a few other people find them entertaining.
If you’re new at this writing thing, here’s the trick: you, and you alone, have your voice. I can’t explain how to fine-tune this thing. I can’t tell you what it even is, really. But, it’s yours. No one else has your voice. You own that shit. You do you. That’s the only thing you can control, and the one thing that matters most.
Sure, learn from other writers. Learn from books about writing. Learn from blog posts about writing (like this one [winky emoji]). Learn by listening to people talk, watching people move around, and paying attention to everything around you. But, be you. Don’t be anyone else.
And me? I’m gonna over here, in the big, comfy, ugly-ass green recliner, being me.
Thanks for listening.
I use the term “mid-list” with a certain amount of pride, but also a healthy dose of humility, I think. I have been selling stories for six years now, sometimes at professional rates, mostly not. I’ve been asked to write for specific calls, which is flattering as hell. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to make the deadlines for most of those, which makes me feel like an ass.
I’ve edited a novel and three anthologies of other people’s stuff. I’m reading slush for a small press.
I have a small, but loyal, fan base.
I’ve got some chops.
However, I’m far from well-known. In some horror circles, my name might be recognized, but more likely I’d get a “who? Never heard of him.”
And, I’m okay with that. I really am. It’s cool. I mean, sure, I’d love to be well-known. I’d love to make it, to have my books explode and have readers gushing about me. I’d love to be able to quit my day job (I wouldn’t though, because I like my day job, and I’ve got damn good bennies, but having the option would be cool as hell).
There are writers who are doing it for a living, and I admire the hell out them. Some are wildly successful, and I think that’s awesome! I applaud them. I’m excited for them. Yay!
Which brings me to the point of this post. In the last six years, I’ve learned a lot about, not just writing, storytelling, and publishing, but also about how to conduct myself.
Things I will not do, and would strongly encourage you not to do as well are:
- Don’t be an asshole. You would think this is obvious, right? Apparently, it’s not. Shrug.
- Don’t shout “BUY MY BOOK” in my face every five minutes. Fucksake, buddy. Calm down. I get it: you’re excited. That’s cool. I get pumped when something new comes out, too, but tone it down, okay? The more you hit me over the head with how badly you want me to buy your shit, the more I don’t want to. Think about that for a minute, okay? Yeah. Cut it out.
- On a related note, don’t pimp your shit when people ask for reading recommendations. This is tacky as hell. It’s like the unsolicited dick pic of writer behavior. No one wants to see that; keep it in your pants. But, go ahead and recommend your writer friends’ stuff, if you like it. Don’t do it just because they’re your friends, because books you recommend reflect on you. If you pimp shitty books, no one will trust you, and won’t want to read your stuff.
- Don’t get on social media drunk. Just don’t. It won’t end well. I trust I don’t have to explain this one to anyone.
- Support your fellow writers. If someone you know has a new book, share that shit. Celebrate their successes (I know I’m repeating myself, but this bears it) with them. Get their work in front of readers. The more books sold in general, the better for all of us. It’s not a competition. My success doesn’t mean you lose. There’s no downside. Do this, and do it a lot.
- Be yourself. Seriously. You’re interesting. You are a fascinating motherfucker. No one else is you. People want to know who you are beyond your stories. You don’t need to hide behind some public persona, and (unless you’re hiding from a stalker), you should not. I see a few horror writers especially who create this whole dark, scary persona, who try to come across as Evil Incarnate. Yeah. Lighten up, Francis.
- Keep at it. Even when you’re tired, or depressed, or frustrated, you need to hit the keys (or grab the pen, or talk into your voice-recorder thing). I’m not saying you have to write every damn day, but you do have to write. We’re writers. That’s what we do. It’s cool to take breaks. I do that. I go for days without writing sometimes. When I do that, I usually read a lot, or sometimes edit, or both. But, I always get back to writing. Because, ultimately, that’s where the fun is. Making shit up. I fucking love that.
- Always strive to be better. Read authors whose words sing. Study books on writing (there are some damn good ones out there). Up your game. Read poetry (I personally don’t care for poetry, but it’s a good exercise in controlling language, using the fewest amount of words possible, and it’s good for you). Read bad stuff, too, so you know how not to do it (I highly recommend reading slush: you’ll read a lot of terrible fiction, but once in a while, you’ll find something brilliant, too).
- Listen to feedback. Unless it’s from a reader who says something vague like, “this sucks,” or “you’re awesome, dude!” This is not constructive. Real feedback, especially from editors (frequently found in rejection letters) can improve your writing immensely. Pay attention. Use it. If they took the time to say something, it means you’re on the right track.
- Enjoy yourself. I mean that. If you’re not having a good time writing, if it’s torturous to get the words out, maybe you should stop. If I’m having fun writing something, I’m fairly confident a reader will have fun reading it. If it’s a chore, well, you see where I’m going with this.
All right. That’s all I got for now. Not sure if any of this helps, or if any of you needed my unsolicited advice, but I had to get it off my chest. So, I feel better anyway. Thanks for listening.
Probably, like me, you’ve been told your whole life that you need to save, Save, SAVE!
Set up that nest egg, that rainy day fund; make sure you have enough when you retire.
Where’s the fun in that?
Okay, so you might find it difficult to kick the saving habit. I’m here to help.
There’s something you’re probably doing already, that you can increase with surprising ease
Drink more coffee!
If you drink, say, two cups a day now, drink five! And none of that “free refill” nonsense either. Go to different cafes; don’t bring your own cup (they give you discounts for that). And, if you drink the regular stuff, switch to lattes; they cost at least twice as much.
And the best part? You just piss it all away!
Speaking of which, alcohol is another great choice: not only is it even more addictive than caffeine, it’s also more expensive.
You may be a collector. I know I am. Now, here you have to be careful. Things like stamps, coins and baseball cards can actually increase in value. Nobody wants that.
I used to play Magic the Gathering. When I finally kicked the habit, I sold all of my cards (some 200 or so) at once at a con. I had two Mox Pearls and a Black Lotus; I got $10 for all three. Nowadays, those are worth hundreds, if not thousands of dollars! The key is getting rid of them in a timely fashion, before they appreciate too much.
But, hey! If you somehow miss that window, it’s okay. Remember, trading cards are made of paper, and paper is flammable. In fact, so is money!
Stop working. Right now. This instant. Walk up to your boss, look them straight in the eye, and let them know just how much you really hate them. Then, because this might not actually be enough to get you fired (especially if you’re in a union), pee on their shoes. This is easier for people with penises, but manageable for everyone if you’re willing to put a little effort into it.
That, right there, will drastically decrease money coming in, and make it so much easier to get rid of what you have. You see how easy it can be?
Give whatever you might have saved up away to a charity, but don’t get a receipt. This is crucial, because, at the end of the year, you could get money back in taxes. Nobody wants that.
If you have a car, leave it running somewhere. Don’t worry; someone will steal it, even in a nice neighborhood. Teenagers, in particular, just can’t resist going for a joyride.
But, please, make sure you don’t have insurance on it. It’s important to plan ahead.
If you own a home, great! Most of your money is already going into paying for it! However, if you’re not careful, a house can actually become more valuable. Be sure you don’t fix anything! It’s also helpful to leave your doors and windows open at all times, so that wildlife can come in and help destroy your environment. Bonus: thieves will have full access to your other possessions, which frees you up from having to find other ways to get rid of them.
If you rent, even better! You’re basically throwing your money away! I strongly suggest you also rent your furniture and appliances, too; this is a great way to hemorrhage your cash.
Did you know you can rent cars, too? Find a really nice one: they cost a freakin’ ton every month.
Well, there you have it. In no time at all, you can be freed of your worldly assets, and live your life not having to worry about paying the bills or sending the kids to college.
No responsibilities. No pressures. No cash.
For the complete how-to guide and workbook, please send $17,000 to Ken MacGregor. It’s a great start!
I’d like to believe I’m sensitive to people’s feelings. I would. And, I think, for the most part, I am. But, I gotta tell ya, this whole “trigger warning” thing has gone too damn far.
I recently heard from a guy who does stand-up comedy, in a New York City burlesque club, for fuck’s sake, that he got complaints about his material. Someone felt that they needed a “safe space” and that his material had “triggered” an upsetting emotional response.
I’m sorry, but … WHAT?!? It’s fucking comedy, you asshole. It’s supposed to push the envelope, to shock, to disturb. Why the hell were you in a burlesque club for a comedy show in the first place? Why were you even outside of your cozy little room, if you’re so sensitive you can’t take a joke?
(Takes a deep breath to calm down, so he can type again without bashing the keys)
All right. So, let’s talk about trigger warnings and books. I write horror, among other things, as, I imagine, do many of you. I’ve written some pretty sick shit, too. Body parts being hacked off, people being eaten, genital mutilation (yeah, I went there) and other stuff I won’t mention here because it’s too gross.
I’m pretty sure some of that stuff is going to trigger a reaction. In fact, I’m fucking counting on it. I want to spur an emotional response in my readers. I want them to care about the characters, to really develop a meaningful attachment to them. That way, when I stick a knife in the character’s lower back, severing the spine and paralyzing them from the waist down, the reader feels it¸ too.
Here’s my take on the whole thing: if you feel something might be upsetting to you, that it might cause some trauma to resurface from the depths of your subconscious … don’t go anywhere near that thing. Simple, right?
If you’re reading horror, or, say, going to a comedy show (in a fucking burlesque club in NYC!), you should be prepared to experience some shit you might find disturbing. And, you shouldn’t expect an apology from the writer/comedian/whatever.
You sure as shit shouldn’t demand one.
It’s not my job to protect you from the things that might hurt you. It’s your job to protect yourself. Stop blaming the artists for your own discomfort. Fuck you. You know what my job is? It’s to make you uncomfortable.
So, yeah. With all due respect to people who’ve had traumatic experiences (haven’t we all?), it’s on you to stay away from the stuff that’ll trigger you. It’s not up to me. It’s not up to the stand-up comic. We’re supposed to be edgy. We’re expected to be dangerous.
If you want someone to hold your hand in the darkness, fine. No problem.
But don’t ask me to do it. You’re likely to pull back a stump.