Taking Stones from My Pockets

Virginia WoolfOne final nugget of wisdom that the unnamed magical realist gave to his audience of young writers was that “Writing is the only true form of therapy.” He said you could pay someone to take you into your subconscious and show you your issues, but they’ll slap a diagnosis on it, which will only give you distance. Writing keeps you all up-close and personal with your problems. No distance. Just you and your subconscious. I have another word for that: wallowing.

One of the things I seemed to absorb from a very young age was that artists are tragic heroes in their own stories. From Vincent Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf, to Heath Ledger and Robin Williams, I used to think that to be an artist meant you had to constantly suffer, which was good, because I felt like I had that suffering part down. It was bad because that meant I had to keep suffering if I wanted to make anything worthwhile.

It wasn’t until I studied Virginia Woolf in undergrad that I finally started to separate the artist from her mental illness. I had just started going to real therapy with a real therapist and taking real pills to account for the real chemical imbalance in my brain.

As I learned about her and read Mrs. Dalloway, I didn’t see a beautiful, artistic martyr anymore. I saw a woman who was very sick, like me, and her sickness killed her. I remember thinking she was brilliant, and she could have shared so much more of that brilliance with us had she not killed herself. But I noticed it is this sort of analysis that perpetuates this stupid idea that people are art factories, and sometimes there are casualties. Mourn Virginia, not the work that could have been.

I like to imagine Virginia at home with the resources I have: taking pills in the morning, going to therapy. She isn’t happy-cheery all the time, but she is alive, and she doesn’t want to die, and she isn’t fundamentally unhappy. She writes because it makes her feel good, because it makes her happy. I find this imagining more heartbreaking than the piles of volumes that she could have written in misery.

Writing can be deeply therapeutic, but it is not the best, or even only therapy at an artist’s disposal these days. Art does not come from suffering. Artists deserve to be happy. I deserve to be happy.

I write because it is healing, and because it makes me happy. If it didn’t do those two things for me, it would probably kill me, and that’s not worth it.

This is part 4/6 of the preface to my MFA thesis. Click below to read other parts as they are posted.

Part 1: Tomato Smoothies

Part 2: Finding the Cabin in the Woods

Part 3: The Irrational Fear of Genre 

Part 4: Taking Stones from Pockets 

Part 5: Fantastical Zoology 

Part 6: I am not Picasso

The Irrational Fear of Genre

Drawing_of_a_CockatriceMy undergraduate education was excellent, and I was incredibly lucky that my writing program never discouraged me from writing what I wanted to write. There were some perks of a writing program that had an unofficial focus in literary fiction: my education focused a lot on rhythm, sentence structure, and character development, and less on the total weirdness and worldbuilding that I threw at my peers and professors every week. They had no idea what to do with that stuff. There were two other fantasy writers in the department during my time there, and there were none in my graduating class.

In my last writing class of undergrad, my professor told me two things that I have taken forward with me:

The first is that I write “magical realism,” which was a term that I had never heard before, but once it was described to me, I could recognize it in my work and others’ almost instantly. Kelly Link’s Pretty Monsters collection had been a major influence on me when I read it in high school. Some of my favorite Neil Gaiman short stories fall into this category. Not to mention I had just finished Murakami’s 1Q84 which is nothing if not magical and realistic. Magical realism is subtle, it’s ethereal, it’s small-scale and it’s unexplained. Most of all, it’s magical.

Which brings me to the second thing that my professor told me: “You really transcend the genre.”

This one broke my brain a little. By this point I was reading Caitlin R. Kiernan, more Kelly Link, piles of Neil Gaiman, and was regularly listening to the Escape Artist podcasts. I was swimming in genre, and I didn’t think I transcended any of that. I still don’t.

People think fantasy and they see hardcore sword-and-sorcery wizards in middle earth having raunchy Game of Thrones sexy times or something. Every time I explain what I write, I get “Oh, like Harry Potter,” or “What did you think of last week’s Game of Thrones,” or my favorite, “I don’t read that. I read real fiction.” They assume there’s nothing more to the genre than “Harry Potter” or “not Harry Potter.” If your only exposure to the genre is the little bits that make it into the popular culture, then of course you think magical realism “transcends the genre.” It’s closer to literary fiction than your sword-and-sorcery understanding. But the blending of fantasy and literary fiction doesn’t invalidate the fiction that is straight-up fantasy. Never underestimate escapism. Escapism saves lives.

None of these distinctions—high fantasy, urban fantasy, magical realism, sword-and-sorcery, fairy tale—are inherently bad or good. Whether one is better than the other is completely subjective. They are all fantasy though, and I will argue that until I die.

After my graduation, my undergraduate university hosted a reading for a writer whose magical realism I was familiar with. He’s not famous for his magical realism; he’s famous for his “serious literature.” Still, I was excited to hear what he had to say and to see him read his own work. After the reading, he stuck around for a Q&A.

I don’t remember the questions that were asked, but I do remember his little nuggets of “wisdom.” He told us to write from the heart, because the heart is where truth comes from. He said we could write from ideas, and a lot of other writers have and been published and have careers, but they’re not…

And as he trailed off, he let out a small laugh and the rest of the room giggled with him. I assume he was going towards “they’re not artists” or something of that nature. No matter how that sentence ended, it was clearly placing “emotional” writing over “fun” writing.

Genre writing is often idea writing; it’s “what if” writing. What if a guy got stranded on Mars? What if a kid woke up one morning and found out that he was a wizard? What if there’s another world just beyond that wardrobe? For me, in fantasy, the “what if?” comes first, and the heart comes later. For some people there’s just the fun of a “what if?” but even then, you know they care enough to answer the question. So what if the answer isn’t some grand musing on the human condition?

After all his wisdom was dispensed, the writer did a signing.

I may have imagined this next part. I am a fiction writer after all.

While I was standing in line, I heard him talking to someone else about how this new book was his favorite to write. This was the only one that he actually knew was good. I bought his book, but not the new one, the old, magical realism collection. When I put it in front of him I saw the light leave his eyes, like I’d just put a dead rat in front of him. Like I’d yanked a skeleton out of his closet and started waving it in his face.

Magical realism is fantasy. If you write magical realism, that means you write weird, surreal fantasy. There is nothing wrong with that, friend.

This is part 3/6 of the preface to my MFA thesis. Click below to read other parts as they are posted.

Part 1: Tomato Smoothies

Part 2: Finding the Cabin in the Woods

Part 3: The Irrational Fear of Genre 

Part 4: Taking Stones from Pockets

Part 5: Fantastical Zoology

Part 6: I am not Picasso

Finding the Cabin in the Woods

IMG_20170501_204730251I started my romance with horror with slasher flicks, which ended up being more cathartic than scary. I had some sick revenge fantasies as a teenager. Thankfully I am not a teenager anymore, and I have developed this weird thing called empathy.

I still love horror movies. I also fall for literally every jump scare. All of them. There could be a flashing neon sign pointing to the corner where the monster will jump out and I will still flail and utter a long string of curse words. It’s something I can count on in these kinds of movies; it’s simple and spooky, and fun, and funny. I like having that moment of naiveté in a movie where I can predict almost anything because the formula is so standardized. Horror for me is letting go, letting something happen. Even when I find horror movies that legitimately terrify me (I’m looking at you, Skype vignette from VHS), they’re fun. Horror is fun.

Short fiction is what keeps my love for horror alive. Fiction doesn’t do jump scares well and is often aiming to disturb you instead of make you scream. Once I got hooked on the webzine Pseudopod and started building up my library of horror anthologies, I couldn’t stop. Horror stories allow me to face my fears in a way that is safe and weirdly relaxing. I can feel that creepy, ominous darkness and then hop back into the real world over the course of an hour or so. I like being disturbed, unsettled, and uncomfortable outside of real life, where I don’t have much control over when I feel these things.

The horror stories started spilling out of my brain after a while. I’m learning how to freak myself out, and in turn get control over those ominous, depressive feelings. Somehow, the horror stories in this collection still ended up being the stories that were fun to write, even if I kill all the children, which is something I never thought I’d write about, but I do three times in this thesis alone. File that under “unexpected things I learned at Stonecoast.”

This is part 2/6 of the preface to my MFA thesis. Click below to read other parts as they are posted.

Part 1: Tomato Smoothies

Part 2: Finding the Cabin in the Woods

Part 3: The Irrational Fear of Genre

Part 4: Taking Stones from Pockets 

Part 5: Fantastical Zoology 

Part 6: I am not Picasso

Tomato Smoothies

IMG_20170603_134359500During my second semester at Stonecoast, I was hospitalized for my depression. On one of the last days before I was discharged, during check-in, another patient said that one of his goals for the night before was to mindfully eat a salad. The grad student mediating check-in asked him a bunch of questions about his salad. How did that feel? What kind of salad? Was it good? Finally, he asked about the cherry tomato that the patient had mentioned, and I swear this is my most vivid memory from my ten days in the program: The patient said the tomato was “transcendent.”

Going through hospitalization for your mental health is a surreal, weird experience. For me it was helpful (still not dead), but it was still so strange. Adding dragons to it seemed like a natural choice. My brain functions much better on metaphor, and what better metaphor for your brain trying to kill you than a giant dragon?

Amanda Palmer talks about how when we make art, we’re like the ingredients in a smoothie. You’ve got your real-world experiences and then the fantasy and the abstract. Shove it all in the blender, turn it on, and BAM. Art. Sometimes you get a super-finely blended smoothie, where everything is homogenous and you can’t really tell what went into it. Sometimes you’ve got something that’s less blended, and you can still see all the bits of you that you threw in there. It all depends on what setting your blender is on. I suppose my blender’s set pretty low, usually. “The Dragon,” which is the first story in my thesis, is almost autobiographical.

I started making up stories as a kid because I needed to get away from my problems. I can remember the earliest signs of depression starting to dig its roots into my brain around third grade. I had a lot of things that I felt like I needed to run away from, and as I got older that list seemed to get longer and longer. The setting on the blender got lower and lower, and writing became less about running away from things and more about staring them right in the face and telling them to back the fuck off.

Obviously, not all of my stories have the blender on a low setting. My darker stories, my horror stories have the blender up pretty high. “The Manticore” was also written during my time at the hospital, and was directly influenced by the way other people spoke about their parents and children. “The Manticore” isn’t based on any one person’s experience, let alone mine. These higher-blender stories tend to be bleaker as they tend to function as messed-up cautionary tales. Be careful what you wish for. Nobody’s safe with that weirdo in the bar. Tear down that stupid dam in Estabrook Park.

This is part 1/6 of the preface to my MFA thesis. Click below to read the other parts as they are posted:

Part 1: Tomato Smoothies

Part 2: Finding the Cabin in the Woods 

Part 3: The Irrational Fear of Genre 

Part 4: Taking Stones from Pockets

Part 5: Fantastical Zoology

Part 6: I am not Picasso

“Why is THAT the real world?”

P95201705169511312495vHDR95AutoOne morning before starting our horror workshop, our magical leader Nancy Holder caught one of us referring to life outside of residency “the Real World.” She just looked at us and said, “I never understood that. Why does that,” she said as she pointed out to the snowy Freeport street, “have to be the real world? Why can’t this be the real world? Let the day job and all that stuff be the fake world.”

I’ve been trying to shift my perspective, especially now, as I am moving out of my MFA program and into this world where I’ll be making stuff all by myself, with no due dates or deadlines beyond the ones that I set for myself. And I am bad at setting deadlines for myself. Like, terrible. I’ve spent the last six years of higher education writing things at the last second and working well under pressure. Well, the pressure’s about to be off, and for the first time in my life there’s no one but me to tell me to get shit done except me. My real writing world is shifting and changing and I’m struggling to adjust. I haven’t even actually graduated yet.

Last week I printed out my thesis and I stared at my stack of paper and I thought, “That’s it?” It looked so small. The metaphorical mass of that thesis feels like so much more than 125 pages. I put so much into the thing. So much energy and time and so many feelings and all the saddest magical creatures and now it’s done. Shipped off to Portland for binding.

I keep having to remind myself that I’m only 23. I have time. And with that time comes all these options and they’re so overwhelming. There are so many things that I have in my head that I want to make, but it’s all on me to make them. My brain is full of podcasts and short story sequences and blog posts and comic books that I want to just shove out into the world but I can’t seem to just pick one thing to make. Instead, I’ll be feeling all this creative energy and not know which outlet to throw it at, because they all feel equally urgent, and they all feel awkwardly inadequate. I love my thesis, I’m very proud of it, and like every other moment of writing success I keep finding myself wondering how the hell I’m going to top it. Or if I’ll ever top it. Or if I’ve used everything up and I’ve got nothing left.

I know, my blog is really living up to the “sad” part of its namesake. But I think I’ve figured some shit out. Maybe. I’m only 23 I don’t think I’m supposed to have things figured out yet.

One of my Stonecoast buddies, the always magical Celeste, started this awesome group for journaling which has done amazing things to clear my brain. Through her prompts, I figured something out: I want to collaborate. I wand to make things with people. The hardest part of preemptively grieving the end of graduate school is that I’m losing residency. I’m losing those amazing ten days where my writing world is at its realest and I am surrounded by like-minded nerds and I have to write things. Writing isn’t so lonely when I have that community. So I’m working on finding collaborators, and surrounding myself with other creators from grad school and beyond that I love and who inspire me, and I feel better.

I want making things to be my real world. I’m working on it.

There and Back Again

I went to the mountains. My body is not a huge fan of breathing while in the mountains, but I did it anyway.

IMG_20170430_175339_855Last summer, Jen, one of my Stonecoast friends invited me to a retreat small writing retreat that she hosts in Estes Park, Colorado. After trying to figure out money and finances and all that junk, my fiance told me to just go, because I’d regret it if I didn’t. So come April, I hopped on a plane to Denver, which has an obnoxious airport.

At this point, my thesis was done aside from nitpicky grammatical stuff, so for the first time in ages I had time to write for myself. We workshopped, we regular shopped, we saw an elk cross the street at a crosswalk because I guess that happens in Colorado. I saw legit mountains for the first time in my life. Holy shiz, guys, mountains are pretty. We went looking for ghosties at the Stanley Hotel, I drank all the tea, and I experienced altitude sickness.

Before I left for Colarado, I was having a lot of trouble with my depression. While talking to Jen about this, she said, “Have you been to the mountains before? People legit use them to heal.”

I won’t say that the mountains fixed all my problems, but it felt good being there surrounded by the gorgeous mountains and wonderful, smart people. That feeling of peace and goodness was probably one of the best things that I took home with me.

Once the retreat was over, Jen and her husband were wonderful enough to let me stay with them in Omaha for a few days (WITH THEIR PUPPY TOBY WHO IS THE CUTEST). Jen convinced me to do a story slam, where I told a room full of strangers about Star Wars and my first time losing a friendship. I wrote some more stuff, saw some teen playwrights perform their work, snuggled with doggo a lot, and then I headed home.

Experiences like these are always hard for me to talk about without sounding like I’m giving an elementary school report on “what I did this summer,” but these things, spending time with these people in these places are things that I will always be grateful for, and I want to pay tribute to them in the little ways I can.

I Didn’t Come Here for Feelings

Image Credit: Netflix

Around Christmas, I started watching the Netflix original Bojack Horseman. It’s a silly show about a washed-up, 90’s sitcom star that also happens to be an anthropomorphic horse. Emphasis on silly. I wanted some good old fashioned animated escapism. That is not what I got.

In season 2 of the show, there’s an episode called “Hank After Dark,” which pulls no punches in its portrayal of rape culture and how pop culture news can overshadow world news. It does not offer any solutions; it just puts a mirror up to our culture and says, “Just look at this bullshit. It’s bullshit, right? Total bullshit.”

When I finished “Hank After Dark,” I took a break from the show for about a week, just because I wasn’t really in a good spot to binge that kind of social commentary.  I did finish the show, and I’m glad I did, because it is excellent, and the writers have promised that the next season will be as satirical and on-point as it has been.

Yesterday, I started reading Tokyo Ghost vol. 2 hoping, once again, to escape politics and thesis work for a little while, only to find a character that is not-so-subtly based on a certain Cheeto-flavored public figure. I would post a pic, but this character does not ever wear pants, so…yeah.

Even if the thing doesn’t deliberately make a statement about current politics, I find myself applying modern context to it. On election night I made an un-ironic Facebook post about The Human Centipede 3 somehow becoming a prophetic satire instead of the hot mess of a film that it should be. I re-watched the first film in the franchise with my best friend that night; We deliberately avoided 3 because it was too real.

Other pop-culture things to come to mind are of course Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Captain America: Civil War. Hell, even the “Hormoniums” episode of Bob’s Burgers feels extra timely as a bunch of dude politicians continue to prove to us that they have no idea how the female body works.

A lot of art I’ve been turning to for relief lately has ended up saying the same sort of political messages. Artists are fearlessly telling us how they see the world. They are predicting things. They are standing up for what they believe in.

I didn’t come to these things for feelings, but I’m glad that these pieces of art exist and are resisting. And they’re doing it well. They draw people in with their pretty art and original concepts and then they punch you right in the gut with those feelings, which, to me, is exactly what art should do. Art imitates life, life imitates art. It’s an important give and take. Let’s just do our best to make sure life life doesn’t start imitating A Handmaid’s Tale, though, guys, cus that would really suck.

Most importantly, I try to remember this phrase which I’ve heard repeated by many writers in the past few months:

Don’t look away.