Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Part II: Purpose

Brian Keene and Gary Braunbeck made my decision much easier, and helped me to realize this was the right thing to do; but they weren't the catalyst. The seed was planted many years ago.

I've been writing poems and stories since elementary school. I made the decision to become a professional writer about six months after I left seminary. I started out with an electric typewriter, but I created the majority of my early work on a Commodore 64 and a nine-pin dot matrix printer. My word processing program was Geowriter, part of the GEOS software suite. For those who don't know, this was one of the first Graphical User Interfaces for a home computer. It was Windows long before there was a Windows. I knew what I wanted: to be the next Stephen King. I submitted to Eldritch Tales, Spectral Tales, Grue, 2AM, The Horror Show, The Scream Factory, and others. I received many encouraging rejections, for which I am both grateful and amazed. At this point in my work, I was not very well read in the genre and I still labored under the false impression that all horror stories had to end with a Twilight Zone-like ending. Still, these editors encouraged me to keep writing. Perhaps they saw something more that what I had given them on the page.

I knew that if I wanted to get better, I would need to learn more. I read every writing book I could get my hands on, and managed to understand a little of it. I finally decided that formal education was the route I needed to take and enrolled at West Virginia State College.

I worked during the day and went to school at night, taking courses when I could. I majored in English with a minor in Computer Science. I studied literature and linguistics. I read a wide variety of authors. I wrote stories and poems, and published in the school journals. After six years of hard work, I finally earned my degree. And promptly gave up writing.

Jean Anaporte, my poetry professor at State, was very upset to learn I had taken a computer tech job and had stopped writing. I thought I was just being practical. I had read great literature and felt I didn't have the talent to measure up to that. I had a good job that stimulated me intellectually and paid me well. I had simply grown older and my dreams had changed. Or so I thought. Being a writer is very much like being in the Mafia: you can try to get out, but it just keeps dragging you back in.

My road to becoming a published professional began in New York City in 2005 at the World Horror Convention, which I attended because I saw something about it on the Internet. I was the quiet guy who knew absolutely nobody, feeling like a gatecrasher at an exclusive party. I did manage to introduce myself to a few people, see how real authors behaved (both good and bad), and met people who would influence me in ways I never would have guessed. Many of these people became my good friends.

WHC would be followed by Necon, HorrorFind, and Borderlands Boot Camps. My knowledge grew, and would eventually bear fruit in my incipient writing career. I'm not even close to being another Stephen King, but I couldn't imagine ten years ago where I would be now. Horror has been very good to me. That is why what I am about to say might come as a surprise. It certainly does to me. But the seeds to this announcement started right at the very beginnings of my writing, found root and were nurtured during my time in college, and has come to fruition because of the counsel of some very wise teachers and friends in the horror business. And at this point in my career, it is the logical next step.

I am giving up horror.

It was a matter of time. My writing has drifted away from purely horror themes. I can see the pattern in my writing clearly now. During a horror author panel at this year's ConText, I asked a bit of a loaded question. "What is it that you want your readers to take away from your work?" The answer was nearly unanimous: nothing. Horror is meant to be a funhouse ride and nothing more. These authors didn't tell me anything that I hadn't read in many of the literary texts I've studied. Horror is the most restrictive of all genres, focusing on the emotion of fear very often at the expense of all others. Calling fiction "Dark Fantasy" or "Supernatural Thriller" are simply attempts to write horror themes without being beholden to horror construction. Horror can be a box that limits theme and meaning. Although it may not be important to a horror writer for a reader to take something away from their work, it is important to me.

Therefore, I'm no longer calling myself a horror writer. I am simply a writer. This doesn't mean that I won't write horror fiction. It does mean that those stories I choose to call horror may not fit very comfortably within what some might believe horror fiction should be. Personally, I believe horror can and should use a broad emotional palate, and that a horror story can have meaning that isn't painfully contrived when constructed by a skilled author. Joyce Carol Oates, Ray Bradbury, and Gary Braunbeck prove that in their work, and I would be thankful indeed to have a fraction of their talent.

I don't wish to be misunderstood here and lead anyone to believe that I have ceased upon the na├»ve conviction that I have gained some sort of enlightened state that makes me somehow better than the average horror writer. I am no literary snob, and becoming one would be the death knell to my writing career. I still love horror stories, and I don't believe anyone who writes horror needs to explain themselves to anyone. I'm not in a better place than my friends who write horror, just in a different one. And I truly believe that the writer's panel at Context—many of whom are friends of mine—were selling themselves short. Readers take away more from their work than they know.

Honestly, I'm not sure what label will ultimately be placed upon my work. Mainstream or genre. Popular or literary. I don't worry about that. My only concern in to improve my craft and to write fiction and poetry that is uniquely and irrefutably… me.

Tomorrow, I'd like to introduce you to someone.


Michael M. Hughes said...

Interesting thoughts.

I don't consider myself a horror writer, though what I write often falls into that category. As you know, Doug Winter's oft-quoted words ring true: "Horror is an emotion,not a genre." As writers, we must strive to capture ALL human emotions, not just white-knuckled fear, terror, or revulsion.

The best horror writers are just good writers who happen to write about scary or disturbing things. I applaud your decision to shuck the horror tag and just go by what you are -- a writer. That's it. Plain and simple.

Gerard Houarner said...

Just a comment on a reader taking away nothing from horror -- that would explain why the genre, and commercial "genres" in general, are not taken seriously. If you don't put anything into them that relates to the world we all live in, then of course, nothing will be taken out. That a writer would say they expect nothing out of a piece of creative work is, well, pretty horrific.

For myself, the subject I'm drawn to is the invisible. The intangible. The shadows at the feet of people waiting at a bus stop. The shadows nestled between the petals of a flower that make it more beautiful.

One of the many propositions argued about in the general artistic world is that art has only two subjects: sex and death. Everything expressed in art breaks down to one, the other, or both. (yeah, and transcendence, but there you have the beginning of the argument).

So, yes, if you define horror as an emotion rather than a subject, the genre does become a "thrill" ride in an amusement park, like mysteries become cross-word puzzles, and science fiction becomes a speculative exercise.

Dealing with the subject that calls to you through the real characters, in a world that mimics or metaphorically parallels our own, is what makes a genre work a piece of art (good, bad, indifferent art is up to the people, but the intent was at least more than a "thrill ride.")

I say all that to say this: in defining myself to readers, or even potential readers, in conversation, online, wherever, it's one thing to say "I'm a writer." But the other person immediately projects what they want you to be. They have expectations. Needs and wants.

In that negotiation between their "I want to read a romance" and my "I don't do that," the subject drifts to writing about people in love, or solving a crime, or whatever, in a way the illuminates the darkness as well as the light, and doesn't necessarily resolve to the "light" side of things.

And there's the rub....

You can't get away from "horror," if the effect you're creating is disturbing. If you're being transgressive, if you're NOT reassuring your reader that the world is ordered and knowable and purposeful, then you are being horrific, whether you like it or not.

Some might say, if you are reassuring your reader that everything will work out okay, you're not being truthful.

Just some random thoughts....