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I was doing one of my ongoing Instagram Live sessions about writing a while back and someone asked a really interesting question: Do you always confront your demons in your writing? Or do you conjure them sometimes? I’m paraphrasing slightly.
I hadn’t thought about it in quite these terms before — but in fact, I think the way I (and other writers) tackle the scary, awful, stuff in our lives (and in our heads) is actually a bit more complicated. There are times when:
you need to really delve into the true awfulness of a problem, or a situation. You need to dramatize it in all of its rottenness, to show why it’s a major problem or to make the reader feel the trauma your characters are going through. My main personal example is the story “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue,” where I wrote a super exaggerated version of the ways that transphobia can dehumanize us and force us back into a dead version of ourselves. I got pretty deep into the horror and anxiety that transphobia create.
you want to escape from scary, awful stuff in the “real” world by creating a kinder, nicer world — which is a totally awesome and valid way of dealing with the nastiness of life and politics and everything
you want to do some combination of those two things: writing a fun, escapist story that still grapples with some real-life stuff
But I often find that when I bring something scary and intense from real life, or from my imagination, into a story, it starts out huge and terrifying — and then it shrinks down to a more manageable size. It just becomes… part of the story.
How does this happen? Basically, the moment you start layering on story stuff, the scary badness kind of gets put into proportion. You put in characters and relationships and the places they like to hang out, and the kind of music they like to listen to, and the food they cook or eat, and their favorite cup with the chipped rim, and the flowers in their garden, and all of the stuff that makes this story more like Real Life. The more you put people, and the things that are attached to people, into a story, the less likely it is to be just Scary Bad Scaryness.
This is part of the magic of fiction, really — making up a story enables us to do with imaginary terrors what we normally do with real-life fears. When something new and scary comes along (like, say, a lethal and virulent pandemic) we obsess about it and grapple with it and maybe hide in the closet with a flashlight to try and get away from it — but eventually, we integrate it into our overall reality.
That doesn’t mean we “learn to live with it,” or that we stop being terrified of it. I’m still terrified of covid and white-supremacist authoritarianism, despite living with their presence in my lives for a long time now. Or that we have to “normalize” things that shouldn’t be accepted as normal. What it does mean is that we can’t keep a ravenous monster separate from the rest of our concerns and preoccupations for too long, before compartmentalizing becomes too much of a strain. You have to start thinking in terms of “the world contains tea and chocolate and car accidents and covid and work and bills and rent payments and white supremacists, etc. etc.”
This is part of how we deal with living thru some terrible, no-good, horrendous stuff — and it does enable us to hunker down in real time and get through the badness. The downside is that we’re sometimes too good at integrating bad stuff (see above, re: normalization). But the alternative, remaining in a constant panic, is probably not desirable or even achievable.
So here are some examples from my own work, of what I’m tallking about here.
Climate change. This is a big one. I’m honestly terrified of what’s coming, and the fact that we’re already starting to live through heat waves and superstorms and (maybe) zoonotic diseases doesn’t do anything to make the future climate disruption less scary. At all. We are going to suffer, all of us, in ways we’ve barely wrapped our heads around so far. And yet, I don’t think fiction about climate change needs to be disaster porn, or pure misery, or something engineered to “scare us straight.” At all. A lot of my work on climate change is about surviving and adapting, like my story “Because Change Was the Ocean and We Lived By Her Mercy.” And a bunch of others — All the Birds in the Sky is a lot about climate change without descending into pure despair.
Famine. Similarly, I’m obsessed with food insecurity – both the widespread starvation that’s happening in many parts of the globe right now, and the worse famine to come. I wrote “The Minnesota Diet” for Slate, in part because I wanted middle-class Americans to be able to imagine not having good access to food. And just maybe, this would make people more likely to have empathy with all the people who are going hungry right now. But also, we need to be ready for what’s coming, thanks to the droughts and die-offs that are on the way. But even though “The Minnesota Diet” contains dark, upsetting stuff, it’s also full of humor and friendship and music and slang and fun details about a future smart city. The more I tried to make it a story about people and relationships and lives, the more the scary stuff became just part of the fabric of the overall tale.
Dementia. And finally… too many people I love have suffered from dementia, and it’s one of the scariest things I can possibly imagine. But if you read my story “Rat Catcher’s Yellows,” it’s got a lot of sweetness and even cuteness in it – it’s about a woman whose life partner is succumbing to a new kind of neurological disease. And the best therapy for that disease turns out to be a video game involving a kingdom of cats, which kind of turns its players into cat people over time. As I built up the relationship between the two main characters, and the adorably weird cat game, the stuff about dementia stayed heartbreaking, but it also became part of the bigger picture.
Again, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with going all the way dark, or winnowing your way into the center of upsetting, horrific things — as horror fiction proves, you can use all of the human, relatable, personal stuff to heighten the dread and loathing that are at the center of good horror. But at the same time, it’s perfectly possible to start off writing about something terrifying, or introduce something terrifying into the narrative, and let all of the other aspects of writing put it into perspective. It won’t stop being awful, but it might just inspire a bit less awe. And become something we can face up to in real life.
Top image: detail of illustration for “The Minnesota Diet” at Slate.com, by artist Laura Callaghan.
Jason Sanford’s Patreon is well worth supporting, in order to read more of his insightful writing about speculative fiction. And the latest edition of his “Genre Grapevine” is especially worth checking out (and free to read even for non-supporters). In particular, the stuff about authors confronting how wretched Twitter can often be was very eye-opening. And so was the stuff about DMCA takedowns, which is kind of scary tbh.
Joseph “Amp” Fiddler was a mainstay of George Clinton’s P-Funk thing for a long time, and his Bandcamp is just crammed with good stuff that I hadn’t been aware of until the other day. I am currently grooving a lot on The One by Fiddler and Will Sessions, featuring Dames Brown. Large parts of this album could come from a Parliament-Funkadelic joint circa 1978, and I can practically hear Junie Morrison and Cordell “Boogie” Mosson going full-tilt all over the place. If you’re jonesing for old-school P-Funk goodness, you should check this out. And all of Fiddler’s other stuff (which sometimes goes a bit more electronica) is worth listening to as well.