Some of us find writing from the dark side easy. For others, it is down right uncomfortable, but may be the best thing for our writing. In honour of Halloween we are going to dedicate the next posts to writing from the dark side. I think we can all agree that the contemporary king of writing from the dark side is Stephen King. On that note, here are two Stephen King quotes to contemplate:
“We make up horrors to help us deal with the real ones,” and, “Monsters are real and ghosts are too; they live inside us, and sometimes they win.”
The quotes above tie into the following story which is an excerpt from The Happy Hammock. Ironically, this story comes from the happy place of our Mexico Writing Retreat where I helped one writer get in touch with her dark side…
My Southern friend, Skye, originally from Atlanta, Georgia, who now lives in Canada to get out of the heat, comes to Mexico not for the weather but to work with me. She is writing a vampire novel, but she is a teacher of communications including conflict resolution which means she is nice. I had pointed out more than once in her novel that everyone seemed so nice and civilized and all the characters got along. In short, not enough conflict.
“We can’t learn anything if everyone is so nice, and it’s also boring,” I point out as diplomatically as possible. She promises me that conflict is coming up—after all this is a vampire novel—but even after we move ahead I still find too much niceness. She “fixes” any parts I point out to deliver to me next time, but this is not the way to fix a whole story. In fiction, a story comes out of the characters (even in non-fiction), and you will find a wholeness in the stories by understanding the characters deeply, their frailties, fears, their secret desires and the world they are in. Great characters should not be fashioned to be like people, not facsimiles, they should be people, as close to you as your good friends.
Vampires live in a dark world, literally. I start to suspect that Skye is not in touch with her own dark side. If that is true, it’s understandable why it is hard for her to see her own characters as flawed, selfish, frightened, and having the potential for deep, deep trouble. Ego will do that. It will protect us from our shadows.
“Vampires go under the horror genre,” I remind her. “Violent murders are being committed by them. This isn’t just about how sexy vampires can be.”
Skye is pretty good at the sexy parts already. There are many great erotica writers now that dabble on the dark side. 50 Shades of Grey is the tip of the iceberg. People would laugh at what these authors are really like in person. I’ve met many erotica authors who are far from their young, beautiful, avatar-like protagonists, and who are more likely to remind you of your favorite auntie or uncle than a person you would imagine is thinking up wild sex scenes all the time. Skye herself is petite but a little north of middle age, gray hair and glasses—albeit fashionable frames, but after her readings I have had other people lean over and tell (while they are fanning themselves), boy I can’t believe she writes such hot stuff.
You never know what is hiding beneath a person’s public exterior and that is the point I want to make to Skye. Instead of her trying to fix the “too nice” places that are not working, or the parts that are not her strength, I ask her to stop writing about her fictitious characters completely.
“Write me a story about your past, when something very, very bad happened to you. Something not pretty. Something that made you feel vulnerable. Something that could be described as dark.”
Why was I so sure that sweet little Skye who always told John and I or anyone she knew that she loved us whenever she parted from us, had such an incident in her past? First, she is a human being who has been on the planet long enough, and all human beings have something dark that has happened to them, and often more than one thing, it just depends on how much they have pushed it down. Second, a person does not choose a horror genre for no reason. It is not just the sexiness of vampires that Skye is attracted to. I knew that, but she didn’t, not really.
There is also an old saying, ‘Don’t be quick to destroy the devil in yourself, you may be destroying the best part of you.’ I think this saying works well for writers.
Because Skye is amazing and always says yes to coaching, she writes the story. It is dark. It is not pretty. It describes the horror that human beings really endure on this planet. It is about her childhood abuse and trauma and some of the best writing I have seen from her thus far. People have these things that happen to them and yet they survive and move on to grow and learn and come to terms with those past events, or not. Whichever it is, coming to terms or not, their writing about it gets them in touch with that place in themselves where their ego and their identity barely survived… but it did. This is a powerful place to write from.
I like to think that Skye coming to the heat of Mexico reminds her of her Southern roots, her upbringing and some of those less than warm memories in Atlanta. Or, perhaps she just needs to get away and leave her norms behind, like the rest of the writers that come here.
While this story is one of the writer stories from my book, The Happy Hammock, you can use the exercise I gave to Skye to get in touch with your dark side and don’t forget it while you write. Don’t nice it up. Keep it honest and understand that what Stephen King says is true, they live inside us.
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