It follows that I’m just as invested in language as I am in story. Or outlandish ideas. These things all seem to be mutually inclusive — the greater, grand poobah venn diagram of what’s meaningful to a writer: words, stories, inspiration. I like to think that the place where they overlap is where the muse lives, but as I’ve complained about at length in previous years, she’s a fickle harpy that cares not for me, or you, or anyone else (which is why we show up to do the actual work of writing instead of dickering about, pining over her absence.)
Today, we’re going to talk about words. Specifically a word and its uncanny ability to destabilize a person — me, obviously, because this is my kingdom and you lovely people get to learn from my experiences anecdotally as I slither around in the mire of my emotions, feeling a bit raw about the whole thing and trying to work through the feels with a blog post. The “B” Word.
First, the News, which is unrelated
Speaking of absent somethings: my Horror Writers Association application for mentorship went through. I’ve been waiting about a year for this to happen, and in the process reinvested myself in the second book without wanting to think about the first’s revision, because there’s pain there that I like to shy away from. I’d forgotten about the whole thing, in fact, until a note showed up in my inbox asking if I was still interested in being someone’s mentee. I’m now tearing apart the first few sequences in preparation to send the manuscript off. Muse — absent again. Toil and trouble. Moment of reckoning. The first time anyone’s seen Book One in its entirety and perfectly messy, rough state. (I could walk into the office buck naked and I’m pretty sure I’d be less stressed about it. What does that say about me and my degree of self-consciousness with respects to nudity, I don’t know.)
The words are worse — showing the words to someone else who’s seasoned and ready to reinforce every self-criticism I have about my work? Wicked stressful. Force load every ounce of self-doubt and ask myself why I’m doing this anyway. Yes. And then some. It brings into focus that sweet, far off thing that’s only supposed to happen in 2016 — publication. (I start laughing hysterically at this point. It renders the conceptual into something lumbering and very real; matching the slow, determined plod of the It Follows monster and I know — I know — the damned thing is after me now.)
Basically my week has gone from sorta busy to all-out screaming frenetic so I can rip apart everything I hate in chapters one through three.
The rest of the manuscript? (Insert further hysterical laughter.)
In which words have power and other cliches
Its inevitable that while I’m writing regularly I’m dissecting a variety of sources that fall into my lap: books, film, conversation. Given that its only just past the season of terasse pints and late nights, I seem to be reflecting on old patterns where the conversation swung from Battlestar Galactica to the next OkCupid war story. City parks became our Danger Rooms. I found myself wandering back to that same patch of shade in the park where my Kindle and I take up residence each summer on the laziest of Sundays. Lots of reflection, happening, as is the case, once its over — that total overstimulation all the time, and the season happens in a blur of heat haze and sleep deprivation, and by the end of summer, I found myself begging for quiet and calm. As it is, this feeds the muse: summer is fodder for the fall and winter when I knuckle down and attempt to reset the standard for that thousand words a day and what that means for my social life.
I’m not American, and Thanksgiving only just passed, but boy am I still glad that it’s over and I can nerd out again.
I frequently tell myself that the least you can do is enjoy it as it happens, but there are selective moments in the bunch that stand out — some of them really feel like a punch in the chest that forces the heart back into its stammering patterns that you thought for a second you were incapable of again. The same, and vastly different. New. Unlike anything before because the rhythm is different after the doctor lifts the panels and you return to life again.
I want to tell you a story about something that happened years ago that never really happened.
This is to say that this is a partial work of fiction, because I remember distinctly the rage I felt in the moment as it unravelled, and the despair of never acting on it though I saw the whole thing play out in my mind while I stood there stupidly and did nothing. (I don’t have very many regrets in life, but since I retold this story to a friend a few weeks back, and I’m sitting here reflecting on what it meant then, and what it means now in the aftermath of another selective moment that’s still humming in my bones.)
I want to tell you a story about what I really wanted to do but never did, because it’s coloured the way I’ve seen myself for a decade, and it’s taken as long to question it. Rethink it. Invalidate it. And make that the sort of untruth that is easily managed as something fictitious.
The “U” Word
Back in CEGEP our group of friends set up occupancy in the one, well-lit corner of an underground cafe where students would hang out on breaks or, like us, when we were cutting class. We spent so much time at those two shoved-together tables that I remember drawing illustrations for everyone who sat their regularly onto the table itself. The drawings were subsequently cellotaped down so they wouldn’t be removed. Non-Permanent. Just like our time there.
It was a blip, really. I don’t really remember my actual education starting until I’d left and moved on to university, but I learned a few lessons while squandering my time, nonetheless.
Fresh out of high school and still naive, I remember finding freedom for the first time: self-expression, self-meaning, self-definition. These things all happened post-adolescence and in the haze of the rave scene while I was studying Liberal Arts. The road to my future looked very different then: I was aiming for law school, or, as a second choice, journalism. My curriculum was a collection of philosophy and history classes. I learned deductive reasoning rather than how to handle a stick of charcoal on a canvas. It turns out, I hated rote memorization, but I was exceedingly good at sociological and anthropological research, especially in the domain of death and commemorative studies. (I’m still invested in it, as you might have gathered. I’ve only found new applications for the stuff I absorb now: what happens to this character when I drown her and someone pulls out the body after a fortnight… oh yes. It’s good to know things.)
You should note that by university, I’d flipped over the monopoly board on those original plans completely. I’ve still retained my Liberal Arts snobbishness, but my career choice shifted drastically to web design in short order. I didn’t want to end up a librarian. It would have been too cliche.
(Book nerd for life.)
One of the individuals who shared this table with in that particular dark corner was not a regular. There was no picture of him scribbled into the laminate surface, and if there was, we never taped it down. Non-permanent. A transient. This was always a collective decision made by the group: yes or no. In or out.
We were kids. This is a shitty thing to do: to play to exclusion. I’ve always carried a kernel of guilt about this, but the jury always won out. I recall the one time I tried to overrule the crowd, and that drawing was unceremoniously scrubbed out in my absence. Whatever. This is Sparta. Insert bottomless pit to be kicked into in the event that you defy the social circle’s conventions.
This one particular dude, however, sought to blame the person with the pencil for his exclusion. Let me explain what this results in, to be the one person holding the implement of someone’s approval or rejection — whether or not you inscribed their stupid face into a cafeteria table or not — you take the blame if they are dissatisfied with the outcome.
I remember making a very shocked apology, my backpack sagging off one shoulder, as he snarled up at me from my seat at the table that he’d claimed — my friends leaning away from this offending interloper while knowing they’d played a part in his expulsion — and let me take the brunt of the next thing he said:
“Yeah, well, you’re ugly.”
Here’s where the story gets a little skewed in my mind:
In my darkest fantasies, I reached across the table, gripped his messy shag of dull brown curls, and brought his face down into the table with a smack. In my mind’s eye, I imagine his nose sitting slightly askew and a smear of blood washing into his chin when he looked up at me again, dripping onto that stupid little elitist sketch under the sellotape. I imagine this was a fine payment for using that word against me.
I remember this every time I look into a mirror — not for the fact that I am pretty or not, that my self esteem was thrown into question, but because beyond physical appearances, the sentiment that sits behind that word goes beyond physical attractiveness and shaped my understanding of myself as a person.
Being in command of those drawings on that table, whether that was the case or not, holding that sort of power over something made up, made me a little bit of a monster. And I, debilitated in the moment, never actually broke his nose. I only walked away, because I’ve never hit another person. I only wrote about it later in a journal. Only cried. Only questioned myself and what that said about me because I was responsible and representing a group edict that this boy was unworthy of our consideration.
It would be much later that this comment catalyzed into a more simplistic version of itself because time distorts the shape of the scars we wear.
The “B” Word
Skip twelve years into the future. My partner and I are curled up on the couch on our second date, and after a pause, he uses the word for the first time.
It’s a counter spell.
I can’t remember the last time someone tucked my hair behind my ear, and smiled down at me, and actually said it with the degree of sincerity and care, but it undoes me entirely. I make this confession to him between sniffles, fanning at my face for being ridiculous and weak and sentimental and tearing up.
So I tell him the whole goddamned story like I can absolve myself by sharing it. I’ve never told anyone about this, and the people who sat at that table I haven’t kept in touch with over the years, so it’s something everyone’s forgotten except me. I remember. I remember because even after twelve years, I’m still wishing I was actually a monster and I could have caused the equally weighted sort of destruction with a physical manifestation of violence. The sort of retribution deserved after thinking the worst of myself for more than a decade.
And I’m wrong.
And he tells me I did the right thing.
And for the first time, I sort of believe it.
So he used the new word — the counter spell — again. And again. And he mops at my tears with me and we’re both giggling. And he apologizes on behalf of that guy from so many years ago. And I apologize to that guy through him because that’s what you do.
The Lesson, which should be obvious by now
In exactly three days I’m releasing a short story that got shat on in workshop. I’ve mended it, but I’m still terrified about it’s reception — not for the quality of the work, but the subject matter. At this point, if there’s a dangling modified someplace after running it through Grammarly eight times, so be it.
It’s the content that is worrisome. It’s the possibility that I’m playing with the sort of dark stuff that takes root in the real word, that people have suffered for, and that may be misconstrued as a desensitized interpretation of a really painful thing for a select handful of the population. It’s horror, so there’s a degree of distance between me and it, but it comes from a place where I recognize I was hurting sympathetically for others.
How it’s received will be subject to interpretation, and like anyone making art, only your name remains when you put it into the world and you’ve stepped away from it. I do this now with a degree of caution, while knowing at the same time that doing so involves a risk. At the end of it, I’ll still be accountable because it’s a thing I made that I will not have the opportunity to explain when it’s read by someone else.
I’m trying to reflect on any worst-case scenarios that might result in it’s release as if to shield myself against a possible onslaught. There is no such thing as “just words”, and really, there’s no way to prepare for what might happen if you take any sort of risk, so:
Here I am drumming my fingernails, and trying to distance myself enough that if bad stuff arrives in my inbox, I’ll be able to bandage myself up accordingly afterwards.
Oh yeah, I’ll still let it out into the wild.
I’m just not going to scotch tape it down or anything.