Embrace the Horror: Life After the English BA


So I was walking around my bookstore, straightening shelves and adjusting product when a customer suddenly approached me and confessed regretting every English degree she had achieved – right up through the Ph.D.

Nothing had turned out like she planned. People got in the way, had foiled her at every turn, and now she was questioning every move she’d made professionally. Never, she’d said, would she allow her children to major in the Arts and waste their time. Never.

Know what my thought was? (Prepare for irreverence…)

Then you’re not using it right.

What IS an English Degree?

An English BA is a wild, carefree trip through the Humanities. It allows the student to explore their undecided side… perhaps fiction, or philosophy, journalism, or psychology, religion or art, history or politics, law or logic. It allows the student to try on a few hats, test their interests and abilities, see if anything “calls” to them.

The problem is, sometimes something does. And in today’s world, there is nothing like a degree in the Arts that translates into poverty for most of its graduates.

Why is that? Because we no longer value people who critically think in this world. Thinkers are dangerous people. When they see something that is wrong they are wont to try and change things. And there is usually Big Money and wanton Power attached to things done wrong.

If you want to kill an army, you need to cut off the supply train. (See? I was paying attention in history class!)

Arts people are the canaries in the mines. Often times we make bold, scary-to-parents statements. We rattle cages and in some countries we risk our freedom or our lives just to make a statement.

Nothing scares people who love you more. Because they want you to have a nice, cushy life in the suburbs, and hope that you will be (in better ways) a nice little carbon copy of themselves to carry on the magic and fairy glamour of American Life.

And Technology is out there promising you that you too, can be smarter than everyone else and with the right career choices in math and science, can live in the Big House, safe and away from those huddled masses of unemployed, trouble-making Arts people.

But getting a degree in a Tech field as an Arts person really solves nothing. Tech people know their own, and if you are an Arts person in Wolf’s clothing, you will not be embraced even if you get the job.

Today’s world does not want thinkers, it wants drones. Like the bee kind… That work to death and are tossed out of the hive at Christmas (only they will call them lay-offs).

An English Degree then is a degree in Critical Thinking. You will be taught how to and be required to dissect everything you read and everything you think. You may find out you don’t think like you thought you did. You may discover something deeply important about yourself by what you dislike or prefer, in hearing a tone of voice in your own verbal arguments.

It also teaches you how to express those thoughts and opinions – graciously to not offend, or disguised as metaphor for your secret audience, or angry as a polemic. It shows you how to use words or pictures or cultural beliefs to communicate….anything.

And it teaches you that people are complex biological factories of precarious thought and driven by powerful, life-altering emotions; that we are subject to our neurobiology and our psychological quirks, religious views or lack thereof, limits or expanse of geographical and economic horizons…

A degree in English is a degree in seeing, describing, illustrating, comprehending and communicating with…people.

No wonder the tech world dislikes us. No one abhors the vacuum of html space like an English major.

(Why? Because it’s not the troll online you have to worry about. It’s the radical terrorist invading your country and condemning your right to speak freely, to converse, argue, condemn, endorse, explore and experiment… because if your words, your actions, or your ambivalence made him or her feel justified, then to reduce the number of terror candidates you better know it and know how to unmake him or her and whether or not you should…a task that is not on a computer game.)

An English major will teach you that words matter. They have the capacity to incite, to wound, to inform, to heal. It will teach you to see and recreate the difference.

How You Know You’re An English Major

You know you’re an English major when you’re just standing on the street corner and you see things. You see poverty, injustice, inequality, and homelessness in the richest country in the world – when you work forty hours and can still see homelessness from your back porch and bank account. You know you’re an English major when you can’t wait to read something for yourself – whether it is a novel, a political treatise, or the Trial of Socrates. You know you’re an English major when you’d rather read Dickens or Austen or Morrison than the latest Star Trek novel (even though you have an extensive Star Trek novel collection).

You know you’re an English major when you’ve tried not to be and you keep running screaming back to the English department, breathing a sigh of relief when you are finally seated in a rhetoric class because you know the definition of rhetoric.

You know you’re an English major when you love language, the way it works and sounds and looks on the page, when linguistics excites you, when you read dictionaries and thesauri. When you love saying “thesauri.”

You know you’re an English major when you can read and appreciate an opposing viewpoint because it is well stated and well argued. And especially if it changes your mind.

You know you’re an English major when you know you are nothing else. So stop letting other people make you feel ashamed. Own it. Do what you were meant to do and stop looking for wealth (Most of us aren’t going to get it anyway: you might as well be happy.)

How You Know Doing Something Else is Worse Than Everyone Else’s Disappointment in You

One thing the world has taught me is that for every job out there, there is someone who has made it their dream and life’s purpose.

And there is nothing worse than living someone else’s dream… Unless it is applying for the job that you don’t get (no matter how much it means to you) because someone who’d rather be doing something else gets the job instead. Or maybe it is working with that person

But work – when it is done right – takes a lot out of you. What you will have left at the end of the day will determine what kind of life YOU have…family? Kids? Career plans? House? Decent car? Best-selling novel?

The sad truth is that if you are an Arts person, the economic deck is stacked against you. Not only has the American economy morphed into a tech-loving, art-stomping beast, but it has lost its middle class and that necessary plateau of jobs needed to support people who kind of don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. In this economy, you either “have it” or you “don’t”… and there is a good chance that if you are an Arts person with an English degree, you will be not in the right category. Who knows how long this will last? How many shifts flipping burgers have your name on them with or without a degree?

However one thing is for sure: happiness is the only way you’re going to survive whatever lies ahead. Dreams are the pathway to finding that happiness. I’ve gotten a lot of forty-hour mileage out of dreams.

Maybe there aren’t enough jobs in publishing right now, or enough opportunities to support all of the writers already out there. How do the rest of us fellow-writers and English majors know you aren’t The One who will shock it all back into sense? How do we know WE aren’t?

The only thing we DO know, is that when and if the world ever comes back to its senses, if there is any chance at all that you can make a living writing or with your English degree…you will need to be prepared. Do it now.

Really. The Zombie Apocalypse could happen at any moment. Wouldn’t you rather have your English degree when it does?

What You Can Do About It

Number One: Stop listening to other people who want you to be as professionally miserable as they are.

Number Two: Trust that somewhere out there is your ideal job and that your English Degree is required for it.

Number Three: Don’t stop until you FIND it.

Number Four: If you don’t find it, consider creating it.

Why You Should

The Arts are not dead.

And while you are toiling away at that data entry job, or trying convince yourself that you can do I.T. better than a person whose dream it is to be an I.T. person… other people out there have been honing their Art…and making money at it…working their way to some measure of fame. You – on the other hand – are still waiting to write in your spare time, hope that by Divine Intervention instead of practice you will do as good or better with your one offering to the world (if you finish it), and still believe in the myth that even one published book equates to a lifetime of riches.

The hard fact is, any career in the Arts requires years of study (not necessarily academic study, although that can help make you a better student of the Arts). There is no free lunch, and prodigies are indeed a rarity (contrary to the message of social media).

You may have talent, or you may not. You may have more talent than people getting published or not. Success in the Arts is shaped like the very same pyramid you find in the regular workplace, sometimes with plenty of cult priests with butts to kiss perched on the steep slopes, sometimes with rare Oracles you can barely hear dangling off a brick, and sometimes there is that pebble in the sand – the editor who likes your style and talent enough to gamble on you and approach their boss on your behalf. But you must always remember it is a pyramid, because not everyone is going to wind up on top – even if they climb over you to get there.

So you must have faith in your goal and your plan for getting there. Stop waiting for angels to descend and carry you topside. You are going to have to work harder than you’ve ever worked before, and probably do a lot of self-education to grow professionally.

A good start is always a BA in anything. But the BA in English is a nice, round humanities degree. It is the perfect base degree for many Master’s degrees, and thereafter for Ph.D. degrees. Getting a BA in English for a writer is boot camp. It will help you decide how far you want to go with your education (in any field), while teaching you about your passion and your ability to listen to and apply criticism – something you will need even as a novice writer submitting stories to magazines, book editors, or agents.

Keep in mind there are actual jobs out there that require a BA in English – such as those still remaining in publishing, Library, retail bookstores, technical writing, journalism, education, Literary Criticism – and many of which do require higher education thereafter.

But also keep in mind there are a lot of English majors applying for those, and there is the same kind of (let’s call it “competition”) for those positions as there are for other jobs.

So you need to know you. What do you want? Because it should never involve a single other person’s interests. Because you are going to have to live with yourself no matter what you choose.

Choose wisely. Choose what makes you happy, even if you have to struggle against the tide the rest of your life. Trust me, the tide is elsewhere too. Pick your own tidewater. If you’re going to make it up that salmon ladder or get eaten by bears trying, it might as well be for what’s in it for you.

How do I know this? It took me thirty years to get my BA in English. And I don’t regret a minute of it.

What I do regret is all of the time I lost following other people’s suggestions for how to make myself less of an English major and more of a cog in someone else’s money machine.

Would I still be working at the same retail bookstore for lower than stellar wages? Probably. Only now I would be a manager with a retirement plan instead of an economic refugee with a lost retirement and no chance of strolling about my own bookstore with a coffee cup and a wry sense of humor.

I am sorry I did not have the courage when I was young to be what I am – a writer. Of Horror fiction. Who works in a bookstore. I am sorry I didn’t have the courage to seek out teachers of fiction and fellow writers in workshops and conventions. I might still not be big-published, but I bet I’d be writing better fiction, and that would make me happy no matter how many shifts I worked.

No, I would never discourage anyone – especially a young person – from a life in the Arts. That IS life. Gritty, poor, honest. What could be a better inheritance than a life well-lived – the one that leaves YOU loving YOU.

So yep, I told this lady wandering my bookstore I had not a single regret about going back to college for my English BA. I told her why.

She asked if we had any openings…

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Monsters in the Nude: Unzipping Better Horror Fiction


Sometimes I think the whole Horror genre has become like Godzilla: no matter how much CG we can muster, no matter how many explosions and special effects decorate the modern stuff, the best version was the absolute first – the one from 1956, starring Haruo Nakajima , AKA the guy in the 200 pound, unventilated Godzilla costume, stomping all of rubber Tokyo…

How is it that a monster with floppy feet and an exposed zipper has more cachet than most modern Horror fiction? What have the monsters of old got over today’s competitors?

Stripping Down

Call me crazy, but I believe it has to do with “originality.”

It’s become that dirty word we all dread… because it seems we are all aiming for it, but like drooling dogs to ringing bells we find ourselves mesmerized, repeating what’s already been done (and we know it’s true because we often read it ourselves, and we read it ourselves because it is successful).

Everyone buys into the mythology…even publishers. So why is the quickest route to rejection so relentlessly tempting?

It’s that darn “pablum” of Louisa May Alcott’s own words… that formula stuff everyone says everyone else wants an endless, brainless supply of… talk about your Horrors…yet we buy into (if not succumb to) these interminable repeat performances.

Some writers “handle” the problem by simply not reading other writers. They think if they don’t read it, it can’t color their imaginations. But this is often a much worse mistake in the end, because not only is writing is a long term investment of time and creative energy, it’s essence and ideas also tend to run in synchronistic packs. How horrible to spend years writing a book only to discover another writer has already cashed the check for it…

The Muse is a fickle, fickle girl. It doesn’t matter that your version is perhaps better…the frisson necessary for successful scaring in Horror has already been spent, the cigarette smoked.

It happened to me… imagine my own Horror to discover a freshly published version of my synchronistical-channeled tale by another, now-successful author… After meat-slapping the plot for years, having purchased and read more books on medieval French history than any Horror writer should ever have to… I can only gloat that it didn’t do particularly well. (Or perhaps there but for the Grace of God…)

Anyway…shaking it off…

A writer who wants to be genre-changing has to know what is being changed… And many an editor would be profoundly grateful for the effort; in fact, (surprisingly perhaps) many a Literary Critic is rooting for that exact scenario.

So it got me wondering: what has happened to us?

The answer appears to be that we are being herded that way…we are being coached – no, tasked – to find the next Big Thing among the rubber rubble.

The realization came just as Godzilla crested the horizon overlooking the city of Tokyo. I was watching one of the newer film versions and I couldn’t see the zipper anymore. And it got me thinking… what’s Godzilla got under that suit? Cuz if it ain’t a short Japanese actor, the thrill is gone.

And that means the zipper was crucial…it means the underlying truth is what propels the fiction…

(Ooooh…a Literary Moment, would you look at that…)

Clearly, to reanimate our fiction we need to unzip the monster. Reveal a truth. Let him run free – naked as the day he was born, innocent as a hippie at Woodstock.

Who drove our monsters from the Garden? Shamed them into wearing flawless CG suits? And WHY oh WHY do we try to write them this new way?

Today’s Horror fiction has this homogenized feel, like it is constructed of recycled, over-processed parts, weary conventions, and predictable plots. It’s like we keep writing the same stories over and over again – a crazed monster trying to claw its way out of a box.

“Welcome to genre writing,” perhaps some would say… But that is not it. That is not it at all.

Because occasionally I see examples of fresh Horror fiction where the monsters run unencumbered (Ray Cluley’s Probably Monsters, Christopher Golden’s Snowblind, Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, Laura Kasischke’s Mind of Winter, Grady Hendrix’s Horrorstör, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s I Remember You)…

Works like these restore the faith. They are fresh air in an enclosed, rubber room. Read them and see what I mean. They suspend reality, take you on a tour of Tokyo, remind you to notice things…

There are so many of these fresh works out there…just sadly not classified in our genre…Nor are they promoted heavily…by anyone it seems. So allow me: Don’t wait for marketing machinery. Try new or unknown authors. Try these authors. Fresh fiction is a wake-up call that will set your own writing on fire. Atomic fire. Spewing-from-Godzilla’s-mouth fire…

The best part is when you read something fresh, it loosens the fetters on your own mind. Each one of these titles I mentioned reminded me that good Horror comes from taking the mundane and commonplace and seeing it differently…Honestly. Naked.

It’s like wearing Top Secret X-ray monster-seeing glasses. Or like looking through a hole in a fairy stone…

Yet today we seem hell-bent on writing for an audience we let others specifically conjure, and not the one that is out there waiting for our stories.

Writing is such an individual sport. It’s easy to forget there are real, thinking people on the other end of our product. It’s easier to take the word of others about that audience. But it’s worth putting everything on pause for a few moments or a few days…reset our thinking. A writer should never be absorbed with projections of what others might think…no matter who those others might be.

We conveniently forget we write first for ourselves. Instead we convince ourselves that we must write what is wanted – like we are filling a donut order – when what is wanted is fresh fiction. We write hoping to catch the eye of traditional Big House editors – and Hollywood, we tempt with open-ended tales designed to create options for sequels…We let ourselves be dazzled by the promised wealth and fairy glamour of what we ourselves despise when we read it.

It’s not our fault, really – not initially. We see a lot of mixed messages down here in the trenches. We read the how-to libraries, the author biographies, the magazine articles and professor’s comments. Everywhere the focus is the same: How to sell your fiction.

Isn’t that why we’re all here? Isn’t that why we write?

The Real Cost of Pimping Out Your Fiction

Funny you should ask.

Because as writers of Horror fiction (even largely unsuccessful Horror fiction), we are also students of the genre. I like to look (Critic-like) at why a classic is a classic, at how it scares and the language a writer chooses to utilize…which is how I came to be a fan of Literature and Literary Critics. Poking prose to see what it does is fascinating.

But it also leads to respecting the writers that have gone before – especially ones that are the founding authors of what will become our genre canon (because for now, it is merely theoretical and no canon list exists, as our genre is currently in the early stages of Literary Criticism – which formulates and finalizes The List comprised of Literary-quality works). (Phew.)

…And respecting the writers that have gone before comes when they haunt the edges of your own prose, making you want to write something equally as innovative and scary.

The mistake seems to happen when we start taking advice from other writers without knowing who the heck they are or realizing that we are in the midst of a writer’s revolution of sorts (and yet another argument FOR the necessity of dead authors in Criticism).

There are passionate arguments afoot:

  • Genres are/aren’t relevant anymore
  • All fiction is/is not Literature
  • Readers want/don’t want watered down prose
  • Action does/doesn’t trump plot or characterization
  • Fat tomes do/don’t sell
  • Horror is not Weird and Weird is not Horror. Or it is.

Unfortunately, who wrote that how-to book and his or her beliefs may be relevant to your developing style and future success. And it’s important that as a writer you understand which side of the divide you write on, because there are sides and these are not editors whispering in our ears; there will be consequences to decisions made. And most importantly, there is no promise of publication because you did what those books said. And maybe that is why (because you did what they said).

(I didn’t say I wasn’t paranoid. It was a LOT of French medieval history…)

The question becomes, who is ultimately in charge of your writing? Who has their hand on the zipper?

Lap Dances Are Extra

This is also why Horror needs an occasional sightseeing trip through pulp: the best in our genre never wrote to spec… They were outside the box, zippers exposed.

Remember pulp? The days of the Penny Dreadful? The days of Sensation Fiction and newspaper installments? The cheap mass market paperback designed to fit in your pocket and be abandoned in airports? The magnificent and often cheesy cover art and comics? The really great stuff that terrorized kids and lasted a lifetime in therapy?

Those monsters seem to reside in another, pulpy world, drifting earthward just long enough for the tentacles to brush our cheeks, like angel’s wings before departing at the ring of a telephone.

As I sit in front of the computer, massaging a high-centered story, or sacrificing chickens over my keyboard, I wonder why there is a kind of automatic reset…a reversion to a false belief that a story should lurch this way instead of that. Why, specifically with an interruption, the unwelcome Editor comes back on in raging default mode, whispering what “should be done in modern fiction” and how Godzilla should look.

Why does a story go from liquid ooze to a coagulated mess once the The Thinking starts… Who exactly controls the zipper?

So the mind begins to wander. Have I read one too many how-to’s? Am I writing for an audience that is nothing less than a prefab manifestation of someone else’s reader? Have I forgotten why I started the story in the first place? Am I worried about being politically correct? About my parents reading what I write?

And I have begun to realize that maybe it is because with all of the upheaval in publishing and the comings and goings of markets, publishing venues, editors, and options… maybe there is too much reliance on everyone else’s theories, too much thinking going on and not enough writing from instinct. There are no short cuts…no REAL formulas…Getting published is an accomplishment, not an entitlement.

Maybe we zip it in fear because we are too afraid of WHAT we are thinking. Maybe we are grateful for the interruption…the derailment of self-sabotage because to keep on going takes courage that might just guarantee a lifetime of rejections.

The moment the phone rings, the kid next door begins pounding on the walls, the potheads light up their skunkweed… well, that THINKING begins. And it’s like wrestling an alligator – he who has the most teeth wins.

(The next thing I know I’m in another room, fuming instead of writing. The spell is broken. The tentacles lift skyward…I start mentally second-guessing, trying to re-write to spec. What I’d give to uncork a monster and let him run his giganto rubber feet all over my neighbors… may they rot in Tokyo.)

But even then the hint is there…that germ of an idea on how to get the mojo back:

PULP IT.

Pulp was meant to be thrown away, a temporary thrill, to not-last. And there is something creatively freeing to think that what one writes is simply for fun, a spontaneous and joyful madcap run through a field of tall grass… a brief moment of thrills…nude monsters running free…

Best of all, no one recommends it today. Pulp is for REBELS.

The very idea of pulp is liberating… No critics to please. Fits in a file drawer. Devours wicked neighbors… The realization that you can write in the privacy of your own imagination – ANYTHING you want, accountable to no one – stirs the cauldron, summons the unseen.

The truth is golden:

If one can slip into the rubber suit one can squash Tokyo.

So why are we pimping out our fiction? Is getting published that important?

Well, I can say having had it happen once, it is validating. But it is also temporary. Validation by publication is fleeting…because even after it hits print all you see are the glaring errors.

Sure money matters. It helps to have a roof over your head while you pound out that novel. But to manufacture a work as pretense… well let’s face it, to do something for the money may or may not make you a professional, but it may also make you a prostitute. Choose wisely.

Myself, I am going for the zipper. It would be great if something good comes of it. Greater if something Literary comes of it. But for now, I’m happy to just let the monsters frolic. Nude. The way they were meant to be…