Unlearning the Craft of Failure (or, No One Talks About Real Revision Anymore)


I’ve often wondered why Revision is so difficult. But after attaining my degree I started wondering why everyone was making it so difficult.

It is almost like everyone wants you to fail. Books typically written on the subject of Revision (to put it mildly) suck. For every sentence of worth there are five pages of fluff and confusing flow-charts, diagrams, and pie charts. Terms go incompletely explained or undefined; they are haphazardly introduced, and the mystery of their useful application is left to our already flawed imaginations. They take writers who know something is “wrong” in their fiction and hint at a “well-known” recipe for success. They make you feel stupid… Like everybody else “gets” it except you.

What does this do for the average novice writer – the one without access to a university degree with its fiction writing program? Or an amateur writer who “gets it” sometimes? Or a hopeful young person exploring the very idea of what it takes to be a writer?

The answer is that it leaves us guessing about the true nature of our abilities. It creates the mythology of the Overnight Success and the woefully incorrect parallel that publication validates talent. It hides the hard fact of actual manual labor involved in the construction of story and it reinforces the bad habits of unlearned craft – it creates an unconscious template FOR failure and endless, meaningless Revision that we are helpless to stop…

Fortunately, we no longer have to rely on convoluted attempts at explaining it all: from the depths of our collective despair rides a writing coach. And if you don’t mind snuggling up against a bit of screenwriting wisdom, you might be able to end the mystery and all of its subsequent bad habits.

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Woe is I

There are two things you need to know if you are stressing out about Revision: one, you are not alone; and two, someone finally wrote something that you can use.

I’m going to give you a name: Larry Brooks. And I’m going to give you three book titles: Story Engineering, Story Physics, and Story Fix.

Get them and read them. Get them all.

Your first response is going to be feeling overwhelmed. You’re going to find out just how much fiction writing has not been talked about to you. And you are going to be very depressed – at first. The reason is because you are going to feel like writing is so technical it isn’t fun anymore. But bear with Brooks.

What he is teaching is craft and technique… and just like all Horror, you can’t unread it. This means that what you are doing is setting a subtext for your unconscious, a script running in the background that will kick in when the storytelling begins instead of having to unravel it afterward. This alone will reduce the amount of Revision you might have to do. But it will offer something else. It will allow you to be aware of choices that you are making as you write and as you revise.

This is powerful stuff. For those of us who experience writing like a bad game of Blind Man’s Bluff, it will be playing without the blindfold.

This blindness can tend to happen especially if you are what is referred to as an organic writer – that is, you do not start with an outline and construct a story, but prefer to give the Muse her head and let the whole thing unravel on the page. For organic writers, there is a love of the mystery of the process, an embracing of that creative element known as “flow” which carries you into a timeless realm for unnoticed hours and leaves you invigorated…a writer’s high.

The problem with this is that the Muse is a storyteller, but she is also high. And like a spider under the influence, the web she weaves can be beautiful and weirdly unusual at the same time it is fatally flawed.

If you fall under her spell every time you read the magic words, then you are not able to spot the weaknesses that will get you rejected time and again. So if you write like this, you have to realize that you cannot revise like this.

You have to learn to see what an editor sees. And it helps if it has names and definitions and an outline of its own.

Organic writers need know when to switch hats. And when to leave denial in the dust. This isn’t about aesthetics and editors who don’t like your style… You can wail about that all you want when you’ve mastered the elements of craft. Until then, you are just sabotaging yourself and wasting a lot of time. Trust me. Time is something you won’t get back. Don’t be wasting it on ego.

This is about Rejection – that of editors and your own: remember those stories in the back of your file drawers that you read and reread and continue to sigh over? It’s about knowing deep down that something is fundamentally wrong with your writing and not being able to name or fix it. The prose is lovely, the sentences are perfection, the grammar stellar, the character so perfect you could see him or her walking right into the room….yet. What is going on with the story? Is it even a story? Or a type of one? You know the story I’m talking about… the one you really like but can’t send anywhere.

Professionals will say you haven’t yet earned your stripes, that a real writer will figure it out: that is The Test…. And that Revision is part of the process and deserves decades of your gut-wrenching attention – such are the dues we all pay…blah, blah, blah.

But what if that just isn’t true? Or maybe not completely true?

Let’s face it; right now in our world, writing fiction is still not taught the way the rest of the Arts have been taught for centuries – well, except for screenwriters, who are ahead of the game in many cases. We fiction writers are having to rediscover the wheel as a profession using books, the MFA and workshops, and pretty much anything we can get our grubby hands on. Only now the Professionals want each individual writer to rediscover the wheel by themselves. As proof of their worthiness.

What is up with that?!

If writing has rules – known as criteria (not formula) –then it makes sense that not following fundamental writing rules will get you rejected. And let’s face it:  it doesn’t hurt to write knowing eventually what criteria will be on the list to be ticked off.

And while you may rightly rebel against what looks like yet another formula, Brooks clarifies, “What you are about to learn isn’t formulaic” but operates more like a structural blueprint that only dictates rough scaffolding. He gives the example of the human face, i.e., with nature’s strict palette of eleven biological variables to work with, asks Brooks, “how often [do] you see two people who look exactly alike?” What Brooks is giving us is bones and biological variables. Bones to hang any manner of genre flesh from. Because whether you are talking Mysteries, Thrillers, Romance, Adventure…they all share the same structural skeleton, the same biological blueprint he names “the core competencies.” (Engineering 6-7)

Starting out, you will have to fight the natural recoil – especially if you dislike clinical peeks at your writing. But if you don’t build it that way, if you wrote before you knew about and understood the core competencies or any of the rest of the architecture Brooks gives in his three books, you are probably facing some form of Revision. And a whole lot of emotionally laced confusion.

This is going to feel mechanical. Revision is a technical skill, not a creative one, and there are no two ways about it. But if you think Poe, Lovecraft, Dickens, or Austen didn’t revise, you haven’t read their biographies. It’s time to accept that Revision is part of the process – just as it is time to accept that we’ve been making it far harder than we’ve needed to.

Revision, we are so constantly assured, can take years…(and this is especially true if you are feeling your way along.) What all we needed was someone with a technical writer’s flair for explanation, and the simple truth given simply. Larry Brooks is our man.

When you tire of rejections, when you tire of trying to revise a story you feel like you are –  in your ignorance of what is wrong –  just destroying…it’s time to get help. It’s time to get Brooks.

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Awakening the Real Writer Within

Sometimes breaking the fairy glamour of organic writing is tough. But just like when you happen to find a fairy stone and peek through the worn hole of it – when the spell shatters it is a bit jarring….absolutely necessary – but jarring.

You’re going to have to make some admissions. But fortunately, you can make them in private.

One of these is whether or not you can recognize a story as a story. Sounds obvious, but it isn’t, and it most often it is one of those creations in the back of your file cabinet that you love dearly but don’t know what the heck is. The reason is because it isn’t a story…it’s perhaps a scene, or a vignette, or a musing – and look hard at that word! In that much-loved piece there is no beginning, middle and end…just a collection of lovely constructed sentences that was fun to write.

This is what Brooks says on the subject: “Writers who don’t know what a story is tend to simply write about something. That’s a recipe for disaster. Rather, what they need to write is about something happening…A writer who doesn’t know the true definition of story can only hope to stumble upon, however intuitively, the complex sequence and forces of story in a way that really works…Begin with accepting the truth about your story and then be honest about how much of it is alive in your mind.” (Story Fix 173-174).

As an organic writer myself, the lesson is hard…the Muse is sometimes drunk on her own power. But what I have found reading Brooks, is that the very stories that do have profound flaws are falling apart exactly where he says they would, missing exactly what he says they are. That got my attention even as it irritates me, because I am obsessed with the idea of capturing that elusive thing known as craft, and have been convinced by many that the acquisition of this particular knowledge would save me and my writing.

But Brooks complicated that thought with this comment: “It’s all craft, craft, craft. And on one level that’s how it should be. But on another level, conceptual appeal is at least half of the whole ballgame.” (Fix 171).

This is another wake-up call. Because this is what all of those other books were hinting around at but just not saying. There is always this annoying darting from clinical diagrams to the magical mystery tour of related terms no one connects together in other books on Revision. In fact, increasingly books on Revision have become books on writing…An interestingly, many books on writing are looking a lot like the approach given by Brooks.

Take for example, a recent publication by author Gabriela Pereira titled DIY MFA…it mirrors what Brooks has done, installing its own terminology and processes…do you want to follow a story model (Brooks- Engineering  141) or a story map (Pereira 63)?  Do you want “decisions” (Pereira 110) or “parts” and “Pinch points”? (Brooks- Engineering  165, 200) Clearly there is something to this approach to understanding story construction…

And while I have been reluctant to look directly in the face of what I have incorrectly seen as a move toward commercialism and cookie-cutter creations, Brooks shows that concept is part of the story, not a buzzword for marketers or nefarious retail plans. Concept is not a dirty word – it is a term.

Brooks makes it clear that while this is about being published, it is only so because being published is one possible happy side-effect of good writing. And he admits writing these books came as a result of his own frustration with what he found in other books, in writing workshops, and conferences – in other words, what we have found…confusion.

Brooks takes his experience with studying screenwriting materials and his experience as a writing coach to marry the two disciplines of screen and fiction writing – why? Because screenwriters have honed the process down to the bare bones.

I admit there is a part of this that makes me bristle a bit…when I look at diagrams for structure and see a given thing should happen at a specific percentage of the way through a story, I feel uneasy…Like this is the very thing I have heard Critics cringe about… just a new kind of formula to make Hollywood happy, to churn out “bestsellers” that have little Literary value.

But despite the inferred connection some will derive between writing a salable story and having a film rights on a contract, I tend to think Brooks has done the right thing. We are not, after all obligated to do the things that lead away from Literature and toward Hollywood. But we are far better off to have learned at least one take on the structure of storytelling – with which we can embellish, mirror, or deviate from – than we are to sit in a dark room wondering what is wrong with our fiction. For years. Or forever, whichever comes first.

I think the truth is this: one can just learn the basic bones of craft and construct salable stories – and indeed sell them. Or one can continue to build on that foundation…experimenting with concepts and formula arrangements the way a jazz musician plays with the rules of music. That is where Literature will happen. But before Literature happens we need to understand how to construct a story… even a contrived one.

For example, at our core, in our very hearts, we know that when our writing fails there is a reason it is failing. I’m not talking about rejections. I’m talking about that moment alone when you are picking up a story you have let bake for a bit, and reading through it you suddenly find yourself unhorsed…that narrative thread you thought was so taunt suddenly causes you to stop and re-read a sentence… the “wait a minute – what?” moment.  This is an editorial sign that something is wrong. Very wrong.

Brooks says, “…effective stories need two separate dimensions of energy. Just two. Either (1) your story proposition isn’t strong enough, or (2) its execution isn’t effective enough.” (Fix 12-13)

You know that this is a truth. But what you need to do is be able to see which truth applies and then find out how to fix it…specifically fix it….not make use of empty advice like “make it sing.” You need advice like your first plot point comes too late and the second plot point is too weak. You need to hear that your story is boring unless you change the entire premise. You need to know what a plot point or a premise is.

And most importantly, you need to admit that no one ever taught you that… that you’ve been guessing up to this point.

Do you know what dramatic arc is? How to increase tension?

Says Brooks:

“Revision requires two focusses in terms of process, both of which applies to the story level and the execution level of viability:

  1. the identification and repair of that which is broken within a story, either at the story level or the narrative arc level
  2. the elevation of that which has yet to reach its highest dramatic strength and character potential.

In other words, we are looking at what’s broken and what’s just plain weak.” (Fix 144).

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Getting Started

The best thing you can do is to start at the beginning.

Start with the first book, Story Engineering: Mastering the 8 Core Competencies of Successful Writing.

Did you see that? When was the last time anybody mentioned anything about core competencies?

They are: concept, character, theme, story structure, scene execution, writing voice, story development. They are not defined in a sentence; they are defined in chapters. Revisited and reinforced by other chapters.

Do you know what they mean or how to implement them? Do you think you know? And shouldn’t you be sure?

One of the most important reasons you need to get started is because these are complicated issues that you need to marry to your own creative process. They are craft issues. Fundamental craft issues…the ones you cannot skip or expect an editor not to notice are missing or mishandled.

The best thing about Brooks, is that he sounds like he is already in your head. Says Brooks, “without mastering a formidable list of basics that is rarely talked about coherently, most of us end up with a dream that never materializes.” (Engineering 4) And this is proved true time and again, with nonspecific comments made by Writers and experts of all ilk. I have mentioned this before – this pretense of knowledge everyone alludes to and no one defines. Myself, I have had enough. Where’s the beef?

The idea that everyone else is in The Know and you would do well to fake it until you, too, “get it” is stupid. The idea that when a writer is lucky enough or intuitive enough, or studied enough that they figure it out is some kind of validation of the modern “process” or in any way legitimizes who and what have gone before is also stupid.

Here’s an important statement made by Brooks on this subject: “…published writers who, like King, just start writing their stories from an initial idea do so using an informed sensibility about, and working knowledge of Story architecture…” (Engineering 3) They don’t sit and guess, they know that there is a model and that model works for them, and they write with it embedded in their subconscious. You can spend years guessing at such templates, hope by osmosis to deduce them from classic Literature, or you can find a teacher of story architecture…

That would be Larry Brooks, for $17.99 or so per book, or a five or six figure college education…or years of rejections… or pure luck. It’s your choice.

But Rejection is the general tell that you need help. That, and tearing your own hair out.

Knowing what you are doing is what separates the Professional Writer from the Novice writer. It is what keeps some people looking down on your writing and minimizing the competition.

I say it’s time to up the game. Challenge yourself.

Go to your collection of stories. You know which one has been sticking out like a sore thumb, the one that has that part where it all seems to go awry. Copy it on your computer, print it out double-spaced, and sit down with Brooks. Read until you find the scenario of what you are seeing wrong in your story. Mark the printout with terms, and with structure points. Can you find your first plot point? Can you identify the very sentence in which everything changes? Is there really a mission for your protagonist? Can you see the arc from your front porch?

Are you lost when you read those words? Do you think you shouldn’t be, but you’re too embarrassed to say? Get Brooks. Turn beet red in the privacy of your own file cabinet. Then fix it. Fix it ALL. Or burn it.

I’m not going to kid you – Brooks scares me. He scares me because I already know he’s right. His books are full of terms and diagrams and – guess what? – DEFINITIONS. Explanations. Examples.

And I’m going to tell you the truth. I have to read and re-read Brooks. It’s not because he dazzles you with big words or concepts (he defines and gives excellent examples); rather, it’s because he is talking about applying something complicated, clinical and patently un-magical to your work, and there are a lot of emotionally-charged strings attaching you to your misbegotten prose.

Having created the spell, sometimes it is hard to divest yourself of its glamour. You start reading like a reader and not like a writer or editor. You fall into it and forget what you are supposed to be doing. You must stop that in order to fix it.

It is difficult not to fall into that murky pond of imagination lurking in your prose. And it is difficult to accept that the cold embrace of the Muse is her trying to drown you before you change anything. But if you want it published, and it is a technical flaw that is compromising the story – again, noticeable because you yourself become disoriented in the middle of things – then it has to be done. Something must change.

That’s why I encourage you to purchase all three books. Each one focuses on the different levels of story construction. And they feel deep, because you have to be willing to look back at stories you wrote that you thought we complete. When you start trying to apply his process to yours, you start realizing just how deep in the weeds you’ve been. And that you’re going to have to eventually come out…

There is a lot of emotional baggage that has to be sorted from writing that needs to be fixed. I am saying that I finally bought Brooks because his was about the only books left on the shelf I hadn’t bought. And I can honestly say that his may well be the only ones I actually needed.

Has it made a difference in publication for me? Not yet, although there is at least one newer story with Brooks’ influence out there that hasn’t come back yet… And I have begun to construct stories with a better awareness of what I need to create in there. For me it is too early to tell if it will all lead to success, but I have selected for Revision two victims from my drawers that have given me fits, and I willing to make changes to them as Brooks advises…so I am running them through the paradigm…slowly, because eviscerating your children is hard, even when they are flawed.

This is how it’s done.

It’s why writing is such hard work. And it means we cannot be squeamish. We have to take out the knives and carve up our children. It really is for the best. Because it’s time to start crafting success.

C’mon. Let’s scare some Professional Writers. It’ll be fun.

 

References

Brooks, Larry. Story Engineering. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, c2011.

Brooks, Larry. Story Physics. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, c2013.

Brooks, Larry, Story Fix. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, c2015.

Pereira, Gabriela. DIY MFA. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, c2016.

Horror the Second Time Around: the Paradox of Misremembering Scary Things


In the constant quest to scare myself and compare newer works to old, I have come to notice something peculiar happening: when I choose to revisit that special movie or book a second time to recapture that eerie, horrified feeling of doom and dread… to savor it once again, to relive the scary…the magic isn’t there. (Or maybe I should say: the same magic isn’t there.)

In fact, whole sections of rather detailed – and what I recall as emotionally integral – terrifying scenes routinely turn up muted or missing.

How can this be? What happens to the mind reading Horror or sitting in a dark theater that we invent so much that isn’t there? Does Horror really lose its effectiveness because we get older? How do we come to misremember the Horror that we remember so well?

Our Brains in a Jar: the Science of Horror

When H.P. Lovecraft rose to the defense of our genre in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, speaking against the Literary Critics of his time, he stated:

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (105).

Savor those words a minute…because the literary definition of Horror has long been “stories that exploit fear…”

It is around the potency of this emotion that the Horror genre (even when called Weird) is built. And for that exact reason, every student of Horror should dig deeply into the anatomy of fear. Of course that means digging into some science – specifically the science of the brain (neuroscience), the science of perception (psychology), and the science of the body (biology).

Because for anyone who ever wondered why watching the movie or reading the book the second time around is so totally not the same experience, reading up on the technical end of things sheds some fascinating light. Horror, it would appear, it a whole-body experience.

One of the most interesting books I happened across recently is called What We See When We Read: a Phenomenology with Illustrations, by Peter Mendelsund. The associate art director at Alfred A. Knopf and designer of some pretty iconic book covers, Mendelsund did some interesting digging of his own into the application of imagination in reading.

What do we see when we read? This (it turns out) is a very interesting question. Because apparently, reading is a kind of marriage between what the author suggests and what we remember.

You read right: what we remember. Because according to Mendelsund, we build new literary images from consolidating relevant or similar details born of our own experiences.

Says Mendesund, “the idea of [a] house, and the emotions it evokes in me are the nucleus of a complex atom, around which orbit various sounds, fleeting images, and an entire spectrum of personal associations.” (207)

Furthermore, “These images we ‘see’ when we read are personal: what we do not see is what the author pictured when writing a particular book. That is to say: Every narrative is meant to be transposed; imaginatively translated. Associatively translated. It is ours…and the feeling has primacy over the image…” (207)

So when we read, we reach into that catalogue of remembrances for the most similar thing and attach it to the skeleton of the author’s words. We shape and refine, correct and adapt as the author gives us more information, but the power of the moment – the very images we associate with that first reading – are not only retained in ghostly fashion, but are most likely ours and based on our personal experiences at that moment in time.

Says Mendelsund, “Much of our reading imagination comprises visual free association…untethered from the author’s text… (we daydream while reading)…A novel invites our interpretive skills, but it also invites our minds to wander…” (294)

And wander Horror minds do…

It goes back to the psychology of the moment associated with the image the author has summoned by the spell of his or her words. Say our victim is wandering an old house in her nightgown. We all have a concept of an old house in mind, but we all also most like remember a very specific old house, one that had some creepy element that haunts us still. We also all understand what it is to discover that we are not safe after all when we are asleep at night (at our most vulnerable, very likely naked or nearly so). So with one simple concept, likely one simple sentence, we have created the whole scary house and put ourselves in it.

We remember, we empathize, and we shiver. It doesn’t matter that, as we read the book, we concede certain facts to the revelations of the author – who constantly divulges them bit by bit. We keep what we kill.

“When we remember reading books, we don’t remember having made these constant little adjustments…We simply remember it as if we had watched the movie…” (Mendelsund 53)

Unfortunately, when we re-read the same sentence years later, we very often have more houses to compare the images to, and have made some decisions about sleeping naked (or nearly so). Therefore when we read the same book or passage years later, it is not the same because the house is different, the victim is different, and the survival plan has changed.

The truth of why Horror doesn’t scare you the same way a second time is one of biology: you changed and the book did not.

Thank God! It’s Brain Science & Not Old Age…

People like to say that Horror is a young person’s game. They claim that it is really a Young Adult obsession, or worse – a phase.

But it turns out that this is not completely true. Of course there are consequences to growing older that affect how our brains ­process Horror. And that has more to do with memory than it has to do with becoming more “emotionally mature.”

But the good news is: if you love Horror, you can love it all of your life. Contrary to speculation (if not popular opinion), we do not outgrow Horror… we out-fox it.

First, we have to look at the profile of those who like Horror, who love to scare themselves, those who refuse to let go of the genre. While there may be a thrill-seeker or two among us, we tend to be pretty “normal” types. But we do confess to having an addiction to adrenaline rushes that a good Horror story can inflict. Having seen what Real Life can do, we also tend to prefer the mental-emotional playground that is the Horror genre.

We also tend to have been the types that have drilled ourselves relentlessly from childhood on how to survive life-threatening events – including the monster under the bed. Only now we choose Zombies over middle-eastern wars, troublesome Ghosts over broken social mores, Vampires over empty relationships. We still have minds that like to work on problem-solving (as all humans do). So we like to pimp our ride: we decorate the threat with shreds of rotting flesh and fangs dripping with radioactive drool and see if we can survive the experience of the encounter.

The reason any of this works or presents any “value” is because of what that little primal germ of fear enables in the brain. As Mendelsund says with regard to the feeling, we “do not want it supplanted by facts.” (206) We crave the feeling of fear.

So with Horror we recreate the tiger in the tall grass, and every time we make him bigger, gnarlier, scarier…to challenge ourselves.

We practice survival of the primal instincts as complicated by the rational mind.

And biology is our co-pilot.

…Because it is the nature of biology to adapt to changing circumstances and ever-changing threats, and Horror is one biological roller coaster ride that lasts from the first sensory intake, loop-de-loops through the amygdala, races through the nerve endings and thrusts fast-twitch muscle fibers of our legs into action even as the scream leaves our mouths.

Yet even then something is happening in our brains – young or old – that makes a significant difference in recapturing that same feeling more than once.

Just as we are hard-wired to jump at indistinct motion in the darkness (thus illuminating the biology behind the jump-scare success of Hollywood), we are hard-wired to catalog the experience for comparison later.

A tentacle wraps around your ankle like a cat…you scream…

And you live to tell all your friends the next day over lunch. The next night, a tentacle wraps around your ankle like a cat… you wonder where it is coming from….

Already your brain has logged the experience as non-lethal and maybe not even important – just curious.

Your brain has stepped in and…”helped” you. Now you won’t waste precious time and calories running crazily and needlessly through the tall grass. You can wait for the next tiger. The bigger, more lethal tiger. Because this one has shown you all of the criteria for being present and noticed but not a danger to you – not worth endangering yourself. See enough tigers, and you might become desensitized.

Suddenly the Zombie is just this wobbly dead guy; sure he’s ugly, but he’s slow and if you split open his head, it is Life As Usual. Big whup. What else you got?

But this is not necessarily a good thing. Every Zombie has the potential to be different the way every tiger is different. Sometimes we have to remind the brain that it is prudent to run… which is why the rational part of our brain keeps buying into Horror. Deep down, we know we are prey and we really, really want to run…

But this presents a challenge for the makers of Horror, who battle their own cardboard tigers even as they figure a way to surprise their audience with new and improved tigers to fool the brain… So the successful Horror story becomes one in which a new Horror emerges – one you never thought of. It means we have to find ways to outsmart ourselves and our increasingly desensitized audience.

Which makes writing and reading Horror as an older person …even harder; we go through more books and movies before we find a passable scare because as we get older, we have a much thicker catalog to compare things to. But it also means (if we are also writers) that we have the opportunity to make things even more interesting.

Misremembering: It’s Not You, It’s ME

It’s so easy to blame the filmmaker or think the author tricked us. Somehow. All that time ago.

Because the truly weird thing about Horror the second time around is the inserting of whole scenes that we come to discover were never there.

How and why we do this resides in the way human memory works. Because we form memories from a collection of our own experiences – even as we are gathering new ones – every monster is Frankenstein. When we read or see certain images, they resonate with our subconscious and glom together in the darkness of our imagination. Sometimes right in the middle of a book or a movie we go off on a primrose path lined with gothic bleakness and horrible thoughts or crippling fears born of our own personal experiences… our own minds present a few what-if scenarios connected more to our pasts than to what we are reading or seeing and we subconsciously press the emotions generated right into the pages of a book or the cells of a film. We create a ghost of those personal memories and mistakenly think the book or film is speaking directly to us. But then we risk imagining terrors greater than what are actually shown or described. And terror lasts a long, long time in our limbic system.

Being aware of this recollection and comparison of intimate and personal Horrors makes no difference to the outcome.

Even as we rationalize about how that moment is taking us right to this or that memory or traumatic event, it is incorporated into the exoskeleton of the story. Later when we recall the book or film, we remember the terror invoked even when it was our own terror that rose from the ashes of real memory or supposition. We attach those emotions to that fiction and tell ourselves, “that was a good Horror story.”

We even tell our friends. And then they go see it or read it and think it was inane or toothless and tell us so.

And then in indignation, we go and read it or see it again and think what was I thinking? What about that scene where… But there is no such scene. Or it is a big nothing…a field of monster seedlings that no longer germinate in your mind.

Your brain has moved on.

And boy, do you miss that scary part that was never, ever there. You can keep the book as long as you like, but the fairy glamour has dissipated…a fading spell, well-worn even as it has been touched and caressed many times in the imagination. The Horror has become a ghost.

It’s called “emotional re-learning,” and it’s how we manage our trauma which, in turn, transforms the impact of the original Horror.

Here we can learn a lot from sufferers of PTSD. For example, “the sense in which PTSD patients feel ‘unsafe’ goes beyond the fears that dangers lurk around them; their insecurity begins more intimately, in the feeling that they have no control over what is happening in their body and to their emotions. This is understandable, given the hair trigger for emotional hijacking that PTSD creates by hypersensitizing the amygdala circuitry.” (Goleman 210-211)

Nobody wants that. Except that we do –as Horror fans. It is exactly what we attempt to create and experience in a good genre novel or film. But the revelation as to why Horror loses its punch the second time around has a lot to do with how PTSD sufferers resolve their traumas…

Because one step in healing PTSD “involves retelling and reconstructing the story of the trauma in the harbor of that safety, allowing the emotional circuitry to acquire a new, more realistic understanding of and response to the traumatic memory and its triggers. As patients retell the horrific details of the trauma, the memory starts to be transformed, both in its emotional meaning and in its effects on the emotional brain.” (Goleman 211)

In other words, it is the turning on of the lights and the exiting of the theatre where “The therapist encourages the patient to retell the traumatic events as vividly as possible, like a horror home video, retrieving every sordid detail…the goal here is to put the entire memory into words, which means capturing parts of the memory that may have been dissociated and so are absent from conscious recall. By putting sensory details and feelings into words, presumably memories are brought more under control of the neocortex, where the reactions they kindle can be rendered more understandable and so more manageable.” (Goleman 212)

What Horrors cannot be rewired? The ones we can’t put into words… I detect a conundrum…

Every time we intentionally revisit the memory of that movie or book that scared us so well, every time we read it or see it or talk about it, we remove a tooth from the tiger…we are rewiring the memory and its requisite trauma. And we can’t help ourselves. It’s a brain thing.

The Difference Between HD and Analog

The pure biological truth is tough: we are going to have to outwit ourselves, to trick our brains into being scared in order to keep enjoying Horror. We do that by making and seeking monsters that are infinitely indistinct, partially sensed, indescribable, primal creatures. We do it by letting the audience fill in important blanks with their own PTSD, phobias, and painfully personal details.. and then by not spoiling those images with a far-too total reveal.

Look at Stephen King’s It (in particular in movie form)…a great, truly creepy story that I always abandon at the ending. It got ruined when they wheeled out the Muppet Spider. It was too much information that my own brain had a solution for (a really big shoe). I much prefer to stay in that nebulous, monster-and-clown-infested country that Stephen King novels create before Hollywood gets hold of them.

It really is the difference between analog and HD… because our brains (once they categorize something) shift the images right into analog: worthy of note, but not anything to write home about… a kitschy black and white monster with the zipper showing. We see that the tiger has gray on its muzzle and a bit of a limp; we suspect we can out run him.

In our first encounter on the savannah we saw sudden, undefined motion in the dark…then the green glow of eyes…then TEETH… we imagined the claws ripping us apart and we screamed and grabbed our boyfriends. Or girlfriends. We came out of the movie theater or put down the book and felt positively breathless…like we had stood in a wind tunnel that sucked away everything but us…

But once the biology sets in, there is no getting that feeling back. Once we see tons of tigers, we start counting stripes instead of teeth. We biologically forget the danger because our experience nullifies it. Our inner computer updates with what is – in reality – wrong information. But it is right for the suburban family whose main concern is paying the cable bill and what’s for dinner. Horror works when the writer or film maker can change out the predictability expected by our brains. And what works for me might not work for you…

This is why success in Horror is spelled Stephen King: he connects with the broadest sampling of modern fears. The rest of us (in trying to out-Horror the King of Horror) all too frequently discover that our fears are more to the outside of the mean. Maybe we like Old Horror because those stories contain the kinds of Horror that sneak up on our brains…while maybe Old Horror falls flat to the guy who lives near a graveyard. Horror is relative. Figure in the unpredictable amount of experiences a person can have that mutes those Horrors and the genre is a challenge. But it is a fun challenge.

Just don’t expect to be scared effectively twice by the same monster… Only irrational fears get past the catalog. Even Muppet Spiders. For the rest of us, it’s an endless search for HD in an analog world. Beware the tall grass.

 

References

Mendelsund, Peter. What We See When We Read: a Phenomenology with Illustrations, by Peter Mendelsund New York: Vintage Books, c2014.

Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New York: Bantam Books, c1994.

Lovecraft, H.P. “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” At The Mountains of Madness.The Definitive Edition. New York: The Modern Library, c2005.