I just put my story “Jenny Goes Home” online. Enjoy!
Sometimes I have Deep Thoughts and have to find a way to express them. This is one of those times.
Sometimes I marvel about Earth and its inhabitants. In the grand, grand scheme of things, against the backdrop of the Cosmos, we’re barely a mote of dust. Smaller, even. We, and everyone we know and love, now and in the past and future, are just tiny biological organisms clinging to a small planet in a relatively small solar system in a mid-range galaxy in a universe the size of which beggars the imagination. Carl Sagan, in his famous “Pale Blue Dot” monologue, above, said it far better than I could ever hope to.
Sigh. I miss Carl Sagan.
Our downfall as a species is likely to be our hubris. We like to think that our daily struggles with each other and our morality plays have cosmic consequences. They don’t, of course, but our egos need to be fed; and when we elevate our human struggles to cosmic ones, we only cause harm to each other and often to the planet itself. We’re only sentient goo that thinks it’s better than it is.
Even as an Espicopalian, I’m aware of this.
The thing that baffles me about this is the number of people who think they’re “winning” at life when in reality we’re all going to end up in the same place. Accumulating wealth, power, and prestige is not going to let you win at life. You’re still going to die. And to acknowledge that fact and still play a game of “winning” is selfish; that vast aggregation of wealth will do you no good at the end. The best thing to do, I think, is to use whatever power and wealth you have to improve the lives of others. Part of this belief is fueled by my Episcopal faith, but I think part of it is just common sense, informed partially by a certain element of existentialism that I learned in college. We’re all going to die; why not make life pleasant for others of us who share the road?
So, here I am, over a month later, and feeling pretty much the same way: Struggling with my depression and struggling with my writing.
According to the National Novel Writing Month website, I’ve written 772,303 words in various NaNoWriMo projects. Add to that the number of words I’ve written on short stories, aborted novels that I never bothered finishing, and so on, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve written around about one million words of fiction, and that’s in this century alone, when I decided I was going to take this writing thing really seriously.
I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo sixteen times; in 2012, the novel I wrote was merely a continuation of what I wrote in 2011, so I guess I’ve written fifteen novels during that time. Only a few of those I feel were “completed”, in that they had the words THE END on the last page. And even so, I have not revisited most of those novels, to revise or rewrite them. The only exceptions are the Fred Again, which I wrote in 2005, and which I’m rewriting now as The Solitude of the Tentacled Space Monster; and Padma, which I wrote in 2016 and which I’m rewriting as well. Still, though, shouldn’t I have at least one completed novel by now?
In short, through writing those million or so words, I’ve accomplished very little.
I don’t think this is imposter syndrome; I see imposter syndrome as being the sort of thing you contract when you achieve some sort of accolade or accomplishment, and feel as though you don’t deserve it. No, this is just me feeling frustrated that I’ve come this far without having moved past the “early career writer” stage, and feeling like I never will.
My parents did a really good job of raising my sisters and me, I think. We learned that racism exists, and we learned that it was bad. My mom tells me of the time she deliberately hosted Black friends at a party when she lived in Texas in the late 60s, and was subsequently booted from her apartment. We learned that that was wrong, that the landlord was racist, and that racism was just wrong.
Imagine. That was in the late 60s. We’re just barely fifty years away from that.
Me, I’ve gone out of my way to not be racist, but I know from personal experience that racism lurks somewhere deep in my bones. Here’s my story of that:
It was the second Tuesday of November, 2008. I know that very well, because it was Election Day, and I was swollen with liberal pride, having just come from a polling station where I’d voted for Barack Obama (our last great President). Imagine! Me, a white man, voting for a Black man for President! How noble!
But as I was sitting in my car at an intersection on Stockton Avenue in Sacramento, waiting for the light to change so that I could pull into the parking lot at the public library, I saw a young Black man crossing the street toward me.
Without even thinking about it, I locked the door of my car.
He wasn’t running. He wasn’t carrying any weapons or anything that looked like a weapon. I don’t recall if he was carrying anything at all. It wasn’t a “bad neighborhood”. He was just a teenager, going about his business.
I locked my car door.
That moment, that one incident, taught me that despite my parents’ best intentions and my own liberal pride, I still had racism built into me. After I realized what I’d done, I unlocked my car door, and the kid just passed in front of my car, not paying attention to me at all (or if he did, I didn’t notice).
I’ve thought about this a lot. I went to a private high school that had a significant Hispanic population; when I was at UC Davis, I studied with plenty of people from marginalized communities, and one of my favorite Philosophy study partners was a man from Ethopia. I live in Sacramento, California, which is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the country. I belong to the Episcopal Church which, despite its own problems in some areas, does teach that racism is a sin. I’ve had plenty of chances to confront my own racist sensibilities, and talk back to them. But they still lurk, I know, and confronting them is a constant conversation with myself.
Racism is such a pervasive part of culture, that so permeates our educational, political, even our religious systems that sometimes we whites don’t even believe it’s there, like a fish who doesn’t even notice the water it swims in. It’s always been there, lurking. It’s generational, and will take generations to solve. I mean, it’s only been fifty years, more or less, that my parents were booted out of their apartment in Texas. We’re less than sixty years away from the Jim Crow laws. Less than two centuries away from slavery. How can we possibly expect to have overcome racism in such a short period of time? We white people have an obligation to see the racism that lives inside ourselves, confront it when we see it, and do our best to promote those marginalized voices when they speak up.
Personally, I don’t envision a day when Black men and women get to participate in the same American dream that we whites do. I envision a day wherein we’ve built a new American dream that embraces Black culture as much as it embraces any other culture. We’re far, far away from that, and the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency has probably hurt our chances of reaching it anytime soon.
All we white people can do is our best to have this conversation with our racist selves. Racism is a power structure built right into our culture, and we have the obligation to tear it down.
P.S.: A friend of mine on Facebook noted that I hadn’t made mention of specific actions. I quote her here (with her permission):
We as white folks can actually do quite a lot. We can participate in government to vote in (and perhaps be) the white folks who use their privilege and power to create space for POC. We can call in our fellow white folks. We can educate each other and practice inclusive language and actions. And there’s more.
P.P.S.: I don’t believe for an instant that the incident above was the only time I’ve ever been racist. It’s just the one that stands out the most to me. I’m aware of some of my own biases and problematic behaviors, and I strive to overcome them; but I’m sure there are some that I don’t even identify.
I put “Burying Uncle Albert” here on my website. However, it’s got a secret URL, and is password-protected. If you want to read it, let me know.
Edit March 26, 2018: This story is no longer available.
I’m probably not the most authoritative person to write about this topic, since (a) while I write, I’ve published very little; and (b) my depression isn’t actually that bad, thanks to medicine, a very supportive network of friends and family, and years of therapy. So I can only speak to my own experience.
Hi. My name is Richard, and I am a writer with depression.
That probably describes a lot of writers, honestly. I don’t know a single one of us who suffers from a surfeit of self-confidence. Heck, one writer friend of mine says that one of the most important ingredients to being a writer is self-loathing.
I have wanted to be a writer all my life. I admit that I’ve taken breaks from actually writing for years at a time, though. I didn’t do much creative writing in college (unless you count philosophy papers), and for years afterward I concentrated on developing a career as a web developer. Around 2001 I decided to pick up writing again and make a serious go of it. I’ve worked during that time to improve my craft, to write stories that matter to me, and so on. Seventeen years later, I’ve published a few stories here and there, but I’m still waiting for my “breakout” story. I maintain six active submissions at all times, using The Submissions Grinder to track them. I feel like I’m doing everything “right”, but I’m getting nowhere.
Part of this current funk is a rejection I received yesterday afternoon1. The story is, I believe, a good one. My crit group loved it, and I got good feedback on it from a professional writer who agreed to critique it (Not for free, it was because they offered critique services to a certain level of support on their Patreon account). I sent it to a market that seemed like a perfect fit, but, of course, received a rejection. The rejection contained language that said they looked forward to seeing more from me, but that language is, I believe, form language that most editors send with their rejection slips. I certainly did when I was editing Daikaijuzine. Some editors honestly do include that language only when they really mean it, but I have gotten a number of actual form rejections that added, “We hope you keep us in mind for future submissions” or wording to that effect.
The depressive part of me, of course, is telling me that this is all hopeless, that it’s all a numbers game that’s stacked against me. When you see the same names come up on the market listings, it’s hard to not convince yourself that being published is not so much how well you write but by how well you know the right people. Note that this is objectively not true, but it’s hard not to think it when you’re in the throes of this kind of funk.
I enjoy writing. I wish I hadn’t taken such a long break from it. And I’m vain enough to want my stories read by as many people as possible. Still though. Today my mind is saying, “Why bother?”
Why bother indeed.
My comedic contemporary fantasy short story “A Pine Romance”, which features the Jersey Devil (pictured to the left), REALLY needs some love. I’ve revised it numerous times in the past 18 months, and I’ve had many people read it. I want to make this story marketable, because I think it’s a good one and has some great elements to it, even if it currently lacks what we writers like to call “cohesion”.
If you’re at all interested, please drop me your email address in the form below or using my “Contact Richard” page (or post a comment on FB or Twitter). Even if you’ve read it before, your additional input would be greatly appreciated. The story in its current incarnation is about 6,000 words long.
Thanks to all!
EDIT: This form was attracting a lot of spam (surprise!). So please indicate your favorite color in the line provided so as to make it clear that you’re a person.
I had a blast at FogCon, as I usually do. The panels I attended were all fascinating, the people were great, &c. I was a little miffed that the bio I wrote for myself on the website didn’t manage to make it into the printed program, but I’ve learned to live with small disappointments like that. I also enjoyed hanging out with other writers and talking craft and projects with them. That’s always worthwhile.
The panel I was on, “Cuddly Horrors from Outer Space”, went in a direction that I wasn’t expecting, and as a result I felt a bit out of my depth at times. I was far more prepared to discuss cosmic horrors and Lovecraftian critters and how making them cute is, in a sense, defying the nihilistic culture we live in, so when we veered into social commentary about Dracula and similar creatures of imagination, I was a bit surprised. And although I felt I didn’t have much to contribute to that particular part of the conversation, I enjoyed it.
The more I think about it, the more I think we live in a culture with more “defanged” monsters than actual scary ones: monsters which are cute and cuddly, rather than horrific and scary. It’s far easier to buy a plush Cthulhu than a monstrous statue of him, for example; and cartoon images of vampires and werewolves abound, to the point where they show up on Sesame Street as the Count and Stephanie Myers writes about glittering vampires playing baseball in the sun.
The “Disneyfication” of horrifying cultural tropes came up as well. Many of the folk and fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm were cautionary tales for children (and some were meant for adults), and some were just plain scary for the sake of being scary, but Disney transformed the original Snow White into Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As a result, the original horrific element of that story is lost in a whirlwind of singing birdies. Of course, as time has gone on we’ve seen reimaginings of, say, the “Princess” trope, where the definition of a Disney princess has gone from the meek and helpless Snow White to the nearly (but not quite) feminist characters found in Frozen. I think more work needs to be done with these tropes, but I am heartened by what we’ve seen so far (yes, there are feminist retellings of these fairy tales but on the whole they’re meant for adults and not for children).
We also talked about humanizing monsters, making them sympathetic, and about exploring the human side of them. We see this in works such as Frankenstein, where in the novel the creature is meant to be sympathized with and Frankenstein himself is the weak and pathetic character who runs screaming from what he’s created and refusing to take responsibility for it. Seeing our own reflections in these monsters helps us, I think, reflect on our own humanity.
Of course, we also have shows such as Hannibal and Dexter, which invite the audience to see serial killers as sympathetic creatures in spite of their terrible crimes. This brought the conversation, in a roundabout way, to a discussion of our current political climate, in which we “normalize” monstrous people such as Nazis and fascists and find coverage of them in The New York Times, while the forces of good, such as the antifa movement and Black Lives Matter are rendered monstrous.
We talked also a wee bit about “humanizing” zombies, though I am pretty sure we agreed that the point of a zombie is that it is a creature that has lost all dredges of humanity entirely; and thus the moment you start to humanize them, make them sympathetic, then by definition they cease to be zombies. I can’t think of any exceptions to this off the top of my head. Even novels like Scott G. Browne’s Breathers, which is told from the point of view of the zombie, doesn’t really have any zombies in it.
I don’t know for sure. Am I moving the goalposts here, redefining what it means to be a zombie as I discuss the concept? There are plenty of iterations of the vampire motif, so why not so with zombies?
On the whole, then, I think we live in a post-monstrous age, where the supernatural creatures are no longer scary and the monstrous within isn’t examined anymore. While zombies might represent the faceless evils of racism and consumer culture, it’s still pretty easy to find plush zombies in the stores and online through ThinkGeek. Even Sadako and Samara, the yurei that feature so terrifyingly in The Grudge and The Ring so supernaturally, were recently pitted against each other in a more comedic film (in much the same vein as Freddy Vs. Jason).
Are there monstrous beings anymore? Can we be frightened by vampires and werewolves and Cthulhu anymore? Is it even possible? Or can we still find horror within, reflected by media overgeneralizations of cultural forces?
I’m going to have to think about this some more.
This week has been a wet one. Monday there was hail from hell — seriously, it hailed for something like fifteen minutes. Usually when we get hail in this part of the world, we get a few pea-sized ice chunks for five minutes or so. This time, the world outside looked like an Alaskan city. Here’s a picture I took from our office window of the parking garage across the street and the corner:
Pretty impressive, yes?
The rest of the week has been pretty wet as well, but nothing like Monday’s event. It’s good, because California may be on the verge of another drought, and we need all the water we can get.
On another note, next weekend is FogCon 2018. FogCon is a small convention that Jennifer and I have been attending for the past few years. It’s fun. This year, I’m actually on a panel! My second convention panel ever! The panel is called “Cuddly Horrors from Outer Space!” The description is as follows:
“Harlan Ellison wrote about how the classic monsters of horror film and story have been de-fanged (so to speak) — the werewolf, the vampire, and so forth. You can now buy a plush Cthulhu from any one of a number of sources, read cartoons about baby extradimensional horrors, and so forth. Can Cthulhu and the rest be saved from being not-scary due to cuddliness? And if so, how?”
If you’re going to FogCon and want to go to the panel, it’s Saturday at 8 pm in the Sacramento Room of the con hotel.
I think I got on to the panel on the basis of this post, where I wrote about cosmic horror and Cthulhu. I like to think I know something about the topic. I’ve been in touch with the other members of the panel, and it’s going to be an interesting discussion, I think.
On another note, I’ve done some redesign work on my site. If you like, go ahead and leave a comment on this post. I’m still on my hiatus from Facebook and Twitter (I’m still hanging out here and there on Instagram, though), so I probably won’t see comments posted there.
Safe journeys, my friends.