Writing Thoughts

Maintaining Our Sensitivity

One of my favorite things people say to me about my fiction is, “you’re so sweet, how did you write something so dark?”

While I tease with other authors that perhaps my brain is not as well wired to distinguish between the sacred and the profane–so it all just blends together without conscience–in reality I consider myself to be a rather sensitive person. I’m picky about the movies and TV shows I watch. I tend to hold my laughter at suggestive remarks and innuendos–though there are different kinds, and I don’t believe that all sex-and-bodily-fucntion-related humor is rude and marginalizing. I avoid R-rated movies, even when they’re edited. I’m not a fan of gore. I’ve grown more squeamish about violence as I’ve progressed in life. And I don’t like to watch more than one thriller-action-packed movie or show in a day. Sitting still for more than a few hours to watch intense shows can impact my mood, and the mood of others around me. I’ve observed that this often influences us to become grouchy with one another over small things if we don’t give ourselves enough space to digest that background tension.

At the same time, I’m a normal human being who is fascinated by the dark side of humanity and nature at large. When I was in junior high school, a couple of my friends, Nabby and Robyn, did a joint History Fair project on the history of torture, complete with a presentation board they made themselves from chicken wire and paper mache to look like an iron maiden. Clever, right? I thought these girls had one of the best presentations boards at the History Fair that year, and I was a little jealous. My project, of course, was a fantastically creepy homemade documentary on the spread of bubonic plague through Medieval Europe. My little sister even played the part of a plague-afflicted peasant moaning and writhing in pain while my voice narrated the gruesome symptoms of the disease.

Documentaries, movies, and discussions about the Holocaust, warfare, slavery, disease and human response to disease, natural disasters, tyrant leaders, violent crimes, wild animals doing what wild animals do, people practicing what they claim is “science” or “medicine” without the ethics of real science or medicine, extreme survival stories, and the unfortunate ways people have met their demise at family theme parks still haunt and intrigue me. Not because the horror of these things are “cool,” but because these horrors exist. A part of me wants to know how and why terrible things happen, and what people have done and can do about evil, and about coping with the perils of being mortal, breakable, corruptible creatures that we are. I also have a sense of humor, which is sometimes sweet, and sometimes macabre, sarcastic, inappropriate, or a little sacrilegious. And I have my share of both positive and negative life experiences to process and reflect on from day to day as well.

The topic of “how far is too far in horror fiction?” comes up often on horror writing panels, particularly if there are a number of LDS authors on the panel. People in my local Utah community are curious as to where an LDS author draws the line on various things in the art and literature we consume and produce. Members of the LDS faith have been counseled by General Authorities to be very careful with what they watch, read, and listen to because the various media we use to communicate and express ourselves have great power to influence our attitudes, behavior, and spiritual well being. My general answer on where individuals should draw lines is usually that the “line” we draw depends on one’s personal sensitivities and values–which in some ways is not the most concrete or satisfying answer. While I want my stories to be entertaining, and even disturbing or visceral sometimes, and I also enjoy being entertained with similar emotional experiences to what I like to evoke. What’s important to me is that the things I produce and consume ultimately lead me and my audiences to greater sensitivity about what’s right and wrong in the world, even when I challenge what that means, and to feel greater compassion.

What’s interesting about this goal is that I can’t constrain anyone to interact with my stories in one particular way or another. People will engage with a story however they would like to, have the experiences they have, take away what they want to take away, and feel how they feel regardless of what I meant to convey. And I think that’s a good thing. Art is fundamentally interactive. We create art to inspire and inform others, and every one of us creators is in the dark about precisely what we’ve created until we observe the reactions of others to our media. Neither am I perfect at balancing the entertainment aspects of writing about dark, scary, disturbing things with sensitivity. Sometimes I do fist-pumps when someone tells me that one of my stories gave them nightmares and caused them to lose sleep at night. Then I feel bad that something I wrote had this deep of an effect on their psyches for a short period of time…

This is a long introduction, but I think the topic of how to choose our media consumption wisely so that we maintain our sensitivity and avoid negative and degrading content is an important conversation to have. Today I’d like to discuss some tools I use to understand my own attitudes and preferences, to cope with media content I don’t like, and to identify and decide when to abandon entertainment that isn’t worthwhile to me.

1. Don’t protect art you’ve shared publicly from scrutiny and rejection
I love the freedom I have in the US to express myself in art and writing, within meaningful parameters, without fear of censorship. I also value the rights and responsibilities of individuals to engage with what I create in ways that are comfortable for them, and to self-censor. It’s always been important to me to let friends and people I meet who express interest in what I write know that they are welcome to close my books and walk away from them anytime the content or presentation goes somewhere too dark or unsavory, or when it triggers something too deep and disturbing for their liking or personal sense of decency. My goal in writing horror is not to actually bring greater darkness, confusion, despair, or a desensitization to what is shocking into other people’s lives for the sake of entertainment–or even for the sake of having a conversation about something that bothers me or other people. It is my writing motto not to take it personally if someone doesn’t like what I write–but to continue creating content that is meaningful and entertaining to myself and my audience anyway.

2. Have a plan when a story presents characters who live or promote values that differ from your own
When I was four years old, my mother gave me a Barbie doll wearing an off-the-shoulder blouse. She taught me a valuable lesson that day when she told me she would let me play with the doll, wearing this outfit, as long as I understood that this outfit did not meet my family’s standards for modest dress in real life. I had to ask her to explain to me what modesty was, but this moment sticks out to me because it set some boundaries between what was okay in make-believe, and how this should differ from real-world applications and expectations.

Everyone varies in terms of what they’re comfortable seeing fictional characters do and not do relative to their own sensitivities and values. If there is a villain in a play, someone gets to play that role. And characters often philosophize about life, love, sex, killing, loyalty, charity, genes, the environment, family responsibilities, and a whole host of things in ways the story creators themselves may or may not actually believe or agree with. Some of these ideas may make for interesting conversation or thought, and can lend insight into the motives of how some people tick in real life.

The key, of course, is when considering to what extent we agree or disagree with the premise of these principles. Is it really all right to leave your spouse if your “soul mate,” or someone you like better, shows up later in life? Is it really okay to rob the rich to give to the poor? Do I really want to think about shooting my best friend if they turn into a zombie–because that’s not even real? Discussing and engaging with value-based ideas we encounter in fiction, or history and elsewhere, can be interesting and stimulating, and doesn’t have to pose a threat to our personal values and integrity. But we should remember also that fiction is the art of telling lies. There will be times where we each must decide where we stand on the values and behavior of characters in fiction relative to our own beliefs, and to what extent we wish to explore or emulate what these characters think or do in various contexts. Not all characters are designed to be role models.

3. Pay attention to how different media makes you feel
Horror fiction is not really positive or uplifting in a straightforward sense. It’s about the things that scare us. The things that get under our skin and won’t leave us alone for days or weeks at a time, that gross us out, that rub us the wrong way, that leave knots in our stomachs, that trigger us in some way as to make us angry, sad, or unsettled. This can be cathartic, but there are certainly elements of horror, as in other fiction and non-fiction media, that can have a lasting negative impact on our mood and attitudes that is neither fun nor healthy.

My advice is to consume intense fiction in small bites, so that we have the opportunity to consider things outside our comfort zones without the emotions raised by the fictional dialogue and scenarios getting in the way of real life more than a little. Have post-reading or post-movie chats with friends and family to discuss and process content that intrigued or bothered you. Put some distance between yourself and the kinds of entertainment that bother you more than you want to experience again.

Walk away from anything that feels wrong to watch. You’ll know when you see or hear it. Going off my own values, I would put pornography, “torture porn” (movies that primarily feature graphic, dramatized depictions of torture), and some particularly intense reality TV shows in this hard category of things to avoid because they value and promote emotional or primal stimulation, power, drama, stereotyping, debasement, and self-gratification over the dignity and humanity of other people. In the case of porn and certain reality TV shows (assuming no one is actually getting tortured in torture-heavy horror movies), sometimes people are doing or going through real things that aren’t any of my business to see, judge, mock, respond to, or engage with in the way they’ve been presented. The simulation of any of the above through “acting” or animation to elicit similar attitudes toward these subjects without commenting on what makes these situations or attitudes part of the human condition and valuable to think about can also be desensitizing. That is my opinion and my standard.

4. Be sensitive to what others are comfortable with
You don’t have to adjust your standards or change what you enjoy watching to suit others. But we all engage with the same things in different ways to some extent, and it is good to be sensitive to the media preferences of others. We shouldn’t pressure others to engage with media they are not comfortable engaging with, and neither should we feel pressured to engage with media that makes us uncomfortable. We should have regular, ongoing conversations with our friends, family, and communities about our preferences, values, and sensitivities so that we can all help each other have good experiences with the media we produce and consume for fun. We should be able to enjoy what we watch and read because we know we have safe places to retreat to in the real world away from the entertaining lies we tell each other.

Isn’t that backwards, though? Don’t we tell stories to escape from the horrors and frustrations of real life, and to explore what’s possible in a hopeful sense as well as the cautionary? That we do!

Be sensitive, my friends, and enjoy all the creepy stories and haunting fantasies you like this Halloween season in the best company and with the sweetest intentions.

My Writing Process: Brainstorming Characters

It’s a short post today.

When I sit down to come up with a new story, one of the first things I think about besides a contest or collection’s theme, or the overall genre elements and interesting ideas I want to explore and include, is the characters. For me it boils down to, not what the main character cares about most, but who. Ultimately, I think we are all motivated to do the things we do in life because of the people in our lives that we care about (or even dislike or fear) the most. We feel most threatened when our loved ones are threatened, and most distracted, sad, or frustrated when they are hurting, or when they are absent or don’t return our affections. Orienting my characters’ main plot objectives around the people they care about most has become a valuable tool that has helped me generate dynamic characters. These characters may appear to be very concerned with one particular goal on the surface, but they are ultimately motivated to do what they do (including some really bizarre things) because of their relationships.

Stories are Human: Explaining My Writing Process

An author friend of mine mentioned on Facebook a little while ago that a concerned mother at one of his book signings came up to him and seemed to hold a strong view, in his words, that “any books not based in fact (read as “fiction in any form”) was not worth reading.” I gave my thoughts in the comment thread of this post, but wanted to bring them up again because I love what I’ve learned from experts about what story (including fiction) is and why it is so valuable.

From an evolutionary psychology perspective (my favorite way to look at things), our capacity for language (grammar in particular), for imagining the impossible, for developing crazy-sophisticated technology, and for experiencing morality are all connected through our capacity and need to establish and maintain complex social bonds. This means that we humans have the incredible capacity to convey sophisticated internal sentiments, concepts, boundaries, and experiences to one another in a way that incites complex physiological (sensations, emotional resonance) and social reactions in one another. With that in mind, the power of story is a fundamental part of what makes us human. Fiction really does have the power to open our minds to new possibilities, gives us better tools and alternate perspectives to approach and solve problems, and allows us to see our everyday activities and interaction in a new light. Fiction does have value–incredible value. Like other forms of artistic expression, it’s a fundamental part of what makes us the incredible creatures we are.

What’s been fascinating for me as an author over the years is to sit on (and sit in on) panels with other authors and listen to them describe how they come up with great stories–from Larry Correia and Kevin J. Anderson, to Michaelbrent Collings, Candace J. Thomas, David Butler, and Angie Lofthouse (among many, many wonderful authors I’ve had the privilege to come to know in person). While many share similar strategies, no two authors visualize, plan, or build their story elements exactly the same way. At the heart of any story are emotions–conflicts that need to be resolved. But every author has their own flavor of conflict that we like to see and create. The things that motivate us to convey these ideas also vary.

We have different life experiences, different challenges and interests, different things that matter to each of us (or that frighten and bother us, in the case of writing horror). As a result, no two authors will have exactly the same style or approach. It isn’t always easy to deduce how to develop our own styles simply by listening to other authors describe their creative processes, I’ve discovered. Developing my own style has taken a lot of practice: a lot of getting down the basics, a lot of honing, a lot of trial and error. But taking notes and pondering how a variety of others do what they do–from setting up an opening scene with a great plot and interesting characters, to dealing with writer’s block and time-management–has given me a little window into each author’s soul, if you will, as well as strategies and insights into how to tap into my own “reservoir of genuine” to build my own creative writing skills.

I think its good practice for me as a writer to describe my creative process from time to time. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, I expect that my process will continuously change over time as my views and understanding of writing fiction continue to expand. This means I may change my mind on strategies that I think work well, or on my overall approach to the creative process over time. I think that’s a big part of the adventure of discovering and developing one’s own voice and style. Explaining one’s individual process to others is a skill unto itself, and one, I think, that often takes a bit of courage. We writers and artists recognize that we are still learning and growing, and that we (depending on how novice we still feel about our skills) may be trying to share suggestions or discuss things we aren’t really that experienced in or familiar with yet. In truth, no one of us mere mortals is omniscient, and there will always be some skill or concept area that even the most skilled expert has not yet developed an understanding for. But the more we make an effort to explain ourselves, the easier it becomes to understand the merits both of how we’ve figured out how do things and how others approach things, and the more confidence we gain in our abilities to help others grow as well.

To this end (sharing what I know, and gaining more confidence in my explaining/teaching skills), I’d like to share a few  posts in the coming days here on my blog exploring some of my own current writing process.

Look for a post on my approach to brainstorming characters early next week!

Science, Fear of the Unknown, & H. P. Lovecraft’s Cosmic Indifference

I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on “Science in the Universe of H.P. Lovecraft” at Salt Lake Comic Con FanXperience last month. As I have a story coming out in Redneck Eldritch this month, I thought it would be fun to revisit and expand on some of my thoughts that I had the opportunity to bring up on that panel.

H. P. Lovecraft’s life and worldviews are so interesting to me, aside from his fiction. Some have speculated he may have had what we would diagnose today as Asperger’s syndrome or Autism. In what I’ve read of both his fiction and his life, it is my impression that he was a very vulnerable writer who candidly integrated some of his deepest personal fears and phobias about sea creatures, foreigners, and losing his sanity into his fiction. Something that fascinates me about him is his brand of atheism, termed a “cosmic indifference” philosophy, which also colors his fiction in interesting ways.

As a scientist of faith myself who is hoping to study and contribute to the fields of paleontology and human evolution someday, I’m concerned about rhetoric from both radical New World Atheism that specifically decries religious and spiritual convictions as delusional, disingenuous, and destructive, and Intelligent Design proponents who subvert the scientific method to “prove” the existence of God. I feel that both of these extreme philosophical attitudes perpetuate misunderstandings about compatibility between science and religious beliefs.

While academic groups like the Broader Social Impacts Committee of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program wish to persuade more Americans that the concepts of evolutionary biology need not pose a threat toward individual religious and cultural worldviews, I believe these extreme attitudes are not the only obstacles to such goals. Science fiction entertainment often flatly pairs radical atheistic themes and attitudes in negative ways with scientific exploration time and again. These themes of conflict between science and belief are becoming deeply ingrained in our broader culture, and no place more effectively than in the sci-fi horror and thriller genres where, one might argue, Lovecraftian themes of cosmic indifference are most frequently emulated.

Whatever influence Lovecraft’s storytelling may have in tying anti-religious sentiments to science in our current cultural mindset, his worldview also strikes me as a genuine and historically significant one that I feel is absolutely worth dissecting and understanding. Something else that fascinates me about his fiction is that it often fixates on fear of the unknown, and mankind’s ability to comprehend the universe. Howard Lovecraft lived in a time when the world was becoming more trusting, unified, and reliant on science and scientific methods to quantify and understand the universe. As my favorite Wikipedia article puts it (I know, I know, it’s not scholarly, but it’s been a great discussion-starter source): “Lovecraft portrays this potential for a growing gap of man’s understanding of the universe as a potential for horror.”

In my mind, faith and fear of the unknown and the unknowable feel like fundamentally supernatural concepts—which seems counterintuitive when Lovecraft’s stories are considered trendsetters for our modern brand of “scientific” horror. The reason Lovecraft’s stories are considered scientific rather than typical supernatural horror, however, is because his characters make painstaking references and appeals to scientific evidence or rationalist thinking, even when that ultimately still fails them. It’s the reasoning in their approach to their problems that makes the horror conflicts scientific rather than paranormal from a literary standpoint. Interestingly, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written a hundred years earlier than Lovecraft’s tales, evokes a similar sense of horror and caution about the potential unseen dangers and consequences of an attitude that we can control and comprehend everything through science, or “play God.” But it does so with the exact opposite motive of rekindling a sense of the sacred and the profane.

Imitating Lovecraft

It was important to me in writing “Mine of the Damned Gods” to try and capture Lovecraft’s themes of cosmic indifference, and the horror of trying to make meaning out of universal insignificance in my own way. I love using transformation scenes in my fiction in general because they evoke visceral questions about the sanctity of from and the fundamental or indivisible qualities of core identity. What makes me me? And is there a part of me that is not only more than a composite of trillions of individual cells that happen to look and function a certain way, but that would persist if my physical form were to suddenly, completely, and irrevocably contort into something else? How does our fear of mutilation relate to a sense of core identity, and why is the concept of a sudden shift in an individual’s physical form–from one species to another completely alien form–so effectively disturbing in this way?

It was also important to me to bend the tropes that paint misconceptions about how evolutionary processes actually work in particular, and that otherwise make evolution look like a bleak reality or a callous tool scientists (or alien invaders) might use to justify disturbing and cold-blooded activities. In my story I attempted to portray evolutionary processes as “natural,” creatively free-form, and hopeful (however blindly or futile for the sake of the horror narrative). In contrast, the “unnatural” and “damning” horror of my characters’ transformations into unfeeling cosmic entities is portrayed as constraining, annihilating, disorienting, gross, and anti-evolutionary.

There’s a lot more going on in my story, of course. Being a retelling of Oedipus Rex with a pinch of the German Legend of the Water Goblin blended in, a redneck tale, and, ultimately, a horror story meant to entertain, I had a lot of bizarre, creative fun with “Mine of the Damned Gods.” H. P. Lovecraft’s stories have captured the imaginations of many and contributed to modern science fiction literature and culture in broad and significant ways. Writing a Lovecraftian tale has both expanded my own storytelling skills and allowed me to explore themes of cosmic indifference in fiction with deeper appreciation for that point of view and its influence in the genre of scientific horror.

Sarah E. Seeley is a fantasy and horror author, and an affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association. She has a bachelor’s degree in geology and loves exploring the science of human origins.

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