Priorities change and that’s okay. Writing shouldn’t consume your life.

When the act of writing stops being fulfilling, it’s okay to stop doing it for a while.

Hard work, discipline, and the grueling ups and downs of submission and rejection are part of the game. Writing is difficult, and that’s fine, but writing should also be a fun addition to the rest of your life. Your bills are paid, your house is in order, and the hours you put in drafting and editing fulfill you in the way any hobby should. Writing shouldn’t be your whole life.

In my last post, I spoke about wasting years of my life worried about my legacy. A different side of that dice is the fact that, cliche of all cliches, a writing career is a marathon run, not a sprint.

Facebook and Twitter have created an atmosphere that inundates fiction writers with constant stimulation. Much of it is positive on the surface: how-tos, ease of access to writers we admire, submission calls, marketing tips, what have you. I have benefited from these things in many ways. However, I also experience an enormous sense of not being successful enough, not being successful fast enough, or not writing or selling myself in the correct ways (per the latest Internet author marketing standards).

You may have felt this scrolling through your newsfeed. Updates of others celebrating publications in magazines; authors promoting their latest book, which seems like it took a few weeks to write; a dozen blog posts you must read about craft; advertisements hocking courses that promise to make you as good as *insert biggies in your genre*. Of course, you’re happy for them even if envious. But you also might wonder if your kayak can hack it on the white water rapid they’re on, seasoned experts navigating their way with ease.

What I’ve learned from meeting many of these “seasoned expert” writers, in whatever genre/circles, is that they’ve been at it for decades. Inundated by these constant digital reminders of our shortcomings, we lack the perspective to see their excruciating years of failures, their learning curves, and moments when they were inconsolable because no matter how hard they worked they felt like impostors, or worse, invisible.

The point of this post is not to stick it out. That horse has been mutilated plenty. I want to talk about pacing yourself, about putting your life first.

I had my first child recently. A lovely little cherub we call Isabel. She breathed new light into my life, but also, much to my surprise, re-oriented my priorities. I realized that for a longer time than I’m proud of, I’ve treated writing fiction like a second full-time job and then some. I’ve been damn close to paying no mind to anything but writing fiction when I wasn’t at the prison working my “day job.” I don’t regret the exponential growth, the time I’ve put into my learning curve, or the joy experienced when several editors said yes. But I do regret the enormous pressure I’ve put on myself to compete with those seasoned kayakers.

I worked so hard, and driving myself mad with anxiety and depression trying to wade into waters I just wasn’t–or may never be–ready for. In doing so, I neglected my adult responsibilities. I interacted with my wife in a constant state of bitterness and inadequacy. When I could have been taking better care of my mental and physical health, I became more depressed, drank, and gained fifty pounds in a couple years. When I could’ve have been saving and managing money better, in order to pay off the overwhelming amount of student loan debt I’m in, I coasted in survival mode; buying take-out even though I’m a good cook, letting interest payments pile up…

When I held Isabel, watched her looking up at me with brand new eyes, I realized all that “normal” for me was anything but. My work ethic is admirable, yeah. But letting my life remain in shambles around me is far from. The starving, mad artist shtick, viewed nakedly for what it was in that moment, with a dependent human life in my hands, seemed ridiculous. I had new perspective on my life, and suddenly being good enough at writing fiction to publish it seemed like the last thing a person should place in the center of their world. I had to become happy; I had to get back in fighting shape; I had to pay off debts, and manage my financial life smarter. For me, for Isabel, for my wife.

Some reading this might think this is the song a man sings when his dreams die. Maybe that will turn out true. I don’t know. All I do know is that writing fiction stopped fulfilling me, so I stopped for a while. Moving forward, it will be less of an obsession for me, given much less immediacy. I will view it as a lifelong process and, like I said in my last post, open myself to other writing avenues and means of self-expression.

Priorities change, and that’s okay. Take care of yourselves. Trust me, if your priorities want to change and you don’t let them, you’re setting yourself up for depression and self-hatred.

 

 

I wasted 1/3 of my life worried about this part of my writing identity.

Have you ever had a fantastic idea for a children’s book, for a personal essay about dating in your 20s, for a political op-ed, but stopped yourself because you write (fill in the blank)?

I’ve realized that I sabotage myself this way all the time. I identify as a fiction writer first. Horror writer second. Before that, a “literary” writer. Which means I didn’t let myself dabble in any genre fiction or nonfiction. For eight years, ideas for crime fiction, science-fiction, children’s books, and personal or political nonfiction would pop into my head, begging to be written. I would admonish myself, “NO, Tom, you’re a literary fiction writer. Stay in that lane.”

There’s one specific type of perfectionism I’ve been haunted by. It’s absurd and embarrassing. Heck, I almost hesitate to admit it, but it’s my truth, and maybe it will help someone.

I worry about legacy.

I know. Yikes. Here I am, most assuredly a Nobody, worrying about whether my ideas are on brand or not, instead of finishing manuscripts and publishing them. Worrying about how the public will view me when the dust of my golden years settles.

I always sought to write in ways that satisfied a particular self-image I wanted to conjure. At first, at my most naive, I wanted to be Hemingway; then, as I matured, it turned into wanting to be Stephen King, Denis Lehane, Ray Bradbury, Laird Barron, etc al. So I would have these phases where I would, again, put blinders on to all of the things I want to say about the world, and write exclusively in my “genre-of-the-week.” Of course, when you do this, last week’s writing may get thrown out the following week. After that cycle repeats itself enough, you have years without publications, nor even submissions.

Does this sound familiar? I think it might. A lot of us love literature and love writing fiction, but a lot of us also, if we’re honest, aspire at one point to achieve household literary fame. It’s strange to state that so baldly, but now that I have, I understand that it has kept me from expressing myself genuinely for three-quarters of my life. Gulp.

I encourage you to write whatever the heck your heart desires. But to be more practical, let me remind you that every writer of status, did not stifle their creativity. They wrote journalism and they wrote weird essays and average poetry and short stories you have never seen because they haven’t been put in collections. Nowadays, the big writers of tomorrow probably do freelance copy writing and content writing and also write strange flash or micro fiction we’ll never know about, even when they’re NYT bestselling authors.

Cormac McCarthy is my favorite example. He worked as a mechanic back in the day, and wrote these complex, regional, literary novels that on the surface would only be appreciated where the stories were set, in Appalachia. Suttree had a first print run of three thousand copies, and his number of fans hovered around that figure for years, as he plodded on writing Appalachians and some Westerns. Blood Meridian, held by many as one of the greatest novels ever was his sixth book. And then, All The Pretty Horses came along and became a bestseller. It took seven books. And then, boom, his back catalog went back into print and his new releases sold like hot cakes.

Imagine if McCarthy had cast aside his five ideas prior to Blood Meridian? Imagine if he was so caught up in his “image” he hadn’t written those (“I’m gonna wait until I can write a Western, I’m a Western writer!”) and therefore did not have the publishing credentials to get his sixth and then bestselling seventh books published. Furthermore, he might be a mechanic in El Paso, Texas right now who writes as a hobby…

The point here is to express yourself for your own well-being. Be congruent with yourself, your worldview, and what interests you. Write what you believe and finish things. The genre or categorization doesn’t matter. Submit your work and then publish it. Make a difference however you can. Lest you look up at thirty, like me, and realize you’ve wasted a solid chunk of life fretting about nonsense.

So long as you can see the way back to the main trail, don’t fear the sun setting through the trees.

I’d love to hear if you relate to this.

I’m in the early stages of brainstorming for children’s books about American History. This is a huge departure for me, but I think it’s a way I can make a difference in the world, perhaps moreso than escapist fiction.

What are you currently writing/struggling whether or not to write?

 

Blood Sugar Cauldron: Lovecraftian Flash Fiction Inspired by an Existential Candy Meme

BLOOD SUGAR CAULDRON

by Tom Scanlan

I remember when War Heads sprang into existence because it’s when my problem started.

As a kid, I used to consume the hard sour candies until my tongue split and bled. The sugar (C6H12O6) became inseparable from my blood.

I changed.

I yearn for Sour Patch Kids and the lesser sour candies still. I eat them until the roof of my mouth turns into dry whale ribs that I can run my tongue over, a xylophone that produces not sound but pain. I gorge myself on them at the expense of my body, which turns the sugar into fat that stuffs my skin like an overfilled sand bag.

I’m in the 24-hour Seven Eleven. I come here while the world sleeps. I’m studying the candy section for my next selection, when I hear the universe chant unintelligible words. I see a vast cauldron nested in a corner of the cosmos. Dark amber glucose tar churns inside, popping, sizzling, letting off a sweet hot candy reek. The presence from whose mouth the chemical song comes ignores the spitting liquid scalding its space-time flesh.

Does the presence notice me notice it? I think it does.

I think it wants me to know.

Its ululations increase in volume. I need to blot out the noise. It sounds like something is being willed into existence…

Is the time now?

The bag of sour Now & Laters my glassy eyes have been looking beyond shakes. One by one, bags of Sour Worms, Sour Skittles, Air Head Xtreme Sours, Sour Jolly Ranchers, Sour Trollis, and the War Heads that started this journey, tremble. The plastic containers crinkle. The loose grains of sugar inside them shake like sand in maracas.

“YO.”

A pale employee with a neck beard looks at me intently.

“What?”

“I’ve been asking if you can hear me. Lay off the weed, dude. For fuck’s sake.”

“I’m not high,” I say. “I–” I can’t tell another person that I’ve been communicating with a deity I call (C6H12O6) about the progenation of its offspring.

I keep my mouth shut.

The cashier shrugs. “Fine. Whatever then. Stare at the candy until you get your heart’s fill.”

“Wait,” I say, before he walks away.

“Yup?”

I cough. My throat’s felt tight, but now I can breathe. “Bags. Please get me bags to carry my selection up. I’m going to need a lot of candy tonight.”

END


gummy bear horror

I started this post as a means of sharing this hilarious meme about gummy bears becoming a singular consciousness because they melted in a car. I thought I’d leave a funny line about how my die hard consumption of War Heads, as a 90s kid drawn to their “extreme sour” allure, contributed to candy somehow acquiring consciousness.

Then this flash piece took on a life of its own, and then a half-decent form, and then after a couple hours with it, I realized it’s kind of a cool story.

You know… “what if…

  • you took a sweet (sour) tooth to its illogical extreme?”
  • gave that creeper in the late-night convenient store setting a cosmic backstory?”
  • considered that environmental forces and nutrition are already changing our bodies in ways no one could’ve foreseen in the 1950s, and gave that horror a dollop of glucose?”

Anyway, I don’t try flash fiction often. Let me know if this makes you think/feel anything!

Super Mario Nightmares

As a young kid I played a lot of Mario Bros on Super Nintendo. One time I came down with this illness that gave me fevers night after night. A temperature starts causing brain damage at 107.6 degrees. My mom tells me my brain matter stewed between 105 and 106.

boos

I lay delirious in my parents’ bed. My PJs were sweat-matted to my scrawny frame. I started hallucinating. I still remember. Clear as they were in the games, I saw Mario, Luigi, Toad, Bowser, Chomp, and those horrifying Boos.

They shifted in the shadowy corners of the room, leering at me, engaged in some sick ritual dance with my subconscious. My brain fried. My child’s mind mistook the fever for death throes and must’ve conjured these characters in an attempt to ease the process. It didn’t work. My mom tells me I screamed at them to get away. I learned young that almost anything can become sinister given the right circumstances. Even friggin’ Toad!

Anyway… I might’ve died from a heart attack if my hallucinated Mario looked like this.

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The Creepy Mario! 😱

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Hellraiser / Boss Baby Crossover in the Works

Sources tell me that Doug Bradley and Alec Baldwin are going to provide a simultaneous voice-over for the Infant Hell-Priest Secret Agent.

The script involves baby Pinhead trapped in a playpen at a busy daycare in Liverpool, tormenting staff and mates by stealing snacks, hitting with toys, and incessantly soiling his diapees. All the while, he must solve an Illuminati conspiracy to get out of his infant form.

Paramount’s release date set for Summer Solstice, 2666.

baby hellraiser

This is fake news.

Hereditary Should’ve Been A Novel: A Review (Spoilers)

The depiction of Paimon in the movie is lame.

Obviously, there’s a lot to interpret in a long, ambitious film like Hereditary. The objective plot, however, is that Grandma and Annie and the Paimon cult are practicing occult rituals to summon Paimon. In a lore book, he’s called a god of mischief and at the end a cult member calls him one of the eight kings of hell. She adds something like, “You’re first form had problems, so we got you a new host.”

I understood that this soliloquy meant to disambiguate some of the film’s content, which I can only imagine is bizarre for people who haven’t read weird fiction. But honestly, it made me laugh because I felt awkward for the director/writer. Let me explain.

Why Paimon’s Depiction in Hereditary Is Lame

Peter throws himself out of the attic window. The blue spirit orb/beam we’ve been shown several times enters him and he rises. When he does, he makes the cluck sound Charlie so often did.

After the soliloquy confirmed what I thought was going on, I thought to myself, Well, clearly the cult failed with this host, too…

Charlie is a great character. She’s intensely creepy and well-played. Speaking of the actress, Molly Shapiro is a lovely young woman in real life. In Hereditary, she is made up to look a bit deformed. Based on the film’s title and her character’s appearance, I wrongly expected the family’s dark secret to involve incest. Her character is also socially awkward and implicitly special needs.

charlie

We find out she was the cult’s first attempt at Paimon’s physical manifestation.

Bringing demonic entities into our earthly realm is no easy feat, but the cult of Paimon is off to a bad start.

Then Peter clucks. The woman crowns him and for the first time in a bleak film, the music score turns triumphant, as if the cult of Paimon should feel successful. Again, my inner monologue: that’s it! Two hours and change and the monster clucks and stares off blankly! Toni Collette rendered the performance she did, for this…!

A more ambiguous, subtle interpretation of the end, like maybe the cult will simply have to try a third time (with whom?) to get it right, still disappoints me.

If a hell-king is raised, you damn well better have the payoff be more than a slack-jawed cluck.

Hollywood Marketed Hereditary Wrong

The heart of why Hereditary underwhelmed me is that the film felt so damn indulgent. You can read director Ari Aster discussing Hereditary here. Hearing him, it’s clear the talented man gets his jollies from painstaking displays of uber-artsy critic-baiting.

The blame starts with the suits in Hollywood who allowed this experience to be marketed as a summer blockbuster mainstream horror movie. The hype for Hereditary clogged horror blogs and my social feeds for eight months before it’s release. The trailer pegged it for high quality, slow burning, not reliant on jump scares. This is all true. But what they totally ignored is the weird factor.

I happen to read Cosmic Horror, so I enjoyed seeing the scriptwriters and director try to bring it to life on screen. But it was just too damn weird for America. I think the film should’ve been marketed and released as an indie film. For fuck’s sake, Hereditary screams indie and experimental!

The trailer and hype–especially the comparisons to audiences experiencing The Excorcist–set up an all too mainstream expectation of what this film would be. It was a character study, a family drama, a witchcraft, a haunted house, and a monster film. That’s too busy for Hollywood.

The Cinematography Creates Dread But Runs Long

The cinematography in Hereditary felt masturbatory. To Aster’s credit, I think from beginning to end the sense of dread he accomplishes in the film’s atmosphere is remarkable. While I’ll argue that ultimately his long shots and creepy silent fills hurt the film, I can appreciate good film-making when I see it.

The subtle build-up of tension, disquietude, and genuine dread are, in my opinion, the strongest parts of the film. The reason this serves the film poorly is that it leaves the audience feeling that the 2:07:00 run-time is unjustified at best, maddening at worst.

The Family Drama Focus Tested My Patience

Another element that works against the film, considering once again its marketing as a summer horror blockbuster, is the weight given to the family drama. If I’d been in the mindset for an indie horror experience it might have bothered me less. For the most part, Ari Aster does an excellent job of giving the characters depth. However, I think he  specifically gives the Annie-Peter relationship so much weight that it tips the balance of the film.

The middle of the film loses momentum briefly when we’re given a ten or fifteen minute sequence where Peter has a panic attack at school, Annie delivers her heartbreaking confession of rage to Peter at the dinner scene, and then she has a sleepwalking nightmare in which ants kill Peter.

Stuffed in here, we learn about how Annie tried to abort Peter “any way she could think of,” and that she’s had issues with sleep-walking in the past. This includes a horrific scenario where Annie, Peter, and Charlie wake up drenched in lighter fluid, Annie about to strike a match.

annie scream

Frankly, if the characters were stuffed animals, this is when overstuffing would burst the seams. Annie’s damage is obvious enough from what she tells the Lost Loved Ones support group. The audience needs to know Annie almost set herself and two children on fire. I think this could’ve been done with economy. Instead, it’s tossed in with a maelstrom of other elements in the film.

Where I Lost Trust In Hereditary

The Peter-Annie stuff occurs at least an hour and a half in, about the time when most moviegoers–perhaps expecting a more mainstream experience–get antsy. I did.

Right after the Peter/Ant nightmare, I got sucked out of the movie.

I remembered back to the good (but obvious) plant of Annie finding her mother’s book in the box with a note in it discussing the family’s sacrifice “being worth it.” I thought to myself, Enough character development with Annie and Peter! Is the witchcraft angle even going to pay off? Get to it!

Admittedly, the film answers my request immediately. Annie literally returns to the box and off we go. But, alas, my central point, which is that Hereditary asks too much of its audience’s patience.

I lost trust in the film, trust that a satisfying conclusion was on the way.

Hereditary Demands its Audience Get Over Three Main Humps

  • indulgent filler cinematography
  • overdone family drama conventions
  • the unbalanced structure (the witchcraft “stuff” paying off so late)

It feels odd writing such a seemingly negative review of the movie. Because I honestly did like it. I just think the story is disappointing in film form. I suspect that the “what the fuck did I just watch” reactions I’ve seen people having to the film aren’t said in the good way, marveling at Ari Aster’s cleverness.

To be super frank, I don’t think the ending is hard to figure out, I think it’s hard to care about. I talked about the anticlimactic presentation of Paimon earlier. Alex Wolff, who plays Peter, said this on the topic:

“[Charlie] is a demon. But I feel like it’s so interesting – Ari took the approach that she’s not necessarily evil. She’s actually scared, and she’s just in this circumstance. She’s born this way, and she doesn’t feel connected to the rest of the world. And I think it’s kind of a sick, twisted, true analogy about being on the outside and having a mental disorder.”

This isn’t satisfying to a movie audience. The reason (remember the marketing!) is that we didn’t pay $12 to watch a subtle, cinema verite on emo hell-kings.

Thus, the title of this review.

Hereditary, a fine story, should not have been a film but a novel.

Anyone who reads horror fiction, really in any sub-genre that would apply to this film, can agree that the intellectual exercise the story calls for can be enjoyed and explored with even more depth, and have its thought-provoking anticlimax, in a 450-page novel.

I argue that, much like Charlie and Peter are faulty hosts for Paimon, perhaps the form of novel would’ve been the right flesh for Hereditary to inhabit.

What do you think?

There’s a lot to unpack in Hereditary, and I’m dying to have a conversation about it. Comment to let me know what you think! Am I right that it would be more effective as a novel?