Forgiveness Culture

Most people have a very positive connotation with the word “forgiveness.” The idea that forgiveness is a virtue is one of those cultural beliefs that is so ingrained that it doesn’t seem like a cultural idea, it just seems like a fundamental truth.

Here are some prominent examples to demonstrate the value we place on forgiveness.

  • When I was in elementary school, I remember a teacher trying to instruct us on how to give and receive apologies. It’s a necessary skill, and a worthy one to weave into lessons in and out of the classroom for children. We learned to say “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” or “It’s okay.”

    One instance that sticks with me is when one child apologized to the other, but the second child, still obviously hurt, didn’t feel comfortable responding yet. The first child, feeling entitled to being forgiven, brought the teacher over and told on the second child. “I said sorry but she didn’t say she forgave me!”

    The second child was made to repeat after the teacher and forgive the first student, learning that this was what one was supposed to do.


  • There are literally dozens of cultural platitudes instructing us all to forgive. Some I can find within two minutes on google:it-takes-a-strong-person-to-say-sorry-and-an-ever-stronger-person-to-forgive-forgiveness-quotesforgivenessa3a559bb69342d012607928e56104f029ab18aa88e858e60360091f17dd28bb41bcc1658831576dc8a0c669846867622d
  • My granddad was a very selfish man who did a lot of harm to my grandmother and to both his daughters. My mom hated him, rightfully, for most of her life. To this day she prides herself on being able to forgive him before he died. It had been a goal to be able to forgive him, even though he never acknowledged all the harm he brought his family.
  • One of my favorite television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer presents themes of forgiveness and redemption constantly.

    Angel, a serial murderer and pedophile (and Buffy’s first boyfriend) abuses and stalks her after they have sex the first time, kills someone she’s close to, tortures her father figure, and repeatedly threatens her life. She forgives him, and he goes on to redeem himself, getting his own spin-off series where he is the hero.

    Anya, a former vengeance demon, has a series long character-arc where she learns that revenge is not the ethical answer and that she must practice forgiveness and give second chances. The end of her arc included an embrace of self-sacrifice.

    Willow abuses her girlfriend, using the metaphorical equivalent of drugs to erase her girlfriend’s memory after fights, and becomes a dangerous addict. Though her girlfriend does leave after realizing what’s happening, she does forgive her and return.

    Spike tries to rape Buffy and she forgives him, allowing him a redemption arc which puts him in a position to help save the world in the finale.

  • When I was in high school and first reading and researching a lot about veganism, I was particularly fond of John Robbin’s writing. His work explained compassionate action and nonviolent protest in a way that was extremely empowering to me at the time, especially his emphasis on insisting that the actions of individuals mattered. It was a time when I didn’t have much self worth, so the idea that I could do good with my actions was something I clung to.

    Robbins wrote (and writes) about a lot more than just veganism. One article I read was on the topic of forgiveness, focusing on a specific tragedy and the reaction of the Amish community: “Can Unforgivable Violence Ever Be Forgiven”

    The unforgivable violence in question was that a 35 year old man entered an Amish schoolhouse holding a handgun. He ordered male students to bring items in from the back of his truck, including materials for restraining children and sexual lubricant. He released male students and parents with infants and ordered the female children to line up against the chalkboard where he bound their arms and legs. When the police entered the scene, he shot all ten little girls execution style, killing five and horribly injuring five.

    The article commented on the virtue and compassion of the Amish community. The families of these little girls reached out, publicly forgiving the killer and setting up a charity fund for the killer’s family. This was presented as an admirable and virtuous action that we should strive for.

For many years I internalized this idea, as many of us do. It ended up placing me in harm’s way repeatedly, as I imagine, it does for a lot of marginalized people.

I now understand that violence is not an accident. People are violent because they can justify violence, and the structural and cultural systems of oppression provide the biases, beliefs, and entitlements which justify violence. There is a reason that the overwhelming majority of mass-shooters are white men. There is nothing biologically different with white men, but our culture provides constant rationalizations and justifications for committing violent acts against PoC of all genders and women of all races.

But it’s not just the oppression that encourages these acts. It is also the privilege awarded to those who benefit from that oppression. When someone has privilege, they do not face consequences at near the rate of marginalized people. And when someone does not face any consequences for violent beliefs and violent speech, what is to stop them from bringing those ideas into action?

It’s well documented that abusers do not change unless they face consequences and are forcibly held accountable for every act of control, manipulation, and violence. And it’s not because they’re unable to change, it’s that they’re unwilling to give up the benefits and privileges they receive through exploiting others.

And so it’s important to recognize that abusers and oppressors rely on forgiveness. Those in abusive relationships are made to forgive over and over and over, only to experience the same cycle of violence after the abuser believes the forgiveness is genuine and the victim won’t leave. Those in marginalized communities are made to forgive over and over and over, only to experience the same cycle of violence after the oppressors believe the forgiveness is genuine and the marginalized population will cease protest or political action.

A quote from Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery explains this succinctly (emphasis mine):

In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens. To this end, he marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization. After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it upon herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.”

You will see this pattern unfold on every level of oppression from the interpersonal to the international. And keeping this reality in mind, it is essential to recognize the insistence of our cultural reliance of forgiveness as inherently biased in favor of oppressors.

Forgiveness Culture denies the oppressed, marginalized, and traumatized their needed recognition and healing, and it enables further violence towards them through excusing oppressors and “moving on” from the violence without enforcing accountability and consequence.

Forgiveness Culture is oppressive propaganda. 

Of course, most of us who have repeated the platitudes and encouraged each other to forgive are not intentionally perpetuating this idea. It’s not something most of us consciously recognize.

But it is important when you are discussing oppression (especially rape, racial violence, domestic abuse, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism) to allow survivors and marginalized communities to openly experience and express their anger. Do not insist that survivors forgive. They have no responsibilities to their aggressors. Instead, place pressure on the oppressive or abusive actor in the situation to be accountable. If you cannot enact legal or political consequences, make sure you promote social consequences. They will never change otherwise.

As Lundy Bancroft, an expert on domestic violence, explains

If you are aware of chronic or severe mistreatment and do not speak out against it, your silence communicates implicitly that you see nothing unacceptable taking place. Abusers interpret silence as approval, or at least as forgiveness. To abused women, meanwhile, the silence means that no one will help – just what her partner wants her to believe. Anyone who chooses to quietly look the other way therefore unwittingly becomes the abuser’s ally.

To ally yourself with marginalized communities and survivors of violence, you cannot support abusers through Forgiveness Culture.

I’m not suggesting that all acts of forgiveness are part of Forgiveness Culture.

The act of forgiveness, in and of itself, is distinct from Forgiveness Culture. Forgiveness is a choice made by an individual and has no moral value one way or the other unless applied to specific circumstance. Forgiveness Culture is the cultural belief system that pressures people to forgive and presents forgiveness as inherently virtuous and good, rather than recognizing it as just a behavior that can be harmful or healthy depending on the context.

One way to distinguish whether or not a specific act of forgiveness is healthy is to look at the perpetrator. If the perpetrator has been accountable and acknowledged the pain they caused, taken action to right the wrong that was committed, accepted consequences, and ceased all oppressive behavior, they have earned forgiveness, and it is healthy if you decide to forgive them at that point. Relationships can be mended and true equality can be reached, but only if the oppressors change their values and behavior.

What I am suggesting is a radical embrace of what Andrea Gibson, a spoken word poet, calls the non-violent fist. I take this phrase from a poem called “Etiquette Leash”

I stopped calling myself a pacifist
when I heard Gandhi told women
they should not physically fight off their rapists.

I believe there is such a thing as a non-violent fist.
I believe that the earth is a woman muzzled, beaten,
tied to the coal slinging tracks.

I believe the muzzled have every right
to rip off the bible belt
and take it to the patriarchy’s ass.

I know these words are gonna get me in trouble.
It is never polite to throw back the tear gas.

Forgiveness Culture turns us all into abusers’ allies. The antithesis of Forgiveness Culture is refusing to forgive abusers and oppressors until they earn it.

Forgiveness Culture adds to the trauma of the marginalized. The antithesis of Forgiveness Culture is accepting survivors’ anger and accepting their right to self defense.

Redefining Birds and Bees

It’s time to have The Talk.  Today I want to talk to you about sex. Because while most of you have gotten some definition of sex when you were kids, the majority of those definitions are wrong. If you were told sex is a cis man vaginally penetrating a cis woman until he ejaculates then you were lied to.

I know, I know, that’s hard to believe. But you were lied to, because what I just described is not always sex, and sex is not always what I just described.

So, then what is sex?

Sex can be defined as two or more people engaging in consensual erotic behavior with the intention of experiencing and causing another to experience sexual pleasure.

Let’s break that down.

Sexual pleasure –
Different from arousal, different from release of arousal, but related to each. Drawing the line where foreplay starts becoming Sex is up to individuals involved.

Consensual –
Consent can be defined as: Affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.

Let’s break that down.

Affirmative means clear verbal agreement or clear non-verbal agreement.

If you are not 110% positive that they are giving non-verbal consent, you need to ask verbally. Never assume consent is given without checking in. Non-verbal consent does not include how someone is dressed or your relationship to the person or whether you’ve done the act in question before. Affirmative agreement is clear communication agreeing in the moment* to something both/all partners want. Consent can be withdrawn at any point.

*in some cases, there are arrangements for BDSM scenes or ‘sleep sex’ (or other situations where consciousness is impaired) which requires consent to be given significantly before the moment of sexual advance. This necessitates extremely clear, enthusiastic, ongoing, verbal consent (for both the sexual act and the form and degree of consciousness impairment) on the part of both/all involved leading up to the scene. There should be aftercare following. Consent can be withdrawn at any point before or during a scene, and there should be clear, agreed upon methods to withdraw consent and boundaries set in advance. 

Conscious means being in a condition where one is cognitively aware of their situation and has regular levels of control over their speech, body, movement, etc.

If they are asleep, very drunk, very high, very ill, not mentally aware enough to understand their situation because of age or severe cognitive disability or injury, they cannot give consent. Even if they give a clear affirmative agreement, that is not consent.

Voluntary means agreement to the specific sexual behavior without a context of coercion, uneven power dynamics, fear, or other situations in which disagreement risks one’s ability to have psychological or physical safety. 

If you engage in a different sexual behavior than what your partner agreed to, or neglect to engage in the agreed upon conditions of the behavior (e.g. only if a condom is used) that is not consent. If you pressure someone into sex when they don’t want to, even if they say yes, that is not consent. If you create a relationship of control and abuse so your partner doesn’t feel safe to say no, even if they say yes, that is not consent. If you have created a situation where your partner has no choice, their yes isn’t consent. If you are an adult and they are a teenager or child, even if they say yes, it is not consent. If you threaten someone, that is not consent. 

Rape –
Engaging in sexual behavior without consent.

Sometimes this is divided into sexual assault as an umbrella term which includes all acts of nonconsensual sexual behavior, and rape which specifically includes nonconsensual acts which are penetrative in nature or involve contact with genitals. Often when people talk about ‘attempted rape’ they’re really talking about sexual assault that didn’t become penetrative or didn’t involve manual, oral, anal, or vaginal sexual acts (e.g. groping, humping, holding down and forcing themselves against someone, stripping someone, threatening or coercing someone to strip, forcing someone to engage in non-genital sexual behavior or kink, etc.). The phrase ‘attempted rape’ can be problematic because it implies that nothing really happened when something very much did.

Rape is not Sex. Sexual assault is not Sex.

Sex means two or more people engaging in consensual erotic behavior with the intention of experiencing and causing another to experience sexual pleasure.

Sex is doing things you both/all want to do. Sex includes pretty much any consensual erotic behavior you can think of. Not all penis-in-vagina intercourse is Sex (because some of it is rape) and not all Sex is penis-in-vagina intercourse (because most consensual erotic behavior isn’t that; that sex act is only one of many sexual behaviors).

And that concludes The Talk for today.

Just World

From the time we’re born, we love hearing stories. In the world of fiction, authors have the ability to arrange events and character arcs so that everything generally works together thematically and makes sense in terms of some greater meaning. Things have reason for happening, and usually things will end up in a way that seems satisfying, even if there is some tragedy.

We start with fairytales, which are so blatant about this type of world building that they usually not only have events and characters that are molded by themes, but also by morals. There are lessons that emerge, and a sense of justice applied to all events.

A good example of this is the story of the little red hen. The hen plants seeds, takes care of them, cuts the wheat when it grows, takes it to the mill, brings back flour, makes the dough, and bakes the bread. Through every step, she asks all her friends for help, but the dog, cat, and duck (described with clear negative adjectives like lazy, sleepy, and noisy) refuse to help, letting her do the work all herself. At the end, when there is delicious, warm bread, everyone asks to ‘help’ eat some, and the chicken replies that she’ll eat it all by herself.

In this story, it’s satisfying, because we know that the chicken deserves to eat all the bread. This is considered fair. It would not be the same story if all the animals helped during every step and the chicken still ate all the bread herself. It also would be very different if the dog went through all the work of making it and the chicken decided to take it for herself. These stories wouldn’t be considered fair, and would likely leave us feeling uncomfortable, or even angry.

Not every story is as clear cut as “The Little Red Hen.” A similar story, “The Ant and the Grasshopper” repeats the situation where one character gathers food and another character does not, leaving the unhelpful character hungry in the end. However, in this story there are a few essential differences.

First, the grasshopper wasn’t gathering food because (depending on the version) he was singing, dancing, or playing the fiddle. This immediately casts undertones that feel uncomfortable to any artist, implying that creation of art isn’t actually contributing to the world, and it was foolish and morally wrong to create it when you should be doing real work.

Second, the story implies that the grasshopper and ant act differently because it is their nature to act differently, which brings in a whole element of determinism and might make readers feel unsettled depending on whether or not they feel people should be helped or punished for differences that cause some degree of societal harm. In the story, if the grasshopper truly didn’t know any better, or didn’t know how to store food for the winter, is it entirely his fault for not helping gather food? Should he have been punished, or taught how for the following year?

Third, the consequence for playing music all summer in the warm weather was being locked out in the cold and starving to death. This is a much more extreme punishment than the animals in the little red hen story faced. While it generally feels satisfying to think of unhelpful people not getting to enjoy fresh bread, and the person who worked hard on it getting rewarded— it feels pretty unsettling to think of a fiddle player starving to death in the winter.

Why does it make us so uncomfortable when stories don’t adhere to the kind of justice that we expect? When a fictional character dies in a grand sacrifice, letting their name go down in history, and changing the world for the better, we’re sad, but it feels satisfying and right, somehow. But when a beloved character dies due to a wrongful execution, or an infection that’s never treated, or a stray bullet fired by a soldier who never knew them, we are outraged.

We react very strongly to our idea of a just world being stripped from us. Even those of us who do like our stories to be a little unjust, using descriptors like “dark” or “gritty,” will be horrified or angry every time a terrible immoral character is praised and rewarded and our beloved protagonists are insulted, stripped, tortured, killed, and forgotten.

We don’t like thinking of the world as unjust, and even when it has no real-world consequences, like in a fictional narrative, we almost always prefer the lie.

Buffy: Does it ever get easy?
Giles: You mean life?
Buffy: Yeah, does it get easy?
Giles: What do you want me to say?
Buffy: Lie to me.
Giles: Yes. It’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies and… everyone lives happily ever after.
Buffy: Liar.

-Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lie to Me

The problem is, we also prefer the lie in real life.

We prefer to think that there is some sort of moral balancing act in the universe. We tell ourselves things like “If you just work hard and are a good person, good things will come your way.”  “You’ve got good karma.” “What goes around comes around.” “He’ll get his.” “Everything will be okay in the end, if it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

We love thinking this way, for obvious reasons. It’s reassuring, and gives us motivation and hope that we need to accomplish anything, and to be good people. How cold-hearted it would be if a friend came to us, upset and lonely, and we said, “There’s no actual guarantee anything will get better.” It’s cruel to say, and hard to believe, so instead we tell them, “Things will get better soon. No one deserves it more than you.”

At first, clinging to the idea of a ‘just world’ seems beneficial. It’s a motivational tool, it gives us meaning, and it helps us comfort each other.

Only, it doesn’t. It also turns into a terrible force against empathy whenever real tragedy meets anyone. Believing that the world is just is irreconcilable with the belief that morally good, kindhearted people can suffer horribly or die lonely. But they do. And we prefer the lie of the just world so much, that sometimes instead of letting go of that comforting idea, we try to find some way that the people who suffered were wrong.

If it’s a just world, only bad people suffer. So if that person is homeless and hungry, maybe it was his own fault for not saving his money, like that grasshopper in the story. If someone was killed, maybe it was because they were acting threatening. If someone was raped, maybe they dressed wrong, or drank too much, or went a place they shouldn’t have. If someone dies of a heart attack, we’ll talk about how they should have eaten better or taken better care of themselves. We’ll look through a victim’s history, picking their life apart for irrelevant details— they stole something once, they had lots of partners, they did drugs, they ate unhealthily and didn’t exercise, they made stupid choices. Anything we can find that we can define as ‘immoral’ we bring up so that it makes more sense why something bad happened.

This is called ‘victim blaming’ and is incredibly harmful. It strips empathy from us. Normally caring people, who would never picture themselves hurting someone when they’re down, do just that. Instead of saying, “I’m so sorry, how can I help?” they say, “You deserved it. That would never happen to me.

This is terrible. It’s wrong, and it’s never, ever okay. In a just world, victim blaming would never happen. But this isn’t a just world, and it happens all the time.

Even those of us who know and acknowledge that the world isn’t fair still sometimes fall into this harmful fallacy. Embracing that the universe does not reward ‘goodness’ or punish ‘evil’ is scary. It is terrifying to believe that bad things could happen to you for no reason. You could get sick and never get better, someone you love might never love you back, your house could burn down, some kids could steal your cat and torture it for fun, and you could die in a car crash tomorrow on your way to work.

Who wants to acknowledge those possibilities? How could you ever sleep at night? It’s really scary, and I don’t blame anyone for using the just world fallacy to get through their day to day life. Sometimes it is kind to believe in. Sometimes it really is helpful to lie to ourselves.

But when bad things happen, we can’t start assigning blame. We must break down the fallacy, let our guard down, and embrace that reality that terrible things can happen to anyone for no reason. Tragedy isn’t contagious and we’re not helping ourselves by shutting the world’s hurt away in quarantine.

So when you hear of something terrible happening to someone, please let yourself be scared. Let yourself feel what means that something bad could happen to you, not because you deserve it, but because “deserving it” has no meaning to the universe. Then, try to stop thinking about that fear in terms of yourself, and just think about who has actually suffered. Try to help them, or those who love them. Try to help our culture rid itself of the “just world” shield when it needs to so that we can collectively experience empathy and show compassion.

This world is not just, but we can be.

Monster (Part V)

The word “monster” has a special place for me. I hope to post something each week of October exploring my experiences with this little bit of language.

If you haven’t yet, check out:

  • Monster (Part I) about why I believe monster stories are positive for people of all ages.
  • Monster (Part II) about befriending monsters, and learning empathy from them.
  • Monster (Part III) about the relationship between monsters and madness in our culture.
  • Monster (Part IV) about the differences between the monsters that haunted me as a child and teenager and the monsters that haunt me now.
  • And now, Monster (Part V) about Halloween costumes, and why it’s a good thing to pretend to be a monster once a year.

Halloween will arrive soon, and it’s on a Friday this year, which makes it especially exciting. I actually will be working the full day on Halloween and Samhain, so there’s no way I’ll be making it to any late night parties in between. But, I’ll still be wearing a costume, because thankfully, my workplace is fantastic and allows that sort of thing.

When I was a teenager, there first became the nudges from the culture that maybe, wasn’t I a little too old for this? I’m sure many people will remember that feeling. You get all dressed up and celebrate every Halloween for years, and then one year, it changes, and you feel a little embarrassed, or at least you feel that other people think you should be embarrassed.

But I don’t think costume is, in any way, embarrassing. I don’t think it denotes anything childish, and I think it’s actually really beneficial to most people emotionally and psychologically.

For me, Halloween is different from all other holidays in a very important way. Other holidays are all about celebrating feast, family, good moments, the special feeling of holiness, and love. All those things are positive, and I’m glad we have other holidays too. But Halloween is, in our culture, about life and death, it’s about the self, it’s about the power of imagination, the border between the real and the fantastic.

Halloween lets us celebrate who we really are, who we want to be. Who I am is not my body, it’s not my job, it’s not my family, my education, or even my hobbies or history. All those things are parts of me, important parts, but they are not all of me. I am also a mind, an imagination, I am a fluid entity that can change its presentation but is often not allowed. You are too.

When you were a child, you were allowed this. One day you could call yourself an astronaut, the next a dinosaur, the next a princess, the next a warrior demon, and at the end of the week you could still be a kid who loves cookies and the color orange.

But at some point, we collectively decide that adults never feel that way. We’re not anything outside our jobs, hobbies, or relationships. We identify as ‘teacher’ or ‘mechanic’ or ‘hiker’ or ‘wife’ or ‘father.’

I don’t really know about anyone else, but I’m still all sorts of other things. I’m not only every fictional character I’ve ever given life to, but I’m also most of the fictional characters I’ve ever read. I’m anyone I’ve ever empathized with. I’m a collective being made up of everyone who’s mind I’ve ever visited, real or imaginary. I might need to keep it a secret, but it’s there.

tumblr_mbwuzsDqqd1qizbpto1_1280So, I think that on that level, wearing a costume is a practice in being true to yourself. You can honor ideas, fears, and characters that you identify with. None of them are exactly who you are, but they are a part of you. They’ve shaped your person, your self, and donning costume is honoring that.

On another level, I also think that wearing costumes is good for anyone dealing with insecurity at all. Like my point about identifying with fictional characters, I may be projecting here. I certainly can’t generalize across seven billion people, but I do think that there’s probably a good percentage out there who have some issues of fear, insecurity, or general powerlessness in certain aspects of their lives.

One great thing about monsters is that they generally are not plagued by doubts or insecurities. They are strong and capable. Demons, ghosts, shape shifters– they are in control of whatever situation they’re in. They have power, knowledge, and confidence. They are beautiful and ugly and blend into crowds, and none of that matters, because they’re never embarrassed or plagued with feeling they don’t meet societal standards of beauty. They don’t worry that their loved ones might be disappointed in them, or that their love might be unrequited. They have better things to do, like haunting ancient tombs and soul harvesting.

“People fidget. They are compelled to look engaged in an activity, or purposeful. Vampires can just occupy space without feeling obliged to justify it.”

-Charlaine Harris, Living Dead in Dallas

Monsters, more than anything, have purpose, and they don’t really care whether anyone else knows, or what they think.

I’m not saying everyone should go out and pretend to be a monster (okay, I’m kind of saying that). I just think that feeling like you have purpose, feeling confident, intelligent, powerful, and in control– those are all really great feelings. Emotionally and psychologically, it is really refreshing and positive, especially to people who feel a bit powerless, directionless, or inadequate in the rest of their lives.

Halloween gives everyone the chance to become a monster for a little while, and engage with that part of themselves that is more than just their resume and small talk. Becoming a monster for a day let’s you tap into the well of yourself that has imagination, goals, and the power to reach them, no matter what other people say. Dressing like a monster for a day can get you back on track in your life. It’s a motivational tool.

So no matter how old you are, or how serious, I encourage trying it. Buy a costume prop, or throw together something you’d never normally wear in your closet (but maybe something you’ve secretly wanted to wear). Or just do some gore make up with cotton balls, old red lipstick, and Elmer’s glue.

You might be surprised to find yourself walking with a more confident stride, or realizing your wishes aren’t that hard to grant. You might find doubt slipping away like a shed skin, giving way to a sense of control and excitement you thought you lost. Tap into your imagination, explore fictional worlds, honor your secrets, and find that transparent border between the every day and the magical.

Monster (Part IV)

The word “monster” has a special place for me. I hope to post something each week of October exploring my experiences with this little bit of language.

(*This post contains some spoilers from House of Leaves, The Devil of Nanking, Hotel Rot, and Breaking Bad. Seriously, major Breaking Bad spoilers. You’ve been warned.)

While I’ve read horror since I was very young, I’ve also continued to engage with the genre through most of my life. There are certain things that make horror horrifying. The most important, as far as I’m concerned, is that horror creates monsters that allow us to engage with a fear of ours. Often, the fear is something that we don’t know what to do about, like death, that causes anxiety. We worry in the back of our minds all the time, but horror lets us release our emotions about it, fight it in a fictional setting, and either triumph or fail. It’s cathartic.

In my opinion, this is the essence of horror. It brings out our emotions relating to a fear. Because of this, though, not everything that I consider horror is classified that way. Just because something has zombies in it doesn’t make it horror to me (a lot of zombie movies are really more in the action genre) and just because something doesn’t have any murderers or undead people doesn’t mean it’s not horror.

I really think that as I’ve grown, my opinion on what is considered horror has changed, and because of this, I’m starting to feel there is a real, identifiable difference between ‘young people’s horror’ and ‘adult horror.’ And that has nothing to do with the gore or sexual content.

See, the thing about children’s horror is to communicate that “dragons can be beaten.” It’s to encourage people that their problems are solvable and to comfort them about their fears. Because of this, your main characters (usually) live, and those who are morally upstanding will definitely prevail. More than that, the monsters are either not as bad as you thought, or dead and can never get you.

The most important part of horror for young people is to make it clear that the monster can not get your audience. We speak in terms of boogymen, werewolves, goblins, and ghosts which allow for reassurance that even if they could get children in the world of the story, those things don’t exist here. We hold up blankets and plug in night lights and everything is better.

This is excellent, because it’s what horror is all about. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of horror, and if you prefer your stories to only contain fantastical elements so you can separate yourself from the world after you set down the book, I completely understand. I still really enjoy this kind of horror. It’s not immature or juvenile, it’s legitimate and scary, and allows for catharsis because the monsters represent things that do exist.

But the difference is, I think that kind of horror can be good people of any age, but I think the other kind should only be for adults.

The other kind, the ‘adult horror,’ are stories where the fear can get you in the real world. These stories just build the tension higher and higher, and when you leave the world they just sit in your head for weeks. These bring out your emotions and leave them there for you to sort through, and they usually are dealing with things that actually happen.

My first ‘adult horror’ book was probably House of Leaves. In this book, there is a house bigger on the inside than the outside, expanding into ever-shifting black hallways, and a documentary is made, which a blind man watches and writes a long academic narrative about, but then dies, and the book is then sorted through and arranged by a man who is clearly going insane.

It’s definitely not for everyone, especially because it’s a difficult book. It requires active participation of the reader, and because it is about the concept of the labyrinth, the book tries to get you lost in the maze. But what stuck out to me was that there was no monster, no minotaur, in the actual house in the book, if there was an actual house at all. It existed in layers, and in the real world. The house was the book and the leaves were the pages. The house, with all its dark hallways, was your brain. If there was a monster, it would be inside you, something that would haunt you, the reader.

“This much I’m certain of: it doesn’t happen immediately. You’ll finish [the book] and that will be that, until a moment will come, maybe in a month, maybe a year, maybe even several years. You’ll be sick or feeling troubled or deeply in love or quietly uncertain or even content for the first time in your life. It won’t matter. Out of the blue, beyond any cause you can trace, you’ll suddenly realize things are not how you perceived them to be at all. For some reason, you will no longer be the person you believed you once were. You’ll detect slow and subtle shifts going on all around you, more importantly shifts in you. Worse, you’ll realize it’s always been shifting, like a shimmer of sorts, a vast shimmer, only dark like a room. But you won’t understand why or how. You’ll have forgotten what granted you this awareness in the first place

You might try then, as I did, to find a sky so full of stars it will blind you again. Only no sky can blind you now. Even with all that iridescent magic up there, your eye will no longer linger on the light, it will no longer trace constellations. You’ll care only about the darkness and you’ll watch it for hours, for days, maybe even for years, trying in vain to believe you’re some kind of indispensable, universe-appointed sentinel, as if just by looking you could actually keep it all at bay. It will get so bad you’ll be afraid to look away, you’ll be afraid to sleep.

Then no matter where you are, in a crowded restaurant or on some desolate street or even in the comforts of your own home, you’ll watch yourself dismantle every assurance you ever lived by. You’ll stand aside as a great complexity intrudes, tearing apart, piece by piece, all of your carefully conceived denials, whether deliberate or unconscious. And then for better or worse you’ll turn, unable to resist, though try to resist you still will, fighting with everything you’ve got not to face the thing you most dread, what is now, what will be, what has always come before, the creature you truly are, the creature we all are, buried in the nameless black of a name.

And then the nightmares will begin.”

-House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielwski

There are many others that I would consider adult horror that do not involve such play with meta-fiction and weaving layers of narrative. Mo Hayder, for instance, writes about fictional characters, but all of her monsters are humans doing human things. She explores the absolute horror of what people are capable, the terrifying behaviors and realities that are a part of humanity.

In one of her novels, The Devil of Nanking, she writes about war crimes committed during the Rape of Nanking. Tied in with this are the horrors of being uneducated about one’s own body. It deals with fears of war, violence, pregnancy, censorship, and of not knowing. The themes are very adult, and the content is completely disturbing, especially because atrocities described are entirely possible in this world, and many actually occurred.

One author, Aimee Bender, writes what is usually considered magical realism. Her work was recommended to me by a friend who rarely, if ever, reads work specifically labeled horror, but one of her short stories has continued to stick in my mind.

Hotel Rot” is about a group that collects birds, flowers, and bones– as many as they can find– and packs them all into three large rooms, charging entry fees. The flower petals wilt and dissolve, and the birds suffer and rot there over the course of a few days. Custodial workers try to clean it all, and their lives are forever changed in ways that are horrible but hard to articulate.

I feel incredibly anxious every time I read the story, and consider it adult horror. The use of life as something to sell, the suffering of living beings for momentary displays, is very real in our world, and not something that vanishes once the short story ends.

One piece of adult horror you may have seen was Breaking Bad. For me, the true horror in the show wasn’t because of the cancer, the drug dealing, or even the constant death toll as the show progressed. What really got to me was how utterly accurately the show depicted abusive relationships.

Not that most abusive relationships involve homicidal meth kingpins (though, certainly some do), but just the way the story was told was startling to me.

You begin with Walter and Jesse’s relationship, which slowly becomes a friendship of some sort. They have some degree of commitment to each other that grows through their making meth together. It actually is a bonding experience, despite how morally gray the whole thing is, and once you see how Jesse’s parents treat him, and how under appreciated Walter is, you’re pretty grateful they have each other. It seems like a positive relationship, it really does.

Then things get worse, and worse. Jesse gets hurt and Walter doesn’t seem to care. Walter disapproves of Jesse’s friends, and starts to tell Jesse exactly what he can and can’t do. He begins to pressure Jesse into doing things that horrify him, and then slowly offers him less and less of the affection Jesse is trying to earn.

At one point, after it turns out Walter has literally been tracking Jesse, bugging his car to see where he is every minute, Jesse confronts him about it. Walter immediately twists it around into making Jesse feel bad and worthless, basically telling Jesse to go die: “I’m sorry, after everything you’ve done for me? What you’ve done for me? You’ve killed me is what you’ve done! You’ve signed my death warrant. And now you want advice? I’ll give you advice: Go to Mexico and screw up like I know you will. And wind up in a barrel somewhere! “

Walter makes Jesse kill people, he lets Jesse’s girlfriend die in front of him (then waits to tell Jesse until it will hurt him most) and makes him leave the love of his life and her child when he sees them getting close. Walter physically abuses Jesse, threatens to kill him, and then gives him up to nazis so they can torture him for months.

At some point during all this, you realize that Walter is a monster, and that Jesse has been trying to escape him for a long time, and you didn’t even realize. How could you have not known? How could you possibly been complacent in this completely toxic, dangerous relationship for so long? Everything spins.

 “I am not turning down the money! I am turning down you! You get it? I want NOTHING to do with you! Ever since I met you, everything I ever cared about is gone! Ruined, turned to shit, dead, ever since I hooked up with the great Heisenberg! I have never been more alone! I HAVE NOTHING! NO ONE! ALRIGHT, IT’S ALL GONE, GET IT? No, no, no, why… why would you get it? What do you even care, as long as you get what you want, right? You don’t give a shit about me! You said I was no good. I’m nothing! Why would you want me, huh?”
-Jesse, Season 3.7

Jesse: Would you just, for once, stop working me?
Walter: What are you talking about?
Jesse: Can you just, uh, stop working me for, like, ten seconds straight? Stop jerking me around?
Walter: Jesse, I am not working you.
Jesse: Yes. Yes, you are. All right? Just drop the whole concerned dad thing and tell me the truth. I mean, you’re– you’re acting like me leaving town is– is all about me and turning over a new leaf, but it’s really– it’s really about you. I mean, you need me gone, ’cause your dickhead brother-in-law is never gonna let up. Just say so. Just ask me for a favor. Just tell me you don’t give a shit about me, and it’s either this– it’s either this or you’ll kill me the same way you killed Mike. I mean, isn’t that what this is all about? Huh? Us meeting way the hell out here? In case I say no? Come on. Just tell me you need this.
-Season 5.11

The scariest part of the whole thing is how gradual it all is. The viewer is so willing to excuse one thing after the next. Even things that are clearly awful, we find excuses for. “Well he has cancer.” “Well, he was in a hard situation.” “It was just the one time, he clearly cares about Jesse.”

It is absolutely eerie, because by the time Jesse realizes it’s time to get out of the relationship, it’s far too late. He can’t, no matter how hard he tries. Walter lies, threatens, and manipulates until he’s back again. And the viewer is the same way. By the time we realize what’s happened, we’ve excused terrible things. Breaking Bad is horror because it shows us how easily we could be manipulated by real life monsters, and how quickly people become them.

‘Adult Horror’ lets us explore the fears that exist in our world. They’re personal and unsettling, and sometimes leave lingering anxiety rather than release it. But, at its core, it is still horror, and I believe that it helps us articulate our fears, and thus, understand and discuss them.

Many adult fears relating to the brain, perception, war, ignorance, suffering, environmental damage, consumerism, and abuse, actually can be fought in the real world to some extent through open dialogue on these issues.

Perhaps it doesn’t really have to do with age, this divide. Perhaps the kinds of horror are just for different sorts of fear.

What I called ‘Young people’s horror’ is horror which explores anxieties that we can do nothing about, and the stories let us imagine fighting them, and allow us to release our fear. ‘Adult’ horror is horror that explores anxieties that we must strive to do something about, and heightens our anxiety about those issues so that it haunts us after the book is closed, the television is off, and we’re staring at our ceilings in bed.

Maybe we don’t always need characters to battle for us. Perhaps this horror helps us fight our fears in our own lives.

Monster (Part III)

The word “monster” has a special place for me. I hope to post something each week of October exploring my experiences with this little bit of language.

This week I wanted to talk about the relationship between the word “monster” and our culture’s notions of “madness.”

There are a lot of misconceptions and prejudices regarding psychological disorders and mental illness in our culture, and before we had any real concept of what these were, we just grouped it all together as “madness” or “insanity” and treated people as mindlessly dangerous or in need of strange treatments. In all of this, we began to tell horror stories with the main antagonist being a “mad” person.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A mad scientist makes something dangerous or does something horrible. Right, how about this one? A psychopathic killer with a large weapon kills a bunch of teenagers. That one too?

Somewhere along the way, we started equating problems with the brain with danger, death, and the horror genre, and we’ve never quite gotten over it.

In contemporary horror, there is usually some level of sympathy for the “mad” character. The serial killer was abused in their childhood. The ghost had a rough time before death and is trying to find peace. There are series like Dexter where our protagonist is a serial killer, loves to kill people, and we love him anyway just because of our point of view and the power of storytelling.

These characters are seen, on some level, as monsters. And on another level, being monstrous is being equated with being “crazy.” I shouldn’t need to say that this isn’t exactly great for social progress in terms of understanding mental illness. And it certainly doesn’t encourage people to seek help, because it makes it sound like going to therapy is confessing to being dangerous or on some level “worse,” or “other.” I am a horror fan, but I do acknowledge this trope as being problematic.

We also have stories where people are accused of being crazy, but in the end they are the ones who are simply seeing more than other people. This often happens in haunting stories, where one character can see the dead when others can’t. Sometimes haunting is tied to one person, and only the haunted will be pursued by demons, spirits, or other intangible apparitions. This idea occurs so often in urban fantasy that it’s pretty much expected. What makes the genre work is that your main characters know all kinds of things about the hidden other world of monsters, but if they told anyone, they would be perceived as crazy.

In Supernatural there is an episode where your protagonists get themselves admitted to an insane asylum by telling the truth about their experiences. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer there is an episode where Buffy thinks she might just be crazy, that maybe that’s more probable than the reality of her life.

We also have another connection in our horror between monsters and madness that I’d call the Lovecraftian Causation Connection. The stories with this sort of connection have monsters that are so terrifying and incomprehensible to the human mind that one instantly goes mad upon encountering them. Lovecraft was big on this kind of monster, and there were stories like this before him and many since. It’s an especially scary idea, because anyone who discovers the monster is mostly unable to convey their discovery to anyone else, and so the enormous threat persists without notice.

And so we have three sorts of relationships between monsters and madness.

  1. Monsters are the result of madness.
  2. Knowledge of monsters make us seem mad (or) Madness lets us see monsters.
  3. Madness is the result of monsters.

With these three relationships, we can understand that our culture relates these two ideas strongly. There is something about monsters that makes us worry about our brains.

I think, at the heart of this kind of horror storytelling, we are getting at a deeper distrust of our minds and of our perceptions of the world. All we truly have in life is ourselves, our sense of identity, our perception, and our senses. It’s natural for our fears to involve terrible situations in which we cannot perceive things we should in order to protect ourselves, or for them to involve sensing terrible things that other people cannot see. We’re scared, on some level, of our reality not corresponding to the reality of those around us. We’re scared of a severed connection to other humans, of not understanding them, of not experiencing the world as they experience it.

There are stories, like The Shining, which are so scary because we can imagine the horror of a loved one suddenly going “mad” and trying to kill us. But scarier than that is the perspective of the father, and losing enough of yourself to try to kill your loved ones. One of the most horrific ideas to us is not being the one killed by the serial killer, but somehow relating to him. We’re terrified of anything that could happen to who we are that would allow us to commit atrocities that horrify us.

The relationship between monsters and madness is that we fear ourselves. This horror reflects a type of deep doubt and existential crisis. It is a fear worse than getting our arms chopped off or being eaten– the fear of losing one’s self, and the connection between that self and understanding the outside world and other people.

Monsters, in this sense, reflect our fears about identity and the mind. And monster stories may be some of the only fiction that allows us to articulate that fear.

Visit again next week for “Monster” (Part IV). 

Monster (Part II)

The word “monster” has a special place for me. I hope to post something each week of October exploring my experiences with this little bit of language.

When I was growing up, I read a lot of stories about monsters. In a lot of fairytales it was the job of the hero to kill the monster. But, in my household, there was another theme that was present a lot: befriending the monster.

There are a couple particularly notable examples. There’s a Nightmare in my Closet begins with a little boy afraid of the monster hiding in his closet. One night, the monster starts creeping towards his bed in the night, so the boy turns on all the lights and threatens to shoot him (with a toy gun).

Only, then the monster starts crying. The boy’s anger at the monster softens, and he takes it by the hand, calms it down, and tucks it into his bed. The monster ends up being quite peaceful in the end, even though it looked scary.

Another book The Story of Poppyseed Hill was a bit more complex.

In this book, a group of lost children begin living with an old woman named Miss Kessy, who has no children of her own. They can’t remember where they used to live, or when they started walking, or even what their names were, so the old woman names them all after spices and takes care of them. The family is pretty happy, living on the little hill with an old elf man, except the children don’t have any other kids to play with.

Other kids live in the town across the river from them. But in the river lives a terrible monster. This monster will destroy boats when they try to sail across, and prevent anyone on Miss Kessy’s hill from seeing anyone in the town. The children try their best to send cookies over to the other children, tied in cloth bundles to their doves’ feet, but the monster in the river causes storms and the birds never reach them.

One little girl in the family, Poppyseed, gets upset by this and asks the elf man by the river why the monster is so mean. She tells him that all they’ve been trying to do is be nice to everyone, and the monster is being cruel for no reason. The elf man points out to her that she really hasn’t been nice to everyone. Everyone treats the monster like a monster, and so it behaves like one.

So they try to be the monster’s friend. They make it a monster-sized cookie, a crown of pretty flowers, and write it a poem (this is still the best show of friendship to me). To their pleasant surprise, when they call to the monster to give it gifts, it is completely adorable and loves having flowers on its head, eating cookies, and reading poetry. For the rest of the book, the monster gives them rides to go see the other children, and they all hang out together.

The idea behind these stories is clear: different does not mean bad, and sometimes people who seem like monsters are just lonely. They have been treated like they’re bad, and others’ perceptions of them begin to shape their behavior and identity.

You can see the same themes in Beauty and the Beast. Just because someone at first appears one way does not mean that your first impression is completely accurate. You need to look at circumstances to understand behavior.

As I got older, this theme appeared again and again.

A version of it was frequent especially in paranormal romance. Almost every single one of those stories follows the plot: human meets monster, human realizes that the monster is more complex than just a vampire, werewolf, or fairy, and the human and monster fall in love. These stories are largely about diversity and the ability to recognize thoughtfulness and beauty across barriers of culture and background.

Another version of this became very popular in recent years in the form of the anti-hero. This is a protagonist who may do some monstrous things due to their troubled past or misunderstood role in the events currently unfolding.

These characters are capable of saying cruel things (if it means keeping people at a distance), lying (if it means achieving some secret act of good in the long run), thievery (if it means helping someone), and even murder (if it means trying to save an innocent person).

Sometimes these characters start as completely morally pure and then are forced to act in more morally gray ways as their circumstances become more difficult. Sometimes these characters even did absolutely monstrous acts without any hidden kind motive in their past, but now actively try to reform. Other characters don’t trust them at first, often for good reasons, but come to understand and defend them later.

The importance of monsters in these stories is to realize the complexity of identity and human behavior. In these cases, the word “monster” relates to our ability to understand other people. We cannot reduce someone down to one thing, whether that’s our impressions of a few behaviors, their appearance, their background, or their reputation.

And so, this is another reason why books with monsters are so positive for people to read. They teach us to understand the complexity of people, and show us the importance of empathy and understanding. Monsters teach us to be kind.

Visit again next week for “Monster” (Part III). 

“Monster” (Part I)

(I originally intended to wait on this post until it was at least October first, but Halloween is somehow bleeding into late September for me, so I’m just going to embrace it.)

The word “monster” has a special place for me. I hope to post something each week of October exploring my experiences with this little bit of language.

My mom has always been into horror (and anything with elements of horror, like science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, mystery, thriller, and magical realism). So, I absorbed a good deal of this when growing up.

When you love someone, you share your favorite experiences with them, so I have all sorts of memories from childhood and early adolescence of the two of us hiding under an afghan on the couch while we watched ghosts haunt, vampires stalk, werewolves bite, zombies eat, and murderers slice open victims.

By the time I was in middle school, I aspired to become the next Stephen King.

The fact that I was born in late October and every single birthday party of my life was Halloween-themed also cemented my good feelings for general spookiness. My ideas about death, life, fear, excitement, imagination, and monsters have always been braided together.

As a child, some of my favorite books were horror stories. And I don’t mean child as in ten or twelve, I mean as a tiny little person, eyes wide at picture books. Sure I started with Go Away, Big Green Monster but the amount of horror I craved steadily increased.

I was a really big fan of Scared Silly.

My favorite story being one where a little girl, Tilly, starts to hear a voice whisper to her at night. Of course, her parents didn’t believe her, because those silly parents never do. But the voice continues. Each night it tells her how close it’s gotten.

I remember my mom’s voice reading,

“Tilly, I’m on the fifth step.”

“Tilly, I’m in the hall.”

“Tilly, I’m at the foot of your bed.”

On the last night, the voice growls “I’VE GOT YOU” and a big hairy arm yanks the girl out of bed. My favorite story ended in the scared child getting eaten by a monster. I was terrified and excited, and I loved it.

Lots of kids read Where the Wild Things Are, and they weren’t all necessarily horror fans, but to me the idea of a child sailing away to go dance with the monsters was thrilling.

“We’ll eat you up, we love you so!”

I watched The Nightmare before Christmas religiously, starting when I was two-and-a-half and learned all the words to every song. My mom told me that before the movie became really famous, other parents would look at her strangely when her little daughter was smiling, singing “I am the one hiding under your bed, teeth ground sharp and eyes glowing red” or listening to kids discussing various ways to torture Santa Claus by clenching his ankle in a trap, boiling him alive, burying him, throwing him in the ocean, or locking him in a cage.

Hocus Pocus captivated me, I was a huge fan of Scooby Doo and Courage the Cowardly Dog , and I treasured all the ghost stories in Hey Arnold. 

(from “Headless Cabbie”)

For people who never got into the holiday or the genre, it’s hard for me to explain why it’s so completely addicting. I know that there’s all kinds of problematic cultural ideas reinforced in cheesy horror movies with young women constantly getting murdered. I know that the special effects and ideas can seem silly. I can understand someone thinking that all that romanticism of death, blood, and monsters can be distasteful at best, or dangerous at worst.

But for me, monsters have always been a symbol of both freedom of expression and empowerment.

As a child, I quickly realized that there was a whole lot in this world to be afraid of. Not just the drooling nightmare in the basement, but the cars that might squash me if I crossed the street, the waves that might pull me into the deep or smash me along the cliff-sides, the strangers that might try to lure me into cars, the blood vessels that might burst in a parent’s brain and make them go away forever.

It didn’t take me very long to realize that death wasn’t just a story— it applied to me, too.

But we’re not supposed to dwell on those things. We’re all supposed to act happy, or at least content, as we go through our lives. We’re not really allowed to be afraid or grown ups think there’s something wrong.

“I remember my own childhood vividly. I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.”
-Maurice Sendak

When reading horror stories, you’re allowed to feel afraid, and allowed to say so. You can scream or hide or laugh, and no one judges you for your emotional release. A scary story is permission to be honest, permission to feel and express feeling.

We invent monsters as ways of exploring the things that we’re not allowed to talk about the rest of our lives. Skeletons and corpses help us understand the troublesome relationship with our mortal bodies. Stories about hidden ghouls that only lurk when we’re alone teach what to do when no one will believe or help us. Axe murderers are people who hurt us, or who could. Zombies are the looming threat of death, or our distrust of our minds. Giants, beasts, and dragons are the great, uncaring universe which doesn’t think about us much at all. We can allow ourselves to address fear, powerlessness, inevitability, and pain.

“It’s a way of talking about lust without talking about lust, he told them.

It’s a way of talking about sex, and fear of sex, and death, and fear of death, and what else is there to talk about?”

-Neil Gaiman, “Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot”

But horror doesn’t just make you think about it, or no one would like it. Horror lets you be brave. You have permission to not only fear monsters, but to try to fight against them.

Whether you’re the character in a book, holding up your sword to the hungry wolves or great dragons, or whether you’re the person in bed, alone at night, who has the power to close the book whenever you want, you get to be in control. You can choose when your fears can get you and when they have to stop, and it’s the only time in life that’s true.

You can be brave when you’re afraid. In fact, you’re especially brave when you’re afraid, because it means you’re facing your fears (even if you need to hide under a blanket while doing it).

(From “Dragons and Giants” in Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel)

The definition of monster is:

monster |ˈmänstər| noun

an imaginary creature that is typically large, ugly, and frightening.

I believe it’s important to let our imaginations find monsters. There are real large, ugly, frightening things that lurk in the corners of our lives— secret things that bite and hurt that we pretend aren’t there.

It’s important to confront them in stories, movies, or on Halloween, because it’s the only time that the monsters need to play by our rules.

We can think about the dark things and confront them. We have the freedom to be scared, to hide, fight, or scream. We get to be brave.

Visit again next week for “Monster” (Part II). 

Exceptions to the Thesaurus Rule

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”

-Stephen King

I’m sure many of you have heard this quote. It’s well known, and for a reason.

When you find yourself searching for words in the thesaurus during your writing, it usually means you’re thinking more about impressing people with grandiloquent language than thinking about articulating your story, narrative, or poem using the tools you already have. This is invariably a poor choice, because not only will the words you find alter the tone of your writing, but they might not even mean what you think they do.

A thesaurus is not a dictionary. Reading a thesaurus entry won’t actually tell you what any words mean. It includes lists of similar words, but similar does not mean interchangeable. Similarly, a dictionary is no replacement for engaging with words in your reading and everyday conversation.

If words were people, think of a dictionary as collection of photos. Looking at pictures of someone doesn’t mean you know that person. It will certainly help you recognize them, should you ever see them in the future, but you have still never met them.

And if dictionaries are full of photos, then thesauruses are a bit like the “People You May Know” list on Facebook. You know a word that is similar to that word, but you’ve never met before, and until you look up their picture, all you really have is their name.

This is why it’s not recommended to use a thesaurus actively when you’re writing. Imagine someone inviting you to show up to some event they’re planning with all of their friends. You ask them why you’re invited, seeing as you’ve never met before. Then they tell you “Well, you’re sort of like my friend, and I didn’t want to invite him, so I thought you could take his place.”

Who would ever agree to it? They’re not the same word for a reason. They have their own definition, their own connotation, their own etymology, cultural context, and flavor. You cannot simply substitute one for the other. It’s rude.

With that said, thesauruses are also useful things. Both dictionaries and thesauruses are important references for any writer, and I believe oversimplifying the issue can hurt our relationship with these books.

By agreeing with the Stephen King quote, I’m certainly not advising young writers to ban thesauruses from their homes. I’m not telling anyone to avoid touching them for fear of catching the disease that causes overuse of barely-relevant four-syllable words.

So, I would like to present three exceptions to the rule. Here are three times when you can find the right word(s) in a thesaurus.

  1. When you’ve forgotten the word you need 

    Sometimes you have the perfect word for the meaning you’re trying to convey. You’ve heard it before, used it before, and it is exactly right for this specific line of poetry or this sentence.

    But, you can’t remember what the darn thing is. What letter did it begin with?

    At these times, a thesaurus can be a fantastic way to find the right word. If you can remember any of the wrong words, you can look those up in the thesaurus, and the right word might be somewhere on that list. You’ll recognize it when you see it, and then you can get right back to work.

  2. When you’d like to meet new words

    If you’re looking to build your vocabulary, my first recommendation is always to just read more and pick up things naturally. But some of us are into word-of-the-day calendars and enjoy actively finding new words, and if this is the case for you, a thesaurus might be a good place to look.

    You can meet new people through common friends. Words you’re already familiar with can lead you into relationships with new ones who you might grow to like just as much.

    Say you’re pretty comfortable with the word “relationship” but you’d like to explore other words similar to it, and you end up with “liaison.” It’s a good word, but you can’t just invite it to the movies with the rest of your friends. Look up it’s definition, say it out loud a few times, and then leave it be. Don’t try to rush getting to know it, that’s off-putting.

    The next time the word is used, you’ll remember it (and if you’re anything like me, whenever you learn a new word, you’ll suddenly see it everywhere, so it shouldn’t take too long).

    When you’ve seen the word used in a variety of contexts, test the waters and start using it yourself. Never, ever as a substitute for “relationship,” but as its own word which you’ve now built a friendship with.

  3. When you’d like to know more about a word

    If you find a word you don’t know while reading, you’ll probably just brush over it using some context clues. If it really catches your interest, you might look it up in a dictionary (or on Google, let’s be honest). One thing that’s helped me to learn more about a new word is to go one step further and see it in a thesaurus.

    So you find the word “docile” and pause to get the dictionary. You see:

    docile |ˈdäsəl| adjective
    ready to accept control or instruction; submissive

    But without stopping there, you search out a thesaurus. Or simply a website that substitutes one. Your list of words is going to vary wildly, and the more sources you look at, the more you’ll learn about the connotation and associations people might have with the word.

    docile | adjective
    compliant, obedient, pliant, dutiful, submissive, deferential, unassertive, cooperative, amenable, accommodating, biddable, malleable.
    ANTONYMS disobedient, willful.

    docile | adjective
    tame, gentle, meek, well-behaved, agreeable, childlike, resigned
    ANTONYMS wild, unruly

    Remember that none of these words mean exactly “docile.” However, reading through lists of words that are associated with the word you’re learning can help you to get a little glimpse of what else comes to mind when people think of it. This is a great way to pick up on connotation and the tone with which the word works best.

So don’t race to the thesaurus to find a better word whenever you feel insecure about your writing. But, don’t make a bonfire out of your old thesauruses either.

A thesaurus is a tool, neither good nor evil. But it can be very useful.

Literary Citizenship

I’ve been waiting for the right time to make this post, because it means a lot to me.  I chose tonight because today I visited my college for the first time since graduating. I caught a glimpse of who I was, right as I was leaving the college. I saw myself full of emotion and excitement for the world.

One of the biggest reasons I became this person was due to learning the wonderful phrase: Literary Citizenship. 

For those of you who have never heard the phrase before, I’ll say that it’s more of a vague philosophy than a concrete definition, and that many writers you meet will have slightly different interpretations. My beginner’s description might be something like: One part of living as a self-identified writer is trying your best, whenever possible, to help make this world a better place for readers and writers. It involves becoming a part of, or building and nourishing, a literary community. 

The first time I heard the phrase “Literary Citizenship” was when one of my favorite professors began talking about designing a course with the title. I think the course was first described to me as a class designed for outstanding writers who wanted to learn how to live as a writer beyond just the writing and publishing part. This, of course, interested me greatly, because I had every intention of living as a writer and I knew the course would be full of great students. 

Once I began the semester, a dialogue was opened about what the phrase really meant. The course was an active one with more practical application rather than theoretical musing.

We started by learning how to write book reviews. It was a great exercise, because when I’m really into a book, I can’t stop talking about it anyway, but the form of the review brought a level of creativity and professionalism to it. I needed to think about what voice would best reach the audience who would most be interested in that particular book, but still be honest to my own personal voice when writing. Most importantly, though, writing a book review is doing something helpful for other readers and writers. 

This past summer, another person from my class wrote an in-depth review of a book she was reading, which you can find here

This was followed up with the author of the book tweeting her. 

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By writing a book review, you help promote an author’s book, and if it’s a non-famous writer, you can actually make a difference in that person’s sales and in their emotional state. It’s pretty clear to me that this book review made the author’s day. And it also helped direct people to the book who may have never known about it before. 

Literary Citizenship is all about these types of interactions. You do something that promotes someone else’s work in the literary community, and it benefits everyone in a ripple effect. 

One of our big projects as a class was a Cash Mob on the River’s End Bookstore in Oswego. The idea behind this was to help promote an awesome local bookstore by having everyone flash mob the store at the same time and buy a book (or something smaller if that’s all they could afford). It turned out to be a fabulous success and brought out writers and readers all over the community.

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That same bookstore hosts the release the campus literary journal, Great Lake Review, promotes local authors work all the time through readings and signings, and recently hosted the book launch of Laura Donnelly’s new book of poetry, Watershed

The bookstores, the writers, and the readers all have opportunities to help each other. You can think of it as good karma, or you can think of it as recognizing all members of the literary world as an extended family.

Through the rest of the class, we literary citizens in training did a variety of awesome things including, but not limited to: 

  • creating The Hub, which became a resource for creative writers in college
  • starting multiple blogs like this one
  • interviewing and presenting narratives of identity of Oswego students
  • organizing a rocking poetry slam
  • teaching a class on writing using tarot cards
  • decorating the campus center with poetry
  • creating promotional materials for the creative writing major 
  • designing creative writing courses to teach
  • organizing an online writing circle

And those were just some of our successes. 

It was an enormously beneficial class, not only in that we were actually benefitting each other and the community in concrete ways, but in that it was satisfying. The idea of literary citizenship became almost spiritual to me because it gave my life so much purpose. 

We ended up much more than a class. By the end, reading Cathy Day’s blog post I honestly took the words to heart. 

“In a few days, my department will graduate 20 newly minted creative writing majors. Maybe you’re one of them.

When I graduated from college in 1991, there were only 10 undergraduate creative writing programs in the country. Today there are 592.

Let’s pretend that 20 students per per program is the average nationwide.

So if you take 20 students times 592, that means that every year, about 12,000 creative writing undergraduates are being loosed upon the world.

You’re a member of a small army. What will you fight for?”


I was ready to charge into battle with motivation as my weapon and love of the literary community as my cause. Hurrah! 

It’s not to say, though, that there are no criticisms of the philosophy. You can find many of them by now I’m sure. The arguments that made me pause made the point that in a time when so many writers are not being paid enough for their work, this movement is expecting them to constantly pour energy into promoting other work, organizing events, and buying books, journals, and writing by other people. It is requiring even more from our writers, many of whom are not compensated nor even recognized for their efforts. 

This criticism is not without weight. Especially after graduation, paying off college debt and trying to save for things like car insurance, apartments, and basic needs… being a good literary citizen is challenging at best. How often can a young writer responsibly afford to subscribe to journals? How much time can someone take away from their job search to organize cash mobs? Perhaps most tricky— how do we all form these concrete communities like we had in class now that we’ve all dispersed? How do we work together if we don’t know anyone? 

It’s a lot to ask of young, lonely people to keep giving energy, no matter how often people surrounding them suggest there are  better uses of their time. It’s a lot to ask of young, poor people to keep spending money to promote each other, when maybe they should be more focused on climbing out of debt. 

But at the same time, this movement exists because there are so many lonely, poor people who keep writing anyway. Writers from all points in history and from all areas have continued to write, no matter how much that was asking from them. Writers have written in tiny apartments, on the streets, and in prisons. Writers have written even when it meant working around long work days and raising families. Writers have written even when they knew they could be put to death for what they wrote. And readers have read under all those same conditions. 

I went to see Neil Gaiman the past spring. Many people know of him, even if they haven’t read any of his books, just for his brilliant speech: Make Good ArtThe first time I watched it, early in the morning before class with an overwhelming lifetime towering above me, I cried. He made it so clear that all the struggle was worthwhile, that writing was something that gave life purpose. No matter how bad things got, you just needed to keep writing. Make good art. 

And so, when I finally got the chance to see him, I was a little surprised that he confessed his own struggles with feeling that what he did mattered. With all that was happening in the world, was writing stories really making any difference? Was his impact at all important or improving the world? 

He told a story of hearing about times when people could be killed for reading, and they kept books anyway. People kept them hidden, learned the words, and shared stories in secret at night. People have risked their lives for stories, books, and the ability to read, and knowing that, really letting it sink in, made him think that maybe writers were doing something important. Something that was significant to human life. 

And it is. Writing and reading is so, so important. But we’re told all the time that it’s not. We’re told it’s trivial, or that calling ourselves writers and poets is stupid and idealistic. People urge us to consider getting real majors or real jobs as if they aren’t negating part of our identity. And so, even successful writers need reassurance that what they’re doing is worth something. No matter how many rejection letters toughen our skin, we are an insecure bunch. We’re lonely people, and we need connection. We need to know our words reach other people. 

Writers persist no matter how difficult the world is, which is why Literary Citizenship is important. It allows all these individuals, struggling to be heard, to come together and listen to each other. We can, and must, expend the effort to say “Your words add to this world.” We need to stick together, because we’re the only resource any of us have. 

Who will help us if not each other? Who should we spend our energy on if not each other? We, as a group, are not insignificant, no matter how lost and out of place we may individually feel. 

What greater gift can we give than reminding each other that we are important? What greater gift can we receive than purpose? 

Who will tell young writers their words matter if we won’t? 

Today, Stephanie Vanderslice spoke in the Living Writers Series on the topic of Literary Citizenship, and I went back to college to listen and visit. Instead of defining Literary Citizenship, she told a story about an author giving a boy a copy of his book along with his email address. The boy said he didn’t like reading, but once the author gave him the book for free and asked him to email with any questions about writing he wanted, the boy said he’d show his friends the book. 

She went on to list other forms of Literary Citizenship. 

  • Reading to children in your life
  • Finding ways to get books to kids who need them
  • Donating to book drives
  • Teaching creative writing in prisons
  • Starting creative writing workshops in nursing homes
  • After school writing tutoring
  • Encouraging people who are writing

All of these led back to her main theme that we have all been given the gift of the literary world. At some point in our past, someone introduced us to stories, books, and writing, and we have been hopelessly in love ever since. And we have the power to give that gift to other people. We can introduce children to books. We can show young writers how to write and read what they have to say. We can give people an invitation to this world and open the doors. 

“We can all do this for someone. Literary Citizenship is perpetuating literary culture in a world where its lights are dimming.” 

-Stephanie Vanderslice

And so, I try. Visiting today, I caught a glimpse of myself as I was leaving my professor’s class— full of emotion and excitement for the world. I’ve struggled with maintaining that confidence and hope. I struggle with feeling like I have any meaningful influence on the world, on other writers, or on the next generation of readers. But I try to remember how important this is, and I do what I can. 

It’s not always much. 

I promote the work that I enjoy reading, even if that only means speaking well of it in my conversations and posts online. I critique work for my friends and try my best to encourage every writer I meet. I’m planning a short story reading and poetry slam for young writers in the fall months. I hope to attend more lectures soon.

I try to be the best teacher I can be. I tell my students, “email me if you ever want someone to read your work” because I want them to know: your words are important. What you have to say is so, so important. 

I understand the criticism. Much of it, I believe, comes from an underlying fear that we can’t help anyone. That what we’re doing might not matter. It comes from frustration, exhaustion, and loneliness. But whether or not writers are doing more work for no pay, we shouldn’t be criticizing writers for it.

This is our method of survival. We need to work hard to build communities because we’re the only ones who will. We need this because it gives our lives purpose when we so often struggle with doubt. Literary Citizenship is a way for us to stick together. 

And let me say this clearly, because I think it is one of the most important messages of Literary Citizenship: You matter. Your book reviews keep authors writing. The class you teach or the poetry slam you organized or the literary journal you edit for gives people voice. You buying books from local bookstores helps the author, the bookstore, and the next writer who releases their book there. Your donated books help foster a generation of readers. What you do makes a difference, no matter how small your actions. 

What you do matters. 



My professor introduced me to this phrase “Literary Citizenship” and it changed my life. And so I want to conclude with a quote from her article that defines what it means to be a literary citizen in a beautiful, concise way: 


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