“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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