“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). 

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“Though”— Perceptions of Powerlessness in Speaking and Writing

It’s getting towards the end of my last semester of college which means that I’m doing a whole lot of revision. I work on stories all year, but with portfolios on the horizon the process takes over most of my time.

One of the things I’ve tried to pay attention to as I revise are the unintentional repetitions that I leave in my paragraphs and stanzas. I’ve talked to some writers who have trouble over-using dashes or adverbs. I’ve talked to others who find all of their characters shrugging, glancing, and raising their eyebrows to punctuate every piece of dialogue.

In my own work, I tend to have a lot of “though”s.

I find it creeping into my sentences all the time, whether I’m writing or just speaking with people. It’s different than “although” or “however” which seem to transition to a new thought. “Though” just seems to be added on as a sentence softener in most cases.

 

“I hated that movie.”

“Yeah. I thought the fight scene was cool, though.”

 

I use it as a form of hedging. I can’t just assert a contradictory opinion, because I need to soften it first, to agree and then twist the agreement into what I mean. There has been a lot written about cultural gender norms and societal pressure on women to be agreeable and non-confrontational, so I’ll try not to just repeat it all here. With that said, I do think it’s important to acknowledge in myself as a woman and especially as a writer.

But it’s not just a woman thing. At its heart, I think using words to soften messages is just something that happens when people become used to not being listened to. I know that I start sprinkling my conversations with rapidly increasing instances of “you know?” when that’s the only way I feel like I can get my conversational partner to respond. When you’re met with silence at the end of all your ideas, you start to backtrack to make your ideas more agreeable just in case you might be able to invite some feedback.

This can happen to women, adolescents, employees, or anyone who feels like speaking their mind comes with a social risk that must be constantly mitigated. The consequence is that once all your ideas are softened, even if they are fantastic, they won’t come across with the power they once had. And when compared to the words of someone who is accustomed to being listened to, whose ideas are all expressed with fearless confidence, yours will sound weak and possibly inferior.

A lot of people have heard Taylor Mali’s “Totally, like whatever, you know?” which makes fun of all this hedging creeping into the language of a generation. It was one of the first spoken word poems I ever heard, and it is pretty funny. After learning a bit about the power dynamics at play with language use, it starts to become more troublesome to think about, though.

He’s hearing all these kids hedging all their phrases and filling conversations and essays with phrases lacking any substance, but the reason could be just a powerlessness felt in the relationship between student and teacher, or just as a part of that age group, or that role in society.

As someone who has assigned and graded papers and written many more, I’ve found the more structured the essay, the higher the fluff ratio will be for most students. If they aren’t trusted to have control over their writing, why take the risk to assert their true opinions? I remember my high school essays rarely required me to voice any opinion, and I was used to receiving As. It would have been riskier for me to have written something substantial in most cases.

Sometimes people say nothing to avoid the consequences of saying something.

If a young person has enough conversations like this:

 

“What are your views on this?”

“That’s awful. I never realized that was happening.”

“Seriously? How have you never heard about that?”

“I don’t know.”

“The issue is complex. You can’t just call it all awful.”

“Sorry.”

 

Their conversations will start to look more like this:

 

“What are your views on this?”

“I’m not sure… It seems bad though, but I mean, it seems really difficult to really address, you know?”

 

I think a lot of people have fear build up in them anytime they need to give an honest opinion on something. People are scared of not knowing things, of being criticized for their words, or of just being ignored entirely. The lack of positive feedback can be destructive to our use of language, and this becomes especially scary for writers.

I appreciate a point Stephen King made about confidence in his book On Writing. There is a lot to be said for trusting your thoughts and your words as a writer, but I truly think that King articulated it in one of the most concise ways I’ve seen with the sentence on page 127,

“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”

This fear could result in an overuse of passive tense, abstractions, or just general vagueness, which are all issues young writers seem to have consistent trouble with. Even on a larger scale, though, this fear can make the necessary parts of writing seem impossibly difficult.

The first stage of writing is just being able to trust our thoughts and words enough to put them on the page. If a writer is too paralyzed their book will cease to be before it’s ever written. Writer’s Crippling Self Doubt can be caused through a bad case of low confidence.

Then the writer needs to revise, which requires at least having enough faith in one’s ideas to not break at the first hint of criticism and suggestion.  We need to know the changes we make will improve the work. Writers need courage to not delete the intimate or weird parts that are working well, even if showing people is terrifying.

After that there’s the issue of submitting things for publication. The overwhelming majority of submissions are rejected without any feedback, and writers need to have a level of callous on their ego before they can deal with it.

Reading work in front of a live audience can be difficult too, especially if you’re waiting for people to criticize your words. I know that when I do accidentally speed up reading, it’s because I’ve gotten to a section of a poem or story that I’m not sure my audience will react well to. I have an uncontrollable desire to just blur over the words by increasing my pace like a vocal eraser.

 

I believe one of the ways we can improve the conversations and the written works of young people is to encourage them with feedback whenever possible.

This doesn’t always need to be overwhelmingly positive feedback, but we should make an effort to say something. One of the biggest things that’s helped me improve as a writer is by going through the critiquing process and hearing both positive and negative feedback on my work.

Whether it’s critical or complimentary, giving feedback to a writer says:
I’m listening. Your ideas are valid and worth expressing. Here is my reaction to what you have to say.
And for the author, this can translate to:
This piece is worth working on. Keep writing. 

This doesn’t only take place in critiques. Discussion based classes are especially important because they demonstrate that every voice can contribute something to the conversation. Perhaps even more importantly, these classes encourage questions. I absolutely love the courses that come alive with questions and at some point someone says “Oh, that makes sense.” I love narratives that can emerge from a room of people trying to reach a conclusion.

It’s liberating to be allowed to say “I don’t know anything about that, could you tell me about it?” and have someone greet you with an enthusiastic discussion.

So I encourage people to recognize when hesitance, hedging, or fear finds its way into conversation. If we see this in the speech of others, we can make ourselves into better conversation partners and our rooms into safe places. If we can address what’s making us afraid of voicing our own words, we might be able to face our fears, and then speak our minds.

Isn’t that what confidence and courage is all about?