Author: Will Ludwigsen (page 5 of 7)

More on that Visit to a Children’s Mental Asylum

You know that feeling that the best achievements of your life are behind you? If the number of times I’m asked about it as anything to go by, I’m guessing that my greatest moment was climbing through a broken window at an abandoned children’s asylum.

I guess I’m okay with that.

A few people have asked me to provide some more details after yesterday’s brief entry, so here’s the story.

It starts with Joseph DeJarnette, who probably wishes you were never born.

He was the director of Staunton, Virginia’s Western State Hospital from 1905 to 1943, and in that time he performed hundreds of involuntary sterilizations of the “feebleminded,” whom I’m guessing were not in short supply only a few hours from the nation’s capital.

For DeJarnette, sterilization was less an unpleasant medical duty and more a gleeful hobby worthy of poetry:

This is the law of Mendel,

And often he makes it plain,

Defectives will breed defectives,

And the insane breed insane.

Oh why do we allow these people

To breed back to the monkey’s nest,

To increase our country’s burdens

When we should only breed the best?

 

(On the subject of “insane breed insane,” my father used to muse with a certain grudging respect about the virility of the patients at the mental hospital where HE worked, saying that “crazy sure likes to fuck.” Which did not, in fact, provoke a lightning strike of irony.)

Anyway, DeJarnette even argued to keep the United States at the forefront of eugenics:

“Germany in six years has sterilized about 80,000 of her unfit while the United States with approximately twice the population has only sterilized about 27,869 to January 1, 1938 in the past 20 years… The fact that there are 12,000,000 defectives in the US should arouse our best endeavors to push this procedure to the maximum.”

In 1932, the DeJarnette Sanitarium was named in his honor in much the same way that we now have the Richard M. Nixon School of Ethics in Government and the Reverend James Warren Jones Agricultural Seminary.

Weirdly, it was renamed in the 1960s to the DeJarnette Center for Human Development, because the word “sanitarium” was more offensive than “DeJarnette.” Then it became a children’s mental hospital in 1975 and was shut down for good in 1996.

It’s been abandoned ever since, though there have been discussions of making it into a “frontier museum” or condos or a mall of some kind. People sometimes break in and look around or vandalize the furniture and papers that are left behind.

papers

When I went inside in 2006 with Matthew Warner (and, truth be told, my now ex-wife), I didn’t feel any oppressive aura of suffering. It reminded me of most ill-kept government buildings, everything painted with thick flaking layers of pastels.

danglingfeet

If any feeling did seep into the structure, it was one of barely holding itself together — there were drawings and slogans on the wall that were meant to be “fun” in the way that earnest government employees try to manufacture fun.

super

friendly

One feature struck me as particularly interesting, the Universal Precautions Cabinet. How did I know that was what it was? Because someone labeled it, that’s why.

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When I showed the pictures of DeJarnette to some of my friends from South Carolina, they shook their heads in disbelief that anybody would go into a place like that.

“Look at that shit,” said Jason. “Whatever went down in that place at the end took every fucking thing in the Universal Precautions Cabinet…and it still didn’t work.”

A few months later, I went to the Clarion writing workshop and had a bruising and demoralizing first critique of my work, a moment of deep personal doubt.

When Jason got wind of that, his advice was, “Next time you’re sitting with those people, you look around and ask yourself who there’s got the sack to go into an abandoned children’s asylum where even the Universal Precautions Cabinet didn’t help for shit.”

That helped. It still does.

And if you have doubts about the kind of person you are sometimes, you could probably do worse than remember that you’re the kind who goes places you’re not supposed to go just because you’re curious what other people did and how they felt.

It’s architectural empathy.

Though DeJarnette didn’t perform sterilizations at the center named for him (that was at Western nearby), I still wonder if any of the residents ever left that place feeling…better. Braver. More ready with their own internal Universal Precaution Cabinets.

Because I couldn’t bear if it was just me.

Ten Years Ago: Breaking into an Abandoned Asylum!

(I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations on trespassing has gone by long ago.)

Ten years ago today, my buddy and fellow horror writer Matthew Warner and I decided to take a stroll around the abandoned children’s mental asylum in his town of Staunton, Virginia. I’d wanted to get some pictures of the exterior because it was a cool spooky place.

awesome

Then I happened to walk by a human-height broken window and thought, “Well, clearly I’m being invited inside.”

So I went in and Matt followed.

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Note the feet of hanging children.

Note the feet of hanging children.

dormeropen

handswall

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(There are more pictures here.)

I had a great time. We touched nothing, harmed nothing, and we respected the property and the pain of the people who once lived there. I think Matt has gone in with permission since then, but what’s the fun in that?

I know there are people who go into abandoned places for the danger and the risk of it, but I’m more interested in the stories those structures seem to absorb. I don’t have a lot of supernatural beliefs (this and the efficacy of democracy are the only two), but I do think that emotion can linger in places. And even if it doesn’t, I think it’s important sometimes to extend our empathy enough to pretend it does, to remember other people in other times.

I am not in any way advocating that you should enter a building this weekend and try to imagine the lives and feelings of the people who lived there. I’m not advocating, say, finding a bent section of fence where the police rarely go and gently stepping over. And I’m definitely not advocating that you should walk carefully through a dangerous ruin, taking no souvenirs but your own thoughts and maybe some pictures.

Stick to the living like everybody else. God knows they don’t express their every little thought often enough.

Hey! A New Interview with Me on the Outer Dark Podcast!

I’m not sure why people are interviewing me all of a sudden, but maybe I’m like the Paul Lynde of horror, the kind of show biz trooper always available when someone needs a center square.

Anyway, Scott Nicolay very graciously and insightfully interviewed me for the award-winning Outer Dark podcast, and it’s available for your enjoyment now!

Why Yes, I’ll Be at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts Next Week!

Once a year, desperate genre writers and academics come to the Orlando Airport Marriott for the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA), seeking any reason to escape the bleak forlorn skies of their home states.

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This year, I have a reading  on Thursday afternoon at 4:30pm in the Magnolia Room. I’ll have new content, likely related to serial killers!

 

Second Interview on Elucidate with Goliath Flores!

If you liked my first interview with Goliath Flores on his Elucidate podcast, you’ll love the second when we get into writing, teaching, Game of Thrones, and why the Internet sucks!

Huh. Surprised But Not THAT Surprised…

My father wasn’t the greatest man who ever lived, but it’s still a bit shocking to get this letter first thing after the new year!

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2015 By the Numbers

2015 was a year in which I cared less about goals and more about habits, trusting that if I did certain things every day, they’d eventually coalesce into achievements of some kind. That more or less worked, at least more so than just staring pie-eyed at the goals ever did.

Here’s what the year came down to for me:

  • Novels rewritten and submitted to agent: 1, Already Won.
  • Miles run: 532.46, including ten 5K races.
  • Stories sold: 1, “The Leaning Lincoln,” to Asimov’s.
  • Stories appeared: 1, “Acres of Perhaps,” in Asimov’s.
  • Stories accepted for Year’s Best: 1, “Acres of Perhaps.”
  • Days written: 361 consecutive (363 total for the year), a total of 19,445 minutes (thirteen days, twelve hours, and five minutes).
  • Interviews granted: 1 (Elucidate #40 with Goliath Flores)
  • Writing retreats hosted: 1 (Savannah)
  • Conventions where I appeared: 3 (ICFA, Oasis, and Necronomicon).
  • Classes taught: 2 (Introduction to Fiction Writing and Introduction to Creative Writing).
  • Books read: 35.
  • Short stories and essays read: 35.
  • Home projects completed for the sake of bourgeois propriety: 4 (resodding the yard, replacing the asshole built-in microwave, replacing the dishwasher, and refinishing two rooms of hardwood floors).
  • Emotional and intellectual discoveries made:
    • My father spent his whole life pretending to be better than he was and I’ve spent mine pretending to be worse.
    • Writing is learned by epiphany: you work, you experiment, you feel what works in a flash of recognition, and then you own it. Books and classes can put you in the way of epiphany, but you’ve got to have something going for the realization to stick.
    • Most people learning an art need a trusted person who will point to things and say, “Really?” And you can answer two ways, either saying “No, I didn’t mean to do that” or “Yes, I totally meant to do that so I’m going to double down to make it work.”
    • I’m really not that good at teaching writing to people who don’t want to learn.

Interview on Elucidate with Goliath Flores

Before we go any further, let’s all acknowledge that GOLIATH FLORES is an awesome name. Giant flowers!

Goliath, who happens to be my neighbor, hosts a great podcast about the arts here in Jacksonville called Elucidate. I came onto the show the other day to chat about politics, creativity, politics, and mass societal delusion. You know, the usual.

 

My Top Three Books of 2015

With four whole days until Christmas, let me tell you the good books I read this year that you SHOULD have bought for yourself or others.

(As always, my recommended books of the year are the ones I read in that year, not the ones published in that time. I read books to get AWAY from the cultural zeitgeist, not to fall into it!)

There are in no particular order, except perhaps subconsciously.

A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay

head_ghosts_cover

I have mostly a handshake-and-Facebook acquaintance with Paul, which is too bad because I suspect we probably get the same kinds of complaints about our work from a certain subset of cretinous readers: that it doesn’t go “far enough.”

I used to wish that there was a better word than “horror” for stories like ours (and Laird Barron’s and John Langan’s and Livia Llewellyn’s etc.) because it comes with a lot of clumsy expectations. Now, I just hope more books like A Head Full of Ghosts keep stretching that frontier into more subtle psychological territory.

It goes plenty “far enough.”

The blithe description of the book is that it is about a teenaged girl whose apparent demonic possession becomes the subject of a documentary TV show, but like the show itself, that’s a gross misunderstanding of what’s really happening to Marjorie Barrett and her family. This is a book as much about the stories we tell ourselves about our own fears as about the fears themselves, and every character is wrong about the possession in ways that are far more scary than a demon.  

Tremblay does an amazing job with the tiny accumulating details of real fear, and the effect reminds of me all the best parts of Steven Spielberg’s (nominally Tobe Hooper’s) Poltergeist: the horrors come knocking on our middle class doors, chased away by the worse things already within.

The Martian, by Andy Weir

martian_cover

If there was room between all the shit about Jesus in the Inspiration section of the bookstore, I’d shelve The Martian there.

Why? Because no matter how bad your life is, no matter who has dumped you or betrayed you or fired you or cut off your leg or called you a failure or denied you a small business loan, it will never be as bad as being marooned on Mars.

And no matter what you think can fix your life — self-help books, prayer, AA meetings, cults, shooting up a movie theater, traveling to Bali, coloring in books with markers — nothing will work quite as well as screaming briefly and then solving the current goddamn problem right in front of you before going on to the next.

Mark Watney starts this book well and surely fucked as many of us have been. We usually have water and oxygen when we’re fucked, but hey, bad is bad. Watching Watney rationally (and with humor) face his problems one by one with every resource he has (brain included) could certainly be a lesson to almost everyone trying to fix the world from debate stages and Facebook.

You look at what’s actually in front of you — not what you want to be in front of you, not what you hope to be in front of you — and you use 100% of it to make the next ten seconds 1% better than the last ten seconds.

Sometimes all you can do is survive to solve the next problem, but somehow, that’s always enough.

Working Days, by John Steinbeck

working_days_cover

When John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, he wrote a journal at the same time, a place where he could grumble about what he was working on that day and what was coming next, and the result — Working Days — is one of the most useful books you will ever read about writing.

Why? Because it tells you that doubt and chaos and distraction is normal. And that it’s possible to work through them.

Now that I’m thinking about it, Working Days is The Martian but for writing a book. Steinbeck is stranded on Planet Joad and he has to make the best decisions each day to survive to make more tomorrow.

And the result — SPOILER ALERT — is The Grapes of Fucking Wrath.

One word and one sentence and one chapter at a time, folks.

Eight Reasons I’m Not Going to Teach Creative Writing Anymore…and One I Might

As this semester comes to a close, I think I’ve come to a decision about my teaching career, and I think that decision is that it’s basically over.

1. I’m skeptical that writing is learned effectively in a typical classroom setting.

Writing is learned by epiphany: you try different things and see which ones feel right. Sometimes that’s accelerated by placing yourself in the path of possible epiphany, writing a lot and reading a lot and also perhaps through classes or writing books. But in my too-large classes with students of vastly different abilities and interest levels, it’s almost impossible to do anything but present the broadest (one size fits none) principles.

2. The only classes I can teach as an adjunct are the very basic ones that serve as general English credit, so 80% of my students have no interest in writing, certainly not getting better at it.

And I have no idea what to do with them. Try to reinforce the basics of grammar and punctuation that they never learned? Encourage them to be more creative, though they don’t give a shit? Focus on the 20% who are interested in writing instead? I never know.

3. I’m not giving my students what they need, which is mostly time.

Adjuncting is my part-time job pursued in the evenings after eight hours at my regular one, and what the students need most is hours of individual mentorship in everything from where commas go to how to send stories off for submission. I do the best I can with manuscript comments, but the best success I’ve had has been during casual one-on-one conversations with individual students: “What’s up with you and semicolons?” I simply don’t have the time to do that with a full time job in addition to teaching.

4. I don’t like reading people’s unfinished manuscripts.

Basically my students need to be told one of two things: “Keep doing this” and “Stop doing that.” The problem is that they hand in work that is way too close to composition so I’m telling them things they’d probably fix themselves in a rewrite. I never feel like I’m saying enough of the right things at the right time.

5. I don’t need the money as much as the other adjuncts.

Adjuncts are paid for shit, and many of the ones at my university work multiple teaching gigs all over town. Every time I teach a class for my credit card money, that’s one less that some poor bastard living off this shit will get.

6. There are standards and rigidity and accountability coming.

To their credit, my English department is trying to establish a baseline of actual repeatable results for the students, but all I want to do is say weird funny things about writing until someone accidentally learns something. It’s only a matter of time before calling myself “the Hannibal Lecter” of the English department or saying Halloween is Satan’s birthday results in a complaint and a long awkward talk.

7. It upsets me that students don’t leave my class cheering or weeping with the inspiration to write.

Hideous confession time: I am far more motivated by entertaining people than teaching them (mostly because the results of the former are way clearer than the latter).

8. Yes, it saps time and energy from writing.

Though I did manage to rewrite a novel this year with some better time management, my day job suffered a little and the writing could have gone better.

One reason I might teach again:

If I get an opportunity to teach/mentor a smaller group of motivated students in the way I want — “Hey, let’s hang out and write and read what we’ve got and talk about it” — I’d jump at it.

You learn writing by doing it a lot, trying new things, being honest with yourself about the results, and getting firm feedback from someone experienced that you trust. If I could help that, it might be worth it…to me and to the students.

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