“Can You Recommend a Book to Solve What’s Wrong with Me?”

I get asked from time to time what books I’d recommend for writers. This is a little like being a pharmacist who gets asked, “What drugs do you recommend for mammals?” The truth is, I have no idea where you are in your career or what’s wrong with you, so it’s hard to tell you what can help.

In the spirit of the right tool for the right job, here are my recommended writing books in little lists based on when they’re useful:

“I have no idea where the fuck to start”

  • Stephen King’s On Writing, which every relative will buy you at least once, isn’t a bad book for getting started, especially in a blue collar sense of making it a job instead of a magical mission from God.
  • Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction is an excellent guide to the basics of short story writing. It gives you a nice set of training wheels for your first couple of stories, helping you gather what you need to know to make a work feel complete.
  • David Gerrold’s Worlds of Wonder is also a good launching point for understanding the mechanics of fiction, though don’t get too hung up on the word “mechanics.”
  • Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing is a strong push to dive headlong into the subjects that matter most to your heart, though I think ol’ Ray makes it sound easier than it is.   

“I wish I’d come back from the future to give myself the books I ACTUALLY need to get started.”

  • Stephen Koch’s The Modern Library Writers Workshop would have saved me actual years of blundering around, and it is the closest I’ve ever found to a complete guide to crafting a story of any length from idea to rewriting.
  • Kit Reed’s Story First: The Writer as Insider is a recent discovery, but it too would have superseded probably 85% of the other books I read that only gave me fragments of how to write. This one resonates very much with my particular style of composition, the “put on a character’s face like Hannibal Lecter and role-play a story” method.
  • Dreyer’s English, by Benjamin Dreyer, will help remediate everything your English teachers got wrong.

“Jesus Christ, I’ve got to step up my game. I can’t keep selling stories to Vampire Dan’s Story Emporium forever.”

  • Samuel Delany’s About Writing contains several great essays that are the stern talks you need from an honest professor about what it takes to make your writing worth the effort.  
  • Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook is a fabulous guide to writing fabulous fiction, full of weird and intriguing illustrations and charts and prompts that lead you away from writing the dopey ideas at the top of your (and everybody else’s) head.
  • Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story not only provides some excellent things to say at parties about the importance of fiction to the human consciousness, but it ALSO delivers practical advice for flipping the right switches in the right order to appeal to a reader.

“Oh, shit. I have to care about practical stuff as a writer?”

  • Starve Better by Nick Mamatas is the straight talk from a worldly mentor you desperately need for facing the business of writing.
  • Booklife by Jeff VanderMeer is perhaps one half step behind the marketing curve since it was published in 2009, but it is still the best guide I’ve seen for finding communities who will enjoy your work without seeming like a mercenary douchebag.

“I kind of wish I’d never heard of writing.”

  • Jason Ridler’s Fxxk Writing is surprisingly inspirational for a book that suggests maybe you’re caring a little TOO MUCH about capital-W “Writing” as your heroic, identity-making avocation.
  • Given his personification of “resistance” as an active negative universal force working against your heart’s work, Steven Pressfield may seem like something of a crackpot. His book The War of Art, however, is an important kick in the ass we all need from time to time to demystify our difficulties.   

Thank God, a White Man is Weighing In

Nothing I say can really help right now, especially when there are other voices than mine who need to be heard, and the last thing I want is to be congratulated for saying or thinking the right things. It occurs to me, though, that doing good within the reach of my arms isn’t enough and maybe it’s time to try within the reach of my voice, too.

I used to write about politics a lot more in years past. That was before I gave up on the idea that people choose them through reason instead of picking a group they want to be part of and then rationalizing and performing their membership in it, including me.

A long time ago, I was part of the stern realists who feel brave by facing (and maybe enjoying) the brutal truths that life is hard, work is mandatory, feelings don’t matter, and we all should get only what we deserve in this life or the next.

This, if you can’t tell, is a young Republican.

These days, I’ve opted to be part of the passionate and naïve do-gooders who think there’s not much point of money or civilization or government if it isn’t making people’s lives better, regardless of the cost. If America can collapse because of gay marriage, pollution control, racial and gender equality, fair wages, easier healthcare, better education, and nicer cops…maybe it should.

This is an old liberal who is more popular with dogs.

I’ve tried to determine forensically just what changed my mind between 1996 and 2000, in case it is any help for someone else.

  • Star Trek laid the foundation for the goals of freedom from prejudice and economy, but The West Wing (Star Trek for civics nerds) inspired me to think that conscientious and smart people could be working in that direction now.
     
  • A professor at UNF, Dr. Pritchy Smith, assigned us to watch the PBS show Eyes on the Prize about the civil rights struggle and I was horrified by how people could fight AGAINST such a basic and fundamental value.
     
  • My notion of how much of our fate is luck versus work changed from a 10%/90% split to a 70%/30% split after meeting countless wealthy incompetents in my working life and many more broke and brilliant people.

  • The mental gymnastics required to rationalize conservative ideals began to feel exhausting and thin. If you’re digging deep enough to get to things like, “Helping the homeless really hurts them in the long run,” and “The Civil War was about states’ rights” without feeling a little sick and desperate, you’re a better rationalizer than I was. Too good, maybe.

Mostly, though, that shift came from meeting and talking to and caring for people who weren’t as well served as I was by the system. I wanted both of the gay Roberts in my life to be able to marry who they loved. I wanted my nieces to make as much as I do. I wanted my friend Ray to get the same shitty service at the deli that I was getting instead of even worse.

The first half-step of love is thinking that the people you care about are exceptions who deserve more than they’re getting.  

The second step is realizing that they’re not exceptions.

Mother of Dragons

[It’s hard to know what to say on Mother’s Day anymore now that mine is gone, but this is the best thing I’ve ever written about her so I might as well share it again.]

A few years ago after we discovered that neither of my mother’s surgeries nor her radiation had stopped the tumor growing in her brain, a chaplain came to visit her bedside in the hospital.

He asked some delicate and insightful questions to figure out her religious beliefs, something that with her was a moving target, and she explained that she’d been raised Lutheran but saw the truth in all faiths. He asked what she expected to see after she died, and my mother said, “The Rainbow Bridge.”

The chaplain, a little surprised, said, “You mean Valhalla?”

My mother narrowed her eyes mysteriously and said, “Some might call it that.”

She then explained that what she expected from the afterlife is to cross the Rainbow Bridge you see mentioned in veterinarian’s offices when pets die, and that on the other side, every animal she ever loved would be there to greet her, all rushing and tumbling and barking and meowing.

On November 3rd of 2017 at 2:15pm, my mother crossed the Rainbow Bridge with all of us around her.

My mother met my horrible father when he locked the doors of the basement of the Lutheran church they attended and wouldn’t let her leave unless he kissed her. They were married when she was seventeen, and when she complained about the smell of his cigarettes, he hit and harangued her to start smoking, too.

The cancer that got her spread from the lungs.

We took my mother to see Fantasia 2000 on the IMAX screen when it was released, and when those giant whales the size of city buses swept onto the screen to Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” she leaned far back in her chair with her eyes wide and yelled, “Holy shit!” to a theater full of children on a school field trip.

When we moved down to Florida, my father wasn’t sure whether to open a hardware store or a bookstore, but he chose the bookstore because my mother could plausibly help him run it. Like me, she could never tell the difference between metric and Imperial tools and never gave a shit.

What she did give a shit about was making sure that our bookstore sold Dungeons and Dragons even when Southern Baptists were wringing their hands about it, and she made sure that I had a copy because that’s what she’d heard all the other smart and imaginative kids played. I read them in the backroom of that store along with Sherlock Holmes and Choose Your Own Adventure and books about ghosts.

She made sure I had as many Star Wars figures as we could afford, too, and we saw all three of the original movies together. I took her to see The Force Awakens and she bragged to a total stranger that she took me to see A New Hope when it came out.

I was wondering how I’d get her to the theater to see The Last Jedi before she died.

My father left my mother for another woman when I was thirteen, and I was surprised that my mother was depressed about it, spending most of her nights after work reading alone in her room. To me, it was like the fall of the Empire.

When my mother met a fellow social worker named Larry Hall and they fell in love, I wasn’t happy. He seemed too dreamy and irresponsible, and it took me years to realize that’s just what she – and all the rest of us – needed.

She lived two decades married to him, and they were a complete but happy mess, having my brother when I wasn’t so sure they could even take care of themselves, opening a doomed antiques business, inheriting hundreds of thousands of dollars from my grandparents and spending it all in three years, joining spiritualist churches and giving psychic readings and going to festivals about rocks.

They were almost always broke, almost always under-employed, but man, could they talk to anyone and everyone about anything. They were both endlessly curious about the world, and they drew the strangest people to them because they never recoiled from anyone.

Because of Larry, my mother got to live in the open again and not just in her books. They were an inspiration to anyone who lives beyond the so-called “normal” world.

When her strength was failing, I told my mother that I wasn’t sure what I’d do now without her around to impress or scare with my writing. She was always my best audience, the one most fun to entertain or shock.

She shrugged and said that was just a mommy thing, doing that.

I gasped in mock offense and said, “Are you saying you pretended to like my stories?”

She cough-chuckled and shook her head and said, “You know I’ve always been proud of you.”

There’s no question that I’m the son of a father of great darkness, and I told my mother more than once that I’d trade my existence for her never to have met him. She said she wouldn’t, not mine or Karen’s or Karen’s daughters, either.

I’m the son of a man of great darkness, but I’m also the son of a mother of much greater light. She was his first abused child at sixteen and he kept at it for 22 years, but she never gave up on angels or books about dragons or crystals or seances or ancient Egypt or playing River Raid on the Atari and Kirby on the Game Boy. She never gave up on goodness, even when she had to squint pretty hard to see it.

I’ve lived my whole life in dread of what my father gave me, and I’ve never appreciated enough what my mother gave me, too: the power to resist that dread and that darkness, to make it funny, to see it and nod but go on anyway even in sneaky ways with a few fellow saboteurs in enemy country.

She knew what goodness costs, and that it is always worth it.

That chaplain who came to visit asked my mother if she wanted to pray for anything, and we clasped hands so she could. She asked to see all of those animals, and she also wanted her children to remember that when she died, they’d never be alone again.

I know now that we never were.

Ice Breaking for Writers

You’d think after twenty years of various kinds of teaching, I’d have inured myself to ice-breaking activities at the starts of classes and meetings, but no, I still don’t like them.

There is a slug-like creature deep inside me who would rather lurk at the edges of a gathering and judge the people there instead of participating. That creature, too, curls and twitches when exposed to all of the ordinary ways that people get to know each other.

For me, an icebreaker would be, “Who here has ever experienced something science can’t explain?” THAT is how you get to know people, going straight to their crack-pottery.

Yet I know that they’re a necessary evil, and the true reason I don’t like them is the same reason that the slug would rather ooze: entropy is easier.

So it is with returning to writing day after day, another endeavor that requires icebreaking. For me, there’s a huge mental or emotional barrier before getting back into creative work, but knowing that doesn’t make it easier to get through.

What’s nice – though not required – from a writing session for me is absorption: getting back inside the thing so that I can look back out through its eyes again, able to intuit what feels right to do next. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it flow, but George Saunders has a metaphor that makes better sense to me: an eye doctor flipping through the lenses to feel which is better for the total vision.

Getting to that state is difficult, but I’ve come up with a few tricks:

  • Open a file, read a little of what I wrote before, and tinker with a few things that don’t look or sound right to me.
  • Ask myself a question in writing about the work in progress (sometimes as simple as “What the fuck is going on?”) and then answering also in writing.
  • Open a new document and paste in the parts of the work in progress that I am certain I want to keep, leaving the iffy ones in the old version.
  • Write a photograph I don’t have, describing a place or a person or a feeling from my past that hasn’t been otherwise recorded.
  • Write a Postcard Story based on some image I find (though I seldom have energy to write the original thing once I finish one).
  • Type out a passage from a work I admire in a similar voice or point of view (first person, third person) to get a feel again for how prose flows. Sometimes I’ll type in a passage from my own work.

All of these are on-ramps to getting back into my work, and there are countless passages in my journals where I leave them half-finished to go back into the story that has suddenly returned to me.

This is where I’m supposed to say that writing isn’t always fun or easy, but I’d guess that even plodding ahead is a kind of icebreaking, albeit slow and painful. And with so few pleasures to be had from the publishing of writing, why shouldn’t you make creating it as enjoyable as possible?

My best work has come from “tinkering,” the word that best describes the low-pressure experimentation that’s required for me to create.

I build stories the same way that Roy Neary built his model of Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, one smudge of mashed potatoes at a time.

Postcard Story: My Friend Hoppsapop

Image courtesy of Shorpy.com

Around the third day, Hoppsapop stopped caring about his make-up. Which, I have to say, is about 48 hours later than I expected him to. We figured he’d come in, pose for a couple of pictures, shake Walter’s hand, and then bolt back to his favorite bar back in the city.

We would have been fine with that.

But the name of the essay contest was, “Why I Want to Spend a Week with Hoppsapop,” and Walter won it fair and square, and some lawyer at the clown show must have worried that we’d sue if he didn’t spend an even seven days streaking our guest bed sheets with makeup and leaving kinky strands of bright red hair in our sink and toilet.

If he’d stayed even sixty seconds longer, though, that’s when I would have sued.

I’m Walter Neussman, and I live in a boring town called Junction Falls full of boring people who think that John Birch is a hero and anybody who isn’t a Baptist is going to hell. It’s the kind of place where the librarian with the skin and whiskers of a potato will call your mom if you try to check out The Lord of the Rings.

This town’s made it pretty clear already that they don’t need or want me (or people “like” my whole family back to the Stone Age), but there is one thing I’m sure they can use: something that doesn’t quite fit into their brains. That could be a Russian invasion or an alien landing, but I figure a big sweaty clown like Hoppsapop flopping his shoes up and down Main Street would do the trick, too.

What did they do all day? Well, Hoppsapop woke up each morning with a groan I could hear through his bedroom wall, staggered into the bathroom for a long sonorous piss, and then dabbed on his makeup.

On the two days it rained, they played checkers and built model airplanes and made a puppet theater from old lumber in the garage. When it was sunny, they went fishing at the pond with old stick poles or on bike rides with Walter perched on the handlebars and Hoppsapop pedaling away. I think they built a fort in the woods, too.  

It wasn’t until later when I saw the muddy footprints that I realized they were sneaking out at night.

I’m not even that different on the outside, not like a clown would be. I have no idea why guys like Peter Riggins won’t let me play any of the pick-up games in the lot. My old man says that’s just what people do, find the outsider no matter how tight their group is. If everybody was born a clone of everybody else, they’d still hang the one who parted his hair the other way. Maybe Dad’s right, I don’t know.

Maybe what this town needs is someone REALLY different to come along, different on the inside AND the outside.

No, Walter didn’t know any of the missing boys, except from school. He didn’t play with them and, if I’m being honest, a few of them weren’t very welcoming or kind. He’s an independent kind of kid, though, off exploring the woods or reading in the park by himself. I was a little surprised he even wanted Hoppsapop to stay with him.

So that’s why I want a clown to come to town. He doesn’t have to do much, maybe freak people out a little, stare in a couple of windows, leave his nose under some pillows, honk a few kids awake in the middle of the night, laugh insanely from inside a closet, that sort of thing.

I’m open to suggestions if he’s got any.

Anyway, thanks for your consideration. I’m looking forward to spending a week with Hoppsapop.

What do you mean, Walter didn’t win the contest?

Postcard Story: Nannah’s Cats

[From time to time, I write a short story based on a strange image and share them. Sometimes, I’ll post a classic one from long ago, too.]

As the Alzheimer’s disease took hold, Nannah’s art got stranger and stranger. Not that it was ever normal — she was what her instructors in the extension classes liked to call an “enthusiastic” artist.

She had a curious way of making ordinary artistic mistakes that somehow turned out creepy. Her stained glass frieze of the Last Supper looked like a pack of tyrannosaurs besetting their feeble young. Her lopsided bowls seemed ergonomically designed for pounding brains with a pestle. Her portrait of Grandpa in oils had slightly crossed eyes that always seemed to focus right over your shoulder, as though to warn you something was sneaking up on you.

But she was sweet and well-meaning, and it was always a frantic race to hang and position her work when she came to visit because, as my father put it, “Who wants a hunchbacked clown cookie jar leering at you every night when you go for a brew?” They all were gifts made with love if not care and we didn’t want to hurt her feelings.

Though, as her mental capacity dwindled, that got harder and harder to do. It wasn’t so much that the artwork got worse but that it got…more cheerful? Sentimental? No, no: cloying. Like you’d imagine the smell of roses in a coffin, or the taste of your fifteenth white chocolate cupcake in a row.

What was scary was that she got better at drawing and painting and sculpting as her mind pulled away from her body, and that the things she produced were utterly alien in their innocence. The less creepy they were, the more creepy they were — because she made them. They grew more childlike, regressing, reverting, curling backward in the womb.

Her last work was what we’ve come to call “The Cat Painting,” and it was a gift for my sister Melanie with whom she’d always shared a love for cats. Nannah had come to visit for what we all knew would be our last Thanksgiving together — the talk had gotten more serious about places that could better care for her — and we were all forcing ourselves to be as cheerful as her scary paintings.

When Melanie peeled away the paper wrapping of the frame, though, she screamed. Poor Nannah only closed her eyes and nodded, soaking in what she thought was approbation, and my dad had to catch the painting before it hit the floor and shattered.

Nobody quite knew what Melanie had seen. It was a painting of a cat clutching a branch in a tree or bush, examining a butterfly with a certain scientific disinterest. It could be an illustration in a children’s book, or something stitched onto a baby blanket, or maybe even a little girl’s stationery. Weird like Nannah’s other recent work, yes, but nothing startling.

Except to Melanie. “It was like I saw two paintings at once,” she told me years later. “One right, one wrong.”

She recovered then as best she could, choking out a thank you to Nannah and taking the painting with the very tips of her fingers.

“Where should we hang it?” Nannah asked. “Oh, I know the perfect place!” She clasped her hands together and padded off to my sister’s room.

We all followed like condemned men because this time we were stuck. When Nannah only visited for the day, we could stow her work in a closet or the attic after she left. But as her health had gotten worse, Grandpa worried what he’d do if something happened to her on the highway, and this one night, this last night, they decided to stay over.

So there was nothing to do but hang the painting with Nannah’s swaying help, right across from the window above her bed.

“What am I going to do?” he muttered to Mom. “She’s here for one night. We hang it, we take it down, everything’s fine. She’s dying, for Christ’s sake.”

Which is how Melanie found herself awake all night, staring at that cat bathed in the moonlight.

When I got up the next morning, the door to the bathroom was locked and she was crying on the other side. I bent down and peered underneath to see her clutching her knees with the nightgown pulled over her entire body like a shield.

“What’s the matter?” I whispered.

She wouldn’t tell me at first, but I pressed my ear against the door for when she did.

“There’s a second cat,” she finally said.

When Melanie had gotten back from the center that time, Mom and Dad made me swear to tell them if she ever did anything weird or scary again. Being a bigger sister, everything she did was weird and scary, but this time, I knew it was important. So I pressed even closer to the linoleum floor and whispered under the door, “I’ll be right back.”

But of course I wasn’t. When I ran downstairs, my parents were already awake, already upset, Mom crying into tissues while my father held her close. Nannah lay still in the guest bed, peaceful and utterly quiet. I watched a long time and she didn’t move. Mom pulled me against her nightgown and I told her through the fabric that Melanie was in trouble, that something was wrong, but nobody could hear me. They only found her an hour later, still crying in the bathroom, knowing already that Nannah was gone.

Melanie went back to the center for a few months after that, and she comes and goes even today. Opinion in our family is strongly divided between whether there were one or two cats in Nannah’s painting when she first brought it; my parents say two while Melanie and I say one. I’m less sure than she is, but I figure somebody ought to agree with her.

Melanie’s an artist now, and she keeps Nannah’s painting above her bed. She’s had boyfriends leave in the middle of the night, saying they heard it whispering to them, saying that the cats switched places, saying that the butterfly touched down upon my sister in her sleep. I think it’s a kind of Rorschach test she puts them through, and I don’t think anyone has ever passed.

She paints things like that herself now, and she says she understands. She tells me that an artist gives away a little of herself in every work if she’s any good, and all that happened with Nannah’s painting is that she gave away the last.

Once, drunk at a long distant Thanksgiving, she said, “When there’s three cats, you can have it.”

Postcard Story: A Stern Talking-To

Photo courtesy of Shorpy.com.

Boy, you know what kids with grades like these end up doing?

Cleaning sex robots.

Middle school is Waterloo-time, kiddo. Your whole world gets decided here, not just by your permanent school record but by your heart. And as I’m looking over this report card, I’m seeing one thing.

You’ve got the heart of a sex robot cleaner.

You’ll ride to work every day in an old filthy bus with people going to jobs just like yours, but a tiny bit better. You won’t be in a jacket and tie but a jumpsuit, and you’ll carry your paper bag lunch into a building with no markings on the outside. Then you’ll take your station beside a stainless-steel table with a hundred other sex robot cleaners like a giant morgue.

Day after day, hour after hour, they’ll wheel in wooden crates that look like coffins, and you’ll have exactly 17 minutes per cleaning to keep up your quota. Some will take less. Some will take much, much more.

And we’re talking about a thorough cleaning. Thorough.

That doesn’t mean a once-over with a sponge before you roll her back in the crate. It means a tray covered in picks and swabs like at the dentist’s office. It means hoses of pressurized water and air to get stuff out of crevices. It means a drain underneath. It means a black light on a swivel arm so you can see every glowing spot.

You’ll snap gloves onto your wrinkled fingers and get to work on the first one, trying not to think about the much wealthier man who sent it in for you to clean. He got A’s in school, that’s why he’s rich enough to own one. That’s why he’s rich enough to pay guys like you to pick it clean.

They’ll probably smell, the robots. If you’re lucky, it’ll be cheap lavender spray. If you’re not, it’ll be the reek of sweat and feet and the things rich men pay others to smell.

Sometimes — maybe most of the time — they’ll be damaged, and you’ll wonder how it happened. You’ll disconnect a speaker that’s still softly moaning, and you’ll wonder how the skull got cracked or why there are twenty circular burns on the inner thighs. You’ll find a broken blade or some frayed rope in the bottom of the box. You’ll swab something out of the ear or the nose and ask yourself how it could have gotten there. You’ll check the feet and see they’re filthy, but that’s impossible because these robots don’t walk. They just sit and lie around and sometimes kneel.

You’ll wonder why almost all the robots are female.

That bus will take you home to an empty apartment. You won’t be living with someone, that’s for sure — years of seeing what men do to woman-shaped things will either scare you at your own potential or thrill you. Either way, you won’t love human beings. You may love some plastic parts you’ve stolen from work and keep under your bed. You won’t be able to look women in the eye.

When Thanksgiving and Christmas come, there will be nowhere to go. Your mom and I will be dead by then, and I’ll be damned if I’m leaving you the farm. Maybe you’ll treat yourself to a milkshake at the mall food court or a gray steak at a diner. You’ll probably read a book or something because you’ll still like that.

Eventually, you’ll die. If you’re fortunate, you’ll simply go limp one day and ooze from the top of your last half-finished cleaning to the floor. More likely, some nut desensitized to a decade of working there will come in after a rape and murder spree, and he’ll mow all of you down with an assault rifle laughing and crying at the same time.

That nut may even be you.

Either way, bleeding out into the drain or gasping your last breath, you’ll think, “I really wish I’d listened to my dad and done better in Social Studies.”

Your mom and I just want the best for you, buddy. So let’s shape up, okay?

Postcard Story: Acknowledgments

Such a book as this, plumbing the depths of everlasting human existence, could never be written alone, and the author is grateful to the following people and institutions without whom his expedition to Mosschase would not have been possible.

First, without the generous financial support of George M. Theerian, owner and president of the Theerian Wig Factory, this project could not have been executed at all. Though I never met his first wife Flora while she lived, she was clearly an extraordinary woman well worthy of her husband’s obsession with the postmortem persistence of spirit. I am sorry not to have made her acquaintance during our séances, but I’m told that women spirits deprived of their worldly bodies sometimes find my locus of masculinity too intimidating to confront.

The wit, class, and emotional sensitivity of the present Mrs. Theerian, the radiant Pauline, could well have been my bedrock during the whole ordeal of Mosschase House. From her knowing glances to her sublime taste in hats, I couldn’t ask for a greater companion. Her shoulder rubs were almost as exquisite as her insights.

My own wife Opal, of course, proved ever helpful as well, attending to worldly matters back in Sussex while I attended to the otherworldly ones.

David Darley and the team from Westinghouse were literally instrumental to our exploration: without their durable electrostatic detectors, temperature gauges, spirit condensers, radium lanterns, Victrola voice capture machines, or ectoplasm containment jars, we’d have been marooned forever on the island of ignorance. May they soon conquer the fickle bitch of alternating current!

Beatrice and Chester Kleiner, present occupants of Mosschase, permitted free access to their home for all six weeks of our investigation. Both graciously accepted the daily company of twenty spirit investigators, not to mention their equipment, their foodstuffs, their sweat-soaked waistcoats and cravats, and their often coarse language. Some of the men proved quite excitable, and I beg the good Mrs. Kleiner’s forgiveness for my torrent of obscenity in the face of the First Manifestation (see Chapter One). As for the wreckage of the south basement wall, I am sure the inevitable profits of this book can easily pay for that damage as well as the charred library mezzanine.

My gratitude runs especially strong for Emil Kleiner, that scamp cousin of Chester’s, whose home-brewed absinthe accelerated both our quiet nights and our active ones.

My sincerest apologies, too, to young Master Heinrich Kleiner. To eyes aching from the lack of sleep, a ten-year-old boy in pajamas can easily be mistaken for an apparition, and we pray that the burns from the Faraday Net have long since subsided. Chin up, little soldier!

Mosschase wouldn’t be a delightfully sinister heap of misshapen stones without the clumsy architectural stylings of Sir Quentin Montrose or the slipshod workmanship of Charles Gaston. Together, they built the perfect haunted house atop that lonely chalk cliff, knotted with ancient oaks and strangled by vines: a veritable spectral honey pot. Well done, gentlemen!

And, though I am loathe to do it, I suppose I must also thank Baron Gerhardt von Klaugh for the underlying psychic trauma that makes Mosschase such an embassy for the damned. While I can’t condone his practice of sewing shut children’s mouths or hanging their corpses as puppets, it certainly suited his former home for my purposes.

I offer much gratitude, also, to the generations of terrified servants, wide-eyed children, and gibbering drunks whose local gossip served like linguistic lenses, compounding mere rumor into legend and finally, wondrously, into reality. So, too, must I thank my peers among the spiritual sciences whose dim fumbling against the shadows on Plato’s wall saved me decades of false starts and blind alleys. Who’d have thought the answer, gentlemen, was simply to turn around? 

Then there are the mediums. Where to start? Clearly with the ones who were less than successful. 

Though poor Madame Vladovich’s spiritual eyes proved to be as cataract-clouded as her ordinary ones, I’m quite obliged for her energetic table-lifting. It isn’t easy for an eighty-seven-year-old woman to heft an oaken table with rulers in her sleeves, but she certainly did. Brava!

Little Wendy Wexham, God rest her soul, gave us the last few weeks of her consumptive life just to communicate with souls as estranged from life as her own. I hope she’s found her well-earned peace.

And, lo, the poor successful Erwin Haste: how sorry we were to have to send a bullet through your brain. Would that your open mind had not been so roomy for evil, my friend. Would, too, that the leather straps had held. May God forgive us for burying you facing down.

Harry the Gardener deserves my gratitude for his enthusiastic work with the pick axe. If I’m ever trapped beneath a wall of infant skeletons again, their tiny bone hands clawing at my face, you will be the first man I’ll telegraph.

To the neighbors, I will say I’m sorry. We did determine the awful truth behind the ghostly lights and the keening screeches at midnight, but ending them was beyond the charter of our expedition. We are planning a second excursion to your wonderful countryside, one dedicated to expelling this darkness once and for all. Donations for our cause will be heartily accepted by the publisher and passed on to us. Stay calm and carry on, good worthies: we’re on our way.

And finally, most importantly, I thank you, the discerning reader, the curious and adventuresome explorer, for your excellent taste. It is your enthusiasm for the outré that makes it all worthwhile.

AWA: Where Did You Learn the Most about Writing?

Each week in my newsletter, I do “Ask Will Anything” where I answer a reader question. Aimee P. of Jacksonville, FL asks:

Other than just doing it, where did you learn the most about writing?

Thank you, Aimee, for your tough but fair question. 

I decided I liked writing in the fourth grade, right around the time that E.T. came into theaters and my teacher Mr. Clark read Where the Red Fern Grows to us. I realized that people actually made stories and that I could do it, too, and Mr. Clark let me read/perform my stories to the class each week.

I didn’t take an actual class in writing fiction until my freshman year of high school, and I got a D in it because I was too afraid to submit my work and threaten my great “potential.” I took no creative writing classes as an undergrad either, mostly for the same reason. I considered an MFA program at UF back in 1994, but I was told with a sniff by the chair that “we don’t DO genre fiction.”

So almost everything I learned about writing came from books, especially these:

  • Stephen Koch’s The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, which is as complete and encouraging a writing book as I’ve ever encountered.
     
  • Samuel R. Delany’s book of lectures and essays About Writing, which contains a lot of wisdom about going beyond simple competence and trying for something special in your work.
     
  • Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction simplified the process of writing stories in a way that seemed workmanlike and do-able to me.
     
  • Stephen King’s On Writing does a great deal to demystify the process of writing, too.

That’s what I needed most: someone or something to tell me how to lower the stakes of writing so it was easier to take risks and experiment while doing it instead of being such a fundamental part of my identity.

In that way, I’m grateful I didn’t seek formal writing education until much later on. I went to Clarion in 2006 when I was 33 and the Stonecoast MFA in popular fiction in 2010 when I was 37.

It’s hard to say which had more impact, though it’s probably Clarion. That was my dark night of the soul: after submitting some terrible stories and receiving some (perhaps excessively) harsh critiques, I realized that I had to either commit to ruthlessly judging my own writing (not being satisfied with merely doing it but with doing it well) or give up altogether and get out of the way.

My MFA from Stonecoast was also extremely useful. Clarion is a sprinter’s education, belting out a short story a week for six weeks. Stonecoast was a marathon where I wrote my first completed novel, and I’m grateful for people like Jim Kelly and Liz Hand who led me through to the end.

The upshot of my long answer: go where you are encouraged to write and told honestly what you can improve.

My biggest regret is that I didn’t write more sooner, and I almost wish that I’d majored in journalism or communications because I would have far rather learned to get words out on demand than how precious and wondrous they were from my literature major.