Category Archives: Writing as An Emotional Outlet

Cultivating the Fungus

“One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps. No doubt there is much selection, as with a gardener: what one throws on one’s personal compost-heap; and my mould is evidently made largely of linguistic matter.” – J. R. R. Tolkien, on the creation of The Lord of the Rings

Where do your stories come from? Writers are often asked that question.

The short answer: they come from leaf-mold, like Tolkien says.

As Tolkien was a philologist, the leaf-mold of his life was largely the study of languages and their relation to history, so it’s no wonder why Middle Earth’s races and history are so meticulously constructed.

Let’s deconstruct the above quote and expand its scope.

“One writes … not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed…”

We’ve got to have some experiences, don’t we? Experiences that elicit deep passions, loves in all their forms from crushes to parental bonds, betrayals, butt-kickings, travels, successes, and failures. We need to know what things feel like. We need to have laughed, wept, exulted, raged, and trembled in sufficient quantity to infuse our art with truth. The hearsay of truth, the derivation of truth, and sight of truth on a distant mountaintop is not sufficient fodder for art. Our truth must come from our own experience, not someone else’s.

…[N]or by means of botany and soil-science…”

Conscious thought is death to the creative process. It has uses, but only after the story exists in some form. The study of stories will not create a good story–although it could be argued that feeding your compost with the masterworks of your field forms a rich foundation. In the composition process, we must get the hell out of our own way. The subconscious wants to tell the story, but we fill up our awareness with fears and over-thinking, like scum on top of a crystal clear pond.

A quote from one of my favorite Japanese writer/philosophers, Takuan Soho, a 17th-century Zen monk, sheds more light here.

“One may explain water, but the mouth will not become wet. One may expound fully on the nature of fire, but the mouth will not become hot.”

Knowledge of fire and water comes with experience of fire and water, not from talking about fire and water.

We can’t write stories by talking about stories, deconstructing stories, or applying criticism to stories.

“[B]ut it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps.”

Good writing comes not out of our immediate experiences today, the things that are immediate in our minds, our current traumas, but from experiences that we have assimilated.

Writing about an ongoing heartbreak might have value in catharsis, but the immediacy of the raw emotions can blind us to deficiencies in the work. Time lends perspective.

But here’s the thing. Our subconscious remembers. Those experiences will always be there. Water in the well. Leaf-mold covering the floor of our subconscious forest.

“No doubt there is much selection, as with a gardener: what one throws on one’s personal compost-heap….”

And there you have the crux of it. What do you throw into your leaf-mold? Some of it, you get to choose. Education? Choice of field? Work experience? Travel? Military service? Relationships? Long-distance bike trips? Having children? An obsession with cosplay, motorcycles, firearms, history, pro wrestling, forensics, or another wild passion?

Use the good stuff, the kind of stuff that will be nourishing at the next stage. Don’t put Snickers wrappers and pop cans in your leaf-mold. Fill it with the remnants of glorious feasts and breathtaking bouquets.

Things I’ve consciously added to my own leaf-mold include travel to places such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Bali, Cuba, and Costa Rica, plus living internationally first in Japan for three years and now New Zealand, activities such as martial arts training, bicycle trips, motorcycle trips, stock car racing, a Bachelors Degree in Engineering, a Masters Degree in English, learning some chords blues riffs on guitar so I can make a little music when it suits me, studying Texas Hold’em, seeking out music that fuels the creative stardrive, and cultivating awesome friends who feed my writer soul.

We throw the best stuff into that compost pile, rake it around, and boy does it get rich!

And also full of worms, and beetles, and spiders, and grubs. Those things just get in there, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Some of it, you don’t get to choose.

  • An abusive, controlling parent/significant other.
  • A loved one’s struggle with chronic or deadly illness.
  • Finances gone horribly awry.
  • Natural disasters.
  • The experiences of war.
  • Accumulated injustices, prejudice, and betrayals.

Unwilling additions to my compost are things like divorce, poverty, long-ago injuries resulting now in chronic pain, illness in the family, a lifelong struggle with weight, the deaths of loved ones, unrequited love, and a host of trials, failures, successes, and incidents long since receded into the past.

One of the cool things about being a writer is that we get to right a few wrongs, even if only in our own heads and the heads of our readers.

We can get the girl/boy.

We can tar and feather that politician and ride him out of town on a rail.

We can save our parent from cancer.

We can rewrite history.

We can give just desserts.

We can create our own worlds where justice prevails. And those choices we make in our stories bubble forth from our experiences, our desires, our sense of right and wrong, our pain from those who have wronged us.

If people don’t wish us to write about them, they should behave.

Here’s the thing again: it’s all leaf-mould.

Everything we experience, whether accidentally or on purpose, leaves its tracks on our hearts. When those tracks are deep enough, ubiquitous enough, we must write about them. Consciously cultivating a rich leaf-mold will reward the writer with a great life on the front end and better writing on the back end, the kind of writing that makes readers weep and thrill and ponder and exult. The world needs more of that kind of writing.

So you owe it to the rest of us. Live an awesome life, and then imbue your art with that awesomeness.

About the Author: Travis Heermann

Heermann-6Spirit_cover_smallTravis Heermann’s latest novel Spirit of the Ronin, was published in June, 2015.

Freelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, editor, poker player, poet, biker, roustabout, he is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the author of Death Wind (co-authored with Jim Pinto), The Ronin Trilogy, The Wild Boys, and Rogues of the Black Fury, plus short fiction pieces in anthologies and magazines such as Perihelion SF, Fiction River, Historical Lovecraft, and Cemetery Dance’s Shivers VII. As a freelance writer, he has produced a metric ton of role-playing game work both in print and online, including content for the Firefly Roleplaying Game, Legend of Five Rings, d20 System, and EVE Online.

He lives in New Zealand with a couple of lovely ladies and more Middle Earth souvenirs than is reasonable.

You can find him on…

Twitter
Facebook
Wattpad
Goodreads
Blog
Website


“Dear NSA Agent…”

I am not a criminal, I swear.

I’ve just experienced a life with a unique set of events and fields of study that, if one were given enough the correct motivation (and a healthy dose of limited moral inhibitions), the particular set of skills learned could be misapplied to one’s advantage. Fortunately, I’m in a position where the best use of these skills is writing realistic stories where the only people affected or hurt are characters.

There’s always that old writing advice of “write what you know”, but if that’s all writers did, there’d be a lot of the same old. I always liked to interpret it broader: “use what you know to help flesh out your story”.

It does help to have first hand experience with things, but in order to tell characters who know how to break locks, I don’t have to be a master locksmith. To tell characters who know how to use medicines or poisons, I don’t have to be a professional assassin. To describe characters who must infiltrate or use stealth to escape, I don’t have to be a scout or a ninja.

But having a familiarity with these concepts, and the feelings and logistics that surround them, can certainly be used in the stories to provide a more authentic experience.

So how do my characters know how to pick locks, poison, or sneak around? Because someone who was obviously not a good friend once told me to have an interesting life.

Back in middle school, I was your typical latch-key kid. I’d come home off the bus, pick up the mail, and let myself into the apartment. But on more than a couple occasions I forgot my key. Easy enough fix, you can use your student ID to let yourself in (seriously, use the deadbolts). But another time, the deadbolt was locked for some reason, which meant I wasn’t going in through the front door without property damage (and I didn’t have a drill handy anyway).

But I could climb over the balcony. Turns out that door was locked, too. With some bobby pins, tweezers, paper clips, for some reason the metal file on nail clippers, and a rudimentary knowledge of tumblers, I was able to get in.

Another time in gym class, someone decided to put their lock on my locker to keep me from getting my things. I got in, and kept their lock so they could never lock up their things until their parents bought them a new one. When they confronted me on it, it was already in the trash and I could honestly say I didn’t know what happened to it.

“Why would I have your lock? That’s a weird question to ask, did you give it to me somehow?”

Getting gently vicious at the middle-school gym. Add in another skill-set for my characters to learn.

Now, poison…I don’t have a story for poison. I’ve never poisoned anyone without it being a written order from a doctor for a dose low enough to be within the therapeutic range for the purpose of providing medical treatment. So, any medicine, really. Morphine. Chemotherapy.

I liked studying toxicology in the library, hoping one day to help people with overdoses after some friends got into drugs, and drinking was a problem within the community.

There was a greater job market and more marketable skills in medicine, so I learned more about medicines through the certification to be a pharmacy technician and then getting my nursing license. But with those studies comes the knowledge of the “Therapeutic Index”, and the difference between the toxic dose and the lethal dose. The “dose makes the poison” as the saying goes, and the dose that affects the body varies based on the mode of delivery.

Does the liver filter out most of it? Can you add in another substrate that will tie up the cells in the liver that detox the blood, thus leaving the chemical within the system to build up to lethal doses?

There’s a reason they make doctors take the “First, do no harm” oath, ‘cause oh, man, could we ever.
…also, people who took anatomy or who have hunted know how to dissect.
So. There’s that.

Horror writers, am I right? We’re fun folk. I get invited to so many parties. Someone please invite me to a party. I swear I’m charming and won’t bring up dissection again.

Stealth I learned from having to navigate the school, my home, the neighborhood, and the woods.

School because I didn’t make many friends, and if people noticed me it often didn’t end well. Where were the exits? How do you make a distraction? How do you blend into a crowd?

Home because …because.

Neighborhood because I often house-sat with my friend, and she’d often take long walks at night past curfew. I didn’t want her to go alone, so I’d go with her. We’d wander around the neighborhood and hide from passing cars or people.

Woods because I was involved with a search and rescue team. We were looking for people as a group, so obviously we wanted them to know we were coming, in case they wanted to be found.

…Did you know people who don’t want to be found hide in trees? So that’s what I used the night we had a squadron-wide bottle rocket war by the lake one summer.

We took turns ‘defending’ and ‘attacking’ a trailer hooked up with a security camera.
When my team, Bravo, was on ‘defend’, I snuck out to go scout out where Alpha was and what their plans were.

They didn’t expect to find me in the trees. Humans don’t usually have predators above them, so they rarely look up. To start, I was wearing overalls and a t-shirt over my swimsuit. The overalls made noise, so I took them off and kept the swimsuit bottoms. Black stands out at night, and dark blue is a much more natural color, so one of the boys lent me his shirt that I tied at my waist to avoid swishing or catching. I had a flashlight nestled in my chest to not only hold it but keep the noise down from it swinging.

I learned their plans, took off my boots to hide the noise, and took the dirt path back to the trailer to warn my team. Because Bravo was prepared, we could successfully defend. Like having me fire bottle rockets from the trees. They really weren’t expecting that.

When it came time for Bravo to attack, we had already defended, so we learned where the security cameras were and what their range was. We definitely got the better end of that coin toss.

The rule was, defending team started out inside, and we waited 15 minutes to give people time to spread out and get far enough away. I hid in the bushes and avoided the guards, then covered the cameras with my old shirt and overalls by staying just out of range. Sent out a rocket for my team to come out of hiding.

Alpha rushed outside to defend against the ambush, and with the majority of their forces distracted, I got inside and ducked past the guards. Got on the speaker: This is our castle now, and I am its Queen.
Because of all of these experiences, I can describe not only the logistics of what goes into less than reputable character actions, but the feelings they might have as they do so, whether the first time, or after it’s become second nature.

So think of what things in your life might not immediately translate into something you could put on a resume, but you still might be able to use in your story.

Don’t be Afraid to Write–Horror

monkey paw“What do you write?” is the most common question I get when people find out I’m a writer. At first I really wasn’t sure.

Fiction, I suppose. I write fiction.

“What kind?” would be the follow up. I really didn’t know so I would spout out some authors.

My writings are like John Grisham, Tom Clancy, and maybe Orson Scott Card. These were favorite authors, but my stories were a little different than theirs.

“Sci-fi?”

Hmm, not really. I guess you’d call it more thriller.

I asked one lady what she liked to read. “Horror,” she said. “I love horror.”

I was surprised. This little gal, sweet, nice, the church going type, loving horror? IT, Chucky, The Night of the Living Dead? I had only seen clips of these horror flicks and that was enough to haunt my sleep for a good long time.

A few months later I attended a writing workshop where I was supposed to bring my latest completed short story. I didn’t think anyone would read it, just that we would be shown how to self edit. Nope, we read it aloud to the group. I was immediately embarrassed as the piece was a little disturbing with some paranormal elements to it.

What do you write? Came the question to the group. Fantasy, I said. I had learned that fantasy engulfed a lot of make-believe fiction.

“Oh no my friend, you write horror,” the instructor said.

I was floored. Really? Horror? My piece had a little blood and a ghost, and well—suicide, but that was hardly the Night of the Living Dead.

As I grew in my writing and understanding of genre, I reflected on those stories I had read as a child that stuck with me like The Monkey’s Paw or The Veldt. I realized that they were horror.

I read Ticktock by Dean Koontz and absolutely loved it. That prodded me to read many more of his works. I quickly discovered that I read horror. I loved horror.

I am not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells is one of the best series I have read in the horror genre.

I also realized that many pieces I had written but hadn’t shared for fear of being thought odd or insane or psycho, were great pieces of horror. They addressed my fears. In a way, writing terrible things with horrific endings (story not prose) was a way to cope with my real fears.

I’ve learned that the horror genre in movies is different than books. Silence of the Lambs and The Ghost and the Darkness fall under the movie genre of Drama where they are clearly a Horror genre in literature. Horror isn’t necessarily blood or violence. But it can be both.

What I’ve learned most is to not be afraid of my own stories. I’ve had some turn their eyebrows up at me, wondering what sort of devil possessed my mind to turn out a story so horrifyingly brilliant. To that I smile and nod. Just wait, I have yet to write my best work.

jace 1I live in Arizona with my family, wife and five kids and a little dog. I write fiction, thrillers and soft sci-fi with a little short horror on the side. I’ve got an MBA and work in finance for a biotechnology firm.

I volunteer with the Boy Scouts, play and write music, and enjoy everything outdoors. I’m also a novice photographer.

You can visit my author website at www.jacekillan.com, and you can read some of my works by visiting my Wattpad page.

SF&F Saved My Life

A Guest Post by Lissa Woodbury Jensen

Science Fiction/Fantasy saved my life. My first year in college was a disaster. I arrived at University with huge dreams and the belief that I mattered to the world. One month into classes, reality set in hard and fast. My rose-tinted glasses had been wiped clean and I suddenly had a startling view into what others were seeing, most notably, of me.

I was a big girl. The fact that I had weighed over 200 pounds in high school hadn’t stopped me. I was cocooned within protective friendships and loyal family. I was even the lead in our musical that year, Hello Dolly. I distinctly remember “dieting” (starving, eating only broiled hamburger) and losing ten pounds. I will never forget the morning of opening night, when I stepped onto the scale and it read one hundred and ninety pounds! My heart soared in ironic delight as I performed Dolly with the combined gusto of Ethel Merman and brash exaggeration of Carol Channing.

No one made fun of me. Everyone stood and cheered. I chalked it up to talent, ignoring the fact that perhaps they were cheering because I had walked a long road of recovery from teen-age drug and alcohol abuse.

The problem in college was that no one knew my background or history, nor did they care. The encouraging smiles were absent and the continual words of support ceased. I was a five foot, nine inches tall “lardo.” Oh, and I also had acne. Top that off with (then undiagnosed) ADHD and I became the proverbial bull in the china shop. I overcompensated, trying to be “the funny one.” I just got looks of pityo I withdrew into a different kind of cocoon. Night after night, I sat alone in my dorm room while others cavorted socially and worried about who their next date would be. Instead of cutting back on calories, food became my BFF. I tried out for plays but was never the right “type.”

Late one lonely evening, I ate a family sized bag of Nachos. After shoving the last chip into my mouth, I started licking the orange residue off my hands. As my tongue rolled off my pinkie finger, I glanced in the mirror. I was ashamed. Sad eyes looked back at me. Tiny orange crumbs caked the inside corners of my mouth and I hated myself. So much so that I decided I would rather be dead. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became. I planned how I would do it and actually looked forward to the day of my mortal release.

A few days before my planned exit, I was walking through the dorm lobby and found a book that had fallen to the floor. It was a thick tome that piqued my curiosity. The title read “The Fellowship of the Ring” by J. R. R. Tolkien. Having nothing else to do, I took it to my room and began to read. I was captivated. I read on through the night and well into the next day. My death obsession was put on hold as I became Frodo struggling towards his epic destiny. I disappeared into my head and battled orcs, demons and evil wizards. Gandalf was my beloved mentor and I wept with abandon at his demise.

The day of my planned exit from this life came, yet I had begun reading “The Two Towers” and wanted to find out more about Gollum. I decided I could wait a while longer while I marched towards Mount Doom with Frodo and Sam. Setting sleep aside, I joined my comrades as we raced to our journey’s epic conclusion for “Return of the King.” My self-esteem soared and food was forgotten when, finally, the ring was destroyed and we crowned the true king of the land. I lay there, exhausted, and grieving for the loss of my newfound friends as the last few words of the book were seared into my brain. I surfaced back into the present and was reminded that the time for my deadly plan had come.

I balked. Had Frodo given up when in the dredges of Mordor? Had hefty Samwise Gamgee let the difficulty of his assignment stop him? When Frodo won the acclaim and adulation, did Sam think less of himself because he didn’t get the same recognition? I felt changed inside. I hadn’t just read the book; I had been part of the Fellowship.

And I couldn’t quit now. I contemplated my paradox. Perhaps I could prolong the day of my death a bit longer.

I went to the school’s library and left, clutching the librarian’s recommendation, “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card. If I thought I could never love another being like Frodo, I was wrong. Andrew Wiggins’ trouble fitting in at Battle School in space endeared me to him like no other. As he grew in experience, gaining the trust of his peers and overcoming those who would bring him down, I felt a new resolve blossom within my soul. My problems were still evident, but I knew now that I could find a sense of identity, companionship, and unlimited adventure in worlds beyond the one I currently inhabited.

This realization gave me hope and I devoured all the science fiction and fantasy I could lay my hands on. I no longer obsessed about which day I would end my mortal pain and threw away all the tools I had kept for such an event. I continued with the Ender universe and many others, eventually learning to construct my own worlds and the stories within them.

Science fiction and fantasy opened worlds without end, where anything was possible for an inexperienced and uncertain young woman teetering on the edge. Strong and creative characters taught me to persevere and believe in myself, despite all odds. I lost weight, gained focus and never looked back. Years later, I continue to write, imagine the impossible, and look for new worlds to explore.

About the Author:Author
Lissa Woodbury Jensen lives in Alaska and loves imagining the impossible. Her initial career was in theatre arts. She did some filming in Los Angeles, but her primary love was the stage. In addition to performing, Lissa directed and choreographed many Broadway hits. She began her writing career by authoring short plays, dramatic presentations and original musical productions. She now concentrates solely on fiction. She loves to write about flawed characters that redeem themselves. Her favorite quote is from the movie Chariots of Fire: “God made me fast; and when I run, I feel His Pleasure!”