The Ink that Broke the Writer’s Hand

At this point, I think it’s easy enough to say: I’ve been out of sync for a long while. I have tried recreation, rebirth, but unlike the Phoenix, I never emerged with a wildfire, merely a sputtering spark. A thousand new moments have made a thousand new me’s in the years since I devoted myself to writing, always pushing forward, always trying.

But this, I’m sad to say, is not a story of how passion and commitment pays off. This is reality. It doesn’t end well.

I have made creation my profession and my striving goal for 11 years now – not to mention the youth I spent before that idolizing, learning, scribbling in secret, courting my passion, growing into myself as a writer. It has, as long as I have lived, been the predominant force in my life – my creative spark and one of my few focuses. Others came and went, but never this.

If any of you have followed me over the years, you likely know I’ve never found things easy in spite of always knowing my life goal.

In 2007, I first began submitting my writings to magazines. In 2009, I first started submitting to publishers. I joined ground setting online institutions like OneStopPoetry, helping build communal sites dedicated to creativity, all while going through college and churning out story after story, poem after poem, and refining novels over and over again. I opened a Patreon. I started this website. I dipped my toe freely into everything which felt a natural fit for the modern writer’s journey.

Flash forward to today: I have written 7 novels, more than 100 short stories, and literally hundreds of poems, only the smallest fraction of which line this website’s pages, and those of its predecessor.

Rejection is part of the industry. It’s an awful part, but it’s part – a trial by fire through which you are supposed to learn, and grow, and inevitably weasel your way. Except the industry isn’t actually built like that. It’s not skill that determines who gets in. It’s luck – who sees it, at the right time, in the right context, how a particular word will make a five second pitch stand out more than another, that an agent doesn’t con you or mislead you, that market saturation doesn’t render an attempt obsolete through no fault of your own.


Society doesn’t value writing any longer. They tend to look at it as something anyone can do – it’s simply a matter of how grandiose the scribbles you desire. You’re expected to work without pay, submit for “exposure,” work countless hours with no guarantee. In the end, perhaps 1 / 100,000 writers will get anywhere at all, and most of those won’t get far. The idea of the creative, struggling genius is flouted as a dream for all to aspire to, and those who fall short don’t tend to be seen as anything more than not having lived up to what was necessary. The industry shrugs and moves on – there are, after all, a million others waiting in the wings. Besides, it’s just writing, it’s not a “real” job – focus on career and do this free thing on the side, just for you, yeah?

The isolation like a tumor festers and grows.

So I wandered. In college, I turned to journalism. The pay wouldn’t be great, but there would be benefits, a certain sink or swim adaptability that would assure that life would never be dull, and a chance to work on some real important stories that could impact a community or a nation. It also helped that it could potentially get a name out there and hone skill. Many a great writer has, after all, begun their lives in the journalistic trenches. I didn’t hold myself to any one form – I threw myself in and tried to learn as much as possible.

The Great Recession hit partway through college. The industry crumbled. What emerged in the aftermath was largely a contract gig, demanding advanced knowledge in dozens of areas and skills far beyond writing. Photography, Videography, Social Media, Marketing, Coding – journalists needed to know everything, work themselves into the dust for nothing, and do so with no benefits, barely a survivable salary, and no stability at all. One day you might be employed, the next not – no warning. Contracts don’t require them. And then the self-employed taxes would come on top…

So many masks came and went. It wasn’t easy, but I made it work, barely above water, working odd jobs on the side, never making anything to save. I bounced between papers, but the job hunt was nearly continuous, and fighting for them cutthroat – switch largely to robo-generated news, fire hundreds of journalists while new ones are emerging from school, consolidate the news into a few key corporations, and what you’re left with is a lot of people vying for the same few scraps.

But that’s fine, I said. I still had good days. It gave me time to work creatively – hours and hours spent on writing endlessly, missing so much to gain nothing at all. A few magazines picked up the occasional scribble. I self-published a three book series, because publishers wouldn’t touch it. Then I was told anything else that might be published after would be tainted by that fact. I wrote under pseudonyms, and still no headway was made. Seven books, plus the trunk stories every writer has and learns from, came and went. Nothing caught a publisher’s eye.

Success, this country has made clear, is a privilege, not a right. Not everyone is destined for success, not everyone has the natural talent or luck to rise above, not everyone chooses skills the world needs or has the money to invest heavily in others – and the “spend money to make money” notion is a crock meant to make the lives of the rich easier and leave the poor broker and more indebted.

In essence: not everyone is destined to be happy. You practice, you persist, and you age, watching others live and grow and enjoy such happy lives – and you fade away, realizing you have nothing for all your trouble.

Factor in depression, lack of means, and an unregulated society gone suddenly to a nationalist-authoritarian sort of feudalist nightmare – and you’re taking day after day of brutal beatings and getting absolutely nothing in return. “But the joy of indulging your passion,” some will say. “It’s just for you!” It’s not like that with any other career. Art is art. It’s a beautiful, passionate thing, but it’s still hard, grueling labor. You do it because you love to do it, sure, but you also do it because you want it to be seen. You want to grow, you want to be successful, and you want to be told your work is worth something. When it’s not, you adapt, you grow, you build on it. But after enough time, if trying again and again ever yields the same result, it breaks first your heart, and then it breaks your spirit.

For me, the last straw came earlier this year.

To preface: after a decade, for the first time last year I found an agent willing to touch my work. His name was Mark Gottlieb, of Trident Media Group. He’s a big name: a previous top Literary Agent on Publishers Marketplace in overall deals and other categories, lots of positive interviews, works with F/SF. He read one of the novels I submitted, professed his love for it, and offered to represent me. We had a rapid, furious back and forth by phone and e-mail.


I was over the moon. Finally, I thought, I had broken in. This was my chance. I had done my research, and I was all for it. At his request, I attached a pen name to the work and got it ready to go. Oddly, he didn’t have any recommendations on changes, but I figured that would perhaps be more of a concern when publishers got their teeth into it.

Then the nightmare began. Months passed with no word. I attributed my antsiness to first time jitters. I had sent out a couple e-mails in the interim to address a few details on the book, but never got a response. After two months, I called, got no answer, then e-mailed to see where things stood, where the book had been submitted, etc. In reply, I got a single line response:


Strange stuff, but alright, I assumed, perhaps he was just busy. Another 3 months passed. New Years came and went. I sent over another e-mail wishing holiday cheers and asking some questions about where we stood and industry developments I had heard about.

Again, that same reply: “No takers as of yet but hang in there.

Word for word, and nothing but.

Winter turned to spring, spring turned to summer. More than a year had gone by: no calls, no e-mail updates unprompted by me. Nothing but those nine little blue words. I wrote a last letter at this point, referencing Mark’s previous words and demanding to know what was going on. At which point, he broke the news that no editors had come forward, and that was that.


By that point I had figured as much, of course, but that I had been strung along for so long…and then I saw what was being posted about him on QueryTracker. Certainly, he has a sterling reputation if you go to Google. But former clients and aspiring writers? They don’t seem as forgiving.




Notice any similarities to my case?

That was the ink that broke the writer’s hand. Coupled with the closure of a paper I worked for as well, and the subsequent decline in paid work…my faith has never been lower in this industry, and in writing in general. Thousands of dollars spent on college, for nothing. Countless hours wasted – a life, in many regards. Yet for me personally, it means so many other things, and admitting it all is a failure that weights me down lower than any concrete shoes.

Life is supposed to be messy, but it’s supposed to have a goal for which to aim. In 11 years, I’ve never gotten an inch closer to that goal, only seen it slip further and further away. I feel those that say to stick it out are much the same people who in middle school, and high school, and college, and thereafter, told folks time and again: “Oh it’ll only get better!” only to inevitably do a 180 and add, “Those were the best days of your life. Never forget them!” without a shred of irony.

Detractors say it all comes down to willpower and how badly one wants to achieve. A lot of people – even otherwise well-meaning friends and family – meet such situations with a lack of empathy and understanding. They neglect that we live, assuredly for the worse, in the midst of capitalism, and it is made quite clear to us that nothing we do has value unless it earns – and further, surviving is quite impossible if it doesn’t. Those born with means can stick with art through wind and rain, and weather all opposition. The poor do not have that option.

It’s like with travel: we all want to do it, and there are plenty of people who will tell you that you can’t afford not to, but when it all comes down to it, the majority of us have so small a disposable income that we cannot afford to put things on hold long enough to play around with our fantasies – and it only gets worse, year after year, as the nation sinks further into debt and student loans, eliminates benefits and savings programs, and saddles families with an increasing need to work with and support one another just to survive. We barely have time to be individuals anymore, let alone engage our passions.

Which is exactly where I find myself now. To those that can still write, still create, still travel – whatever their passion may be – I applaud them. I am envious.

Yet every soul has a breaking point, and I have long since met mine. After more than a decade of work with nothing to show for it, I have gotten out of writing, and I am in the process of reformulating my life to find some new course that will keep me breathing.

This website will live out the year before it reverts to its WordPress origins. If anything else fills its pages, it will likely be little things, creative whimsies. No more updates or announcements or essays will come to pass, no more novel ideas down the pipeline.

It doesn’t mean I don’t love to write. It breaks me into a million pieces to turn my back on the only thing I have ever felt like I belonged to – but feeling like I belonged is much different from actually belonging there. I am just a number, at a time when we need voices to speak out against tyranny, to stand apart, to rally people to something more. I tried to give voice to the loss and pain. I tried to tell the stories to keep the dream alive. I tried to make escapism that would set us free from it all as well, however temporary.

I have nothing left to give, yet I must keep on, and I cannot let the machine consume me in the process. There are still people I owe that much. But where that leaves me…I just don’t know.



Promoting the “Other” When You Don’t Fit the Bill

Photo by Nong Vang

Storytelling is one of the most fundamental, universal aspects of the human species. We tell stories to learn what it is to walk in someone else’s shoes. The notion that you can’t tell someone else’s story is ludicrous, and so is the idea that you can’t learn someone else’s tales. Will you tell it the same as they could? Almost assuredly not. Does that make you any less genuine in intent or depiction? No. Does it make the story any less important? Hell no.

The key is consideration versus appropriation. Empathy is critical.

Example: a character should not be included simply because they are black, or trans, or bipolar. These are aspects, not the sum. A scene should not unfold where a character enters and we are left to think, “and here is the gay character.” It’s an aspect of who they are. It may be completely unimportant to the story you are trying to tell. Yet they are there, and they should be there, with stories to engage. That story should not begin and end with their gayness, blackness, mental illness, disability, etc., but hell if each of these traits don’t affect a person’s life to varying degrees. They are important. They matter.

We’re all human. We have love lives, yes. But we also have passions. Doubts. Fears. We have quirks and faults.

It is the sum of our capabilities and failures and deeds—not the prominence or lack of any one—which makes us who we are.

It is unfathomably tricky to write outside of who you are with the care it requires, but I also fully believe that those with the power and stage to write should, as well as working to open the doors to equal voices throughout, in the meantime, speak for those who can’t. To do so, they must work as hard as possible to be authentic. One of the main points of writing is, after all, to tell the stories of people we may not recognize, so we might better understand everyone.

The story is not about you, but it can be about people, as much as ideas and events.

The word of the day is nuance, and it should accompany any scribbles. Yet it is especially important when including the traditionally underrepresented – particularly if you aren’t one of them. I dare say it’s more important now than ever, as the world slides into an age of illiberalism and authoritarianism, lashing out at one and all seen as “the other.”

There are some out there who do take umbrage with people who write outside their element. Whether it is an extension of the belief that writing is experience and nothing more, or  addressing things beyond your own experience is disingenuous, or even using the idea as a convenient way to stifle inclusion, the fact is the uncertainty shows one important thing: it’s not easy. As such, if you’re not a member of the community you’re writing about, you must be amazingly respectful.

Note I don’t say “should.” I say “must.” Treat your subjects as any less than human for an instant, any sense of caricature, and that’s it. You’re done. That’s all she wrote. Pack up the bags and head home, because you just undid everything you were trying to do.

To those who say don’t do it, I say: as long as you recognize your space, your power, and your limitations, approach it from that. Be open to feedback, be prepared to accept criticism, but most importantly, work hard to do it right and open a space and opportunity for the voiceless to come forward.

To those who fear appropriation, I certainly can’t blame them, but I urge just as much caution. After all, to silence ourselves entirely for fear of facing appropriation anywhere, we lose chances left, right and center to learn about the myriad identities which make up our world. More people should be able to write and engage with who they are and what that means—but people should also be able to think and opine outside of who they are. Fiction lets us do that, and sometimes it does it wrong, horribly wrong, but the best writer acknowledges this when it happens and uses it as an opportunity for serious discussion.

So what it all comes down to is this: nuance is good. Engagement is good. One needs to do it without being insincere, but they do need to do it. All of us have a responsibility as creators and influencers to do better.

It is our responsibility to give voice to the voiceless.

Writers, Beware Blue Deco

It’s time to add another bundle of publishing scammers to the list.

Long time followers/readers might recall mention of friend and fellow author Bryce David Salazar on this site. He is the author of She Sees Metaphors, a master of imagery, and a strange thing for horse masks. In all, he is a pretty decent fellow I was delighted to see make it in the literary world with his debut novel.

27fae5_8b14feb6aa5945f5b7896329b1f6c897~mv2Unfortunately, his debut has been spoiled by his publisher, Blue Deco Publishing. Bryce is one of seven authors ostensibly represented by the company who are currently petitioning, through, for reversion of rights and payment of outstanding royalties under what they allege is a voided contract.

That outstanding royalties bit is key. You see, Blue Deco pledged under their contract to pay third quarter royalties to their authors by Nov. 15 of this year. It now being November 27, they only just recently provided a brief severance e-mail and money to several of the authors. These authors also noted that such payments were similarly late in the second quarter. Being paid for one’s work shouldn’t sound revolutionary to anyone, especially not when it’s on paper.

That said, the company also has skimped on its actual duties. ISBN numbers, for those who don’t know, are a critical part of the publishing process. They represent the identity of the work, making them identifiable by publishers, booksellers, libraries and other retailers worldwide. It says, “THIS BOOK WAS MADE BY SO AND SO, THIS IS WHAT IT IS AND ITS FORMAT.” To get your own, unique ISBN, comes with a price tag associated.

While the ISBN doesn’t in and of itself provide any legal or copyright protection, it’s an absolute legal necessity in some countries. Amazon’s Createspace service handles it free for self-published authors, as it essentially becomes their publisher. However, it is usually publishers themselves who take on associated costs as part of production costs.

Blue Deco had, as part of its contract with its authors, agreed to provide ISBNs. Instead, it turned to CreateSpace to make these ISBNs, therefore negating a major factor behind going with a publisher: it made these books self-published, CreateSpace books, rather than attaching its own name to the works.

There’s more to the tale, of course, but the sum of things is that Bryce and his fellow authors have declared their contracts voided. Up until recently, Blue Deco hadn’t responded in any way to its authors. It was only until their public call for help and awareness that the company issued its severance. Even so, it still has them proudly listed under its authors.

Authors being taken advantage of by scam artist publishers is an unfortunately growing trend. There’s whole websites, like Writer Beware!, dedicated to tracking them down and exposing them for what they are. Often, they face no consequences beyond what public outcry can force upon them, by leaving them no shadows in which to scuttle.

Help get justice for these authors and guarantee the Blue Deco Publishing is no longer able to operate in the shady manner it has chosen. Spread the word. Support artists. Keep creativity alive.

(For more, check out Bryce’s own page on the issue:

Depression Management: Public Perception vs. Internal Wars

With the onset of Mental Illness Awareness Week, I’d like to take a moment to discuss depression: some hard truths, some public misconceptions.

When you suffer from depression, wrangling your mental health is unpredictable at best. Yet time and again, that’s what you’re told: manage it. You’re better than this. You’re stronger than this. You’ve got this.

The thing is, more often than not, it has you, and you can throw down the gauntlet as many times as you want, but you’re not going to win. After all, the disease is there long before you ever notice its methodical creep.

I know, because it has been stealing my breath away since before I even reached high school.

Outsiders don’t tend to realize that depression isn’t just when my voice goes flat and my eyes go dead. Depression is always there. Perhaps 90 percent of my waking life I spend dealing with my depression, one way or another—thoughts of self-hate, mutilation or outright suicide. This doesn’t mean I don’t pick up a sword and drag its ass to the dueling field, but it does wear me down relentlessly, waiting for just the right moment to lunge.

Depression always has more energy than I do. It is more patient and more studious as well.

So when you see what many would consider “normal” me, with his easy smile, his incessant need for laughter, his outgoing adventurism, know that at the very same time, a second life can be living itself out beneath my skin. “Out” is a good term for it, too—since that second me is methodically going over all the reasons I do not deserve to exist any longer.

This is, bear in mind, even with pills in place to suppress it. People that hear you are on pills for this sort of thing tend to think one of two ways. Either: A. You’re crazy or B. Well you’re medicated, so why aren’t you happy yet? Pills are not end-all be-alls. They make you more susceptible to healing and to change, but they don’t themselves make the change. They make it possible to heal—they don’t heal on their own.

That’s the polite way of saying that, even on my pills—and by the way, I’m not even remotely going to go into the expansive discussion of finding pills that actually work for you—I can still feel like I’m losing my damn mind, and act like it too. This runs contrary to what we are taught and accustomed to with western medicine, I know. Take a pill, feel better. It confuses many when I say I am medicated and I am still struggling.

“Just give it time,” is a phrase that gets dropped more often than not. With mental health, time can be an ally every bit as much as a foe.

Frustrating the search for a cure is the fact that the same methodology of uplifting me from such dire straits may not be the same every time. Hell, what sets the depression off in the first place may not even be the same.

There are times it can be as simple as sleeping away the pain. Other times, I could lie in bed all day and still feel it welling inside, eating away at me. Those are the days I recognize I need to get up and move like everyone else, but convincing myself to do it takes on titanic levels of travail. In fact, this adds to the stress: this sense that I’m trapped in my own body.

There is rarely a point I don’t realize I’m acting irrationally, that this doesn’t make sense, that I shouldn’t be acting this way. Yet my mind won’t let me actively pursue any other direction.  The most perceptive truth bearer in the world can recognize all these things, lay out a concrete argument for why it should not be, and yet…

And yet. There’s a lot of “and yet.” The most rational, intelligent person in the world can still, in the face of depression, be dragged kicking and screaming into the dark—and I don’t claim to be the most intelligent person in the world.

Sometimes, depression doesn’t even have a source. I can just wake up to find it lying next to me with a big old grin on its sallow face, saying, “Hello, chicken shit,” and then the terror begins anew.

If you haven’t gathered by now, I am saying depression is not fun. Neither I nor any other sufferer chooses to be this way. When you see us withdraw and tell us to suck it up, or turn this into something about you, I want you to realize how cruel and undeserved that is. I can’t speak for everyone, but when I go quiet, it is an attempt to dissociate and protect.

I am not doing it to protect myself. I am doing it to protect you, be you my friend or common passerby. I lock it all down deep, put on a false face, and go numb. In fact, I will guilt myself without end if I feel like I am being unproductive or lazy. What you call relaxing, I begin to hound, ravaging myself with the cruelest internal monologue because “I should be useful.” Some call this high-functioning depression. By all outward appearances, I am still going through the motions of the day because the day demands it—but I am certainly not living. In fact, this is one of the most dangerous states.

This is precisely the point when someone should step in, no matter how much I seem unreceptive, because once I have hit disassociation, the world has ceased to be important to me. What is more, I have ceased to seem important to it—from my point of view. This is when self-harm tends to come into the picture. At this point, the numbness is worse than outright pain—I want to feel something. Anything. Of course I can hurt myself, because at least then I feel something, and if I do not belong anyways, what does it honestly hurt?

After every suicide, there is someone standing off to the side with a shake of their head saying, “It was the ultimate selfish act.” I had a teacher in high school, a brilliant, caring man in so many other aspects of life, who told us that phrase openly once. Then he carried on with discussion, as though by this act, the person who had ceased to exist had erased their relevance from the world. He thought it was about something he refused to give them.

Depression is not about attention. Most people do not understand this, and that is fine.

That is why I am writing this. To help people understand. They understand even less, however, the notion of hurting and not being the one to reach out.

In most situations, this is what we are taught to do. Get in a car accident? Reach out to the cops, the paramedics, everyone you can. Get fired from work? Go get some drinks with friends and shit talk all the crap that led to this. Family member passes? Gather everyone together and celebrate their memory.

Depression doesn’t work like that. Depression is not an immediate problem and it does not have an immediate cure. It is the slow motion creep of decay that makes you feel constantly old before your time. It made me feel decrepit in Middle School, when I first made its acquaintance; it still makes me feel aged at 28. And this steady creep is what makes it so different.

When you do not believe you deserve to exist, or see any point in continuing to exist, you also do not see much point in reaching out to others.

Again: this is not for attention. I could not care less about attention. When I am hurting I do not want to bring that pain to others and I retreat a little more each day.

So, why doesn’t someone cognizant enough to write an essay like this call the crisis line? Why hasn’t your friend, with seemingly everything to live for, called their therapist?

I hurt


Call doctor

I don’t deserve to exist


Go silent

Numbers like the crisis line are important. They do save lives. I am not saying they don’t. What I am saying is, expecting the depressed person to recognize this and take the initiative is setting up a lot of room for failure. Numb people do not tend to reach out. Distraught people do. They need encouragement from others to do so, not abstract messages from nameless sources. People—real people—actively breaking through the barrier, telling them they need help because PEOPLE care if they are gone, PEOPLE care if they hurt, PEOPLE still have a place set out for them, is what helps. Will it make them distraught? Sad? Angry? Yes, all of the above. No one wants to be the person that made another weep.

But I’m here to say that a person weeping is worlds better than a person with no feeling at all, pondering what lies on the other side of a knife’s edge. Depression ravages. It destroys those it lurks within and ripples outward, hurting the lives of all those with which it comes into contact.

Do not make the mistake of treating it like any physical illness. It can feel impossible to weather, seeing a friend cave to it time and again, and seemingly never being able to get through to them. Think how they feel, actually living with that demon inside. If you want to help, and understand, just be there. Do not go into the battle with preconceived notions. Learn the signs. Reach out.

It has saved my life more than once.

Alter-Egos, Stories and even some Scifaiku

I’m typing this while waiting for PR reps to get back to me in regards to my day job. They are nice enough people, chatty and warm with their affectations, even though they know I’m a journalist. You never know these days.

After I finish up with them and the day’s work, I intend to return to a different sort of work–chiefly, writing my next novel. It’s shaping up to involve Dryads, but without any of the lust and affection we seem to eager to put upon them. Given my nature, it will likely turn into a tale of man’s relentless assault upon nature. We’ll see how it goes.

It’s been a while. A lot of blank wordpress pages between now and the last. I thought it was about time to cast out an update into the world, lest I crawl out of the void at some later date, to the sounds of people saying, “My god! He’s so disheveled!” I am, but I assure you that’s just from hat hair. Mostly.

18698548_1381531808601184_7092780631146215060_nThere have been some big developments since last we spoke.

For starters, May brought out a 17-syllable salute to sci-fi in the form of Scifaikuest (which I am told could be pronounced Sci-fi-quest, but which I prefer to pronounce as Sci-fi-coo-ist, because it sounds more like the sci-fi-est of haiku), an Alban Lake produced magazine for which I was selected to be one of the newest contributors. It’s sci-fi in its shortest form, but quite a few portraits can still be painted in such few strokes.

Then, to kick off June and the summer heat, I dribbled a few words onto the page for Westminster College’s Ellipsis…Literature and Art Journal! This short bit of fiction is about the beauty and unifying humanity of art, told through the eyes of a graffiti artist faced with a demolition deadline.

18835965_1387757447978620_8084501619355453303_nI’m still here shopping around some more out there fantasy works, but you may also notice a doppelganger of mine hanging out in the land of Tweets and Honey…He even has representation!

Do not be alarmed. He does, in fact, wear my face. Sometimes, you have to go in-chris-nito. I’ll share more details if that becomes less of an “in the works” thing and more of a, “BIG NEWS, EVERYONE!” event. I’ll bring the sparklers in that case.

William Shakespeare: Grimdark by any Other Name

Right now, the genre folks have taken to calling “Grimdark” is all the literary and popular rage. One need look no further than Cable TV. As people the world over continuously decry the gore, guts, and sexual violence inherent in programs like Hannibal, True Detective, and the televised adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series—“Game of Thrones”—(yet continue to watch it unrepentantly, in numbers yearly growing), and the awards roll out, the global lust for the more, shall we say, “gritty realist” tones to fiction and fantasy has never been more apparent.

Romanticism? Eat your heart out.

a691ee0ace063a9602d851f5c25825e4_yousaytomesetblackfires-meme-hannibal_500-281.jpegSorry about that one, Hannibal.

Yet even as people boldly proclaim the genre as a rebuttal of the age-old idealism of more classic fiction, a boy that loves a bard must take a moment to turn these modern cross bearers to the classics as well. See, Grimdark is, in truth, nothing new. Writers like Joe Abercrombie, George R.R. Martin and R. Scott Bakker might be heaping fuel on the flames, but the darkness has been broached before, by an age old master. We don’t tend to associate him with the term, but I can assure: William Shakespeare—poet, playwright, bane of many a high schooler’s days—was bringing darkness to fiction well before any dragons were lighting up a TV screen.

Writer Genevieve Valentine has called the Grimdark phenomenon “shorthand for a subgenre of fantasy fiction that claims to trade on the psychology of those sword-toting heroes, and the dark realism behind all those kingdom politics.”

The Bard is often remembered for his flowery speeches and sharp wit. Why, many are those who can turn to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, and bawdily recall such gems as: “Though she be but little, she is fierce!” There’s no denying it was an amusing, fairy filled and silly little play, utterly ridiculous by even modern standards. Yet if one looks at a few of the events even in this comedy of yore, I think those focusing on feistiness would be a little offset.

A handful of characters are essentially drugged and made to fall in love with others against their will. Another character, by the name of Hermia, is not only threatened with death for failure to marry the character Demetrius, but threatened with rape for following the fellow in the woods over the course of the play. It kind of gets lost in all the silliness, but that’s pretty dark, wouldn’t you say?

Then there is the case of Hamlet. Madness, mistaken stabbings, poisoning, suicide, and an ending that can only be described as a bloodbath of epic proportions are not only the order of the day, they’re the very things which drive the plot. In King Lear? The Earl of Gloucester is blinded on stage, and I don’t mean by sudden, painless, divine inspiration.

Yet if one really wishes to prove the case of the Grimdark to a modern enthusiast, one need look no further than one of Shakespeare’s presently most overlooked and least understood plays: The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus. I say “presently” because Titus Andronicus was actually quite the hit back in Shakespeare’s day.

Titus Andronicus is, truly, darkness for darkness’s sake.

In true bardic fashion, allow me to build the hype a bit. People like to read juicy reviews, right? Think of these as the back cover blurbs. The writer Samuel Johnson, about 250 years ago, denounced the play as being little more than a “barbarity of spectacles and the general massacre which are exhibited can scarcely be conceived.” Following in his shoes 100 years later, German poet and translator August Wilhelm Schlegel labeled it “framed according to a false idea of the tragic, which by an accumulation of cruelties and enormities, degenerated into the horrible.” Both meant their labels in terms of scathing rebukes, but it does give one a feel for the level of depravity they were dealing with therein.

Titus Andronicus is, truly, darkness for darkness’s sake. Politics and revenge drive the beast onward. Set in Rome, and being entirely fantasy—no, really, the Bard may have liked to draw from historical sources for many of his works, but this one was off the rails—it follows the namesake general in his triumphant return to Rome, Goths defeated and all the world at his fingertips. Which is to say: the beginning was the high point of the whole piece. From there, Titus makes the error in judgement of bringing the Queen of the Goths back to Rome in chains, sacrificing many of her sons along the way, and in turn, deciding to get himself involved in the drama of imperial politics, choosing one brother over another for the august spot at the helm of the Empire. Unfortunately, that brother also becomes besotted with Tamora, that captive Queen of the Goths, and marries her, while she thirsts for nothing but revenge against Titus.

Did I mention the brother that wasn’t picked also happens to be in love with Titus’s daughter? Silly me.

It’s a downward spiral from start to finish. The level of anarchy and bloodshed this play reaches is in excess—at times, one might even call it downright absurd. Fighting is a fairly standard facet of Shakespearean plays, but nobody’s just biting thumbs at anyone in this piece. At one point, two of Tamora’s sons not only rape Titus’s daughter, they then cut off her hands and tongue so she can’t reveal who did it to her. If that doesn’t sound like a Game of Thrones scene, or something from 13 Assassins, then I don’t think we’re on the same page of darkness. Throughout this play murder, mutilation, and people being baked into pies (ala Sweeney Todd) are all legitimate and commonplace grotesqueries abundantly inflicted upon the plot. There is not an act in the play in which someone is not introduced to the afterlife. It’s so commonplace one could be forgiven for mistaking the play for an American slasher film. One becomes dulled to the violence, because it starts to feel like gore for gore’s sake. It becomes a set piece.

Shakespeare was never one to shy from violence in his works, but for most, the piece stirred the violence, rather than violence necessarily stirring the piece. Titus Andronicus was at once an offspring of bloody history and a forebear to another age, a sort of degenerate toss to the days of the Coliseum, when folk liked to indulge in nothing more than pure, unadulterated violence. It dispensed with the grand oratory for which many often recognize the Bard, the philosophy, the black comedy, and drove itself forward largely on action. In other words, it removed itself utterly from the romanticism we more often associate with Shakespeare’s name, surrendering to what he no doubt hoped would be an appealing grab at a more worldly public opinion. Bear in mind, bear baiting and public executions were the order of the day in his time.

Of course, between now and then, that public attitude has gone through a few shifts. Elizabethan became Victorian, Free Love turned to Cold War and the Lost Generation twisted and turned into the Millennial Generation, and so on and so forth. What might be taken for crude in one generation becomes simple reality in another, and comical in still another; what was, is forgotten over time, cast aside, only to be revived and renewed in another age. So it is with so many motifs of life, so it is with literary trends.

Romantic chivalry is not the state of the modern world. Rather, we live in a period where aggression and violence has once more come under scrutiny. No longer hidden under a rug, with folk pretending it simply does not exist in any meaningful sense, it is met head on. Thus the resurrection of Grimdark, albeit under the rather shadowy new title. As reviewer Liz Bourke noted, Grimdark is essentially “a retreat into the valorisation of darkness for darkness’s sake, into a kind of nihilism that portrays right action…as either impossible or futile.” Grimdark, then, is an answer to the desensitized, and were plays like Titus Andronicus truly any different? Crank up the CGI, make liberal with the acting bug, and it would fit right in with the modern aesthetic of media.

Cue Frank Underwood slapping the desk with his “FU” rings.

Literary Rogues in a Bardic Market

The Bard by John Martin (1817) – AKA, “STRUMMMMM!”

There are those among us—flamboyant, extroverted souls—for whom marketing and self-projection and sharing is, beyond all shadow of a doubt, a real knack. Certainly, it’s something that seems to be paramount for the modern age of communication, even amongst publishers eyeballing potential writers.

I am not one of those people. I have never had that privilege.

Sorry, potential publishers.

In regards to those I meet and bond with, I make a fierce, dedicated connection. If it’s in my power, I would do it for them. Yet I do not connect easily. I wrap myself in thick cloaks and try to go through life covered up, lest someone see something they don’t like. I can ask questions and assail political and fantastic intrigue with abandon; turn the question around on me, and I introvert hard.

In that way, I may be a writer in a world which prefers bards.

This may also be why I’m the rogue of most adventures. I do my best work in the shadows.

Which is a problem, because stories unite mankind.

When I was just starting out as a journalist, I remember one of my first editors told me a fun fact about local journalism.

“Honestly, we could kill the headlines, kill the articles, and most people wouldn’t mind,” he said. “So long as you have the obituaries and the sports and the puzzles, people will keep coming back for more.”

Roguish Art by Linda Lithen@Darantha (From the Critical Role Fan Art Gallery)

All of human existence is based on interaction, on the notion of society—finding ways to work together. Some cave person somewhere woke up one morning and went, “Bloody hell, I’ve been living next to that fellow down the mountain for 10 years; he could have figured out the means to ride sabretooth tigers, and I would never know.”

Stories make people more real to us. They break down fear and hate and grow empathy. The person sitting in the coffee shop reading about the 80-year-old former air force pilot in town who died this week isn’t doing it because he’s plotting out which zombies might be best for his necromantic army—he’s reading the story of someone he never got to know in life, learning of the wife and children left behind, the opportunities for other human interactions and adventures yet to be told.

Of course, it’s harder for a story to be heard when you’ve no audience at hand, isn’t it?

Apathy breeds discontent. It breeds fear. We don’t try because we’re afraid of what might happen. We’re afraid of what people might say. Somehow, the stigma of trying and failing has become worse than doing nothing at all—no matter how dependent we are on the outcome.

In my case, the whole matter isn’t helped by a severe clinical case of depression (which, like so many other personal details, I don’t talk about all that much publicly). I expect the world to have struggle. We all should. But my own mind struggles with me—it plays up the bad and laughs in the face of logic.

Of course it’s bad, it’ll say. No one cares. But it could certainly be worse…

And when people ask, that little voice is right there to remind me of the people who turned away because they were sickened by that hurt and weakness, and tell me it’s better to suffer in silence than be true. “I’m in pain” becomes “I’m fine,” and I become complacent in my own destruction.

Some rogue, setting off my own traps.

In a way, it’s the same with writing. You get what I put out there, what you see—not necessarily what is. Thus, for many writers, for performers, for the lot, it can all appear so effortless.

It’s not easy. Not for me. Not for a lot of people. There are days nothing more than sheer necessity allow me the strength to muscle out of bed. This past month, in the wake of the disastrous election, I’ve found it particularly difficult to write. Nothing comes without effort—there are whole days I spend struggling to convince myself I should exist. I feel like I’m drowning, flailing in a dire attempt to gulp one more mouthful of air.

Some days are easier, some days grueling. I try to create because it’s intrinsic to my being. The need is always there, but it is agonizing to do in the face of my own innards.

I stumble.

I fall down.

I break.

I fail.

You don’t see that, because of that introvert tendency.

But you need to understand that I’m human. The same as the person on the other side of that counter, as the child sulking in the corner of the playground, as you. I’m over here trying to tell myself this doesn’t make me weak.

It just means I need to be better about accepting and fessing up to my human failings. If that doesn’t make me the most desirable catch economically, well…

I’m just going to have to keep fighting through the terror and doubt to keep on living anyways.

Writing in Spite of the End of the World

Right now, my country stands at a crossroads.

I do not write this lightly—every nation, it seems, is destined to face such trials.

As a writer, that puts me in a curious position. There are a hundred things I could write about the important concerns of today: the election, racism, fascism, climate change. Yet I also empathize with a question many fiction writers are asking in the wake of such events: why?

Right now, our country has had the last remnants of journalistic capability broken apart and shredded for good measure. Their ability to act remains, for the moment, unfettered, but their ability to act successfully has been eviscerated. We find ourselves in a culture that has actually embraced the stance that truth is whatever we want it to be.

I have friends—strong, fierce, creative friends—who have been unable to cope. Events have left their pens dry and their word documents blank. How can we feel inspired by a world that has voted for fear and rage? A world where hate trumped love? They look at fiction as a luxury that can be ill-afforded in a world facing such dire straits as ours.

Around me, the streets are filled with division. Enmity at best becomes apathy, at worst becomes violent. Hate crimes are on the rise, lives and livelihoods are threatened, and no one knows how to react.

Americans are curious creatures. We like to have things set in clear cut text. Everything comes down to the notion of Axis and Allies—Evil and Good, War and Peace. We are righteous, or at least, desperate to believe we are on the side of righteousness. We don’t pass laws on drugs; we fight a war on drugs. Communism isn’t a different social structure, it’s the great atheistic evil. We don’t even support education: we fight wars against illiteracy. The world over, the running joke is that we are and have always been a bunch of cowboys running around. I can’t say they’re wrong. We face the world on strict terms: our terms, with all others to be defeated.

Ours is a rather aggressive culture, truth be told. The current villains on the stage have tapped rather effectively into that aggression.

V for Vendetta

But even now, stories matter, the same as activism matters, and community service, and everything else that needs doing. Good people need to make themselves heard at every level of the spectrum. We need people to wield the power invested in them by the people, but we also need people there to inspire people to reach for that power and wield it for good. If you can help by hitting the streets with Black Lives Matter or providing water to the protesters at Standing Rock, by all means do so. But at the heart of all these things is the spark of an idea, for while they can be corrupted, ideas are, in the end, as V from V for Vendetta declares: “Bulletproof.”

As both a journalist and a fiction writer I have been told by both sides I am for and sides I am against that my opinion does not matter. That my perceived inaction in the battle between light and dark means I am unable to have voice. Aggressors will always posit such means to discredit opposition or to build themselves up, and truth be told, they are right in a way. Writers are not fighting battles. Their writings are a refusal to meet violence with violence, but instead to channel their opposition or their ideas to positive means. They are not fighting, but to say they are not engaging the issue, or that their opinion is somehow lessened by a lack of blood on their hands? Absurdist.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Every story is a seed. Writers water them. Readers reap the fruits of that labor. Hopefully, the seeds will spread, and with them, the fruits…

Writers can entertain, they can charm and judge and analyze, but at their hearts, all writers have a story to tell, a story made up of ideas and ideals. Whether they believe it or not—whether it means anything to us or not—they are committed to the struggle which is making something heard.

For my part? That includes defending the progress we as a civilization have made and beating back with vast verbosity those forces which would tear that work down for their own benefit. We have forgotten so much over the centuries, even as we have learned so much more. I will never allow people to forget what zealotry, greed and bigotry look like, nor the damage they wreak.

My message is not everyone else’s. For some, abolishing poverty is all. For others, defending the freedom of speech. Still more might have the ability to capture the essence of agony which resonates through society with every hate crime against the LGBTQ, immigrants, Muslims…

But if that’s the case, why fiction? Nonfiction is necessary. It might lack flavor or texture, but it is to the point. Fiction, on the other hand, works through subtler means. It may not always have the ability to enlighten, but it teaches through metaphor and simile, allows us to  spawn our “what-ifs” into whole other realities so that we might never have to live such terrors in ours—or, alternatively, so we have something hopeful to reach for. You will never find yourself inside a book of nonfiction the way you do in fiction. The seed buries deeper. Its roots come at problems sidewise, exploring paths we otherwise might not have considered.

In all honesty, I don’t know what peace looks like. I’ve seen the shape of it, caught its silhouette in the back of crowds cheering certain moments and decisions, but I’ve never looked at it head on. This country, as I’ve said, has a real thing for violence—and a lot of problems inside. But just because I have not held peace in my hand does not mean I do not want it, or will do what I can to help others attain it.

Yes, it hurts to write when the world around us is burning.

It hurts to think you’re just escaping into a story when the walls are caving in.

But even the lightest of escapism is necessary, at the least, for sanity—no one under attack at all times, unable to catch a breather, will last long. Life is cruel. Life is hard. Life is a struggle. Stories give us hope for change and the ability to step outside our own heads.

Don’t discount or discredit that.

There is a reason I write fiction in addition to journalistic prattle. Good old Gandalf probably sums it up:

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

When Our Heroes Go Astray

gandalf_the_white_returnsThe dawn of the fifth day has come and passed. I looked to the east, but Gandalf never came.

Commander Shepard, I suspect, is still endorsing stores on the Citadel.

Mario went down the wrong pipe.

We have a fascination with heroes in our culture. Books, comics, movies, stories in general—they entrance, largely through the adventure of assailed figures fighting for salvation. Heroes can be born and bred to the part, or could be ordinary people who have greatness thrust upon them. They might hem and haw, or try to pass the mantle on, but in the end, they get the job done. We eat these stories up with fervor, often picturing ourselves there beside them, headed off to become a wizard or blast clear villains out of the vast nothingness between us and our dreams.

Escapism, it’s a beautiful thing.

But is it just that?  Who among us wouldn’t want to be whisked away from their routine lives, pointed at the big bad, and told: YOU’VE GOT THIS?

There are those who call such beliefs childish and lazy and, in adults, downright irresponsible distractions. Fact is, though, many of us feel helpless in the day to day. We watch things slip through our fingers and good people get constantly, irrevocably hurt, and unlike in the stories, we possess little if any recourse, because more often than not, the law is on the side of the people doing the hurting. We are restless and frustrated, and afraid above all, and all our media is designed around the notion that when evil seems set to triumph, a hero will rise to set us free…

The truth is harder to deal with. What heroes we have are often suppressed, marginalized, or killed. At best they become martyrs, at worst they live long enough to see themselves become the villains, or to see their good works perverted by still craftier villains. We know no one is coming to save us. But we’ve been trained to expect it, and people keep perverting that expectation to their own ends.

I’m rather sick of it. I write, in part, because it allows me to process the world and where I see it headed, what I’ve seen it do before. I read, because I want to find ways among others’ dreams to impact and change our own hell.

And I’m sick to death of villains reading the same, and thinking, “God, if I just play the part for a while, they’ll eat it up.” So I’m left here to wonder: if even our ideas of heroes have gone astray, how do we fight in a way that will actually make a difference?