I feel a bit like the the father who never came back from the store when I return to Writing Darkness. My original conception of the site was for it to be simply a place where I could spill thoughts out of my head with no real concern for who was reading them. But then I had the misguided idea that perhaps I should treat it a little more professionally. After all, it is my author's blog.
That idea proved to be damaging to my productivity and the amount of words I've written on here. The last post was in February if the archive is to be believed. Trying to keep an air of professionalism is a little difficult for me. I'm chaos. My mind zooms back and forth from dick jokes to metaphysical explorations to the science of creativity to film studies to experimental narratives and a thousand and one other things. It's perhaps no surprise that I'm medicated for my ADD.
Instead of trying to be so professional, I am returning to Writing Darkness with the express intent of writing about whatever topic catches my fancy. I have some topics lined up that do mesh well with the previous posts and continue the professionalism theme but they're no longer going to be the dominating factor. Instead that factor is now simply myself, my wants and my obsessions. In all likelihood if you've found this site then you're a fan or friend of mine (or my mother) and so you'll have an idea of what you're getting into.
But to put the blame entirely on the misguided theme would be to discount just how fucked up 2020 has been, how much psychological damage my previous job caused me and a whole whack of other shit that has fueled Writing Darkness's swan-dive to obsolesce. In the coming weeks you can expect some discussion on the way that mental framing and self-image can harm productivity, as well as an honest look at my struggle with writer's block and how a return to the noble heart of creativity has helped me to patch myself back together.
Do you care? Who knows. Let's be honest, this is more for me than for you. Isn't it always?
In the same vein as the last post, chances are that most of you reading this already have your own opinions on this topic and an understanding of the viewpoint that I am sharing. But just like the last one, I'm writing this anyway because I do what I want.
You can leave a comment if that upsets you, but I won't be reading it. I implemented a rule in my life that I do not, under any circumstance, read the reviews of my work. This is unfortunate because recently I had a few friends mention that they wrote reviews on Scream Writing but I won't ever know what those reviews say.
This behavior could be seen as egotistical, and I would be remiss if I didn't admit to an ego larger than any halo could fit. But the real root purpose of this refusal is to protect my own mental health.
Psychology is a favorite topic of mine. One of the elements of our modern day psychology that can't be stressed enough is the fact that our brains aren't designed for 21st century living. We evolved from tribes to villages, towns and now onto cities. Human evolution is much slower than technological evolution. Modern humans began to biologically emerge 200,000 thousand years ago, which is only a drop in the bucket when you consider our earliest ancestors date back seven million years.
In contrast, the oldest continually inhabited city is that of Damascus and this only traces its history back roughly 11,000 years. So modern humans existed for 189,000 years before they started gathering in cities. This has caused limitations in our psychology, ones which the modern world make all to clear.
One such limitation is that of Dunbar's number. University of Oxford anthropologist and psychologist Robin Dunbar came to what is sometimes called "Dunbar's Number" or "The Rule of 150." In short, this states that we can only cognitively balance about 150 different social relationships. This small number is nothing compared to the population of a small city or even a large town, let alone that of a huge city like New York or the limitless connections that the internet offers. But this is only one such problem that the modern human faces.
The bigger issue where it relates to reading the reviews of a piece of work are our focus on the negative over positive. Daniel Kahneman wrote Thinking, Fast and Slow and in it he covers a lifetime of behavioral experimentation and studies. One of the key features that comes up is the negativity bias that we have. We have a stronger adverse reaction to losing wealth than we do to gaining it; likewise, we tend to focus on negative comments more than we do positive compliments.
When it comes to the reviews of your writing, this can be a major problem. You could read a thousand positive reviews before stumbling on a single negative one but it is the negative one that is more likely to stick with you. I experienced this myself with The Life and Times of Frank Balistrieri.
This was a gun-for-hire book that I did with Wayne Clingman. I used FBI documents gained through a Freedom of Information Act request in order to explore the life of mobster Frank Balistrieri. Far from relying solely on these documents, I also used Google to discover research and fill in the blanks, as well as signing up for several news websites in order to search through their past publications. This research ended up taking months but in the end I feel like the book I delivered was of quality.
But it wasn't something that mattered to me the same way that Scream Writing or my film studies work does and so I finished the project and moved onto the next thing. Mr. Clingman, on the other hand, is very attached to the book and he would read the reviews of it. At one point he asked me to give them a read and let him know if they were good or bad.
This was one of the biggest mistakes of my early career but thankfully it taught me a valuable lesson.
Most of the reviews were pretty nice. A few wanted more information and I can't blame them, there really wasn't a lot out there to go on. What was out there was included in the book and there was plenty included that was only in the FBI documents.
But one review stood out. It was one star and the poster's point came down to be "This is shit, you can find all of this information through Google." This paraphase may not do the poster justice in their eyes but ... hey, fuck you. Now you know how I feel as you paraphrased my hard work. But more importantly, I knew for a fact that this wasn't true. I had done the Googling, I had done the research, I had the stacks of FBI documents in the drawer next to me. So this one star review was complete garbage, entirely untruthful.
Yet it stood out to me and continues to stand out to me to this day. I haven't returned to read any more. I don't particularly care what people are saying about that book. If an issue was raised through the reviews then this would pass on to me through Mr. Clingman and I can address it in future volumes. But this book was his baby, not mine. For me, it was another job and a chance to start writing for a living.
And yet... I am still thinking about that one review. It makes me bitter, angry. But it is worthless to me as a creative. It didn't teach me anything. It was founded on a mistruth. It should be absolutely nothing, easily forgotten.
But I remember what it said. I don't remember what any of the positive ones said. And in that contrast lies the point of this all. Reading the reviews can be more harmful than good, thanks to our negativity bias. This bias made sense when the social world was the tribe and negativity was often a sign of transgression and imminent death or banishment. Noticing negativity was important so that we could fix whatever issue caused it and keep out place in the society secure.
This isn't the case anymore. That bad review hasn't done anything to my ability to work and keep a roof over my head. It has only kept a piece of negativity in the back of my mind.
I don't suggest completely ignoring advice or comments, but to consider the route you allow them into your life. When it comes from a trusted figure, someone who's taste you respect, then absolutely welcome comments or reviews in with open arms. But don't go seeking out the general population's thoughts. They're messy, they're often ill-informed and they are rarely helpful.
I've recently had a couple of interesting experiences when it comes to dealing with contracts for my writing. I thought that it might be a good idea to share my thoughts on the topic. Specifically, I want to speak on three key ideas that have been playing in my mind. First and foremost is the importance of contracts in the first place, though I would hope that you have some conceptual understanding of this already. Forgive me if this point falls into the "been there, heard that" category. The second point is to beat in just how important it is to read your contracts in depth before signing them. Finally, I'm going to talk about a strategy that I have used in order to dissolve a contract with minimal hassle down the road.
So why are contracts important? As a writer, they are important to you because they ensure that you are obligated to a pay and they lay out what tasks are expected of you when it comes to the project in question. When many of us first set out to make a living this way, our earliest clients are often friends or family. Why would we need a contract when we're working with our bestie? Surely if anyone is going to treat us fairly and honor their commitment to pay us, it is them. Isn't it?
While this is often the case, the contract exists in order to prevent the shitty situation that arises in the rare cases when it isn't. Of course, to call these situations rare only really works when we're talking about working with someone we know quite closely. The less we know the client that we are working for, the more important the contract becomes to ensure that they can't back out of payment. But a contract does more than just layout how and when we get paid. A good contract also outlines the responsibilities we have as a writer. When it comes to friends, it is often a lot easier to ask a friend to do more for us than an employee. By setting out what is required of us in the contract we are able to prevent being taken advantage of through extra, unexpected duties.
Regardless of whether or not you are working with a stranger, a friend or a family member, insist on first drafting and signing a contract before you work.
If you are looking to work with a new client or company that provides their own contracts, always read them in depth. There are a lot of companies out there that will take advantage of you and even get you to agree to that exploitation in writing. Here is just one example to illustrate this.
I had been interviewed to work with a company who I won't name directly but it rhymed with SalBet. It was a straight forward gig: I write articles of at least 1,000 words, they pay an impressively measly $15-$25 per article. It's not quite highway robbery, though it is pretty close. But I was desperate for a job and so $15 looked pretty good for an hour or two of work at that point. Then I read the contract and immediately severed all ties with the company.
What the contract set out was: Yes, I would make $15 per article and this would increase to $25 per article if I was able to write a set number of articles in a monthly period. There was a trial period in which I would be expected to write an article a week, the quality of which would be used to determine if I could stay with the company. But this two month trial period was unpaid work, at any point during which I could be let go. So according to the contract they wanted me to sign I was expected to provide a minimum of eight articles without pay or even the promise of pay. Seeing this contract, it is no surprise that the company is constantly posting job openings onto message boards as it suggests that they manage to keep their expenses down by cycling through new writers on a recurring basis.
Finally, sometimes a project that you are under contract for will collapse and you have to dissolve the contract. The easiest way to do this is through.... another contract. Basically, use the second contract to set out what responsibilities each party has in dealing with the dissolution of the original contract. This puts everything into writing and ensures that nobody gets fucked over.
I go one step further when it comes to dissolving. I was working on a project that I had received 50% of the pay for. This project ended up collapsing and suddenly there I was with money for work I wasn't doing anymore. The client, a friend of mine that I trust, told me to keep it. However, this puts me in an awkward position where that client might possibly try telling me that I owed them work in the future because they let me keep the money. To stop this from happening, I offered a discount on other services for a short period of time so that they felt they received something in return. This wasn't a necessity and it wasn't technically true either as the first payment made up for the time I invested.
But I am a strong proponent for for covering your ass at all times. So don't work with anyone unless they will agree to a contract and don't sign any contract unless it treats you fairly.
It's the start of a new year and what better way to start than talking about regret. Sure, I could use the start of the new decade to look at the good that I've experienced. Perhaps I could project myself into the future half a year and consider the achievements I will have in place by then. But no, instead the topic most strongly on my mind is that of regret.
Let's just focus on regret in relation to our writing.
When it comes to regret, there seem to be two primary kinds which afflict us. Each of these have a thousand different nuances as befit their situations but then can be broken down into the actions you took and the actions you failed to take.
We all know a thousand sayings – "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take." We know that action is better than non-action, so I'm not interested in that kind of regret. Missing out is a painful experience, so much so that we're told again and again that we need to chase our dreams.
So if you have a manuscript, then pitch pitch pitch pitch that bitch. Get it in front of as many eyes as you can. What's the worst that happens? A publisher/editor tells you to fuck off? Who cares when you're already pitching it to the next one.
But that second kind of regret is more complicated. Regretting the actions that you did take. You come to a crossroads: Two publishers are interested in publishing your manuscript and now you need to decide who will get it. You go left and it the launch is botched and the book rots on the charts. So you start to think about what would have happened if you went to the right instead.
This kind of regret is much harder to come to terms with. You have to reframe your understanding of the event. Rather than looking at your selection as a mistake, you need to look at the experience as a lesson. You learned about which publishers to work with. You learned how not to do a launch, which means you improved your ability to launch future books. There is still a lot to be learned even when this happened.
There is also a third kind of regret, however. This comes out when the choices you made lead you into being unable to take an action, combing the two kinds of regret into one. There's a perfect example of this from Cronenberg's The Dead Zone. (1983) Johnny is asked to stay the night with Sarah. He decides to go home, gets in a car crash and ends up in a coma for several years. When he comes out, Sarah is now a married mother. His action to leave cost him all his future actions.
The Dead Zone manages to mine this regret for one of the most painful cinematic moments of all time. Sarah arrives to Johnny's house one day and they have dinner, share the night (and a kiss) and experience, for one fleeting afternoon, what it would have been like if they had ended up with each other.
What The Dead Zone does with this scene is walk down the painful road of visualizing that mental "What If...?" that every writer (every damned person) with this kind of regret has experienced.
But the problem with regrets of this kind is that you can't see them until afterwards. You only lost out because you had to make a choice. IF you don't make a choice to chase your dreams, you will find regrets. If you are too scared of making the wrong choice, then you are far more likely not to make that choice again. Look at every writer who has gotten back a rejection letter/email and then never pitched that project again. The regret at what could have been but wasn't prevents the actions necessary to keep chasing after what is desired.
This was more for me than you, dear writer, but I hope that maybe someone reading this found something they needed to hear.
As I sit here and struggle with what to write, the demonic tones of Oranssi Pazuzu play in the background. They are perhaps the most evil (sounding) of all the bands that I listen to and so they seem especially fitting considering the title of this site.
Unfortunately, struggle is the keyword in that pervious paragraph. While I consider myself at least kinda alright at this whole writing thing, I am quite shite when it comes to starting a piece of writing. This post needs to start the whole damned blog and I face the empty 'page' with no idea what I should say to kick off the whole ordeal.
And so I do what I originally planned to those long months ago when I first purchased this site: I just write whatever comes to me.
This site was always going to be for doing whatever it was that struck my fancy. But then I went and activated the marketing side of my brain and thought to myself "oh, no no no. I can't write whatever I want. I need to use this to market myself."
Then it remained blank for four months.
So fuck marketing. This site will remain a base of operations for me as a writer, teacher and creative. But the blog is going to remain my own slice of insanity. That means there will be sprawling, pointless posts just like this one. But there will also be updates on the projects I'm working on, discussions on creativity, writing and horror, musing on the role of depression/anxiety in the creative process and whatever else I feel like penning a post on.
I hope that these musing will prove entertaining or (god forbid!) educational/inspiring to those that find them. Guess I'll just have to wait and see.