Dear graduates, the most valuable writing lesson I’ve received I learned from stories about vampires (and sundry other extra-curricular sources.)
In “A Kiss with Teeth” by Max Gladstone, Vlad, a modern, domesticated vampire, manages his monstrous nature through careful habits and precautions—holy water in the medicine cabinet, for example. His wife, an ex-vampire-hunter, helps keep him accountable. How close can he get without succumbing?
That’s what I like about gothic literature: it’s about power, trauma, and shame, all the things that are difficult to write about.Sometimes it dares confront our monstrous appetite for the salacious, even as it satisfies it. And it teaches us how to write about pain, not just physical pain, (though there are plenty of lessons in murder and creative crime), the deeper stuff.
In most lore, a vampire’s power derives from a kind of blood magic, trading one’s soul for immortality, enduring pain for power. It’s a variation on the “deal with the devil” trope. The concept invites us to grapple with our own appetite for power and how it correlates to our cultural fascination with pain.
Because it will sneak up on you, young writer, the temptation to use the power of your words in monstrous, bloody ways.
It is unlikely that a clever, cloven-footed gentleman at a crossroads will offer you supernatural talent in exchange for your signature. And the opportunities to sell out to some soulless corporate endeavor or settle for making mainstream drivel instead of “real art” are likewise rare. The temptation to sell your soul will be more subtle. It will take the form of a brilliantly blank Word doc.
It will grip you like an octopus—that terrible fear that you have nothing to say—and ironically, the marine-monster grip of that thing will produce no ink. What do we write?
You were taught to create from life, to “write what you know.” And the personal life observed has been a staple of nonfiction writing.
The irony of the young professional writer: your experience is scant and your expertise is in, well, writing. So, what does the young professional writer write about?
It is hard, especially when you start, to be funny, more difficult still to be wise or even simply well-informed. It is impossible to be original. But pain is universal. If we cannot write from life, we will write from death—from the decayed, ugly, and raw parts of ourselves. Vampirism, like all the wrong kinds of magic at their root, is an exploitative short-cut to power.
You’ll pinch a fresh wound to make it ooze a few words. Or you’ll pierce your pen deep for the marrow of a trauma. You’ll dredge up break-ups and bad days. You’ll tap your anger. And readers will devour every soft and ugly morsel.
We have a fascination with pain. Name an award-winning children’s book that does not depict death or loss. Name an Oscar-winning film that does not seek to grieve or disturb.
Why? Beauty is gossamer, a dew that burns away in the relentless light of “reality.” Joy feels so shallow and out of touch with a world perpetually aflame. The broken feels so real and true. Pain feels authentic, credible, yet it feeds the human appetite for the fantastically grotesque.
We spill our pain for a myriad of reasons. Perhaps we hope to redeem it by making art out of it. We write and try to reform trauma into a lesson or a thing of beauty. We try to make the vampire a vigilante.
Many young writers exploit their suffering, exposing the veins of trauma, hurt, and shame to the fangs of the public—“brave, edgy, powerful.” It’s a risk, you may be bled dry or you may “be turned,” becoming something stronger, tougher, less human, harder to kill.
Or, they’ll join the feeding frenzy on someone else’s tragedy or scandal. Social media swarms, flaps, chitters, and splatters the cave floor. The victim is as romanticized as the vampire, after all.
How do we break free of the cursed cycle of blood? Vlad can cover his fangs with coffee-stained fake teeth and go to PTA meetings, but he will still be a vampire. Problems form the heart of every story, of every life. We must accept our dangerous coexistence with the easy possibility of surrendering to our monstrous side. We can all be a penny dreadful, if we choose. Or we can do the hard and sometimes tedious work of being more.
The answer, I think, lies in the universal rules of magic. In every magic system and every paradigm of the supernatural, good magic gives, bad magic consumes.
Like the sniper rifle Vlad’s wife keeps, there are ways we can guard against our consumptive tendencies in our writing.
Do not invite vampires in. Do not expose fresh wounds in writing. Writing for an audience is not a place to process pain. It is not safe. Do not invite the world to feast on you.
Do not follow the scent of blood. Do not feast on someone else’s tragedy. If you are in any way nourished by the pain of another, if you stand to gain followers or readers or a few seconds in the spotlight, blend into the shadows. Back away.
Live for the good. Good magic gives. Twilight’s most interesting plot point is the one it doesn’t flesh out: If tragedy generates some super power in you, shouldn’t you use it for good? It is in these moments that we write about pain.
And re-romance the ordinary. That is what saves Vlad in the end. While ignorance may be bliss, not all bliss is ignorance. And not everything gritty and severe is true. It’s foggier than that. More mysteriously gray and gothic.
Emily Stroble is a writer of bits and pieces and is distractedly pursuing lots of novel ideas and nonfiction projects as inspiration strikes. As an editorial assistant at Zondervan, she helps put the pieces of children’s books and Bibles together. A lover of the ridiculous, inexplicable, and wondrous as well as stories of all kinds, Emily enjoys getting lost in museums, movies old and new, making art, the mountains of Colorado, and the unsalted oceans near Grand Rapids. Her movie reviews also appear in the Mixed Media section of The Banner and her strange little stories of the fantastic are on the Calvin alumni fiction blog Presticogitation. Her big dream is to dig her hands deep into the soil of making children’s books as an editor…and to finally finish her children’s novel.