By John Will
One of the greatest challenges I’ve found as a writer is simply keeping up with all the demands a family can place on the imagination.
Take now for example: It’s bedtime for my kids, and I just finished a chapter of our make-believe story about Beatles and Bottle the T-Rexes, who are both trying to escape a volcanic eruption. Telling my boys this tale has made me examine the process of how I tell stories. As I sit at the keyboard and think, I can hear the boys upstairs casting spells at each other.
Tim: “Abra-ca-zee, abra-ca-za, I turn you into a mega zoo-rah.”
Isaac: “And I turn you into a zebra.”
I’m supposed to be writing about what it’s like to be a writing dad. Thankfully, the boys just gave me an idea, so you’ll have to thank them that this piece has a focus.
At my final residency for my masters’ last January, a colleague came to me and said that they found my writing to be quite disturbing. I accepted this information with the few graces I have, then the conversation lagged. My colleague was about to depart but turned back to me and said, “Where do you come up with this stuff?”
By this stuff, I think she was referring to the workshop piece I just had critiqued by my peer review group. As a quick aside, that story was published in Assignment online.
Anyway, the story is one wherein nothing bad actually occurs, but with every fiber of your being you know the protagonist is twisted and has done something unspeakable. Without ruining the plot, the story is about a guy who owns a party company with bouncy houses for rent. The only other detail you need to know is that half of the story takes place at a birthday party.
My colleague found my work to be disquieting, and her question was really meant to ask, “How can you think about stuff like this?” My answer at the time was something like, “I just have lots of bad dreams.” But that answer wasn’t really the truth. I didn’t know the truth until just a few days ago. So let me use the previous story to explain how I come up with content.
"Then, last week, I was writing a chapter for my new WIP (work-in-progress). The chapter came about because I was envisioning a canoe trip with my sons, and how we would survive if disaster struck."
First, if you don’t yet know from reading my Lines of Literature via Twitter (or the repostings I do on Facebook), I tend toward horror. We can quibble over genre if you’d like, but underneath it all, I write horror.
I was a few weeks away from a deadline at school and had no idea what I was going to write as a critique piece. None. Instead of sitting at my computer worrying about it, however, I was playing with my kids. We just bought a small bouncy for my son for his third birthday. We had it inflated, and the boys were jumping happily inside. My mind, as it so often does, went into preparation mode–always be ready for the worst to happen. And with a bouncy house that could be bad indeed. But as I watched them jump, I realized that they would be fine and never know the danger implicit in any fun activity.
Boys safe, I let my mind wander the halls of its prison. It knocked on a door labelled, “Bad Things." It turned the handle and went inside.
The story, dark as it is, emerged from that door. My mind fled back down the corridors to its cell and slammed the door. But at least I had a story to write.
An earlier story came about because I was sitting in church, remembering what services had been like for me as child, before the advent of children’s church. I was thankful my boys did not have to endure the same thing but instead could enjoy the company of their peers while learning their Bible lesson.
In the story that emerged from that journey to “Bad Things," a man blows up his life hoping to find a better life. While that may not sound like horror, watching a man’s descent into insanity is terrifying.
Then, last week, I was writing a chapter for my new WIP (work-in-progress). The chapter came about because I was envisioning a canoe trip with my sons, and how we would survive if disaster struck. This story emerges in small doses from ever-more-frequent visits to “Bad Ideas," and it is as dark as anything I’ve ever written
It occurred to me when I finished my writing for that day that all of the inspiration for my stories, despite being found in “Bad Ideas," have their genesis in one inescapable fact: I love my children dearly and am utterly terrified of anything truly bad happening to them (boo-boo’s and owies don’t count, and neither does a “B” on a report card). My subconscious processes this terror and stores it in “Bad Ideas," where, if I am brave enough, I can bring the ideas into the light of day and face them more comfortably there. And by taking my worst fears for my children and turning them into stories, I am able to come to grips with my fears, and show them how small they really are once they leave my mind.
So, that’s the dirty little secret: I write horror because I love my kids. Please, dear friends, don’t tell anyone. An author has to keep up appearances, after all.
John Will is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. You can follow him at https: The Writing Dad, a blog dedicated to the adventure of being a dad and an author at the same time.