Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Feeling Superior (For Once)

...well, more accurately, I'm feeling not-inferior. Details to follow.

I am currently corresponding fairly actively with a couple of women who share my propensity to obsess over the right archetypal hero. They, and probably you as well, know what it is like to find a character or a celebrity who seems to embody certain qualities that you value very highly. In certain special cases, that person will capture your imagination so powerfully that your imaginary version of him takes on a life of his own.

This guy is embued, by your own imagination, with powers that sometimes seem staggering. That's the nature of the beast, this animus-thing. It can be hard to separate that from the real faults and foibles of the fellow upon whom you are projecting all this power. If you thoroughly confuse your animus figure with the real person, you can end up like that guy who tried to kill Reagan to impress Jodie Foster.

But even those of us who are sane about our obsessions sometimes struggle with a feeling of inferiority to our hero. After all, the real guy is probably pretty impressive or he wouldn't have attracted this kind of admiration, true? Now if our respect for this hero was not tinged with worship, it would be easy to simply say, "He's gifted, that's great." But the problem with animus-bearers is that they make us want to feel somehow worthy of their admiration in return, even their hypothetical admiration.

When an animus figure inspires you, motivates you, energizes you, it's obviously a good thing. When he makes you down on yourself, it's not...that's just you feeding your own insecurities.

I am an author, occasionally even a fantasy author, and the danger of my taking the imaginary Neil Gaiman for a muse is the temptation to compare myself to him. I get fan mail, but not by the truckloads full so that I must hire an assistant to deal with it. I get good reviews, but not from the New York Times. I have received one piece of fan art so far (one of the highlights of my year), while artists and musicians etc. galore dedicate their best work to this guy. Good lord, he has to be one of the top ten most successful writers in the world today, certainly in terms of how fame is measured. For me, small potatoes me, to compare myself to such a writer? Not to mention he's pretty much a genius? Bad, bad idea.

Well, it so happens today was a nice reality check for me. Today I read an (admittedly very early) story of Gaiman's that I actually recognized as weak. Well, weak to my mind. The introduction to it told of how difficult it was to sell (until after he was famous), and I could see why. For the first time I had a glimmer of the reality of this author's history: Like any other writer, he was once not this good. Like any other writer, he has his moments of glory and his (admittedly extremely rare) moments of mediocrity. How about that! He seemed, thank heavens, a bit more human.

Wait, it gets better.

Then I read the story "Tastings." And before I did, I read the intro, in which Neil explains how it took him four years to write this eight page tale. Why? You aren't going to believe it: The story is about sex, and quite graphic, and he was...wait for it...really embarrassed to write it.

This from a man who has penned horror and blasphemy and all manner of things so repulsive I can't understand how he can think about them? Embarrassed to write sex? HUH???

Wow, I wanted to say to his picture on the inside back cover, "Hey, I've written going on a hundred sex scenes now, baby! What's the big deal?"

Wow. Neil Gaiman, embarrassed for four years.

You can't imagine how liberating this knowledge was to me. For these past months I have been like a mouse with a lion when it comes to this guy. Now I still feel like a mouse...but he's become an elephant who is still imposing and scary, but just happens to be terrified of mice. Hooray!

Yeah, yeah, I know he's only human. And it's not like being shy about sex is any kind of flaw...actually, I like that in a guy. And it was certainly big of Neil to admit such a thing right in his book; just goes to show he's a pretty humble fellow who doesn't need to feed his own ego.

Whereas, as you can see from this post, sometimes I am all about feeding mine. Pretty dang audacious for a mere mouse, hey?

Well, don't worry, this high won't last. I'm sure the next story I read will blow my mind and Neil will morph back into a lion. In the meantime, I'm going to bask in this moment of glory while it lasts.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

On Nice Guys and Nasty Muses

What a week it’s been! The top story in the state of Wisconsin has been Brett Favre’s battle with the Packers. The top story in Diana Laurenceville has been that I completed two stories in the same day for the first time ever. These events are an interesting juxtaposition, I must say.

I have been struggling all week with the urge to blog about Favre, while keeping in mind that in the blogosphere, as at parties, it’s best to remember “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” The last thing I want to do is pick on any folks out there who adore this guy and are currently struggling with the possibility of having to rethink their opinions. It hasn’t been that long since I went through something similar. I dedicated my book Living Beyond Reality to a certain hockey goaltender who subsequently indulged in a lot of irresponsible living and got booted from my personal pantheon.

But the talk around Wisconsin has largely boiled down to one issue, that famous quote from Vince Lombardi: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” I’ve realized that if you truly hold to that, then Favre is definitely your man. (Well, not definitely, he’s not young anymore, nor infallible.) If you don’t hold to that, not even in sports, then you may be like me. Favre has never been my man, as my annoyed but forgiving Packer fan friends will tell you. I love Kerry Wood for his 20K rookie game, and for his being possibly the NL’s best closer, but I also loved him during the time he was hurt and when he loses a game in the ninth. He’s a team-first guy, the kind who takes a pay cut when another team would pay him more, the kind who is grateful just to play in whatever capacity the team needs him.

In real life I like my men like that. And it always irks the pants off me when men who fail to be heroic are counted as heroes. But people have different standards for what constitutes a hero—you have yours and I have mine—and no person can dictate those standards to another.

While I have been spending the week being grateful for my real life heroes, people like Kerry, and Peyton Manning, and Les Stroud, and the awesome dancers and choreographers on “So You Think You Can Dance,” the opposite has been going on regarding my writing inspiration….

I’ve discovered I do best with a muse who has an evil streak.

I won’t reiterate the same points I’ve been making about my imaginary Neil Gaiman (it’s got to be getting a little nauseating by now). But I just wanted to relate how amazingly effective it seems to be when my animus-bearer of choice has that sinister side. For one thing, the ending he provided me once I turned over my Romeo and Juliet story to him…well, it was perfect. I couldn’t abide a happy ending to it, nor did I want it to be tragic in the way the original play was. I struggled with that for weeks, but apparently it was easy for him. You’ll have to wait for the book to find out how it ends, but suffice it to say the ending is unhappy but somehow very cool.

And the other story, “Don’t,” flowed more or less piecemeal from the imagination of my imaginary friend. I can’t remember the last time I wrote anything so fast. I hope someone other than me likes it, because I really like it!

Lest you think that the sinister muse is only useful for the writers among us, I have found myself enjoying life more in general since he lit upon my shoulder. It kind of feels like being in love, without the annoying problem of another person being involved. LOL

I’ve had a lot of animus-bearers over the years, some of them knights in shining armor, some of them mysterious shaman types, and some of them the sorts of characters who on a certain level scared me. Just like crushing on a “bad boy” can be energizing and thrilling, having a muse who you don’t completely trust seems to really stir up your soul. Oh, and while I’m lauding my animus/muse: He also handed me the plot of my next story as I was finishing the other two, so next up from my keyboard will be the contemporary tale “‘Kiss Me’ and Other Commands.”

So here’s the principle under which I’m operating this summer: For best results, surround yourself with good guys on the outside, and one morally ambiguous guy on the inside.

And would you believe the radio is playing “The Devil Inside” as I type this? (See
http://eroticawithsoul.blogspot.com/2008/04/me-and-my-shadow.html). And that’s the second time this has happened while I was blogging on this topic…shiver.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Embrace the Anguish

I guess it’s time for another update for those of you fretting daily about the status of my Neil Gaiman crush. I survived the delight that was Anansi Boys (our dark hero truly can write a happy ending, much to my surprise). Even though it was technically C.S. Lewis in the ondeck circle, I cheated and moved on to another Gaiman title: Smoke and Mirrors. My excuse was that I wanted to be reading short stories on the beach when we had our camping weekend.

Right before our departure date, I read the wonderful story “Chivalry,” about an old British woman who finds the Holy Grail under a fur coat in a secondhand shop. Neil mentioned in the intro that this was one of his favorite stories to read aloud at convention appearances and the like. I decided to use it as a bedtime story in the tent, and read it aloud to my girls two consecutive nights, complete with Brit accents for the speaking parts.

Neil has a very warm and sweet understanding of chivalry. I also learned from this collection that, as I suspected from his writing, he loves cats. These things were definite points in his favor. Nevertheless, I find I am still terrified of the man. He is such a rock star and I am too old to be crushing on rock stars. He was just in Brazil at the big, famous literature festival, where people waited five hours to get his autograph. He contributed to a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly alongside several musicians and TV and film stars. (I discovered both these facts without googling for them, just so you know—I can’t help it if the guy is everywhere these days.)

I would rather be infatuated with someone shy and obscure, thank you very much. But no, I had to glom on to the only author in the world who is cool (J.K Rowling, Dan Brown, Stephen King, et al. are famous, but not cool). I had to be swallowed up into the mob of several billion people who adore this guy. Oh for the days when I could blog about Les Stroud and actually get a nice email from his assistant and gifts from him in the mail. (Aw heck, these days I’ll bet even dear Les is too big for that kind of stuff anymore!) Hell would freeze—no, worse, the price of gas would drop to a buck-fifty, before Neil Gaiman would ever find this blog of mine.

And his writing! Blorg! Neil Gaiman has that way of coming up with the most tortured and torturing concepts and putting them on paper so eloquently that you can’t help but think about them even as you are repelled. I’m convinced he alternates between posing as a polite, old-fashioned, harmless English gentleman and being the devil incarnate and armed with a PC. To be fair, he can’t help making the most of his genius, and in real life I’m sure he’s truly a nice guy. But as “animus material”—fodder for the imagination—he is just so dangerous.

Never fear though, dear readers. I found a nice form of therapy this week. I wrote a short story, all within 24 hours (a miracle for me), called “Don’t.” I embraced fully, in a fictional format, the anguish that intermittently is my Neil Thing. The guy in this story is just as charming, just as guileless, and just as wicked as my imaginary Gaiman is. The girl is, well, some poor feckless fool like me. Think about that title and you may guess what she says and what he does anyway and what she lets him do after all. It’s not a happy story but it kind of knocked my socks off. I hope I’m not the only one who will feel that way.

This week I met via email a new fan of this blog named Elizabeth, who found me by googling Criss Angel. This lovely woman is on a very similar wavelength to myself and certainly gets what it’s like to be drawn to someone who scares you. I have a feeling it’s a chronic thing with many women, this attraction to guys though you feel it may well hurt you to care for them. Happily, Elizabeth and I are doing this stuff on an imaginary plane, so (for the most part) our anguish is also on an imaginary plane. And I found it remarkably therapeutic to dive through the wall that separates reality from unreality, and there on the other side giving in to my sweetest dream/worst nightmare...and then writing it all down.

It’s great to be a writer at times like these. And if reading a lot of Gaiman is going to have this sort of effect on my writing, I’ll put up with the anguish.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Happy Endings

I've written a lot of stories about sex...a lot...and up until recently I stuck to the HEA (happily ever after) formula that many romance publishing houses require. This was no great hardship--I'm pretty much a "half full" person. And I also feel that for the most part a positive attitude about sex is a healthy one. I'm not oblivious to the dark side of sexuality, far from it: I've had plenty of "secondhand experience" with that (meaning firsthand experience with people whose sexuality is pretty damn dark). It's crucial to be mindful and well-informed on that subject. But to dwell on it, well, that's not so helpful or healthy.

Nevertheless, for my next collection of erotic romance stories, I decided to liberate myself from the HEA requirement and see what happens. For one thing, I thought it would widen my creative options. For another, as a Jungian I feel it really is important to be cognizant of one's shadow self. For a third, I'll admit to being under the influence of the often extremely dark fantasy author Neil Gaiman...I'm sure I can blame him for bringing out my negative side. LOL

But I'm finding this new approach is not so simple. You can't, as a responsible author, simply say to yourself, "Screw the happy ending, let's just let everything get as f'ed up as possible and let the chips fall where they may!" I learned this lesson this past weekend while watching a movie--let me share.

The movie was "The Mist," and I'll not spoil the ending for you except to say it wasn't happy. It was really UNhappy. It was unhappy on the level of the totally nihilistic and super-depressing endings that were prevalent in 70's movies and fell out of vogue with the release of "Star Wars," thank heavens. To call it a downer is a major understatement.

I realize a person shouldn't expect a cheerful ending from a horror movie. I'm also not the kind of person who dislikes horror movies or downer endings. I'm a huge fan of the "Hostel" movies. I loved "The Descent" and thought it had a perfectly acceptable downer ending. Stephen King is one of my favorite authors and few of his stories have HEA endings.

I would have been cool with the original ending to "The Mist," the one Stephen wrote. It's one of those classic ambiguous horror movie endings, like the end of "The Birds," where the family escapes the house and drives off among the crowds of resting birds, and you never find out for sure what happens to them or the world. The movie script of "The Mist" did not have an ambiguous ending...it was just one of those really, really horrific and depressing endings.

David and I were so distressed by this movie that we talked about it for an hour afterwards and looked up all the reviews and then then next day talked about it some more. These conversations were not the productive kind where you end up discovering something interesting about life or yourself. They were the critical kind where you just come up with more reasons why the film failed.

My point: If you choose to have an unhappy ending, you have to be willing to be responsible for it. Because people go to the movies and read fiction books primarily to be entertained. Unhappy endings can be informative, or enlightening, or eye-opening, but they are by nature not entertaining. So if you're going to not entertain with your ending, it had better have some sort of meaningful point, or your audience is going to be dissatisfied.

Applying this lesson to my particular case: People read about sex primarily to be entertained, too. If your erotic romance story is going to have an unhappy ending, you better have a good reason for it.

Meanwhile, I'm having a really rough time writing my latest story for this "dark erotic" anthology of mine. It's about Piero and Gilia, original characters in the Romeo-and-Juliet-verse, to use modern parlance. They are cousins, respectively, of R and J, who are having their own romantic problems as the events of Shakespeare's play unfold. "Romeo and Juliet" is one of the saddest tragedies of English literature, so it's difficult for any retelling of those events to be anything but tragic, at least in part. And to have a HEA ending befall a couple of side characters also seems rather pat and offensive to me.

However, I also shy away from taking the route of Piero and Gilia simply experiencing their own parallel tragedy. Why? Because the R&J story is enough of a bummer without dumping more unhappiness on the reader of this tale. I don't want (if you will) to "pull a Mist."

How I will resolve this quandary remains to be seen. (And you thought writers knew what they were doing when they start writing a story...ha!) But I'm determined to be careful and to be mindful that happy endings are not simply a literary device. The human psyche always functions better in a positive environment. Sure, negativity can seem "cooler," more realistic, and even more intellectual, but bringing people down requires them to pay a price they may not have signed on to pay.

We certainly didn't sign on for the ending of "The Mist."

Speaking of "good vibes"--please shoot some my way as I figure out what to do with poor Piero and Gilia. Right now they're dealing with the double suicide of their cousins, which is actually worse than dealing with having just seen "The Mist."