Last week I read a wonderful piece by our editor, Katie, connecting the writing of violent fiction, the issue of global violence, and her own conflicting feelings of attraction and disgust at the art she chooses (or chooses not) to create. For me, this was a perspective I had never considered. My own writing has tended to skew in a darker, even violent, direction, though I have never once felt uncomfortable with my own words. While part of this could be because I tend to incorporate magic and science fiction into my work, and part can be because I don’t write violence for its own sake (it has to serve the overall plot). I believe the main reason I feel the way I do about my writing comes from my individual perspective on the both the world and writing.
I tried to write realistic literature first. I wanted to pluck fresh-caught details of real life, to turn mundane activities such as waiting for a bus or applying to a job into a work of descriptive, introspective art. I wanted to capture humanity and write it down like a literary scholar, and I envied my classmates who could replicate the tone and style of “literary fiction.” No, when left to my own devices, my work was laced with magical realism, science fiction, and a much higher body count than was to be expected from a bespectacled nerd in a sundress. For a while, I wrote what came naturally in private, but for class, I tried pushing into what I thought high-class writing should be: I wanted to make insights about human nature and touch people to their core with my work. Werewolves weren’t supposed to have a place next to deep insightful ideas about humanity.
My senior year of undergrad my creative writing professor had us write a personal statement to try to capture what we were trying to do through our work, because after four years of writing, we we supposed to have some idea of what our style was. To be honest, I have no memory of what mine said except I’m sure it’s all wrong. I had been fighting a battle between two entirely different genres for three years, and it was only the prior semester when I gave up and submitted the aforementioned werewolf work when the “deep” piece I had written crashed and burned. The professor actually told me to stick with the werewolves, and in that moment, my life changed.
It’s interesting that in all the concerns I’ve had about my writing, the violence was never really an issue for me—and for the exact reason it is an issue for Katie. The world can be a dark place. People have struggles on a daily basis between right and wrong, people succumb to that darkness all the time, all over the world, and while the majority are upset and condemn the violence, we do little else. We otherize the perpetrators. Oh, we say. They were so different from you and I. Yet we’re obsessed. The media publishes everything they can on these people, and we as an audience drink it up and demand more. Who were they?, we ask. What were they like?
Why is that? Is it desensitization? Curiosity? Are we looking for some reassurance? What would we ourselves do when pushed to certain limits? What, you don’t want to think about that?
For me, dark fiction reaches into that part of the human experience and psyche that we like to deny is there. It makes us question ourselves, not just individuals, but as a people. It makes us see the world slightly differently. My work takes human issues and struggles and then explores the lengths of what people can do when pushed or prodded in one direction or another. Tests of resilience, strength, and values.
For my final project in that creative writing workshop, I wrote something that managed to do what I wanted my writing to do—that is, to say something insightful and make the audience feel something—and do it my way, with magic and a couple of well placed stab wounds. It was about a young woman who was covered in scars. As an infant she had been cursed by an evil warlock because her mother had offended him, and her skin would split and bleed when exposed to sunlight. The only way to break the curse was for her to kill him, which she does, and which I describe in graphic detail. But not for a second do I consider this senseless or a result of some indifference on my part. I know exactly what I’m doing. After my main character finishes the job and struggles not to vomit at the sight of what she’s done, the reader knows that what had just happened, while a victory, is an awful, tragic act. As they celebrate for my protagonist, they should feel a nagging unease, like not everything has been fixed. That’s what I want. The world continues to turn, but not everything has been fixed.