What have we learned? Reflections on eight years of writing about childhood horror experiences.
Hi. I’m Kit Power, and for the last eight years, I’ve been producing a theoretically somewhat regular essay series over at The Gingernuts Of Horror. In the course of more than sixty essays, I’ve written about subjects as diverse as rollercoasters (specifically the now-defunct Black Hole at Alton Towers), Greenham Common Peace Camp, and my first real job, working in a really shitty pub, as well as more typical horror fare, like Romero’s early career classic Martin, The Elm Street franchise, and Superman III (yes, it is, fight me). Throughout, I’ve been trying to make sense of the question we’re all probably sick of hearing at this point, as genre fans; Why Horror?
My Life In Horror comes to an end this October. And as I’ve gone through the process of assembling and revising the essays for what will hopefully become My Life In Horror Volume II, assuming my crowdfunder this month is successful, it’s really made me reflect on what the process has taught me about writing in general, and non-fiction writing in particular. Here, then, collected in absolutely no order other than what occurred first, are some helpful lessons the process has taught me about non-fiction writing. I hope you find this useful, or at the very least, entertaining.
- You don’t have to know what you’re writing about when you start. Sounds a little counterintuitive, right? Let me unpack it a bit. For My Life In Horror, every time I sat down, I had a subject: Gangs Of New York, or Cracker, or Bodycount’s debut album, say. So, obviously, in that sense, I knew what I was writing about. So I guess what I really mean is; you don’t need to know why you’re writing about the thing when you start. In fact, I realized painfully late in the process, attempting to answer why was the entire motivation for writing in the first place. I knew these works were important to me… but, really, why were they? And the act of writing became an act of exploration. Truthfully, sometimes I was more successful than others – part of the fun of the revision process has been finding the odd dangling logic thread and filling it out, fully developing the thought or observation – but I always came away with a better understanding of what it was about the work that fired me up. Of course, My Life In Horror has never strictly been a ‘review’ series. Nonetheless, I think this lesson applies across to reviewing; if you’re sitting down to write about a book you’ve just read, I think you could do worse than asking ‘what did this make me feel?’ followed immediately by ‘why did it make me feel that?’ If you write down the answers to those two questions, I submit, you’ll have done most of the work of the review. Which brings me to…
- Objectivity is bullshit…. Why, yes, I am a fan of the writing of Hunter S Thompson. Still. It’s true. The way you (I) feel about a book, movie, piece of music, whatever, is the result of two things. One, of course, is the actual thing itself, the song, the story, whatever. But the second piece is you; your life experiences, your tastes, the mood you’re in the day you encounter it, a thousand other factors you’ll be almost oblivious to. None of this means you can’t or shouldn’t review or critique the thing. You absolutely should; you’ll learn stuff by doing so, about the thing and about yourself, and you’ll help give other people the tools to make an informed decision about whether or not the thing might be for them. The more your readers get to know you, the more they’ll know how similar/different their own tastes are. They’ll calibrate from that. A good review doesn’t (just) tell me if you liked the thing; it tells me, based on what you’ve told me about the thing and about yourself, whether or not I will enjoy the thing. Or, to put it another way…
- …so make it personal, and keep it personal. Because it’s going to be anyway. Because it’s the one thing you can own with confidence; there might be a million reviews of the thing, but only you can write your review, sourced (alongside the input from the thing itself) from all those idiosyncratic things that make you up. Don’t hide from that, or try and mask it in some attempt to seem ‘objective’ or distant. Own it. Own your positionality to the thing, as honestly as you can. It’ll help. It’ll make the review, and the writing, better. People are suckers for honesty. Give them it. At its best, a good review or nonfiction piece will be like a conversation between you and the thing; taking elements, putting them under the microscope; asking those two questions – what did this make me feel? Why did it make me feel that?
- Don’t be afraid to fall in love. I want to be clear; you have the right to put out negative reviews. If reviewing is your primary mode, I’d argue you even have an obligation to do so, if the thing really doesn’t move you. I’ve done it myself. But… don’t be afraid to fall in love, and say so (and, of course, say why). We engage with this genre because, for whatever reason, we love it. So, love it, and if the thing makes your heart sing, don’t be afraid or ashamed to say so. In a way, this ties back to the ‘objectivity is bullshit’ point. I have at times read non fiction/criticism/reviews where it felt like the reviewer was under an obligation to find fault, even in something they clearly admired. Again, nothing automatically wrong with that; if something about the thing bugs you, talk about it, (and about why it bugs, of course). But it’s not actually a requirement to ‘find the bad’. Sometimes, you’ll just love it. So, love it. And finally and most importantly…
- Just fucking do it. Best piece of writing advice I ever got was from my dad – ‘you can’t edit a blank page’. And I could deluge you with a firehose of cliches right now; you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, success is failing a little better each time, achievement is 98% perspiration, nurse, nurse, Kit appears to have turned into a Hallmark greeting card message generator, is there some kind of shot we can give him? But it’s true. There are a lot of potential barriers to writing; time is a precious commodity, of which we have a maddeningly finite amount, and there are always significant competing demands on it. Don’t build any more. If it’s something you want to do, that gives you joy, make fucking time for it. Get your elbows out, clear a space in your schedule, and then Actually Do The Thing. Because there’s no shortcut to getting better; the only way out is through your first million words. And anyway, on a good day, it’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on.
I hope some of that was helpful. And if it was, you’ve got until the end of October to thank me by supporting the My Life In Horror Volume II crowdfunder – just £2 will bag you a discounted version of the ebook, and there are also three campaign exclusive limited edition print versions to chose from – the Deluxe Hardback Edition is limited to 26 copies, will only ever be available via the campaign,and will also feature an exclusive essay that will never be published elsewhere. Pledge early, pledge often! Thanks for reading.
Leave a Reply