Sunday, August 6, 2017

An Important Lesson About Importance

Work is going to be unmercifully hard this month. While a novella rests with a trusted beta reader I've begun a new book, a children's fantasy, and all the while writing short stories. I'm also reading a lot, and ever so often I will read something that strikes me as a brilliant and important story. You know the ones I'm referring to, the ones that make it onto the Top Ten or Top 100 Best Of lists, maybe into English curriculums. For me, important works include Jurassic Park, which served as a cautionary tale against abusing the power of a force––genetics––that we had only begun to explore. Important works include I Am Legend, a novel that entertained what a difficult transition it would be for humanity to evolve into a new species. And of course, important stories like Brave New World which correctly predicted that, at least in America, amusement and thunderous applause is how liberty and free will would die. These are important stories because of the subject matter, narrative style, or a writer's unique perspective. Some might say that a story can be important simply because it made lots of money. One of my great failings as an artist is the desire to write "important" stories, ones that will make people stop and think differently about the world around them, about the future. I've been trying that for a long time with books like The Jolly Rogers, because isn't it obvious that any technology that could help us erase our memories would spark social disaster?

I wrote one story with that in mind, a science fiction piece called That Gentle Night It began as a 900 word flash fiction piece and then was expanded to 4000. Set in 2100, the story shows a grim future in which most people have never seen the stars except in pictures. Night time has effective been abolished, thanks to improved green energy and efficient lightbulbs. After being ravaged by a fungal plague, ultraviolet lights are used everywhere, even outside, to keep the public's fears at ease (this was based on my own memories of the anthrax scare of 2001). The street lights are so bright that people have to wear sunglasses at night (a nod to the Oz books). It addressed the fact that thousands of songbirds are killed every year because of unrestrained artificial light pollution that distorts their navigation and I extrapolated the idea that they might even become endangered. I gave a nod to Isaac Asimov's wonderful story Nightfall and had a quote from Arthur C. Clarke at the beginning to set the tone.

And most people on the Zoetrope Virtual Studio who read the story didn't get as excited as I had been. They didn't hate it, but neither did it have the desired effect, despite the average score being 7/10. I have yet to sell the story.

Then one day last week, on a complete whim, I recalled a passage from the Bible: Revelations 20:13 "...and the sea gave up her dead..." This turn of phrase is also used in the Anglican's Prayer. Reflecting on the countless myths that personify the ocean, I thought to myself, "What if the sea was a person who cared for all of the dead people that had drowned? What if God decides to end creation and she doesn't want to give them up?"

With nothing better to do, I dashed off a 2000 word story called Eventide. Despite writing by hand it took a few hours, probably the fastest I have ever written a complete piece except The Curse of Horace Jonah. Minimal editing, a few words added on the second draft, and I figured there wasn't anything to lose and put it online.

The response was overwhelming. 

In less than a week I've had five reviews and the score is holding at 9.2/10, the highest any of my stories and I've submitted twenty-three for workshopping since I joined in 2013. There were plenty of generous comments, praise, and congratulations. But the most important review came from a fellow user, a young woman who has led a very troubled life, whose writing is so graphic and raw I never thought she'd care for my work. Besides called it "exquisite" and "luscious," there was one part of her review that really hit me: 

I spent the night drinking and writing a difficult poem about my life, all of which depressed the hell out of me. But it's Taylor to the rescue. I'm happy again, now, and feeling up (Somehow!!!) for a very long run on this beautiful day.

How did this happen? How could something that required so little effort have such a strong impact?

I learned an important lesson in these first cool days of August: words have power, but not every word has power over everyone. 

One more reason why the key to writing is to write. There are a lot of words inside one's self.

Power to the pen, and may you always have the strength to wield it even on your worst days.

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