Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water.
The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken.
Although its light is wide and great,
The moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide.
The whole moon and the entire sky
Are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass.
-Dogen, 13th Century Buddhist Monk, “Enlightenment Is Like The Moon”
Pink Floyd: The production perfectionists, Pink Floyd, were at the vanguard of popular electronic music. In their documentary Live at Pompeii, the Floyd put on a crowd-less concert – apart from their shirtless sound engineers and cameramen – that shook the crust of the world in a psychedelic eruption of fluid waveforms beneath the looming shadow of Mount Vesuvius. While critics gave the Floyd a hard time, claiming that they weren't true musicians since they relied heavily on mastering techniques and tonal effects, the band responded with what is widely considered a listenable album: The Dark Side of the Moon. In the doc, there's a scene of Roger Waters toggling the controls of a synthesizer. Focusing his auditory acuity, he fiddles with the knobs as ominous oscillations sound in the studio until the effort insidiously culminates with the recording of the helicopter crash in “On the Run.” In my high school music technology course, Mr. McCready taught us how to translate music into language through close listening sessions. One assignment was to listen to “On the Run” and create a vivid scene using musical jargon. As a child, I fell asleep to my father's Pink Floyd tapes. Animals, Atom Heart Mother, Meddle, Wish You Were Here. As a teenager, the lyrics of The Wall echoed electrically through my myelin. As a young adult, I explored Syd's contributions and gathered the backstory of the lunatic. Now, climbing the precipice of adulthood, I hear the brazen alarm clock of “Time,” but I'd rather skip ahead and open my ears to the great vocal solo in the sky.
The Doors: Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, John Densmore, and the other guy: The Lizard King, my neighbor, Jim Morrison. Misunderstood in his time as a counter-culture sex symbol, he drank and danced in Rimbaud-emulating chaos to escape the world in which he suffered, grew fat and withdrawn to reject his social status, and died at twenty-seven without an autopsy. In retrospect, we better understand Mr. Mojo Risin as the Blakian poet with a stage presence sculpted from Artaud who desperately wanted people to “break on through” from the closed-up caverns of a Freudian Brave New World simulation where love and desire resonate louder than “the scream of the butterfly.” I could write an entire dissertation on Morrison's influence, how his anti-establishment attitude has been assimilated by capitalism in the modern pop music machine to deflect dissent against bourgeoisie values back into feeding the system of mass production, how his poetry attempted to destroy that influence and instill in listeners a superego of ecological attachment and imaginative freedom, how my friend and neighbor claimed to be the reincarnation of Jim Morrison in an illuminated world of subterranean lizard-people who puppeteer the human elite behind skin-suit facades like in the movie They Live. In reality, the puppeteers are inept and the frayed strings are ready to snap. For too long the worshippers of rational Apollo have dismissed Dionysus as a chaotic hedonist, forgetting that order and chaos maintain a duality. One cannot exist without the other's shadow lurking on the other side. Fluid equilibrium. Morrison sipped from Nietzsche's cup. After all, the lunatic was very well read.
Neil Young: While Morrison was one of the first to bring environmental awareness into the realm of music, and John Denver's tremolo and country-boy good looks swooned the seventies, it was the pronounced brow and crooked smile of Neil Young that solidified the connection between biosphere and musicsphere, as well as establishing that musical lyrics can be personal if written honestly. Now a cranky luddite, Neil Young was instrumental in the singer-songwriter scene. He sang about the suffering in his life through a squeaky soprano atop clawhammer guitar chords. We can describe his music from the eighties as a cave-man playing with synthesizers, but in 1985 he founded Farm Aid, a yearly benefit concert for environmentally-sound, localized agriculture. Two years ago, I listened to his seminal album Harvest on the drive with family to Towson for Thanksgiving – when it was revealed that the photo of Great Aunt Betty's father with some other teetotalers in Prohibition-era Atlantic City that had hung in her living room for sixty years depicted none other than Al Capone arm-in-arm with her father, the man who would buy a farm in central Maryland, cultivate crops, and later sell that land, now Lake Centennial in Columbia. As Neil crooned in the background, I started to get over the breakup. My only relationship lasted a year to the day, July 25th. She broke up with me at her favorite concert venue, Merriweather Post Pavilion, watching her favorite band, Neutral Milk Hotel, on tour for the first time in a decade. To be fair, she had told me a week before beside her parents' pool that she felt we had to break up before summer's end. I held onto hope for three months too long, my mind unable to rewire itself from emotional codependence until that car ride up to Towson. Observing the waning chlorophyll of autumnal foliage clinging to the black oaks, white birches, and silver maples lining the Baltimore beltway, Neil's candid sadness sparked a moment of crystallization in my mind. “Don't let it bring you down // it's only castles burning // find someone who's turning // and you will come around.”
Rodriguez: The first three on this list are classic rock cannon, but Sixto Rodriguez is not widely recognized in America. A homeless construction worker, Bodhisattva singer-songwriter, and later a philosophy major living in a house bought in an eroding Detroit neighborhood for $50 at an auction, he recorded two albums with Sussex Records, a branch of Buddha Records in New York. The first album, Cold Fact, in 1969, and the second, Coming From Reality, in 1970, highlighted a Bob Dylan political approach to lyrics, although unlike Mr. Tambourine Man, Sixto Rodriguez can sing. His lyrics are better too, and that's not a qualitative statement. There exists living, anthropological evidence. South Africa in the sixties and seventies was ripe with fascist governance known as apartheid. We know the name Nelson Mandela, and some know Steve Biko, who empowered black South Africans to see themselves not as a repressed minority but as human beings subjugated to racial discrimination, but who thinks of Sixto Rodriguez? The South Africans, that's who. The documentary Searching For Sugar Man details how a copy of Cold Fact found its way from the streets of the declining industrial metropolis in America to the cloistered middle-class homes of South Africa. Listening to his music was the first time the white South Africans were made aware that their government had blindfolded them from the suffering beyond the closed doors of their caverns. They couldn't believe a singer in America could say “I wonder how many times you've had sex,” or that a person could openly critique their government. Rodriguez indirectly crucified the minds behind apartheid South Africa and received no letter. He didn't make any money from the monumental record sales either. I don't want to spoil the documentary, as my synopsis cannot possibly replicate the profundity, so I'll end with this. I've shown numerous people the documentary since I found out about it, and every single one of them now listens to the effacing songs of Rodriguez on repeat, from the effacing “Like Janis” and “Cause,” the sociopolitical “Rich Folks Hoax,” to the surreal imagery in “It Started Out So Nice.”
It started out with butterflies
On a velvet afternoon
With flashing eyes and promises
Caught and held too soon
In a place called Ixea
With it's pumpkin oval moon
It started out so nice
- Rodriguez, 20th Century Bhikku, “It Started Out So Nice”
As a member of the Grub Street team, and as a simple lover of the genre, I have read my fair share of horror stories. Over the course of the past semester, I have come to realize that many of the submissions received by Grub Street are of the horror genre or at least dark in nature. However, I have also painfully realized that many of these stories are quite similar not only in theme, but in their susceptibility to following certain tropes of the genre that turn decent stories into what I’d expect from a cheesy horror flick. Now there’s nothing wrong with a good cheesy horror flick, but it’s one thing to watch them and quite another to read them. Part of the entertainment value is lost when all that cheese gets put on paper. But enough about cheese; what am I really talking about? Gallons upon gallons of blood and gore, not caring about who’s dying, and not setting the mood. These are the common elements that I have seen many a promising story fall victim to. So what can you do to remedy these overused and underrated characteristics of horror?
Leave it to my imagination. Whether you’re reading your very first horror story or your hundredth, your imagination will always freak you out more than anything anyone can write. That’s why so many people are afraid of the dark; people let their imaginations fill in the blanks of what their senses can’t detect. In the same way, it’s often times better to allow your reader to imagine something rather than to directly perceive it. For example, if you have a mass murdering psychopath in your story, instead of telling your reader, “The man screamed as the mass-murdering psychopath stabbed him repeatedly in the chest, cracking ribs and spraying blood all over the walls,” you could say, “Screams echoed down the hall as the sound of a dull blade puncturing flesh repeated itself again and again.” While the first version gives good visuals, the second version is much more interpretive for the reader. The psychopath could be stabbing the man in the chest, stomach, throat, face, limbs… who knows? But the reader’s imagination will fill in those blanks, often providing a much more disturbing scene than what you as the writer could describe in words.
Make me care. All too often I see stories where despite whatever horrors are befalling the characters, I don’t feel anything for them. One of the most tragic failings of a horror story is to creatively harm or kill a character and get little to no emotional response from the reader. No matter what you do to your characters, your readers won’t be emotionally affected if you haven’t built a relationship between your reader and the characters. Just like in any other story, readers want characters that they can relate to in some way. If you throw a bunch of underdeveloped cannon fodder into your story, your reader will leave the story feeling indifferent about what they just read. So take your time and make an effort to build up your characters with personalities and lives that matter. Give them all strong dialogue and allow them to think. When the time comes for them to fall prey to whatever you’ve got planned for them, your reader will be in a sweat pleading for the characters’ lives.
Set the mood. Too often I see horror stories play out like any other story. It’s the day-to-day deal, where if you take out the parts where bad things happen, you just have your characters living life normally. Sometimes stories will even go on as a normal every day story until BAM! Someone just died horribly and now it’s a horror story! There’s nothing really wrong with this approach, except that I see it enough that it gets old, and if it’s not handled properly, the shock value moment turns into something that just feels ridiculous. So how can we really set the mood for a horror story without it being a dark and stormy night? Think about the type of feeling you want to evoke in your reader. If you have a mysterious creature in your story, be vague about details and environments. Better yet, throw in some inexplicable phenomenon. For example, you could have your character going about their daily business when they notice a strange odor in the air that reminds them of something they just can’t put their finger on. Or maybe the character has a pet that started acting up for no reason and then went back to normal and life went on. They never figure it out, they never reflect on it later, that’s the end of it. It might seem trivial, but it leaves the reader with a subconscious feeling of unease when small things like that go unresolved. You can also set the mood with your environment. A great way to achieve a creep factor is to have something where it shouldn’t belong. For example, your character might be walking out in the middle of the field when they happen upon a steel trap door going into the ground. They open it up and can’t see anything but darkness within. Kinda creepy, especially if they venture deep inside and start hearing noises.
Following these tips will always be helpful in bringing a story up to that next level of horror. The best thing to do while writing, though, is to think about how your reader should be feeling at each moment. The more you consider what kind of emotion you’re trying to evoke from your reader, the better you’ll be able to zero in on just the right words to write.
Grub Street Team Member
Magazine: Rolling Stone the Nineties Special Edition: I have a self-destructive habit of impulse-buying every music magazine on the stand at the grocery store checkout, even when the magazine is $12.99 and I’ll probably have thrown it away by next week. But Rolling Stone’s Nineties special edition is pretty fun, and makes me feel nostalgic even though I was a baby during most of the ‘90s. I’m also not a huge fan of Pearl Jam, Marilyn Manson, or Britney Spears. But now I have insight I never even knew I wanted on Britney Spears’ 17-year-old life in 1999—poor girl had envisioned herself singing “Sheryl Crow music, but younger,” and ended up with “Baby One More Time” instead. Who knew! The only downside to this special edition magazine is that all of the feature writers—there are eleven—are men. I know these pieces were initially published 20 years ago, but come on Rolling Stone. Do better.
Music: Spotify: I know it’s been mentioned before, but ever since I re-subscribed to Spotify with my student discount, I find myself using the app constantly and making a new playlist every other day. I experimented with Apple music, but it didn’t seem to be as reliable or aesthetically appealing to me as Spotify is. I also don’t have the money or the amount of storage space necessary to use the newer streaming service Tidal, so Spotify is my kin. Featured in the Nineties' Rolling Stone is a list of the 50 Best Songs of the ‘90s, which I turned into a playlist so I have a reason to listen to songs by Sleater-Kinney, Ghostface Killah, and R.E.M. consecutively.
Book: Jane Eyre: As an English major, I feel that I should be ashamed for not reading Jane Eyre until I was a 20-year-old third-year college student. Regardless, it’s now one of my favorite books. If I’d read Jane Eyre as a teenager, I’m sure I would have loved it for all the wrong reasons, and as a young adult I read it with the realization that Jane is an imperfect heroine, I (definitely) don’t have the hots for Mr. Rochester, and poor Bertha must be one of the most misunderstood characters in history. She can come live in my nonexistent attic any day.
TV Show: Orange is the New Black: Last week, exclusive shots from OITNB’s upcoming season four were revealed, and things are looking intense. As they usually are, on such a drama-filled show, but the entertainment factor is just one of the reasons why OITNB is my favorite, and why I’ve been re-watching the entire series in anticipation for the new season. The cast is made up of beautiful, diverse women of all races and body types, whose physical flaws are oftentimes emphasized for the show, which is such a rare thing to see on television even today. Not to mention that an actual transgender actress plays a transgender woman, a butch lesbian plays the character of the butch lesbian, and actresses that were once told they’re “too old” for Hollywood (or too fat, too black, or too Latina) are welcome—how often does that happen?
Grub Street High-School Contest Director
I’ve always been someone to document. I’m the person with the camera. I’m the person typing article and story ideas into the Notes app on my phone. And I’m the one friend out of my group who actually likes to sit down and write.
Not everyone enjoys writing, but for those of us who do, it’s a major outlet for expression in our lives. For those who either have writer’s block or are forced to be creative for an assignment, here are five ways I find inspiration for my writing:
1. Movies: As much as I would love to go and travel the world and see for myself the places and people that make up this vastly diverse planet, my bank account just won’t allow it. So I get a lot of information and inspiration second-hand.
I’m a bit of a movie buff, and I like to be exposed to as many shows and films as I can. It’s not because I have nothing better to do or because I’m addicted to the television; it’s because movies and TV shows are a major aspect of culture in America and all over the world.
The making of TV and film is an art form, and it’s a way to see through another’s perspective and view their experience, which is why it is so important to me when I am searching for inspiration. I don’t try to copy what I’ve seen or heard, but build upon it. The more information and images I take in, the more original ideas I have flowing (even though there’s no such thing as an original idea).
2. Tumblr: The way I use Tumblr for inspiration is similar to the way I draw from movies. But there is something very unique about Tumblr as a social media outlet. Within Tumblr is a sort of community that pumps out a certain kind of humor, emotion, and trends. The anonymity of Tumblr is freeing when scrolling through pictures, videos, and blog posts. It’s an uncensored experience, making much of its content seem more honest.
I use Tumblr as a way to collect random ideas that I come across that have inspired my style, taste, and world views all from simply scrolling on my laptop from my bedroom. Tumblr allows me to be adventurous without getting out of bed.
3. Going Places I Wouldn’t Normally Go: I’ve been to concerts, festivals, and other events for school or for a friend that I wouldn’t normally attend and have found an abundance of inspiration in those environments.
I once attended a Folk Festival as an extra credit opportunity for my British Literature class. I don’t listen to Folk music, and I’m not into learning traditional folk dances or learning how to live the farm life, but inserting myself into that environment was something new and different that I’m glad I did.
Being around people who live very different lives and have foreign interests is one of the best ways to get inspiration. You can’t learn something new from doing the same thing and staying in your comfort zone. Making an effort to open yourself up to new walks of life is how you become a worldly person and therefore a better writer.
4. Family Stories: I’ve always been surprised at how some people don’t know much about their parents’ lives. We all have different relationships with out families, but even some of the closest families, I’ve observed, don’t speak much about their past experiences.
Asking my parents about their childhoods and lives before I was born has really helped me with my writing. Several poems I wrote in my college poetry classes were based on funny stories my mom has told me. I wrote one poem about a little girl who was dancing on the bus in Ocean City and kept coming up to my mom and her teenage friends saying “wants popcorns” with her hand outstretched. The story had always stuck out to me as funny and unusual, so I used it in a poem.
5. People-Watching: Last Fourth of July, my boyfriend and I were sitting below the Washington Monument for hours, staking our claim on what little dry ground we could, waiting for the fireworks to start. There was nothing to do but watch the people around us and speculate on their backgrounds. This kept us entertained until dark, but it also gave me inspiration for a short story. Your mind becomes creative while it’s speculating about strangers.
So there are the five ways I find inspiration when I get major writer’s block or even when I’m not looking for inspiration at all. Opening yourself up to people and places outside of your familiar norm is key when searching for creative stimulation.
Grub Street Team Member
The image above is "Flight" by Gillian Collins.