Dark Stories

I was playing catch with my son yesterday – a sentence I doubted I would ever have the privilege to write five years ago – when he asked me why I don’t like dark movies any more. “You used to think China Town was the best movie ever made. Now you say you can’t watch Sopranos or Goodfellas. What’s happened to you? You’re losing your edge.”

It was a good question, and one I hadn’t thought sufficiently about to be able to construct an answer before his attention strayed. Yet I continued to turn the question over as we finished our game of catch and went inside and did a little math work. Then we were on to separate things, and I stopped thinking about him, until my wife poked her head into my office. “Where’s Sawyer?”

“Oh, Jesus,” I said. “Has he gone on another walkabout?” Our homeschooled son has grown restless of late, and will occasionally disappear without a word. All for the good, really, except his solo adventures are not like those of typical teenagers, and his parents are left to wonder if he will ever return. He did on this occasion, bursting through the back door, announcing, “I’m back!”

So he was. It was then I remembered his question, and I thought, “The only thing I want to share with the world, the only thing I want to write about, talk about, and teach, is that everything is okay even though it appears as though everything is most definitely not okay.” I have to learn this every day, and I do not find what we call dark stories, stories about how everything is not okay but somehow we will struggle through it, useful in this regard. I say this as someone who spent many, many, many years telling that very story over and over again.

I only want to see past the darkness now, particularly as I sit on my couch and wonder if that boy will ever walk through the door again. In such moments, my storyteller’s imagination is tempted to see a future not just without my son, but without happiness itself. There is no darker story a mind can tell. What if all the light left the world: what and how would we see? Such a world seems impossible to live in – which, fortunately, it always is.

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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Shadows and Light

I was mildly afraid of the dark when I was a boy. I blame this on the cartoon Speed Racer, of which I was a huge fan when I was six – until, that is, I saw The Episode. Speed’s stalwart girlfriend Trixie, worried that his current race might cost him his life, dreams that she sees his car cruise to a stop in a valley. Relieved, she races toward him and reaches the car as Speed, still wearing his helmet, steps out of the car with his back to her. “Oh, Speed,” Trixie cries, laying her head against his back. “I thought you were dead.”

But then Speed turns, turns slowly in this dreamscape . . . revealing a demon face of blue skin and pointed teeth. “I’m not speed!” he hisses.

And I ran from the room.

From that day forward I slept with my bedroom door ajar, keeping my eyes fixed on the narrow swath of light piercing the darkness. The shadows were simply too seductive a canvas for my young imagination. Best, I decided, to keep my attention on what is known, rather than what could be.

Someone pointed out this was the same year my parents got divorced, and I suppose it is possible I would not have needed the door left ajar if my dad were still sleeping across the hall. We will never know. What does it matter anyway? Sooner or later you will become keenly aware of the difference between light and dark. And sooner or later you must discover what is waiting for you in the shadows.

It has been my goal as a writer to illuminate those very shadows. There’s no use living your life trapped in some little triangle of safety. Let the whole world be plunged into blackness if it must. My light always shines clearest in the dark.

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Darkness At The Window

One of the more surprising interviews I did for this month’s issue was with Diana Gabaldon. I was certain that anyone writing a sprawling, historic, time travel romance was bound to operate with some kind of grand plan. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Diana’s novels appear to her like a recovered memory, accumulating details from the beginning, middle, and end in no particular order.

Every writer does this to some degree, but that Diana writes her books in one draft and does not know exactly where a scene will be placed in the arc of the narrative when it comes to her struck me as particularly trusting of the process. I have written often about the importance of trusting and listening when writing, but take a look at An Echo in the Bone and consider that this 820 page beast (whose size she limits for practical purposes) was composed with no real architecture other than her understanding of story and her willingness to allow that story in at the rate at which it wants to be revealed.

I do not think Diana is some kind of unique genius, however—at least no more than anyone else. Rather, she is a woman completely at peace with the mystery of original stories. To write as Diana writes you must not be afraid of the dark. Her stories emerge out of nothing—a window, someone at the window, the curtain is open, there is snow outside the window—but if she were to race to fill the darkness with bright lights and dancing characters she would never get to see what gifts the shadows have to offer.

I used to be afraid of the dark when I was a boy. The secrecy imposed by night seemed perilously uncertain. Anything could step out of the dark. Yet what was it keeping me awake at night but my own imagination? Here I was, a writer-to-be, afraid because his imagination had come to life. There was my clue for the future. I was not afraid of what might come, but simply that anything could. And so I would spend the rest of my life turning toward shadows for inspiration, eventually propelled by that which I had once so feared.

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