Writing is an art I stumbled into by accident. It’s a kind of illness, one might argue—it fights you, you do your best to retaliate; but somehow the desire always returns. That little glimmer of an idea, that tiny flicker of inspiration, sets you back toward the page. But who that is entirely sane ever wishes such insanity upon himself? It would doubtless be a thousand times simpler, more profitable, to study finance or business. Few seem to ever actually choose writing as their ideal profession. Again, it is at its core a kind of affliction; the subconscious will not let go its clasp until the words are expunged. Only then can the mind return to its rightful place among the people of Earth. And that’s really what one expects of a decent human being, isn’t it? A proper grounding in the sturdy terrain of reality?
I believe, from the kind of perspective that only two decades’ worth of retrospection can offer, that I came upon the writer’s illness at the extreme early age of two. The tendency of my fiction—the bulk of my prose—has always been to venture into the worlds of the imagination. Some of these worlds are the grand settings found most commonly in space opera and other types of futuristic science fiction; some are all too familiar in their resemblance of our modern-day world; others are rooted in the stuff of nightmares, the stuff one might uncover in an old issue of Weird Tales or the bibliography of someone like Stephen King. This, perhaps, signifies a doubling of my illness’s severity: Not only do I spend my time creating imaginary people to populate imaginary worlds, but I occasionally lead them astray, into the heart of shadowy blackness that lurks only in the imaginations of the most ill-spent minds.
The soul of my writing has surely always been in that otherworldly escape, that search for the unknowable that resides outside the realm of proper society. At age two, I found the horror genre in the form of death’s foul breath wafting in my general direction. Although I was too young to recognize such things as pain and weakness, I caught a case of pneumonia that had me hospitalized for what must have been at least a week. No doubt some of my earliest, most deep-seated fears stem from that experience: fear of the dark, fear of solitude, fear of silence; even the most basic fear of death. It would be foolish to assume that the illness did not affect me in any way. It was the hospital I spent that week in, a gloomy place of dust-gray corridors and linoleum that gleamed like the surface of a frozen lake, that tossed the young child whose eyes were mine in 1991 into an encounter with my mind’s lifelong symbol of science fiction: the robot.
I can’t recall whether I ever got to handle the remote control of the most sophisticated toy I’d ever seen—to this day, I can say honestly that I’ve never encountered another children’s toy quite so marvelous—but I was quite content to watch. The machine tread by way of a set of small rubber wheels, and its face was far from human; yet I got the sense, at age two, that this creature comprised of twentieth-century plastics and metal was a being with a soul. Although it walked unlike anyone else, it still indeed walked—albeit a bit more gracefully than human legs can manage, and only when commanded. I don’t remember whether it talked, or if perhaps it merely traveled about the hospital playroom, but I remember thinking that somehow the robot and I would have a lifelong relationship; such machines would become a part of who I was.
The rest of my childhood, one can trace with some precision, proceeded almost certainly as a direct result of that experience. My parents, no doubt relieved to have me out of the hospital and back home, never seemed to forget my awe at the sight of that remote-controlled robot. My dad, whose library included only nonfiction works by Isaac Asimov, lacked the vast literature of science fiction, save for a modest 1986 paperback edition of Frank Herbert’s Dune that I would eventually borrow from him years down the road (“borrow” used in place of the more precise term, which is considered by most to be a wicked crime). Lacking stories about my favorite machine-beings, I instead relied on the graciousness of my mom on trips to the local video rental place, Hogan’s Video, to acquire such classic 1980s and -90s films as Short Circuit, Batteries Not Included, Transformers: The Movie (and, of course, the many volumes of the television series), and Star Wars.
Johnny Number Five, the real star of the film Short Circuit, asserted numerous times that he was, indeed, alive; this just reaffirmed the wondrous suspicions of that two-year-old boy who’d spent a week coughing up phlegm and unwittingly making his parents a wreck with worry. The tiny extraterrestrials machines that sputtered about and chittered to Martin Landau in Batteries Not Included, moreover, could even fall ill the way I had during my first encounter with the robotic species; they could even die! But thankfully, as Transformers: The Movie failed to acknowledge, they could be resurrected with the help of their human counterparts.
Which, of course, R2-D2 was glad to discover by the end of that 1977 George Lucas film one Fox executive had faith in, despite the overwhelming risk involved in such a grandiose production. I don’t recall the first time I saw the original Star Wars, but I do recall one particularly nightmarish daydream. One night, while my two sisters and I (my brother was not yet born) were slumbering over at my grandparents’ house, I was allowed to shower unaided and unattended for perhaps the first time in my short life. It wasn’t the cold trickle of water on my bare back that alarmed me; it is almost certainly the shower curtain I have to blame for my fear. When I stepped in, showered, and then dried myself, I did so with the courage and ease that is the luxury of every oblivious four- or five-year-old boy. Only when it came time to draw back the shower curtain and emerge did I bristle with gooseflesh, with the creeping of fear of uncertainty. What might be waiting for me on the other side? I wondered. A monster of some sort? Why, it was possible—but the monster I envisioned was none other than the haunting visage of Darth Vader; that half-man, half-machine monstrosity who is surely the most fascinating fictional villain of the twentieth century. He represents, as Lucas later acknowledged in his 2005 concluding chapter to the story, the ungodly other; he represents Mary Shelley’s horrid monster.
Except, as I learned at the Rivoli theater amid the equally potent aromas of butter-soaked popcorn and stagnant urine in 1997, sipping the icy nectar of a fountain Coke and utterly lost in space, there was an even greater tragedy to this dark, enigmatic figure: he’d done this all to himself. The Empire Strikes Back revealed that Vader had been made a monster by way of his own wayward actions, and now I shuddered at the implications this brought to my young mind. Would Luke Skywalker succumb to the same lure, and grow into an evil, and moreover soulless machine, the way his father had? I had to know; I informed my father that he simply must take me, next month, to see the Special Edition release of Return of the Jedi.
Suddenly my entire outlook on humankind had changed, all thanks to a simple adventure film trilogy set among the stars. Human beings were not born evil, the way the Decepticons and their leader, Megatron, seemed to have been. Human beings were required to make difficult choices, which would have consequences—potentially disastrous consequences. I was fascinated; half in love, half horrified.
My family must’ve seen the early stages of the lifelong illness in me, then, because it was henceforth a constant path; no one ever questioned it, and no one asked me if I approved. I was allowed access to a television in my bedroom, with all the channels to be found on basic cable. Over the course of three years, between 1995 to 1998, I’d seen late-night airings of Pet Sematary, Aliens, The Lost Boys, The Abyss, and the occasional glimpse of softcore pornography. Needless to say, this didn’t help to cure my sickness in the slightest. Instead, it introduced me to a whole slew of new creatures of the night: aliens, vampires, naked women; it was all a bit much for my frightened, innocent eyes to grasp.
Credit is almost certainly due to my grade school, Willits Elementary, who made some efforts, even if unknowingly, to fix my tainted imagination. They read us Ray Bradbury stories—to this day, “All Summer in a Day” remains one of my all-time favorite works of short fiction, alongside “The Pedestrian,” which I didn’t get around to discovering until my sophomore year of high school. Surely even the science fiction of Ray Bradbury is an improvement over the acid-belching monsters in James Cameron’s bloody, fiery sequel to Alien; and surely the nice, kid-approved books that lined the library shelves at Willits Elementary were above the devilish gore I witnessed in the film adaptation of Pet Sematary. Except, of course, that even this proved untrue: the first novel I ever read was titled Fright Night, a morality-tinged Christmastime ghost tale about a boy who misbehaved…and then finally got the pants-soiling scares the author seemed to think he deserved.
Most people tend to think of the fantastic genres as separate categories: fantasy, science fiction, and horror. The truth of the matter is, I never believed this; I still don’t. It’s a publisher’s marketing device. It’s a way to classify and describe—and lazily, at that. But as a child, I saw that the lines one might draw between such various types of film and fiction are utterly blurred by true artistry. You can’t call a film like Aliens science fiction without acknowledging the horror that is the real focus of the story. You can’t call Ray Bradbury’s work science fiction without acknowledging that it’s really just a fantastical reexamining of contemporary society.
Let’s get back, though, to that great influence on my creative life: Star Wars. The now-defunct Waldenbooks, probably the longest-lived retailer of books to ever grace the people of Galesburg, Illinois, was a regular destination for my dad in my early years. We couldn’t visit the Carl Sandburg Mall without taking the hour or more necessary to explore the endless sea of freshly-printed pages. Here, I found, more worlds were waiting for me: folks like Timothy Zahn, Kevin J. Anderson, and Alan Dean Foster had been sitting there for the past few years waiting to show me that there was an entire universe left to be discovered. Chewbacca had a nephew; Han Solo and Leia Organa eventually gave birth to children.
I picked up an attractive Star Wars paperback, the first volume of Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta’s Young Jedi Knights series, and asked my father if he’d be kind enough to buy it for me. He agreed with a shrug and a nod. As I wandered the aisles, I felt the gravity of names pulling at me—names like Stephen King, particularly, as well as Tom Clancy, John Grisham, and Clive Cussler. Surely these were storytellers, I decided, that people wanted to listen to. These were guys who could keep folks’ attention for lifetimes’ worth of reading.
I made a silent challenge to myself, right then and there, that I would one day be such a name. It’s easy to have an oversized ego when you’re seven years old. Rather than practice writing, though, I instead turned my attention to drawing pictures—of robots, spaceships, and fictional icons like Batman and Darth Vader.
It wasn’t until I was given an assignment for school, two years later, that I actually started practicing for the career I’d chosen for myself. I wrote a five- or six-page short story, and illustrated it, with the help of two of my childhood friends. I spent the next couple years trying to expand that dreadful work into what in my naive mind was a novel; I still have the handwritten manuscript, for whenever I need a good nostalgic laugh.
At age thirteen, I got serious. My last year to enter the regional Young Authors competition meant it was my last chance to win: I’d have to bring my best ammunition to the table if I was to have any hope of success. So I spent three months writing a two-hundred-page science fiction novel. Oh yeah…and it won. I suspect, now, that its victory had nothing to do, truthfully, with quality; it’s a terrible goddamn story. But how many other eighth-graders put in the hours and days necessary to draft an entire novel? The answer, quite reasonably, is none. No other kid my age was quite so insane, so full of passion-stoked illness. In truth, I knew even then that what would separate me from the rest of the contest’s entrants, what would give me a fair amount of hope that I might win, was my drive. After all, I’d made a promise to myself; and to my dad, who was an avid reader (granted, he prefers nonfiction, but not everyone suffers from the same incurable sickness as this lifelong lover of all things strange and spacebound—and I never actually voiced my promise aloud), and who had been kind enough to treat me to two nights in a galaxy far, far away. I feel a similar fondness toward later memories of progressive rock concerts and Coca-Cola, also shared with my dad; although no doubt he thinks Styx beats the hell out of the Rebel Alliance or a tribe of Ewoks any day. Maybe he’s right.
After my stellar conquest of the dreaded first novel, a feat that to this day baffles the twenty-one-year-old me far more than it ever did the eighth-grader who wrote it, I chilled out for a while. I was starting to grow hair in strange places, and attending church for reasons that had nothing to do with God or anything He would’ve approved of (there were some real lookers in that congregation, truth be told); writing about and drawing pictures of aliens and otherworldly machines was no longer cool. Perhaps it never was, and I’d been oblivious the whole time—the trickery, surely, of that remote-controlled robot I met so many years ago. I watched all kinds of movies with my dad, learned that my grandfather (my dad’s father; we’ll get to my Grandpa Cole later) shared my love of science fiction and horror, even if the man won’t admit it, and attended the aforementioned rock concerts. Can you guess what my favorite Styx tune was back then?
High school brought with it a number of completely new, more adult challenges. Writing science fiction simply wouldn’t do; I needed to start thinking about a real career. But I read—discovered the likes of Dune, its prequels and sequels (all of which I haven’t gotten to; I mainly reread the original, along with Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson’s Dune: The Battle of Corrin), Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, and Stephen King’s novels, namely The Stand, Dreamcatcher, and The Green Mile. I never stopped loving fiction, or the act of reading, but the way my outlook on the craft of writing was received by my high school English teachers gave me doubts about my chosen path. They hated my writing, my wordiness, and my decidedly deviant ideas about what constitutes great literature. I suppose Palahniuk is partly to blame for that misdeed. Fight Club did nothing if not forever alter my disposition regarding the flavorless society that I found suddenly enveloping me in those years; Tyler Durden saw past the bullshit in which so many swam day in and day out, slowly drowning in consumerism and complacency. One can imagine how delighted I was, that closet geek of sixteen years, to discover that it wasn’t me that was off-kilter, a little insane; there was something wrong with the whole world.
Which, let’s be honest, is really the primary function of fiction. Why read when we can watch movies, play Xbox, or whack golf balls toward the roaring highway traffic? Well, seriously, reading is an illuminating thing. You don’t go into a story asking much more than the author’s willingness to entertain, but what you come out with—from the books you remember, anyway—is a sense that, somehow, the world isn’t quite what it seemed going into the novel. Fiction is a clever arrangement of events that conceals the greater fruit of the subconscious mind: truth. Palahniuk wasn’t trying to be some whiny kid any more than Arthur C. Clarke was trying to preach about the necessity of space exploration: that just occurred while they were fumbling about in the shadows of their minds in search of truth. Truth, in those days, was something elusive, something I relied on my high school teachers to endow me with.
Outside of school, and later in college, I found truth; not from better-educated professors, as one might assume. Instead, I found truth in the universal pains of heartbreak and tragedy. In 2005, my mom’s dad—my Grandpa Cole—unexpectedly suffered a fatal heart attack. It was a jarring, shocking reminder that we’re all mortal, and that despite the time I spent at the gym in those days, even I might some day find my own heartbeat bidding the world adieu. It’s said that tragedies of this sort often give birth to writers, or even specific novels; this is perhaps a fair assessment of general human tendency. In my case, however, I never finished the hundred-page manuscript I began that year. I found solace, instead, in reading; Lucas’s final Star Wars film was nearing its release, and so I sought refuge in the pages of Matthew Stover’s novelization of Revenge of the Sith. The writing changed everything. There was an immediacy to the characters’ fears, thoughts, and reactions; there was a pace no slower than a horse’s gallop that Stover sustained throughout the book; and most importantly, there was a really great story that served as an important closer chapter in one facet of my life. The characters I’d grown up with, had come to truly love, finally had their fates sealed; and a man whom I’d had limited time with, in whose face I saw myself reflected back, was gone from my life forever.
There were heartbreaks, there were loves—the intense, life-altering loves that are the stinging sores upon every foolish young man’s soul—and there were friendships, jobs, and new discoveries. I found the world I’d been looking for my whole life. I discovered that the people in my own world were every bit as interesting—doubtless even more so—than those in books like The Stand or films like The Good, and the Bad, and the Ugly that are forever in my imagination. I found loves greater than any to be read about, or watched on the silver screen. I found support in a wonderful young woman who is also my best friend. I came to terms with the fact that I am a man with a best friend, and parents who love and support his endeavors despite the illness that forever persits. I found Stephen King’s tremendous memoir, On Writing, and I began typing up stories in feverish bouts of creativity and raw, inexplicable energy. In February 2010, I sent my first short story submission to Weird Tales. It wasn’t what they were looking for, Ms. VanderMeer said; so I sent another. I sent stories to Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and others. I collected over one hundred rejection slips, and came to terms with the reality of my situation: the learning isn’t over. I’ve got work to do if I’m to have any real success with my writing. There is hope to be found in three modest fiction sales to three different horror and science fiction anthologies; but, then, there is also the desire for more. There is the desire for professional-level writing, and stories that reflect such a skill. In the desire to write is also the desire for escape, for making a return to the worlds in which I spent so much time as a child. I long, perhaps, to one day meet my robot friend once again. Therefore, it isn’t enough simply to write; one has to continue exploring, searching for more, reading as much as possible. In books one might stumble upon truth, and thereby strengthen the imagination. Through that imagination, and the constant practice that is the requisite of the truly competent writer, one might eventually tell one’s own truth.
And truth, I believe, is something worth sharing.