The Nightmare that Saved My Story

By Cynthia Ray

For months, I’d been experimenting with different endings for a horror story called ‘Bite’, involving genetically modified, invisible spiders. The first ending culminated in utter annihilation of the protagonist and the world.  I hated it…uber depressing.  The second attempt to find a satisfactory finish hung itself in an unbelievable twist of fate.  The third was bizarre, believable perhaps, but flabby.   It didn’t have that satisfying snap that I craved.

Now some of you are going to stop me right here and tell me that one should always know the ending of their story before they begin writing.  I don’t disagree–I did know the ending, but it changed.  Everything changed, and not just once.  But I had to keep going because I knew there was a good story in there.  I could see it, taste it and feel it.  The process reminded me more of sculpting than writing.  Michealangelo said, “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me…I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to other eyes as mine see it.”  That’s what I felt compelled to do; to  reveal the story; causing it to arise alive and warm from the blank pages to caress the world.  Sadly, its feet were stuck in stone.

So I’d been writing all day, working on the fourth conclusion to my tale.   My character needed to find a way out of the insurmountable problems I had thrown in her path, but she just couldn’t get there.  She struggled on her own, so I gave her a boyfriend to help, but he ended up being a miserable failure and I had to write him out the story again.   She told me she needed to rescue herself, not be rescued.  She needed to change-not just endure events.  But by the end of the day, although she had struggled valiantly, and heroically attacked her assailants, thereby saving the world, she herself died in a lake of steaming blood.  I slammed my laptop shut with a bang and shook my clenched fists at my silent muse.  Enough!

That night, I was visited by a familiar nightmare.  I’ve had the same vivid and terrifying nightmare since I was a child-the one where I’m endlessly trying to escape from a horrible evil, something monstrous.  One night, a pack of slavering hounds with yellow eyes, another time, a fire-breathing devil or a company of cruel Nazis. Or perhaps the sound of a crashing door and someone breaking into my house to kill me.  But this night it began in the dark hall of an abandoned hospital, with a huge ball of dead flesh rolling toward me, covered with bloody bites.  A foul malevolence emanated from it, and an overwhelming sense of dread and horror enveloped me.   In a panic to escape, I fled from floor to floor, hyperventilating, sweating & stifling my sobs.  On the OB floor, a desperate woman begged me to save her baby.  I pulled them along with me to the elevators.

Down, down, down until the doors opened into the kitchen galley.  We hid there, clutching the baby, holding our breath and drawing into ourselves in fear, but the entity came after us, relentless.  We tumbled down the stairs, jumping over steps, floor after floor.  At the very bottom of the staircase,  an immense pile of trash and refuse blocked our way.  A dead end.  In despair I turned, and there it sat, perched precariously on the ledge of a window looking down over the city, hundreds of flights up, cocky and smug, knowing it had us trapped.  (Yes I know it was a basement, but it’s a dream for heavens sake, it doesn’t have to make sense).

The creature stared out over the mountains and clouds, seemingly unaware of our presence.  I determined to destroy the thing.  Bravely, I snuck up behind it and kicked it so hard my food ached.  Nothing happened.  I pushed and kicked with all of my might.  Then pushed again.    It SHOULD have fallen from the ledge, but it turned towards me with sneering black eyes.  Instead of fear, a rush of anger boiled up from my gut.  For once, I didnt run.  I stood and faced the thing,

I shot up out of bed, adrenalin pumping, angry and tired; tired of nightmares with no way out; tired of invincible antagonists; tired of dystopian visions of dark worlds of destruction and most of all, tired of steaming piles of shit endings.  It HAD to change.   And then, like a nuclear explosion, a light burst into my consciousness and blew everything else away.  I knew how my story would end.  I knew how  to put power into my heroine’s hands.  She wouldnt run and she wouldn’t die.  I laughed out loud.  All of that before coffee made me giddy.

When I sat down to finish the story at last, my hands tingled with excitement as courage flowed into the veins of my protagonist.  Of course, there were still rivers of blood, murder and mayhem, but she resolved the situation brilliantly, banished the evil antagonist and made it out alive, altered forever by her experience.   The fact is, we both changed.  I walked away from the story empowered as a writer .  I  am left with a visceral knowing that it is always better to turn and face your fears than to run and hide from them.Image

For some reason, I couldnt find a picture of a genetically modified invisible spider….

The Other Side of Giving Thanks

No matter how wonderful and blessed our life is, not long after the obligatory listing of what we are thankful for during this festive time, we fall back into the yawning pit of “there is something missing in my life.”   If only I had more time, I could write that novel that’s cooking in my head.  If only I had more money, I could get that new Miata.  If only I could lose 5, 10, 20 or 50 pounds, I would feel good about myself.  If only I had a relationship I would be happy. If only I wasn’t in a relationship I would be happy, and so on.

We count our blessings, but behind our backs, we cross our fingers and hold on to a big smelly bag of  “what sucks with me and my life.”  Do we really need to lose 20 pounds, or do we need to see ourselves differently? Do we really need more time, or just to make better choices with the time we already have?  Do we really need more ‘things’ before we can be content?

Guiding lights are hidden in the stories we tell, in our folk and fairy tales.  There are hundreds of stories about the granting of wishes.  Often these stories end up badly, with the person realizing that he/she was better off before the “gifts” like Jacobs, ‘Monkey Paw’ where the woman wishes for her dead son back.  Or the tale of the ‘Fisherman’s Wife’, wherein a fisherman nets a magic fish.  The fish offers to grant him wealth and riches if he will throw him back into the ocean.  Out of kindness, the fisherman throws the fish back without wishing for anything.  His wife, on the other hand, demands more and more from the fish until her greed destroys her.

Another well-known fairy tale features a good and kind sister helping an old woman at the well, who then blesses her with a gift.  Every time she speaks, pearls and jewels fall from her mouth.  Her greedy sister seeks out the witch hoping for the same gift but her callous treatment of the old woman earns her a different gift; the witch causes spiders and toads to drop from her mouth.   These moral tales illustrate the importance of contentment, and appreciating what one has.   They also point to selfless motivation being the key to the quality of what we receive in life.

G.K. Chesterton said, “If you happen to read fairy tales, you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other–the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery-tales.”

In real life as well as fairy tales, the condition that Chesterton refers to, the condition required for peace, joy and contentment has nothing to do with outer circumstances.  Chesteron goes on to say   “There is the great lesson of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ that a thing must be loved before it is lovable,”  and that applies to us first of all.  That is the condition that makes everything else fall into place.   From that place comes a warm, loving, gentle regard for ourselves.  From that regard flows an appreciation of our life as it is, and a river of compassion for others.

We must engage in some inner alchemy as the first step on the way  to loving ourselves.  Sifting through and bringing to light our unconscious motivations, our deeply ingrained responses, old unconscious ruts and negative patterns is terrifying, exciting and liberating.   For me, writing has always been a way to explore my subconscious. Stories, whether we are reading them or writing them are maps that help us along the way.

So my wish for all of you this Thanksgiving is that you are truly filled with contentment, joy and peace as a result of accepting your life, your self and your creations as they are, imperfect, mundane and sweet in their perfect humanness.

The Dark Man

by Christina Lay

Perhaps you’re familiar with this scenario; a mysterious presence is creeping around your house, peering in the windows, twisting the doorknobs.  You’re aware of a terrible danger, but the phone doesn’t work, or is out of reach, or your shaking fingers can’t work the buttons.   The stranger – rapist, murderer, vampire – is now in the house.  You try to run but your feet are made of concrete, or they sink into the floor like it’s quicksand.  The hostile presence is so near you can feel his breath on your neck.  He reaches out for you. You can’t move.  You try to scream but you have no voice. Only a whisper emerges, a wordless croak or gasp.

If you’re lucky, this is when you wake up.

This dream and many versions of it plagued me throughout my teen and young adult years.  One element that never changed was the paralysis and the inability to make a sound.  I’d wake up gasping, still trying to speak.  I couldn’t let myself go back to sleep knowing I’d end up right back in the same predicament, so I spent a lot of sleepless nights trying to purge the Dark Man from the cobwebbed corners of my subconscious.

I always assumed these nightmares were a part of my interior make-up and was an inevitable result of being a woman in a violent society. Then about twenty years ago I read a book that helped me rewrite the plot of those nightmares.   Women Who Run With the Wolves, Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, was quite the fad when it came out, the type of book everyone bought but no one read.  Well, I read it, cover to cover, twice.  My copy is still bristling with sticky notes.  Lately, because the hostile stranger has reappeared in my dreams, I took another look at those tabbed pages.  Women Who Run With the Wolves is an analysis of the psychology of fairy tales and how they still apply to our modern lives, but for this post I want to focus on one aspect of that; the phenomena of the Dark Man Dream.  I’ll apologize in advance to the author for how badly I’m about to mangle her premise.

I wasn’t terribly surprised to discover that I wasn’t the only dreamer hunted nightly by a murderous stranger, but what did surprise me was the idea that The Dark Man is no stranger at all.  He is a force from within, a manifestation of our animus (Jung‘s term for the masculine part of a woman’s personality) gone horrible awry.  The part of us that seeks to act out in the world has been locked up, for whatever reason, and essentially, is damaged by our neglect.

Pinkola Estes spends much of the book discussing the blocked or repressed artist, the women (and I suspect this goes for men as well) who are for whatever reason not listening to their inner muse, are not creating though they long to, are basically still and quiet when they are desperate to run wild and be loud.

The Animus, when not integrated into the whole and given something productive to do, turns on us and chases us with knives, runs us down, hunts and haunts us in desperate attempts to either wake us up or murder us in our sleep.

When I first read this book, I wasn’t writing much.  I’d let the most essential part of my personality, my creative side, wither and turn to dust.  I won’t go into the reasons, we all have them, plenty of perfectly valid, iron-clad obstacles, to excuse our lack of self-expression and the abandonment of our dreams.  The theory of the Dark Man Dream made perfect and terrible sense to me.  Then I hit upon this life-changing sentence; Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only.

From that moment on, I began to make room in my life for writing.  I carved out a sacred niche, which started as twenty minutes three times a week, and then became an hour, then every day, and is now three hours every day.  It’s still not enough, but it’s been adequate to keep the Dark Man sated, his murderous weapons of frustration safely stowed.

I can’t remember how long it took, but finally I was able to rewrite the script of the dream.  Not only was I able to move, I was able to turn around and fight back against a gang of attackers.  Most significantly, I was able to scream, and keep on screaming until the cry for help became a howl of righteous anger.  No nightmare has ever felt so good.

Lately, The Dark Man has been showing up in my dreams again.  Maybe he just wants me to write about him in this post, to revisit those voiceless days so that I’m never again tempted to lay aside the pen.  Or maybe it’s time to reach for another level of expression, to go deeper and darker to where more intimate and dangerous strangers lurk, to unlock the scariest of doors. As Pinkola Estes says ” If you’re scared, so what?  Let your fear leap out and bite you so you can get it over with and go on.”