(Please note: there’s some mildly NSFW stuff in here. Not images, just words.)
I think should is a bad word.
My previous therapist and I talked a lot about should. It’s a word I overused and still do. It’s a word I used and use to beat myself up, to make myself feel guilty for not performing to my own standards and frankly to give the perceived standards of others way too much importance in terms of how I live my life. One of the worst things about that last is that often I’m not giving other people enough credit – they aren’t holding me to standards, at least not those. They’re not nearly as hard on me as I am on myself.
Very often the only person making me unhappy is me.
But should won’t go away. And it serves to drive me away from things that I enjoy, that I and other people find fulfilling, that I’m good at. Should tells me that doing those things is worthless and I should be ashamed of doing them, and I should keep it to myself regardless of how much they matter to me.
2015 was an especially bad year for me and should. All kinds of things happened that year that gave me wonderful new opportunities to be an asshole to myself. Probably the most perverse of these is that in 2015, I had the most remarkable writing experience of my life, and while I’ve stumblingly gone into it with individual people, I’ve been too frightened to talk in any seriously public way about it.
Because it’s not what I should write.
What you hold in your hands is the first of three parts of six extraordinary months of my life. Those six months fell within one of the more difficult years I can recall. It wasn’t (isn’t; I’m writing this in November 2015, so technically it’s still ongoing) the worst year by any stretch, but it was and is what my mother has termed “the Wilderness”, wherein a lot of things I thought were fairly certain turned out to be anything but, where I looked back at over half a decade of my life, a tremendous amount of hard work, and not a little mental anguish, and wondered if it was all for nothing. It was a period of enormous anxiety and self-doubt, and not an insignificant degree of depression.
It’s ironic and entirely fitting that during those six months—beginning in March and ending on the last day of August—I would write a story about falling in love with the world.
The above is from the foreword to a trilogy of books I made (privately self-published; they are not for sale) to amuse myself and also to teach myself how to do it, because I’m sure it’s a set of skills that will come in handy at some point in the future. The trilogy of books is actually one long story that I broke into three for length restriction reasons, and also because the structure of the story lent itself to doing so. The story is a single piece of Walking Dead fanfiction (set in an alternate universe without zombies). It’s almost 400k words long. It took me almost exactly six months to write. I started it almost exactly a year ago. I have never written anything like it before, and trust me: I very likely never will again.
And that is one of the most ridiculous paragraphs I have ever produced, and I swear it’s true, and it took me months to work up the courage to write it and now I am sure you think I’m an equally ridiculous human being.
(I am, and I didn’t need that paragraph or its contents to make it so.)
Tell me, what is it you plan to do?
He doesn’t know, and he thinks that might be all right. That might be the woman’s point. That he might not need a plan, per se. That the very idea of a plan is rank, arrogant foolishness. His mother died when he was young but he remembers a surprising amount about her, and one of the things he remembers is that she hauled around a lot of sayings. A lot of aphorisms. She would get them wrong, get them jumbled up—especially when she was drunk, which was most of the time—and the majority of them struck him as fairly stupid, but there were a few that stuck.
He doesn’t believe in God, but: If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.
Regardless of whether or not God is a thing, it probably holds up.
The point of this isn’t to have a plan and it never was. The point of this is to be here, watching smoke curl lazily into the calm air, listen to the distant hum of traffic and the occasional soft exhalation of a car going by, watch the lights come on, listen to the mockingbirds organize their setlists of covers and feel the air getting cooler and cooler on his bare skin and just be in the world.
Live in it, sure. But living is a process. It’s constant and ongoing. It’s temporal. It has a past, a present, and a future. It has a beginning. And it has an end.
Being is being. It’s timeless, atemporal. You just are.
The story is called I’ll Be Yours For a Song. It’s the most intensely personal thing I’ve ever written. Writing it was beautiful and joyful and terrifying and frequently euphoric. In terms of what I set out to do, how it organically developed, plot and arc and character and especially the ending, I think it’s the most perfect thing I’ve ever done. It felt like stuck landing after stuck landing, and the final and most stuck landing was the very end.
I needed to write it when it happened. I needed it to exist. It came as a gift, and perhaps one of the most amazing things about it was what happened as I wrote and posted it, chapter by chapter. I got message after message from people telling me that not only were they enjoying it but it was helping them in much the same way it was helping me. Other people having bad years, people wrestling with trauma and anxiety and depression and loneliness, saying that it was helping to keep them going, that it was helping them get up in the morning, that it was making them feel like there was beauty and hope in the world even if it was hard to see at the time.
There’s a lot of Mary Oliver in the story. Her poem “The Summer Day” was thrown into it mostly on a whim and became the heart of the whole thing, especially the last four lines.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
A number of readers had no idea who Mary Oliver was. They fell in love with her because of this story. That was especially gratifying.
Again: 400k words of Walking Dead AU fanfiction.
Yeah. I know.
He drinks some. Not a lot. He bought some glasses and he pours himself whiskey, enough to make him feel warm and sleepy, and he lies back down with the book and lets his attention drift—idle—across the pages and the uneven lines of words.
Thanks to her he’s listened to poetry, a fuck of a lot of it, but this is the first time he’s ever really looked at it, its extremely odd structure, and he doesn’t entirely know how to make sense of it. But doing so also doesn’t feel necessary; he intuits that this isn’t something he should make sense of so much as feel. Feel the rhythm and the flow of the words like anything else alive.
You don’t make sense of the grass. You don’t make sense of a tree. You don’t make sense of a bird or a deer or wind, or the sun or moon, or water. Rain.
You don’t make sense of a girl’s body. Her hands. Her hair, her voice, her laugh. You don’t make sense of the swell of her breasts or hips, the graceful, delicate lines of her neck and collarbones and spine. You don’t make sense of her mouth. You don’t make sense of her legs, the way they spread for you, the slick heat of her cunt and the way it tastes. You don’t make sense of how she welcomes you into herself, how she makes a home for you there—even for only a little while. You don’t make sense of how she sighs, moans; you don’t make sense of the way she moves in crashing waves when she comes. You don’t make sense of her bones, or the songs that hide deep inside them.
You just feel these things.
They just are.
I got my start in professional fiction writing erotica (thanks forever, Circlet Press). My first story sale was a piece of lesbian SF erotica flash. I sold it for $5, so it basically bought some lunch. That was a pretty good deal.
I write less erotica than I used to, but I’ve never stopped believing that it matters, and as more than just wank material (good wank material also matters and should never be devalued). I believe that sex is one of the most profound ways you can explore a character. What kind of sex do they want? Not want? With who? What does it mean to them? What does their partner(s) mean to them? What frightens them about it? What brings them joy? What’s their relationship with their own body? What do they feel and think about giving pleasure to someone else and taking pleasure from them? What’s their history with sex? How has it helped to shape who they are as a person?
We usually think about explicit sex in fiction as somehow less legitimate. I think that’s really unfortunate, because it forecloses on some amazing writing.
I’ll Be Yours For a Song is full of sex. Lengthy and extremely explicit sections. Entire chapters of pretty much nothing but sex. Except the sex isn’t nothing, because while the story started as romance it quickly became a lot more. It ended up being a very weird kind of coming-of-age story, the story of an extremely damaged person reclaiming a lost childhood, an adolescence, and finally arriving at a healthier adulthood. It ended up being about recovery from trauma and about repairing the capacity for connection with other people. It also ended up being about someone who had been horrifically abused as a child healing his relationship with his own body. A lot of how that happens for him in this story is through sex. I thought that was important. So there’s a tremendous amount of it. There’s enough that I think some people might classify the entire story as erotica, but I’m not sure about that. I don’t know. What I do know is that the sex isn’t filler. You can’t remove it and have the same story. Again, I think that’s something a lot of people sort of assume doesn’t happen in fiction. The sex – if it’s very explicit – is by definition gratuitous and unnecessary, and certainly not a fundamental part of the story itself.
I also really and truly believe that it’s possible to write very explicit sex with beautiful prose. I think I managed it, at least at a lot of points. I know tons of other people who have.
But we don’t have awards for the best erotic scenes in mainstream fiction, even jokingly (at least not so far as I’m aware). We award what we regard as the worst. Or that’s the award I always hear about when it gets handed out. You could argue that something like that is meant to be kind of a lesson in how to do sex scenes well, but I’m not certain that’s how a lot of people take it.
Sex scenes matter. They matter in writing, and they also matter for readers. In my fandom I’ve talked to people who were sexually assaulted or dealt with other damaging things, who managed to heal their relationship with sex and with their partners in significant part via smutty fanfiction. Sometimes good wank material is one of the most important things someone can read.
But it’s not what we should be writing, and it’s sure as hell not what I – as a pro – should have spent six fucking months on.
For a while after he wakes up he simply lies on his side with his eyes closed against the dim, indirect sunlight, sheets tangled around his waist and legs.
The bed is getting softer. He’s getting softer. Not in the sense of weaker, not in the sense of losing himself or slipping away from something. He lies with his hands nested together, palm curved over palm, and he thinks about moths emerging from cocoons, how at first their wings are too soft and damp to use. How they have to rest where they are and dry out, solidify.
A moth has to struggle to emerge, and the struggle itself is necessary. If they don’t struggle, if someone cuts them out—does the job for them—their wings never spread at all.
They never fly.
Confronting the tyranny of the should would have been a lot easier if I never wrote shit like that up there, in some of the strangest and most difficult months I’ve been through in a while. Months where I didn’t know where I was going or what was going to happen to me, and I needed to believe the difficulty was worth something.
I cried while writing a lot of this thing.
Yet again: 400k words of Walking Dead AU fanfiction.
When I began the first chapter—which in fact began as a one-shot on Tumblr that was never supposed to go anywhere else—I thought it would be a cute little piece of contemporary romance (which I had never before written and do not read). Instead it became what I truly believe is the most personal story I’ve ever told, and perhaps will ever tell. It remains the only story that I wrote every day because I literally could not stop writing it, that gripped me and refused to release me until the very last word of the very last chapter. It felt like something that was going to come regardless, and I and my typing fingers were just along for the ride. It surprised me constantly; over and over I would only realize something was happening in the minutes before I wrote it. I consciously intended only a small part of its Storyness; easily over half of the internal references and callbacks and themes and metaphors and little clevernessness that writers love to do had to be pointed out to me before I saw them at all. Or I caught them much later.
I experienced it far more as a reader than as a writer; a couple of months after the fact, I read it and it’s like something that exists almost entirely independent of me.
It remains the only story that I wept over when I realized I had to stop writing it, because it was coming to its end. I literally wept through writing a significant percentage of it, especially the final third (“Winter” in the trilogy that this has become). I grieved over losing it, like a place you won’t go back to or a friend you won’t see again. I’m still grieving.
That’s not hyperbole. It was painful writing the ending. Not because it was difficult; it was really very easy, and as I was writing it I knew it was the best ending it could possibly be. It was painful because I knew I was never going to write anything else in that world. There was never going to be any kind of sequel. What I was losing was the experience of being inside it and watching it emerge, being with those characters as they took their journey, the incredible flow of the story itself, and months after completing the final line (on the last day of August) it still hurts. I can reread it, sure, and I can take a lot of satisfaction in what it is, but you know it’s not the same. It’s like looking at photos of that friend or that place, or video, or journal entries written during that time. It’s a memento, but it’s not the thing itself.
I’m sure other writers have experienced this kind of pain in saying goodbye to a story. But I never have. For me, finishing anything long has always been accompanied by a healthy measure of relief, even if I’m sorry to say goodbye to the story itself. The writing is something I’m glad to be done with, and what I take the most satisfaction in is the completed work.
Not so much here. The writing was everything.
Again: 400k words of Walking Dead AU fanfiction.
He was never well, he thinks. He opens the window in the late afternoon—there’s sun but clouds are creeping in and he wants to take the last of it while it’s here—and he swings his legs out and sits on the wide sill, bare feet dangling above the roof of the porch, and smokes. He was never well. He wasn’t born sick, but he got sick pretty quickly and he’s been sick since then. Broken inside. But that doesn’t mean he’s ruined, and it doesn’t mean he ruins things.
And anyway, he’s been inside ruins and he’s seen how alive they can be. How beautiful.
He’ll always have scars. He’ll always be broken, a little. But he doesn’t have to be sick. He can get better. He can get well.
That’s what this is. Some people go to a hospital to get well; he’s come into a house of light.
And this isn’t about being good enough for her. He’s starting to understand that too. He wants to be good for her, he wants to be worthy of her, but that’s not why he needs to do this. That’s not why he needs to get well. He would be that, need that, deserve that, without her.
He doesn’t need her to be a reason for him. Not anymore. He’s his own reason. And that’s plenty.
This is not what I should have been writing. I should have been writing stuff I can get paid for. I should have been writing stuff that’s eligible for best-ofs and awards. I should have been writing stuff that has appeal to more than a tiny sub-section of a fairly silly fandom based around a fairly silly TV show about zombies. I should have been writing stuff that’s legitimate and important and that matters. Should should should.
I hate that I feel that way, but I feel that way. I feel utterly ridiculous writing this now. Half of me is convinced – as it often is these days – that I’m hammering yet another nail into the coffin that contains my writing career. I can’t stop feeling like this. I can’t get rid of the should, and I know the should is hateful and I shouldn’t give it so much power, but I do.
This isn’t what I should have been writing, but I think it’s what I needed to write. I needed to talk about it because something extraordinary happened to me, as a writer and a person who loves fiction, and even if I’ll never be able to satisfactorily explain what it was or why it happened, I feel like I’m doing it and myself a disservice to never talk about it. In part I feel that way because I hate that everything it’s made of is stuff I shouldn’t care so much about. I know a lot more writers are coming out of fandom now and are being much more open about it, and that’s good, but I still get the distinct sense that while writing fanfiction no longer makes one a pariah, it’s still not what you should be writing. It’s a hobby. It’s a dalliance. It can be a fun little side project. But don’t make it more than it is.
Guys, I wouldn’t even be a writer without it, and it did not fucking stop mattering the second I made $5 on a piece of porn about an alien.
It matters just as much as anything I’ve ever been paid for, and not merely because it’s important to me personally. It matters because it’s a story, and stories matter, and I think the moment we start saying this kind of story matters but not this kind, we’ve done violence to what stories themselves mean.
400k words of Walking Dead AU fanfiction is not what I should have spent six months writing. But I did.
So. That happened.
Later—much later, around nine, sitting with his back against the wall and the lamp between his knees, he calls Beth.
He’s not afraid of doing it. He doesn’t even have to think about it. He simply knows he’s ready for it and he does it. Her number: it rings, and while he waits her for to pick up—or not, whatever she ends up doing—he moves his fingers slowly over the open top of the lamp and watches the shadows on the ceiling shift and dance.
He’s had a bit to drink. Not a lot. For the taste as much as it makes him feel, and that’s something else new: he likes the way whiskey tastes.
He never really tasted it before. Never paid attention. It never mattered.
It picks up after three rings. Her voice, low—she’s keeping it down, but not to the extent that he thinks she’s with other people.
He closes his eyes briefly, hand going still. God, her voice. It’s like he couldn’t breathe before and now suddenly he can—a full inhalation. “Hey.”
“Hi. I… It’s good to hear you.”
He takes the words and turns each one over in his mind, careful, thorough. Examining. She’s surprised. She’s slightly breathless. There are other things—uncertainty. Apprehension, even—a current of tightness under everything. She’s not sure what she’s going to get here.
She doesn’t sound impatient. She doesn’t sound angry. Small wonders, but wonders nonetheless.
“Yeah. You too.” He pauses, but it’s not because he’s working up any courage. He doesn’t need courage for this. He can tell her what he’s feeling. “I miss you so fuckin’ much, Beth.”
“Oh.” Not surprise this time—except maybe a little. Maybe she wasn’t expecting to hear that, so suddenly and so soon. And no hesitation. He just said it. “I miss you too. I’ve been…” She swallows. “I know you said you were alright, but I’ve been worryin’. Kinda. I didn’t wanna call you, not yet, I figured…”
She trails off, but she doesn’t need to finish the sentence. His heart pounds against his ribs, knocking like it wants him to open up and let it loose. Kind girl. More merciful than he’ll ever deserve, no matter what else happens to or inside him.
“I… Thanks. Thank you.”
Silence. Once more, he senses that she might not have been expecting that. That specific response, that sentiment.
“Are you? Alright?”
“Yeah.” Another thing he doesn’t have to think about—it comes from him, slips right out. Flows. Easy. He is. He is all right. “I am. I’m doin’…” He breathes a laugh, tilts his head back, and moves his hand. Dappled light on the ceiling. His fingers are branches nodding in the breeze. “Think I’m doin’ really good.”
She releases her own breath, and he can see her. He can see her so clearly. Her surroundings are unclear, but the rest of her is as vivid as if she was right in front of him. Hair lying over one shoulder, face soft, big blue doe-eyes shining. Cheeks just a bit flushed. Fingers against her lips, maybe. Those small, full lips.
“Can I see you yet?”
“Not yet.” It hurts to say, but not so much. Because yet is no longer so indefinite. He doesn’t know how close it is, but it doesn’t feel so distant anymore. “Soon. I think. Probably soon.”
Fingers moving in slow waves.
“You get it, right? You know why.”
“Know why what?” And he can almost hear a smile.
“Why I’m doin’ this.”
She doesn’t answer for a long moment. He lets his eyes fall closed again, his fingers dangling. The breeze has died down. He doesn’t know what she’s going to say, but he’s more than happy to wait. She’s waited through his own silences, his own periods where he struggled to gather himself, struggled to find the right words for her. Sometimes failed. She’s always given him space for things like that, and that’s what makes it easier for the words to come. Or did, in the end.
And she does answer, finally. A murmur so quiet it’s nearly a whisper.
“After I cut my wrist, I… I was in the hospital a day. Just while they sorted some things out. They didn’t leave me alone that whole time. Someone was always with me. Like they thought I’d try somethin’ again, y’know?”
He makes an affirmative sound. So she’ll know he’s listening, and also because he does know, or he can sort of imagine. But he’s understanding that just as she’ll never truly know the horror that gave him his scars, he’ll never be able to be with her in that moment when she tried to make herself die. It’s not a question of will, or desire, or love. It’s simply that he isn’t her. She isn’t him. He wants to be with her, wants to be with her more than he’ll ever want anything, but all he can be is himself.
All he needs to be is himself.
“And I mean… I got it, but I was already sure I wasn’t gonna. I didn’t want to. Not anymore. But they drove me crazy, hangin’ around me like that. Mama and Shawn and Maggie… And Daddy, Daddy was the worst.” She’s definitely smiling now, smiling and it’s bleeding into him, pulling at the corners of his mouth. Fond, amused, a little bittersweet and a little sad, and here her smile cracks and he wants so desperately to hold her. “He was so scared. I didn’t know how to tell him I was sorry. I tried, but he… And you know, the really bad part was I knew he would’ve helped me if he could. He would’ve done anythin’. But he didn’t know how. And I didn’t know how to help him help me. Any of ‘em. It wasn’t that they didn’t love me. Wasn’t that I didn’t love them. We just didn’t know how.”
He’s silent. Letting her go, letting her say it how she needs to say it. And it’s so much more than enough to sit and listen to her voice, so close, right there with him. Musical, like singing even when she’s telling him about this, even when she’s opening her own box of darkness and letting him see inside.
So much like singing. Because she needs to. She can’t not.
“After they got me home, it was pretty much the same. They never left me alone. Not once. Maggie always in my room, or Mama—Daddy and Shawn not so much but they were still there—and the thing was… They hadn’t really started me on the medication yet, and I wasn’t talkin’ to a doctor, but I could already feel it… goin’ away. It was. Not a lot, but it was like… There was this crack in me, and the light was gettin’ in. And all I wanted to do was be there and feel it, and I couldn’t do that with them all over me.
“So soon as I could, soon as I had a chance at all, I got outta there. I got outta the house. I got outside. It was spring, early, and everythin’ was startin’ to really get green, and that’s… I knew the mill was there, the ruins, but that was when I started spendin’ time in them. Just… Goin’ there. Bein’ by myself. Thinkin’.”
She pauses, a long pause, breathing slow and deep, and that’s when he feels the tears on his face, and he doesn’t try to stop them.
My girl, you’re so blessed.
“When I started talkin’ to my doctor, she said I should keep doin’ it. Said it was good for me. And she… She gave me the book.”
She stops again and her breath is shaking, and he knows it’s her too, her tears, them together, and it makes no difference that he can’t touch her or see her, because she’s with him in every way that matters.
“She said… People love you. You need them. You can’t live without them. They help you. But in the end the only person who can make you well is you.”
He waits until he’s sure she’s done speaking. Waits longer. Gives her words a chance to sink into him, takes them in and folds himself around them. He had no way of knowing that she would say this. Except he did. He completely did. Wiping at his face, pulling in his own shuddering breaths, he knows he knew. Knows he was ready to hear it.
That’s why he called. That’s why he reached for her.
“Beth,” he whispers. “Listen.”
It’s not in the book. He wouldn’t need the book even if it was. He remembers every word.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
(poem is “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver)