On Themes, and Horror

fog lolly

I may actually have to turn the heat on in some point. I love living in a temperate zone where I don’t have a lot of heating or cooling costs, but when my toes get numb even in socks it’s time for the indoors climate adjustment.

Work on Harmony has taken a strange turn. I’ve recently read quite a few pieces on Shirley Jackson, and this one in particular struck a chord. Quote: “The literary effect we call horror turns on the dissolution of boundaries.” This has been knocking around in my head for a few days now, and finally I chased down the tail end of the thought it spurred, grabbed it, and dragged it out into the light.

I don’t ever want to write YA again, for a variety of reasons. Yet there’s Rattlesnake Wind, and now Harmony, stories where the protagonist is a teenage girl. I’ll probably have to self-pub the former, since several YA publishers are demanding it be watered down before they’ll accept it and I am unwilling to do so. The latter most probably won’t see publication as it’s merely a gift for my agent, but neither of them are “young adult.” They have teenage protagonists, but they don’t fit easily into the YA genre. Consequently, nobody would know where to market or shelve them. C’est la (publishing) vie.

In both of them, the dissolution of boundaries happen. Women are constantly forced to endure invasions of their bodily sovereignty, and the pressure on young women to accept such things as the status quo is immense. You must be thin enough, pretty enough but not TOO pretty, independent enough but not to the point where it makes men uncomfortable, you are “upset” instead of “passionate”, you must cut and bind and shape and sculpt yourself to fit into a narrow, always-moving ideal–and if you do not, others will. Your body isn’t your own, it’s for people to make judgments (and catcalls) about.

Both stories qualify as “horror” for other reasons, but I had not seen this commonality in them. Also, in both the theme of bodily (and psychic) sovereignty under assault shows up. The strange thing is, I didn’t know that was a theme in Rattlesnake until I started thinking about it today. I didn’t even realize it was part of Harmony. It’s not quite blindness. I think it’s more not seeing the forest for the trees, in a way.

One of the questions I used to get in writing classes was “how do I put a theme in my work?” My answer: you don’t. You just focus on being honest, not looking away, not punking out, and the themes will happen. You won’t be able to swing a dead cat without hitting one. The time to worry about a theme and highlight it, if such a thing needs to be done, is in revision. Trying to “insert” a theme is a short road to damnation in the form of bullshit, and readers are allergic to that. Even if they were not, it is to be hoped that a writer aims to avoid the fragrance.

I tend not to see themes in my stories until an editor or my writing partner points them out. (There’s a funny story about the Valentine series in that respect, but it’s–say it with me–another blog post.) Once it’s pointed out, I feel like I was blind not to notice it. This is why I say trust the work, and trust the Muse. Your job is to show up, to get your ass in the chair and your fingers producing the words so you can catch the magic when it drops. Themes will happen almost to spite and despite you.

One of the more exotic parts of revision is coming across passages I don’t remember writing, especially when they solve some deep-seated plot problem I wasn’t even aware of during the zero draft in a particularly elegant way. The sensation is close to being haunted–a sense that some other intelligence was at work while I was in a creative fugue state. The idea that I’m not quite in control of what comes through in my stories used to be incredibly disconcerting, but parenting, at least, has taught me that total control is neither advisable nor possible in this mad, messy, beautiful thing we call life.

These are my somewhat rambling thoughts this chilly Tuesday morning. The weather report swears there will be thunder later, which I will like but Miss B will not, and Trundles will ignore. There is chicken soup to be made, with plenty of garlic to make my corpse uninhabitable for the cold threatening to fill my nose and knock out my immune system.

Over and out.