My Biggest Accomplishment

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Many of you know that I’m interested in public speaking.

I joined the Toastmasters organization in 2014, both to improve my skills and with an eye toward their highest honors. This is a little unusual for me – I’m not much of a joiner, and I usually guard my free time pretty well. But speaking is something I enjoy, something I do well, and something I could theoretically spin into a career change at some point. Getting the initials after my name seems like a good start to that idea.

(Also unusual, in that I’m not much of a planner, but that’s neither here nor there.)

One of the last speeches you give to your club is a “Persuasive” speech, where your goal is to get your listeners to agree with your points, or take some concrete action. The only way I could measure this, I thought, was to convince people to buy a copy of my first Gentleman Ghouls novel, FAMISHED: THE FARM.

Bear in mind my club is largely composed of women slightly older than myself. I expected horror would be a hard sell, and that if I could make my case, I’d be able to judge my success. I used my earlier blog post on the value of horror as the baseline for the speech and amped up the ending with a call to action using horror as a means of self-knowledge and self-improvement.

80% of the audience bought a copy.

This would be enough of a success, but two other things happened that I want to share.

After that speech, we went into “Table Topics.” This is impromptu speaking, where the facilitator calls up members and gives them a question to answer. I’m going to my first Table Topics competition in two weeks, so I go first in the meeting.

I delivered a three-minute speech on confidence and its appearances, detailing my own journey from low self-esteem to the raging egomanic you all know and worship today. I also gave pointers on how to fake that confidence, which is in many ways the first step I took to real confidence.

After that speech, every member got up and spoke. All of them, even one who suffers most from nerves and a fear of speaking. He later said that my one-two punch about facing your fear and showing confidence inspired him to get up and speak, and some of the others backed him up.

But it gets better.

One of our newest members is a college student and personal trainer at our fitness center. My previous speech was based on my post about the benefits of books and reading. Not only did he buy a copy of my book, but he came up to tell me that speech had inspired him to get his very. First. Library card.

I personally inspired someone to go to the public library, sign up, and start reading for fun.

I’ve done some cool things in my life, and many things I’m proud of.

But knowing that my love of books and the institution of libraries got someone who hadn’t read for pleasure in years in the door?

Yeah. I might put that one on my tombstone.

The Killer Summer

Kid’s games. Child’s play. Call them what you will. But that night?

That night turned anything but fun.

We were … fifteen, sixteen? Old enough to better, young enough to bounce back. We were sprawled out on the hammock in our big back yard, a rat’s nest of rope and cables strung between metal poles that jutted out of the ground at a 45 degree angle.

There were four of us: Myself, my sister Kat, and my two dear friends – Lance and Eddie – sharing grapes plucked from my mother’s garden. The season was summer, with endless twilights that stretched into forever, and the evening was cool enough that playing outside sounded like a better idea than biking to the arcade.

The game … was Killer.

Some of you were born before me, in a time when casual talk of murder between children wasn’t considered normal. Some of you were born after me, in a time when it was cause for school lockdowns. But we knew the game of old, and we played it to win.

We drew teams. Me and Eddie, against Kat and Lance.

We drew straws, and we lost. Eddie and I would become the hunted.

Scared? We weren’t scared. We knew the score and we laughed at the danger. They couldn’t outsmart us. We’d make it fifteen minutes, dead easy; and then it would be our turn to make a kill.

The killers walked into the house, to get a Coke and give us our head start. The discussion was brief, the answer was clear – the garden. It was late enough in the year that the cornstalks were high and the grapevines were full. That’d be the place to hide.

We had some time. Five minutes. We feinted into the darkness, toward the root cellar, laying a false trail; just in case. Lance was known to cheat, pulling aside the blinds to spy upon his victims. Then we crouched, and doubled back through the night; then lay down in the garden on our bellies, smelling the rich, black earth.

We watched the back door of the house carefully. No sign. Five minutes had passed.

They’d gone out the front door, then. A legal move. A few minutes passed before we caught sight of Kat, slinking along the wall of the house toward the root cellar.

Our feint had worked. We held our breath as she moved, as quiet as death itself, then threw open the cellar doors. We laughed quietly, behind our hands. No luck, Little Nikita, no luck.

And over our laughter, I heard the sound behind us.

I turned. Lance, hovering over us, less than a body’s length away. They’d split up, and he’d jogged around the block to come through a neighbor’s yard, had made his way into our hiding spot.

“MOVE!” I yelled, and scrambled to my feet. Eddie, taller and lankier, jerked himself upright and into the lead. We sprinted into the night as Lance swiped at me with one bare hand. No tag – no kill.

Eddie was in front of me. The night had grown darker. My heart was in my throat. I turned my head. Right behind me. Just out of reach. I turned back. No Eddie. He had dived to the right, somersaulting. Why?

The metal pole of our hammock support caught me right in my sternum.

I don’t remember falling. I don’t remember anything except being on my back, staring at the stars, trying to breathe. Lance told me later it was the worst thing he had ever heard – like a backward scream, air being sucked  into my bruised lungs with a terrible, strangled cry.

We were no longer hunter and hunted. Three voices went up at once, calling for help. Calling for my parents.

I woke up in hospital. The heart is a muscle, and I’d managed to bruise three ventricles. The skin of my chest was smeared yellow and purple, the color of smashed grapes from my mothers’ garden. No running – not for days, maybe weeks. No physical exertion. Doctor’s orders. It was a month of lying still, reading comic books, eating ice cream.

Lousy night.

But a killer summer.

The Value of Horror

Fear. It is one of our most primal, most basic emotions. At one time, it served a vital purpose in our very survival. Yet today, our fears are very different monsters than those which haunted our aboriginal ancestors. The modern era is marked by a more free-floating, less tangible dread; one which cannot simply be outrun or outnumbered. How do we deal with this fear?

Author Steven King has famously said, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” Today, I’m going to suggest that we can sometimes best calm our nerves by stimulating them with books like mine – in short, through horror novels.

Throughout history, horror fiction has let people externalize their fears. Beginning with the Gothic era, writers used or created mythological monsters to highlight those things they feared most.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula looks at the fears of female liberation, and of the foreigner arriving on British shores. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a cautionary tale to those who would push the boundaries of science and technology too far. And Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde warns of the de-evolution of morality and society threatened by Darwin’s theory of evolution.

In the 1920s, HP Lovecraft turned the Gothic on its head. He presented a fiction in which the universe itself was inherently opposed to sanity and life – brought on partly by the madness that was World War I. In the fifties, the fear of international Communism brought us The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and countless other books and films depicting an alien invasion of America – a disruption of the postwar middle-class. And in the eighties, any number of slasher villains targeted the sexual transgressions of a generation that seemed to be growing up and apart far too quickly for adult tastes.

Recently, the zombie has returned to the forefront of American horror culture; and it’s a clear reflection of our increasing polarization. Whether you despise Dittoheads or preach against political correctness, it’s easier than ever to see those who don’t agree with you as an unthinking, unstoppable horde. This is not to mention the post-9/11 fears of radical terrorism and illegal immigration.

And today, many authors – myself included – dive into the very real sense of alienation and isolation created by our supposedly interconnected world. How well do you know those you are closest to? What might they do when they are out of your sight? Can we ever truly know one another? Do we really want to?

This, then, is the history of horror. How can we put its monsters into service?

Horror provides us with a remarkable path towards self-actualization. When we can recognize our fears, particularly those which we have buried most deeply, we are able to bring shining truths out of our own inner darkness.  In writing the protagonist of Famished, I found myself becoming a stronger, more accomplished individual. I also found greater empathy for those who were raised in a different manner than I, and for those with less education.

Additionally, when we read horror, more than in any other genre, we experience what the Greek tragedians called Catharsis: The process of releasing, and therefore providing relief from, our strong or repressed emotions. In fact, one of the earliest Gothic writers, Anne Radcliffe, stated that she wished her works “to expand the soul and awaken the faculties to a higher degree of life.”

After the monster is slain, after the mists part, we look out into the sunshine. We experience that lifting of tension which has stalked us throughout the pages of our books. We are comforted by the mundane return to the office, by the presence of our significant other, lying safe beside us. The victory of the hero is our victory, and their survival reminds us that we are alive!

Opponents of the horror genre sometimes make the case that watching or reading this matter desensitizes us to violence. In reality, the assertion that violent media results in violent activity has never been borne out by a scientific study. Others claim that their faith instructs them to turn their eyes from this material, though this requires a fairly stretched interpretation of holy texts. And, of course, some people are simply afraid of being afraid.

Yet as Emerson says, “He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.”

You know in your heart that this is true – that life and the world call us to face our fears, to acknowledge our secret horrors, and to come away stronger as a result.

The Benefits of Books

I am a good reader, but no longer a voracious one. There was a time I could polish off a book in a day. Now, with many conflicting pressures, it’s more difficult to read at all. The research below, though, is convincing me to pick up another paperback tonight …

A 2014 study from Common Sense Media shows that kids read for fun less and less as they get older.  45% of 17-year-olds report they read by choice only once or twice a year. And according to a 2013 poll carried out by the Huffington Post, 41 percent of adult respondents had not read a fiction book in the past year; while 42 percent had not read a nonfiction book.

There was overlap in those numbers, but I find this shocking. Nearly half of all respondents have not picked up a book in the past year.

Why do I consider this a problem? Well, it’s partly selfish, isn’t it? As a writer, I obviously want more people reading!

Jokes aside, the primary reason this concerns me is that reading is fundamental – particularly to our mental health. And increasingly, research shows that it impacts our social health as well.

Consider first the stress relief benefits of reading. We’re coming out of the holiday season, and everyone could use a little less stress in their lives. According to research carried out by cognitive neurologist Dr. David Lewis, reading for as little as six minutes in silence reduced subjects’ stress levels by 68%. This was the greatest reduction he saw, compared to subjects listening to music, taking a walk, having a cup of tea, or playing video games. In fact, reading was the only activity which was found to reduce subjects’ heart rates below their starting levels.

Reading’s impact on our mental health is the most researched aspect. Researchers at Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy in Atlanta took brain scans of resting students, who were then asked to read sections of a novel over nine nights. The students’ brains were scanned each morning following the nightly reading assignment, and then again daily for five days after they had finished the book.

The scans revealed heightened connectivity within the students’ brains on the mornings following the assignments, and the changes persisted for the five days after the students had finished the novel. Both the areas of the brain associated with language comprehension and that associated with sensations and movement were enhanced.

Those subjects were university students, but they’re not the only ones who benefit from reading. New research from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found elderly people who regularly read or play mentally challenging games are 2 ½ times less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease. And the journal of Neurology found those who engaged in mentally stimulating activities (such as reading) experience a 32% slower memory decline compared to their peers.

But the most fascinating aspect to me is reading’s effect on our social health. Recent research published in the journal Science showed that reading literary works (though, interestingly, not popular fiction) cultivates a skill known as “theory of mind,” which NPR describes as the “ability to ‘read’ the thoughts and feelings of others.”

According to the researchers, familiarity with fiction, self-reported empathy, and performance on an advanced affective Theory of Mind test have been correlated. Fiction seems also to expand our knowledge of others’ lives, helping us recognize our similarity to them. In fact, fiction may change how, not just what, people think about others. Researchers went on to submit that fiction affects Theory of Mind processes because it forces readers to engage in mind-reading and character construction, thus increasing our capabilities for empathy.

So let’s review: The simple act of reading can reduce your stress, grow your mind, halt mental decline, and increase your ability to identify with the people around you.

That’s why I want to encourage you to visit your local library this week – and get back to the fundamentals.

Naturally, I recommend starting with any of the fine books from Apocalypse Ink Productions.

(Adapted from a December speech.)

Music of the Fears – January 2015

Scholar and gentleman Michael Grasso of the Renfusa blog pointed me to this article on teaching yourself creativity.

It’s an interesting read – an article I’ll likely mine for more blog posts in the future on topics such as the role of personality in creativity, my collection of self-help books on how to engage the creative mind, and the impact of a positive outlook on your own creativity.

Today, I’ll start with this quote:

“Most creative people have figured out a way to do the incubation thing—whether it’s meditation or staring out the window or taking long walks so their ideas can percolate,” Jung says. “It’s finding that magic space where you’re not actively engaged with the external world, and not just surfing the Internet.”

That kind of woolgathering was once my stock in trade. My bread and pickles. The trait that’s annoyed more of my teachers and romantic interests than anything else.

The arrival of the internet has made it both more difficult and simpler. More difficult, because left to my own devices, I’ll surf Pinterest and Reddit for hours at a time; and nothing kills my creativity faster than that aimless browsing.

Simpler, because I have four primary means of incubating: Meditation, Exercise, Driving … and Music.

Of course, one of the things the internet does really, really well is introduce me to music I would never have found in my local record stores or on the radio.

My alpha readers for FAMISHED: THE RANCH are getting notes on what music I listened to while writing various chapters. Since it’s a Friday before a long weekend, I decided it would be a friendly gesture to point others in the same direction.

When I’m not writing, my tastes trend to ska and hard rock. When writing, though, other people’s words get in the way. As a result, most of what I use to get into the incubating stage is ambient, electronic, or in a foreign language.

Most importantly – if you love the track, buy it! If you love the artist, let them know! Musicians, writers, and all other creatives need your support.

How about you? If music helps you get into the mood, share the love in a comment below.

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