“The Dragon” / Writing Down the Terror


The Dragon

+++++He felt it before he saw it, the terrible familiar heat that heralded its coming. It had no need for horn or claw; the searing wind of its approach alone licked at his hands and weeping face, burning and flaying the skin as it came. It was larger this time, more fierce than before; and he, weaker, wilted inside and out like a flower kept too long from the rain.
+++++And so, when he might have charged, he stood his ground. And when he might have stood his ground, he fled. And when he might yet have fled and found shelter, he fell quivering to the ground, and lay there as if struck dead.
+++++But he was not dead, and he did not smell dead. And though an immense shadow had fallen over him, and no light could reach him there, it had no need for eyes then; for it had other and older ways of seeing, against which armour was no proof, against which there was nothing but nakedness. And in the center of that nakedness, it saw a thing dark and vile that pleased it, and with a voice that came from no natural place it spoke thus into the darkness:

“Wicked waif! unworthy,
Woeful wretch! What threshings
Reaped from hate and hurt you
Hurl from sinner’s innards!
Words you pour are poison—
Poor, unfit for spitting.
That is why you walk these
Wastes alone and throneless.”

+++++Of its claws, its horns, its bottomless black eyes, its merciless breath, much has already been said in the Hanes, which are florid in their detail on these things. But save enough breath to utter these words—barely enough to stir the blistering air—none of these things had any part in his unmaking. He was not cut that day, nor crushed, nor burned alive; there was no spilling of flesh or bursting of bones. But there in that place he was unmade just the same, and none thereafter who came to see him could say there was a man of great heart and courage left behind his empty brown eyes—if, indeed, there ever had been.


Afterword: Writing Down the Terror

I don’t talk often about my writing process, in part because I think process is different for everybody. Writers who are hard at work in their “process” are essentially out on a hot date with their Muse: because their own Muse is invariably the right Muse for them, that date invariably pays off—not always with a wild night and a hot breakfast, as we might wish, but at the very least with a few sparks, a parting on good terms, a promise to see each other again soon.

Aping somebody else’s process is a little like taking their Muse on a date. You can go to new places, explore new things, bring home a few new tricks to please and delight your own Muse. And yet if you’re going to keep on seeing somebody Else’s muse, you’d better make sure to clear it with your own Muse and, ideally, come to an arrangement where this wild promiscuity is tempered with affection works out for everybody. Muses are loving, but they can be jealous lovers; spend too much time with another writer’s process, and things are more than likely to suffer with your own. If you want to drink like Dashiell Hammett, don’t do it because you want to become one of the world’s greatest writers: do it because you want to become one of the world’s greatest drunkards, because that’s all it’s going to teach you.

With those caveats said, I’m going to let you in on an intensely personal part of my prose-writing process in the hopes that it’ll help you be mindful of your own—and maybe even learn a few new tricks. You’re welcome to date my Muse, as it were; we have a pretty happy open relationship. But like all writers’ Muses she’s best suited to me. With that in mind…

There are certain things a writer has to be in a good and level headspace to do. Editing, generally speaking, is one of those things. I can’t edit tired and I can’t edit mad. So after you draft, going over things with a level, neutral head is an absolute must. But like many people with artistic temperaments I’m prone to feel feelings, some of which have interfered with my writing in the past. In most cases I write things more or less front-to-back, like most people, and edit the same way. Even with large projects, which have to get blocked out a little, I start with “CHAPTER ONE” and end with “THE END.”

What I’ve been experimenting with lately, largely as a means of making more productive use of my time, is blocking out scenes and passages by their “emotional colour,” separating scenes of great and serious joy from scenes of absurdist humour, scenes of torrential grief from scenes of bittersweet, poignant sadness. I separate scenes of white-hot rage from scenes of cold anger—and for the most part, I know which sleazy corners of the Facebook comment threads to turn to when I want to get in the right headspace for either of those.

When I plot out the scenes & passages I’m going to need, I assign a tone and emotional colour to the big ones, and if I’m not in that emotional headspace when I get to them, I leave a placeholder and pass them over. If I miraculously am in the right headspace for something, I’ll sit down and do it immediately, even if it’s four chapters down the road. I draft the scene while I’m feeling the corresponding feels, or at least the shade of the corresponding feels. Maybe I’m not as terrified of my bills or that near-miss car accident as the hero is of that leap of faith off the skyscraper, but I seem to have better luck capturing the right timbre for these scenes when I’m in tune with my emotions on a semi-subconscious level.

There’s precedence for this in the acting world among “Method Actors” of the Lee Strasberg school. “The Method” is itself a highly variant thing, a 19th-century system derived by Russian actor Konstantin Stanislavsky, subsequently “corrupted” by Strasberg, and subsequently “corrupted” again by Stella Adler and others, who… well, the history of the Stanislavsky Method is a long complicated thing. Basically it changes over time, a little bit like an acting-school telephone game; but at the core of the process are techniques of direct emotional experience—drawn from imagination in the case of Stella Adler and late Stanislavsky, and from direct personal memory in the case of Lee Strasberg and early Stanislavsky.

I guess the process of blocking out my scenes this way and connecting them to actual emotional memory is closer to the hardline Strasberg approach, which is not universally well-received. Drawing on personal emotion and exploiting it for commercial art is something Stella Adler called “sick and schizophrenic,” for one. Whether it’s upped my game or raised the quality of my work is up for debate. (You should buy, read, and/or agree to represent my work if you’d like to make an informed judgment!). But the one thing I can definitely call it is “therapeutic.” It’s made living with myself considerably easier, and it’s also made me far more productive as a writer, as long as I keep a few scenes of the appropriate tone and flavour on hand. Speaking of Dashiell Hammett, I ought to write more noir: the characters have an otherworldly tiredness about them, and that does seem after all to be my dominant mental state these days.

The therapeutic dimension comes in when the demons fly out and into the work—and mostly, thankfully, stay there. I’m reminded favourably of the absurd magic system in Dungeons & Dragons (oh, come on, you know it’s absurd). The system was one stolen from Jack Vance’s 1950 fantasy anthology The Dying Earth (which named the Dying Earth subgenre!), in which wizards studied spells into their heads, but then the act of casting purged the memorization from their mind. Writing down the terror (or the anxiety, or the rage, or the misery) seems to do a pretty good job of purging it. Joy actually builds joy: the pleasure of writing joyful things is self-sustaining and leaves me feeling great. But misery usually ends up on the page, or at least, the portion I keep to myself is much reduced by the cathartic process.

One of the hardest things of living with mood swings is the time that’s lost to paralysis, in part because we swim against rather than with the emotional current. Not to get all esoterically psychedelic, man, but the centering derived from rolling with the emotional punches and throwing them, Aikido-style, onto the page is one of the best responses I’ve ever developed to being a person whose pesky feelings and emotions often get in the way of a seriously funny story.

That’s way too much of a preface to “The Dragon” (so much, in fact, that I think I’ll turn this into an “Afterword.” This little piece of flash-fic I wrote tonight to got me out of a really unpleasant headspace. It’s not specifically a scene I’ve pulled off the pile: scenes of misery are in pretty high demand in a Donald Trump election year, and so I don’t have that many on the stack ready to go. But it’s worked well enough that I may chop it up in a mercenary fashion, and put it to use somewhere else. But that part of the writing process is for a sober—and rested—mind to tackle.


P.S. Yes, that poem is a dróttkvætt, which is mercilessly hard to write properly in Old Norse and harder still in modern English. If any passing experts in Skaldic verse can verify how close I am to proper metrics, I’d be grateful.

P.P.S. On a final note: the stunning artwork I’ve used as the featured image for this entry was posted on “funnyjunk.com.” But I’m sure that’s not the original artist’s name. It may be a Turin vs. Glaurung matchup from The Children of Hurin. If you know the artist, please let me know so I can give proper credit where credit is due.


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