So my friend A.J. Brown and I recently decided to switch blogs, and he’s sent me a really interesting (and entertaining) article about when it’s okay to write a story and when a story is too much. If you’re interested in reading my interview with A.J. on his blog, check it out here: A Spattering of Blood with A.J. Brown. While you’re over there, check out A.J.’s other cool stuff, including more interviews with great writers (including ME!) and some really great free fiction. With no further ado, here is the very talented A.J. Brown!
Hey, is this thing on?
Whoa, there it goes. Thanks back there, whatever your name is.
Good evening. I’m AJ and these fine folks you see behind me are the myriad of personalities that hang out in my head. Some you may recognize. Others not so much.
They are with me today to (hopefully sit still and be quiet. They are so much like three year olds) ask two questions: When is a story too much? And, when is it okay to tell a story? We start with Dwight Patterson, who is on my left here. Yeah, the one with the slicked back black hair and the tuxedo with the red vest (he likes to dress like Dracula for some reason). Dwight, if you will.
DP: **Ahem** When is a story too much?
Thank you, Dwight. You can have a seat. Go ahead. Have a seat. No, leave the owner of this establishment alone—she’s friends with Herbie and you know how protective he is of his friends…
To answer the question: A story is too much when a reader says it is. Wait. You in the back, sit down until we’re done and hear us out. Mr. Blackwords is itching to get hold of someone today and you won’t like him when he gets hold of you. As I was saying, a story is too much when a reader says it is. However, it depends on the reader. Some folks are just too squeamish and don’t like a bunch of details. Some folks want all the gory information they can get. Others, like me, prefer when things are implied, not so much shown in all its glory.
Each reader is different. Like a person with a high tolerance for pain, readers either have or do not have a high threshold for explicit details. My friend, Stephen W. Sommerville, writes graphic stories that are quite bizarre. A person with a weak stomach or who gets disgusted easily probably shouldn’t read his work. By skipping over Sommerville’s work the reader would miss out on many unique storylines and interesting characters. I find his writing strangely entertaining even though he pushes the envelope near its limits.
Another friend of mine, the talented Paula Ray, writes in more subtle tones, layering her poems and stories in a manner that the details are a little more shocking in their revelation than someone who shows you everything unfolding. She would be on the opposite end of the scale as Mr. Sommerville.
In my story, Rise up Nanking, published in the Ruthless Anthology (yeah, shameless plug, I know) there are vivid descriptions of what happened in what has been dubbed the ‘Rape of Nanjing’ (which happened in the early 1930’s). I researched this event and found my stomach churning as I read of the atrocities of what happened. When I wrote the story there was no way to sidestep the reality of the events, the brutality and hatred that were behind them. By the end of the story I was disgusted with myself for writing it. I pushed myself to a limit that I rarely step over. I will probably never write something as brutal ever again.
Most stories fall somewhere between Paula and Stephen, pushing the boundaries a little, but not stepping over them. Rise up Nanking was closer to Sommerville than Paula.
To this I want to add, as readers, we all know what we like and don’t like. If you begin reading a book and it’s not to your liking because it is either too subtle or too in your face or not enough of either of those, then do one of two things: either keep reading and you may find you like the story or put it down and find something more to your liking. However—and I stress the word HOWEVER—do not blame the writer if you don’t like it. It’s not your cup of tea. Fine, just move on to another tale and sip the words from that cup.
Crashman Jack would you mind coming forward? Stop snickering. So what if he looks like a Lego crash test dummy—he races cars after all.
CMJ: When is it okay to tell a story?
Thank you, Crashman Jack.
This is sometimes a touchy subject. I wrote Rise up Nanking nearly eighty years after it happened. Most folks outside of Asia don’t even know about the events. So, when is it okay to write about a tragedy? This is another of those questions that begs the reader to answer it. In my opinion, it is okay to write a story when the story wants to be told. Stephen King wrote a piece that appears in the collection Just After Sunset. The story is called The Things They Left Behind and it’s based on the events in a man’s life, post 9/11. This man cheated death by not going to work that day. Many of his co-workers did not have such fortunate fates, having been at work when the planes hit the towers. The collection came out in 2008, just barely seven years after the events of 9/11. Too soon? For some, maybe. For those with wounds that run deep from the loss of loved ones or from being in the towers and barely escaping or from skipping out on work that day, the story could bring back some terrifying moments; some heart-wrenching moments, some guilt…
Here in South Carolina the name Susan Smith brings anger to a lot of folks, especially in the Union area where she killed her two children by strapping them into their car seats and driving her car into a pond. Though the event happened over fifteen years ago, the tragic loss of the two children, aged three and one, tears at the hearts of those who lived there at the time. A few years later I was reading a short story collection titled Robert Bloch’s Psychos. In it a story by Jane Yolen, A Southern Night, appeared. It was clearly about the Susan Smith murders and written just three years after she committed them. Too soon? Maybe for the folks in Union, but for the rest of the world who only caught glimpses of the story in the news, maybe not.
I have read dark stories about post-Katrina events, stories about the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, other stories, much darker than King’s, about 9/11. They are what they are.
This is my take on the question: Life creates stories for us. Tragedy, more often than not, is the basis of most good stories. Whether that tragedy is a love story where the two lovers take their own lives at the end because of feuding families, or that of two Hobbits in their quest to destroy a ring that should have never been made, or the story of a great boat sinking that was supposedly unsinkable, tragedy creates most stories.
Ed Gein, a young man turned killer, is the basis for many characters in horror movies, from Norman Bates in Pscyho to Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs to Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Real people are the basis of great fictional characters, even if their views on life and death are skewed.
Whether it’s a mother killing her children or war or planes crashing into buildings or love lost to betrayal or death or even a misunderstanding, tragedy is the foundation of most great stories and their characters. Tragedy can’t be avoided—it happens daily. Take a look around you. Someone you know has been abused. Someone you know has just lost a loved one or a job. Somewhere in the world there is a fire, a hurricane, tornado, thunderstorm, tsunami, flood… you get the point. Lives are affected everyday by the events around them.
Life is a story, made up of chapters and many of those chapters are not sweet and neat and tied into a little ribbon. It’s not always happily ever after. So, when is the right time to tell a story? My answer is simple: When a story needs to be told… After all, life and its tragedies are the basis of most stories…
Thank you folks here at the Breathe Compound for having me and the boys. Now, I will take my leave and try to gather up all the personalities that came with me… Herbie… wait, put the needles down…
Michelle thanks for doing this. It was a lot of fun.