by Karen Ullo
“And yet from this – from evil – will come good…. Perhaps evil is the crucible of goodness. And perhaps even Satan – Satan, in spite of himself – somehow serves to work out the will of God.” – William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist
In all the ink that has been spilled about the twentieth century heyday of Catholic fiction— that Golden Age of Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, J.R.R. Tolkien, Evelyn Waugh, et. al.--only rarely do we hear mention of William Peter Blatty. Yet Blatty was a practicing Catholic, and he is certainly a major twentieth century author whose work contains an explicit presentation of Catholic truths. The plot of The Exorcist hinges on the Church and its representative priests being the only source of Good capable of defeating True Evil. Blatty even called it “an apostolic work, to help people in their faith.” So where, in all our recent literary pining, is the nostalgia for The Exorcist?
The Exorcist is not a perfect book. Personally, I find parts of it gratuitous, and I wish Blatty had been clearer in the end: that he had spelled it out in no uncertain terms that it is Christ working through Fr. Karras who conquers the demon, not the erstwhile exorcist himself. It is legitimate to argue the merits of Blatty’s Hollywood-infused style of storytelling versus the more traditional literary styles of the other authors I mentioned, though I, as a trained screenwriter, have to side with Blatty. It’s fair to claim that his portrayal of demonic possession isn’t accurate, though I prefer to give fiction writers license to err on the side of drama. However, I suspect there is really only one reason why Catholic literary circles so often omit The Exorcist from the “canon” of twentieth century Catholic literature.
It’s because it scares the bejesus out of us.
Horror is the most maligned, most marginalized of all literary genres, the one least likely to be regarded as “serious” literature. After all, it usually traffics in ghosts, werewolves, vampires, witches, zombies, and other such fictional creatures, so why should the serious mind waste time pondering them? From a Catholic perspective, these are also creatures whose existence in the real world would run contrary to Church teaching. Add to this the fact that the twentieth century offered a never-ending buffet of mindless, soulless horror stories, slasher films and novels that glorified bloodlust, which rarely bothered to contribute anything of moral or literary worth to our society. Blatty and a few others, such as Dean Koontz and Tim Powers, made for rare exceptions. The easiest thing for a Catholic or other Christian to do was to brush all horror aside, revile it, and be done with the whole genre. However, in doing so, we misunderstood the true purpose of literary monsters and the genuinely spiritual roots of the horror genre.
Let’s go back another hundred years. The nineteenth century produced a veritable banquet of literary horror, stories that took such deep root in the Western imagination that we now remake and reimagine them endlessly, until even their very names have come to seem like clichés. Frankenstein. Dracula. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Yet the age of Gothic horror was not one of ludicrous caricatures, but one that gave us enduring works about spiritual crisis from some of the era’s greatest authors. It’s difficult to relegate Victor Hugo to the literary sidelines, yet it was a horror novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, that first vaulted him to literary fame. A Christmas Carol may not be Charles Dickens’s finest masterpiece, but it is certainly one of his most popular works—and what is it to be visited by four ghosts in one night but horror?
The purpose of a horror story is to personify sin, often but not always in a supernatural form. Such stories allow us to take the part of ourselves that is the ugliest, the most malignant, the most intransigent and terrifying—the part that is already dead—and give it a shape with which we can grapple. The literary monster comes in varying degrees of embodied-ness and varying degrees of evil, ranging from Quasimodo, malformed but still capable of goodness, to the pure evil of Blatty’s demon. But the literary monster is always an outward projection of some part of the brokenness within our human souls. This remains true whether or not the author is a believer; it requires no religious conviction to be disgusted by the hideous deeds of which mankind, and one’s own self, are capable.
It is the nature of the literary monster to represent sin, the fallen state of man, which is a spiritual truth; therefore, it is the nature of horror stories to be vehicles for portraying spiritual struggle. It is not an accident that the nineteenth century spawned the greatest horror stories ever told. It was a century of great spiritual upheaval, one that questioned and corroded the traditions of Christianity, when adherents of Science began to position themselves as enemies of Faith. Yet the nineteenth century did not achieve the moral relativism of the twentieth. The ultimate source of morality had been called into question, but Good and Evil were still real things that one could speak of without being mocked. Even a serial philanderer and Catholic apostate like Victor Hugo still considered that there was such a thing as Good, and he spent his life working to reform his troubled nation.
In such a climate, it is almost inevitable that horror stories would flourish.
Read Part 2 here.
Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned (Wiseblood Books) and Cinder Allia, as well as the managing editor of Dappled Things, a quarterly journal of Catholic art and literature. She holds an MFA in screenwriting from the University of Southern California. You can find her on the web at karenullo.com.
by Angela Cybulski
Tip #2: Find a place apart.
In the film 42, rookie Jack Robinson has a major curveball to deal: his race. As the only black man in an all-white ball club in an all-white league at the height of the racial segregation issues that plagued America through the better part of the 20th century, Robinson simply cannot live where the other players live, at least initially. In a poignant scene near the beginning of the film, Robinson and his wife are taken to a place apart, a “safe” place where they can reside while he starts playing on the farm team and which enables Robinson to keep his focus on the game and on his family, rather than on the major disruptions and challenges caused by his race. This evasive action in light of the curve may not be right, but it is necessary, both for Jack’s safety and for the sustained practice of his craft.
When curveballs create an imbalance in our own creative lives, sometimes the best way to deal with them is to go somewhere else. This doesn’t mean ignoring them – just like Robinson, we still have to deal with them. However, in order to strategize the curves while continuing to practice our craft, sometimes it’s necessary to gain an objective distance. Finding a place apart allows us to acknowledge simply that the curveball exists and we realize that there may be no right way to deal with it head on right now. If Jackie had forced himself to attack the curveball his race presented to him, his family, and his ball club, he not only would have compromised all of those relationships, but he would also have compromised his ability to practice his craft in any meaningful way. Dealing with the ferocity of the curveball would have consumed him.
Often in our lives a similar thing occurs: sometimes it becomes impossible to continue writing in the place you’re used to for any number of reasons. Going someplace else doesn’t mean you can’t ever come back to where you were. It simply means that the place you had before no longer serves, no longer functions for you, the way it did before you began struggling with the curveballs.
What kind of space a writer needs and even if the writer needs a place apart depends upon a lot of factors. For myself, I need complete quiet to think, especially when I need to get into the fantasy world of the novel I’m writing. I do not thrive on noise and busy-ness, though I know some people who do. My temperament is such that I simply shut down after too much stimulation. I need time and stillness to access and process my ideas, while other writers may be able to tune out external stimuli to a greater degree.
I’ve had need to find a place apart on several occasions. One time a few years ago, the chaos of indefinite construction projects, the ensuing drastic schedule changes and nearly constant interruptions by the work crew engulfed both my writing place and time and made quiet in my home next to unknown – the conditions under which I wrote previously simply no longer existed. During that time, I was fortunate to rent a small studio space with a writer friend which allowed me to temporarily escape the chaos at home and keep writing. Eventually my schedule and life reverted will revert back to what it was and my space and time became more my own again. But for awhile at least I needed to find a place apart that would allow me to keep my head and hand in the game of writing.
More recently, emotional challenges at home have made it difficult to enter into the mental and emotional place I need to be in to write. So, when my friend invited me again to share studio space for a few months I accepted. This new space is a true blessing, a quiet room of my own where I can escape the chaos for hours at a time, a place where I can write, think, read, and recharge. Here I am given the concentrated quiet I need to enter deeply into the made up world of my novel and live there awhile. It is a place where I can breathe and think clearly and process everything that I am struggling to deal with. My place apart helps me to both work and strategize my troubles with the curveballs, enabling me to better see my way clear to dealing with them. And that’s what a place apart should do for you.
I will eventually lose this studio space and I was aware of that when I agreed to share it. That’s the thing about finding a place apart – it is for a time. Even though it will be difficult to give up the space, it will have served its purpose. The most important lesson having a room of my own has taught me is learning to commit to making the time to going there and to doing the work. It’s about committing to nurturing and practicing the work that matters. Being in a place apart has taught me to see possibility where none seemed to exist before. I’ve learned to take the initiative, find a space, and continue on with the work, in spite of the curves.
In an inspiring interview on the radio show Writers on Writing, memoirist Allison Singh Gee recounts how she composed her book, Where the Peacocks Sing: A Palace, A Prince, and the Search For Home, at a table at work on her lunch breaks. As a busy working mother with a three-year-old at home, Singh Gee said she just couldn’t find a way or a place to write except to do it somewhere else. Finding a place didn’t mean she was abandoning her child and her home. It simply meant that in order to practice her craft and do the work of being a writer she needed to find a place elsewhere – home was not conducive to doing the work she needed to do. Finding a place apart enabled Singh Gee to deal with the curveballs and complete her book.
Your place apart could be anywhere – a library, a café, a park, even your car. Perhaps it could be a real room of your own, like my situation. If you simply cannot physically LEAVE, then maybe try working outside or in another room in your home. One woman writer I know shuts herself up in the bathroom just to have some peace and quiet. Doors work wonders – don’t be afraid to close a door, position a screen, hang a drapery to block out the noise or chaos or whatever is preventing you from focusing on your writing project.
If you simply can’t grow where you’re planted remember Jackie Robinson: don’t beat your head against the wall trying to force the situation to conform to your expectations of what needs to happen or hold so tightly to your old way of doing things that you fail to think creatively about other possibilities (see Tip #1). Find another place to put down roots, even if only temporarily. Doing so can make the difference between writing and not writing. Finding a place apart can make it possible for you to stay in the game, just like Jackie.
Where do you write? How do you create a place apart to ensure your creative life is able to weather the curves?
This is part two of a six part series. You can find the others here: Series Opener, Tip #1
Accoutered in a bespoke suit and an open-collar broadcloth shirt, Kyle Toke stood in his driveway, watching the spectacle unfold. He observed it with impressive sangfroid. He was, however, distracted long enough that his wife had time to prepare herself. Mary gained the precious moments she needed to recover her wits, to exit her front door, and to conceal her panic behind the transcendent shock of watching her tax dollars at work. She’d even managed to put on a pair of blue jeans, but she’d neglected to change out of my Christmas flannel. I racked my brain and concluded that Kyle had probably seen me wearing it. He gave his wife a peck on the cheek and glared at my house. Meanwhile the police were beginning to depart the neighborhood. At last, when the Shums had suffered the worst their enemies could hope for, when their dignity was annihilated and they had groveled in the dirt like human pigs and thanked their tormentors and retreated broken into their pathetic smashed-up sty, Kyle hauled a bag from out of his shiny new black Range Rover and headed in, Mary skipping at his heels.
By the time things settled down across the street, it was getting towards seven o’clock and I was busy trimming my handsome beard. The gallery didn’t open until ten, but I wanted to avoid driving all the way back across town after dropping off the kid. I had already selected an outfit for the day. I was putting away the electric razor when three jarring raps on the front door announced a visitor. I jogged downstairs in my pajama bottoms and there was Kyle Toke, invading my porch with a baby’s car seat dangling in one monstrous paw. In the car seat was my Christmas flannel.
“Hey, Dev,” he said, as I opened the door a crack. “You got a minute?”
“Hey, Kyle. Wow. A car seat! Thank Mary for me, will you? That was a helluva scene across the street, huh?”
“Oh, that,” he said, pushing open the door sufficiently to park the car seat inside the house. “Happens all the time. It’s what they call a John Doe invasion. It’s perfectly legal.”
“How is that legal?”
“All it takes is a D.A. and a judge who plays ball. Besides, they’re just Asians.”
On the threshold of my home we stood chin to chin. His pleasant blue eyes were scanning me for signs that my interests were running counter to his. I retaliated by focusing my attention as conspicuously as possible on his big bald dome. On close examination, his ears were surprisingly small and even a little on the dainty side. One of them bore a silver hoop the size of a quarter. I tilted my head as if contemplating a bid at a peculiar auction.
“They’re just Asians?”
He grinned sociably but a lot of muscle was brooding under his carefully managed exterior.
“Mary said something about a family emergency? You doing a little babysitting?”
“What’s this about, Kyle?”
“What’s it about? To be honest, I have a very simple question about you and my wife. She said you lent her this shirt when she helped you last night?”
He was swinging my Christmas flannel back and forth like a thurible.
“As a matter of fact, she did. I guess she has nephews or something. Anyway, she was a big help. I really appreciated it.”
I took the shirt and tossed it in the vicinity of the coffee table, where it knocked over the gin bottle, which rolled over the table’s edge as I started a Hail Mary, checked myself, and watched as it crashed unbroken onto the floor and spun over and over in our direction.
“Does the baby drink martinis?”
“Your wife helped me. You can ask her what happened. The car seat is most considerate.”
“Why don’t you show me the baby?”
“Look, I’m in a rush, Kyle.”
He grabbed my arm and I shook it loose. I swore to myself I would break his nose if he tried it again.
“Listen, Dev. I don’t mind you courting my wife. Not in the least. What I do mind is you sneaking around behind my back. All I ask is that you be straight with me. I’m a good friend to my friends, if you know what I mean. Mary says she told you we have an agreement. Lots of people do. This isn’t 1950, you know. So please let’s not get stuck in the past. It isn’t healthy. People fall for those old illusions and then reality chops off their head.”
His right hand came down with a quick hard chop onto the broad meaty palm of his left. Then he grinned from ear to ear like the charming fellow he was.
“There really is a baby in the house, Kyle. A family emergency, like your wife said.”
Upstairs in his crib Virgil started bawling on cue. Kyle Toke heard it and actually blushed. I was impressed.
We are accepting Pre-Orders for Oregon Confetti, which is scheduled to be released November 10th, 2017.
By Angela Cybulski
Tip #1: Let go of the pressure.
If you’re a writer you’ve undoubtedly heard or read some variation of this standard prescription for writing success: anywhere from 2 to 6 hours daily must be spent writing or the writer simply IS NOT – either a writer or writing.
No doubt for some writers this Rx is just what the doctor ordered – i.e. the writer possesses the sort of lifestyle, temperament, and stamina that allow for that kind of daily time-on-task, and can survive on 4 or 5 hours sleep a night while still accomplishing all of the other myriad tasks of a busy family and work life.
But for other writers, even seasoned ones, this prescription could prove fatal and create a type of toxic pressure that shuts down the possibility of living an authentic writing life before it even starts.
The truth is that not all writers are cut from the same cloth. Various factors contribute to one’s ability to commit to so many hours a day, or even every day, to work on a writing project. And when life starts reeling off major curveballs, an overly demanding writing schedule can create debilitating stress around something that should be enjoyable and life-giving. This is why I advise writers to discern a more REALISTIC, and less stressful, schedule that allows you to keep flexing your writing muscles while still allowing you to attend to the have-to’s in your life and which respects your unique writing temperament. Doing so can make the difference between moving forward (albeit at a snail’s pace) and abandoning your writing altogether.
But how do you get started discerning a suitable way to let go of the pressure? Take a lesson from the ball park. Adjusting practice schedules and rehab routines for injuries is a dynamic that plays out over and over across major league baseball, with unique differences depending upon each player’s situation and need.
For example, former Los Angeles Angels star pitcher Jared Weaver was put on the disabled list a few years back for an elbow fracture and so was unable to continue his usual epic pitching schedule and performance. He needed to heal from the injury, work through rehab, and enter into a graduated practice schedule that was appropriate to managing this very serious curveball. Putting him on the same intense daily practice schedule All-Star teammate Mike Trout was managing would not have been an appropriate practice for Weaver at the time; in fact, it would have destroyed him. He needed to readjust his expectations about what he could and could not do in light of the curveball, while still staying in the game. In other words, he needed an individualized prescription that worked for him.
The point is that things change, often drastically. Ball players know this and they deal with the curves accordingly. Sometimes they're benched for an entire season because of the intensity of the curves they’re dealing with. Why can’t we writers cut ourselves some slack and reorient our vision and our schedule in consideration of the way our ability to work has changed?
The key to letting go of the pressure is to acknowledge something in your life has shifted and figure out how to modify your practice to stay in the game. It may not look like what OTHER writers are doing, but that’s not the point. The point is to do what works for YOU.
So, if you’re struggling with the curves and close to despairing of living an authentic writing life, ask yourself this question: Before your life took on the velocity and complexity of piloting a Stealth bomber, how often and for how long were you able to write? If your typical 3 hours every weeknight has suddenly become impossible, can you write for 90 minutes two or three times a week instead? Or if you were writing for an hour every morning before you went to work, can you try cutting back to 15 or 30 minutes several days a week? Taking some of the pressure off may just make it possible for you to keep writing through whatever difficult situation(s) is demanding the majority of your time, attention and energy.
In my case, before the curves started coming in hard and fast I was writing for 15-20 minutes nearly every morning, often more on some weekends . . .
(Wait! Do I hear snickering and snorting? The prelude to incredulous laughter? Before you start wondering why you are reading this and what kind of writer I could possibly be at that commitment level, do yourself a favor and check out Barbara DeMarco-Barrett’s brilliant and wholly unique book Pen On Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide To Igniting The Writer Within. The book changed my writing life: Barbara’s approach is that a book CAN BE written in just 15 minutes a day. I haven’t seen this advice in any other book on writing. And guess what? It works. Because it focuses on the main goal – COMMITMENT – and removes the major obstacle –PRESSURE – to living an authentic writing life. In a little over a year, I wrote nearly 300 pages of my novel, and I didn’t even write every day. And if you happen to be a guy, don’t let the title of Barbara’s book deter you from reading it. It’s hands-down one of the best books on the writing life out there and the guidance is applicable to every busy writer.)
Now, as I was saying . . .
. . . at one point the curves came in hard and fast and made even those precious 15 minutes nearly impossible. Like Weaver, the first thing I had to do was to make peace with the fact that THINGS HAD CHANGED, my game had changed. I couldn’t go on writing as I had been. This acceptance is essential to letting go of the pressure, both the pressure you place on yourself and the perceived pressure the “industry” places on you.
The next step was to come up with a new writing Rx that was appropriate for me. I came up with a plan to write for several hours a few weekends a month. These days got blocked out on my calendar and I made a promise to myself to set some strict boundaries to protect this time. This meant saying “no” to some – but not all – invitations and events. Remember: no one is going to come up to you with a silver tea tray and serve up hours for you to write in. You need to take the time, steal it if you have to, and make it your own. This can be done, provided you make peace with the reality that things have changed and let go of the pressure that comes from trying to follow an Rx not suited to your needs. You may not be able to control the curveballs coming your way, but you CAN control yourself and how you approach the challenges they present. Look for niches of time that work best for your writing process needs and your unique temperament. And don’t laugh off something so small as 15 minutes just because it doesn’t “look like” what you think qualifies as real writing time. I’m proof a book can come out of miniscule increments of time.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember in negotiating letting the pressure off is that you promise not to beat yourself up if you CAN’T do it. That means that if you’ve blocked off a certain time to write, but the baby cries and you need to tend her, DO IT. If your nephew’s wedding is on that weekend and attending it means you won’t write until three weeks from now, go to the wedding. If you're thoroughly wiped out from dealing with the curves and desperately need a nap, take one. Guess what? Your book will survive and will be waiting when you get back. Life happens. The key here is to be realistic and protect the time against less important commitments and distractions.
If your life or your body are in complete turmoil, chances are you have enough pressures and worries weighing on you – don’t let your writing project be one of them. Keep working, but get pragmatic: let the pressure off, come up with a plan of action for dealing with the curves, and move forward with a changed approach to the game. Eventually things will return to whatever your normal is, or there will be a new normal. Either way, following outdated or useless prescriptions inappropriate for your condition doesn’t help you. Focus on what will and move forward.
What are some of the ways you have found to let the pressure off so you could continue working on your creative project even amidst major life changes? I’d love to hear what has or has not worked for you and how you’ve been able to let go of the pressure so that you can stay in the writing game. Perhaps someone else who is struggling can benefit from your strategy!
This is part one of a six-part series. You can find the series introduction here, and you can find successive entries here:
Tip #2: Find a Place Apart
Tip #3: Stay Connected
Friends of Wiseblood,
Your donations have surpassed our original goal of $15,000. A slew of eleventh hour gifts pushed us even beyond $17,000! It is right and good for us to celebrate this, as these funds will raise Wiseblood to a new level of operation, especially in terms of publicity and distribution. I assure you that the celebration, coupled with countless prayers of gratitude, will soon give way to work.
In a recent interview with Catholic World Report I ended by insisting that "we ought to be tirelessly making and steering new naviculam, literary vessels that can navigate our contemporary waters, delivering the Catholic vision in an idiom that makes the moral depth of our heritage compelling, gives dramatic representation to the presence of grace as it appears in nature, and is charged with the beauty that shocks us out of ourselves and brings us to worship God’s goodness and submit to His truth." We have long looked for ways by which we can expand our readership, and now we have the means to pursue this expansion in concrete ways. Moving forward we seek not so much to increase the number of books we bring into being each year, as three or four carefully-chosen titles is just right for us at this present time. However, through your donations, we will be able to give each book we publish broader reach, thereby allowing us to do justice to these very fine novels, poetry collections, and monographs.
Thank you for giving.
We are grateful to be able to give you good things to read,