The Danse Macabre

I’m back.  One of the odd things about being “a creative” is that the engine of your productivity is driven largely by emotion.  You do things more for love than for reward, in other words.  Even the jobs you take purely to put food on the table must mean something to you or you simply cannot function. 

For me this is never more apparent than when, for one reason or another, the fuel tank on that emotional engine goes dry and for a time I become unenthusiastic and rudderless.  This is not the same as writer’s block.  I continue to write daily as that is the only time of the day I seem to be able to focus and muster up any energy.  But in everything else in my life, I become a lackadaisical participant, an obstreperous child being led along by the hand, resisting all the way.  My emotional commitment to anything not related to writing, is virtually zero.

I have just emerged from one of these stupors, blinking at the bright light around me like a coma patient discovering years have gone by since he was hit by that car. 

But enough about that.  Let’s talk about a seminal work of nonfiction that should be required reading for anyone who is thinking about entering the field of genre fiction: Stephen King’s The Danse Macabre.  If you are a fan of Science Fiction and/or Horror literature and you haven’t read this book then you have done yourself a great disservice.  If you are or are planning to become a writer in either other of those two genres then what are you doing reading this?  You should be reading The Danse Macabre.

When I first started writing in middle school, high school and college, I had a theory that authors were born, not made.  Writing was all about talent.  You sat down, you started writing, your talent spilled a story onto the page and, yay!, a number one best seller and Booker Prize winner happened.  There was no working at it.  No multiple drafts.  No studying.  There was just the muse and the talent that, splat, dropped a story onto the pages. 

I read a lot when I was growing up and I also watched a lot of movies.  I was a story junkie from an early age, so I knew how stories worked.  All you needed was an idea, a beginning, a middle, and an end. 

And the really weird thing is that even though this philosophy is completely wrong headed (and demonstrably so), it almost worked for me.  I dropped out of college and drove around the country with my Smith Corona electric typewriter and my dog in an old Toyota Carolla (God bless that car) and banged out a novel that would eventually be accepted for publication by the great Bill Thompson. 

But when the Everest House marketing department killed the deal and Bill sent me off with the simple request to bring him something more accessible, I discovered how wrong everything I had believed was.  There’s a whole other blog post in how I finally came to my senses and realized I wanted to be a genre writer rather than an author of literary works but suffice to say at the end of some dismal soul searching I landed on The Danse Macabre and it opened up the world to me.

Reading this book, I realized for the first time that Horror and Science Fiction are more than genres, they are cultures.  I learned the boundaries that defined them and also that it was perfectly okay to cross them.  I learned to turn a critical eye on even the shoddiest of stories (I’m looking at you Brain That Wouldn’t Die) and I learned that, as an author, you needed to have a point of view but you definitely didn’t have to make the point of view the point of the story.  I also learned what had been done by those who went before me and how they had extended the work of those who went before them.  I learned about structure, about theme, about imagery.  It was, essentially, the education in writing I had ignored and avoided my whole life. 

I still read it every few years just to put my head back in that space where I’m thinking about the genres that define my life as overlapping universes of creativity and innovation.   Plus, it’s just fun.


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