Halloween Exercise: Writing the Truly Scary

It’s almost Halloween—the time for ghouls and zombies, vampires and mummies. But let’s face it: those things are not really scary. In fact, the paradox of Halloween is that we are immune to zombies; ghosts do not truly frighten us; we have been weaned on the modern day horror flick, and in the process have become demanding consumers of The Truly Scary. So these creatures of the night are exactly the opposite—simply signs of glee, of socially sanctioned drinking, of the possibility of being naughty.


What is actually scary is the ordinary stuff of life that hits at your deepest, darkest phobia. Freud actually gave this a name: unheimlich—that feeling of being at home, but not at home. This term is often translated as “the uncanny,” but I like this idea of being at home and not at home better, because it catches the essence of a certain kind of fear that we all experience. The fear of the ordinary is a common part of the human experience.


So in this installment, I want to suggest an exercise that focuses on fear. This will help you develop your character (your deepest, darkest fear tells a lot about you). This will also help you develop plot (it is usually your character’s fear that will help move the story’s conflict). But the kind of fear I want you to work with is actually a little tricky.  So I’ll do this by giving you two examples of the kind of uncanny fear I am talking about—first, by using an example of one of my acquaintances; second, by making it more personal and using an example in my own life.


I just ran into an acquaintance who has a phobia of toxins—invisible pathogens that are in everything. So she steadfastly avoids all plastics. Anything printed on a laser printer—letters, receipts, handbills—she will not touch. This means that she cannot pay her bills. Because of this irrational fear, she has developed OCD, constantly washing her hands. She wishes she could pay her bills, but she fears the toxins more: they are everywhere, invisible eels that float through the air and threaten to destroy her. For her, a letter in the mail is the sign of the corruption of society and the trap it has laid for its victims. She recently got a new apartment—to get out of this world of fear—but she finds herself irrevocably stuck. There are so many toxins in this world that she cannot even begin the overwhelming task of moving into the apartment, so she has been paying, for the last year, rent for an empty box.



Today, I walked out of the gym, and suddenly realized that during the hour I was toning my body, a large festival had built up around me—a once-a-year event called The Cruz’n for Roses Hot Rod & Classic Car Show. It’s actually a pretty big event that the City of South Pasadena puts on to raise money for its float in the Tournament of Roses Parade. And it’s real old-timey with the old-timey downtown filled with impeccably finished cars, boosters, police officers, boy scouts, and folks dressed up like rockabillies and greasers. But this actually reminded me of one of my biggest panic attacks when I first started teaching Creative Writing in Iowa.


I had just walked out of a breakfast where I had felt I was getting such poor service that I was sure the waitress was a racist. In the time that I had walked into the diner, a car show had suddenly popped up in the quaint downtown. To suddenly be confronted with an old-timey event called, of all things, “Happy Days,” filled me with dread. I did the math: the nostalgia for simpler times suddenly meant that I would live in a world of profound segregation. And everybody in that town—a town that loved its oldtiminess—was secretly a racist that pined for the 1950’s, a time when colored people knew their place.


Of course, these fears—the kind I have been describing–are irrational. And as it turned out, my waitress wasn’t really a racist at all; she was just slow; and I was a newbie from the Big City where everything moves fast. Moreover, most likely people just liked old cars and were not secretly members of the KKK. But the fear that resides in the ordinary is a powerful thing. It grips you. It fills you with its toxins. It paralyzes you. It makes you feel as if you can’t hardly stand to breathe.

So here is your exercise: think of a fear that your main character has, and make it reside in the most ordinary object—a teacup, a pebble, a ring, a hair in the shower. Then, write a vignette where those fears reach out and grab the main character, refusing to be ignored, refusing to live in the margin. If you write a vignette like this, you are well on your way to getting a plot and you might just leave the exercise with a few supporting characters you never knew you needed.

Five Rules for Finding Your Community of Writers

I’m going to give some advice about building a writing community, which is one of the sure ways to build a writing practice.  But first, I will start with an anecdote that illustrates the rewards of surrounding yourself with a curio cabinet of fellow writers.  If you have no patience for anecdotes, just skip to the end and you will find a list of ways to wheedle yourself into the good graces of your peers.  Of course, if you have no patience for anecdotes, you are in all likelihood neither a reader, nor a writer.

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So recently, I had the opportunity to see another writer—Ed Lin—who came to Los Angeles to promote his book, Ghost Month. And sure enough, he was a ham who stole the show. This was to be expected. But what was more curious was that there were a lot of other writers, too, who came to support him. And these writers formed a community in and of themselves.

Right before the reading, I met Steph Cha who writes Los Angeles noir fiction. She is the author of Follow Her Home and Beware Beware, both novels that I would kill to have written.


I also met Yumi Sakagawa—a graphic novelist who does these awesome cartoons, and who was recently nominated for some big prestigious award. She looks as quirky as her cartoons.


The two were introduced to me by the poet Nicky Schildkraut, whose poems are published by the same press that first got Ed Lin his start. And so even before the reading, I found myself at the reading, watching my fellow writers slurping down a bowl of slippery wet noodles at a ramen joint. (I totally would have joined them, but had gone on a low sodium diet).


Writers want desparately to be alone—an island unto themselves—but they also know this fact, a thorn on the stigmata of their existence: they want desperately to be with other people, to feel a connection, even if that connection arrives from desperation.

This is not what I imagined all my life about writers. I had a romantic vision of them—one composed of corrugated cardboard, flat and one-dimensional. I imagined that these rare creatures were hermit crabs—adrift in a world not unlike the subterranean depths described by Paul Auster, a world in which the writer emerges from his dark little New York apartment and realizes that he is such a misfit that he could very well be mistaken for a homeless person.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I learned this first when I started teaching Creative Writing at Grinnell College and running Writers At Grinnell. Suddenly, I realized that writers don’t live in a vacuum but, rather, are incredibly social creatures. Writers At Grinnell brought many famous scribblers to campus—Adrienne Rich, Ana Castillo, John Edgar Wideman, Lan Samantha Chang—and that meant I spent my time boozing and schmoozing: before the reading came dinner; after the reading, drinks; then perhaps an impromptu pizza-making session at my house; and stories followed by toasts.

Some were desparate for an ear into which they could pour conversation. Some were criss-crossing the country on manic book tours. All were generous of spirit, ready to take you into their intellectual embrace, and show you the secrets hidden under their cloak. I always gave my students extra credit to show up. I couldn’t stand to see these writers reading to an empty room. And, yes, I was the first and last person at any reading—the guy who was ready to pay for the first round and tell them how god-damn-fucking-brilliant-they-were.

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So here’s my advice, if you want to find a writing community that will help you jumpstart your own writing practice.

1)  Attend a reading.  Make sure it’s a reading for a moderately well-known writer who works in a genre that you will aspire to.

2) Buy a book, and get it signed.  Writers love to feel appreciated, even if they get almost none of the money that comes from the purchase of the book.  When you get to the front of the line, ask questions.  Better yet, tell them that you’d love to have them come do an event for your church, book club, community center.  They will become your new best friend.

3)  Stay Late.  Mill about.  Wait until there is a cluster of folks who seem to be of the event but, also, apart from it.  Those are the friends, lovers, colleagues who are waiting to whisk the writer off to an evening of fun and excitement.

4)  Talk to People.  Talk to the friends of the writer. Talk to the introducer.  Talk to the bookstore manager.  It goes a long way.

5)  Get on a Mailing List.   Then, go to the next event and complete the process, again.  And again.  And again.  You need to do this until you become a fixture.  You need to become a recognizable face that people will wave to.  Stick to a genre; If your genre is Science Fiction, try to make it to as many of these readings as possible!