On Criticism: The Artist and The Critic

“There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” -Aristotle

Birdman critic scene.jpg

So I’m going to do my best to avoid ranting or being petty here but I do want to be upfront about my bias for the artist or creator. There are several professional critics whom I greatly admire and hold their opinions in high regard and while I find art criticism/art curation a valuable and worthwhile enterprise I simply don’t believe that being a critic requires as much courage, effort, or risk on their part as it does to be an artist/creator. That’s not to say that critics risk nothing because an authentic critic will go against the grain even if it means putting his or her reputation on the line, but honestly artists do that with every work they release to the public.

With that said I want this to be an encouragement and act as a sort of primer of what to expect for all of my aspiring artists out there, whether you do painting, sculpting, writing, filmmaking, musical performance, etc. It takes a lot of guts to put yourself out on display and bare your soul to the public knowing full well that it’s not going to connect with some people and others will even ridicule you for trying (even more so if you are hoping to make a living out of it). Though if everyone listened to those small-minded people, there would be no more art and what a sad, empty world that would be.

In this essay I intend to explore two different forms of criticism:

Professional Criticism - as in, those that cover and critique art for a living or, at least, receive some form of monetary compensation for it and their relationship to artists as well as how they influence the way art is received by culture.

Non-Professional Criticism - the general public, the “wannabe” critics, haters/internet trolls, and overly-sensitive/moral outragers and their relationship to art, artists, and censorship.

Professional Criticism

In Alejandro Iñárritu’s 2014 film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) Michael Keaton plays washed-up, Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson. A couple of decades prior Thomson was the star of the extremely successful, superhero film franchise Birdman (a very meta role for Keaton since his real-life career mirrored his character’s at the time). In the film’s storyline Thomson is now trying to revive his career by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play in hopes it will cement him as a “true artist.”

There are countless obstacles in Thomson’s path but the biggest one is the influential theater critic Tabitha Dickinson. At a chance meeting in a bar Thomson attempts to get in the critic’s good graces by buying her a drink when she informs him that she hates him and his kind (Hollywood actors) and she’s going to give his play a terrible review without having ever seen it.

The following exchange about the differences between the artist and the critic ensues:

(Warning: Graphic Language)

I love this scene because as childish as Thomson might behave in it I believe every artist has wanted to say something like this or felt this way toward those critics that harshly and thoughtlessly review works of art without respecting the time, effort, and money that has often gone into them. I also believe this scene brings up an important aspect of the world of art criticism and that is the subject of “gatekeeping.”

Gatekeeping in the art world is when a person, thing, or institution keeps others from having access to something, that something often being exposure to a larger audience. Exhibition directors at museums, wealthy collectors, and, of course, well-known critics are all good examples of gatekeepers in the art world since they are often the deciding factors of who receives the acclaim and recognition and who gets shoved aside. Major book publishers, Hollywood film studios, and major record labels can also be considered gatekeepers as well, but a positive review from an established critic can greatly help a writer, filmmaker, or musician break into all of these industries.

This illustrates the power wielded by some professional critics and, just as portrayed in the film Birdman, that power can be abused causing much resentment toward these critics by many struggling artists, especially when artists often feel that those same harsh critics do not have the talent, patience, or work-ethic to create the very art that they disparage.

Artists’ often antagonistic relationship with critics will occasionally boil over into humorously barbed statements such as this one by writer Brendan Behan:

“Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.”

This is a widespread sentiment among many in the art community, but is it actually true? Are there instances where critics have turned into artists?

An example we can look to is film critic Chris Stuckmann. Stuckmann has been uploading film reviews on Youtube for a little over ten years and has gained quite a significant fan base, myself counted among them. Within the last few years he has begun making very small-scale independent film shorts and taking them to various film festivals.

The following are some of his comments on transitioning from a film critic to a filmmaker:

“…film criticism has never been my goal in life, filmmaking was always and still is my goal… The internet, and honestly I’m a part of this, takes so much focus on whether or not what you created is a masterpiece and it might not be. More than likely it isn’t, but you still got together and you made something and that’s just insanely inspiring.”

I really like seeing a critic learn what it feels like to be on the flip side of that coin and coming to the realization that everything you create won’t necessarily be utter perfection but understanding the significance in having the courage to put yourself out there and make something, which is so much more than most people (critics included) can say.

As I mentioned earlier, many critics also don’t understand or respect the fact that a lot of money, time, and labor has been spent on the artists’ part, and this is especially true for the smaller, independent artists that are funding their own projects. Stuckmann saved up his own money and spent $17,000 for his film short Auditorium 6. Now I don’t believe that working on a smaller scale or a micro-budget should make your project free from criticism but I do think that should be taken into account when it is being compared to the major productions with massive budgets.

For example, I’m sure most critics (professional or otherwise) that read my book Black Flowers will compare it to the works published by the major publishing companies with massive budgets and marketing teams never taking into account that I wrote, published, and marketed it funded by the money out of my own pocket. Altogether, I spent just over $4,000 hiring freelance professionals: two editors, an interior designer, and a cover designer; then created my own publishing business, Dark Currents Press, in order for my book to stand a chance in competing with the big dogs in the marketplace. And to be honest, I think I did a damn fine job and I would do it all over again because this is the culmination of a life-long dream for me.

Now that I’ve covered the art community’s relationship with the world of professional criticism and how much established critics can help or hinder an artist’s reach, I want to end this section on an uplifting note for all of my frustrated, struggling artists out there. The following are a few examples of when an artist or piece of art was not initially well-received critically, but the art/artist has withstood the test of time, been re-evaluated, and/or gained a cult following:

-The crime, horror, and science fiction/fantasy writers that got their start writing for the cheap pulp magazines of the 1920s-30s were once considered “low-brow” or “lesser” artists than their literary counterparts at the time. Now these writers, such as Raymond Chandler, H.P. Lovecraft, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, are published in the Penguin Classics series which is reserved for works considered to be enduring literary classics.

-The director John Carpenter’s horror/sci-fi film The Thing was initially a critical failure and box office bomb when it was released to theaters in 1982 with critic Roger Ebert referring to it as a “disappointing,” “barf-bag movie” with “superficial characterizations.” It is now considered an extremely influential horror classic with groundbreaking practical effects and scenes of unparalleled tension and suspense.

-The British indie-pop band The 1975’s self-titled, debut album was a commercial success but was panned by the majority of music critics. British music magazine NME named them the “Worst Band In The World” only to perform a complete 180 two years later with their second album I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It by awarding it their “Album of The Year.”

The artistic landscape is littered with thousands of other examples I could use, but I believe I’ve made my point. If you are an artist that has labored and struggled over your work only for it to be met with harsh criticism and rejection don’t throw in the towel and give up. The aforementioned artists were once there as well, but all of them were either re-evaluated with time, took a while to find their audience, or came back with an explosive piece of art that made those critics eat their own words.

“…When courage dies, creativity dies with it. …fear is a desolate boneyard where our dreams go to desiccate in the hot sun.” -Elizabeth Gilbert

Next week in Part II of this essay on criticism I’ll cover Non-Professional Criticism in the age of the internet, what to expect, and some of my own personal experiences with it. Catch ya later, folks!

Epilogue (an outtake from Black Flowers)

I’ve always found deleted scenes from films and b-sides from albums interesting so with that in mind I decided to share a story that didn’t make the final cut for my short story collection Black Flowers.

There are a few different reasons why the editor and I decided to remove it. Most of them coming down to where its placement in the book would be and it feeling fairly similar to some of the stories that were already present.

With that being said in order for the story to fully make sense I would recommend having read Black Flowers since there is a connection to the last story in the collection called “Coda,” otherwise you might be a little confused when you reach the ending.


Ayinde stepped carefully through the underbrush trying to avoid making noise but somehow he knew his presence was known. How had he never seen this place before? It wasn't even far from the usual hunting grounds. He'd been warned of places like this. His people knew that danger sometimes lurked within the seemingly familiar.

Ayinde looked up trying to locate the full moon in an attempt to reorient himself but it had disappeared from the sky. He heard a bird chirp in the distance; its call sounded distorted and somehow reversed. As he searched the trees an ominous hum rose around him. He could see the bird now, it fluttered unnaturally, twitching and shaking as water droplets lifted off the ground and burrowed into the feathers on its back. It jerked its head in his direction then stopped upon making eye contact with him. It leapt from the branch and flew backwards through the air in a manner he'd never seen before.

He was once again aware of something watching him. He'd come here to hunt but now he'd inadvertently become the prey. He crouched low to the ground, tightly gripping his hunting spear as he approached a large body of water. Ayinde cupped his hand in the water and brought it to his mouth. He thanked Oshun, the river goddess, as he splashed some on his face and neck to cool off. He stared into his reflection in the water and thought he saw the outline of something behind him. A shudder ran through his body as he spun around but there was nothing there.

As he faced the lake once again he saw a dark figure standing on the shore of the opposite side. It shared a strange combination of animal and insect-like features. He surmised it to be a predator of some kind based on the exposed fangs and claws and, unfortunately, he'd caught its attention. For the moment he was thankful the two of them were separated by a large body of water, then it sprinted across the top of the lake toward him. Its tall, lean body impossibly supported by the surface of the water as if it had no weight at all.

He no longer had time for speculation, now he turned and ran.


Ayinde sprinted into the high grass hoping he might be able to lose the creature that was surely closing the distance between the two of them now. He could hear it panting and the light pat-pat of its feet on the ground somewhere behind him. He moved in a zig-zag pattern thinking that it might confuse it or, at the very least, make him a little harder to catch. It dawned on him that he was instinctually heading back to his village, bringing the danger to his people. He must try to take care of this predicament on his own like the heroes of old and like his grandfather, one of the most venerated warriors of his tribe. Heroes bravely fought for their communities rather than cowardly raining calamity down upon it.

On the hill to his right he saw a large tree and darted toward it. He'd scaled to the top within a matter of seconds and now awaited the beast with his hunting spear drawn. Without warning the tree folded in on itself and collapsed into the ground, taking him along with it. He listened to the rocks and soil churn restlessly around him as he was forced deeper and deeper. The dirt fell away and he saw a large subterranean chasm open up beneath him. He clung to the roots of the tree by his fingertips but he could feel his grip slipping. The roots broke free from his grasp and he plummeted into the chasm.

As he descended further into the abyss he watched a dim light grow with increasing brightness as he neared its source. Streams of hot air ran over his face and limbs as he discovered he was reaching the earth's core. Oceans of liquified rock broiled for as far as he could see. Suddenly he rocketed past them and ascended back through the earth's crust to the opposite side of the surface. Ayinde burst free from the ground in a plume of dust, throwing rocks and soil in every direction.

Then he saw a twin planet suspended parallel to his own as he sped toward its surface in a spot identical to where he'd been submerged with the previous tree before. Another treetop (or was it the same one?) folded into itself, taking him along with it once again, repeating the entire process until he was ejected from the planet's opposite side. Then he was jettisoned to the next replica of his planet as he seemed to be stuck in an infinite loop, faster and faster. Ayinde shut his eyes unable to watch any longer for fear of going insane.

He finally reopened them when he felt his rate of descent slowing. He saw his village from above; now there were several of the creatures chasing his fellow tribesmen. Whenever the tribesmen tried to break away from a path leading to the village the creatures would circle around and force them back to the village as if they were herding them like sheepdogs . . . but for what purpose?

He struck the ground with a soft thud.


Ayinde rose to his feet and looked around. Up the hill stood the same tree he'd fallen into earlier; his hunting spear now lay at the base of it. He lifted his hunting spear from the ground, careful not to touch that cursed tree again.

If the beasts were intentionally rounding up the hunters and pushing them back toward the village, then they were already aware of its location and hoping to use it as a point of convergence. He could only guess at their purpose for rounding all of his people up into one spot, but he doubted it was for anything good. He decided to stand his ground against the monster even though he knew his chances of survival weren't very high. He crouched into a defensive position and prayed for Ogun, the god of warriors, to guide his aim as he awaited its arrival.

The moment its head rose from the tall grass he lunged forward, hurling the spear through the air. There was a ripping sound as it made impact but the outcome was not as he'd expected. His spear had left a gaping hole, not only in the creature but in the environment as well. It was as if he was looking at a painting with a tear in its canvas. Beyond the tear was no blood or bodily fluids, only a void into which his spear had vanished. The tattered edges of the hole quickly rethread themselves together and the beast continued on undeterred.

 He was now without a weapon, but he was determined not to give up. As the beast charged, he grabbed a large stone from the ground and leapt into the air swinging wildly at its face. He landed several blows with the rock as the creature lifted him off the ground with its thin but surprisingly strong front legs. He stared into its blank, unfeeling eyes as it let loose an ear-piercing wail in his face. Then his free hand fell on something cold and metallic around its neck, a luminescent collar of some kind. He smashed the rock against the collar repeatedly not quite sure of what it would accomplish, if anything.

After a series of merciless blows the collar came off in his hand. The creature ceased wailing and grew strangely calm. It gave him a confused expression, chirped softly at him, then turned around and disappeared back through the tall grass. He stood in place for a while examining the bizarre collar, then he darted down the hill back towards his village.


As he reached the village he saw his tribespeople panicked and mothers clutching their children tightly as they ran. In the distance were brilliant flashes of light approaching as a massive gust of wind swept across the savanna toward him. It blew through the village tearing off the roofs of several huts. At first he thought the light and wind must be the fury of an approaching storm, but then he saw it.

With each flash of light another member of Ayinde’s tribe ascended into the air reaching impossible heights. Then he noticed the strange sky—what he had previously mistaken for stars were the twinkling spires of an upside-down cityscape. He saw several of the greatest warriors of his tribe traveling up the shafts of light. One of the men was his close friend, Kaseko; he grabbed Kaseko's ankle desperately trying to bring him back down to the earth but soon found himself under its thrall as well. Ayinde released his grasp but it was too late. He was now being lifted high into the air above the village.

He looked below to see the roofs of the huts growing smaller and smaller. It appeared as if little ants were scurrying about around the shrinking huts and he realized they were his tribespeople. He returned his eyes to above and saw each warrior disappearing inside of the structure. A mechanized mouth opened wide and he closed his eyes preparing for the end.

When he reopened them, all was silent as his eyes adjusted to the blinding brightness. He found himself standing in an entirely white room by himself. He could not tell where the room ended or if there were walls or a ceiling, so he began walking with his hands stretched out in front of him. He approached what he believed to be a wall when his hand passed through it, startling him. He took another step forward and passed through entirely, stepping down into a silver corridor.

Ayinde looked back at the silver wall where he'd entered and lifted his hand to it. His fingers brushed along the cold, metallic surface of the wall. It was completely solid now so one thing was for certain: he wouldn't be going back the way he came in. He looked along the corridor realizing he could go either direction. He chose randomly and started walking as he approached what appeared to be a dead end when the corridor shifted, transforming into an open field of waist-high grass blowing in the breeze.

Though he could see no boundaries or walls, he knew he was still inside the massive structure; there was something artificial about this natural scene. He couldn't place his finger on it but something was just off. To his left something began moving towards him through the weeds. At first he believed it was a writhing coil of brown snakes but as it grew closer he realized it was a bundle of twisting, tangled roots. Without warning the roots shot upward, taking on a definitive human shape. As the tendrils fell away he saw a face emerge.

His mother's face.


His mother was draped in an elegant white tunic with flowing sleeves and a high neckband. She spoke in a strange yet calming manner. "Hello dear, I'm sure you're quite confused by all of this so I'd be happy to enlighten you. There is much reason for our people to rejoice. The Supreme Creator, Olodumare, has chosen to smile upon us this day. A new race of explorers from above wishes to bring us into their fold. We need only to cooperate and they will bestow humanity with access to the stars through technology and power we could never achieve on our own."

Ayinde eyed her suspiciously, then he saw the faint glow of the luminescent collar beneath the neckband of her tunic. "Your camouflage is the most impressive I've ever seen," he said, "but you are not my mother."

An unsettling grin spread across her face as her demeanor completely changed. "I knew you were different from the moment I saw you fight that Letari of ours." The voice coming from her mouth was no longer her own. Now it was coarse and deep, seemingly coming from all directions at once. "I'm glad there's no need for pretense with you, it's refreshing. I apologize for using your mother as a means of communication but I thought it might make it easier for you."

"Make what easier?" Ayinde said warily.

"Your Immersion. What I said before was the truth. We are explorers from above," she said pointing up at the transforming sky. The sunny day instantly turned to a starry night with a particular section of stars illuminated. "We call ourselves the Halcyon from the Empyrean Galaxy, which is the star cluster you see overhead. We travel throughout the Universe bringing other species into our fold, such as the Letari you encountered earlier."

He gave her a skeptical look. "You call yourselves explorers yet you resemble conquerors, and this so-called Immersion sounds a lot like servitude to me. For instance, where is my mother as we hold this conversation?"

She winked at him. "Oh, rest assured she's still here. This is only a temporary state and our Immersion comes with many advantages. As I have said access to the stars and unimaginable power. Do you really think that primitive Letari beast could have performed those miraculous feats without our technology at its disposal?"

Ayinde was unimpressed. "You're trying to convince me that submission to you is what's best for humanity, but our freedom is more valuable than any advancements you could ever give to us. I know that you're going to do what you want anyway, but the fact that you even present it as if we have an option tells me that you're scared. Probably because I've overcome your beast and your technology once already."

She sighed. "You are perceptive, I'll give you that, but humanity will bow down like all the species before it have. We simply wanted to show mercy, make it a little easier on you."

She brought another glowing collar from her tunic and took a step toward him. His body experienced a sudden paralysis before she clasped the collar firmly around his neck.


Ayinde felt as if his mind was a crowded room and he'd suddenly been pushed to the back as someone else took over. He was still looking out through his eyes but he had no control of his body. He passively watched as he left the place where his mother was and stepped back into the long, silver corridor. At the end of the corridor he stepped through a wall of rippling liquid then he entered a large circular room with a window viewing the savanna where his village sat.

There was a strange shimmering being that stood before the window gazing out at the pastoral scene. The figure was so bright that he couldn't look directly at it. He guessed this was one of the Halcyon in its true form, but he couldn't be sure. Then he realized they were not the only two in the room. He recognized members of his tribe as well as those of other neighboring villages. He also saw more of the Letari creatures roaming around. The humans and the Letari both wore the same type of collar that he wore.

He could feel the probing fingers of the Halcyon inside of his head accessing particular memories and knowledge he had. Then something unexpected happened, he saw through the eyes of one of his tribespeople. Then through the eyes of a neighboring villager. Then through his mother's eyes. Somehow, whether or not the Halcyon had intended it, the collars had made all of those that wore them form a strong mental connection with each other.


He wondered if it was possible to communicate through this cerebral linking that had occurred. If the Halcyon could send commands to each person's mind and extract information from them, then it seemed reasonable that the villagers might be able to use this conduit to send thoughts and ideas to each other as well. As the Halcyon used his physical body for mysterious interactions with their ship he mentally focused on his mother, attempting to send her a message.

If Ayinde could create a psychic bridge with his mother, assuming she really was still in there somewhere just as he was, then maybe they could work together to find a weakness in the Halcyon's technology and use it against them. He knew it was a long shot, but he also knew the Halcyon underestimated humans. They probably considered them only slightly more capable than the Letari and after witnessing that beast manipulate the environment with the collar he knew a human could do far more once they overcame whatever safeguards were in place.

So he honed in on his mother's mind using one of their most treasured memories together as the jumping-off point. He was a young boy playing out in the grass, pretending to be a skilled hunter like his father when he heard a growl nearby. That's when he noticed the lion cub he'd nearly stumbled on top of in the tall weeds, only the growling wasn't coming from the cub but rather the mother lion a few feet ahead of him. She was ferocious and more terrifying than anything he'd seen in his young life.

Back at the village he burst into his family's hut and into his mother's arms crying without giving her an explanation. For the next several nights the mother lion stalked him in nightmares, forcing him awake screaming until his mother comforted him. When he finally shared the source of his night terrors she hugged him and informed him that even though the danger he'd experienced that day was quite real the female lion was not a monster. It was only a mother looking after her cub just as she would always look after and protect him.

Throughout the years that followed this memory forged their bond as the constant reminder of the fierceness of a mother's love. He used this recollection now in an attempt to reach his mother, but the merging went no further than him seeing through her eyes once more. He started to panic. If he couldn't connect with his beloved mother, his own flesh and blood, then what hope was there? A heavy feeling of sadness began to weigh down on him as he considered his fate and the fate of his people.


Ayinde felt his grip loosening on the last thread of hope when the words came: "A single stick is easily broken, but sticks in a bundle are unbreakable." It was an ancient proverb about strength through community that his mother had taught him as a child. Maybe he'd been going about this all wrong. He loved his mother but he also knew there was great power in numbers, and uniting to work toward a common goal was something that humans could excel at when it was absolutely necessary.

Humanity's intellect paired with the capability of mass cooperation is what set them apart from the animal kingdom. It could be used toward destruction, such as grand-scale war, or toward creation, such as towering civilizations. He was now determined to show the Halcyon this side of humanity and make them regret their underestimation of his species. As this thought formed it was as if multiple light switches flipped on at once and an instantaneous merging of minds occurred. He could hear the voices of the tribe members inside of his head, many of them felt scared and alone just as he had.

Ayinde repeated the old proverb and sent it out to each of them. Then it was as if they were each awaking from a deep sleep, soon his entire tribe was ready and waiting. They were a force to be reckoned with but he knew it still wasn't going to be enough against the Halcyon. Then he thought of the people from the neighboring villages; his tribe had disagreed and fought with many of them in the past but all of that had to be put aside for now. This was bigger than any one person or community.

Send the message out to anyone and everyone that will listen, he communicated to the tribe.

And they did . . . .

Soon the people of the neighboring villages were awaking and joining as well. He could feel the psychic resistance growing ever larger. Then something completely unexpected happened—the message just kept on going.

People he'd never seen, from tribes and places he'd never heard of, started uniting with the growing consciousness. These people were different from him in their shades of skin and spoken tongues, but they all had two things in common: they were human and they'd been subjugated by the Halcyon. He wondered how long the Halcyon had been doing this. He'd foolishly assumed his people were their first contact with humanity, now he knew that was far from the case.

Massive amounts of information concerning the Halcyon tech and their way of life flooded his mind. From this collage of disparate details he spotted a chink in their armor that could be exploited. The Halcyon had a safeguard in place for when humans were at the ship's command station. In order for a human to utilize their technology the user's collar had to confirm that the person was not operating from their own personal will but under the influence of a Controller. In typical circumstances a Controller was one of the Halcyon, all of their technology could be accessed based on this single assumption.

The Halcyon were about to pay dearly for this oversight as he allowed his consciousness to merge with the rest of humanity. Through their collected consciousness they entered the command station and his collar confirmed the presence of a Controller. The small pieces of each individual's knowledge assembled into a patchwork understanding of the entire system. Humanity disconnected the ship from the Halcyon network, then turned off the ship’s engine and the craft plunged to the Earth.

Ayinde’s tribe and the neighboring villagers still had their psychic connection and the technology at their disposal, but now without the interference of the Halcyon. Every human aboard formed an energy field around themselves and burst through the ship's hull. He watched the Halcyon vessel explode as they ascended above the flames into the sky. He knew this same scene was being repeated all over as humanity freed itself from its captors.

He reunited with his mother as they floated through the clouds. Her eyes widened with fear when he broke the collar around his neck, but he reassured her with a smile as it crumbled and fell from his body. It had somehow permanently altered him; he was now stronger than ever before. Then he reached out, removing her collar as well, as she continued levitating. It appeared Ayinde was not the only one who'd undergone a transformation. He grabbed ahold of her hand as their eyes searched the stars overhead.

"Mother, it looks like we've got some exploring to do," he said as they drifted out into the aether.


Gene leaned back in his computer chair and removed his glasses as he lightly massaged the bridge of his nose. He spent several minutes staring at the blinking cursor with a growing sense of accomplishment. He still needed a fresh set of eyes to look over the manuscript and give him some feedback, but his wife was asleep with the baby. So he picked up his cellphone and dialed a number.

"Hey Mom, sorry to bother you this late, but I’d really like your input on a piece I just finished . . . ."

On Writing and Mental Health

It’s been a few weeks since my last post because I needed some time to deal with some of the worst anxiety I have ever had. The timing was pretty terrible too since book marketing advice says the time right after a book launch is the most important, but I decided my well-being was more important than a book. Unfortunately the book was the cause of my anxiety, though in retrospect I now know that I have always been dealing with anxiety this was just the thing that brought it all to the forefront. Anyways following a severe panic attack a few days before Black Flowers released my wonderful and supportive wife made me promise to go to a doctor, which I did. I am now happy to say that I have medication for it and I’m doing much better now.

This whole experience got me thinking about how the act of writing affects writers’ mental states in both positive and negative ways.

Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional. This is just a layman’s point of view so take anything I say with a grain of salt.

I’m sure most people are aware of the examples of writers with severe depression that have committed suicide, such as Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, and so on. There is also the stereotype of writers being alcoholics thanks to a few well-known ones, such as William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, and so on. While I am aware other types of artists and creators have also dealt with depression and alcoholism, why are these so strongly linked to writers in the popular consciousness? Is there any real connection or is it just a popular misconception?

Writing and Alcohol.jpg

I don’t intend on providing any definitive answers on this topic (since I don’t think I’m qualified to do that), but I do want to examine it and provide my own viewpoint as a writer. Does writing create depression and alcoholism or does it draw people that are already prone to these things?

I believe that writers tend to already have these problems and turn to writing as a way to deal with them. There are obvious exceptions but many writers are lonely introverts, many turn to writing for an escape similar to the reason many people abuse alcohol, many use writing as a way to conquer their fears and remove the filters for honesty, and to gain self-confidence and the courage to say the things that others won’t. I know from my own personal experience that I am much bolder in my writing than I typically am in everyday life. I feel like my writing represents the truest, most honest version of myself since I have had the time to consider all of my feelings and experiences before putting words to paper. I can be more thoughtful than the snap judgements people often make in daily conversations even when dealing with tough or sensitive topics that they haven’t had the time to fully think through yet.

In modern psychology there is a form of treatment called “writing therapy” or “journal therapy” where patients are asked to write about their emotions and past trauma they have experienced to gain mental and emotional clarity and come to a deeper understanding of oneself. This is another thing I can attest to as a writer, as an angsty teenager I often felt that the only way I could deal with my inner turmoil was by expressing it through poetry. Now as an adult I still often feel that my writing is a form of therapy for me to work through my feelings toward the conservative, religious upbringing that I had and now strongly disagree with. I also feel that writing gives me a safe form of escapism, gives my life purpose, and allows me to leave something behind as a sort of testament to my short time spent here on earth.

Now that I’ve listed many of the positives I think it’s time to cover the negatives of writing as a profession or at least in a public forum. The negatives come from societal pressures and the fear of public backlash. In this extremely sensitive age where every aspect of public figures’ online history is being dug up, scrutinized, and judged with the intention to “cancel” their career or publicly “drag” them on social media it can be a nerve-racking experience to put yourself out there. This is made even worse for someone that is already prone to having anxiety to start with. While I do think it is wonderful that the internet has allowed many voices that have long been dismissed and ignored finally be heard, I’m not going to pretend that there also isn’t a lot of groupthink and mob mentality occurring as well.

Many writers have a fear of being labeled “problematic” for dealing with sensitive or controversial topics, especially if they discuss issues still ongoing in society today. To bring things back to my own personal experiences much of my anxiety concerning Black Flowers had to do with the last story in the collection called “Coda.” This story deals with a teenager caught between the dangers of racial profiling by the police force in his city and his friend who has turned to drug-dealing to escape a life of poverty. I feel that this story is one of the most important and relevant things I’ve ever written, but it has also been a constant source of anxiety for me and the main contributor to the panic attacks I experienced recently.

I’ve also received some criticism from the more conservative, religious people in my life for some of the sexually explicit scenes I’ve written. Ironically, one of these stories’ themes is about overcoming religious guilt and shame to live a more fulfilling and authentic life, but that must’ve been lost on them. I don’t regret having written those scenes since I feel they were essential to the story and I’m not ashamed of writing about sex since I don’t think it is dirty or wrong.

Not to mention that the bible has some pretty explicit scenes as well despite what many uptight Christians would have you believe. “But she added to her promiscuities, bringing to mind her youthful days when she was a prostitute in the land of Egypt. She lusted after their male consorts, whose sexual organs were like those of donkeys, and whose ejaculation was like that of horses. She relived the wicked days of her youth, when the Egyptians touched and fondled her young and nubile breasts.” Ezekiel 23: 19-21. Or “Onan knew the children wouldn't be his so when he slept with his brother's wife, he wasted his semen on the ground, so he wouldn't give his brother children.” Genesis 38:9.

Now why didn’t my Sunday school teacher ever go over these verses, I wonder? If this level of detail is important to God then I think it should be important to me as well. And here is an excerpt from an article in Psychology Today titled “Overcoming Religious Sexual Shame” by clinical psychologist David J. Ley:

“Religious people are at heightened risk of developing sexual disorders, and feeling at a loss to deal with them or get help. Sadly, when people within religious communities seek help for their sexual concerns, they are most often told to suppress or ‘battle’ their sexuality, or sent to pseudotreatments such as sex or porn addiction programs, where their sexual desires are portrayed as a form of sickness. Shame creates a feedback loop of pain, fear, dysfunction and self-hatred, which is the true root of most sexual problems.”

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Now I know it may seem like I’m being a little harsh here but I grew up in the Bible Belt and went to summer camps as a child where I was lectured about the evils of masturbation and having lustful thoughts. So this is me taking back my piece of mind and letting everyone know that I will not be bullied or guilted into censoring my art for you. That’s precisely how writers get driven into alcoholism and depression to begin with. I want my writing to continue to be therapy for me and if I can make some money from my art then that would be great too, but the former is far more important to me and my mental health than making a living off of it will ever be.

"Pulp Mythology" excerpt from Black Flowers

Okay so this will be the last short story excerpt I post from Black Flowers before it releases in a few days. Hope you enjoy this little sneak peek.

Disclaimer: There are suggestive themes and explicit language.

She sat in the back booth of the diner with an unlit cigarette hanging loosely from her lips and one hand shoved in the pocket of her leather jacket, tightly gripping the snub-nosed .38 revolver as she waited for the woman to show. Her eyes gazed out the window over the wet pavement of the nearly empty parking lot. The waitress eyed her suspiciously as she made her way over.

She knew she must be quite a sight, even aside from the green hair cut into a messy mohawk that partially hung in her eyes and the studded jacket. There was now a puffy black eye and a fat lip to accompany her already attention-grabbing looks.

"Rough night?" asked the waitress as she removed the notepad and pencil from her apron.

She laughed with a lack of enthusiasm. "Yeah, you could say that."

"Now you don't have any intentions of lighting that up in here, do you honey?"

She smiled at the peculiarity of the question, withdrew the cigarette from her lips with her left hand, and placed it behind her ear. All the while never lifting a finger from the gun in her jacket pocket. "No, just knowing it's there will help calm me."

The waitress gave her a wink and a nod, "Well that's quite all right, as long as we have an understanding. Our owner's father who used to smoke two packs a day just died from lung cancer, so he doesn't allow smoking in any of his establishments anymore. Probably an overreaction that's gonna hurt business but hey, I don't make the rules, I just enforce them. So what can I get you tonight?"

"I'll start off with a coffee. Black. I'm waiting for someone."

"One black coffee coming up, sweetheart."

The waitress turned around and got the coffeemaker brewing a fresh pot. She heard the door chime as someone entered and she turned to see a tall, redheaded woman in a form-fitting, green dress with a large purse slung over her shoulder approaching her. Leaf had to admit she was more than a little impressed. The lady was a knockout; she usually didn't go for the prissy-looking bitches, but exceptions could be made now and then.

"Are you Bennie's friend? Miss Cartwright?" asked the redhead.

"That'd be me. Sit your pretty little ass in that booth and we'll have a talk," she said with a smile as she bit her lip ring in a suggestive manner.

Okay, cool it, Leaf. This woman probably intends on killing you before the night is through; she's not interested in going to bed with you.

The redhead set her purse in the booth beside her and got straight to the point. "If you know where Bennie is, tell him that if he returns our property now there will be no repercussions. If he keeps us waiting, though, he is endangering himself and everyone he cares about, including yourself, Miss Cartwright."

"‘Leaf’ is just fine," she said, appearing unaffected by the woman's threats. "So that's your deal, huh? Return your stuff or you're going to kill us? Not even going to butter me up a little bit? I've seen jackhammers with a more subtle touch."

"Well, Miss Cart . . . Leaf, if you prefer," she said with a malicious grin. "We happen to be on a rather tight schedule, so forgive me if I don't have time for common niceties. Your friend Bennie's theft has upset many years of planning for us."

"First of all," Leaf interjected, "I don't know where Bennie is. I'm still trying to find him myself, and second, it might be helpful to know what it is he took. So, when and if I locate him, I'll know what to return to you."

The waitress set a steaming cup of coffee down in front of Leaf and then turned to the redhead. "And what can I get for you, darling?"

"Nothing. I'm fine," said the redhead coldly without making eye contact with the waitress.

"Excuse my friend's manners . . . Debbie, is it?" said Leaf as she glanced at the waitress's name tag. "She's had a really rough night as well. She just had her heart broken by a no-good man."

The waitress perked up. "Isn't that a damn shame?" She slapped her hands down on the table and leaned in close to the redheaded woman. "Some of these men around here just don't know how to treat a lady, do they?"

The redhead sat there quietly without responding, growing more annoyed by the second.

The waitress looked at Leaf and said, "That bastard isn't the one that gave you the shiner there, is it?"

Leaf could hardly contain her amusement. "As a matter of fact, it is."

The waitress pursed her lips angrily and began shaking her head, "I knew it, I just knew it. My friends think I'm crazy but I've always said, 'A man that'll break your heart'll just as soon as break your nose.'"

Leaf couldn't keep from snickering and the waitress eyed her with distrust, now suspecting she was being made fun of. Leaf regained her composure and responded with complete seriousness, "Don't worry, Debbie. I knocked him flat on his ass for it. He'll think twice before putting his hand on either one of us again."

Debbie smiled. "All right, now that's what I like to hear. I—"

"On second thought, I'll have the number two with a side of eggs and some coffee," the redheaded woman blurted out in a desperate attempt to derail the conversation.

"Well, all right, darling. No need to get all excited. Coming right up." The waitress rolled her eyes at Leaf as she wrote down the order on her notepad and sauntered off to the kitchen.

The redhead shot a look at Leaf that was sharp enough to cut diamonds. "May I ask why you did that?"

Leaf shrugged and smirked. "Figured it'd piss you off. Worked, didn't it?"

"I believe you've mistaken me for someone else. I'm not the type of person you want to play games with." Her facial expression was intensely serious and something in her eyes told Leaf she truly might not want to anger this woman . . . .

All right so the countdown is finally coming to an end, Black Flowers will be out this Saturday and hopefully my anxiety doesn’t do me in before that happens!

"The Evil Among Us" excerpt from Black Flowers

So the following is an excerpt from the first story in my short story collection Black Flowers. I just wanted to give people a little sneak peek before the book releases in less than a week. Hope you like it!

Disclaimer: There are implied mature themes and some explicit language.

Jim awoke to find a tall, thin man in a suit standing beside his bed. A faint glow filtered in from the night-light in the hall as Jim’s steady breathing turned to frantic, shallow gulps of air. Who is this man? Why is he here? What does he want?

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you, little fella,” the man said with an artificial tone that reminded Jim of a radio disc jockey.

“Who are you? Where’s my mom?” Jim attempted to sound as calm as possible in order to keep the man from noticing that he was trembling beneath his covers.

“I’m one of your mother’s friends. No need to worry – she’s asleep in just the other room.”

Jim was afraid to contemplate on just what exactly the term “asleep” might imply.

“I see you’re into baseball,” he said shooting a quick glance at Jim’s glove. “You know, I also used to play baseball when I was your age. It is America’s favorite pastime, after all.”

“Mooooom?” Jim said barely able to raise his voice above a whisper.

“Don’t worry, slugger. She’s just in there,” he said pointing to Jim’s door and down the hallway to his mother’s room.

“Moooooooom!” Jim said raising his voice to that of a slight yell, betraying the fright he had tried to conceal.

“Aw, now don’t be that way!” The man sat down on the bed next to him and placed his hand on Jim’s blanket-covered leg. “I don’t wanna hurt you. I just wanna be your friend.”

The man’s face was now only a few feet away from Jim’s. He could faintly see the man’s toothy grin and vaguely smell the spicy scent of his cologne.

“Winston, step away from my son right now, or I’ll blow your goddamn brains out!” Jim could just barely make out the silhouette of his mother in the doorway holding what appeared to be a small revolver.

“Ella, I was just talking with him. Right? We were just talking about baseball, weren’t we?” He turned to Jim.

“Get the hell away from my son, and get the hell out of my home before I put a bullet in your head.” His mother’s voice was calm and steady now, but Jim recognized the fury that lay beneath.

“All right, all right,” the man said as he lowered his head and slipped by her out the bedroom doorway. “You got the wrong impression, though.”

She turned to Jim. “Are you all right?”

He nodded.

She followed the man through the front door with the revolver raised the entire time. The door shut behind her.

A few moments later, she came rushing back into Jim’s room and sat on the bed next to him, placing the revolver on his bedside table and taking his head into her hands. She kissed his forehead and cradled him against her chest. “I’m so sorry, baby. I’m so, so sorry.”

Her disheveled hair hung in strands across his face and she began to sob quietly, clinging to him. He could smell the alcohol on her breath.

“I won’t let this ever happen again, sweetheart. There won’t be men coming here anymore, I promise,” she said as she gently rocked him back and forth in her arms.

They stayed this way for what felt like hours to Jim. Then she silently crawled beneath the covers with her dress still on and the two slept, her arm across his chest and his back pressed against her. . . .

Anyways that was a short excerpt from “The Evil Among Us.” I will probably post an excerpt from another one of the stories later in the week for those interested.

What is southern weird?: Part II

Okay so in my last blog post I described and gave examples of the southern gothic genre, similarly in this one I will attempt to explain what the genre of weird fiction is in order to demystify what I mean when I describe my upcoming book Black Flowers as “southern weird.”

Firstly, let me begin with a quick description of weird fiction that I will later expand upon. Weird fiction is a somewhat slippery term used for strange, dark stories that blend horror, science fiction, and fantasy together often exploring the limits of humanity’s knowledge or individual encounters with the unknown.

When we left off I mentioned how HBO’s crime anthology series True Detective was a good example of the more grounded, realistic side of the southern gothic with only possible hints of the supernatural. In season one, those hints at the supernatural and occult were actually writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto’s nods to a somewhat obscure work of weird fiction. Fans of the show may remember the cryptic mentions of the “Yellow King” and “Carcosa,” which sent fans off theorizing in a million different directions similar to the show’s two lead detectives, Rust and Marty.

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True Detective ended up having its own explanations for these terms, but in real life these are references to Robert W. Chambers’ book of short stories, The King in Yellow, that was published in 1895. In The King in Yellow the titular character is an ominous, shadowy figure in a play that shares his name and he lives in the kingdom of Carcosa. The reader is only given brief, albeit disturbing, excerpts of the play throughout the book and it is rumored that anyone that reads the entire play will completely lose their mind . . . so pretty creepy if you ask me.

Anyway, The King in Yellow‘s importance to the genre of weird fiction has less to do with its own contents and more to do with who it later influenced, which was a writer by the name of H.P. Lovecraft. Howard Phillips Lovecraft, though not the earliest writer of weird fiction, is by far the most well-known and most closely associated writer with the genre. Lovecraft was one of the first writers to popularize the term “weird fiction” as well as one of the first to define it and explain what made it distinct from the gothic ghost stories of the old days.

The majority of Lovecraft’s stories were first published in the cheap, fiction magazines known as the “pulps,” referencing the poor quality of the paper. Pulp magazines reached their peak of popularity in the 1920s and 1930s with such titles as Unknown and Weird Tales.

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Weird Tales is the magazine that published the majority of Lovecraft’s fiction and seemed to be the one he connected with the most. Though I have not found this explicitly stated anywhere, I suspect the magazine’s title and content might have played a big part in why Lovecraft referred to his chosen genre as “weird” since it was in the very title of the magazine. In the time period when Weird Tales was first being circulated the genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy weren’t clearly defined, distinct classifications as they are today. So in magazines like Weird Tales they were often lumped together and seen as a “lower” art form separate from the “higher,” more respectable art form known as “literary fiction.”

Lovecraft’s extremely influential contributions to weird fiction include a pantheon of ancient extraterrestrial gods known as the Cthulhu Mythos (the most famous being the octopus-faced god Cthulhu) and a pessimistic philosophy known as Cosmic Horror concluding that humanity’s existence and any of its actions are completely inconsequential in a vast and uncaring universe.

Recently many modern-day critics have stated that weird fiction was merely an insufficient placeholder term for the three, now, very different and distinct genres of sci fi, horror, and fantasy. Mostly due to the fact that the publishing industry has been using these terms for decades to classify and sell certain books. Others disagree though, some readers love the thrill of the unexpected and strangeness that comes along with reading a “weird” story and writers of the “weird” enjoy the freedom that comes along with being able to blend various ideas into new forms to create original concepts and stories.

In 2012, Jeff and Ann VanderMeer compiled a collection of 110 stories by various writers spanning over a century of time that was titled The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. Many have seen this massive collection as the definitive book of so-called weird writing. On a side-note, some of you may recall the recent film starring Natalie Portman called Annihilation which was based on Jeff VanderMeer’s weird fiction novel of the same name.

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… So this ended up being a bit longer than I had originally planned so I’m glad I decided to split it up into two parts. I hope I did a good job of explaining what southern gothic and weird fiction are so that people can understand where I’m coming from with my own literary-hybrid of “southern weird.” In summary, I take the misfit characters and dark Southern settings of the southern gothic and combine them with all the scientific, fantastic, and horrific ideas of weird fiction.

Okay, so we’re clear as mud, right? Right! See ya next post.

What is southern weird?

All righty, here we go with my first blog post and I know the question everyone is just begging for the answer to is “What do you mean by ‘Welcome to the Weird South’?” and “What is southern weird?”.

…Okay so probably no one was actually asking themselves that question, but I like being nerdy and analytical so bear with me.

Southern weird is my own amalgamation of two previously existing fiction genres (southern gothic and weird fiction) that I feel best describes my book Black Flowers. First, I’m going to describe these two genres and provide some examples of their seminal works, some literary and some not, then tell you how I’ve worked to combine these two genres into something, hopefully, new and unique.

Southern gothic fiction is a subgenre of the larger category of gothic fiction, which I imagine most people are probably somewhat familiar with already. Gothic fiction is the literary genre that later evolved into horror, but was originally far more subtle and populated with mostly upper-class, Victorian folks. The timeless classics Frankenstein, Dracula, and the majority of things written by the goth-father himself Edgar Allan Poe are all good examples of your standard gothic fare.

Southern gothic is similar to those works in atmosphere and darkness of tone, but takes place specifically in the American South. The setting, instead of simply being a backdrop for the stories like in traditional gothic, is essential to the messages, characters, and values discussed in southern gothic works. It is thought that the reason Southern literature took this turn towards the “dark side” was due to its loss of the Civil War. The Civil War left the Southern economy in shambles, since it had formerly rested on the backs of the unpaid workforce of slaves, and many Southerners were dragged kicking and screaming into a new way of life, one where they were forced to face their sins of enslaving their fellow human beings when they should’ve treated them as equals, you know, as originally stated in the Constitution.

Anyways, this new moral territory for many Southerners eventually led to some classic works of literature, such as Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, William Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily” and “Barn Burning,” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” Many southern gothic works dealt with the lingering racism in the South and typically had strange or unusual misfits as their main characters often used as a way to reevaluate what should or could be considered “good” or “normal.”

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Some more modern, non-literary examples of the southern gothic are HBO’s vampire drama True Blood or their crime anthology series True Detective, (especially season one and season three).

While True Blood is a good example of the supernatural side of the southern gothic genre True Detective, and no I don’t know why HBO is prone to naming their stuff True this or True that either, is a good example of the more grounded, realistic side of the genre, only hinting here and there at the possibility of something supernatural occurring.

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True Detective also serves as a good segue into the next part of this explanation of the southern weird, which I will continue in part two next week when I delve into weird fiction . . .