March 21st is the release date of my next story, “Known Side Effects Include.” This was one of the harder pieces I’ve written, and challenged me in ways I didn’t quite expect when I signed up for the set. Set? Oh, yes. The short story is going to appear in an anthology that’s out next week.
The link is here: Still Rising: An Anthology for Equality
Stolen Lives. Twisted Histories. Lost Identities.
Forced to the margins of society, they were treated as less than human. Blamed for their own brutalization, they were expected to stay silent. Shamed out of loving freely, they were removed from the protection of the law.
Still, each time they said no.
Knocked down over and over again, they rise.
They are still rising.
Black Lives Matter, now and always.
The above is the description for the set. Gives me chills.
I had a solid idea in my mind about the kinds of things I wanted to release in 2021, and this one was on the list. The set is called Still Rising, and proceeds from the sales of the sets go to Black Lives Matters. The set comes out next Tuesday, March 21st. I do hope you pick it up.
So, Todd, you have a new story, what’s the existential crisis about, anyway?
Good question. And the answer is not really as simple as a blog post might make it out to be, but I wanted to give a little back story to the story and maybe give you a glimpse into what I can articulate about how an idea goes from rattling around in my brain to getting into your hands to read and enjoy (or not, really that part is out of my control once the piece is finished).
When the opportunity to be in this anthology came up, I jumped at the chance. I did so without really even having a story. Or even the slightest hint of what I would write about. Given the way the rest of 2020 had gone, creativity-wise, that probably wasn’t the best approach.
You see, a good chunk of 2020 was a creative desert. I know I’ve posted other blogs about this. I mean, sure I had the Instagram poems. I’m not taking anything away from those. It’s been suggested that I put together a book of my poems (and that’s on deck at some point, probably Summer of this year). And then I met a woman that I fell in love with and there were even more Instagram poems. But for some reason, I couldn’t really dive back into the words like I had before. And I had that crippling thought, Can I only write things when I’m trying to work through pain in my life?
Let me tell you, THAT is a scary thought. Because I was really happy (I still am, but that is a story for another time). I have since gone through some serious self-growth and discovery work. I think it’s what the old folks called ‘getting your shit together.’
So, to bring you up to speed. Life is good. My image of my self and my own worth is better than it’s been in decades, and each day I am finding more things about myself that I really dig. I’ve filled 2 full journals and am in the thick of the third in as many months. There is really probably a whole mess of blog articles about this whole journey…maybe a book, but if you and I are friends on Facebook, there’s a strong chance you’re already sick of it, so I’ll shift gears on that and spare you.
Back to the writer’s block. As I was going through these things last fall and early this year, I faced the mother of all writer’s blocks. I realized, the more I broke it down, that it was less of an issue of writer’s block and more of an issue of Imposter Syndrome. Like if there was a curled up in the fetal position version of an Imposter’s Syndrome attack, I was experiencing it–figuratively speaking.
But, Todd, you’re a good writer. Your stuff connects with people. What had you all twisted?
Excellent question, and thank you for that. I figured out that what had me bunged up was that here I was, recently back on this journey of self-discovery, dusting off the bits of who I am, and approaching each day with a sense of authenticity and truly being honest with myself and the people in my life. That was easy on some days, harder on others, but so very worth it.
And I had committed to submitting a piece for an anthology about equality. Sure, it’s a good cause-vital even. And it’s something that we really all need to be more mindful of. I’m not disputing that. Here’s the thing. I don’t know if you know this, but I’m a white dude. I’m 49 years old. I live in the most typical of typical white-bread American neighborhoods. See the disconnect? White, moderately middle-class, male, heterosexual (Him/His), divorced, with a dashing pandemic beard. What the actual fuck do I know about being marginalized or in a minority? By default, I haven’t been. It’s been the opposite. I’m one of the people that the system actually works for de facto.
I think that’s one of the reasons I wanted to be in the set. I wanted to do something to try to bring awareness to the situation that’s been in our society since…well…a long damn time. I can tell a story. I can get the reader into my characters’ heads and get them to feel the feels. So, if I could do that with something as important as this message, it would be something I could be proud of and something I would feel was a worthwhile endeavor. If it helps wake up one person, then it’s worth it. Even more is a bonus.
So, already (if you’re playing along at home) you can see where I’ve heaped all this internal pressure on myself to make something that would be magical and people would start the dialog about privilege, race, marginalized groups, after reading my amazing story. Couple that with the trickle of actual creative output that was happening anyway and you can see where shit was going to go sideways.
I had a thread of an idea. The Anthology was one where magic is allowed. Commonly referred to as Urban Fantasy, magic exists in the worlds of the stories. So, the thought was I would have a magical creature that was the minority/marginalized group and write from their struggles and get the message out that way.
Which…I mean, cool. But…which magical creature in the pantheon of all magical creature would other magical creatures look down on, exploit, and generally be racist (magicist?) assholes towards? The original concept was going to have Angels and Demons be essentially the same creature, but the Demons were the ones that were exploited even though they were actually less sinister than the angels, they just had worse PR. The few roughs that I went through on that were a little too black and white–a little too on the nose and it just felt heavy handed. As I was working on it, I had the feeling that anyone reading it would be like…”Oh…this old white guy in the suburbs just replaced the names of magical creatures for the races, and of course the caucasians were the angels.”
It felt very hollow and I thought ultimately it would detract from the overall message of the Anthology. I almost dropped out (more than once, to be honest).
POV is a tricky thing. If you aren’t honest with your characters, the readers will pick up on it and they will see you, the author, peeking out from behind the curtain, Oz. As a reader, nothing takes me out of a story quicker than when I see the author playing puppeteer and I can see them working the mouth like a ventriloquist.
Eventually I hit something that felt right. The race was the Empaths. They are descendants of the Fae who used to watch over our earth before humans stopped truly believing in magic. Problem is, the discovery of Empaths as a race other than humans really freaked the ‘normal’ humans out. I feel like I have a good bead on empathy, so writing the character of an Empath wasn’t a stretch. And, as someone who considers his empathy fairly developed, I could speak to that with more truth than anything else I had tried out yet.
I had some challenges getting a story that I thought people would care about, so I followed the oldest writing axiom in the book–Write what you know.
Now I know some people take that to mean write about the shit you truly know (skills, experiences, etc), but I look at it another way. I look at it as writing the style/genre you know as well. For me, my first reading experiences were Sci-Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. And this piece gave me a chance to use all three. Don’t worry, the horror aspect is less of a blood and gore kind of thing and more of a ‘holy shit, that was a dark chapter.’ Which, really is kind of the point, right?
If you are going to have a story in an Anthology that is a call for equality, then there should be some darkness in it. This is not a light and fluffy kind of topic. And I didn’t want it to come across that way.
One of the things I like most about this piece, as I go back and read it, is that it doesn’t feel forced and it doesn’t feel faked. And it certainly doesn’t feel like the old white guy telling you how you should think and feel about racism or about marginalized groups and the struggles they face.
I had planned to put a little of this backstory in the author’s notes in the Anthology itself, but it just didn’t fit. And it didn’t feel like me. This feels like me. Our little chats here on the blog.
So, there it is. For the like 27 of you that make your way over here–that’s a little of the backstory of how “Known Side Effects Include” came into the world.
Uh, Todd, are you seriously going to close out this post without even giving us a HINT of where the name comes from?
Ah. Good point. I’m not going to spell it out completely, but I’ll give you some hints. Open up your browser and google any prescription drug you can think of. Somewhere in the search results will be a section that starts off with Known Side Effects Include:
Now, that becomes a factor when you know that one of the characters in my story is a big Pharma company called Paradigm Pharmaceuticals. It’s possible that they may have isolated something (harvested might be a better word) from the Empaths. And if you could give empathy to someone in pill form, how would that change the world?!?
So, there are your hints. I guess you can see how it all plays out next Tuesday (3/21) when you pick up the set.
Until then, be kind, be weird, and be true.