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Embracing the Darkness

by frank-hb via Flickr Creative Commons

I’m a bury-my-head-in-the-blanket kind of guy. When something scary comes on TV or in a movie, I hide until it’s over. I’m famous for it. My kids know it. My friends know it. My husband knows it. He’s my enabler. Because when things get really bad, I plug my ears, too, and he lets me know when it’s safe to come out.

So, a few years back when I had the seed of an idea for a novel of psychological suspense—a dark story about a husband and wife who each have a secret life they are hiding from the other and the dangerous game of cat and mouse that results—I stalled out. I had a situation. And the situation was a good idea, but it wasn’t really a story. It had no depth. More than that, I couldn’t figure out why it had no depth. I couldn’t figure out how to make the situation into a story.

And it was even more than that. I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t figure it out.

Then one day something happened. I talked to a writer friend who knew I’d been stuck for a while without a story I felt passionate about. I had about four ideas I’d been mulling over, I told her, but nothing really excited me. Amanda offered to take a look at the synopses I’d written. When I sent them, this one—the darkest one—jumped out. “I want to read it! Tell me more!” As we talked about it, the blanket slipped to one side and the darkness crept in. At first, I pulled the blanket back over my head. I didn’t want to see. I didn’t want to “go there.” I wanted to tell a safe story, something that didn’t make me crave a blanket to bury myself into.

But the story kept creeping back. I kept thinking about it, and it demanded more. It demanded darkness. And I couldn’t let it go.

My story epiphany happily coincided with going to the Writer Unboxed Unconference. I seized the opportunity to really embrace the story’s development. A story that is quickly becoming the darkest thing I’ve considered writing. It takes place in two extreme places: in the middle of a starkly hot African desert and the dead of winter on a rural farm in Vermont. It takes place in two extreme states of mind: the euphoria of falling in love and the desperation of finding out someone you love is trying to drive you crazy. At the UnConference, sessions took me through questions and revelations about character and plot and setting—they helped take the story deeper.

Why this story?

If you’ve read my posts for a while, you know that the past few years have been rough ones—writing-wise and personal-wise—I’ve had trouble writing and writing has troubled me. I’ve felt like my ability to write has been locked in. I actually describe it to other writers as “locked in syndrome.”

I have been unable to write freely.

The things that terrify me in this story are similar to the things that terrify me in my life, and the fears I have for these characters mirror the fears I have for myself. That means, I need to figure out how to go there in the story without being swallowed up with sadness, fear, and grief. And without retreating under the blanket.

It’s forced me to think more deeply about painful things—personally and professionally—and I’ve realized I may never again be able to take for granted the ease of writing I’ve always felt. I’ve had to face tough truths. Truths that I couldn’t hide under a blanket to avoid. Perhaps that’s helped me develop a tougher skin or perhaps seeing the dark and scary places but coming through on the other end makes me appreciate the light more. It’s also allowed me to look the darkness in the eye.

But it’s one thing to be forced to confront and move through the dark corners of my own life. After all, what choice do I have? It’s quite another to seek out the dark corners. And then write about them. That takes a different kind of toughness. And if I can’t even stand to watch dark and scary movies and TV shows (I mean, low-angst Hallmarks are more my style), how will I examine the same kinds of things and write about them in intimate detail?

While I was at the UnCon, I talked to my good friend Dede Nesbitt about my new story idea. She already knows well my avoidance of darkness. When I met her at the 2016 UnCon, I was working on a different novel, one I ended up scrapping for other reasons, but she helped me see where the novel didn’t go far enough when my young character was trapped at the Chicago bus station in the middle of the night. I wasn’t taking the scene far enough, deep enough, real enough, and I knew it.

This time, I needed help again, and Dede said, “You need dark emotional free falling? I’m your woman.”

We talked about it for a long time—and we’ve talked and texted since.

Free Falling into the Dark

Dede has given me a list of movies, another of books. I haven’t started yet, but I plan to take a deep breath, move the blanket to the other side of the room, and dive in. Dede has also encouraged me to look at situations and people in different ways . . . instead of seeing what’s on the surface, look deeper, and around the edges.

As a sort of training and desensitizing, she’s talked about how each of us see things in different ways. “You look out the window at a lake across the street. You see the beautiful lake? I see the old rusted car that’s parked by the shore. Why has it been parked there for two days? What’s the story there?”

To help me see things and people in ways I might not usually see them, in places I might not usually go—like a bus station in the middle of the night—Dede has told me to go there. Physically go there. To the 24-hour convenience store. To the bus station. To the frozen foods section after midnight. Look. Observe. Drink it in. Take notes. Feel the feelings. About the people. The places. All of it. Things and feelings unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

I welcome all of Dede’s suggestions, and I will do them. Because this story is the first one that has captured my imagination in a long, long time. It’s lived in the corner of my mind for four years, keeps demanding my attention. But it also demands authenticity. It demands the dark side, and as I’ve examined this story and traveled the path I’ve journeyed in my own life, I’ve found a truth within myself: inside of each one of us there is goodness but there is also darkness. I’ve stared it in the face.

Life is complex. It’s more than low-angst romance and happiness, sunshine and roses, and happily ever-afters. Life is also heartache and lying and mistrust and stealing and betrayal. It is sadness and grief. And to embrace the darkness is also to embrace the light and hope and love. Life is not comprised of only happy endings, and sometimes an examination of the dark side helps us as writers reaffirm what it means to be human—for us and our readers.

To tell the story, I will need to go outside the blanket and my comfort zone, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be afraid. It means I trust that after I go there to write the story, the light side (and the blanket) will still be there waiting when I come back out.

Now it’s your turn . . . what makes you head under the blanket? And what are you doing to face your deepest, darkest fears?

About Julia Munroe Martin [1]

Julia Munroe Martin [2] (@jmunroemartin [3]) is a writer and blogger who lives in an old house in southern coastal Maine. Julia's other passion is photography, and if she's not writing at the dining room table or a local coffeeshop, you'll likely find her on the beach or dock taking photos. Julia writes The Empty Nest Can Be Murder mystery series as J. M. Maison.