Volume 3 Number 1


Winter 2004

Flinching from the Reader

Asher Black

Authentic writing opens a vein, whether or not the writer means to, or is aware of it. It tells the intimate, the personal, the truth. It leaves the personal so scalding naked that the universal is revealed. So often, though, the writer flinches. The truth is hidden in cryptic language (which "is special to me"), in gimmicky techniques, in theoretical concepts or impressionist dabbing. Sometimes the writer dares nothing at all, dodging the very act of self-revelation. Instead, we get concept writing, or the writer milks a technique, or hauls out the stock props, the catch phrase, the mantra, the platitudes, or the preachy messages. In these cases, the writing is not yet myth. It doesn't yet tell a real story -- not because the story isn't real, but because it isn't being told.

One of my jobs at MYTHOLOG is giving feedback on work that we don't accept for publication. I find that, so often, we're looking at the seeds of myth, but they may never be fertilized with the soul of the writer. No blood, no tears, no semen awakens the words and gives them power. We're looking at sterile, impotent text. We want to say something like, "it has potential", but struggling writers hear this all the time. When they ask us for feedback, they're searching for more. So we ask them to be honest. We tell them what we want, not as editors but as readers. In doing so, we tell them why we turned away, why we flinched from the writer who flinched from us. In other words, we point out the dishonesty in the writing. We map the writer's moment of abandoning his lover -- where he turned away from the reader and left us in the cold.

There seem to be certain similarities in the methods writers use to avoid messy contact with the audience, to avoid being exposed, to escape being fondled through their writing. I've decided to enumerate a few that come to mind.

Catch Phrase & Buzzword

How many poets kick up a diamond word like "hymen" or "rictus" and build the rest of the poem around it like some kind of shabby setting? It happens in fiction, too; the writer likes the sound of an idea or phrase, and cooks up a story around it. A word or phrase stands in for substance and drama. The writer may even try to cover this up by using it over and over throughout the piece, in an ever louder voice. It is beaten like a mantra to substitute for an enlightenment the writing never attains. Or, perhaps, it just sounds so good to the writer that it seems to need repeating.

The same thing can be done with a concept. It is repeated more than developed, asserted more than integral, hits you over the head more than creeps in unexpected. Remember Cable Guy: "It was a gang of Asians... I think they were Asian.... yeah, they were definitely speaking Asian..." If the writer clobbers the reader with an idea, we can't draw our own conclusions. This kind of writing might be good for a personal psychological exercise, but it's more like masturbation than interaction with readers. Of course there are exceptions, but they tend to prove the rule.

Death by Adjective

In poetry, I'd rather see someone licking a riverbed or sucking a root than hear the writer claim he is thirsty. Saying that something is sweet or hot leaves one wondering if the writer is tasting all the food and leaving only the wrapper for the reader. "Showing rather than telling" means, to some writers, visual poetry in which the "gold-green rays" replace the "warm, lush days". It doesn't mean that to us, of course, and we rarely publish what is merely a description, however brilliant. Showing means, inevitably, describing some movement, some sense of life. To do that, the writer must leave the elevated perspective of the sky and venture back into the cave, into the nasty world of verbs, of action, of that which produces sweat.

Gore isn't Drama

Poetry laden with blood, offerings, and relatively obscure occult references, common with much so-called "dark poetry," tends to overwhelm the reader with contrived drama. Far from being suave, it woos with all the restraint of a prom date. Lacking in subtlety, it can't achieve actual "darkness." Using such words ("steaming guts," "skull fuck," etc.) as props for emotional effect merely annoys those who can decide well enough for themselves what they should feel. Likewise, the reader shouldn't feel the need to be initiated into the mysteries of a particular rite in order to get the piece. In both cases, the reader ceases to identify with the poem, and is stuck (at best) admiring the packaging.

Props & Platitudes

A mistake of some novice writers is to make use of stock props (cross, pentacle, witch) to achieve the atmosphere, or to utilize platitudes or 'faditudes' ("we're all connected") to drive plot -- a plot which is usually too familiar: the raised consciousness (or psychological-magical awakening) of the protagonist. In fantasy, an elf, a dwarf, a wizard, and a halfling band together to go to a forbidden dungeon in search of a magical artifact or a dragon. Magical is usually spelled "magickal" in stories like that. Or it's about a protagonist who discovers her own magical powers when an entity from the other world corrects her wrong thinking and sets her on the path to correct psychology ("You're special. You were born that way. You just don't fully realize it."). The story usually reflects the author's own desire to achieve power in place of powerlessness, and so is often burdened with a kind of anachronistic preachiness. In such stories, the protagonist is liable to be told "first, do no harm", while other characters use words like "thus" and "hence." The best of such work comes out camp.

Concept Words

In poetry, you know the artist has distanced himself from the poem when he starts using too many concepts like "alienation," "frustration," and "enlightenment." Instead of showing, he's telling. Unwilling or unable to risk being specific, the artist retreats into blind, automatic-writing. The writer is "consumed by the muse" with the flourish of a feathered quill, or else hidden in the safe, distant, ivory tower of psychoanalysis. There may be truth there about how the writer is feeling, or what he's thinking, but it's not poetic truth. Until he finds what he's really saying and puts it into the universal language by being ultimately personal -- until he spills the liquid of his suffering onto the page -- he can't make poetry. Even then, there's never a guarantee. Even the ecstacy of the writer is revealed in suffering since, after all, he cannot contain it and must bleed to give it clear voice.

So much poetry is an abortive whine or a contemptuous grump. Or else the poet lies; he fills in his inability or unwillingness to tell the whole truth with stock parts: oddly camp happy endings, trite psychological revelations, or half- relevant "artsy" finales that offer no meaning -- platitudes that smack of "the magic of Christmas is in our hearts" -- and then he rests on the safe dais of "intelligentsia" by calling it a passionate commentary on meaninglessness, or some other contradiction in terms.

The Fallacy of Pairings

Concept words can sneak in as word pairings -- a droning or shrill "this of that" that seems like a stand-in for concept words like desperation, gestalt, and potency:

  • The deep chasm of the soul
  • The nebulous churn of reality
  • The honest drone of productivity
  • The dreamscape of passion
  • Waterfalls of disappointment

Et cetera. The words certainly evoke ideas and contain images, but they they're like blood on a lens -- they access the center of drama without conveying the substance of experience. They suggest that gore is the same as fear.

Adjective-noun pairings are often used to do the same thing. They can tell more than convey -- can be concept rather than experience oriented:

  • Insouciant ferns
  • Lyrical potions
  • Raunchy passengers

Drowning in pairings, we thirst for verbs. And still, a poet will slice them with adjectives into nice, neat canals:

  • Raunchy passengers of eternity conjure lyrical potions of dashed hope

Along with verbs, which convey life and motion, we need to experience the things that live and move. We need to feel grit rather than conceptualize it.


Stories and poems that are extremely message-oriented ultimately fail in the very thing the writer intends. If you're going to send a message through a story, it's got to be one that the reader can challenge, question, and wrestle with in the context of the story and its parameters. It's got to have some ambiguity. Often, a piece will be like a "connect the dots" with all the dots already connected. This type of aphoristic fiction works better as devotional literature or personal journaling; it isn't myth because it isn't universal. Writing that is universal holds out a struggle in which all can share; it isn't corrective, pedantic, or unambiguous; it isn't a solved puzzle that actually limits the reader's ability to participate in the story. That's what sermons do, not myths.

Consider the film Troy, for instance. There's enough ambiguity for one to draw one's own conclusions, and yet enough common experience for it to tell a universal story. A good story is like a tree whose branches are made up of several smaller stories, some of which are optional, some ambiguous, and some that are told by the reader.

Plot Failure

When I question the plot of a piece, I try to reduce it to its basic elements -- the changes or shifts. It's brutal, but it helps illuminate deficiencies in the plot. For instance:

  • Group wants man's property
  • Group kills man's family
  • Man plots revenge
  • Man and group clash
  • Man wins

An anticlimactic plot -- a plot with no real struggle or transformation or psychological import -- will show up fairly easily. You can even further reduce the story to:

  • Group wrongs man
  • Man kills group

Or, for that matter, we could sum up the story as a single concept:

  • Revenge

No other real description of the plot is needed. However, if the plot were developed:

  • Man renounces violence and seeks peace
  • Man finds peace in family
  • Group kills man's family
  • Man gives up hope in principles, plots revenge
  • Man and group clash
  • Man wins but realizes he has changed
  • Man makes peace with change

You can almost see him pinning on the tin star. More importantly, we can see, for better or for worse, a transformation, a resolution, and a struggle that we can take away, as readers.

With the undeveloped, perfectly linear, concept-driven plot, the story isn't yet myth. It may be the seeds of a story, or it may just be another form of dishonesty. If a writer has a story to tell, it's within him. He has to be honest enough to find it -- to reveal enough of the interior to make it stick -- and that requires self-revelation.


Some writers actually retreat from truth by writing what they call "personal" material. They retreat from the truly personal; it is always a dodge, a kind of dishonesty or evasion. Sometimes it takes the form of "coded" language --something only the writer and the presumably "enlightened" can understand. We find these writers defending their work in that manner. Sometimes it takes the form of retreating into cerebral/concept language -- "the dark paranoia of bitterness," "the angst of jaded sexuality," etc. Sometimes it takes the form of extreme impressionism. It is the flower only as the author sees it, but never enough of the flower seen by all. And sometimes it's done through simple repetition.

The writing is replete with brush strokes that never quite make the form explicit or fully expressed. It consists of dabs: "There is the flower... the flower soaking the sun... the open flower..." It's the all-consuming flower from Hell. The dabs are substituting for personal experiential content. They don't have to be repetitious, either. Sometimes, it's a dab of flowers, a smidgen of tears, a sprinkle of bitterness, and so on. This poetic pointillism deprives the reader of nutritious shared experience by sucking out all the vitamins and sticking in saccharine drama.

Another example of dabbing is when the experience is all implied, contained in nothing explicit, nothing but the presumption of shared experience where none exists -- devoid of personal content -- the retreat from actual confession, articulation, honesty:

  • And you hear the whispering, the legends told and retold, the songs and the stomping feet

We are expected to say "yes" to this vagueness, but we only say "who," "what," "why," "when," "where," and "how?" We long for the particular, the cruddy imperfection of the writer's own personal experience, so we can truly share something of substance with him. The attempt by the writer is to soar beyond experience, to touch the universal by denying the personal, the historically/temporally particular, the tangible, material, fleshly reality of our condition, and the attempt is poetic suicide. The result is disembodied writing. It evokes only abortive collaborations between reader and writer. We can't hear the writer, in this case, any more than we can if he uses concept words, or substitutes repetition for genuine experience. It's as if there is no touch to the skin, only the simulation of it. Poetically, the approach is impotent, feeling like the photographer in the film sex, lies, and videotape.

Mood Pieces

Ayn Rand's The Romantic Manifesto has been a handbook in thinking about these. After reading it, I began to read synopses, looking for plotless words like pastiche and collage. When I find them, I thank the blurb writer for his candor, and quickly dump the soul-draining piece back onto the shelf.


In writing, honesty is paramount. And that honesty comes from deep soul searching -- not telling us about five minutes of introspection as such, or translating what is ultimately fad psychology into too serious melodrama. Or worse, in my opinion, is giving up and taking the easy, slimy way out of parodying everything because, in the author's nihilistic despair, he really has nothing of himself to offer the world, except tongue-in-cheek shots at everything else.

Writing isn't safe. Sometimes it's opening oneself up and letting ugly or dangerous or painful things spill out. And sometimes even that doesn't work. At the same time, it's so easy to get lost in that and write things that are personal, but flinching. And if you flinch -- if you withdraw from what it makes you feel -- then it fails in some way; it fails the reader and the author; it comes out less than genuine. Sometimes writing means the courage to go through the knives, leap into the machine, and tie oneself to the pyre. It may take years to find one's voice, especially if it takes years to first find, create, or re-create oneself as a person -- not a parody, not a pastiche of stock perceptions and categories.

Some writing is pure craftsmanship and, if you can do that, that's great. But otherwise, and possibly still, you have to sit down and write what you're dealing with right now in your life. The real stuff. The honest things. Put it in another context, perhaps, but write the truth without flinching. If you succeed in showing us, it will be understood. If you can't take that risk, then you either do the craftsmanship, if you can do that, or you live alone; for a writer, to live alone is to be unable to write the truth.

This is the best advice I have for writers that need to dig themselves out of a literary hole, but then I could just as easily say with Montaigne, "Que sais-je?" ("What do I know?").