A Warm Welcome Back

Welcome back to Shaggin the Muse! Before I get started, let me say thanks to my ever-helpful, ever-wise assistant Franny for the gentle push back to promotional work. I also can’t forget her partner-in-crime, the talented Silvia,who put together the overhaul of this site. They both run Dark World Books, and I can’t recommend them enough for what they’ve done in putting the wheels back on this jalopy and pushing it back out into oncoming traffic.

Walking Away

I admit it: it’s been awhile since my last post. The truth is that I walked away for some time and didn’t know if I’d continue to support this side of my career. Why? Well, a combination of factors, really, some embarrassing, some well-founded. It started with a Halloween short story contest, strangely enough. A small community of self-publishers held the contest and I figured why not, try to pump up readership a little and have some fun. Deadline was four weeks, no exceptions, and I worked pretty hard, banging out an outline and  three drafts.

Now granted, it’s difficult to judge your own work, but I feel I do okay in spotting flaws and being objective about them. I didn’t write the perfect story, but I thought I had a solid contender, something that would entertain and garner some votes.

That impression stood up when I read the other stories. The winner seemed obvious to me, with a few others ranking higher than my own story, but I still felt good about my chances.

Imagine my surprise when winners were announced and the story that I felt to be the clear winner didn’t even place. Oh, and my story didn’t get a single vote, falling below stories notable for their stilted dialogue, copious misspellings, and nonsensical conclusions.

Rather than focus on the mechanics of the vote (my story had been the last in a long line and didn’t get read by many) and the tastes of that particular audience, I went into a tailspin. This – along with an ill-timed “cyber-bullying” incident – meant that I didn’t understand good horror/dark fantasy. I didn’t see the point in continuing down that road. Don’t think pity party, though, rather a conviction that the heart of my writing lay elsewhere. In retrospect I had been leaning that way for quite some time, this just served as a convenient catalyst.

It seems ridiculous now, but I don’t regret it. It’s driven me to write Came to Believe, a novel that has transformed my view of authorship as a way of reaching for inner truth.

Drugs and the Process

2014 might best be described as a hot steaming mess, but, as you can surmise, I’ve been hard at work on the novel and am up to Chapter 16 on something that may resemble a third draft. It’s difficult to define such things, as I’ve restarted the novel with a different perspective and overhauled my process in order to turn out more polished passes.

Quick synopsis: Came to Believe tells the story of a sex-addicted small-town dentist whose life changes when he’s caught with a prostitute in a public park. While waiting for his hearing, he meets a male prostitute and drug dealer who clues him in to what sex addiction is about and how to use rehab to avoid jail time. Dean wants in on it, so he joins the redneck in going to Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings. These meetings begin the slow process of change in Dean, introducing him to both his sponsor and Lindsay, a fellow addict who will be very important to him. Bear with me, I’m still workshopping the synopsis, but the tag line is “Sex, Drugs, and Dentistry.”

Anyway, a little about the new process. It starts with the first “draft”, or pass, of a given chapter, one in which I reserve the right to suck out loud. I focus on writing to the outline, using chunks of dialogue and narrative to form a “bridge” across the story’s river, which aids in avoiding those blank page heebie jeebies. I also maintain a rolling outline with these first passes, one that doesn’t venture much more than five chapters ahead of the current chapter. This makes it easier to anticipate any curves and stay on target with the narrative.

Once the first pass is knocked out, I take to paper again. This phase is a ten-minute free write summarizing what happened in the first draft, noting any deficiencies in the narrative and structure, and focusing on what needs to be fleshed out. For example, the first pass of Chapter 16 featured a young mother who did little more than make Dean self-conscious. Recognizing a need for a more compelling conflict, I transformed her into a meth addict who will have a profound impact on his life and Book 2.

These notes form the basis for the second pass, which I will discuss next week.

Some folks have asked me what I know about sex addiction, that is, what qualifies me to talk about this guy and his experiences? No, I’m not a sex addict, but I have lived with one and interacted with quite a few others. One in particular had a huge impact on my life, both good and bad, though I won’t name them or share details out of respect for their privacy. As a partner of a sex addict, I did my time in “the rooms,” as they call the locations of these recovery groups. It was there that I met a lot of wonderful people who changed my views and informed much of this novel. Difficult times, but ones that I would not change for anything, as those years have shaped me.

I’ll try to talk about some of these experiences as time goes on.

First, let’s talk about Dean’s slip back into drug addiction. His drug of choice is the anti-anxiety medication Ativan, to which he formed a physical dependence in college. He found it quite useful to control his fears during tests and make him a more polished public speaker, but he dumped it when he found it starting to rule his life. The aforementioned drug dealer pulls him back into the drug’s orbit when he observes Dean’s uptight nature and gives him a free sample.

I came into the book knowing that Dean favored a drug. In the initial pass it was laughing gas, which makes sense for a dentist but became impractical outside of his office. So, I thought, why not Ativan? I had taken it for my fear of flying and nearly experienced an “overdose” during a particularly terrifying flight. I had also spoken to former addicts who had gone through the crippling withdrawal, so it seemed to be in my wheelhouse and especially apt for an addict who sought to blot out his emotions. It leads him down quite the dark path in the back half of the novel.

This sets the stage for the next blog post, in which I’ll talk about the history of the drug, its side effects, and the hellish withdrawal.

That about does it for this week. Keep an eye out for the next post, when I’ll talk more about the process of writing Chapter 16 and its implications for the sequel, my writing process, and the aforementioned Ativan information.

Oh, and one last thing. I’m not sure if I mentioned it in the past, but I’m something of an amateur photographer, specifically scenery. My goal is to communicate a sense of…well, here’s how I’ve explained it: you know that feeling you get on a cold, foggy night when you’re wrapped up in a blanket and hear the sound of a lonesome train whistle in the distance? That’s the feeling I’m trying to capture. Hopefully this one, taken at an anonymous railroad crossing in the mountains west of the DC Metro area, does it for you. See you next time!


On Beauty, Innocence, and Broken Wiring

warning_pageWarning upfront: this might be a slightly uncomfortable topic, one that looks at the roots of sex addiction and the abuse that creates it. I want to talk about it because the psychology behind it increasingly driving my next book and I’ve actually learned something from writing about it. Imagine that!

Yesterday I mentioned that my protagonist, Dean, is addicted to hiring prostitutes who are college freshmen, typically of the “barely legal” variety, and I want to talk about that a little today. You see, there’s something more going on with him that goes beyond an obsessive early-book need to possess women as if they were rare cars: Dean’s fundamental operational wiring in his brain is broken, though not permanently. Here are the relevant paragraphs that have made me think more about this:

Her face shifted and he caught a glance of the child that had so recently disappeared into this budding woman.

It made his heart ache. He had no idea why he found the combination of beauty and innocence so intoxicating, surely something from his distant past, but he didn’t worry about that. He was no monster; he had no desire to steal away her remaining naiveté, but at the same time it worked like a powerful aphrodisiac. He simultaneously wanted to protect her and fuck her.

Now make no mistake, gong into this I did not personally understand this point of view; it came from the testimonies of more than one sex addict in the course of my research into the topic. It initially repulsed me, but I couldn’t let it go for some reason. I didn’t have a problem understanding the underlying sentiment: plenty of beautiful, innocent things can make you pause and re-consider the very context of life. Baby bunnies, kittens, and puppies come to mind without too much effort. The very concept of their existence is a fragile, precious thing and worth consideration as an important part of the life cycle.

My misgivings lay in sexualizing this, for what I hope are obvious reasons.  I simply don’t look at something innocent and beautiful and start to feel any of those stirrings. The impulse to protect, yes, I absolutely get that, like I said, it’s a fragile thing in a chaotic, dangerous world. But sexualize? Why? What could cause such a thing?

I honestly failed to comprehend right up until I wrote Dean’s story and the pieces started falling into place. Without giving too much away, something traumatic happened to Dean when he was on the cusp of puberty, which is not at all uncommon for sex addicts. Current psychological theory for why sex abuse causes sex addiction is complex, with many different reasons coming together to create a web of maladaptive behavior, but basically the concept is that an abused person seeks to recreate their trauma and master it this time. This is why you’ll sometimes hear about rape victims who then go on to put themselves into extremely dangerous situations.

This is essentially what Dean is doing. The innocence and beauty in his life was stolen from him at a very vulnerable age and in a sexual manner. The people who should have protected him for one reason or another failed to do so, leaving him open to the dangers of the world, which ultimately consumed his own innocence. When Dean becomes entranced by the quality of beauty and innocence in others, on one level he recognizes some lost component of himself and wishes to protect it, but at the same time the assault has crossed up the wiring in his brain so that when he recognizes this rare and precious trait it’s inexorably associated with sexual trauma.

Essentially, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a hell of a thing that screws with you to the very core.

Combine all of that with the addict’s core belief that “I am inherently a bad and unlovable person” and we get the mess that is Dean Rohrer’s brain at the opening of Came to Believe. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that his behavior or any similar behavior is a good thing – it’s a destructive adaptation that destroys lives. But it doesn’t arise in a vacuum and it can’t be fixed without some understanding and attempts to correct that behavior.

So the bulk of the book is about him untangling those threads and learning to appreciate the beauty in life without compulsively sexualizing it – essentially breaking the compulsive patterns. It’s not an easy path for him, nor is it for anyone who has to follow it in real life. There are many pitfalls and sometimes the slightest thing can throw someone off the rails of recovery (as it does for Dean), but it is possible. I’m hoping that Dean’s redemption rings true for folks. We’ll see. I’ll share more on the dynamics of addiction and trauma as I go through the book.