Last night, I finished off my entry for the ELLE Short Story competition. I wrote a story about a stalker, from a stalker’s point of view.
Getting into a stalker head space is an incredibly interesting experience.
It also left me feeling odd in my own skin. Slightly uncomfortable with myself and what I had written, because I would never want a stalker and quite frankly, it sounds like a roundly terrifying thing. I went to bed with my thoughts wondering around in a part of my head now devoted to thinking the way a stalker does. First person, folks. The stuff of nightmares.
I woke up this morning still feeling a bit… weird. Not bothered or disturbed, but suddenly quite thoughtful about this writing thing, which I love so much. And on the bus, making my merry (if still mostly asleep) way to work when my thoughts drifted to what would happen if the bus I was on crashed into another car, the catalyst for a pile-up in the middle of town. I wondered what would happen if I died and my imagination threw images back at me, like a stop motion video.
When it was over, I leaned back and wondered if it was alright to think that kind of thing. There are some thoughts the mind shudders away from. And rightly so. Humanity is capable of the most abhorrent of thinking. But what if you’re a writer? An actor? What if what you do, what you love, leaves you no choice but to examine those dark places in your mind, experiment with how warped your thinking can truly be. Where is the line there? What if the things that you cannot bear to think about are what you have to think about because you have this character who is fundamentally understood, only when you say a little prayer and head into the horrors of your own imagination.
It can go horribly wrong. Heath Ledger is certainly a good example of that. His role as the Joker killed him, because to actually be the Joker, you have to understand, to your core, what that kind of insanity feels like, rattling around in your head. And to so intuitively channel madness? It’s quite likely you’ll lose it entirely before you’re done. But hell, the work that comes from that is of the finest quality. You lost your mind. You also did a damn good job.
Bret Easton Ellis is another example. He’s a fine author, one of my favourites. And somewhere between writing ‘The Rules of Attraction’ and ‘Lunar Park’ it all went pear for him. He didn’t die because of it, but something inside him snapped a little. To put in simpler terms, the man said Patrick Bateman was about him. It’s a viciously disturbing thought.
It can go fantastically right. Stephen King is one such author who has mastered the ability of descending into the worst kinds of horror and emerging unscathed and coherent. His work about devils and demons is certainly terrifying, but the creeping fear his book ‘Misery’ inspires makes you sweat slightly as you read. I read ‘Tommyknockers’ and didn’t sleep for days, but the ‘Apt Pupil’ is filled with the kind of dark wickedness that let’s me go to sleep just so it can romp through my dreams. And yet, he’s fairly stable and creating a legacy of work that is simply astounding.
Chuck Palahniuk is especially good at this. He gets depravity so very spot on that it makes me want to crawl out of my skin. I read ‘Guts’ and frightened a whole lot of people at a bus station because I couldn’t contained a horrified shout. ‘Rant’ remains one of my all-time favourite ‘I will totally make you not sleep tonight or, you know, ever’ books. But you look at pictures of the man, read his interviews and you discover well, dang, he’s not some twisted little writer hunched over a keyboard, pale because he hasn’t seen daylight in days (I used to be like that, a couple of years back). He’s just a guy.
So okay, that’s what I’ve been thinking about the whole day.
Where do writers draw the line? If you know, know for sure, that the better you understand what you are writing about, the better your work will be. It’s like journalism. You don’t ask the guy that rattles off sports facts at an alarming rate to write about the tenuousness of government in general. There’s no real understanding there and thus, it won’t turn out as good as it might have, if you’d asked the political reporter, who can list politicians like you can list your favourite books of all time.
And if a better understanding means better writing, then don’t you want to understand paranoia as much as you can? Or really get murder. Not just the act, but the motivation and what happens when the murder is over.
How far can you really push your imagination before it begins to haunt you?
My thoughts still feel weird and strange. For a moment last night, I felt like a stalker, like someone who watches, someone who obsesses. It still feels that way a little bit. Maybe it wasn’t wise to explore a stalker head space so thoroughly? It’s a difficult decision to make. I am profoundly happy with the story that emerged, but it makes me wonder how Chuck Palahniuk felt after he wrote ‘Guts‘.