Are You Afraid of the Dark?

As kids, we were told that there’s nothing in the dark that can hurt us. There are no monsters waiting to eat us, nothing’s going to reach out from under the bed to grab our ankles or slink out of the closet to smother us. It’s just the absence of light, and it can’t hurt you.

But we were still afraid, were we not? Why is that? Did we just not trust adults? We’d been lied to before, told that the dog would be okay and the next day she was gone, told that this will only sting “just a little bit” and we still yelp out in pain. So why should this be any different? Grown-ups are proven liars after all.

I think how you view the dark can say a lot about you as a person. I think it can also help to determine if you’ve got what it takes to be a writer.

Closet-monsters and bed-monsters didn’t scare me. I saw shadows of trees and imagined killer clowns and lizard monsters outside my window, and I laughed. They fascinated me. The things you could find in the dark were nonexistent in the light.

Darkness revealed things to me.

Even when I saw things that scared me, they inspired me to stop and think. What kind of creature were they? Were they laughing with glee, or hungrily gnashing their teeth together? Maybe monsters are misunderstood, I decided. All the time I was in my own bedroom, I couldn’t be afraid, because I could laugh and play with the creatures in the dark.

In the daytime, in the light, everything is plain as, well, day. There are no surprises to be found standing right in front of you. It’s boring, in other words. But at night, in the dark, you could be two feet from another person and never know it.

That’s exciting to me. And I think it speaks to how I see life. If I knew everything that was coming, there would be no surprises. There would also be less to worry about, but the ability to worry and get through the dark times is just part of life.

As a writer, this is how first chapters in a novel tend to be as well. It’s easy to be afraid writing those first opening chapters, even with all the mental preparation and guidance available to you. It’s a dark world, with tricks of light misleading you along the way.

Getting used to writing the beginnings of a novel is a task in itself. Each new world is unique. It’s like learning a new town that you just moved to: You know where you live, how to get to the grocery store and gas station, but you don’t know how to get to more obscure local locations yet. You have to learn that as time goes on, or you have to explore a bit.

Getting back to the dark room analogy, I like how Chuck Wendig puts it in 30 Days in the Word Mines:

The start of a story is me walking into a dark house that’s not mine. I can’t see a damn thing. I know if I move too fast, I could bang my knee on a coffee table or break a toe or trip and fall into that Murder Pit that’s been carved out of the kitchen floor.

It’s only later that I start to feel more confident in the work—my eyes adjust, I know the placement of the furniture, and I can progress to a walk, then a jog, then an all-out run.

Having an idea of the lay of the land is critical to finding your way through the dark. As a kid, I was used to my bedroom, but if I stayed at a friend’s house, or had to sleep over at a babysitter’s house, or was just in any new place like a hotel or new apartment or even a tent, it always seemed somehow darker, and I saw stranger things there, things that made my heart race and kept me awake.

In a recent manuscript, I only had a vague plan for how to reveal the world of the story. I was walking into uncharted territory. I pretended I knew the details in the dark just to get me through the night… or the first draft, whatever. It wasn’t my bedroom. I didn’t know the placement of everything. But just as we all get used to new surroundings, I eventually figured out where everything was in this story, what it did and what it was for. And then I wasn’t afraid of it anymore.

Just working on a proper second draft for the first time—one where I edit the manuscript as a whole rather than write a whole new version from scratch—taught me all of this. I was scared of this story when I started it, when I first moved into it. But now that I’ve lived here for a while, I know what tree casts what shadows in the moonlight, and I can laugh at the monsters, or I can let them inspire me.

So, are you afraid of the dark?

Photo by Osman Rana on Unsplash

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