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Gleanings: Mary Shelley's Creative Process, Dean Koontz's Daemon, and Chris DeGarmo's Inner Creative Obligation
Distilled recommendations from reading into the dark
Welcome to The Living Dark. I’m Matt Cardin, and this is my blog/newsletter on waking up at the intersection of creativity, writing, religion, horror, nonduality, apocalypse, dystopia, consciousness, and culture. You can subscribe by clicking this button:
Here are a few new reading recommendations brought back from my recent foragings. This time they all cluster around the subject of creativity and the creative process. Items include:
an essay on Mary Shelley’s creative process when she was conceiving and writing Frankenstein
a fascinating anecdote from Dean Koontz about the time a character spoke itself, and an entire novel series, into existence in his mindspace
former Queensrÿche guitarist, songwriter, and founding member Chris DeGarmo on feeling a sense of obligation to one’s own creative force
All italicized emphases in quoted passages are added by me.
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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the strange occult dance of the creative process
In this newsletter a few weeks ago, I wrote about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and its importance as a parable on the dark difficulties that can attend human creativity. Currently, a new essay by Bryan VanDyke at The Millions is rather charming me with its reflective rumination on Mary’s creative process as she conceived and wrote the novel. VanDyke pays special attention to Mary’s personal journals and the ways they simultaneously illuminate, frustrate, and tantalize with their omission of key details. He also speaks insightfully about the creative process in general, with references to his own experience of it:
The process of writing is frustratingly non-linear. You race forward into enemy territory, then retreat, erase, revise, re-plan, and then dash forward again, trying to make more progress each time, but not always succeeding. At least this is my creative process: after I’ve settled on an idea that I want to write about, I stop writing. I walk around, thinking about the writing I want to do, but—and this is important—don’t do it. It bothers me, this idea that I want to write about but can’t yet put down on paper. That’s sort of the point. . . .
We have for [Frankenstein] a remarkable record of the strange occult dance that is the creative process; everything, that is, except the very first part, the original germ, the text that Mary wrote that summer. Of her first, original idea, her actual work from that summer in Geneva, no copies exist that I can tell, although who’s to say what someone with adequate time and access to the deep vaults of Oxford could turn up. We know where she wrote her first sketch, and who was there, and we can guess even at the when—but the product of the initial inspiration itself, the original fire, it’s missing. Sort of like the beginning of any life, every life. You can know everything about where, how, and when you were born; someone could even have recorded every facet, every detail, every sound and smell and act. But it can’t bring that original moment back.
There are many more pages to Mary’s journal—thousands more, if you include essays and letters and other published books. But I find myself drawn to the passages and entries that Mary made during the rainy summer of 1816. To the ebb and flow of that brief season, before she was old enough to know loss and doubt and regret, before she had managed to sustain a narrative for the full stretch of a novel. Back before she could be sure of anything. Before she knew whether or not she would be able to catch hold of an idea good enough to carry her forward. All young writers feel this way at some moment. Full of hope but also full of doubt. Kinetic and dull at once. Imagine being Mary Shelley: while she was still a teenager she caught hold of an idea big enough to carry her name forward 200 years and counting.
Dean Koontz on writing into the dark and listening to the daemon
Last month I finally watched the movie adaptation of Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas, which I have had lined in my viewing queue for something like three years. I don’t know why I put it off for so long. But after such a long wait, I was pleased to find that the movie is frankly a delight. Sharply directed. A great supernatural/occult detective plot (courtesy of Koontz himself, of course). Perfectly cast, with engaging performances, including a fine energetic turn in the lead role by the now lamentably late Anton Yelchin. A skillfully mounted tone of edgy humor combined with an equally effective dose of supernatural horror. I’ll never understand why this movie was a box office flop.
I was so taken with it that I spent some time reading up on it afterward. One thing led to another, as internet browsings so commonly do, and I eventually found myself reading a 2020 interview with Koontz at Harvard Business Review and sitting up in my chair when he unexpectedly started talking about writing into the dark and listening to his daemon. He didn’t actually use either of those terms, but they are exactly what he was referring to.
His words came in response to a prompt from the interviewer to “tell me about your process from the initial idea for a story or a character to a published book.” The first part of Koontz’s reply could stand as a textbook illustration of Dean Wesley Smith’s principle of writing into the dark:
I used to write from outlines. But when I wrote Strangers, which ended up having an enormous cast and being about a quarter of a million words, I decided not to do an outline and just start with the premise and a couple of interesting characters. I decided to wing it, and it was the best decision. I’ve never used an outline since. I start with a bit of an idea, a central theme, a premise, and then I think about it for a little while—not for weeks and months, but days—and then I begin. If the character doesn’t work in the first 20 pages, you might as well quit. If a character comes alive, I let the character move the story along. This is the hardest thing to explain to young writers. You tell yourself that you know exactly who a character is and try to make that character conform. If you give the character free will, the character becomes richer, more layered, more interesting. It’s the oddest thing, but it’s true. Characters can take over, and they will take books to better places than they would have gone if you’d set a template and written everything according to it. I do sometimes know a key thing about the ending or something at the center of the plot or a key scene here or there, but generally I don’t know much.
The second part describes the origin of Odd Thomas, both the character and the book series, in Koontz’s experience of hearing a voice speak into his mind’s ear some words that eventually became the first novel’s opening line:
I remember I was working on a book called The Face, and right in the middle of it a line came into my head: “My name is Odd Thomas. I lead an unusual life.” It was like listening to somebody speak, and I recognized it as an opening to a story. I keep a yellow, lined notepad to put down reminders, and I wrote the line down. And even though I never write longhand because I can barely read it, I found myself continuing to write, and hours and hours later when I stopped, I had the first chapter of the book Odd Thomas. And I knew it was going to be a series, even though I’d never written one before. And I sat for the longest time, wondering “Where did this character come from?” To this day I don’t know. But I wrote eight Odd Thomas books.
Queensrÿche’s Chris DeGarmo on the inner creative obligation
To say that I was a Queensrÿche fanatic in my late teens and early twenties would be an understatement. That band was everything to me. It wasn’t until some years into my enjoyment of their work that I learned Chris DeGarmo, one of their two guitarists, was the creative powerhouse behind most of their songwriting and one of the chief shapers of their overall vision. In 1998 when I heard of his voluntary departure from the band to pursue other life directions, including becoming a professional private jet pilot, it felt kind of like a blow even though my primary phrase of engagement with their music had passed by then.
A few weeks ago I somehow stumbled upon excerpts from a 2011 public chat with DeGarmo at, of all things, ESPN2’s Sportsnation. It was fascinating to read his lucid responses to people’s questions about such things as his music, his aviation career, and the general philosophy behind his song lyrics. But I was especially interested in the following interaction, where he explains his view that creativity is primarily a matter of loving the work and fulfilling an obligation to your inner creative self, even if you are creating without an audience, for purely private reasons. It’s a rich and well-considered statement that I could well have included in A Course in Demonic Creativity, and that I will surely incorporate into the future revision/expansion of the book that I have been thinking about writing for the past decade:
Q: Surely you’ve heard of God-given talent and how we’re expected to share that gift with the world. Your fantasy football success notwithstanding, are you ever haunted by a feeling of obligation to resume creating music for the masses, either with Queensrÿche or as a solo artist?
Chris DeGarmo: Kind words. Well, I don’t know that even in the beginning I felt an obligation other than to myself to love music and write music. I still do both of those. I love music and listen to music all the time. I still write as well. As far as it being shared, that is more complex. I’ve continued to write a bunch of music and I have a personal obligation to my creative self that hasn’t changed. Whether it will ever see the light of day in a listenable form for others . . . that remains a question mark. I’d like it to happen though. I’m sure someone would appreciate a listen. It’s not out of the question."