How Writing Expunged My Nightmares

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I never finished high school. I was short one credit: Math. A subject I hate more than pig’s brains fried with onions (which I will never eat again, no matter how much I don’t want to offend Albanian naval officers who jump ship in Halifax in the 70s and move to Fredericton where they give house parties featuring Albanian cooking and fried pig’s brains being an Albanian delicacy).

   Regardless of the school’s requirements for graduation (which they changed the following year), I wanted to go to university. So I wrote the college entrance exams and passed, which left me with a choice: attend high school for another year to take one course in a subject I hate…or…go straight to college and take subjects I love.

   Went to college. Got an honors degree in English Literature. Still don’t know what a cosine is. Don’t ever want to know what it is.

   So, everything was going smoothly until about five or six years after I graduated. That’s when I started having nightmares. I was back in high school after being away for a while; in fact, it was the exact same school that wanted to torture me with Math for another year. 

   Only different.

   I didn’t know anyone. Couldn’t find my locker. When I tried to ask questions, the students walked past me as though I were an invisible ghost. Somehow I managed to find my locker. Nothing inside it made any sense. The books were a mystery. My schedule was a mystery. Everybody was in class and the halls were empty. I was alone, trying to figure out what class I was supposed to be in and where it was. I was terrified and puzzled. I was afraid I was going to flunk if I didn’t get to my next class soon.

   Suddenly, I was sitting in a classroom. (You know how dreams are. You’re here, you’re there.)

   It was a French class. I hadn’t been to any of the classes and the finals were coming up in a few days. I didn’t have a clue the material I was going to be examined on. The text  book was in a foreign language (well…yeah). I couldn’t hear anything the teacher was saying; in fact, I couldn’t even see the teacher. The students around me were all looking straight ahead at some place where the teacher was supposed to be. They were expressionless and completely unaware of me, negating any hope of help from my fellow students.

   I started to worry. I looked at the text book. All that stuff I was supposed to know in just a few days. I was doomed. I was going to flunk French. I’d come back to high school just to fail. 

   Wait a minute! I’m back in high school? Why the hell am I back in high school? I have a college degree. 

   At which point, I’d wake up all sweaty and stressed out but relieved that I wasn’t going to flunk French. Yay!

   I had this dream two or three times a month right up to the time, years and years and years later, when a fellow by the name of J. Richard Jacobs invited me to submit some stories to an anthology he was putting together called Twisted Tails. They were stories with a twist at the end that caused revelation, shock or whatever wasn’t expected. A surprise. 

   I was experiencing a serious case of writers block at the time. The novel I was working on was mired in a complete lack of here’s-where-I’m-taking-this-next. Everything had just stopped dead. But there was this invitation to write some short stories, so each evening I went to the coffee shop where my daughter was working and wrote four short stories in pencil. Yep, pencil. 

   One of the stories I wrote was called School Dazed. It was my nightmare revealed in pencil. Of course, I had to redo it in Word to submit to J, but there it was…right in front me like a confession. 

   The story was published in the first Twisted Tails anthology…and guess what? That’s right, I never had that dream again. The same happened with a recurring nightmare I had about being caught in a labyrinth of horrors in a haunted house I’d visited when I was a teenager. And that really bad case of arachnophobia? Wrote it away. 

   I tried writing a story about a man who won the lottery, but apparently it just works for nightmares. 

   Now, where was I going with this? Right…writing can be therapeutic. More on this later. In the meantime, if you have a recurring nightmare, try writing a short story about it. 

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Write for Your Life, Biff Mitchell, Write for Your Life

I’ve lost track of the days. It feels like that time I blinked and missed it all, it seems like re-reading Atlas Shrugged and forgetting what page I’m on – over and over. A kind of existential medium is the message. I’ve lost track of my mind. I’m staring at ice patterns on the window.

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Stephanie is watching me, waiting for me to do something the doctor told me not to do, waiting for me to make a dash for the window and the fire escape, waiting for me to breathe too deeply. She takes the doctor’s orders seriously.

She just found Monte Python’s Life of Brian on Netflix and she’s going to play it. She can quote every word from Life of Brian and Search for the Holy Grail. I’ve seen her do it. It takes true talent and a good memory to memorize an entire movie and recite it convincingly, being all the characters at any moment in all their moods and all their little fears and fantasies.

And she can do this for two movies.

Before she put the movie on, she made a strange request. She said, “I want you to write a story.”

I said, “A story?”

She said, “Yes, Biff, and when you finish writing the story…I want you to write another story. And then another story, and another.”

“But the doctor said…”

“The doctor wants you to write stories, Biff. One story after another. Only through writing stories will you heal.”

Suddenly, I was suspicious. Something wasn’t right here. Something was awry. It was like everything in my world had shifted almost imperceptibly a few pixels to the left. It reminded me of a story I’d written a few years ago for one of the Twisted Tails anthologies called The Man Who Was a Few Pixels Out.

And that’s when it hit me. Twisted Tails. The insidious soul-eating J Richard Jacobs was somehow involved in all this. J Richard Jacobs, scourer of the perverse literary horizon and nemesis of all things sane and merciful in the dank corridors of writers’ hearts and minds. J Richard Jacobs, EDITOR, was on the loose again and the game was on.

Somehow he’d taken over Stephanie’s mind and this was going to bode ill for me, the lowly writer. I screamed: “Steph! J has taken over your mind!”

Her eyes were devoid of humanity and caring as she stared into my eyes and said, “No, Biff, I’m doing this all on my own. You will follow the doctor’s orders or I will kill you. It’s all for your own good.” She patted me on the head and went into the kitchen to make graffiti salad and somehow the world seemed to be a safer place to live.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about the drugs I’m on to carry me safely and sanely through the recovery.

Winter and My Dead Money Tree

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OK…I think I’ve established that I hate winter. I hate the snow, the cold…et al…infinitely. All of that…the cold, the lack of smell, the lack of abundant color…the things you can physically see, smell and feel…are just one bottomless crater in my feelings about winter.

“So, Biff,” said the fox, “what else chills you about winter?”

“Good, one, fox,” said J, the notorious blood-sucking editor, as he laughed.

Oh shit. They’re back. I can’t even wallow in self pity by myself. And the fox was wearing a fox fur coat. “Oh, come on, fox,” I said. “You’re definitely related to that coat on some level.”

“I like to keep my ancestors close,” said the fox through a terrifying smile. If you’ve never seen a fox smile…don’t.

So, Biff,” said J, “I’m working on another anthology.”

Shit, I thought, more sleepless nights. More calls in the dead of the darkness: “Write, Biff, write. Need stories. Need your pain. Need your suffering.”

This is how editors talk to writers…even the editors that write.

“A…another…anthology?” I mumbled, lips quaking, sweat rolling.

“Yep,” said J. “It’s going to be a Twisted Tails anthology. I’m calling it Twisted Tails: The Ultimate Pain.”

“I like it,” said the fox. “It has a pizzazz ring to it. Does Biff get to suffer?”

“He sure does,” said J. “But that’s OK. Biff likes to suffer. It gives him an excuse to wallow in self pity. Right, Biff?”

I felt like a fly caught between a steaming pile of shit and a Snickers bar. But I wasn’t going to let the sinister editor get the best of me. “I wallow…therefore I am!” I blurted. Wondering as the words came out of my mouth…wtf.

The fox and J laughed for hours. And hours. Into days and nights and weeks. They laughed for weeks as I wallowed. “You guys almost finished?” I said.

They immediately stopped laughing and stared at me, straight-faced. “You don’t like the sound of laughter?” said J.

“You hate laughter?” said the fox.

I wasn’t taking any more of this shit. “CAN WE GET BACK TO WINTER?” I suggested.

The fox and J looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders and said together, “OK, Biff, winter.”

I took a deep breath, composed myself, took another deep breath, composed myself some more and said, “It’s like death.”

Simultaneously, the fox and J yawned.

“C’mon guys,” I said. “Look around! Everything’s covered in a shroud of snow. A shroud! There’s no smell, no warmth…nobody’s wearing shorts and t-shirts. No sandals. The beaches are closed. The swimming pools are empty. The outdoor patios for every bar and coffee shop in town are closed. As far as I can see, there’s not a single happy blade of grass. Winter is death and death is winter and all I want to do is wallow in self pity and cry for every blade of grass buried under a shroud of snow. And I want to put on shorts and sandals and a t-shirt, curl up under my bed and wait for spring.”

“Whoa,” said J. “That was good wallow,  Biff. Are those tears in your eyes?

“Yep,” said the fox. “Biff’s crying. Ah…Biff…did we make you cry?”

They laughed again. For days and weeks. Laughed as a tsunami of tears washed over my face. “And my money tree died,” I said.

The fox and J looked at my dead money tree, browned with death and wondering, “Wtf?” And they laughed some more.