Friday, July 31, 2009

Healing Through Writing (Letter From My Cousin).

If you've ever read Richard Matheson's What Dreams May Come (and if you haven't, you should), then you might remember what might have been meant to be a small plot point, but what stuck out forever in my memory. In the book, it said that some of the great writer's were directly inspired by spirits transmitting ideas from 'heaven.' My memory gets fuzzy on the specifics, but it struck a cord with me because I recall thinking that if the type of heaven that this book outlined really does exist, would one of its spirits connect with a writer's imagination to put that existence on paper? I.E., could this book be a hint on what the afterlife is like?

Of course, I don't have the answer for you. And, to be honest, it was more of a fleeting thought that arises from time to time on those lazy, thoughtful days rather than something I struggle with constantly. But one day, February 7, 2008, this concept popped back up quite unexpectantly and merged with the memory of my cousin who was shot dead 5 years ago. So I decided to write a letter. And it would be from my cousin, to me. I tried to just write without thinking and wondered if maybe his spirit would humor me.

I knew I needed some kind of background before I posted this piece, and there it is. With this letter, I don't know if I achieved my goal, but I like to think that some of my cousin's voice is in here, whether it's from that part of him that still lives inside me or directly from his heavenly spirit. I will say, though, that I used voice recognition software to 'type' this up (call me lazy) and I decided on a whim to add a word to a sentence, to make it sound better, I guess, and the voice recognition didn't catch it. It posted the sentence just like I have it written on the page. Probably coincidence. Maybe not. Either way, here is what my hand wrote some 17 months ago. Author unknown.

Sup cuz,

I'm not going to ask you how you've been because I've been watching, looking over, and I already know. Hang in there and keep doing what you're doing, as I know you will. Well, enough of that nerdy stuff. I just wanted to get the boring stuff out the way first.

It'll be about four years this summer. Time goes by, doesn't it. I know you've been hurting since, but you can't show that shit. You gotta be a man, I know I taught you better than that. Besides, the world was no place for me anyway. We didn't fit. I'm glad to be out. I do miss you, though, cuz.

You probably wondering. But it wasn't painful. It surprised me, but I hardly felt it. And I couldn't go out like no punk. I just kind of fell away. You'd have been proud.

Remember Halo, cuz? "Dumb ass Marines!" Haha. Never thought I'd hear you curse. I see you still play. That's good. You still behind on your gaming, though. I know school is important and all but that is too. To remember me at least.

Remember I told you I'd do anything for you? I meant that. I still would, if I could. I can still watch over. You'll never be alone, just remember me. All joking and games aside, though, I need you to do something for me. Never forget. Never give up on the path you've chosen. I chose mine and paid the price. I'd give anything to have taken yours. You are my inspiration. And still are.

Tell Aunt Pam I said hi. And I'm okay. It's nice up here. Yes, nigga, I said up here. God let me in. Much better than where I was in life and I don't have to prove I'm a man.

Take care of yourself and Aunt Pam. Y'all took care me. I love you, cuz.


Monday, July 27, 2009

Inspiration Through Tragedy

Five years ago this past Thursday, my cousin Michael Douglas Hairston was taken from this world in an act of violence that is so common to my home city, Washington, DC, that the event only received a paragraph in the next day's paper. We affectionately knew him as 'Douggie.' Being an only child and having cousins that were all mostly old enough to be already married with their own kids and family, Douggie was the closest thing that I had to a brother. He was about eight years older than me and would always come over to play video games, hang out, or just be around me and my mother. I always looked up to him, in that way that little kids look up to the figures in their lives that are grown but still young enough to remember what it's like to relate. He looked up to me, too, in a way, because of my success in school and being a 'good kid.' You see, my cousin had anger problems which translated to school issues and eventually a high school dropout. I saw him at his most vulnerable at times, frantic with tears that wondered what his place in this world was. I often remember him like that, but I try to keep the memories of the fun-loving jokester who would stay up late nights to play Halo, talk, or have pillow fights at the forefront of my mind.

I received the call while riding on a bus to the mall with a summer program I was in (MS Squared). My mother told me that she had bad news and that Douggie was dead. At first, it didn't really hit me. It was like hearing something happen to someone else, or watching a car crash from very far away. I remember the call ended shortly after that and then a new wave of reality and realization came over me. I called her back and we cried together. I asked how...why...when, these questions that wouldn't make anything better but they felt like maybe if I kept asking, maybe if I kept getting more information, something would change and my cousin would be alive. Because there is nothing quite as final as death. If you get a call that someone is sick or in the hospital, has cancer, been in a car crash, or even shot, you can still have hope. But once you hear those words 'he's dead' you think it must be some sick joke but you just know that no one would joke like that and no hope can exist.

Douggie was shot and killed over an altercation that, if my information is correct, involved some women on DC streets in the middle of the night. He was DOA. In the papers, he wasn't named. All he had meant to me was reduced to '25-year-old man.'

The first time I wrote about Douggie was for my admissions essay to Stanford University. A little bit before I had gotten a piece printed in The Washington Post (In DC, A Life and Death Overlooked), but honestly, my mom wrote the bulk of that and wanted me to put my name on it because she writes to The Washington Post often and had exceeded her quota (or something). It felt kind of wrong so we agreed that I would change things up a bit and add my own writing to it. So it's about 50% my words and 50% hers. But anyway, in my essay I talked about Douggie's death, its impact on my life, and how I was more committed to helping people and lending a hand to those less fortunate so that they wouldn't fall by the 'wayside' like my cousin. I sometimes think that my essay is what got me in to Stanford and that is a haunting thought. Would I have been admitted if I hadn't wrote that essay? Even deeper, would I have been admitted if my cousin hadn't died?

I have had these thoughts for a while, but recently a special friend of mine put it the best (I think so, anyway):
"We are all handed specific outcomes in life which set us on particular courses none of which any of us think can bring our lives to an end. I am sure that at many pivotal points in your life you are gonna reflect on [Douggie], but also know that he created the ripple he was suppose to make and that his life is still continuing through those he impacted in life and in death. You are one of his ripples and your offspring will be as well."
It's hard for me to think that my cousin's life was meant to be some kind of inspiration for others, or some kind of lesson for us all to learn from. I don't doubt these wise words, but since his death I have often wished that we could trade places. Not on some 'I don't want to live anymore' tip, but moreso that I would want for him to be able to experience the same opportunities, successes, and joys that I have had. So it is bittersweet when I write about my cousin. In a way, I know he'd be proud and honored, but in another way I feel like I am exploiting his death, even though that is not my purpose at all.

More recently, my cousin has flowed into my creative works. In the novel that I want to write based on my experiences in Ecuador (Souls of Rain), I visualize the main character fleeing the States after committing murder in avenging his own cousin/brother's death. I even want him to be from DC. I often thought about what would happen if I had tried to go that route, the revenge route. I even know the name of the shooter. It was one of those thoughts that I knew I'd never actually act on or would never be more than just a thought, like when people dream of flying, having magic powers, or wanting to kill their boss (<--I guess some people DO do that, but just humor me). I guess that's also one thing about writing, you get to explore scenarios that connect to your own life, scenarios that just would have never worked out. Do I think it will bring some type of redemption or comfort? Not that specific part, but I think that exploring the emotional struggles of a character much like myself through writing can be both therapeutic and honoring.

I'm also working on a screenplay that's more tightly based on my cousin's death. There are a lot of questions that surround not only his death, but his life as well. Some of these things, I think, are too personal to divulge here, but certain truths came out after his death that just left a lot more things unanswered. In my screenplay I wish to explore those questions and provide my own kind of answers. It is my first attempt at a full-length screenplay.

I know that my cousin's life and death has had great affect on me. I still think about him a lot and the issues that I bring up here still haunt me. In the end, I hope that any work I create or path that I take that is inspired by his existence is something he would be proud of. Although I am not completely comfortable with being one of his 'ripples', if that's what God intended for me to be, then I plan to be one that reaches all the way to the ends of the pond so that everyone on shore will know not only my story, but his too.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Separating the writer from his writing...

Some of the things that I write are a tad bit odd. Okay, maybe that's an understatement: f'ing weird would be a better way to put it. Sometimes what I write surprises myself, especially after letting it rest for a while and then picking it back up. For example, in The Storm, there is a line that goes: Behind the caked blood, the matted hair, and the wide eyes that were more terrible than the red that cursed her body—there was beauty. Undeniable, young beauty. The kind that will make a grown man go out for a night of drinking to rid his mind of pedophilic thoughts. Someone actually pointed this line out to me because I wrote this story a couple months ago and hadn't read it in a while. My reaction: wow, I wrote that? What made me think of that? I guess it takes a special mind to think of certain things, but part of this post is to argue that it doesn't necessarily reflect the writer.

I want to just put a little disclaimer here. I am a BIG Stephen King fan. So if you are going to be reading my blog, you might be seeing a lot of King references along the way. Now that that's out of the way, I want to use one of his novels as an example. Close to the end of IT, a whopping 1000 page novel about an evil terrorizing a small town, there is a group of six 12-year-olds: one girl and five boys. It's hard to explain/convey the exact rationale, but basically they came to the conclusion that they needed to rebuild their bond that made them so powerful against this evil and that the best way to do that was by having sex. So they all take turns having sex with the girl. Annnnd, another, earlier part of the book involves a 12-year-old bully getting a handjob from another boy his age. Pretty disturbing stuff. What does that say about Stephen King, though? Can we state that these reflect King's own desires? I like to think that King is in tuned with the flaws of human nature. When you turn on the news or look at the paper, things like this happen. Sixth graders getting kicked out of school for having sex, serial killers, pedophiles, babies having babies, etc, etc, etc. I try to be real when I write and that involves creating some characters that have very real (and very disturbing) thoughts.

On the flip side, though, I did talk extensively with someone who knows King and they said he's a very dark man and, as anyone that knows a wikipediable amount about him would know, he's had a lot of demons in his past: struggles with drugs and alcohol. And, coincidentally, he's arguably the greatest horror writer of our time. Eh, you be the judge.

When I sat down to write this post, I thought about Stephen King's (told you to expect it) The Dark Half. It is basically the story of a writer who has a fairly low level of success with his drama novels and when he decides to start writing horror under another pen name, his books become wildly successful. Eventually, this other personality that he uses to write with takes on its own life: a murderous psychopath. It's quite a good read and is probably one of King's more action-driven works, but it is still thrilling for what it is. I guess, for me, it brings up the question of just where exactly is that line? In the book, the psychopathic killer wrote great horror stories while the 'regular' writer couldn't when he was just writing as himself. Do you have to be a little nutty to create things that are bizarre?

Well, let's take the pedophile line as an example. Last time I checked, I wasn't a pedophile. But I do know that they exist. When writing this scene, I thought...hmm, what's a real and striking way to describe her youth, but yet convey that she is still attractive? And it is about 'striking' the reader. Depending on the genre, my job is to sometimes disturb the reader, or move the reader in some way that makes him or her uncomfortable, but not in an outright way. It's the difference between whispering to someone I love you and yelling it right in their face. And I have this middle-aged man, women problems, probably has a drinking habit, so what kind of response would he have to a young beauty? Well, he's also a character of SOME morality, so he wouldn't act on it but yet he can't control his desires. That's where the metaphor comes in. Do I have such desires? No. Do I know they exist? Yes. If I did have such desires, would I probably be able to write such a character better? Arguable. While I'm a firm believer of 'write what you know' I think that the imagination is a powerful thing and that writers can build upon their experiences to make something completely different: kind of how different elements come together to create life.

In there a conclusion? I don't know. I'm a weird guy...but I say that out of knowledge that everyone is a little weird in their own ways. My weirdness is my imagination. My characters range from Joe Smoes to religious saints to rapists, killers, wife-beaters, etc, etc, etc. But I, the writer, have a helluva lot of morals, so I would ask anyone not to take things that I write as a judgement of my character, but rather, maybe, a judgement of my imagination.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Longhand is fun, but typing's a b....

Nick wouldn’t tell her, would he?

No, I think, he wouldn’t. He loves her too much.

The pen tip, glistening like baby eyes under the light of the candle, hesitates for a moment—just a moment—over the paper before it goes in for surgery. The incision is soundless. The pen recoils as if to look at its work—yes, that felt good—before continuing on with further creation. And me—I only think of the characters, their lives, their actions, their meaning, and their hearts and how they beat to this world forged by my pen. The soft drone of crickets is my background music, the faint flutter of moth wings dancing in candlelight my entertainment. I have no worries, no exams to study for, no job to wake up to, and I will only sleep when the creative eye tires, not the physical.

Some hours later, as I slip off my sandals, pull back the mosquito net that has already congregated its nighttime followers, I think about Nick Harrington. As the misty haze of rejuvenating sleep crawls over me, right as the last of my consciousness hangs on, I smile weakly.

Yes—he loves her too much.

What you’ve just read is a window into my life last summer, a time when I knew my characters well. How could I not?—I interacted with them on a daily basis. Amidst the dark nights of the jungle they became more than just pen strokes on a paper, but actual people with their own unique personalities and beliefs, even their own fears. It seemed that I wasn’t just writing them, but that they began to write themselves. For the first time I was able to interact with my creations on a daily basis—on a brand new level. It was the summer before my senior year of college, and I had decided to forego taking on a mind numbing internship, or signing on to assist with research. I needed change. I needed new experiences. I needed to write. These necessities and the spark of an idea brought me to an Afro-Ecuadorian community on the Cayapas River in a remote jungle village in San Miguel, Ecuador with two purposes: to take in new experiences for use towards a future novel and to allow myself the time to develop my writing. It was a place devoid of electricity, running water, and the Internet—where typical life worries are naught and the pen is king. Needless to say, it was the best writing experience of my life. (I kept track of some of my adventures here)

My days in San Miguel were consumed with reading and writing. With the first draft of my first novel, Parallels (the story of a young boy who witnesses the brutal murder of his parents before being thrown into a parallel world) finished, I opened a spiral notebook and began my second book. It was a story about Nick Harrington, a character I introduced in the very beginning of this statement, a man haunted by the ghosts of someone else’s past. In addition to keeping with a strict daily writing regimen of ten pages, I read upwards of one hundred pages of fiction per day to keep my mind fresh and as a reminder of what to do and what not to do in my own writing. With these two goals set and, more importantly, the ability to carry them out, I felt my writing improve with every day, more than it ever had in any academic setting.

Fast forward a year. I have 600 notebook pages filled with what I like to think is a compelling, well-written (with a little editing, of course), story that will scare the shiznit out of someone...someday.

During my last few months in college, I went through the whole of it, marked it up, removed sentences, paragraphs, whole pages, added things here and there, made notes. Honestly, half the time was spent looking at a word like it was some alien artifact, trying to figure out just what the hell I had written. I figured most of them out--sooner or later--and the rest I just guessed or concluded that the sentence needed redoing anyway.

Now the really tedious part. Typing it all up. Who knew that something could take sooo long? I eventually caved and got this program called MacDictate, a microphone headset, and some patience. So now I read the novel aloud to my computer and it transcribes it for me. At least, that's what's supposed to happen. And for the most part it does this, but those little errors can get annoying. I actually questioned whether I was saving any time at all, so I tested it. It takes me 10 minutes to type up a full page, whereas, corrections and all, it takes about 5 minutes with the speech recognition. And it's easier on the hands. Also, there are some benefits: my computer has a tough time recognizing a certain four-letter word that starts with an 'f' and all the times I had to go back and correct made me realize...hmm, I might be putting on the foul language a little too thick. But I blame that more on the character (Tom Jacobs, not Nick...Nick is too much of a stand-up guy) than me.

I am on about page 86 now. It's a ghost story which I enjoyed writing, so it's kind of thrilling to go back through it again. I'll most likely write more about it in the future and hopefully you will see it on the shelves one day.

-Justin Key

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How much can one say in 140 characters? A life's worth?

Met in 5th grade. Broke up in college. Married after 'Nam. 3rd pregnancy, 1st born. For 50th, hospital food. Twin graves: only 2 with ferns.

140 characters, if that. But it spans a whole lifetime (ok, almost a whole lifetime: I didn't include birth, but I figured the omission was forgiveable). Now, whether it's actually good writing or not is debateable, but with the power of the imagination, something that has to be this concise can really mean something to the right person at the right time. There's a lot of potential questions that this short story brings up, but it still gives enough to guide the imagination in the way that I, the writer, initially intended.

That is why I find 'tweeting' short stories interesting and fun. Each story is low committment for both the reader and the writer. It also teaches me that in my more serious writing, sometimes the most complex of things can be said with just a few words. It tells me that at times the writer's biggest job is to let the reader do some of the work. Because, when you get right down to it, that's where most of the magic in a book--a story--really comes from.
At the end of the day, I'm going to continue writing these and experimenting. I'm sure there will be duds, but hopefully something special will pop up every now and again. And, hey, it's a great way to store a hell of a lot of potential ideas for future works!

Happy tweeting and stop by some time.

-Justin Key

Introduction to The Ink Road

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to read. It’s one of those things that goes back and feels so much apart of you that you can’t imagine when it didn’t exist: like language or walking. Somewhere along the lines that love spilled over to writing and I guess that’s what brings me here today. Two summers ago, after my sophomore year in college, I all of a sudden took my commitment to the next level: I started a novel. It’s funny thinking back on it now because the initial name was The Adventures of Tim and Todd. I can’t remember what kind of book I originally had in mind, but I eventually dropped the Tim, crafted a story about an orphaned kid thrown into a parallel universe, and donned it with a more fitting name: Parallels.

It took me a year to finish the first draft at about 400 pages. I will talk more about the writing process and beyond (as that is partly what this blog is for), but finishing that draft—forget whether it was good or not, whether people would like it, or, God forbid, whether it could ever truly be published—confirmed for me that this is what I want to do. I want to write. And that’s what I’ve been doing.

Since then I have written a few short stories, gone through multiple drafts of Parallels, and completed full drafts of a second novel. This past year, my last at Stanford, I became interested in screenwriting and began to study this vastly different form of storytelling. I am currently working on drafts of two different feature-length screenplays with the intentions of moving to Hollywood in the fall to pursue full-time. Some of you may be scratching your heads by now, wondering how writing novels leads to Hollywood. Well, I love telling stories—in any form—but I also like being able to eat, go out, have fun and, oh, having a place to live and clothes on my back is nice as well. From what I’ve heard, Hollywood is a place where you both work your way up the ladder and, as an aspiring screenwriter, hustle your work out to as many people as you can. If I have not sold any of my writing after a considerable amount of years, I believe that I will still have moved up to a position that will reflect hard work and hopefully allow me to substantiate my creativity in some form. In other words, it’s better than living at home, mooching off my mother, and waiting for the ‘big break.’ That, and, I genuinely like writing screenplays, and seeing my work on the big screen (or the little screen) would be a dream come true.

So why am I starting this blog? Because it’s a journey and, like any good story, a journey should be recorded, told, shared. In this blog I hope to keep you coming back with updates on my personal progressions and struggles with my chosen career path (including details about my move to Hollywood and my life as a ‘starving artist’—and hey, who doesn’t like to read about other people’s strife?), insight into my writing projects, personal thoughts on life and literature, and—which I hope to be the most rewarding for both me and my readers—postings of my very own creative works. My wish is that someone finds the contents of this blog intriguing, entertaining, and even beneficial to their own goals and aspirations. I hope that you all enjoy my journey along the ink road. I know I will.