If you get to know an artist or innovator well enough, you'll discover that almost all of us have a "horror story" related to our creative passions. Feel honored if someone shares this story with you without you asking about it first; it’s usually something the storyteller would rather forget.
One of my most painful creative horror stories took place in fifth grade. I had been taking trumpet lessons for about a year, and while I was not in the school band at that point, my father (a former music teacher) and the man who was giving me private lessons both felt I was ready to perform in public. Our school was having a talent show, and I signed up to play in it.
The song I chose to play for the show was “Beautiful Isle of Somewhere,” a song with lots of long, sustained, easy-to-play notes in it. It was one of several songs from a record (yes, an LP record – this was the ‘70s, after all) with which I had been rehearsing. I didn’t especially like the fact that I couldn’t get the pianist on the record to vary the tempo or stop, like I could with my dad and my teacher, but intent on proving my worth as a musician, I soldiered on and kept practicing for the show.
As I prepared for the show, it became clear to me that I wasn’t really ready. And that knowledge sparked a profound sense of anxiety, which made my ability to play along with the record even worse. And there was another factor to consider in this play-in-public equation – I had to “dress up,” meaning I was required to wear a dress to perform. I didn’t HAVE a dress, so I ended up showing up at the talent show in a khaki jeans skirt, a button-up Oxford cloth shirt … and a pair of Keds and knee-socks.
I’ve blocked the specific details of how bad I sounded on stage from my memory, but I do recall the record had to be re-started for me at least once. The kids in the audience, to their credit, didn’t jeer, but their uncomfortable silence as I struggled felt almost as isolating. It wasn’t until junior high school, when I joined the band and was taught by a very gentle, encouraging director, that I reached the point where I could perform in front of a crowd successfully.
When I reflected upon this incident during the Halloween season this year, it occurred to me that scary movies and books may contain valuable wisdom for those of us challenged by the horror stories of our creative past. There are several elements in the horror genre that can help us embrace and move past our memories of creative failure.
Horror movies typically feature:
- A hapless protagonist – This is a likable person or persons whom we want to relate to, but who has some sort of flaw that leaves them open to the menace of the movie’s creepy creature.
- A setting that encourages inappropriate vulnerability – For whatever reason, our hapless hero doesn’t take the precautions that would help him avoid the face-eating bacteria/grouchy zombies/stealthy psycho-killers. Or if he takes precautions, they’re the wrong ones, and/or they don’t work.
- A monster – this critter, however they are constructed, is the shadow incarnate. It represents our fears: of being out of control, of being attacked, of not being good enough, or being exposed to a contaminant that makes us evil, just like they are.
- Fear – Fear is the fuel in the horror movie engine. If you’re not jumping out of your seat every few moments with the protagonist, it’s not really a horror movie. Fear, not the monster, is the real challenge to be overcome in almost every good movie in this category.
Our creative horror stories can often have narratives that parallel this structure. We “leave ourselves open” to a failure moment (sometimes just by being alive), confront a shadow side of ourselves and battle fear and shame as we move through the yucky situation. But one of the great things about horror movies is that they also offer constructive ways to deal with our creative disasters. In a typical horror movie, the good guys and gals overcome the menace of the movie in the following ways:
1. Resourcefulness – The people who survive in the horror movies do not give up. They may not be the brightest or strongest or bravest character - they just keep trying things until they slay the monster, find the antidote to the plague, or learn not to do dumb things to aggravate the psycho-killer!
2. Appreciation of the shadow – We all have a monster inside of us, no matter how nice or perfect we aim to be. Protagonists in horror movies accept this, and it often helps them think like their nemesis in order to defeat them.
3. Sense of humor – There are typically not a lot of light moments in a horror flick, but when they happen, they’re there to defuse fear long enough that the hero can conquer the immediate challenge at hand and advance the plot. Laughing at one’s tormentors can be powerful – like the women who learn to laugh at flashers, this tactic often works wonders in terms of reducing feelings of intimidation during a terrible time.
4. Curiosity or an orientation towards learning – This last gambit is often a shared trait among an entire team of good guys/gals. Once they realize they’re all in this situation together, they often start debating WHY the monster behaves in a certain way and what provokes or calms it. Getting curious when things start to go south can reduce shame (“Oh God, I’m messing this up again!”) and clear our minds so we can find the best way out of the situation.
Few people enjoy remembering their creative failures, but using the lessons of horror movies can help us transform the “horror” of those stories into powerful wisdom for our growth and development.
Things to try
1. Make a doll (totem, etc.) representing your worst critic or a character in your creative horror story. You can dress it in garb similar to what an antagonist wore in your real-life episode, or clothe it in whatever attire and accessories you think best expresses its horrible nature.
2. Write a brief synopsis of one of your worst creative horror stories. One or two paragraphs with the major details and how it made you feel is fine. After you’ve done that, write a version from another perspective: perhaps as a comedy, a "lessons learned" briefing, or as a report done by a scientist whose experiment had failed. See if the shift in perspective leads to a shift in feelings.
3. Devise a Halloween costume embodying your greatest creative fears or memorializing one of your creative horror stories. Whether you just traipse around the house in it by yourself, wear it to answer the door to greet trick-or-treaters or go to a costume party in it, make sure you truly "live" the character you have created and move through your shame and fear!