Michael Harris Cohen: Five Things I Learned Writing Effects Vary
Effects Vary features 22 stories of dark fiction and literary horror that explore the shadow side of love, loss, and family. From an aging TV star’s murderous plan to rekindle her glory days, to a father who returns from war forever changed, from human lab rats who die again and again, to a farmer who obeys the dreadful commands of the sky, these stories, four of them award winners, blur the thin line between reality and the darkest reaches of the imagination.This collection contains a decade’s worth of stories, 22 in all. Paring 22 different writing journeys down to five lessons-learned is a challenge, and a lesson itself. Each story posed its own creative puzzle and obstacle course. Each writing voyage had its own taste of heaven and hell.
Maybe that’s best the place to start? Heaven and hell. Why not? Hell first, then we ascend.
1. Writing Is Hell
While writing many of these stories I experienced the same amnesiac moment, either when I jotted the first words or stumbled through a later draft: “How did I do this last time? And the time before that?” Or the more pressing question, “How will I do it again?”
I sometimes feel writers exist in some cosmic game of Chutes and Ladders. No matter how high we climb the board we must always start from scratch, and story progress is almost never linear.
Sometimes a story starts like a downhill slalom on virgin snow, pulled by the gravity of the imagination. Other times it’s a tortuous mountain ascent, through prickly trees that obscure the view, over shaky ground that crumbles underfoot.
What I’ve learned writing this collection—and continue to learn—is that each story teaches you how to write it. Eventually. Often, it’s a matter of trusting and following the character’s voice. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of erasure. On revisions, I often realize the first two pages are merely throat clearing; punch delete and with the verbal phlegm cleared, things, miraculously, fall into place. As if the story were a sculpture, and once the excess material is chiseled away, a better, truer, form reveals itself.
On occasion, the end comes first. You throw it like a stone in the distance, then the writer ambles toward it, on a trail you make as you go.
Word by word, draft by draft, ass in chair, the writer climbs the ladder out of hell, till the story is done. Until the next story starts, you slide back to the beginning, and amnesia strikes again.
2. Writing Is Heaven
Occasionally, though, you get a gift from above. A story springs straight out of your head, Athena-like, fully born, and ready to amble into the world. No 18 drafts to reach a publishable stage. Rather, the dictation comes from above or below and you just surrender and follow. “We Is We” was one of those rare stories. I wrote it in two sittings and the published version is barely altered from the first draft.
I suppose this isn’t so much a lesson learned as an appeal to the forces. Send me more of that mojo. Teach me the order of sigils and sacrifices. I’ll sharpen my knives and prepare the altar. I’ll watch the clouds, augur the birds, and await your reply.
3. The Power of Reefer Madness
I have a friend, a talented writer, who decided Bombay Sapphire was the ultimate lubricant for his creative machinery. Yes, it’s an old myth that never seems to die, a kind of broken syllogism fashioned from a causal fallacy: So many great writers were heavy drinkers, therefore heavy drinking makes you a great writer. My friend, sadly, failed to become a great writer. He did, however, succeed in becoming an alcoholic—though he’s ten years sober now, bless him.
I love whiskey, wine, and gin, but I don’t find drinking and writing to be an especially fruitful combination—alcohol can make me sleepy or fuzzed, the opposite of what a writer needs. I’ve always been more of a pot smoker and I’ve learned, for me, writing and editing with marijuana can be hugely beneficial.
I don’t think there’s a story in this collection I didn’t work on, at least once, stoned. Of course, I edited all of them sober as a flagpole, too. But writing stoned offers invaluable, temporary powers—if you’re seasoned enough to read and write while high.
For one, pot offers new perspective. It alters the angle on the work. It allows the mind to spread a bit wider when faced with a story dead end or a line that refuses to hammer into shape. It also makes the scary, scarier. Reading high, I’ve felt my heart stutter when working through many of these stories, spellbound—largely thanks to Maryjane—by my own creations.
It’s not an infallible method. But what creative method is? For me, I’ve learned writing high can take off the guardrails. It can free the imagination and silence the censor (or turns it up to 11, as needed). It can also make you vulnerable and open in the best of ways. Rimbaud said it better than anyone: “The poet becomes a seer through a long, immense, and reasoned derangement of all the senses.” I love the decadent writers and their lineage. They, along with many other writers, exist in the cornerstone of this collection.
If I lived in the States maybe I’d market my own pot strain. I’d call it The Green Muse and I’d be rich enough to retire.
4. Creative Theft or How I Learned to Ignore the Anxiety of Influence and Steal Better
Speaking of cornerstones, as the recently deceased genius Jean-Luc Godard said, “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.” I think this collection taught me to be a better thief, and I’m hard-pressed to think of someone I’ve stolen more from than Brian Evenson.
I had the good fortune of meeting Evenson at Brown, my last year in the MFA program there. He was applying for a teaching job and I was a student rep. on the search committee that eventually hired him. Unfortunately, as I graduated that year, I didn’t get a chance to study with him, not until he taught a seminar on horror fiction in Romania.
In Romania, Brian lived up to his reputation. Not only is he one of the greatest living writers of dark fiction, he’s also a superb teacher—not to mention one of the nicest, most generous, humans I’ve ever met. He gave us three writing prompts and two of those turned into stories in this collection. The titular story, Effects Vary, was based on a prompt he gave about meeting your own doppelgänger. The story, like many others, expanded from a flash piece to a full-blown tale of cosmic weirdness. It was only after I finished that I realized I’d been channeling Brian throughout the piece, long after Romania. Rather than rework the piece to cut the Evenson-esque bits, I embraced his influence on the final edits. Á la Evenson, I stripped the language barer, and veered the end toward more uncertainty. Sometimes leaning into your influences works wonders.
That’s what I learned. Steal smarter and deeper, for the work will always be your own in the end. So, for Effects Vary, additional nods to Laird Barron, Cormac McCarthy, George Saunders, Samantha Hunt, Flannery O’Conner and so many others. These authors knit their work into my flesh, and thus they bleed into the stories here.
An interesting addendum: when Brian generously agreed to blurb this book, he said that particular story was his favorite in the collection. Perhaps we most love the children of others who resemble our own.
5. Embrace Your Terrified Inner Child
As a kid, I was a scaredy-cat with an overactive imagination. I saw monsters in closets and dark corners. I couldn’t finish the local carnival’s haunted house, though its effects were cheap and poorly done. I had to exit, shamefaced, back through the entrance right after the first gimmick—a lit-up wolfman accompanied by a piercing buzzer.
Once, on the only sleepover night of my day camp, a counselor told a scary story about a queen ant crawling in a camper’s ear and laying its eggs. “It happened right where you’re sleeping,” he said. “Sleeping on a tarp on the grass, just like you guys.” You can guess what happened to the camper. Yup, she scratched her face off when the eggs hatched. The story left me terrified and in tears. They had to call my mother to pick me up and drive me home.
It’s embarrassing to remember these incidents and the cowardly child I once was. Though I’m grateful for that scaredy-cat kid. My fantasy-prone imagination has served me well as a writer. And something shifted in my teen years, part of that weird and terrible morphing called puberty. I began to crave that rush of fear, to seek it out in films and books. It took more and more to scare me and still does. Few movies or books do it. I might get creeped out, grossed out, or filled with dread, but rarely am I terrified.
That’s what I learned to seek in many of these stories. That vulnerable, naked terror, where the earth beneath grows flimsy and the world stops making sense. I tried to reach my inner child and scare the crap out of him.
Among other reasons, I realized I write horror to make that kid in all of us want to sprint out of the haunted house or call her mommy to take her home. Only she can’t because she’s trapped by my story, compelled to turn the page.
Children feel terror differently. The earth wobbles when they’re afraid. And true terror makes children of us all. Thank you, scaredy-cat child, for teaching me the meaning and value of bowel-loosening, eye-widening fear. Now let me tell you another story…
Michael Harris Cohen has published stories in Conjunctions, The Dark Magazine, Pseudopod, Apparition Lit. and numerous anthologies. He’s a recipient of the New Century Writer’s Scholarship from Zoetrope: All-Story, a Fulbright grant for literary translation, and fellowships from the OMI International Arts Center for Writers, Atlantic Center for the Arts, The Djerassi Foundation, The Jentel Artist’s Residency, the Künstlerdorf Schöppingen Foundation, and Hawthornden Castle. He’s won F(r)iction‘s short story contest, judged by Mercedes M. Yardley, The Modern Grimmoire Literary Prize, as well as Mixer Publishing’s Sex, Violence and Satire prize, judged by Stephen Graham Jones. He lives in Sofia, Bulgaria with his wife and daughters and teaches creatives writing and literature at the American University in Bulgaria. You can find him online at Michaelharriscohen.net and @fictionknot.
Effects Vary: Amazon