Book Review: “The Abyss Surrounds Us,” by Emily Skrutskie

Basic Synopsis:

A young woman who has spent her life training genetically engineered sea creatures to fight piracy is taken as a prisoner on a pirate ship.

Points of Representation:

Main character of Chinese descent

LGBTQIA Characters w/ a romance subplot

I may have to film a proper video review once I’ve had some time to mull this over, but, as far as first impressions go…guys. Seriously. We need to talk about this book.

My gut responses to this book would be better illuminated by a touch of context. Broadly speaking, I don’t gravitate toward pirate stories, and that may have to do with the way I’ve interpreted the little exposure I’ve had to the genre. Between, “Muppet Treasure Island,” in my childhood, and “Pirates of the Caribbean,” in my adolescence, I have just a little trouble taking pirate narratives seriously.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved both of these films. “Curse of the Black Pearl,” in particular, is still one of my favorite things ever put to celluloid. But the greatest strength of each of these films is its comedic tone, and light-hearted character development. Combine these movies with the Disney ride, and that teeth-gridding earworm of a song from the “Veggie Tales” franchise (you know the one I mean. I dare not speak its name, or we’ll all be hearing it in our nightmares for the next month), and you have a pretty good sample of my exposure to pirate-inspired fiction. It shouldn’t be surprising , then, that I tend to think of pirate characters, and the narratives they populate, as more “farce” than “fierce.”

Then this thing came into my life. Released in February of 2016, “The Abyss Surrounds Us,” takes elements of both the “pirate fiction” and “environmental disaster dystopia” genres, and blends them with a Sci-Fi twist and a damn engaging cast to create an enthralling, emotionally satisfying  ride. I’m a sucker for a book that I can disappear into, and characters that I can love and root for like I would my own flesh-and-blood friends, and Emily Skrutskie’s debut novel dishes out both of these things in one, deliciously generous pour. I would not call myself a fast reader, but this one had me in its hold and wouldn’t let me go. I had it in my hand as often as I could, and devoured it in about a week.

Although it took me a little while to warm up to the narrator, seventeen-year-old Cassandra Leung, I view the reasons for that as a feature, not a bug. I found Cassandra a little frustrating at first, because her upbringing left her with a very black-and-white understanding of the world. Early Cassandra is that delicate balance of “black-and-white thinker” and “self-righteous selective blindness,” that just makes me grind my teeth, in life as well as in fiction. But this is actually a good thing for her character. That kind of philosophical simplicity is a great starting point for change and growth. By the end of the novel, the more “morally complex,” members of the cast have effectively challenged Cassandra’s black-and-white world, setting her on a path to personal complexity that I am looking forward to seeing play out in the next volume.

…And speaking of those morally complex characters, let’s talk about them. Because sweet suffering sea monster, I love them so much. And hate them, in nearly equal measure. But “hate” in a way that makes me respect and root for them…clearly, these characters broke down my “black-and-white” world just as much as they did Cassadra’s.

Santa Elena, the Captain and Queen of the pirate vessel The Minnow, is a fascinating blend of traditional ideas of femininity, and a brutal, calculated, decidedly “unfeminine” ruthlessness. Her calm self-assurance supports an underlying hum of dread-based tension in just about every scene she inhabits. Her tendency to make a hairpin turn from reasonable business woman to, well, basically the hand of death, keeps both her crew and the reader on high alert. As one of her own protégés observes, “you’re the most dangerous thing on the ocean when you’re serving under her,” but the Sword of Damocles is always waiting, hovering just above your head.

Then, there’s Swift. To paraphrase Mr. Knightly in the 1996 film version of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” if I loved this character less, maybe I could talk about her more; or at least, more  eloquently. But, as it is, Swift just…she just hurts me. She rips me up, I love her so much.

Swift is a young, efficient killer, who comes from a corner of the world in which serving on a Pirate Queen’s crew constitutes a legitimate career opportunity.  She is smart, ambitious, and desperate; the kind of person who can dole out scars, when necessary, but, conversely, takes every scar she’s ever sustained “for someone else.” That statement ends up being far truer than the reader expects, as the narrative goes on…but, I won’t go into that now. For now, I will just say that Swift tares me up in a way that makes me want to kiss her and shake her in equal measure.

Speaking of things that hurt me: we need to talk about the romance element, here. Generally speaking, I am not especially invested in romance plots. They can be a nice breather in a tension-heavy main story, but, by and large, I can take them or leave them. The Abyss Surrounds Us, subverted my expectations on that front, too. Cassandra and Swift are both Lesbian young women who are comfortable in their sexuality. This is not a “coming out,” story, or a first attraction for either of them; but the slow burn attraction that builds between the two of them in the midst of the larger plot is just torturous (and I mean that in the best way possible).  Let me put it this way: I never knew that a simple hug between two characters could be so damn rewarding.

So, put simply: The Abyss Surrounds Us grabbed hold of me from page one, and still hasn’t let me go. I look forward to re-reading this volume before the release of the sequel in…wait… 2017?!

Yep…that’s a problem. That’s definitely going to be a problem.







Look a Little Closer…

So, I posted my two cents regarding the depression/suicide conversation yesterday…and then this popped up in my Facebook ads today. So, I’m just gonna leave this here…and say nicely done, sister.

This was this woman’s way of illustrating her struggle with depression. To the outside observer, the tattoo says, “I’m fine.” When viewed upside down (i.e. the way it would look to its owner) it says, “Save Me.”

Article with full explanation here:

In the Courtroom of the Sick and the Dead: Thoughts on Compassion and Judgement from Someone with Wobbly Brain Chemicals

TW: Suicide, Depression

Quick Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional by any stretch of the term. I am just trying to add to an existing conversation from a place of experience as a “patient.”

Mental illnesses are a tricky thing. They create overpowering, controlling mental frameworks for those who live with them; but those same frameworks are utterly foreign and inaccessible for those who do not. There is a lot of online conversation about depression and its natural end if left unchecked (i.e. suicide). Honestly, as someone with the brain chemistry imbalance known as “Clinical Depression,” I think it’s awesome that this conversation is happening. Depressed folks (whether clinically or situationally), often feel completely alone with this crushingly painful thing that is drowning us every waking second. The more that people talk openly about depression, with compassion, and not judgment, the less alien and alone depressed people will feel; and the more likely those who are still suffering will be and ask for help getting out from under this thing that’s been quietly killing them. The mere act of having the conversation is the first step to hope for a lot of people.

…as long as that conversation is one of humility and compassion, not judgement. I’ve noticed a pattern in conversations about depression and suicide on the internet that seems to make the discussion less productive than it should be. That pattern, as far as I see it, has two parts:

  1. People who have never experienced depression sitting in judgement on those who have, rather than recognizing that this is something outside of their experience that they could listen to and learn from.
  2. The tendency for people who have survived situational depression to preach to those with clinical depression, believing that they are the same thing, and thus, can be dealt with in the same way.

This first part of the pattern is a case of people who don’t speak a language trying to correct its grammar; people with no history of depression who tell the depressed person, (both clinical and situational) that we are “so selfish,” and “just looking for attention,” and “just self -centered.” Here’s the thing that, I think, many depressed folks wish that this panel of judges could keep in mind:

You can’t really understand what our world is like unless you have been in a depressed mindset. Depression is a sonofabitch for a lot of reasons, but one big reason is the fact that it lies to you–about who you are; about how others see you; about your impact on them. The chemically skewed brain of a clinically depressed person spends every waking second telling them: “you’re worthless; you’re a failure; you are a burden and a problem to the people that you love; everyone would be better off if you weren’t here. Just take yourself out of the equation, so your loved ones can find someone better to replace you.”

Keep in mind that it’s our own brains telling us all this. Those with untreated depression cannot  see beyond the lies that depression is telling them, because the chemical imbalance colors EVERYTHING about how they see the world. Depressed people loathe themselves passionately, because their brains tell them that they are less than trash, and NO ONE would even blink an eye if they were gone.

Before I was treating my depression, I once asked my mother if she would bother to hold a funeral if “something happened to me.” In my chemically -skewed thought process, I could see my loved ones disposing of my remains in a dumpster and then immediately forgetting that I was ever there…and that course of action was completely logical to said chemically-skewed brain. Now that I have been taking medication for a while, and my wonky brain chemistry is balanced out, I see how illogical and horrifying that idea is; but when I was in the depression, I didn’t see it, and I wouldn’t have, no matter how many other people told me that it wasn’t true.

When a clinically depressed person kills themselves, they think they are doing their loved ones a FAVOR, because depression is a lying soneofabitch who lies, and when you’re in it, the lies sound like logical truth.


Now, to that tricky topic of selfishness: “How could anyone kill themselves? That’s so selfish.” When I was in the grip of my chemical imbalance, and living my life in constant, intense, psychological pain, the people who asked this question sounded like the selfish ones, to me. From my depression-framed perspective, these folks were telling those who were suffering: “you really should continue to live with this crushing, unrelenting, excruciating psychological pain…you know, for my sake.”  To the person who’s in the grip of depression, here’s what it sounds like you’re saying: “I don’t give a damn about your pain. I want you to stay in that pain for an undisclosed amount of time, because I want you to be here with me. As long as you’re with me, I can’t be bothered to care whether you are miserable or not; that doesn’t matter to me. –and oh, by the way, you’re really selfish for wanting your unrelenting, tyrannical pain to end.”

Please do not say these things to, or about, a depressed person—because, I’m sorry, but you don’t get where we are coming from–and now you’ve helped shore up depression’s lies about said depressed persons’ worth by telling them what a horrible, selfish human being they are for having pain that they did not ask for, and wanting that pain to stop.

Instead of accusing the depressed for the crime of having a condition they didn’t create, it’s essential to have compassion on them, and help them get what they need to make the pain stop–the same way you would for someone who was in a large amount of physical pain.

People with depression didn’t “choose it” or “bring it on themselves.” I hear this every now and then in discussions about suicide; “People who commit suicide are so selfish. how could they make that choice?”

It’s important to note that people who commit suicide because they have a physical, chemical imbalance in their brain putting them through psychological agony aren’t that different from people who pass away from cancer.

The clinically depressed person doesn’t “choose” to have skewed, unhealthy brain chemistry any more than the person with cancer “chooses” for their cells to mutate and become diseased.

Both conditions are rooted in the body (remember, the brain is an organ, just like the heart or the liver is); both conditions can have a hereditary component, meaning there was a genetic predisposition there that the individual had no control over. Both conditions are the result of something going wrong in the body that the sufferer cannot control; and both conditions can easily be fatal if left untreated.

As I understand it, “Situational Depression” is precisely what it sounds like: a set period of time in which one is depressed and/or suicidal in response to some kind of traumatic situation (such as the loss of a loved one, a serious illness, etc., etc.) This is something that comes on you, you fight through it (and it’s terrible), but, eventually, it will go away, and you will be back to your normal self. Situational Depression is rooted in your circumstances.

“Clinical Depression”, on the other hand, is rooted in your body, and occurs completely independently of outside circumstances. A clinically depressed person has a severely skewed outlook—on themselves, and the world—because the chemicals in his or her brain aren’t balanced out the way they are meant to be. Generally speaking, when a system or area of the body isn’t functioning the way that it is meant to, it causes severe pain that does not “go away” until the improper function is corrected. This is just as true for wonky brain chemistry as it is for anything else.

The only difference is that the pain that a clinically depressed person experiences manifests itself in their thought processes, instead of their bones or their muscles or their blood. Depression that is rooted in a malfunction of the body, rather than a situation, will not “go away” if you just “wait it out.” It requires active steps to correct it, just like any other illness would.

The other important thing to point out regarding the difference between clinical and situational depression: they are both serious, and can both end in suicide if not addressed, but they are not necessarily treated in the same way. That’s why you talk to a professional about how to handle this kind of thing—because you are dealing with two different, serious conditions. Talking to your friend who was situationally depressed that one time about how to deal with your clinical depression will probably not help you, because you are talking about two related, but still different, conditions.

Let me explain why I’m bringing this up. When I first started taking medication to treat my Clinical Depression, I had well-meaning loved ones tell me not to take the medicine that would control my condition and make my life live-able because, “I knew someone who took those once, and the pills made them suicidal.” Here’s the thing, about that: if someone is situationally depressed, and they take medication that’s meant to treat a clinical depression, they will probably have a very bad experience with that. Know why? Because that person’s brain chemistry is probably working correctly, before they take the medicine. So, if that medication is trying to “correct” brain chemistry that doesn’t need corrected, that means that, for them, those meds are probably going to throw their healthy brain chemistry out of whack, which may well make them suicidal.

But, here’s the thing: when you take medication for a condition you don’t have, you don’t blame the medication for making you feel sick. You blame the ill-informed doctor who told you to take medication for the thing you don’t have.

Let’s move this away from the brain, for a minute, just to illustrate the point:

Let’s say Person A has a heart condition. If person A says:

“Hey, person B, my Dr. just gave me medicine for my heart condition. It’s called XYZ.”

And person B replies:

“Oh, you shouldn’t take XYZ. Someone I know that for their bone condition, and they wanted to die the whole time they were on it.”

The logical response from Person A should probably be:

“Ummm…they took heart medicine for a bone condition, and it’s the medicine’s fault that things went badly?”

So, please, situationally depressed folks, and people who knew situationally depressed folks, once: stop telling clinically depressed people not to take our medication. Because The Thing We Have is not The Thing You Have. No, it is not the medicine’s fault that you took it when you actually didn’t need it. That’s the fault of whatever doctor told you to take the wrong thing. And the clinically depressed can’t, “just wait out,” or “just power through” clinical depression, like you can with situational depression. Clinical Depression is all day, every day, for the rest of our lives, without a break for air, unless we treat it.  So stop it, and let people who need the medicine take the medicine without telling us we’re bad for taking it. Ok? Ok.

Sorry; I didn’t mean to get a bit unprofessional in tone, there. I get emotional about this one, because there might be clinically depressed people out there who are needlessly suffering because well-meaning but incorrect people are telling them not to take medication. And, as someone who lived with untreated clinical depression for almost twenty years, the mere thought of that breaks my heart and fills me with indignant rage.

People who’ve never lived with depression would do well to listen and try to understand, rather than try to dominate the conversation by sitting in judgement. Let’s keep the healthy conversation going, by all means—but let’s not forget that it won’t work if both sides are not willing to be a little humble, and listen a little closer.


The Adjustment: A Flash Fiction Story

diy-wine-cellar-design-inspiration-on-room-design-inspirationalDevon loves to tell us that the most important element of this job is flexibility. I’m not sure I really appreciated that until now.

Most people get into this kind of thing because of some sort of grudge. That wasn’t me. I’m not really the “settle the score,” type. The one thing I am–the one thing I’ve always been–is hungry. I don’t understand people who can just wander through their existence for seventy, or ninety, or a hundred years, contributing nothing, and be perfectly happy. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a twisting, gnawing, burning need to do something. I don’t remember caring much if anyone knew about it, whatever my “it” was. I just hoped that if I found “it,” then the smoldering thing in the pit of my stomach would finally calm the hell down. That I would finally get some peace. I guess you could call it selfish altruism.

At this point, though, I’m starting to think that my friends and classmates might’ve had the right idea. At least their “keep your head down and keep grazing,” philosophy never got any of them locked in a wine cellar with dried blood on the floor. So, score one for the grazers.

Of course, this wasn’t the plan. According to intel–i.e., Devon and about a dozen others listening in on a tapped wire from down the street–there was supposed to be one target. That’s why they sent me inside on my own, and let Tracy take the outer gates. I was supposed to come in the back window, scope out the target, wait until her back was turned, then drop myself inside and fire a dart dipped in rosewater at the center of her neck. Presto. One down, ten thousand more to go.

Getting in was easy enough. I’m pretty decent at picking locks, and Tracy made sure that the target wasn’t in the back hall before I tried to force my way through the window. I’d followed the target’s voice to a heavy oak door at the end of the main hallway. The door opened without any of the tell-tale creeks or groans I’d been stressing about– so far, so good. A head of long, red hair greeted me from the other side of the door. I had a straight shot.

The redhead hit the floor, white smoke hissing off of the back of her neck as the rosewater sunk into a vein… and I locked eyes with the woman standing in front of my target; the one that I hadn’t opened the door wide enough to see. The woman smirked, and I could just see the fine, sharp point at the end of her canine tooth.


“Of course, it’s smart to have a plan,” Devon’s voice comes back to me as I try to rotate my wrist inside the shackle anchoring me to the wall. “But in the end, it’s all about improv. You have to think on your feet. Base your moves on theirs. Keep the plan close, but never marry it.”

Tonight has taught me that some mistakes don’t allow you time for adjustments. I bite down on my bottom lip, trying not to cough on the dust and the smell of dry blood that’s  currently making me glad that I can barely see the floor. I can hear soft voices at the top of the stairs. I think I hear the blond woman laugh.

She was the one who reached out, spun me around, and picked me up by my wrists, like a squirming mouse found under the cupboard, being held up by its tail. My wrists and shoulders are still stinging from her hospitality, but I’m damn lucky that she didn’t just drain me right there. I have a feeling that I really don’t want to know what she’s laughing about.

I pull on the chain one more time and wince as pain shoots through my wrist, then up my arm. Improvise. I scan the room, taking a deep breath and choking on dust, trying to clear my mind enough to think. They screwed up the plan–you revise it. Make the adjustment. More soft voices from the top of the stairs. A rush of cold, fresh air pushes down through a new opening as the top step creaks. Some mistakes leave you time for revisions. Some days you screw up big, and still have a chance to smooth things over.

Today isn’t one of those days.

When I open my eyes, rows of  wine bottles point toward me like little cannons, stretching their necks straight out from the wall, their smooth, elegant shapes replacing the incoherent shadows of moments before. I can smell cool, damp earth, miles deep, beneath the floorboards. The scent of aged copper floods my nose and drifts down into my throat, faintly sweet, like newly dried flowers. I blink, and the blond woman from upstairs is standing over me. Her cheeks are a little fuller than I remembered, and her lips look warm.

A boy steps into my line of vision, and looks over at her.

“Do you want me to finish her off?”

He takes a step toward me, and she rests a hand on his forearm.

“No. She’s done,” she answers. “I’ve always wanted to collect a hunter. We’re going to have fun with this one.”

Every good plan leaves room for adjustment—or so, Devon likes to tell us. I guess this counts as an adjustment. But I don’t think this is the kind he had in mind.


Just. Keep. Writing.

The simplest advice is usually the best–and the most freeing.

Victoria (V.E.) Schwab

Hey there, lovelies!

I know it’s been awhile since I posted. I’ve spent the last few months buried under deadlines and finishing up coursework–so far this year I’ve gone to grad school, and written and edited THREE books, all coming out next year–and getting ready to head back to Nashville.

But in the slivers of space between, I’ve been reflecting a lot–about writing, publishing, advice–and I wanted to talk about a piece of advice that I know seems trite, but is honestly the best I can give. I’ll try to explain why.

Five years into my publishing career, I finally feel like I have my feet under me, and because of that, I’m often asked for advice.

When writers–aspiring, debut, and established–ask for insight, I always say, “Just keep writing.”

And I know that sounds like a very Dory thing to say, but the fact of the matter is, if…

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Small Favors: A Flash Fiction Story


In a way, this is my fault. I have a way of making too many promises.

But, promise I did. And now I’m here.

The skirt of the uniform that I borrowed from the target’s sister is a little too long, but that’s good. A little awkwardness doesn’t hurt when you want to blend in with fifteen -year -olds. I stand just out of sight on one side of the closet doorframe and scan the jumbled crowd of kids in the hallway outside: baby-faced girls and kaki schoolboys in plaid ties. I’m starting to worry that I won’t spot him when I catch sight of a blond, navy-style buzz cut bobbing around the corner. The kid it’s attached too is way too short and skinny to pull it off. It goes a long way toward making him look even less “tough” than he would have otherwise.


He looks at the note in his hand and slows next to the closet door. Good. At least the kid can read a map. I open it a crack and I grab outward, turning on a light as I pull him in.

I bite my lip in time to stifle a groan at the grin on his face. He sees a “girl” his age, long red hair, green eyes, good skin. He also knows that the note and hand-drawn map in his locker were tinged with cheap smelling perfume. Old- fashioned trick, but it works.

“You must be Sara.”

“You get invitations like this often?”

He smirks.

“Can’t say that I do. Not all the girls around here have your sophisticated taste.”

“We don’t have time–”

“Ok then,” he steps forward, pressing my shoulders into the wall. “Let’s make this quick.”

I wanted to do this the polite way. Really, I did. But Mr. Charm School Dropout, here, is making that impossible. His face is wedged against the wall in time to muffle the groan resulting from the new position of his arms.

“I won’t dislocate your shoulders unless I have to–please don’t require that of me.”


“Nothing’s the matter with me.” I loosen the cuffs a little–I go soft with the young ones, sometimes—and press his head a little more firmly into the wall. “I just don’t have time for the antics.”

I pull back on the chain of the cuffs just enough to get a handkerchief around his nose and mouth. One good breath and he’s nice and quiet.


I won’t have the chance to be a part of the actual bust, but it does provide the distraction I need. I manage to hold Prince Charming around the waste and lead his stumbling, lethargic self to a side door opening into the head master’s office. The surge of 500 adolescents buzzing on adrenaline toward the opposite end of the hallway, combined with sirens and shouting detectives, makes us easy to miss. When I get him through the door, his mother and sister take over, leading the way to my partner’s van out back. we’d had it painted to resemble a school food service truck, just in case, but now I’m pretty confident that our little side project will go unnoticed next to the spectacle of six preppy kids being handcuffed on the soccer field.

I kneel in the back with Headmaster Keeler and her kids while my partner drives us off the lot. Keeler’s daughter scoots closer to me, the smell of sharp perfume clinging to her borrowed clothes that I’m still wearing, and leans into my side. The kid is clutching her hands hard enough to bleach her knuckles. Let her cuddle into me, if she wants to. As we turned another corner, I see her glance down at her brother for the third time. I wait for her to look up before I answer the question she hasn’t asked.

“It’s ok. It’s just a light sedative. He’ll be back to normal in a little while.”

“He’ll fake unconsciousness for as long as he can, if he knows what’s good for him,” Headmaster Keeler mutters. She’s staring out the window at the blur of traffic through the tinted back window. Her jaw is just as tense as her daughter’s. “Thank you, Rowan—for getting him out of there before your…colleagues showed up. “

“No problem—I’m just lucky your kid is a lightweight.”

Dr. Keeler smiles

“There’s a grace to your false modesty, Rowan. That’s a rare gift.” She swallows. “I will do whatever’s necessary to compensate you for any professional backlash this might cause.”

“Don’t mention it—anything for you, Professor.” I follow her gaze to the back window. Rain is starting to blur what little we can see of the road. “Actually, I think we did him a favor. The headache he’ll have when he wakes up is nothing compared to what his buddies would have done if he’d made it to the field.”

Dr. Keeler looked over.

“I’m sorry?”

I make myself meet her eyes.

“When I planted the map in his locker, I found money—a lot of it—and a plane ticket. if any of that belonged to his friends on the soccer field, they probably knew he had it—and if he wasn’t planning on giving it to them…well, I’m pretty sure that gun in his coat wasn’t just for show.”

Maybe it was the weak fluorescents in the roof of the van, but Dr. Keeler looks a little pale. I turn toward the window. she deserves the privacy of her emotions, at least. “If you need any help disappearing for a while, I know people who can get you on a plane, nice and quiet.”

I hear a soft chuckle.

“I bet you do.” Dr. Keeler sighs. “I knew you would find a place worthy of all your gifts. I’m just glad that you’re on my side.”

I sniff.

“Of course, professor. Always.”

Drowning the Muse: The Problem with the Creative Mystique

Muses at Water

I’m an artist. Specifically, I’m a writer, but I love all of the arts.

I don’t usually use the, “A” word to describe myself, even though it’s technically accurate. An “artist” is just someone who devotes a lot of time and effort to something creative, and pursues their chosen art seriously. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea, and yet I always have a misshapen sense of shame when I use the word, as though I am confessing to a crime that I did not commit.

I have no idea who started it, or how the virus spread, but somewhere along the line, the word, “artist,” took on an alternate cultural meaning that is roughly equivalent to, “special snowflake.” This alternative implication is so well-known that the erratic behavior of the, “temperamental art-eest” is a part of the popular consciousness. Generally, this running joke consists of the “art-eest’s” assumption that it’s ok to do clownish things and treat people like trash because, “creating,” makes them oh-so-much better than mere mortals.

For my part, I do not believe that creating things makes me some kind of demigod among men, and neither do any of the other artists that I know. Even so, I have this vague sense that that the word has a bit of a social stain on it: not an all-encompassing guilt, but just enough of a tint to make me wonder if the people around us mentally slap a, “douchebag,” sign on our backs whenever we use it.

The fastest way to tell a douchebag of the, “I-Call-Myself ‘Art-eest’ –Because-I- Think-It-Makes-Me-Better Than-You,” variety from someone who just happens to spend their time and effort on something creative, is how often, and in what context, the specimen in question talks about their, “Muse.” In my experience, people that loudly bemoan the fact that their unfaithful Muse has left them (and thus, that they are powerless to create until such time as she may return) are generally of the Douchebag variety. In fact, I would take that one step further and claim that people who un-ironically mention The Muse too often probably aren’t genuine artists at all. Please, put those tomatoes down and let me explain. Once I’ve said my piece, you may pelt away if you like.

People who ramble on and on about the all-encompassing power of The Muse to control creative output seem to be under the impression that the act of making art is tantamount to magic. They apparently believe that you just sit back, let, “The Muse,” guide you, and suddenly there’s a book or an album or a film where there was once only white space. I think I speak for a lot of creative people when I say that there is very little that I wouldn’t give to just sit down and create in the way that proponents of The Muse think that we do. My soul and the most vital of vital organs would be about it. Anything else I’d be willing to negotiate, up to and including my first born.

As baffling as this Magic assumption is to me, I can kind of understand where it comes from. From the outside, creating things must look a bit like an occult trick: Stephen King sits at his computer, and suddenly he has a new book out; Taylor Swift mentions on a talk show that she’s working on a new album, and a week later, there it is on the shelves at the local Target. Creating things looks like magic to people who have never experienced the process from the inside, because they only see the end of the road. They do not sit next to that artist during all of those months and years of research, idea development, drafting, revising and revising again (in the case of writers). They do not see all of the  cuts and changes and fine tuning that occur between early concept and final product. At most, the Douchebag Art-eest sees the beginning of the process (artist X mentions that they have an idea) and the end (the finished product), completely missing the period of development, change, and good old fashioned work that happens in between. As a result, he or she thinks, “wow, all it takes is a little Muse Dust and an announcement of a new project, and these Artists get all of that attention and respect? I can do what they do.”

The Art-eest’s misconception of what it takes to create something makes sense precisely because he or she has never experienced an actual creative process in the way that a serious artist does. I’ll use writing as an example, not because it’s better than other arts, but because it’s the one I happen to have hands-on experience with: generally speaking, serious writers do copious research into the professional conventions of their industry. Then, when they have an idea that they like enough to put the effort into it, they plan it, draft it, revise it, and then revise it again, and again, and again, until they finally have the piece the way that they want it.

When I say, “they revise it,” I don’t mean that they change a word here and a phrase there until it sounds right. I mean that they make major, piece-demolishing choices: add and delete entire plot threads, re-write chapters, alter or swap out major plot points. The revision process on a novel is normally so extensive that, according to both my experience and my research into the experiences of other writers, it’s not uncommon for Draft Two of a project to be almost a completely different book from Draft One.

Making those kinds of significant, global changes to the entire manuscript a minimum of two separate times is considered a fairly standard part of the process for writing one novel. Popular young adult fiction author John Green has stated that, due to the global nature of revision, he routinely writes, “three books in order to write one.” That’s why the road from having the idea to getting a book on the shelves can take years, even for established authors with publishers and fan bases. From what I have seen, all creativity, from music to acting to filmmaking to sculpture, requires similarly copious amounts of time, effort, and trial-and-error in order to master it. A serious artist is aware of the less glamorous side of his or her chosen art, because A. he or she has researched their industry and B. he or she has actually created and revised things a few times before.

The Douchebag Art-eest, on the other hand, is unlikely to be aware of the less glamorous realities of the creative process, because she does not actually engage in that process in a real way. She just calls herself a creator (musician, writer, actress, etc.) because she thinks it makes her cool. Going back to the writing example for a moment: if one’s only experience with writing something involves dashing out a school paper on the night before it’s due and running a quick spell check, then it wouldn’t be surprising if that student (and psudo-fiction writer) assumes that writing a publishable book involves similarly minimal effort. If that kind of slap-dash approach is the only “creative process” that a Douchebag Art-eest has ever experienced, why wouldn’t they assume that people in the arts are magicians pouring forth brilliance from a mysterious, ethereal haze?

Now, I am not staying that there aren’t aspects of the creative process that artists themselves do not completely control.  Whenever you do anything involving powerful emotions and a part of the mind that you do not live in full-time, things are bound to come up that surprise you. Making choices that are right for the project will usually involve allowing changes to the plan, letting things deviate from your original outline, and incorporating new ideas that occur to you mid-stream. That’s part of the joy of the process. Even so, I think that this small piece of the experience—this element of the unexpected, the unplanned, and the uncontrolled– has been ballooned and romanticized in the popular consciousness so much that some folks assume that this small part of the journey is, in fact, the entire map. Let one of those mislead people notice that a form of art might get them attention, or allow them to claim superiority over others, and you have the perfect storm for a Douchebag Art-eest in the making.

The Douchebag Art-eest picks up on something real when he or she notices an element of unplanned inspiration in someone else’s creative process, but I would argue that those unexpected moments have more to do with the subconscious mind than any magical, mysterious quality of the, “Ethereal Creator of Art”. On a personal note, I have had more than one experience of sitting down to write something and, in the course of developing the plot or fleshing out a character, discovered something on the page that I had not set out to put there. I have a theory that this happens because creativity is rooted in the same part of the brain that dreams issue from, i.e., the sub-conscious mind. This would explain why people so often get ideas when they are sleeping. I once heard an author say that she dreams about her characters when she’s working on a book.

Creativity forces you into the imagination, which is a part of the brain that most of us do not live in every day. That proximity to the sub-conscious might be what causes, “unexplained,” elements to just, “appear,” in a given work. A concept, theme, or image may push its way up from a submerged corner of the brain where the artist does not bother to look most of the time, and then show up on the page, screen or canvas more or less by accident. These elements surprise us, not because they issued forth from some mysterious, Olympian orb, but because they worked their way up from a part of us that we had never really noticed before. We finally notice these ignored parts of ourselves reflected back to us in the things that we create, and that thought or insecurity or assumption that’s been in us for a long time looks like something new. That’s one reason why creating things requires some measure of courage: it has a way of revealing parts of the creator that were never meant to be made public. If you want to know what an artist’s core hang-ups, issues and obsessions are, just take good look at the patterns in his or her body of work.

The assumption in the Art-eest attitude that creating things somehow makes one an Immortal among men fails to consider a pretty basic facet of humanity in general: everyone has a little bit of imagination. It’s a human trait. In fact, that little bit of imagination in all of us is what makes the arts possible. If artists were the only ones who had it, there would be no audience for art except its creators. Everyone responds to art in some form: there are very few people in the world who hate all stories or movies or music or painting, even among those whose passions lie in the sciences. There is something about art, in all of its forms, that speaks to the human soul on a very wide scale. The Art-eest fails to realize that, while he may well have some form of creative imagination, this does not, in and of itself, make him unique or rarefied among human beings.

I will concede that creative people generally have more active imaginations than most. I’ll even agree that most creative folks have a better sense of what it takes to move an idea from vision to reality than others do, but, contrary to the Muse worshippers’ belief, this is has nothing to do with a mysterious magic allotted only to the creative. It stems from a simple passion for one’s chosen art that makes one want to learn how to do it themselves. Where most folks are content to enjoy a given art form, someone with, “the bug,” for that art also wants to understand it: they want to take the elements apart and see how they work. They want to take the examples of others and use them to develop a unique approach. The main difference between a budding director and a regular film goer is that desire to “get his hands dirty,” and experience the creative process for himself. Both participants enjoy what they see, but the first guy is more likely to spend his time researching camera angles and filter techniques and lighting, picking up whatever scraps of knowledge that he can possibly get about what goes into making a film. The future director is fascinated by the pieces, because he wants to find new ways to put them together for himself. He knows what it takes to make a film because A. he’s looked into it, deeply, and somewhat obsessively, and B. because he’s probably tried it a few times, himself, likely with varying degrees of success. His understanding of the process comes from experience fueled by passion, not a disembodied voice downloading privileged knowledge from On High into his Artist’s brain.

Now, where does that passion come from? Where do the sparks of ideas that one works so hard to develop really begin? The only answer I have for that is that we are born with them—i.e., that the extra-active imagination and a bent toward a certain type of art, or all of the arts, are a part of one’s make-up from the beginning. But even that doesn’t make creative people a breed apart. Everyone is born with certain bents, interests and abilities. Some kids ask for easels and paints for their birthdays; others ask for microscopes and lab kits. I’d have to say that both of those kids got their passion from the same place. Since I believe in a Creator, I would say that they each got their particular bent as a gift from Him, but whether or not you believe that part, artists are still not rarefied demigods with a special connection to the ethereal. We’re people with passion, and we pursue the thing that has romanced our souls in the same way that anyone else with a passion does, whether it happens to be painting or organic chemistry or teaching children or building a business.

With that in mind, I’m going to double down on that tomato-projectile-inducing statement that I made earlier: anyone who claims to be an artist and goes on about, “The Muse,” all the time, or speaks of themselves as though they are something rarefied and special simply because they create, isn’t a real artist. If they really understood the process from the inside, they would not talk that way. I’m sorry to be harsh, but it’s true. If you think that creating is magic, it’s because you’ve never experienced the copious amounts of plan old hard work required to turn the spark of a daydream into some form of reality. If you think that creating somehow sets you apart from the rest of humanity, then you’re probably just using the title, “artist” (or “actor” or “writer” or “painter”) as a way to make yourself sound special, disregarding the effort and passion of real artists, and generally making anyone who applies that term to themselves look like a self-inflated douchebag. And, as a regular person who just happens to put a lot of effort, time and passion into an art form that I love, that really ticks me off.