When I was in junior high school, and dad and I watched a horror movie about vampires. I don’t remember which one. What I do remember is my father, a goofy hippy, making a joke about hippy vampires. How come they always wear dark clothes and act all broody? Why are they always so serious? If he was immortal, he’d use it to fuck with people and get in all the relaxing and screwing around that he wanted. What a life.
The idea amused me, and I started to write a little story about it. I made a vampire character who wore tie-dye, preferred lounging around and making bad jokes to brooding or turning into bats, and who genuinely just wanted to be left alone. I put him alongside a bitchy love interest and a paranoid neighbor who was obsessed with UFOs. It was a sitcom, really. Our vampire friend sort of wished he was a human so he could date his aggressive female co-star, and the neighbor was so sure that the main character was a vampire that he just about went mad trying to prove it.
It was filled with amateur mistakes and high school cringe, and I’ve been deathly careful not to say a word about it to anyone who reads my current work, but honestly, I shouldn’t treat it that way. As far as I know, the only paper copy in existence belongs to a high school friend of mine, who messaged me one day to tell me that she kept it and loved it.
Damn. I reckon that means something. Worst of all, when she showed me, I was so protective of my then-status as a horror writer that I asked her to untag me in a congratulatory post, and I feel terrible about it.
There are two more points I’d like to make about this story. First, I won an award for it. Second, it’s the reason I stopped writing for years.
I entered the story in the Alabama Penman writing contest, of which few traces remain online. I entered a couple times in high school, but this story not only placed, but got me state runner-up. I won a trophy, a plaque, and a short segment on Montgomery public access television. I shared that segment with the first and third place winners, of course. Overall, it was a pretty amazing experience. Judges from other parts of the state told me that they loved my work. It was supposedly published in some sort of anthology, but I have no idea what or where. That’s just what I was told, and I didn’t retain the information well. I could barely comprehend that it was happening, much less follow all the information.
After that, I wrote all sorts of things. I did a follow up with inserts of my friends, at their request. I tackled fantasy stories I’d given up on out of shyness. I entered more work in student literary magazines. My father loved it, of course, since it all spawned from his joke.
The attention was encouraging, but naturally, not all attention is positive. I didn’t really care when other students picked at me here and there, especially since they were the minority. It was my family who got under my skin. In particular, it was my grandmother. She was encouraging early on, but as time moved along, that changed.
I think the idea of a silly vampire based loosely on my father amused her at first. She read my hand-written early draft and helped me pick better words here and there, or pointed out some grammar problems. She laughed at my innocent jokes. I really felt appreciated, as she paid more attention to the work itself than I felt anyone else did. Others would tell me that they loved it, but have little specific to say. She always had something to say, and wasn’t afraid to critique when needed.
She really lifted me up. When she took me back down, I don’t even think she meant to. That first story got her interested in my writing, but as I moved on to other projects, I started to get subtle pressure from her. I moved on towards sword and sorcery fantasy, or more vampire installments that crept away from romcom and more towards horror. My tastes were changing. I discovered more dark fantasy and horror, and I wanted to devour it all. Vampires, I’d decided, needed their darkness. I didn’t reject my early work, but I started to view it for what I now understand it to be: a subversion. A cute experiment that played with tropes, not something I would do forever.
As my tastes grew more serious and my work more ambitious, my grandmother started suggesting topics of her own. Why don’t you write this, or what do you think of this idea? I didn’t mind the suggestions, either. They were just never anything I was interested in. I didn’t start getting stressed until I noticed a pattern: as my church attendance dropped, she suggested more and more stories about girls who found God.
This was around sophomore or junior year, when I had my crisis of faith. Doubts had bubbled around in my mind for a long time, but it came to a head in high school, when I stopped going to church all together and professed a lack of belief to my family. That was a mistake, in hindsight. It caused trouble with my grandmother which I feel was never resolved. When she died in 2016, I hadn’t talked to her about it in years.
During that time, she and I had some bitter fights. Our relationship was fine whenever the topic of God didn’t come up, but the moment someone uttered that word, it got tense. When I asked her about writing one day and the words “I don’t understand why you have to write about all these monsters. Why can’t just write stories about good Christian girls?” came in reply, I was crushed.
Being young, vulnerable, and without confidence, I just stopped. I shifted my creative energy towards role playing and, eventually, Dungeons and Dragons. My own work was dead. This is a great example of how cutting down someone who admires you can take their feet out from under them. For me, it’s also one of many examples of my life where I let someone else dictate my success and happiness.
As a teenager, I was strong in many ways, but weak in others. I was the sort of child that people called an ‘old soul’ and praised for my maturity. I resisted peer pressure, didn’t hide the most essential things about myself, and showed responsibility in school and social life. However, I consistently failed to follow through on my passions when I became discouraged, especially when that discouragement came from someone I admired or loved. The validation coming from everyone else in my life didn’t seem to matter anymore when my grandmother, someone I loved so dearly, made such a cutting and personal argument against my work. It lived in me, and I let it grow. I wish I’d been stronger at the time, but I look back on it now as a lesson.
The story still matters. Remember that paranoid UFO researcher? That character stayed with me for a long time, and lives on in then protagonist of my currently unpublished (but finished) horror novel. He’s quite different, as one would expect, but his current incarnation is rooted in that original story.
And so, my story didn’t really die. I don’t think they ever do.
Discouragement happens. Sometimes it’s because the chaos of life causes vulnerabilities, and often it comes with a large mental component, but it can be overcome. I’m glad that I found the courage to return to mine. If you’re going through something like this, I hope you find the courage to go back to yours, too.