When I first entered the room it was pitch black except for the rectangle of pinkish light visible on the wall. I was standing in an art piece by James Turrell, a contemporary artist who uses light to play with a viewer’s perception. Eventually, my eyes adjusted to the darkness and I could see the rest of the room. I knew that my eyes would dilate, but I was suddenly very aware of the physical experience of how that would change my vision. As I stood to the side of the entrance two more visitors walked in. I knew what they saw. They had come, hands on the wall to feel their way, through a corridor of black and entered a room of more black with only a pinkish rectangle visible in the darkness. I could see them, but they could not yet see me.
It was like I had a special power. What if I could always see beyond what others could? I wondered what would happen if I touched one of these strangers from behind. I thought: This is how it feels to be in the shadows, watching people who have no idea that you’re there. This is what the monster from under the bed sees right before it gets you.
Some of the best stories are enriched by our own experiences. I try to remember these tiny moments in my life because I use them for details and inspiration. This idea of seeing beyond, of being the creature in the shadows will soon appear in one of the novels Iâ€™m working on. The seed of that novel actually began with a moment I observed at the old mill building where I work. I was sitting on the couch in the hallway during a break and I had a meditation app open on my phone. Later I thought: Isn’t it weird that there’s a couch in the hallway. And isn’t it weird that I sat there and watched a bubble on my phone screen expand and contract while I breathed in time with it. Why would someone do that?
The answer is, of course, that the girl sitting there and doing that is being chased by an evil shadow creature that wants to possess her. The building I describe in the story is more dilapidated than the one I actually work in, but I had fun imagining it as a set to a creepy horror story.
Anyway, I was standing in one of James Turrell’s very dark rooms because this past weekend I went camping. My friend and general traveling buddy, Crystal, rented a cabin at Savoy State Park in the Berkshires, which is relatively half way between where she lives and where my sister and I live. Mass MOCA (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) is in the area and we planned it for a Saturday activity. What we hadn’t planned for was the pre-Thanksgiving snowstorm that preceded our trip. We spent the weekend in a tiny log cabin with no electricity, a wood stove for heat, and lots of snow. It was a typical Crystal and the twins type of adventure.
We had packed for warmth, but had forgotten about light. Fortunately, there’s always some charged solar lanterns in my camping bag. Crystal had brought her solar lantern and some star shaped string lights that ran on battery. (A leftover from Halloween, she says, when she dressed as a galaxy.) The dim light made it cozy and once we got the wood stove filled it was warm, almost hot. The cabin was quite small, but two sets of bunk beds were crammed in to allow for an occupancy of four. On the top bunk I barely needed my sleeping bag when the fire was at its peak. I thought of what a character would experience if she were in a similar situation. Maybe she’d be in the past, maybe on another planet, but while context changes the details can remain the same. Maybe this character too would feel the rising heat as she fell asleep, but would, like me, wake up in the early morning hours when the fire had died out and would have to tuck the blanket back under her chin. Maybe she would rise and build up the fire, or be woken by someone else stoking it back to life. Maybe if she woke like this she would hear a conversation she wasn’t supposed to hear.
The cabin was warm, but the composting toilet was a shack up the hill and we had to psych ourselves up to make the journey before bunking down for the night. Friday night we trooped up together through the unfamiliar territory, each armed with a headlamp. On Saturday I was alone on my cold walk up and then down the hill and the wind was strong through the tops of the trees. The tapping noise behind me was probably nothing, but I spun around to check anyway. As I thought it was just leaves swirling and hitting against the pavement. But what if it wasn’t? What if something was following me back to the cabin? How does that feel? What would I do? What happens next? Me, my headlamp and my imagination in the woods in the dark on a windy night can come up with quite a few possible scenarios.
I don’t know what other writers get inspired by, but I think the power in all these little moments is that I can store them away and bring them out to be used in any type of story. I used to think that the term “write about what you know” meant that I could only write literally about things I had experienced. Now I understand it differently. I’ve experienced a cold walk on a windy night; that doesn’t mean I have to write about it happening in the Berkshires. I can pull that walk out when I need it in a story. I can remember the sounds, the way I scoffed at my own mounting paranoia and then looked behind me anyway. And if there is some creature lurking in the shadows, well, now I know how they might feel too.
Mental note to self: Always look over your shoulder to make sure Jennifer isn’t lurking behind with a devious plot in motion.
I think you’re describing the writer’s mind, Jennifer — we look for stories, are wired to do so. Neil Gaiman once said he got the idea for his “Graveyard Book” while watching his young son riding his tricycle in a churchyard. He thought about the contrast of the melancholy most people feel in a graveyard, conscious of the lives lost, but his 2 year old son was having a ball, darting between headstones. Good stories bring fresh perspectives on life, and the author was able to explore those new angles because they notice them buried in the mundane in their own life.
I too loved your monster perspective. I once turned around in my kitchen to notice two beady eyes carefully watching me from behind a chair. I wondered how long he’d been observing me and what plans he was formulating…. It’s cute when it turns out to be your cat, but you wonder just what he was imagining…….
Very stimulating & thought-provoking. I especially admire “This is what the monster from under the bed sees right before it gets you.” Well done Jennifer.
Thanks, Dean. I’ve always thought it would be interesting to be the scary thing, rather than the thing that should be scared. I’ve always had trouble imagining what that would be like, but that little moment of seeing in the dark when others couldn’t gave me an insight. And a thrill.