Writing From Your Shadow Side With Michaelbrent Collings

How can you use what you’re scared of to write better stories that resonate with readers? How can you acknowledge your shadow side and bring aspects of it into the light in a healthy way that serves you and your customers?

Michaelbrent Collings talks about his experiences — and you can do my Shadow Survey here (before 31 Aug 2023).

In the intro, The Inner Work of Age by Connie Zweig; different kinds of direct sales [Wish I’d Known Then]; QuitCast on productivity and burnout with Becca Syme; 7 success factors for neurodivergent and cognitively impaired self-published authors [Self-Publishing Advice]; Outcomes of an AI Future [Moonshots and Mindsets]

kobo writing life

This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors. 

Michaelbrent Collings is the multi-award-nominated internationally bestselling author of over 50 books across horror, thriller, fantasy, sci-fi and more, as well as a produced screenwriter and speaker.

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below. 

Show Notes

  • Writing from the shadow side of the self
  • Bringing your fears and guilts into your writing
  • How to bring your shadows to the surface in a helpful way
  • Differences in what we find appropriate based on culture and upbringing
  • The underlying hope when reading and writing horror
  • Hiding our shame in our shadows
  • Tips for overcoming self-censorship

You can find Michaelbrent at WrittenInsomnia.com and his Bestseller Life course at BestsellerLife.com

Transcript of Interview with Michaelbrent Collings

Joanna: Michaelbrent Collings is the multi-award-nominated internationally bestselling author of over 50 books across horror, thriller, fantasy, sci fi and more, as well as a produced screenwriter and speaker. So welcome back to the show, Michaelbrent.

Michaelbrent: Hello, Joanna. It’s always so fun to hang out with you.

Joanna: It is. Sixth time on the show, it is a record!

Michaelbrent: I’m looking forward to a coat, a Letterman’s jacket of some kind. Just something, you know, with my name on it and The Creative Penn across the back, so I feel like a legit rockstar.

Joanna: You really are. And over the years, we’ve talked about writing hooks, and book descriptions, how to reboot a flagging author career.

We’ve also talked about writing with depression, which is a very popular episode. Also, how to write fast and how to write horror. So we’ve covered a lot, and today’s discussion kind of covers elements of some of these things.

We’re just going to jump straight in because at the moment, I’m working on this book about writing from the shadow side of the self, and you came to top of mind for someone who does this.

Michaelbrent: Because I’m best viewed in the shadows, so that’s my life.

Joanna: Not at all, but you’ve been so open about some of this darker stuff. So I wanted to start with—

What do you think is part of the shadow side for you?

Michaelbrent: Well, for me, there’s a lot of stuff. And I tell people that they look at me, and every time I’m on a show—not with you, but with other people that I don’t know—and I get through and they’re like, “Oh, you were so nice.” Like they were expecting me to be doing voodoo during the show, or chanting in the background, or like I was going to reach through their screen and make a wallet out of their face skin or something horrific. 

So much of it is just upbringing.

Like my dad was an expert on Stephen King, he was literally the world expert on Stephen King for 20 years. So I tell people I grew up with screaming and typing in the next room. That’s what I went to bed with, and that changes a person, you know.

So part of its that, and part of it was I just had a tough time of it when I was young.

Some of that was self-inflicted, I was kind of a snotty kid. I’m this little, tiny kid, and I’m a genius. Literally, my mom was taking me to college in sixth grade so I could have math class there. And I let people know it.

So I’m sitting there as like the worst kind of nerd that you’ve ever experienced, and people reacted to that. So because of that, I didn’t have a lot of friends, and it took a long time to figure out how to kind of overcome that part of myself that was so low self-esteem that I needed to tell everyone how great I was. But really, it was a function in self-inflicted wounds that caused me to kind of cave in. 

We also had mental health problems in my family that made things difficult.

There was a lot of stress in the air. Despite there being a lot of love, there was also a lot of challenges. So being kind of small, feeling helpless, despite the fact that I was pretty smart, and it just compressed into this one little package that was like, I’m going to write some stuff to make me feel better. And my first story, I can remember, was about killing my brother. So obviously there was some dark crap in there.

Joanna: It’s interesting having siblings. I’m the eldest of five siblings, and I have one brother who’s quite close to me in age. I do remember almost trying to kill him many times. I would kind of flip him upside down when he was smaller than me. I don’t know what it is about siblings. I mean, have you watched Succession?

Michaelbrent: No, I haven’t. That’s on my to do list because I’ve heard so many good things about it, and it’s got such good people in it.

Joanna: It’s possibly the most violent show on TV without physical violence, as in between siblings it is incredibly verbally violent. So it’s interesting.

I guess family is one of those things in our shadow, like the things that come up around family and, I guess, guilt around feeling that way.

Do you think guilt around family sits in the shadow?

Michaelbrent: I think so, for sure. I mean, again, like even in my description, I was like, “and it was self-inflicted,” because you look back on your life, and so much of life is built around regret.

You know, I don’t want to become my parents, and so I’m going to do everything I can to avoid that. And despite all that, I turned into my father anyways, and I feel bad about that. Or I feel good about it, and it’s great because it turns out that he was wonderful.

You know, as you age, your perspective changes, and then it switches immediately to like, oh, I must have been really crappy to my dad, and I want to avoid these mistakes I made with my children. So I’m going to push them a certain direction that’s less about their life lived than the life I regret living.

You know, we focus our regret into our family lines because they’re generational hope for the future. You know, it’s like I want to leave something wonderful behind, so I’m going to make sure my kids don’t suck as much as I did. Of course that ends up twisting them up terribly.

Joanna: You mentioned your kids, obviously, you talked about your dad and your brother.

Fear of losing family is one of my tropes that comes up in my writing. It’s often about sisters.

I have two sisters, and doing things for family who are in jeopardy. So I mean, you have kids, and some of them I think are quite young, but yet you do have children in jeopardy in your books.

So how do you bring those fears into your writing?

Michaelbrent: I think the one thing that you have to be careful with, before we say anything else, is —

You don’t want to turn your books into therapy.

The one thing that every therapist has in common in the whole world is they require payment. So if I’m going to therapy, I pay my therapist, and that’s fine. But if I write a book, and I use that for therapy, and then I turn around to the therapist and say, “That’ll be $4.99 or $9.99,” or whatever the price of the book is, they’re going to be like, no, no, that’s not how it works.

I think taking the core of the things that worry you and the things that terrify you, and turning that into the basis of a book is a tremendously good idea because we tend to be worried about kind of universal things when you drill down.

The danger comes when you’re just using it exclusively as a self-improvement vehicle. In that case, you’re going to be really self-indulgent, and long winded, and people aren’t going to care.

So when you get down to it, yeah, families are incredibly important because every single person has one. I mean, they either have an actual one that they live with currently that they love/hate, because there’s always that stuff bound up no matter how good the family, or they have the family they wish they had. You know, the people that are orphaned or abandoned or what have you, they can’t help but look around at the kind of nuclear examples around them and say, “What if I had had that? Why didn’t I have that?”

There’s so many questions that are fundamentally human nature that are really rooted in where did I come from and where am I going.

And that’s, by definition, kind of a familial question. So those things matter tremendously. 

My wife and I lost a child years back, and that became the root of one of my most terrifying books, which is called Apparition. And it’s not terrifying because it’s the greatest book of all time, but just the concept is that there’s this thing out there that makes parents kill their children.

It’s like a demon, and it consumes the blood and the fear of the children, and then it withdraws and consumes the madness of these parents that realize what they’ve done. I wrote that in large measure as a way of kind of working through what I was experiencing, having just lost my own child.

Joanna: Which is an awful experience, but just on the writing side there, you said, don’t write for therapy, and yet you wrote this book as part of dealing with that. So where’s that line? How do you know? Or—

Is it Write in grief, Edit outside of it?

I don’t know.

Michaelbrent: Yes. Yeah, I think that’s really part of it. So much of what we write has got to be for ourself, it has to be fulfilling and enjoyable.

I’ve written just for the money, and I can do it, but it’s really 10 times harder. I wake up late in the morning, I don’t want to get started, because it’s just a job. It’s just digging a ditch, you know, and I’m using my mental processes instead of my physical ones.

At its heart, if you want a long-term career, if you want to have a career that you enjoy day to day, you have to enjoy the process.

Part of what we write has to, on its surface level, be about the writer. it has to be something that I find fulfilling or interesting. 

In the editing process—and there’s two editing processes—there’s one that the end where you put all the bells and whistles on and you make it beautiful.

But there also has to be one at the beginning, which is, here’s an idea—this is my personal opinion—but there should be an editing process at the beginning, which is, this is something I’m interested in, is this universal? Is this something that will speak to other people, or is it just about me?

If it’s just about me, I’ll write it and then put it in a drawer because that is therapy, it’s something I’m working through.

If it starts out universal, or if I can figure out a way to broaden it somehow or to narrow it and make it more applicable to others, then that’s where kind of the preliminary magic comes in.

So with this book Apparition, if it had just been a dad kind of thinking like, “I’m going to write my journal about what it feels like to lose a kid and how hard that is. There’s a lot of sadness, and at the end I realize I’m not quite so sad anymore.” You know, that would not be a book that maybe grabbed people.

I had to say, well, how can I kind of discuss what I want to talk about, which is this horrific event, in a way that’s going to be useful and helpful for me, but also make it enjoyable or useful or helpful to others as well.

So before I even started writing that, there was definitely an end in mind, which is this is going out into the world and it can’t just be, Michaelbrent stars in a Michaelbrent book about Michaelbrent saying woe is me, Michaelbrent. It just wouldn’t work very well.

Joanna: I mean, there are other things, you mentioned mental health, and obviously we’ve done a show on depression. I wrote a bit about suicidal thoughts in my book Delirium and also in Pilgrimage, a recent memoir.

I feel like mental health issues are also something that you tackle in your life, but also in your writing.

So how does that side come into your writing?

Michaelbrent: It’s like any other part of you.

So for those who haven’t heard the other shows, I have major mental health problems, I have major depressive disorder, suicidal tendencies and psychotic breaks. And that’s just, it’s me, it’s my reality. So, you know, if I lose an arm in an accident, I’m going to type differently from then forward, and it’s just necessity based. 

Writing with depression

This isn’t losing an arm, but it does lock up certain parts of my brain, and it unlocks other ones, which is nice. You know, I do a lot more of my own editing than most people do successfully, simply because people are like, how do you do that, and I go, well, you have to start out with a deep disdain for yourself.

I’m not in love with my work because it came from me, and at my heart, there’s this broken thing that’s like, oh, everything you do sucks. And that’s a really good place to come from for a self-editing path, or working with an editor.

I just sold a pitch a while back for a series to a national publisher, and every time they came back with a note, I could tell they were worried I was going to fly off the handle. And instead, I was like, my problem is I didn’t think of that. My only issue with your suggestion is it’s so good, I’m worried you’re going to tell people you came up with it. So long story short is —

You find a way to live with who you are.

That’s a really important thing to do as an author because what we’re doing is creating these communities. We’re telling stories that bind people together.

I would hope that if we’re choosing that as a livelihood and as a vocation, that we’re binding people together with good ties. We’re saying, here’s the reality, some of us are broken, but here’s the other reality, we find ways to go on.

So, of course, as someone who deals with mental health problems day to day, I’m going to include those in my stories as much as a way of saying, hey, they’re survivable, as anything else.

Joanna: As you’re talking there, I don’t think your mental health problems are in your shadow because you absolutely acknowledge them. They’re part of your life. Like you said, it’s just who you are.

Perhaps that isn’t part of your shadow. Perhaps that used to be part of mine, as in I didn’t used to talk about having thoughts like that, about, say, suicidal tendencies, or whatever. I didn’t think that was acceptable. so I didn’t talk about it.

If we deny a part of ourselves, that’s what goes into the shadow.

So this is an interesting question then. Are there things, I guess, that are in your shadow or that you’ve brought out from your shadow?

Perhaps we can’t even acknowledge these things if they’re deeply buried. But are there things perhaps you’ve dug out over time?

Michaelbrent: Oh, sure. And I love the shadow analogy because, you know, what a shadow is, it’s just an unexamined outline.

I mean, if you look at what a shadow really is, it’s a place where your outline has gotten in the path of something and made it a little darker. You’ve had this interesting interaction between illumination and whatever is standing behind you.

That is very much like so many of our problems, they’re self-inflicted, in that, instead of dealing with them, we avoid them. Dealing with them doesn’t mean they go away or they become less powerful.

Like I said, and like you said, I deal with my mental health stuff. It’s not like I woke up one morning and was like, oh, my gosh, I’m depressed, and now I feel better. I was like, oh, my gosh, I’m depressed, and now at least when I feel like opening a vein, I can be like, hold on a little bit, this will go away, hold on a little bit, this will go away

It still affects every part of my life, but I think the danger is denying the reality of those things.

The danger is looking at a shadow and saying, “Oh, that’s not me. Oh, that couldn’t be me. Oh, look how warped that shadow is. That’s definitely not mine.”

We’ve all walked down the street at sunset and seen our shadow stretch eighty-two feet ahead of us. And we look at that and go there’s no way that giant tall guy is me or that weirdly chubby guy is me at noon, or whatever.

And they’re all us, they’re all aspects of us that depend on the direction we’re facing and what part of life we’re examining.

If we’re looking towards the light, there’s less shadow. If we’re looking away from it, which is the job of a horror writer, in some respects, is to look at evil and discern it and describe it, then there’s going to be a lot more shadow apparent in our field of view.

It really isn’t about whether the shadow exists or not, or whether it’s us or not. Yes, it exists. Yes, it’s us. It’s kind of the direction we’re pointing, and if we can clarify the line between where shadow ends and the rest of kind of reality begins.

Joanna: You totally avoided the question!

Michaelbrent: I did, because, well, because I think the question was: is there anything that we bring out of that shadow and make into ourselves or is there things that we can’t bring out? And I don’t think there are things that we can’t bring out.

I think there is a question of—

If I bring this out and then spread it around, is that going to be helpful or harmful?

I feel like there are creators out there, be they artists, authors, whatever, whose whole thing is like, well, this is my muse, and even though it’s destructive and hurts people, I’m going to cast it around because I feel like doing it. And I find that to be, in any other business, that’s a sociopath and we avoid that person. And in our business, it’s like, oh, they’re following their muse, how wonderful.

I think we can talk about anything, but I think it behooves us to care for its effect on those we speak to.

You and I were talking earlier about, I just sold this series idea, and it’s a middle grade series. It’s actually quite dark, it’s got a lot of horror to it, and I’m continually talking to the editors going, I think we can talk about anything to kids.

Children survived the Holocaust, we can discuss anything with kidsbut the way we discuss it matters.

So when my two year old comes up and says, how are babies made? You know, we’ve all heard that, “When a mommy and daddy love each other very much, they stay together, and magic.” It’s like just very kind of vague. And it ends with, “And come back in 10 years.” Then we tell them more as time goes on.

It’s never a lie, but we tell them the story in a way that they’ll understand and be uplifted and benefited by.

I remember my parents telling me about sex, and I just had bad dreams that night because the whole process sounded horrific. So I needed to know about it, but it’s just a question of how and the moment we choose to tell people. So yeah, I think there’s no such thing as something so dark that we can’t talk about it. I definitely think that there’s darkness that we have to be careful with.

Joanna: Yeah, and

I think some of the things that go into the shadow are the things that we are told are not appropriate.

I remember being at school, I think I was around 11 years old, and I wrote an essay, and it’s funny you talked about murdering your brother, because I had to choose between my dad and my sister being beheaded. I still remember it. It’s in my mind, I can picture it.

Michaelbrent: Joanna Penn, people. Legit darkness!

Joanna: Well, it was this awful choice. So my dad and sister on one side, and my mom and my brother on the other side, like being boiled alive in one of those cauldrons. And my parents divorced, and it was all about choosing between family, which is a terrible choice, a sort of Sophie’s Choice idea.

I wrote this essay, and my teacher—these days, they just report you to the school counselor or whatever, but back then this was the 80s, you know—

My teacher said that was entirely inappropriate to write a story like that, and I should be writing something like Black Beauty.

And so I really feel like from that young age, I was essentially told that it was unacceptable to think these darker thoughts and that I could only write in this sort of happy, happy way. 

I think I had probably 25 years of pushing inappropriate, darker writing into my shadow before it came back out again.

So did you have that, “this is inappropriate Michaelbrent,” or have you had to deal with that? Or—

Has it always been fine for you to write about these [darker] things?

Michaelbrent: I was very lucky, in that I had parents who not just encouraged me and supported me, but gave me what I think is a really healthy outlook on appropriateness and inappropriateness.

We were watching the John Carpenter movie, The Thing, and we’re watching it oddly enough in my church, and because I’m a church-going person, we have this thing called family home evening. So on Monday nights, the families were supposed to get together and have a little church, like a scripture or something, and then you have an activity and a refreshment, some kind of brownies or whatever.

So we’re doing that, and we had our scripture, and then dad’s like, and now we’re going to watch Aliens and The Fly. So like our family home evening devolved into this, you know, we’re going to watch scary movies.

And for one of the scary movie, it was The Thing, and I don’t want to do a spoiler alert, but the movie is like 45 years old. The alien, that’s the bad guy, that’s the antagonist, can assume any shape and its individual parts are self-sufficient. So they’re burning this person who they’ve determined is one of the alien mimics, and as they’re burning it alive, its head pulls away from its body, sprouts legs and scuttles off.

That’s happening on the VCR. I’m like nine years old. My mom pauses it and stands there and goes, “You’re about to hear a word. I want you to pay attention to the word,” and then she unpauses it and one of the guys goes, “You’ve got to be effing kidding me.”

And she pauses it again and says, “That is the only circumstance under which I want to hear that word come out of your mouth. If a guy’s head has just pulled off and sprouted legs and locked away, you are allowed to use that word.”

It was funny because she was making a point about not saying certain things, but the lesson we all got that was a much better lesson, I think, which is that there’s no such thing as a bad word or a bad thing to say.

Nobody’s ever said a word to another person and had blood erupt from their ears because that word is an inherently harmful bunch of sound, you know, that hits us and causes an explosion in our brains. You know, it’s not a scanner’s kind of a situation. What we do have are words that we use inappropriately, or that say bad things about us or about our beliefs, or are harmful to other people. 

So, again, with the shadow moments, my parents were saying that it matters how you tell the stories.

It matters what you’re trying to accomplish. Are you trying to spread your pain to others? Well, that’s not a good thing. Let’s not do that. Are you trying to deal with your pain? That’s a fine thing.

Are you trying to deal with your pain in a way that’s more universal and can maybe help other people? That’s an excellent thing. 

So I actually received very little pushback.

My dad, because he’s this Stephen King expert, he’s got tens of thousands of books in his home office, and he arranged them by appropriateness for my age. And he walked me in and he said, “If you can reach a book, you can read a book.” He had put the, you know, the naughtier, scary ones on the top shelf. So I pull out a stepladder, and I’m reading, you know, It, at age 10 or whatever.

Joanna: Great book!

Michaelbrent: It’s just a fantastic book, but it wasn’t exactly what he envisioned.

But he walks in, and he catches me do it, and he’s like, well, okay, so the alternative now is we’re going to talk about these books. I think that was so much more helpful sitting down and going, “What did you pull out? Why did you think it was good or bad that they did this? And how is that going to change your life?” I think that was a much more healthy approach. 

So if we bump into somebody and they tell us something dark and deep, and we react with horror or with disgust, that is not only harmful, that borders on the criminal.

You know, there’s this huge debate over whether we should have more gun control, and I’m not getting into that here, but I am saying, I don’t think we’re going to stop seeing mass casualty events until we have a little bit more of a forgiving attitude when people choose to share.

You know, if somebody says, “I’m a neo-Nazi,” and my first response is, “Get away from me, you scum!” Well, I’ve just excised from that person’s life any chance of improvement.

What I should be saying is like, okay, let’s sit down and talk about this, and let me see if I can help you. I’m not saying that we should forgive forever and allow people to run rampant, but I do think there’s this really kind of harsh attitude that’s become prevalent, where you better have been born with the proper attitudes and ideas and had them since day one. And if not, you’re a bad person. 

For me, I’m like, I want to look at 20 years ago, see all the stupid things you said, and all the dumb things you did, and then meet you now and say, wow, you’ve become incredible.

I think that only comes when we allow people to make those mistakes and allow people to engage with that shadow part, to say, hey, I have this darkness I don’t understand, how can I deal with it? Maybe not fix it, because some of them aren’t fixable, but how can I deal with it? How can I turn it from a weakness into a great strength?

Joanna: It’s so interesting that you mentioned swearing, because I hadn’t even put that on my list of what might even be in someone’s shadow side.

But it’s so funny because—and it’s American, sorry, the British people just don’t care about this stuff. But I mean, my original books, when I started writing fiction, I had some swear words in because I swear, and most people I know swear as part of life. So that was kind of a character thing.

Then I got these reviews from Americans who were like, you know, they don’t mind you killing people in terrible ways, but a swear word is very, very bad.

It’s so interesting. It’s like you say, we’re not going to talk about politics, but there are obviously some very big things that people agree with or disagree with which people react against.

I wonder if is it just culture and upbringing, if the things that we think are wrong are because of how we’ve been brought up. Because clearly, there are many Christians, for example, in the USA, who believe completely opposite things based on the same book.

Michaelbrent: Oh, yeah, for sure.

Joanna: Then the things that a religion, or a family, or a culture says is wrong, if we think that that gets pushed into the shadow because it’s not acceptable.

For me, swearing was fine, but talking about death was bad. Whereas for you, talking about death was fine, but swearing was bad.

I mean, that’s kind of crazy.

Michaelbrent: Right? It’s well, and again, it was like my parents, I will admit, I have said an F word or two in my life. And my dad actually wrote an entire article on the F word, it was great, about why we say it and why it’s so powerful and stuff like that. It’s fantastic. It’s such a good article because he’s an English professor, so he wasn’t just sitting there musing in his basement, it was part of his job.

What you say brings such an important point to light, which is the things that bother me are nothing to other people and vice versa.

That’s why I think it is so important that we have, first of all, a cautious outpouring of our shadow, that is trying to be aware if it’s going to be harmful to somebody. Be it through cursing, or be it through sex, or whatever, you know, there’s people out there.

I’m not saying give everyone exactly what they want and pander and stuff because sometimes the best thing we can do is push people a little bit.

But just that base awareness that we’re part of the human race, and really, I do believe the biggest job of any artist is to create community. That’s what we do with our stories, is we build groups.

A lot of it does have to do with upbringing, a lot of it does have to do with culture and environment, but if I go into it at least with the attitude of like, oh, Joanna had a part in her book about—and I say this, because like, I know you and you wouldn’t do this—but she was just ripping on the belief system that I have and saying it’s stupid and dumb and everybody who’s in it is an idiot.

Well, I’ve tried to teach my kids that when you run across somebody like that, who has that base disagreement, they probably don’t really think that about you, they think that about whatever they’ve heard about something, and that’s very different. That’s like judging the entire horror genre by a specific horror movie poster. The movie posters tend to be pretty grim and dark and scary, and just with despair and terror as their only feature. That’s a very one-dimensional view of horror. Horror has this whole broad spectrum of cool stuff to it. 

So whenever we run into something that we don’t understand or that we deeply disagree with, rather than saying, “Oh, well, that’s crazy,” which is an easy label to apply, which means I no longer have to engage with you because you make no rational sense.

Most people make a lot of rational sense, it’s just based on a series of events in their life that are so radically different from ours that we have no framework for understanding them. The job of good humans is to get together and build new frameworks together, you know, hopefully, when we’re doing what we should be.

So again, it all comes down to that we’re never going to be able to pull out all the evil in our souls, in our base biology, and just be like, all that’s left is just Kumbaya and love. That’s not how nature functions, at least as we have it, absent some pretty big changes.

What we do have is an ability to empathize. We have the capacity to sympathize. We have the basic concept of communication. That’s something that’s wonderful. 

That’s what we do as writers that are looking at darkness, is we go, hey, when you’re talking about darkness, you’re not just talking about events in a vacuum, you are talking about shadow.

That means there’s a real person casting it, there’s a real person who, first of all, might be blocking some light off, but also that means they’re standing in the light somehow.

You know, nobody is 100% evil. So let’s find that shadow, let’s dig it out, let’s bring it into light and make it an acceptable part of them by teaching them how to deal with it or how to function with it.

That’s one of the best things horror does at its most basic level.

You know, I have so many people who write me talking about how horror is so hopeful for them. I had this one email years back, this lady said, “I’m going to the hospital. You don’t have to respond. I’m dying. It’s my final visit to the hospital, and I will die there, and I’m taking your scariest books because they give me hope. 

So much of horror is that even if everybody dies in the end of the book, you close the book at the end and the reader lives on.

The reader has become this survivor by proxy. I think we need more stories that teach people that.

Not that you’re debased and awful for liking this, but you, unlike the people in the book, made it through and came out different and hopefully better.

Joanna: Yes, I find that your books—I haven’t read all your books, you have a lot of books! — but I’ve read a lot of your books—and there’s hope, and it’s the human versus the monster, external monster or internal monster. Usually there’s a bit of good that wins in the end, or the light in the darkness or something. That’s what I like about the horror genre. 

I think what’s interesting, as well, is that —

What’s in the shadow doesn’t have to be evil, or horror, or any of that.

What’s so interesting, for example, about romance and erotica, but even just romance, is that people will potentially hide that they read stuff like that.

I remember meeting some indie romance authors, you know, 10-15 years ago now, and being just amazingly surprised because having been to a sort of literary course at university, and my mum was an English teacher, being told there are certain books that have value and others that don’t.

Michaelbrent: Oh, right.

Joanna: You know what I mean?

So I think what’s in our shadow are the things that we might be ashamed of, or feel guilty, or hide, or that type of thing.

I feel both you and I are completely open about the things we’re talking about. It does occur to me that it’s very hard to do an interview on the shadow because it is the things we hide.

Michaelbrent: Yeah. Oh, for sure.

Joanna: But it’s definitely not just horror, is it? Because I mean—

Some people will hide their interest in other things.

Michaelbrent: Yeah, and I think that’s one of the wonderful strengths of horror is it shows like, hey, it’s reality.

You know, you can’t have the sun shining without some shadow in places. Wouldn’t it be a funny life, if every place that there was a shadow we ran away screaming? We’d all be screaming all the time because we live in a world that’s not just constant brightness, it’s shadow.

That would be a ludicrous way to live, but that’s kind of how sometimes, again, we insist others act. It’s like, you better not have made a bad joke on Twitter 25 years ago, or you and I can no longer be friends. And I’m like, that seems like running from shadows. That seems like a ludicrous way to survive, rather than look at the person who’s casting the shadow and go, “Oh, that shadow is really funky and weird looking, but it turns out this is a beautiful person.”

My wife is the most gorgeous person I’ve ever met, inside and out. I will admit, the first time I saw her that my very first thought wasn’t like, I want to get to know her, it was that is the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen.

And she casts just as weird a shadow as me, as a frumpy, balding guy does. We all have these problems. We all have these issues. I think most of them stem from places that can be turned to, or already are, quite good.

Joanna: Let’s try and give some practical tips then because I really feel I turned a corner maybe seven, eight years ago when I wrote my book Desecration … it’s almost 10 years ago now. And it’s kind of like, I stopped self-censoring.

Well, I didn’t stop, but I started down the road of talking about the fact that I like graveyards, for example, or I like corpse art and all of that kind of thing. So I was able to start talking about it as I started to write about it. 

What tips can you give authors to get over self-censorship and tap into that shadow side?

Michaelbrent: I think one of the biggest ones is, first of all, find the right audience.

You know, if you are talking to someone who is visibly uncomfortable about your subject matter, you don’t have to convert them to the gospel of horror.

Like, I don’t like erotica. I never going to like erotica. That doesn’t mean I think all erotica writers are evil people or I can’t speak to them or anything like that, but it doesn’t mean if someone’s pitching me an erotica book, I’m not going to be interested. If all that person wants me for is pitching their erotica book, that’s going to become a tiresome relationship very quickly.

So if you have a friend and you’re like, “Oh, I’m writing this book, and it does feature graveyards and corpse art,” and they start wiggling around visibly uncomfortable, you can ask them, if you’re close, be like, “Am I making you uncomfortable, and why?” And maybe that’s a great growth moment for both of you to discover more about each other.

If this is like somebody you met yesterday, and you’re never going to see them again, maybe that’s not the right person to sit down and be like, “Let me tell you why you’re wrong to be uncomfortable about this, and why it’s awesome.”

I feel like so many of the mistakes that we make involve inflicting our point of view on people who are neither prepared nor interested, and might be at a different time.

You know, so many people have come around to horror because they went to a panel that I was on, and they were like, this guy’s funny and so I’ll read one of his books. And then, oh, it’s scary, I didn’t realize it’d be scary because he makes a lot of jokes, but okay, I’ll keep with it. And now they’re a horror lover, you know. It’s approaching people at the right time.

If you don’t want to be ashamed, don’t talk to somebody you know is going to shame you.

I’m talking about if you love something innocuous that’s harmless. I love romance, so don’t talk to the big burly marine who has already stated bluntly that romance is for wimps and idiots. Maybe go find a community that supports it first. Then you can become friends with that burly marine, and as you become friends hope he comes to respect you. And while you’re out shooting together, because you do that, you’re like, “Yeah, this is just like a scene in my favorite romance book.” And he’s like, “What?!”

Joanna: I was going to say that they all love romance.

Michaelbrent: Yeah, and that’s me bluntly stereotyping as someone with a huge number of friends who are Army and Marine and stuff. But I’m making a silly analogy that we’re all humans.

The problem is usually it’s less about subject matter than it is about timing.

So if you want to break out of that and not feel ashamed, well, first of all, recognize it’s part of you.

And you can be ashamed of it if you feel like it’s down and grim and nasty and genuinely evil stuff. And in that case, seriously, seek help. Like, you might genuinely need help with something. Not even because it’s bad, but because you have something horribly broken in you that’s wounded needs help with. But if you’re looking at it, and you’re just ashamed because none of your friends like it.

I have a really good buddy who’s a contractor, and he is a hardcore gamer. He loves D&D, and we go to Comic Cons together, and he’ll dress up and like a full cosplay outfit with like a bustier and stuff like this. He’s like full steampunk.

He doesn’t wear that to the job site because he just knows the reaction is not going to be helpful. So he went out and found a second community, and it enriched his life because now he gets to do the job stuff he loves and he’s got this community he loves.

So look at the difference between something that’s evil, and something that you just haven’t found the community to share with. Those are very different things. I think most of us get caught up in a confusion between them.

Joanna: I agree. I think being open to that. I mean, when I’ve spoken at things, I’ll say, “Okay, who in the room likes graveyards?” And it’s usually about 30% of people in a room. And this isn’t a horror convention or anything. And I’ll be like, “Okay, you’ll probably like my J.F. Penn books.” Like, there’s just a thing that we have in common. I’ve just found that’s a really good way of doing it. 

The other thing I was going to say is, I mean, a lot of erotica writers and some horror writers, a lot of romance writers, will use a pseudonym as a way to almost protect their ‘normal’ life. You use your same name for everything. But as you said, you go to church, you’re a family man, you’re writing middle grade.

Have you ever thought about writing under a pen name?

Michaelbrent: Not really. I mean, I did for a while when I wrote some Western romance. I used Angelica Hart, but it wasn’t like a shame thing. It was just women writers sell better in that genre.

I actually ditched it because women were starting to write me, and like this 40-year-old divorced woman was like, “You’re my best friend, and nobody else understands me, and those men…” And I’m like, oh, she’s going to kill me when she finds out. So I ditched it because it was just too hard being two people for me

If you feel like you have to be protected that way, that’s a rough situation. I’ve never had massive amounts of blowback.

I have very often had confused looks. Like in church, I used to teach, I used to be in charge of the Sunday school for my congregation. A new person would come in, and I’d be talking to them after Sunday school, after I gave a lesson, and they’d be like, “What do you do?” because it comes up. And I’d be like, “I write scary books.” And they’re like, “Like Harry Potter?” You know, that was kind of their default, like Harry Potter. And I’d go, “Yeah, sort of, but like, Hermione gets really mad in the middle of it and blows Harry up and then sets fire to Ron.” 

They were so taken aback by that. And I, of course, did it for effect and as a laugh. I’d chuckle and I tell them about, like, the scariest book I’ve ever read was this one about this guy gets nailed to a tree.

Joanna: Yeah, there’s some horror in the Bible!

Michaelbrent: Right. And so again, it’s timing and it’s understanding. And I’m going like, whatever you think of when you’re thinking about horror, person who hates horror, that’s probably actually not what I write because most of us actually overlap a lot.

Another thing my parents taught me was don’t ever be ashamed to raise your hand and say, I don’t understand.

We worry about doing that because we worry about looking stupid. And they’re like, 80% of the class has that question. You’re going to have 20% of the class that thinks you’re stupid, and 80% for whom you’re the hero for finally asking the question that they needed asked.

I find it’s very much the same in literature. I’m going to write a book all about graveyards, but, oh, I don’t know if anyone know people love graveyards.

As soon as you said graveyards, I was like, those things are cool. It wasn’t because I think of zombies and I think of evil, you know, the evil dead coming out. I just think they’re beautiful. Actually, when we’re traveling and I see a graveyard, we will very often stop off and enjoy kind of the vibes and the feelings there. There’s so much love in a graveyard. So for me, it’s not a dark place at all. 

So you find that overlap and you realize, oh, the horror lover and the horror hater, they both love graveyards. They love them, maybe for slightly different reasons, but there’s still that huge commonality that we can talk about.

If I try and sell the horror hater on a horror novel, he’s going to say no, or she’s going to say no. But if I say, “Hey, I wrote this book about this cool thing that happens at a graveyard and it turns into this thrilling adventure.” They’re like, I’m totally in. So again, it’s a way we present it as much as anything.

Joanna: It’s so interesting, isn’t it? But maybe these things come up over time.

For example, I was mentioning to you before we started recording that I’m coming up to, oh, no, I am actually 48 years old.

And I almost feel that age — I mean, we’re fine with death — but I think age, and maybe you’re used to mental illness, but I almost feel like physical illness, old age, the things that change us as we get older, being a woman going through hormonal changes and the stuff that comes up at this time —

These are all things that just suddenly appear in the shadow and that you didn’t even have to acknowledge until they start happening to you.

Michaelbrent: Yeah.

Joanna: And that maybe that’s part of why we write is that we deal with these things as they come up by writing.

Like in my memoir, Pilgrimage, I talk about a lot of this stuff. And almost by writing it, it comes out of the shadow, and now it’s out there, and it’s fine now.

I can talk about it because it’s out there. But do you think that’s why, I mean, horror writers are, I think, psychologically very healthy because they kind of take the things out of the shadows, put them in the light, put them in a book, and it’s kind of done.

Is that how you think it is for you?

Michaelbrent: Yeah, I think so. And I think you’re right, it is for most horror writers. Most of them are very well-adjusted.

Everyone has demons, the difference is the demons that horror writers have, we make them sing for their supper.

We don’t get rid of them, we just harness them and make them kind of useful.

I think what you said is so incredibly important, you know, about aging. I’m going through that too, like, I just can’t sleep through the night anymore, simply because I have old injuries that have cropped up.

And I’ve always had a bad back since I was in my early 30s, and it’s just impossible to sleep in one position anymore. That’s really rough, and it’s terrifying because it’s like, well, I thought I understood the way my life is, and now, I’m not assured that I can pick up a shopping bag today. And that was kind of a thing, you know, I could do that. That was a basic idea. 

We write about these things as a way of defining them. As soon you describe it, you have to use words to do that, and those words have definitions, so you’ve defined the problem. If you look at the word define, I mean, the literal etymology of it has to do with placing boundaries around something. So we’ve contained our terror within this definition.

I don’t understand aging. Well, I’m going to write about it, and now I do understand it. Maybe not fully, maybe not completely, but I understand it enough that it’s just not as terrifying for me, or I understand what will always be terrifying about it. I wrote a book called The Deep because I’m scared of the ocean.

Joanna: You know I love that book.

Michaelbrent: Thank you. But the ocean is so scary. And I wrote it, and I was like, well, my conclusion is the ocean is still scary, and so I will avoid the ocean. But I can deal with that, you know, I moved to a landlocked area, and I’m fine.

I say it in jest, but that really is part of what we do. We’re figuring out our boundaries, we’re figuring out where we can go mentally and physically, and we’re like, well, I’ll enjoy the areas that I can enjoy, and the other areas, I will avoid them. That’s just healthy living.

I do think horror does that a lot. For the authors, they’re like, I’m going to talk about the stuff that terrifies me until it no longer does. I feel like that’s part of why I’ve managed to write so many books, is I’m just scared of a ton of things.

Joanna: I think it’s super healthy to keep writing about these things.

So you have written a lot of books, and you also help authors a lot through lots of different things, you do lots of speaking, and you’ve got a new course for authors at Bestseller Life.

Tell us a bit about that course and how it can help authors?

Michaelbrent: So it’s at bestsellerlife.com, and it’s about becoming your own best story. That’s the slogan, “Become your own best story,” or the logo or motto or however you want to say it.

It came about because during COVID, my wife and I share computers, and so we get each other’s Facebook interests popping up, and she started getting all these ads for people teaching her how to write or to how to be a best seller because I’m constantly learning that stuff and taking classes and courses and trying to improve. 

So I was like, oh, send them to me, I’m always interested. And the great majority of them, you go to their Amazon page, and it’s someone who’s written like three books, maybe, and has a total of eight reviews, maybe, and has sold maybe 10 copies, you know. So I finally was like, I’m going to build one that’s real, based on all the stuff that I know. So essentially bestsellerlife.com, it is a full suite of information that’s like, this is how Michaelbrent does it from start to finish.

So it includes my writing methods, my marketing methods. It’s still being built out, I update it weekly.

The biggest job of an artist and an author and a creator is to make the world better and bringing people together and helping stuff. You know, you put 100 artists or 100 authors against the wall and say, “What’s the secret to your success?” and you’re going to get 100 different answers because we all approach it differently. 

There are still principles that work, and so that’s what bestsellerlife.com is about is those principles and fundamentals that will help you kind of build your platform, and build your audience, and jumpstart your writing, and get it so you’re on to the next level. So you can become your own best story and be satisfied with not just where you are, but where you’re going.

Joanna: And just to be clear—

Is that just for people who want to write horror, or is it for any genre?

Michaelbrent: No, that’s any genre. And again, I’ve written literally everything except erotica. If you can name a genre, I have done it and done reasonably well in it.

So it does have specific genre breakdowns in some of the classes, but a lot of it is just marketing that works across the board. I even provide my marketing copy and the things that I specifically use, with breakdowns where I’m like, here’s what I do. Obviously, you can’t write an ad that’s about Michaelbrent, that wouldn’t make any sense, but here are the elements that I use, and here’s how you can hopefully adapt them to you wherever you are.

So yeah, I wanted it to be across the board super helpful to anyone no matter what they’re writing, because again, I’m not talking about specific metabolisms, as much as I am like, here are general principles that work. Then I break them into, and here’s how I specifically do them to this effect, and hopefully allow people to empower themselves a little bit more.

Joanna: If people want to try your fiction, where can people find all of that online?

Michaelbrent: Easiest way is just to type the word Michaelbrent, all one word, because I’m the only Michaelbrent in the world. That’ll bring up my Amazon page, and my Facebook page, my website is writteninsomnia.com. Written Insomnia is stories that keep you up all night. You can go there and check out my stuff, but just honestly, the easiest way is to Google Michaelbrent because there’s just one.

Joanna: Well, thank you so much for your time again, Michaelbrent. It’s been great, as usual.

Michaelbrent: I love being here with you, Joanna. My only regret about ever coming on a show with you is that we’re not neighbors because I would totally hang out with you.

Joanna: In a graveyard!

Michaelbrent: Yes.

The post Writing From Your Shadow Side With Michaelbrent Collings first appeared on The Creative Penn.

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Author: Joanna Penn

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  • July 23, 2023