(Author Tyler Hayes’s novel, The Imaginary Corpse was released by Angry Robot Books on September 10, 2019, and can be found at all major booksellers.)
(CN: mention of 2016 U.S. Presidential election)
When I started writing, I wrote grimdark. I wrote awful people in awful worlds, and plots where lots of people died and no one left happy. My debut novel is about a plush triceratops with a surplus of empathy who feels pain if anyone says a dirty word. What happened?
What happened is, I realized I like giving a shit.
No insult meant to grimdark. I’ve read grimdark with a ton of heart, and I know grimdark writers who care very deeply. But when I started writing, I thought it was grimdark or nothing; that I had to be bleak and upsetting in order to be a serious writer. I was also miserable. My politics were toxic, my jokes peppered with misogyny and racism. I had anger issues I could neither breathe deep enough nor rage loud enough to get out of me. I broke down crying on a near-weekly basis. My guiding light was my writing career: if I could sell a book, I thought, wading through all the garbage would be worth it.
It didn’t happen. I published a couple short stories, but no one was biting on my novels. I got more angry, more hopeless. But one of my friends was dating a writer, and she mentioned this writer would do a critique of a short story for forty bucks. Forty bucks seemed like a reasonable price for some direction re: my whole entire future. So I ponied up, and I emailed him my story.
Reader, he destroyed me. He had a lot of feelings about the story (all of them negative), but the advice that’s burned into my brain tissue is this: stop writing stories in the style of another author, and start writing Tyler Hayes stories.
It wasn’t an immediate epiphany, less a light-switch than the starting point of a Rube Goldberg machine, but it eventually brought me to a realization that quite literally saved my life.
I had been pretending to be grimdark. I wasn’t writing it for exploration or catharsis, I was writing it to tick a box. And I wasn’t just pretending to be a grimdark writer, I was pretending to be a grimdark person. I acted like I cared about nothing when I actually cared about everything. I wanted to be enthusiastic. Kind. Hopeful. When I heard the term “hopepunk” for the first time, I finally had a word for what I wrote–and what I was.
The darkness in my stories hasn’t stopped; honestly, I think I’ve gotten better at it. But I’ve learned that what I love isn’t the darkness, it’s the light shining in the middle of it. The idea that no matter how awful things get, the best thing we can do is to remember to give a shit. And when I focused on that, I saw results.
I sold a story, with a main character I actually felt some sympathy for. Then one about learning empathy in the wake of tragedy. Then one about leaving an abusive relationship. Tyler Hayes stories: stories about how the good things among the bad are worth fighting to hold onto. And as I wrote about holding onto the good things in life, I learned to do it for myself.
I stopped making ‘edgy’ jokes. I started using trigger warnings and content notices. I went into therapy for anxiety and what turned out to be PTSD, and I sought medication, and the anger in me finally started to go quiet. I tried to listen more, to take up less space, to meet people where they are. I learned to practice radical empathy, toward others and toward myself. I forged new friendships, improved old ones. I was the happiest I can remember being since middle school.
Then November 2016 happened.
As soon as the election results were foregone, I scream-cried into a pillow for hours, terrified by what I knew would come next. I was ready to throw in the towel, put myself under with junk food and booze and wait for the appointment with the coroner. But in a moment of clarity, I got on Twitter, and made a promise: I would continue to give a shit. I would try to help people, whether they needed to be cheered up or told it’s okay to be upset–and when a day came that I needed an assist, I would be vulnerable and ask for it. And I would try to write worlds where, ultimately, the right choice is to do the same. I had never felt more sure this was the right path to go down than when that was the novel that finally, finally sold.
We can’t smile a Nazi march out of existence. We can’t write a predator into a jail cell. But faced with people who want to paint compassion as weakness and cruelty as justice, giving a shit is an act of rebellion. Faced with people who want to tell us who counts as human, being who you are is an act of self-defense. And telling others it’s okay to do those things is arming the troops.
Take care of each other. Take care of yourselves. Be who you are inside, as much and as safely as you can. If that means being there for your friends, keep those DMs open. If that means writing grimdark catharsis, break out the chainswords. Just, please, give a shit. You might save someone–and even if you only save yourself, that’s more than enough.
With thanks to Alexandra Rowland for the term “hopepunk” and to an unknown Tumblr user for the title of this essay.
Tyler Hayes is a science fiction and fantasy writer from Northern California. He writes stories he hopes will show people that not only are we not alone in this terrifying world, but we might just make things better. His fiction has appeared online and in print in anthologies from Alliteration Ink, Graveside Tales, and Aetherwatch. The Imaginary Corpse is Tyler’s debut novel.