Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

The Shadow Man

A few days before I launched this blog, I woke up screaming from a nightmare for the first time in years.
In the dream I stood on a small ladder, my head stuck through a small hatchway as I inspected my attic. In typical dream fashion, it only looked a little like my real attic, and, in typical dream fashion, it’s perfectly normal to accept unfamiliar places as your own. I don’t remember why dream me was inspecting dream attic; given real life that week, I could have been looking for leaks.
So, there I stood, head, shoulders and one arm (that was all I could fit) through the hatch, sweeping a flashlight around, when I heard the thump-thump of running feet. I caught a glimpse of a pygmy-sized, shadowy figure running along the outer edge of the room. The Shadow Man.
The figure was charcoal gray, no features visible at all beyond shape. Stuck as I was on the ladder, my mobility was quite limited. I tried to turn to follow the shadow man, but I couldn’t keep up with it and it disappeared behind some inner structure of the attic.
I didn’t feel the sort of instant dread you get in a horror movie or novel at the sight of the Shadow Man, but I was a little freaked out nonetheless. Who was it? What was it?  And why was it running around in my attic? I also had a strange fear that it would somehow squeeze past me and get out of the attic, and I did not want that. Given the size of the hatch, that wasn’t likely, but dreams have a way of making the irrational rational.
I started calling for my wife, who was somewhere in the house. My voice worked, but it was sort of croaky, and I didn’t think it would carry well. I called her, three, maybe four times, louder each time, trying to project my voice down through the hatchway while simultaneously looking for Shadow Man, whose footsteps now came from behind me.
And then it touched me on the neck, and I screamed. For real.
I woke up, found it was 2:15 in the morning, and I’d managed to wake up my wife. She was probably the one that touched me on the neck, in fact, because real me was calling her at the same time that dream me was. Fortunately, the dream did not disappear on contact with the waking world like cotton candy in a mouth. I was able to tell my wife about it, and felt the residual chill on my neck as I did so.
My oldest daughter said I should go to one of those dream analysts and find out what it means. I told her I could do that myself easily enough.
The attic likely represents my mind, my brain, and I’m poking around in it. The Shadow Man is some part of my subconscious, someone or something that’s been running around up there. I want to check it out, but I’m afraid of turning that piece of myself loose, of letting it out, of letting others see it.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I had this dream when I did. First, I was preparing to launch this blog; preparing to reveal a part of myself to anyone who was willing to follow the link and read what I put up here. Despite this blog, despite the fact I’m willing to use my real name, and write books and stories for people to read (again, using my real name, which is not a super-common one), I am a very private person. I’m not going to be spilling the dirt on my friends and relations through this blog, or Facebook or Twitter or anything. The dream represents a certain fear of letting myself out for the world to see.
Second, the dream happened just before I started re-reading my novel. Re-reading is the first step to rewriting, after which should follow the part where I let the novel out for others to read. There’s no question I’m nervous about that, and it wasn’t just a fear that I would discover my novel was really bad. It’s the fear of what others will think.
I don’t mean that others will think it’s bad. They might, but that’s not what’s really bothering me to the point of making Shadow Men in my dreams. No, the bigger worry is they’ll  read through it and start to wonder: Is this character Jeff? Does he really think like that? Is this character me? It sounds kind of like me. That bastard! They’ll wonder where this stuff came from, and what it says about me. “Who,” my wife will wonder, “is that female MC, and should I be worried?”
I know they will, too, because I do it myself. Or at least I used to until I started writing in earnest this year. I would say, “That Stephen King is one sick fuck.” Or I’d listen to Pink Floyd and wonder, “What the hell is wrong with Roger Waters? He must have had one messed-up childhood!” It’s hard not to do; it can be quite hard to separate the author from work.
I don’t think that way as much anymore because I know better. Yes, there’s a little (or maybe a lot) bit of the writer in every story, but I also know there are multiple jumping-off points. Maybe this story has elements from a real-life experience, but there’s a point at which imagination takes over and turns it into something else entirely. Having cobbled bits of reality and fantasy together to make stories, I’m much more aware of the distinction, much more likely to cut writers slack.
But my family? They don’t quite understand this, not yet. My wife read a section from near the end of my novel. She liked it, but found it ‘disturbing.’ She and my kids read one of my short stories. They all kind of looked at me funny afterwards. I tell them that it’s made up, that I don’t always know where it comes from; they nod and tell me they understand, but I know that they don’t quite get it. “It’s not me,” I want to say, “it’s the Shadow Man. He’s the one digging this stuff out.”
They’d better get used to him, because he’s not going away.

5 Responses

  1. There's definitely a special vulnerability reserved for authors. I can understand that.

    …Ack! I would write a longer comment, but I fear my power is about to go out. The storm has the lights flickering. Anyway, best of luck with the revisions and here's to hoping for dreams that aren't quite so terrifying!

  2. Hope your power stayed on!

    I have to say I prefer dreams like this one, out-and-out nightmares with monster-type creatures, to the anxiety-laden dreams of the job or the bank, etc.

  3. I thought I was the only one who worried about such things – about what sort of armchair psychoanalysis I'd be subjected to when people read my stories. I've only told two family members about my blog – and they're sworn to secrecy still. I feel nauseated when I give my husband one of my stories to review.

    I think Carrie said it very well – "there's a special vulnerability reserved for authors." Absolutely.

  4. Take it easy and let the Shadow Man do what he does. He may help you somehow. I don't know if SM is your sort of muse or anything. May be, may be not. But let him show you what he wants, if the things are not getting very disturbing.

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