Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

The Ick Factor

One of the more interesting and simultaneously repulsive animals I have ever encountered is the Mudpuppy, (Necturus maculosis, for you science geeks out there). The Mudpuppy, known in some places as the Waterdog, is a large, wholly aquatic salamander. How large? The can grow to about 16 inches long, which is about the length of the one we had.

It’s bigger than it looks!

It’s a shy creature, spending its days hiding in crevices, beneath logs, under rocks. It forages by night for small aquatic vertebrates and invertebrates, and pretty much gulps them down in its extremely large mouth. The most distinguishing characteristic of the creature is the ruff of feathery gills around its neck. Amphibians in general lose their gills when they reach maturity; the mudpuppy is one of the exceptions.

We had a mudpuppy, purchased from a biological supply company, that we used to take our to schools to educate children about wildlife and the environment. On the morning of the program I’d track it down in its tank and corner it. On a good day I could get it in a net. On a bad day, I had to use my hands.

Like most amphibians, the mudpuppy’s skin is coated with a layer of slime that lubricates and protects the mupuppy from injury. It also makes the creature extremely difficult to hold. The body of the mudpuppy, quite frankly, is icky. Picking it up, it’s got a soft, squishy quality, like picking up a rotting cucumber. Blech.

Actually holding onto the animal was even tougher than picking it up in the first place. First, there’s the body shape, which is long and slim. Its legs are stubby. When the animal pulls its legs tight to its body it becomes eel-like. And then there’s that slippery skin and slimy coating. But the real tough part is the body, as soft and squishy as it feels, is really all muscle. That’s the thing about animals, by the way: there’s no wasted muscle on them. They are strong (ever have a little canary or parakeet sit on your finger? What a grip they have). When the mudpuppy pulses its muscles in a wriggling attempt to get out, it’s hard to hold. The only time I ever picked this creature up was to move it from its tank to its travel bucket. And I never handled it in a classroom – it would surely have slipped my grasp and slithered around the classroom floor, and probably ended up injured or dead as a result.

Writing can belike trying to handle the mudpuppy. There are times when the writing state is slippery and easily slips through your fingers, when you just feel like you can’t hold onto it. In those times, for me, I usually have to just power through, have to find some way to maintain my grip on that squirming, slick creature that does not want to be held. Lately on my WiP, the problem has not been with holding onto the slippery writing state, or catching it in the first place. I’ve been having trouble with the Ick Factor. My WiP has taken a turn for the icky, leaving me wanting to scrub my hands on my pants to wipe off the slime, and I can’t help wonder how it will be received when it’s ready to share.  
Discomfort is not a bad thing. I’ve watched movies and read books that have left me uncomfortable, shifting in my seat and grimacing like I’ve got a bad case of indigestion. And I’ve also walked out of those movies or closed the book at the end, and thought, “That was great.” Not in a feel-good sort of way, but in a way that made me think, even as part of me wanted to get rid of that slimy, mudpuppy feeling. It’s never a bad idea to make people think. The question is, what will they think? I guess that will be answered someday when this is ready to be seen by others.

Have you ever written anything that’s made you uncomfortable, or made your readers squirm? I’d love to hear about it. Have a nice weekend, all.

9 Responses

  1. Well, there are different kinds of ick. Some are just the character experiencing some real but difficult times. But I think, for me, there could be icky places I'm not willing to go.

    lol But that's okay. No one would know because I wouldn't go there.

  2. First, blech! LOL. Muddpuppy's sound lovely. ;0) I get really uncomfortable if a character is about the humiliate themselves. My stomach goes queasy.

  3. Anything that involves kneecaps or shoulders makes me squirm! i could never write about a nurse because I would faint at the keyboard.

  4. Yikes! I don't know if I'd ever want to hold something like that but I love the writing comparison you came up with!

  5. Writing any kind of love declaration makes me uncomfortable. (I know. Weird thing for a romance writer to say.) I don't mind the body language, the chase, the chemistry, the somewhat steamy interaction, etc. It's the feeling-based dialogue that's difficult. That is my mudpuppy. 🙂

    Have a great weekend!

  6. I'd love to be able to evoke that sort of a reaction out of my readers! I'd feel so magnificently evil. Things I have written have made me squirm before, but I think it's mostly because I still get excited and scared of sharing my work with people, generally speaking.

  7. All the time. My premises are usually about stuff no one wants to talk about. Ever. But I'm forging ahead. My first novel, Finding Claire Fletcher is about the abduction of a young girl. We all know what happens to young girls who are abducted. While it is a novel meant to entertain, if it gets even one parent to keep closer tabs on their child or to get their child to take a self-defense class or just to talk to their child about stranger danger and sexual assault and what they can do to prevent or avoid or recover from it, I will be happy with the discomfort!

  8. Thanks for the comments, all. From a physical standpoint, there are definitely icky things in writing (or even thinking about). Eyeballs, for example. Stuff under the fingernails. Belly buttons. This is a more…psychological discomfort, I guess I'd say.

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