When I was a kid I threw a Halloween carnival in my parent’s basement. I knew I had the market cornered, because it was the middle of July.
I decided to keep mom and dad in the dark about the project. Investors have a way of meddling with an artist’s vision. I wanted to retain creative control. I was an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs don’t ask for their parents’ permission. Once they saw what a hit it could be, no one would make me apologize for success.
On the day of the opening, I paced the booths to experience the carnival through my patron’s eyes.
It started strong with a pillow fort from the Ayn Rand school of architecture. Throw pillows were stacked like bricks. There was a complex network of tunnels stretching from my father’s work bench to the laundry room, a centipede of couch cushions, wrapped in blankets, covered in cobwebs.
A trail of nightcrawlers led to the entrance, where a pair of grasshoppers lie in wait. Those brave enough to venture inside would be greeted by a pair of eyes, one brown, one blue, both glowing in the dark. They’d find a swarm of flies feasting on a puddle of human waste. This was a story told through the medium of rubber worms, plastic insects, and fake vomit.
Past the point of no return, carnival goers would have to crawl through a family of ghosts. These specters would float with an etherial luminescence, spirit energy shining through the glow sticks under their cheesecloth skirts.
If my guests hadn’t already died from fright, the spider dangling from the exit would finish them off.
For those who survived, a flashlight would direct their gaze to a plastic skull. Legs would jut out from its eye sockets. Its mouth would yawn open, its teeth red with the blood spatter of a washable marker. That’s where they’d find Barbie’s severed torso. Her decapitated head would remain forever lost beneath the radiator.
In their panic, the carnival goers would scatter. They would seek asylum in one of the booths, each marked with chalk glyphs to let them know what they were in for. Shark fins drawn on paper cups. A box with a tracing of a hand riddled with stitches, claws, and warts.
They’d find a three-story manor made of Legos, with a sticky note in the entrance. A devil with a pair of M’s for teeth, a pair of X’s for eyes, a V for its eyebrows, greater than and less than symbols for horns, and a W to mark its forked tongue.
The carnival goers would take refuge in the classic Halloween staples. With the fridge out of apples, they’d give bobbing for pears a try. They’d stick their mitts into paper bags filled with entrails made of spitballs and melted crayons.
Low on grapes, I made them a bag of eyeballs by chopping off the top halves of strawberries, because that’s what entrepreneurs do. They think outside the box.
The bravest of the carnival goers would play a game of pin the horn on the monster. The horn being a flaccid paper mache cone with a tack in it, and the monster being a shaved Teddy bear, hung from the wall like a crucifix.
A reward awaited all those who survived the chamber of horrors.
They’d find a big black sheet slung between two closet doors. Its fabric covered in a school of sparkling fish, made from glue, glitter and googly eyes. They’d find a line running from a fishing rod to a fanny pack on the other side of the sheet. There the host would lie in wait with a jack-o-lantern filled with gift bags. Each came with finger monsters and fun-sized candy bars.
My walkthrough made me confident that the carnival goers would love the experience, and thereby love their host.
That afternoon I cut tickets out of construction paper. I ran around the neighborhood to hand them out. From the playgrounds to the bike trails, I leveraged my networking skills. From the swimming pools to the baseball diamonds, I created brand awareness. From the tree houses to the Slip ‘N Slides, I saturated my marketplace.
I had content to sell for the mere price of respect and admiration.
When I saw that only five brave souls came to redeem their tickets, I realized they were the mavens of the community, the tastemakers, the cool kids. Baseball cards clicked through their bike tires. Red lights flashed from the souls of their shoes. They wore their hats backward, their hair spiked, and their shirts untucked. They wore their jeans like they wore their jackets, rolled up, with stone washed denim. Their sunglasses had florescent pink rims. Their friendship bracelets were made of duct tape.
Here I was dressed as The Count from Sesame Street. A costume made all the more apparent by the picture of who I was supposed to be printed on my chest.
They kept their sunglasses on when they came inside, their shoes as well. Wiping their feet was out of the question. They stepped right over that welcome mat. If you think one solitary hand touched the railing on the way down, then you’ve got another thing coming.
I ripped their tickets, opened the basement door, and welcomed them into my chamber of horrors.
The consensus? They were unimpressed. The carnival tested very low among my target demographic. They kicked the pillow fort over. They threw the bags of mystery on the floor. Then they tore down the sheet with the school of googly-eyed glitter fish, and helped themselves to all the candy they could carry. Here I was hoping they’d notice the fine details of my chalk illustrations.
I’m not sure if one of them punched me in the chest on the way out, but for the sake of drama, that’s exactly what happened. Either way, I took their feedback to heart.
This was my first attempt to market myself. To go viral through word of mouth. To play Pied Piper to my peers and gain a following. My mailing list remained empty. My hand drawn business cards remained in their perfect little stacks. No one was buying what I was selling.
Over the years, my efforts grew more elaborate, only to get the same results.
When I was eighteen, I held a private listening party for my first album. It was very exclusive. You had to be my girlfriend to get in. I poured my heart and soul into that record. I even found new ways to rhyme the words, ‘Hole’ and ‘Soul.’ The album had song titles like, “Nutrasweetness,” and “Chlorinated Love.”
Ever the entrepreneur, I was a one man band. Who needed live percussion, when I could sample explosions for kick drums and whip cracks for snares? Who needed a live guitarist, when I could sequence a riff from one power chord sample? Who needed vocal distortion, when I could sing from my throat?
My girlfriend listened to it with her eyes on the floor. She bit her thumb to contain her laughter. It escaped through her shoulders.
I asked her what she thought of it.
She nodded as she tongued her upper lip. Her eyes scanned back and forth. The options were typing across her eyelids. She said, “It was…” That was the end of that sentence. It was.
I decided to switch mediums.
My screenwriting professor said my autobiographical screenplay ended like a Steven Seagal movie. I tried to convince him that where I came from roundhouse kicks were what I knew. He wasn’t buying it. My script came back, dripping with red wounds.
The first time I pitched a screenplay the Producer said, “Is your main character you, because I don’t like him very much?”
I said, “Just imagine what he thinks of you.”
The second time I pitched the producer ran their hand down their face. She said, “You know what the sad thing is? This movie will probably get made.”
“Harsh,” a fellow producer said as he snickered from the peanut gallery.
When I pitched a TV series, the producer said it was a brilliant concept, for another network. Memory may have filtered all the sarcasm out of that statement to spare my feelings.
As an intern script reader, I slipped my story into a stack of coverages. I gave it really high marks. The stunt earned me a meeting with the CEO of the production company. I stayed up all night rehearsing my pitch in front of the bedroom mirror.
We went to a posh restaurant, where I gave my pitch to the upper crust of the film community. It killed. There were laughs. The waitstaff kept looking back at us. People peaked out of booths to see what all the hubbub was about.
The CEO interrupted to let the waiter know that her minestrone didn’t taste right. Then she said, “You know what, I think I’d really rather make a comedy.”
Unable to hawk my wares to the suits, my entrepreneurial spirit caught up with me. I had to find my audience. I had to cut out the middle men. I had to do something fresh and original. Something to set me apart from the heard.
I wrote a blog from the perspective of a father-to-be. He was renovating a house, clearing out the radon, before his pregnant fiancé could move in. Things went missing. Doors swung open on their own. He suspected squatters until he realized what a ‘stigmatized’ property was. The house was haunted. Stuck in a mortgage he couldn’t weasel out of, the hero tried to exorcize his demons. When that didn’t work he tried to use economic incentives to lure them out.
The blog was an alternative reality game. Visitors could discover real world locations where the events took place. They could learn about the area’s tragic history on Wikipedia. They could follow my nom de plume on Twitter, like him on Facebook, and hire him on LinkedIn.
My goal was to convince people that the story was real. To start a dialogue.
A friend let me stage pictures in his house. He let me spray symbols on the walls and burn things on the kitchen floor. I bought all the props, drew all the illustrations, and wrote all the entries. It was the job I clocked into after I clocked out of work.
The story was full of symbolism, dual meanings for those who could read between the lines. The hero had to exorcise the house, and the childish things that prevented him from becoming a father. Peter Pan had to grow up if he was ever going to escape Neverland.
The story was called, “The Straw House.”
I spammed every branch of my family tree. I sent friend requests to entire yearbooks. I turned every e-mail into a chain letter. Knowing me meant that you had homework to do. You had a blog to read, and a report to give.
No one came. I was still the same little boy moping in his basement. I’d made a huge emotional investment and there was no return.
In the months after the Straw House blew over, I plowed through the collected works of Edgar Allen Poe. Then I sat through the Vincent Price adaptations. Time didn’t seem as valuable when I wasn’t writing. My neighbors threw parties, while I lay in bed listening to Douglas Bradley read HP Lovecraft. Wherever the world was turning it was getting there without me. I hibernated. Afraid that anyone might ask, “Whatever happened with that haunted house thing you were working on?” I waited my shame out in the storm shelter, feeding on what was left of my inspiration.
I filled notebook after notebook, like Kevin Spacey in the movie Seven, lining my closet with stock piled prose. I hoarded my ideas, ramblings to be discovered in the event of my death. I was the sole member of my audience and I wasn’t giving out a lot of standing ovations. If anything I was just as critical as any producer had ever been.
There was another idea forming in my head, but like The Straw House, it was too big. It required a commitment, and I had just gotten out of a long term relationship. I wasn’t ready to dive into another franchise.
Then a simple line of dialogue popped into my head. Afraid I’d forget it, I had to write it down.
In the scene, Boyd points to the rocks beneath the branch his brother Jimmy uses for a balance beam. Boyd says, “Let me guess, those are lava?”
Jimmy, ever the gymnast, looks over his shoulder with a smirk. He says, “Lava? That’s Bush League. Those are crystalline pillars from the Earth’s molten core.”
That smug comeback evolved into a one-hundred-thousand word opus. Then one novel split into two. The concept spawned a series of novellas. Soon I had more stories than I knew what to do with.
The options were: become a hoarder, save my collected works to be discovered by my next of kin, or go back to the carnival circuit and start inviting people back in.
How does one do that?
I could climb to the tallest building with a garbage bag slung over my shoulder. Rip it open and carpet bomb the city with tickets. Throw enough invites at the buildings and hope that some of them will stick, or I could find people who like Halloween carnivals. I could find fellow carnies, each with sideshows of their own. We could trade stories from life on the circuit.
We wouldn’t be marketing. We’d be sharing.
We wouldn’t be networking. We’d be making introductions.
No one here would be “having a dialogue.”
No one here would find any “creative solutions.”
We wouldn’t be branding. We’d be getting our names out there.
We wouldn’t be spamming. We’d be showcasing.
No one here would be fixated on the costs per click.
No one here would be hypnotized by search engine optimization.
We wouldn’t be back logging. We’d be reminiscing.
We wouldn’t be pitching. We’d be telling stories.
I’d rather talk to a small audience that speaks the same language, than a colosseum that doesn’t get it. There’s one type of incentive that the average person understands and that’s a financial one. Passion never enters into it.
That’s why you’re here. You and I are in on the same inside joke. We know that not every good idea can be bottled up and labeled. Sometimes compassion is the commodity. Sometimes shared experience is the thing that keeps us alive. Sometimes the outcome of a story matters in the real world.
We know that memory works in three-act structures. Stephen King has taught us that writing is telepathy. We are imprinting our thoughts onto one another. Our hive mind grows with every line we read. We secure our legacy with every line we share.
Some of us might be fire eaters. Some of us might be tight rope walkers, but each of us are part of something bigger than ourselves. We are a carnival of ideas, towering, bright and shiny. Dangerous and whimsical. We hypnotize our audience into thinking when their brains are shut off. We challenge them to see the world as it is, isn’t, and ought to be.
We do all this, because no one’s made the carnival we’ve longed to go to.
We do all this, because we know that entertainment without enlightenment is a waste of time.
We do all this, because the only way to honor our inspiration is to share it.
12 thoughts on “Carnival of Goals”
This reminded me so much of our carnival for muscular dystrophy we had one summer. We had the grapes as eyeballs, we had one of the older kids locked in a storm cellar in a gorilla mask. It was a blast. We had total creative control. I also believe in storytelling as a vocation although I am not really into Stephen King. I just read Under The Dome and I could barely get through all the rapes and murders. There has to be a better way to tell a story!
I agree, some stories are emotionally exhausting. You’ve got to give your audience a moment to breathe, to recover from a brutal act of violence. If we empathize with the characters we’ll be devastated if the author never eases off the trauma. If we’re not meant relate to them, then the violence is just gratuitous.
Many of my friends don’t see the point of the first act of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. They think we could meet Lisbeth later and still follow the plot. I agree it would make sense, without the rape scene, but Lisbeth wouldn’t. Sometimes trauma is necessary. Sometimes the stakes aren’t the fate of the entire world. Sometimes they’re the fate of someone’s emotional well being.
Drew, I’m glad that you came back to the carnival circuit and started inviting people back in. I always look forward to reading your posts because you inspire me and you make me want to keep writing and rewriting.
I’m going to share a little story, if you don’t mind.
Writing has always been second nature to me. It’s like breathing. I am compelled to do it. I never had a day of writer’s block, until I went back to University in 2004. All of that analysis, structure and critique smothered my natural writing reflexes and gave rise to my internal critic, the perfectionist, the critic who was never satisfied. Before I knew it, I had turned into a writing introvert – writing anything was painstaking – constantly comparing myself to other writer’s – caught up in and paralysed by the mechanics of writing. At some point I realised that academia, although I was learning so much and enjoying it immensely, was suffocating my voice.
The lesson: If writing is like breathing for you, if it is your one true love, your one true gift, then you must treat it like your child. Nurture it everyday. Love it, teach it, learn from it, protect it…but when the time comes, allow it to be independent, allow it to find its own way, to find its own audience. I believe that the carnival circuit is a great place to start. It is the perfect place to find your audience and develop a loyal readership. Keep writing, Drew Chial, and the audience will keep reading.
P.S: It’s late, I hope I make sense 😉
Thank you so much. I wish I had the time on my lunch break to respond to this in more detail.
It’s amazing how structure can derail your process. It can both cause and spare you from writer’s block.
Sometimes we have to unlearn what we know. If we’re going to get anything done.
I probably should have commented on this earlier when I first read it but at that time I was on my phone while in the bath. Typing on the tiny screen can be precarious for an extended length of time even when water isn’t involved.
I was impressed to read someone that rambles longer than I do, though your writing makes far more sense at length than mine does. I like how you described the whole Halloween carnival, I could see it so well in my mind! I adore Halloween but for the mystical parts of it, not the scary parts. I enjoyed the whole idea of this and I chuckled when I read that you couldn’t remember if a kid actually punched you in the chest or not. It was very easy to become engrossed in the entire story and the purpose and lessons behind it.
I suppose that’s enough for now as it’s been an exhausting weekend and further writing might reveal my less than exemplary grammatical skills. A great read nonetheless!
Again, I can’t thank you enough for reading.
It’s funny, I’m a very skeptical person, but I love mysticism. I love Victorian era charlatanism: spirit boards, psychic mediums, and ectoplasm photographs. I might believe your ghost story, but I love listening to it.
I’m always on the prowl for a new urban legend. I’m enamored with tales of the Jersey Devil and Spring Healed Jack. I want to believe there’s an uncharted forrest that a troop of Yetis calls home, an undiscovered chasm in Loch Ness where Nessy lays its head, an isolated town where aliens have printed barcodes on everyone.
My novel takes place on devil’s night. Most of my shorts have spooky themes. At the risk sounding a little goth, everyday is Halloween for me.
Spooky I can handle, it’s blood and guts that bothers me 😉 Everyday is Halloween huh? Yes but do you own a bat house? You don’t have to answer that.
Modern/Victoriana Gothic works for me, Drew. Though if you’ve never watched “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace” … I really can’t recommend it enough. You’ll recognize a lot of Stephen King and Dan Brown in its rather unique turn of storytelling.
“Not my fault! Monkey bastard hands!” – my favourite Darkplace quote.
Ciao, honey. I’ll be keeping up with this blog, for sure.
Love it. You preserve through the process and that’s what counts. Don’t give up, ever. People are definitely listening.
At first your post kind of weirded me out, as I produced a rather similar neighborhood event when I was about fourteen, with about the same outcome:) Had me thinking … some unspoken rite of passage? I don’t know, but it’s beautiful piece.
I think you have something there. Entertainers, be they writers or magicians, have a shared loneliness that makes them reach out to others in the strangest ways.