Although I treasure the teachers who have guided me through the years, I believe that writers are born, not made. We’re basically a wretched lot driven to write as a way to find our place in the world and make sense of our existence.
Most of us start out by exploring different themes in our early work, trying on various viewpoints as we meander through entire novels in search of ourselves. Then, when we finally do find our footing, we write in order to be heard by the world for reasons that range from ego to pain. But, unfortunately, our innate motivations to write are all too often squelched by the realities of making a living as an author. It soon becomes almost impossible to write what you really want to write.
First, you feel the pressure to get published, which inevitably means that you start to lean toward writing books or stories that attract the attention of agents and publishers. You begin to make compromises, like cleaning up your language, toning down your anger, or towing the line when it comes to genre conventions. Each compromise you make leeches a little more of you out of the book that results.
Once you get published, it becomes even easier to lose your sense of self. Not only will you start to fight your instincts, you will be urged to do just that. You’ll be asked to make every book you write funny, terrifying, a literary soap opera, or whatever trademark trait has driven your sales in the past.
All of these small compromises add up to some pretty big personal consequences. They can reduce you to a one-dimensional author and take away from the joy of being exactly who you are. Every new project can become a contest between using your true voice or attracting more readers. It's a juggling act that wears away at you—and one that ultimately homogenizes what’s available to read.
I never realized how strong this dynamic was until I discovered a way to break free from it. It came in the most unlikely of opportunities: an invitation to read at an event called Noir at the Bar. The concept of NOTB is simple. People who appreciate other people’s viewpoints come together at a bar, order cocktails, then listen as six to eight pre-scheduled authors read from their work. Each author reads for no more than fifteen minutes. When it's your turn in the spotlight, something magical happens. A hush falls over the room as you stare out at fellow human beings happy to be right there with you, away from screens and stress and life’s pressures, all gathered in the same room because they love words just as much as you do. The darkened room creates an atmosphere of contemplation. The cocktails help everyone relax. The sheer civility of it all is absolutely amazing. Plus it's a transient performance so, essentially, remarkably judgement free. As a result, NOTB gives you freedom as an author to experiment with work outside your comfort zone, to try out a new voice, to show a different side of who you are. All of those things can put the joy back in your writing and strengthen your core voice.
I participated in my first Noir at the Bar in 2014. I walked in skeptical that anyone was really going to listen. I figured it would probably be a bunch of drunks drowning out what I had to say. Instead, magic happened. While the rest of the world was arguing and suffering and becoming ever more fragmented, that small group of people gathered together at 106 Main that night experienced the unifying power of words. We all came away the better for it.
The next year, the concept of NOTB went national when it became part of the 2015 Bouchercon, a worldwide mystery writer’s convention. You can now find NOTBs scattered throughout America and even in several other countries (local organizers: feel free to post info in the Comments section).
In the area where I live—the Research Triangle part of North Carolina—it was author Eryk Pruitt who first made Noir at the Bar happen. Since then, he has worked hard to ensure that every year brings us another series of NOTBs, derailed only slightly by the pandemic. Fittingly, NOTB found a permanent home in 2020 when Eryk and his incredible wife Lana opened Yonder: Southern Cocktails & Brew in Hillsborough, NC. Yonder soon became the centerpiece of the local arts community and NOTB its signature event. In fact, if you're in the area, you’re welcome to attend the next NOTB on October 20th. But even if you don’t live near, never fear: the spirit of NOTB is about to take on a new form.
Introducing Dark Yonder
In January of 2023, a new literary journal called Dark Yonder will debut, with Eryk Pruitt and myself as editors. Each issue will be available in both print and ebook format, and will feature eight stories plus a cocktail recipe. The stories will, we hope, take fiction beyond its current parameters, help people truly see the world through the eyes of others, and not shy away from the dark side of life. We hope Dark Yonder will showcase neo noir at its finest and we are working hard to make sure it includes diverse, often unheard voices. Already, we have a number of fantastic submissions and we're excited about the debut issue.
If you're a writer and you want to learn more, check out the submission guidelines here. If you're a reader, stand by for how you'll be able to pre-order your copy of Volume 1.
My main hope for Dark Yonder is that it will allow authors to reclaim the reason why they started to write in the first place—by giving them the freedom to write what they truly want to write, without market expectations or genre conventions in the way. My hope is that the stories we publish will reflect the true voices of the authors who wrote them and connect with readers in a visceral, authentic way. In other words, I'm going to call myself a freedom fighter for writers and I’d like to formally invite you to join me. All you need is a cocktail (or mocktail) in one hand and a copy of Dark Yonder in the other.