Zombie Projects


Are you being hounded by the soulless ghosts of half-attempted projects past? Given the chance, they'll eat your brains.

You know what scares me most? Moths. Not in a weird way. Not as a phobia. I'm not scared of being attacked by them or one touching me.

I'm scared of moths as a metaphor.

What frightens me is watching a moth endlessly bashing its head against a window pane, while all the time it could escape via a nearby opening. If they could just see the bigger picture, they would know just how close they are.

The futile repetition of their struggle chills me because of its similarity to my life sometimes—professionally, academically, emotionally, you name it. We all have a bind spot. We all know that feeling of furiously beating our wings and the painful, bewildering sensation of thump, thump, thump, thump.

It's like that Confucian saying that the Scottish psychotherapist R.D. Laing was fond of repeating:

"The way out is via the door. Why is it that no one uses this method?"

Why can't we find the door sometimes? Maybe because we don't realise escape is possible, or we're not ready to. And maybe too because sometimes it's safer to be locked in the struggle than be out there in the bright and scary beyond.

Acts of literature and other crimes

Right now, in my head—and on hastily scrawled Post-it notes, among teetering piles of paper in my study, on my computer—there are heaps of ideas, sketches, half-born things unfinished. And with every new issue my brain does a mental roll call to see if any of them can be resurrected.

I think from now on I'm going to call most of these half-finished things 'zombie projects.' There's something not quite right about them, but they refuse to die. They're getting in the way, holding me back, and (knowing I'm now mixing my metaphors with one good stir):

I'm tired of butting my head against an invisible barrier, trying to release them into the world.

I think a lot of my half-finished projects need to be mourned and then put out of their misery because... well, I'll give you an example.

For ages I've been thinking about writing a post about a piece of music I'd like played at my funeral (what's my fascination with dying lately?)—a piece by John Coltrane called "Alabama." It's incredibly moving and there's an interesting back-story that goes along with it.

"Alabama" was written at the height of civil rights movement in 1963 after the Ku Klux Klan planted a bomb in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Coltrane based the piece on Martin Luther King's eulogy for the four girls who died when the bomb exploded, using the cadences of King's speech as the basis for the song's melody. It's beautiful and somber, linked to a sad and terrible chapter in America's history.

For months now it's been on my mind that I might tell this story. I considered talking about it in the last two issues of Rabbit Hole. In the one about pareidolia and death I thought, 'Ahh, this one's about death, it could go in here,' but then thought the better of it. And it was the same with last issue, the one about incredibly short stories. I tried including it there too.

After reading about the details of the bombing, I wondered: since flash or hint fiction seemed so potent, could there be such a thing as flash non-fiction—compressed accounts that paradoxically communicate the enormous scale of some historical events? So I tried writing an incredibly short account of the Alabama bombing that included all the little details that seemed to me to tell the terrible human scale of it. It came out something like this:

It was Youth Sunday—a day set aside, once a year, when the younger members of the congregation led the service. It was the first time 14-year-old Carole Robertson had ever worn heels. She was one of a small number of girls excitedly checking their reflections in the bathroom in the basement of the church that morning when the bomb went off. Four, including Carole, died instantly. One of the girls, Sarah, survived though permanently scarred and blinded in one eye. Many stained glass windows were shattered by the blast, except one that remained completely intact save for one detail—Jesus’ face was completely blown out. It was September 15, 1963—the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama.

But after trying it out, I felt guilty. It didn't feel right using the story as a writing exercise like this, so I dropped it.

Showing you what I wrote reminds me of something the English novelist Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, writing under the pen-name Q, advised in his 1914 essay, "On Style":

"Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—wholeheartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings."

For Q, all ornament and ostentatious literary style gets in the way of literature as a 'living art.' "It is possible," he writes,

"that you can have read one, two, three or more of the acknowledged masterpieces of literature without having it borne in on you that they are great because they are alive, and traffic not with cold celestial certainties, but with men’s hopes, aspirations, doubts, loves, hates, breakings of the heart; the glory and vanity of human endeavour, the transience of beauty, the capricious uncertain lease on which you and I hold life, the dark coast to which we inevitably steer; all that amuses or vexes, all that gladdens, saddens, maddens us men and women on this brief and mutable traject."

And by the essay's end—and with all the charm and good sense you'd expect from someone of the Edwardian era—Q counsels that good 'style' is basically about good manners: it is "endeavouring to understand others, of thinking for them rather than for yourself—of thinking, that is, with the heart as well as the head."

So, thinking about that story I keep wanting to tell—the one about me and the song I want played at my funeral and its connection with the 16th Street Baptist bombing—makes me feel uncomfortable because my telling equates my death with those of the four girls.

Yikes! No wonder I kept trying and failing. I don't want to hitch my story to theirs. (Sigh.) But I have to acknowledge that maybe I do unconsciously. The reason I keep trying to tell the story and failing is because I must have been having pangs of conscience without knowing it, and finding some other reason to leave the story out.

I guess, instead, I should have allowed myself to 'perpetrate an act of literature' as I had planned, and then, as Q recommends, murdered it by delete key or waste paper basket.

(Unless I 'metacritically' butcher it and put it on display, which is why I wrote this issue. Hmmm... maybe this could be a new series... a place to mourn my half-dead things.)

From Q to Zombie John Lennon

Which leaves me with a few threads that need tying up—moths and zombies and all that.

But first, The Beatles. When George Harrison started writing songs, he was having trouble. He'd get a melody and the first few lines, which he thought were great, but then struggle to finish anything. He'd put what he had aside and then ages later would pull it out and try tinkering with it, with little success. He told John his problem, and John said:

"When you’re writing, try and finish the song immediately, because once you leave it, it will be harder to complete."

I think this is good advice because if I don't see something through from start to finish, over time the little perfect fragment I have atrophies—neither alive as a finished thing, nor laid to rest, it becomes undead, joining that limbo of half-finished things that keeps returning with the nagging persistence of a pack of zombies.

Zombie projects are those things you've always been meaning to do but probably won't, yet you hang on to them anyway. They're that song with the great first verse but the chorus that makes you cringe; the underlying sketch that's too good to spoil with paint; the idea for a script that could go in a hundred different brilliant directions, but will probably hang round your neck like... I don't know how to finish that sentence.

I've got an apocalypse worth of those things. But rather than keeping hold of them in the vain hope that one day I can reanimate them, I'm wondering if I need to mourn them a little and then put them, and me, out of our misery. Like David Wong writes in John Dies at the End:

"Something coming back from the dead was almost always bad news. Movies taught me that. For every one Jesus you get a million zombies.”

Because what's worse, zombie projects rob us of vitality too. Creatively, we become the zombies, and as Max Brooks points out the frightening thing about zombies is:

"They don't adapt and they don't think. Literally, you could have a zombie on one side of a chain link fence and you could be on the other side and they could be trying to get to you and six feet down could be an open door and they will not go through that door in the fence. That's why they're so scary."