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Original Essays

Giving Yourself to Story

by Melanie and Steve Rasnic Tem
  1. The Man on the Ceiling

    The Man on the Ceiling

    Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem
    "This visceral, psychological view of the horrors that occur in an average person's life will draw in readers with delicate, exquisitely detailed and almost hypnotic language." Publishers Weekly

    "The Tems' assemblage of brooding, often surrealistic prose experiments defies easy categorization but succeeds as compelling, perhaps compulsory, reading for true horror fans." Booklist

Our book The Man on the Ceiling is about many things: the anxieties and joys of everyday life, what it takes to build a family, the loss of a child, breakthroughs into the dimension of the divine. Critics have highlighted the slippery nature of its form, describing it as memoir, dream book, writer's guide, story collection, manual for living, meditation — even as a family portrait by Salvador Dali.

Working its way through all these incarnations is the theme of "story," the power of story to give meaning, to heal and transform and transcend.

We've been married a long time, and we've each been writing even longer. Story has given us beautiful, strong, balanced ways of being in the world. We've given a great deal to story, too, over the years: sleepless nights, reduced income, hours of research, creative anxiety, years then decades spent bent over a yellow legal pad, a typewriter, a computer keyboard, when we'd much rather have been outside or reading a book, watching a movie, painting, playing with our children.

With The Man on the Ceiling, story asked something new from us: our very identities. In that mysterious way fiction has of informing us what it requires in order to successfully tell its story, The Man on the Ceiling let us know that we needed to appear as characters in first the novella version and then in the longer work.

It's neither a conceit nor a metaphor to say we were intimidated, skeptical, and sometimes resentful to have such a thing demanded of us. We'd never done anything like this before, and at each step along the process we had to pause and wonder if we were doing the right thing. How much should we reveal? How much were we willing to reveal? How far is too far? And once we determined how much of ourselves we needed to expose, how were we to deal with what we imagined to be the consequences? Finding the dividing line between a powerful, personal engagement with the material and simple self-indulgence was both a technical and an emotional challenge.

The project did come at the right point in our lives. We're mostly past the age of needing to worry about what other people think. We're willing to take a lot of chances, having done so before and lived to tell the tale (or not to tell it, as we choose). We seem to be less concerned with projecting an impression of heroic or handsome behavior than with doing what we need to do. A good thing — story was insisting: "I need your flaws. I need your strengths. I'll be the judge of which is which."

This was not a comfortable relationship, us and story. One morning reading over his output from the day before, Steve was overheard saying aloud, "Did I actually write that down?" Not infrequently Melanie would write and delete half a dozen times before finally just giving in to what story needed. Somewhere along the way, it seemed, we had stepped into an episode of The Twilight Zone. We had suddenly discovered that, in addition to everything else we had learned about our selves and each other, we were now characters in a story that was turning out not to have a genre or even a reliable descriptor; the cover says "a novel {maybe}," and that's the truth. There weren't a lot of guidelines. If we were working outside the box, the box hardly existed at all. Expectations were very high, but not in the least specific.

So how are Steve and Melanie Tem, the authors, different from Steve and Melanie Tem, the characters in the book called The Man on the Ceiling? Self-knowledge is a tricky thing, and what you commit to paper can sometimes turn out to be surprisingly revelatory in ways you hadn't known about. Again, we're not being coy when we say we learned things about ourselves and each other, because of writing this book, that were revelations to us.

We do feel reasonably safe in asserting that the everyday Steve and Melanie Tem are much less phobic than they may appear in this narrative. These characters, after all, are under a great deal of pressure here, facing some of their most personal demons and inviting readers into the discovery. Our everyday life, we are relieved to say, is not this dramatic. We spend far more of our time and energy grocery-shopping, balancing the budget, pulling weeds, brushing our teeth, changing light bulbs than we do chasing demons into the attic of our house or flying through the roof on angels' wings. Truly.

Steve would also like you to know that he's far less anxious in his usual dealings than the character who appears here. He's well-known for his talent at entertaining himself. If anything, he might need to take himself a little more seriously.

Melanie would like to tell you that she's afraid only sometimes. The character Melanie talks about and thinks about and interacts with fear considerably more than the real-life Melanie does. With two jobs and kids and grandkids and a yard to take care of and movies and plays to see and music to listen to and dogs to walk and buttons to sew on and recycling to set out by the curb, who has time to look fear in the face more than every once in a while? Such as, when story demands it.

Throughout the book is repeated the admonition, caveat, mantra "Everything we're telling you here is true." One reader told us that that was the only thing he didn't believe in the book. Go figure. Personally, we think "true" is what matters here, not "factual" or "fictional" or "slipstream" or "speculative."

But if you have a need to know what "really" happened in this tale of the Tems and what are the events we imagined, we suggest you use this heuristic: If an event seems like something that could have happened, it probably did. If it sounds impossible, it's probably an event we imagined. There are slight variations in this distinction, to be sure, but for the most part it will serve you well.


But we would like to encourage you to give the possible and the impossible events of our story equal weight. We would like you to consider that, maybe, these events are equally true. Certainly, we believe, they are equally important. In this biography of our imaginations we have tried to blend fantasy and reality into an emotional truth neither can offer alone.

That's what story demanded.

÷ ÷ ÷

Award-winning author, poet, and playwright Melanie Tem is the author of fourteen published novels. Her works have won, among many accolades, the Bram Stoker Award and the British Fantasy Award. Dan Simmons called her "the literary successor to Shirley Jackson," and readers and reviewers consistently rave about her deeply involved stories of the terrors that haunt families.

Steve Rasnic Tem has been called "a school of writing unto himself" (Joe R. Lansdale). His surreal stories have earned him comparisons to Franz Kafka, Dino Buzzati, Ray Bradbury, and Raymond Carver. He has also won the Bram Stoker award and been nominated for British Fantasy and World Fantasy awards for his short stories, novels, and collections.

They live in Denver, Colorado with the family they have made for themselves. spacer

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