Drama student

Going back and reading stuff from the zero draft – specifically old stuff that has notes included from one of my good friends who beta-read the first third of it – tells me two things:

  • There is a lot of material I could and probably will work back in, mostly just bits of dialogue
  • I am a master of writing drama for drama’s sake

That second one has been dawning on me for a little while now, mostly because I’m looking at what happens in the story, thinking of all the things I won’t let myself write because they feel unrealistic and/or offensively cliche, and making an effort to be aware of how I’ll prevent myself from letting the story go a certain way or exploring options because they’re not real enough – not realistic, real. What’s dawning on me upon reading this last bit of drama is that:

  • Life is full of drama that doesn’t “go” anywhere
  • Life is not a story

“Life is not a story” is something I keep on using this blog as a platform to say, but I worry that I’m really hypocritical in that regard when it comes to my own writing and that it’s holding me back in terms of my storytelling, because rather than telling a story I’m attempting the impossible and trying to simulate real-life.

This kind of came to a head for me on Tuesday, when our course convener was giving us advice for our research essay (a film analysis) – specifically, she pointed out to us the danger of focusing so much on characterisation that we start treating the characters like people. And that really struck me, because that’s exactly what I’m doing with Tallulah, and it’s exactly what’s been tripping me up for the past, I dunno, two years? Who am I kidding; it’s been there since the beginning.

I’d be aware of this while I was reading as well; I’d note that the characters (if they were well-written) seemed “real” to me, while at the same time being aware of the story-logic that determined the events that unfolded around them – and I was totally fine with it. I’ve always been fine with the mix of what seems real and what seems overtly narrative when it’s done well in other people’s stories, yet have not afforded my own work that same licence. So I’m trying very hard right now not to fall into a “told you so” or “took you long enough” kind of self-loathing attitude. Emphasis on the “very hard” part.

And the thing is I used to not give a fuck about how true-to-life my stories were. I always cared about the characters being relatable, but that’s different; you can recognise yourself in some pretty fucking abstract representations, and just because something’s not completely realistic doesn’t mean it can’t be authentic for an audience.

I suppose, like most of my chronic insecurities, it stems from the constant comparisons I used to make of myself to Wickham. Since we were both writers, and since I used to give him the spotlight in all areas of our relationship, including when it was just the two of us hanging out, seeing as he would never shut the fuck up and it just seemed easier to go along with it than try to fight for recognition (fun times), I guess comparisons were kind of inevitable. My self-esteem was wrapped-up in how good of a writer I thought myself to be, and when I judged that I was not as good at it as he was, my answer was to try and emulate (and surpass) him (I just never thought that last bit out loud, even to myself). When he’d talk about his stories, it sounded so clear, so finalized, so rich with insight into the mechanics of human nature that I could never hope to compete with it. I ended up going the other way for a while; and actually the euphoria that came just before and lasted for about six months after we parted ways I wrote about the other day also came with this change in storytelling direction: I went back to focusing on stories as patterns, as formulas and conventions to be played with, rather than a Frankensteinian effort to replicate life itself.

I really liked those stories; they were the first stories I’d come up with that really felt like they were my stories, ideas that really came from me instead of from my attempts to one-up Wickham whilst aping his style. Ironically, these were the stories that I came up with right after I stopped playing D&D, but was energised by the tools it had given me to improve my storytelling technique. D&D, and all role-playing for that matter (so acting, for instance, which is sometimes referred to as drama), might seem like it’d be geared towards trying to get you to emulate real life. But it actually gives you such fantastic training in how to use narrative convention to “echo” real life without trying to copy it verbatim, and the artistry and discipline that goes into it. Which is why, again, I highly recommend playing something like D&D, LARPing or taking acting classes if you want to develop your storytelling skills. You get comfortable inhabiting the space of stories with your whole being, not just abstractly connecting your thoughts to written language. That was the storytelling that I felt was most authentically of-me, the stories that came from a place where I felt like I had finally “returned” after an extended hiatus, and the stories that kept me feeling the most grounded: the less realism-driven, more narrative-focused stories. I was really happy with those stories.

Then I started writing Tallulah and …

I dunno.

I have some guesses: I didn’t really have a full idea for a story so I poured a lot of my own experiences into the zero draft to compensate because I needed something to use, and as a result ended up also dumping a lot of my personal issues into it, more intentionally than I might like to admit; I used the draft to try and prove just how insightful and not-a-social-recluse I had become after a decade of anxiety over it, not to mention the fact that I, a male author, “got it” when it came to writing female characters (another competitive relic inherited from my totally healthy and in no way grossly toxic relationship with Wickham); I liked the feedback I was getting early in the draft and that more than anything spurred me on to keep writing, and looking back on it I probably took those comments too much to heart and built them into the fabric of the story as I was telling it – I think those are the big ones. It was a balancing act of trying to sustain other people’s approval of my ability – something I was desperately starved for while friends with Wickham – trying to prove how far I’d come and how empathic I now was as this new-and-improved profeminist dude, and just the general in-the-moment spontaneity of drafting that steers you off-course unless you have a very clear plot in mind and are disciplined about sticking to it. Which I wasn’t. My main goal was to prove, to myself and others, that I “got it”, “it” in this case being a whole bundle of shit that I didn’t unpack at the time and am only now just starting to see the full contents of.

I was seriously not expecting this post to get so personal.

Kinda proves my point, though.

Whatever it was.

Oh right; drama – basically I think this “pointless drama” in the zero draft is a result of trying to writing life instead of a story; it is actually pretty entertaining in a cringe-making kinda way, but it’s also a shame because there could have been a point, some kind of narrative tie-in, and it’s just not there. Drama is fantastic for storytelling; drama is one of the most powerful narrative tools a storyteller has at their disposal. It is so powerful that even when it goes wrong, there’s almost always some way to wrangle it back about to making it work, and it’s often fairly easy as well. It’s so powerful that it can make it seem like things are happening, even when they’re not, and then when they are happening? Boy are they fucking happening.

It’s a shame because it didn’t have to be pointless, but I believe my attitude at the time was that if I’d given it a point it would no longer have been realistic, because sometimes things just happen and stuff.

Not fantastic for storytelling, sadly.

Thus armed with this new perspective, I also hope I don’t end up over-criticising my current draft and missing out on the bits that do work just because I’m trying to compensate for a past failure.

Also it was a first draft and first drafts are supposed to be shit so idk w/e.

I actually feel that this revelation might be more helpful to my next book, the one I was writing before Tallulah came along and swallowed my life. That one started out as being really conventional – not as in generic, but as in it was structured through using narrative conventions rather than trying to emulate real life – and then afterwards my attempts to revise it all veered towards trying to hard to make it follow the “conventions” of real life. And it really doesn’t suit that approach. So if I can go back and tell it like a story, I’ll be happy enough.

And hopefully Tallulah will still benefit from this discovery. I’ve only revised one chapter so far, so it’s not like it’s too late to go back.

Never delete anything, guys. And much as it’s important to just write and not constantly pour over what you’ve just written, it’s equally important to be able to look back at some point and see what you find. The past may give you answers that the present doesn’t hold, so don’t throw them away.

And don’t avoid drama. I mean in real life, yes, try and avoid drama if you can. But life is not a story. Learn how to make drama work for you.

I guess that can apply to real life too, actually.

And hey, writing is real life. So just master the drama, guys. Be good drama students.

(I promise I’ll do some actual revision today.)

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