Right, so, that last post? Still sticking with it.
There is actually something I wanted to share/discuss/offer before I embark on this personal-growthing hiatus thingy.
I’ve talked before about approaching writing in the vein of putting the book before the story, of deciding that I need *something to write*, and then trying to think of that something afterwards, rather than the way I think it’s supposed to be, which is that you have an idea that you feel compelled to explore a bit more and, if all goes well, it develops into something more, perhaps a story.
That is definitely a part of how I write that I want to change with this hiatus. I want to get back to a place where I only try to tell stories that I want to tell. To do that, I have to be able to be happy to wait for an idea to take my fancy, rather than trying to force my own interest. And that is something I’ve trained myself to not just avoid, but intensely dislike, and I’ve only just started to realise that it’d happened at all.
There is something else that needs to happen as well though. I’ve started getting very gradually to a place where I’m all right with waiting for the right moment instead of constantly trying to pre-empt it. But then there are the ideas that I already have. I have a lot of stories that I want to tell, and by and large I have written very little other than notes on them. But some of them are actually really detailed; some of them have actually been more or less planned-out, and while there are big gaps between certain events because I haven’t tried to fit them together just yet, there is more than enough there to build, say, a first draft around. And what’s weird to me is that these really detailed story ideas I have are some of the ones that I find hardest to actually bring myself to write.
Up until today, I would have explained this as the lack of spontaneity putting me off, knowing exactly what happens and therefore being unmotivated to put the work in. But today I tried being especially honest with myself in asking this question of why these relatively well planned-out stories, stories that are actually probably ready to start getting drafted, are the stories that I don’t just avoid, but retreat from when faced with the prospect of actually writing them. Some of it is the lack of surprise; some of it is also the inescapable disappointment of not being able to get what’s in your head down in writing the way you imagined it. In writing Tallulah I’ve learnt that it’s very easy to convince yourself that your ideas are much clearer than they actually are, however; sometimes you just have a very strong feeling attached to a general, undefined goal.
And then sometimes you do have a clear idea, and rather than it being a case of translation errors between your imagination and the reality of writing, it’s that you’re clear on your idea, but not on whether you should be clear on it, whether it reflects badly on you that this is your idea, and that it needs to be something else. Sometimes that is what holds you back.
It’s the whole “my idea isn’t good enough” thing that I keep hearing happens to people, and only now realise has been happening to me for years and I’ve just never taken it seriously. It’s such a cliche writer problem, and I am loath to do anything cliche – without intending to. Because if it’s intentional then I can claim I’m being “meta” or “self-referential” or some other way of explaining it as my being intelligent rather than derivative.
And that, in fact, is the whole problem.
The story I tried to write for Nanowrimo was all about being clever, about being subversive and deconstructive and self-referential, and while I may have conditioned myself to hold those kinds of works in high regard after graduating with a double major in English and Sociology (and then going on to do Honours in Media), the fact is that they’re not the kind of idea that makes you feel good about having it, just superior. And I’d rather feel good than superior; and more importantly, I’d rather have a story I’m responsible for bringing into the world be good than superior.
It’s rather astounding to realise just how insecure I am about not being on top of something I’m writing, and my specific criteria for it. It’s all about plot holes and trying to think of ways to overthrow the status quo; and the sad thing is that I think I’d do that anyway just because what excited me tends to run along those lines to begin with, that I don’t need to be so anxious about being caught out for not painstakingly analysing every single trope and formula my story contains, then extrapolating the potential political fallout of sticking with that kind of choice, weighing up the pros and cons of several self-conscious alternatives that are devoted expressly to countering that choice and by the end of it I don’t have a story: I have an academic essay. I have a critique. Even if it’s shaped like a story, it’s a critique in disguise, because when you get right down to it and see into its soul, that’s what’s waiting for you. It’s hypertextual, postmodern, desperately self-conscious ego-wank, and that isn’t a story, not a good one anyway.
The one thing that my Nanowrimo project had going for it was that I promised myself that I was allowed to use all of my favourite conventions, as well as being all smart and self-referential and deconstructive. I still like the idea, and hope that I’ll be inspired to work on it again someday. But I had to stop because it was all so much to keep track of, and pretty quickly I realised that what I was trying to keep track of was not anything I really wanted to work on. It was too focused on proving how many tropes, cliches and conventions I knew – and how good I was at subverting them – and not enough about a story I actually wanted to tell. I disappointed myself, and I see now it’s because I had no idea just how nervous I was.
And these stories that are ready to go are the ones I’m nervous about, can’t bring myself to commit to, because when I try to see them as having enough of a plan to get started I keep thinking “well that could happen – but then I’m sure something else better could happen, too, so I’d better think of that instead”. I put it off because instead of allowing my story to work with the ideas that I do have, I insist on waiting until I’ve found better ones to replace them with. And then never do. Unless something comes to me in a flash of inspiration, I just let them sit, untouched and betrayed by my self-inflicted panic over an audience reaction that can never even potentially come so long as I continue to not put it out into the world, all the while thinking that it’s just not worth the hassle, because there will always be something wrong.
Predicting how many plot holes and predictable tropes and all of that “layman” business my stories will contain gets me on the defensive, and I spend my time trying to ward off such accusations, backing myself into a hyper-critical corner until I can only continue with the story once it’s been completely changed to fit my new, stilted standards. And it really does feel stilted; if I enjoyed stories where all the things you’d expect to happen don’t happen and are instead politically deconstructed and then replaced with something better – I mean, I do like doing that. I just don’t like doing it defensively. When I do it, it tends to be because I’m afraid of what will happen if I don’t, rather than enthusiasm for the prospect of what will happen if I do.
That enthusiasm was what I discovered when I finally picked up The God Stalker Chronicles by P.C. Hodgell; I still haven’t finished it, but it reminded me of what I ever liked about High Fantasy to begin with, the possibilities, the options I hadn’t seen taken and wanted to take myself. I found a story that loved itself, and realised that I’d been keeping myself from having that story myself, just because I couldn’t bear the thought of it not being smart enough for some hypothetical critic who could list every single convention and trope I’d used without even meaning to.
So I really do need this break. I need a break from my current habits so that I can make new ones. I need space from the way I judge the worth of my own ideas so that I can reconnect with what I already find worthy. I need to stop thinking “what would Joss Whedon do” (and I have some quite big issued with Joss Whedon anyway so that can only be a good thing) and go back to doing what I would do.
I need to learn how to listen to myself again, and how to take things from there. Because I think that if I can do that, these story ideas that are just a few decisions away from becoming first drafts, first revisions, final edits, will be revealed as actually totally fine, if I can learn to avoid the trap of what could be and make my way riding on the back of what is.
If I can go back to being content with what I’ve got, I might remember how to make it grow.
Okay. Now I’m on a break.