Goalposting! What is this? Is it a new initiative on my behalf to start a themed series of posts regarding goals? Is it some new category I have created for my readers to click on in the hopes of finding something interesting? Is it because I’ve spent the day feeling unproductive with regard to my creative endeavours and simultaneously exhausted and restless and thus utterly unmotivated to do anything about it?
I have three goals for today, and one of them I’m going to go and do now and then come back and finish the rest of this post. That goal is exercise. I hate doing exercise not because it’s hard but because the warming up and warming down each take about ten minutes and it feels like a lifetime, and then the “actual” exercise is like 3 minutes in between. And yeah I mean baby steps and all that but still, frustrating.
But I’m gonna go do it, because I promised myself that I’d run through my checklist of New Year Resolutions every day and mark off at least two of them every day for the rest of the year. I can do this first one, annoying and disproportionately time-consuming as it feels. And after the second one, I can go to bed by midnight.
The second one is writing, and that’s what I’m going to write about after the break.
Well, that’s taken care of. On to writing.
I tried a couple of times to write about my most recent story-brainstorming experience, in which I finally came to appreciate the education you get out of letting yourself come up with bad ideas – or, more specifically, formulaic ideas. I was gripped with a desire to recreate the atmosphere of an ’80s fantasy movie, but couldn’t think of where to start. It didn’t occur to me that all of my ideas were too self-conscious to make contact with this ideal I had in mind and arouse the feeling of “classic” adventure fantasy that I so wanted to capture and recreate, until I decided that the story would center around a 12-year-old boy who is picked on at school, has an emotionally distant father and discovers that he’s the Chosen One who must save the world (the boy, not the father). Iterative, uninspired and sexist? Most definitely; but it was also solid, and much as that’s a shame it was also the beginning of a five-minute brainstorm that ended up with me having constructed, in broad strokes, an entire three-act narrative that held together better than the novel I’ve been working on for the past three years. It had solid pieces that fit together intuitively, because they were pieces I knew how to place on the story-board, as it were.
Once that solid structure was in place, it was easy enough to go back and start deconstructing and renovating the problematic elements, of which there were a lot: there was a Token Girl character who had to undergo an obligatory damsel in distress phase and served as the primary emotional support whose main goal was to help the main character grow as a person; there was the kindly but ineffectual mother who might also have had a damsel in distress moment and most certainly did not get involved in the adventure proper; there was the collection of coded-non-white supernatural sidekicks (all courtesy of the Jim Henson Creature Shop, of course); there was the unambiguous heteronormative framing that gave symbolic meaning to the eventual defeat of the coded-queer main villain … you get the picture. And through this process, I learnt the valuable lesson that just because certain characters and plots that we consider “classic” are culturally intertwined with elements that we now recognise as problematic does not mean that you can’t separate the two. You don’t need to have the main character be a straight white cis able neurotypical English-speaking male in order to have a “classic” hero; you need the structure and progression of a classic hero’s journey. If that’s what you’re after. Obviously you don’t need the hero’s journey at all if you don’t want to tell that kind of story; and given that the hero’s journey is perhaps more of a marketing ploy than anything else, that’s certainly understandable. That “classic” veneer is by no means politically or culturally neutral, nor is it objective or essential.
But it is part of my cultural storytelling legacy, and thus for me it does come with that “classic” vibe. Being able to re-create it while undoing some of the most problematic elements often bundled together with it was an exercise in restoring my faith in humanity; by no means am I saying that I’ve done a fantastic job, but I think that the theory is sound, and that “classic” does not have to also mean “exclusionary”.
Why am I bringing this up? Well, it got me to thinking about the way I go about creating stories, and have done for some time. One of the biggest hang-ups for me, from around the age of 16, was an anxiety about not being original or clever enough to be Good. If that sounds like an impossible standard to hold yourself to as an artist because Good has no objective metric by which to be measured, you would be correct. I didn’t think about it like that, though, because I had a metric by which to measure it, and that was the metric of being as original and clever as I thought my at-the-time-best-friend Wickham was with his stories – and though I’d never have said it, even to myself, that metric could actually only ever be measured by him, his approval or disapproval, and funnily enough he seemed to prefer his own stories over mine. What a dick.
Well he was a dick, but that’s not why.
It took me until I was almost twenty to start creating stories that I felt had the kind of creative integrity that I was hoping for, and what I didn’t understand at the time was that it was because they had my approval, and I didn’t give a flying fuck about what Wickham or anybody else thought of them. I had confidence in these stories and ideas, and one thing that they all had in common, looking back at them, was that I had allowed myself to get a bit formulaic with them. That certainly does mean that there were problematic ideological issues with them, more of an implicit than explicit nature along the lines of representation and whatnot (which obviously still counts), but I was beginning to enjoy my own stories again – and for the first time in about five years, they were stories that felt like they were distinctly my stories, that took on the forms that they took because I wanted them to, not because I wanted to prove how clever I could be.
I have managed to keep that to some extent all throughout university, though academia and studying arts most definitely had an impact – now I had a formula for being clever, and it was pretty addictive. It was also an incredibly self-conscious time in my life that I am only now beginning to wind down from; there was far more to my anxiety than just the liberal arts curriculum, but it played a big part, particularly where storytelling was concerned. This was sort of a renaissance of my “never do anything anybody else has done before” adolescent writer phase, only now I was making myself use formula, so that I could cleverly deconstruct, subvert and defeat it, and in the process show off how clever and progressive I was.
I remember being a teenager and seeing movies that had that smug air of superiority to them, that “look at how self-aware I am” velvety greasiness, and it took me a while to recognise that I’d started crafting stories that my younger self would have had the exact same reaction to. I had started telling stories for political reasons, not because I liked the stories themselves.
The biggest test for myself in terms of confronting this new storytelling agenda of mine was when I decided to write Tallulah. I’ve ranted about Tallulah a lot on this blog, which is not surprising when you consider that I created this blog more or less for the express purpose of ranting about Tallulah. It is the book that I have come the farthest with, the book that I had the strongest commitment to in terms of the way I managed and invested my time in writing it and how long I did it for. It is also the most self-conscious, politically swayed piece of writing I have ever produced outside of an academic assignment; it is, I think, a prime example of a writer trying their damnedest to avoid conventional storytelling at all costs.
And the reason that this writer tried to avoid convention at all costs was because this writer had not yet learnt first-hand that it was, in fact, possible to tell a “classic” story without it having to be a festering, problematic mess.
I’ve written before about my huge anxiety in writing Tallulah because I was a dude trying to write a credible teenage girl character. Over the past three years I lost a lot of my assumptions about how one goes about writing characters, particularly assumptions about gender and identity – to this day I predict that the revelation that women are, in fact, people and not a hive mind will go ignored by many – but still didn’t quite feel confident that I could tell the kind of story that I wanted to tell and not, in the process, make that story run counter to my moral values. So instead I tried to pre-empt my more problematic urges and ended up with a sprawling, ranting blob that I managed to shape into an inconsistent and forgetful narrative story, albeit a narrative story that I wasn’t actually interested in telling. But hey, I avoided being really sexist, possibly, so that’s a win?
And so my plan now is that I’ll go back to Tallulah and let myself get really formulaic with it – if need be. Forcing formula is just as bad as avoiding it, but the option is one I’ll allow. I think it’ll go a long way to fixing not just the problems with the narrative structure as it currently stands, but also my anxiety about “getting it wrong” – taking risks 2k15 and all that – and thus empower me to actually get back around to working on it again.
And with all of that said, I did not do any creative writing, nor did I go to bed at midnight. But I made a plan, and I did some writing – I guess maybe blogging counts as creative writing, I really have no idea. And 1am is still better than, like 4am. Now to wake up in the morning and go from there.