Today, as I was going for a walk in order to try and continue the fitness kickstart I began yesterday – itself kickstarted by needing to counteract the horrible body-weird caused by my first ever anti-anxiety medication – something dawned on me. I have so many old stories I’m trying to tell, and hardly any new ones.
Most of the books I try to push myself to work on are ideas that I came up with half a lifetime ago. Realm of the Myth is the most obvious one, because while it’s not my oldest story it’s definitely the oldest one that I’ve consistently tried to bring to realisation. My mind is still playing with it, loath to let it out of its grasp, like a videogame you’ve lost interest in but feel like there’s so much potential enjoyment you never got out of it – or that there just aren’t any other options, and it’s this or nothing.
And all the other stories are old, too. Tallulah, my ripoff of The Mortal Instruments and my shitty YA werewolf thing are the most recent, and aside from Tallulah they’re just very … well, I mean, it’s right there. One of them is a ripoff of a series that uses material from a Harry Potter fanfic (and a plagiarism-heavy fanfic at that). There are a couple of ideas I came up with while I was at uni, but I’ve been at uni for 8 years now.
So what dawned on me today was that most of the stories I’m trying to make myself work on are stories that I came up with when I was a different person. I wonder if that’s why they’re not working. And I also felt, for the first time possibly ever, that in continuing to hold onto these ideas and trying to bring them to the life I wish I’d been able to give them when I came up with them, I’m holding myself back from having new ideas. Maybe better ones. But regardless, ideas that come from me as I am now.
I think a big part of this is because I don’t like who I am now – or, rather, because I have such an ingrained habit of trying to disavow myself. Growing up with depression, anxiety and general self-loathing has fantastic synergy with nostalgia, and my nostalgia goggles are pretty damn powerful. I’ve learnt that I’m a worthless piece of shit of a human being, and anything I can do to escape that reality is something I should invest in. The thing is, though, that I don’t really believe that anymore. It’s taken a while, and it’s an ongoing process, but it’s definitely happening. I’m moving on. And I’m starting to want my storytelling to move with me.
The other thing I thought while on my walk was how much of an escape my stories are. Not just the stories themselves, but the fantasy of what my life would be like after writing them. Being a well-known, well-regarded author, doing panels at Comic-Con, rubbing shoulders with my favourite celebrities – I just looked at all of that today and, while I’ve never seriously thought that any of this would happen to me, today it occurred to me that serious or not, it’s what I’ve been spending most of my time and energy on thinking about since I was in my mid-teens. The impact I would have on the wider world.
I was thinking about escaping.
And I looked over my life while I was thinking this, and there is so much that I want to escape from. Unresolved conflicts that I have not even started to try and resolve, confront or even acknowledge in some cases. Awkward tensions that cannot be solved painlessly or cleanly, tensions that could force something to break so badly that it could never be repaired. Things that I just don’t know what to do about, what the right thing to do is or where I’d even begin to look for the answer. Which is why I hate thinking about them. And whether or not I did it consciously, at the end of the day escaping into my World-Famous Author daydreams has allowed me to ignore it.
It makes sense that this started happening when I was a teenager, because my teen years were the time in my life when I had the most shit to deal with that I wanted to escape from. My friendship with Wickham that made me feel dense, repulsive and invisible; real tragedies happening to people my age that I couldn’t do anything to help them with; my seeming inability to form any kind of meaningful connection to other human beings unless they were as lonely as I was – daydreams or not, I could not escape from this reality. University was the escape, which is funny in a way because it was also where I got my biggest reality-checks. But also, in a sense, where I started to do that horrible, stereotypical adult thing where you get stuck in your ways and cling to convenient beliefs that erase the parts of reality that you don’t want to think about. And I didn’t want to think about myself.
University tends to be where people go to discover themselves, or so all the stories say. For me, it was where I finally had the chance to cover myself up. So I did. A lot. I would probably say that my undergraduate life was my most impressive act of storytelling ever, because I’ve managed to almost convince myself that I’m not certain things, that I fit comfortably into certain, well-established categories that other people invest in as well, and invested in before I even knew they existed. I found out what other people’s beliefs and attitudes were and used those ideas to plug the ugly, gaping holes in my own identity; I didn’t have to believe in them. I just had to use them to make other people believe them about me. I just had to make it look like I fitted in.
I felt powerless as a teenager. But I have never felt as spineless as I do now, as an adult.
It wasn’t all bad, of course. I did find some things to like about myself, things that I didn’t want to cover up or disguise. And one of those things I found last year: the fact that I love to borrow ideas and make up stories about them. Hence the shitty YA werewolf novel. But that’s also something old about me; and hey, it’s a good old thing. I’m happy to have been reacquainted with it.
But today, I just thought how much of a shame it is that I’ve spent all of this time trying to escape my present, simultaneously looking with longing to the past and into the future with fear and resentment. All time I could have been spending just living in my own goddamn reality.
And I wondered – and I still wonder – what kind of stories I would want to tell if I was doing that instead.
The witch novel I tried to write for Camp Nano was another new story, but it’s also a much older kind of story, the kind of story I would have expected to think up when I was in the Dark Ages. For me, that was between 16 and 18. 19 sucked pretty bad too and 20 was no walk in the park, but 16-18 stands out in my memory as the worst time of my life. It was also where I had the most determined stories. They were dark, but they were battles I was trying to fight. They made me angry, because they felt important. I had to fight. I had to do something.
The witch novel is like that, only the fight’s gone out of me. I have no stakes in that battle anymore. I can’t. Because I’m not a teenager anymore, and my problems are different. Not as different as conventional wisdom might suggest, but different enough. And I realised a couple of days ago, meeting up with a friend for coffee, that almost every single story I have is not just old, but is also about children or teenagers. I have almost no stories about people my age.
I wanted to escape my teen years; I’ve spent so much of my adult life having achieved that escape. And now I want to find my way back.
I want to be done with these old ideas. They’re great. I’m not saying I want to take all the work I’ve done on them up to this point and destroy it. I’m saying I want to move on. I need to. Because there is no going back; there is no Old Me about to resurface. I found it, once: I found myself again after breaking up with Wickham, and it set a precedent. At the time it was liberating and healing and like having a loved one come back from the dead. But after that I kept comparing my happiness to that moment, and nothing has ever matched up. And I think that’s part of why I cling to the past so much: because that moment of absolute happiness and relief only exists in my past. I have wanted so badly to find the secret to feeling that way again. I have thought that if I couldn’t do it, then I would never be able to be fully, totally honest with myself, to express myself truthfully or even understand myself. But maybe if I had been able to let that fantasy go, I would have found that I didn’t need to try in the first place.
My 20s have been … turbulent. My teenage years were far more unpleasant to live through, but at least they were consistent. Being an adult has been the most confusing thing that’s ever happened to me; no wonder I keep looking for the certainty of nostalgia. But I think 9 years is more than enough time to sacrifice in vain pursuits. I want some new material. And I think I’m only going to get that by letting some of the old material go. Maybe all of it.
There’s that saying about how if you love something you have to let it go, and if it comes back to you then you know … something. It’ll work out or whatever. The thing is, I don’t even love the ideas I’m holding on to. I’m just afraid about what will happen if I let them go. Because without these stories, and without the fantasies about what my life could be like because of them, there’s just a void. I’d have to come up with all new ideas to take their place, to feel whole again.
Unless, of course, it’s not about trying to find something to take their place at all. Maybe what I really need is just some new places.
There doesn’t have to be a void at all. Just a past.
It can suck to have a past. All sorts of unresolved crap is in there, things it’s so easy to wish you’d found a way to solve. Things you can convince yourself you can find the solution to now, if you just keep the issue alive for long enough. But it means you have to keep the issue alive. You have to stretch it out, pull it out of the past with you so that you can keep holding onto it.
But you can’t have a past without a future – or vice versa.
And what I’m finding out about adulthood is that it’s all future. Being a teenager ends. But being an adult? That’s it. Once it starts, it goes on forever. I’m not one to put much stake in the pseudo-spiritual cultural superstition we have around certain age categories, but I am a sucker for narratives. And what I’m finding about being an adult is that there is no fucking narrative, even if you want one. It’s scary.
And it’s an opportunity.
One that I really need to take.
I don’t know what to do now. Hold a funeral for my old ideas? Just try and let myself drift away from them naturally and painlessly? Make a big announcement about it to try and make it stick, or try and let it happen organically and keep it to myself so that it’s not forced?
I don’t know. Maybe that’s not the point. Maybe knowing what I want is enough. The stuff I don’t want … maybe I can just leave it alone.
Well, I do know what I want. I want to move on.
All any story needs is a beginning that makes you want to know how the rest turns out.