One Step Closer

(TW: suicide, self-harm, depression, anxiety)

It’s been almost 3 weeks since I last made revision notes on Tallulah, and about a month since the last post I made here. I see the semblance of a pattern.

This chapter is one that I originally expected to cut completely, for its utter irrelevance to the story. Having gone back through it – I’m still not finished, and have given myself one hour a day to revise exactly so that I get used to doing it systematically rather than just on a whim – I have found that there’s actually so much key information about the characters and the overarching themes of the story that I’m very relieved I didn’t just write it off without even looking at it first. Not that I was planning to do that, but I feel like in another life I would have just scrapped it based on memory and started my revision using a manuscript that didn’t have it included and accounted for.

This book needs so much work before it’s ready to be submitted. I wanted to submit it at the end of this year, but I think I’m going to have to set my sights on maybe around this time next year – and, thinking a bit about it, that’s actually probably a better plan. Not so much because it gives me more time to revise (I certainly don’t want to over-revise, and a shorter deadline could help with that), but because from what I hear the end of the year is a really busy time for publishers and agents, being flooded with manuscripts. So if I wait for next year, after the rush, I might have a better chance of getting noticed and picked up. I’ll definitely need to do more research about this stuff along the way, too.

There is actually a reason I decided to go back to revision today. Chester Bennington, lead singer of Linkin Park, died on the 20th from suicide by hanging. That kicked me right in the guts. I know people like to talk shit on Linkin Park for being melodramatic, angst-ridden, and weirdly sanitised despite their subject matter, especially in their early songs. I got less and less involved with them as a band as I grew older and discovered other forms of emotional catharsis through music other than the anger of metal, but I had always been hugely emotionally invested in the band, even when I wasn’t a huge fan. I didn’t realise just how much I still cared about them until I heard the news, and I have no shame in telling you all that I am absolutely going to go out and buy those two albums of theirs that I didn’t really like. I’m a sentimental mushball and proud of it.

It hit me like no other celebrity death has – maybe Carrie Fisher. They were both such huge parts of my life, especially my childhood and adolescence, but I felt more familiar with Chester, just because I kept up with the band ever since they released “One Step Closer” and made me the happiest little angry kid on the planet, along with all the millions of other angry kids exactly like me. Carrie Fisher I knew as Princess Leia, and that was about it until quite recently. I definitely wish I’d kept up with her as well in hindsight.

But the point of all of this is that Chester’s death was a wake-up call to me. People talk about this sort of thing all the time, and there have been times when I’ve felt like I should have felt it but didn’t. Somebody famous and influential dies, and people get motivated to get their shit together. I hate that I’m getting motivation from somebody’s death, especially one as horrible as this. There’s something morbid about taking inspiration to live your life better just because somebody else’s has ended. But it’s because it’s pretty relevant to me. I lived with depression for a long time; I still get depressed every now and then. The bigger issue for me is social anxiety, but both of them come with a lot of feeling stuck and unable to do anything about it. I realised when the news broke that I needed to fucking move. I’ve known that doing things is the best solution to the problem of feeling stuck, yet I just consistently don’t take that solution because, well, I don’t feel like I can when I’m in a rut, which I usually am. Anxiety and depression are paralytics, and they’re hard to fight against.

But I have to. I have to get this shit done. I don’t even know what book I want to work on, if I even do, or what my other options would be, but goddammit I need to figure it out, and the only way I’m going to do that is if I actually do it. It’s basic logic; it’s nothing I didn’t already know. But that could have been me, and for all I know it still might be one day. I hope not, and I feel like I’m in a much better place than I have been for a long time, better enough that it is probably quite unlikely. But I also know that I have a history of suicidal thoughts, and that this sort of thing can come back sometimes. It’s just life. I’m not feeling grim about my prospects; I actually feel better about them than I ever have, however much of a slog this year has been in terms of motivation.

What I’m saying is that I have some now, and for the first time possibly ever I am determined to jump on it and make the most of it, turn it into a routine while I have the energy to support my initiative. I don’t know what I want to write, I don’t know if it’s anything I’m currently writing or if I need to find something else. So I’m going to write what I’ve got and see what comes of it. Every day. I have alarms on my clock set to remind me to revise, write, and even look at my CV throughout the week. I haven’t been using them, really, but I’m going to start. I have already started. I made some revision notes, and it turned out to be a very fruitful endeavour. But I need more than rewards. I need habits. I need to get into a whole bunch of new habits, and to stick to them as hard as possible, to keep going even when it’s not immediately rewarding because there’s a long game to play as well, a big picture that will make all the little, momentary frustrations worth it.

I’m also putting in forced breaks. That’s why I didn’t finish making revision notes on the chapter I was looking at today: my alarm went off and told me to stop, so I stopped. I need to get good at getting work done regardless of motivation, but the same goes for taking time for myself to just do whatever, including absolutely nothing. And from experience, arbitrary time constraints work pretty damn well for that.

I feel like I’ve taken a step today, towards the way I want my life to turn out. One step closer to something I’ve only ever fantasised about, occasionally following a burst of inspiration to move towards it for as long as the motivation lasts and giving up as soon as it gives out. No more. Motivation can kiss my ass. From here on, I’m here to work. I’m here to do better by myself.

So here’s to doing better. It would feel very wrong to link “One Step Closer” here, not just because I made the pun already. This song is one whose meaning has changed for me, and not just because of Chester’s death. I’m just in a different place now. Back when this first came out, I sort of dismissed it because it wasn’t the same tense, viscerally angry music that I loved LP for. Now that I come back to it, it’s basically a really corny, really earnest motivational track, and I am so happy to see it in this new light. I never thought I’d appreciate LP for being corny, but I really, really do. And I can only see it this way because I’m in a different place to when I was when I first came across it. Just like leaving Tallulah to sit for 2 years, I can see that part of my past with a new perspective, and see the path forward. And to walk it, you just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

(There is always a burst of discussion around mental health awareness when a celebrity figure commits suicide, which is kind of insulting to me, because it reminds me that this is still kind of the only time the discussion enters into mainstream consciousness. The fact that this discussion is still so stigmatised is hugely symptomatic of why mental illness is so much more difficult for people to seek help for than other kinds of illness. So to anyone who needs someone to talk to – please talk to someone. It doesn’t matter why. It doesn’t matter how small or insignificant or irrational of a reason you might think it is, and you probably do, if you’re anything like me. Treat it like a strange lump that suddenly turned up on your body: get it checked out, because it might be nothing, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Treat it as a practical, personal responsibility that you have, like paying rent. Look up hotlines you can call for free; look up options for counselling that you might be able to afford. If you have friends or family you know you can trust, take advantage of a shoulder to lean on. Look after yourselves. I’m not just putting my latest life-changing plan into action because I want to write more. I want to take care of myself, because for the longest time I just haven’t, and I’m only recently starting to learn how. I want to learn how to do it better, and the best way to do it is to, well, do it.)


Belaboured Fruits

I have written the first draft of an MA and almost a full novel in the space of 13 months.

I was made aware that this was, in fact, something that I had done when I went out to dinner with a friend. It still hasn’t sunk in; I still don’t feel like “that guy”, the guy who can Do Everything At Once without breaking a sweat. I still see myself as the WOW-playing procrastination champion of the world, where the world is my bedroom and it may as well be to me because I hardly ever leave it; I don’t Get Things Done. But apparently this self-deprecating perception I have of myself is, if not wrong, at least incomplete. Because while I certainly do play WOW and procrastinate, apparently I have also written the first draft of an MA and almost a full novel in the space of 13 months.

That’s … I should be appreciating that fact more.

A lot more.

I hate these kinds of revelations. They come with the kinds of angst that #firstworldproblems are made of, such as “the only reason I’m doing an MA is because I just don’t know what to do with my life and have no sense of purpose, is there anyone in the whole world more pathetic than me, yeah I didn’t think so either”.

In order to be doing an MA you need pretty fucking good grades; you get pretty fucking good grades by demonstrating a pretty fucking good understanding of relevant knowledge within your field of study; and you demonstrate a pretty fucking good understanding of relevant knowledge in your field by DOING WORK.

Also, you need to BE AT UNIVERSITY.


No but I know what’s wrong with my brain, and that’s the really frustrating part for me. I’m hard-wired to focus exclusively on the negative, to the point where recognition of positive experiences instantly evaporates upon making contact with my cerebral cortex, the data fried by the energy it takes to create synaptic links that would, in a less poorly-constructed cerebrum, create a memory. Not only can I not remember positive things that I’ve done or that have happened to me, but I over-remember bad things, which are sometimes events that I actually have reason to feel shitty about, but are also equally random self-hating mind-rants that have no basis in reality yet still manage to take memorisation priority over actual events in my life.

Basically, not only am I super fucking privileged, but I’m also so psychologically damaged that I can’t even enjoy the fun stuff that comes with it. I can, however, feel guilty about it and continue to hate myself, thus perpetuating the problem that I am currently facing, so that’s something.

But no! The Ubermensch does not fall prey to such petty things as basic psychology and brain patterns. The Ubermensch will Ubercome!

That sounds wrong! I mean like overcome, because “uber” means “over”! I think!

The Ubermensch has spoken!

So what I’m going to do in order to drill out this mental plaque that is preventing me from feeling like the badass I apparently am: finish that fucking shitty YA werewolf novel, because goddammit it has long outlived its usefulness as a fun, frivolous writing exercise and it’s time for me to get with the times – the project has changed, and I need to change with it. I will give it a second purpose: to be the second novel I’ve finished in the past 3 years. Obviously this isn’t counting revisions – but, on the note of completing novels …

November isn’t too far away.

It’s kind of scary how fast this year has gone by. I think the same thing every year, but this one seems to have been especially brief.

I don’t want to still be writing this shitty YA werewolf novel come Nanowrimo.

I want something new to work on. And I think that something new is only going to come to me once I have put this shitty YA werewolf novel to bed. I might do a brief revision, but this isn’t going to be a Serious Project, because it was never meant to be. Although having said that, it has taught me a lot just by virtue of it taking so damn long to write. The obvious lesson, which I learnt very early on, is that novelty wears off really fast, and that this kind of writing exercise is awesome if you can get it done quickly. The second lesson comes from the fact that, despite allowing myself to use whatever ideas worked, no matter how problematic or cliche (which are often virtually synonymous), so long as it made the story “feel like a story” … half the time I have spent writing this novel has been putting off these last 2 chapters, because they suck. They don’t even have the twistedly seductive allure of being problematic-yet-effective-from-a-formalist-perspective storytelling; they’re flat and dull and just fucking blow. The lesson is that “cliche” is not, in fact, a synonym for “easy” when it comes to writing, and I’m glad I learnt it. As Jim Carrey once said, you can still fail at something you hate, so you may as well try to succeed at something you love. He also said that vaccines cause autism, or probably has since he’s an anti-vaxxer, goddammit Jim why.

Anyway. I gotta do this just to put more evidence on the board; my plan of gauging my personal achievements/progress in my self-project on a week-by-week basis rather than moment-by-moment is actually kinda working as well, so this seems like a good next point to put on the board. I sometimes wonder what this blog would be like if it wasn’t for my mental health, or lack thereof, colouring my attempts to get shit done. And my conclusion is that I would really rather like to find out.

Here goes.


The Tombs of Atuan (a review)

There’s nothing quite like a book for getting over yourself.

I bought The Earthsea Quartet while I was studying English at university, and I loved A Wizard of Earthsea. I had issues with it of course, namely the sadly very typical High Fantasy sexism inherent in the narrative, but it was such a sound story, a paragon of its kind, something I would not hesitate to call an example of ‘pure’ storytelling. Because story is the only thing that moves it forward; subjectivity is not something that the story offers a lot of on the behalf of its cast, even its main protagonist, and so much of the story is best understood in the language of metaphor, as is the case with a lot of High Fantasy. If you’re in the mood for that sort of thing, and if you’re somebody who can enjoy a story on the merits of witnessing a formula be executed with peerless mastery for its own sake, then give it a read.

I began The Tombs of Atuan immediately afterwards, but seeing as I was studying I ran out of steam pretty fast. I think I got to the end of chapter 1 before stopping, and wondering what might have been.

About two years later, as in about four hours ago, I picked it up and read it all the way through. It is a story that hinges on a harrowing premise, and character subjectivity is, once again, not our friend on this journey, but the story, upon coming to the end of it, is one of the simplest and most moving I’ve ever read. It is, like A Wizard of Earthsea, a very ‘pure’ story, story for its own sake, for what happens, more than who it happens to, or why.

It is a story about evil, the greatest kind of evil that there is: evil that has no power of its own, but which is fed power by the smaller evils of others. And it is a story about how it ends.

Spoilers ahead.

  • Dark Places

The setting of this story is introduced over about the first half of the story, so although the page count is only around 120, spending about 60 of those pages on nothing but setting is rather hard-going. But it is well-used; it hammers home the laboriousness and unchanging nature of the Place of the Tombs, the hopelessness, and in its own way gives you some insight into what it must be like to be Tenar, or Arha as she is known, The Eaten One.

No, not like that.

Tenar’s life story is pretty depressing; she is chosen as a baby to replace the Priestess of the Nameless Ones, and at age 5 she is carted off to undergo a year of training before being sacrificed to them, which consists of a day of rituals in which her identity is stripped of her and she becomes Arha. As time goes on she loses memory of her family and her name, and the objective way in which she is treated as a character emphasis just how selfless she is – selfless as in lacking identity. Her only identity is that of Arha, and that is the identity of non-identity. Only one person, a eunuch named Manan, sees her as Tenar, and although he really has no power whatsoever to help her, he is kind to her and truly cares for her. It’s rather lost on her, though, as she’s being groomed to become the Priestess of the Nameless Ones, whose authority even the God-Kings cannot supersede, and between anger at her powerlessness to command Kossil and Thar, her two priestess instructors, a sense of superiority towards all the other people in the Place, and struggling against what is sometimes maddening boredom, while she does care for Manan, she’s not that grateful for his kindness or loyalty, not openly anyway. He’s just a servant to her, more or less, and yes, she does come to regret it eventually.

She is groomed to inherit power, and yet it is kept from her – Kossil instils fear in her from day one, and it is a fear that she never quite masters, which frustrates and humiliates her. Kossil is in turn envious of her position and of the Undertombs, where only Arha can enter – and where no light is permitted, as it is a sacrelige against the Nameless Ones. This is about the only advantage that Tenar ever really has over Kossil, other than a working knowledge of the Labyrinth, which only Arha is supposed to ever enter, although as she trusts Manan she teaches him how to navigate it as well.

Together the Undertombs and the Labyrinth, these vast, dark places where light is not permitted and one must make their way blindly, through touch and memory alone, lend an intensity and an intimacy to the role of Arha that compliments the dual nature of the role, one of both power and enslavement. She is powerful and wields authority, but only in the service of the Nameless Ones, who have never spoken to her, never shown themselves, never proven their power, and whose restrictions – taught to her by Kossil – she is raised to obey without question. In the Undertombs and Labyrinth she has intimate knowledge and seeming mastery, but it is the deepest, darkest region of her home, and she is supposed to be there alone. More than that, though, it is the only real power that she wields, as it is made quite obvious that Kossil, even after Tenar comes of age and becomes the Priestess and thus making Kossil her subordinate, does not respect her authority in the slightest, and never has. She only has the power of the knowledge of the dark, which is also the ultimate manifestation of her imprisonment within it, and her reliance upon it for her sense of self and agency.

I love this whole setup. It evokes a sense of evil – not just darkness or menace, but evil, wholly self-interested, almost utterly impotent, and yet commanding and receiving utter obedience. And, as you might have inferred, it also makes for a pretty perfect allegory for being in a more abstract Dark Place.

I could tell almost from the beginning what the resolution of the plot was likely to be; unlike with Anna Dressed in Blood, here my knowledge of tropes and formulae actually served me pretty well. I got it technically right, so I’m quite pleased with that. But the way that it happened was much more satisfying than I’d anticipated, because by the time it happened I had gotten so invested that actually coming to that resolution was something of an endeavour, just as Tenar is almost unable to leave the Undertomb, even as freedom beckons and the earth threatens to swallow her, the maze collapsing all around her.

And she gets out, of course, with the help of our adventuring wizard hero, Ged.

  • Light under the Hill

So going into this, I was very skeptical about what the gender dynamic was going to be. I always am, mind you; English drummed that into me pretty hard, but even if it wasn’t quite so keenly focused on that particular political aspect of every single media text I come across before university, I still took issue with the traditional gender thing. Part of why I gravitated towards Harry Potter growing up was because of how well-balanced the world felt with regards to gender; I didn’t think of it that way of course, but everybody just seemed like a person. They weren’t all equally important or equally powerful, but with the exception of the three most powerful practitioners of magic in the world all being male, in terms of power, gender representation was pretty well-balanced. But more importantly, no single character that I can think of was ever defined solely by their gender.

A Wizard of Earthsea is more or less the polar opposite of Harry Potter in that regard. It’s so blatant that I wondered for a while if it was intentional, like Ursula Le Guin was making a statement or something, because it was not just High Fantasy sexist, it was textbook High Fantasy sexist, almost too calculatedly patriarchal to be an accident. And then we have the Tombs of Atuan, where a poor girl is whisked away to live a life of victimisation (at the hands of a matriarchal secret society no less) and has to be rescued by a man.

Well … yes and no.

The thing that I like about this story is the fact that it is not about Tenar being rescued, not really; it is about Tenar being rediscovered, and the important part of this process is that she rediscovers herself. Ged is more of the Gandalf than the Aragorn in this situation, a guide more than a savior. He even comes into the darkness with a guiding light, and as I predicted there is indeed a scene near the end where he fills the Undertomb, which must never be lit, with brilliant light as the two of them make their escape. And yes, she does need his help to break free, but he also needs hers.

He comes to the Tombs in search of an ancient magical artefact, the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, one half of which is said to be hidden there. Tenar traps him inside the Labyrinth, and for the next week or so he is dependent on her for his survival. His magic is also weakened in the Labyrinth; I know that I said the Nameless Ones were mostly impotent, and I had thought that the story would end with us finding out that they had been dead for ages and there was nothing but the fear of their memory keeping the tradition of the Arha priestess alive, and Kossil using it as an excuse to wield power, but it turns out that they do, indeed, have power – they just use it rather sparingly. One thing that they use it for is to corrupt the minds of any intruder to the Labyrinth, and part of that is why Ged is rendered so powerless himself while inside the Labyrinth, because he uses all of his strength fighting their influence. Tenar, however, only begins to suffer this once she agrees to escape with him; before that she spends her time tormenting him but keeping him barely alive, although she doesn’t know why. She hates him, but also finds herself obsessing over him; the writing also starts to give us more of her subjectivity only after Ged enters the story, more of her thoughts and feelings, and it was around this part of the story that I started to cringe in preparation for the ‘evil woman learns how to love and is redeemed for her sinful ways’ cliche that I feared would rear its ugly head at any moment. And it does. Except that Tenar is not evil. And as far as I can tell, whatever love there is between them is purely platonic.

And also, she is the only one who knows the way through the Labyrinth. She is the only one who can take them both out of the darkness. In the end, while she certainly benefits from Ged’s help, it is only the last piece of the puzzle that she requires to rescue herself. He can support her, and keep the walls from falling all around them with his magic, but she has to be the one to lead them both out of the Labyrinth, because only she knows the way. And again, the allegory for coming out of something like depression rings true, and is why I just don’t particularly care about the whole gender thing, because it really isn’t the point of the story for me. The point is what it represents, which is something that is very personally significant to me.

  • Coming Back

I didn’t have depression, though I’ve often thought that I did, when I was a teenager, but I did have very pronounced social anxiety, and massive self-esteem issues. And yes, I did have bouts of depression, but mostly it was feeling miserable, rather than a lack of feeling, that defined the darkest periods of my life. A lot of that was tied up in a toxic friendship that I’d had since I was a young adolescent. It ended when I was about 20, and it felt like coming out of a bad dream and discovering myself again, or perhaps for the first time. And then a bit later on there was counseling and stuff, but the point is that I understand Tenar’s journey, what it represents, and it represents it so accurately, in the rather broad language of metaphor, that I find it hard to really take anything else away from the experience of reading it. In the end, you can’t be made better by other people; you have to do it yourself. Not alone, and in fact it might be impossible to do alone, sadly, but still, ultimately, if you aren’t the one leading the way, you’re not going to get out at all, because nobody else knows the way out of your darkness. But they can help to hold you up along the way.

And in the end, that’s why the story works for me even without the metaphor, because Tenar is the one whose agency ultimately drives the story to its resolution. She chooses to abandon Arha and rediscover Tenar, which is a painful decision in and of itself, because it means consigning part of herself – the part that she knows best – to die. Manan dies trying to protect her from Ged, who he thinks is trying to attack her, on the way out, and only then does she finally appreciate how much he cared for her and how she never repaid his kindness, so the transition is far from painless. She struggles with shame and anomie and a brief relapse after she escapes, too, but as difficult as it is, she chooses to move on. Ged does set her up, or informs her of his intentions to set her up, to stay with Ogion for a while where she can recover, which is a little patronising, but it’s also like being given exercises by a counselor to do on your own time. She asks him if he’ll stay with her, and he tells her that he’ll come if she needs him – but also that she won’t need him. And that was one of the biggest issues that I had with seeking counseling to begin with: I was very concerned that it would become a crutch, and that I would become so reliant on it that I’d cease to be able to function at all without it. Thankfully that did not happen, although at times it certainly felt like it might. In the end, again, it’s all about what you’re willing to do on your own steam that determines whether or not you’ll make it back. And it’s the same for Tenar. She gets the help that she needs, and is afraid that if Ged leaves, she’ll be left with nothing.

Yes, traditional gender binaries can certainly be read into it, and I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be, but I am saying that there is more to this story than just that. I don’t think that it’s at all fair to dismiss this story solely on those grounds, because it has so much more to offer, at least for me, than simply the political implications of who’s wearing the pants.

Plus the world of Earthsea is awesome. The magic is some of the best marriages of world-building and storytelling I’ve ever come across; there seem to be obvious loopholes in the system, but I’ve never cared enough to look into it, because the main purpose of the magic system has always been to tell the story that needed to be told, and The Tombs of Atuan is no different. It’s not like magic in LoTR or Harry Potter, which is more technical in the way it exists within the fabric of the narrative; the magic of Earthsea is an integral part of the storytelling, and that is why I am able to suspend my disbelief so easily – because I care about the story. And again, these stories are pretty much nothing but story. I am very fond of Tenar, and I like Ged as well, but more because of the stories that they tell than who they are as characters. And that is their function, the way that they are designed, and so it all works, if that’s what you’re looking for.

And also, on the whole Dark Place analogy issue, it really is nice to know that somebody out there ‘gets you’. I used to feel that way with Harry Potter as well. And ultimately, fantasy is at its best when it tells a human story.

  • The Farthest Shore

That’s the next book in the Quartet, and given how short – and enjoyable – these stories have proven to be thus far, there’s almost no good reason for me not to read it. Plus I still really have no clue what I’m doing with the draft.

Okay, that’s not quite true. I’m going to make a definitive, comprehensive list of all the things that I want to shift around, from where, to where, and then try to work out how much effort it’s likely to take, and whether it seems easier to do a total rewrite or just rely on adding in/removing a few passages here and there to smooth over the cracks in continuity in order to establish the structure that I’m after. The one piece of evidence I’ve seen as to which might be the better choice was one of a writer who decided to do a full rewrite, and that it completely drained them and they advise everybody against it if at all possible, so I’ll certainly bear that in mind. It does sound like a very extreme solution. But in the end, if it is the better solution, I’ll take it. I think I’ll end up just doing some quick-fixing, though. And I anticipate having to write a fair bit of new material for the second half of draft 2, because so far that’s where I get very un-specific about what I want to happen, and it might take writing it to work it out.

I’m very glad that I read this story, either way. There is nothing quite like picking up a book and setting out to read it all in one go, and actually managing to do it. I did that with The Half-Blood Prince, back in the day. I don’t seem to have the stamina anymore. Plus I’m writing my own stuff, so I guess that does take precedence. But it’s so nice to be getting back into reading. And the Earthsea Quartet is pretty much required reading for a self-styled fantasy author, even if I am leaning far more towards Urban Fantasy and Magic Realism nowadays than High Fantasy. It’s good to know what I’m marrying into, and what’s come before me.

And I’m glad I didn’t read this story two years ago in a way; I didn’t need to then, and as a result I got to have it now, when I did. Things just work out that way sometimes I guess.

I’m not complaining.