Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Writing Beyond My Current Abilities

I have been writing a book for twenty years.

Now, that's quite an oversimplification, to be sure. It started out as a short story in high school that I insisted was going to be the beginning of a career. Soon the short story evolved into a novella, and then into a series of novels, all before even beginning to put pen to paper and writing.

Now, that, too, is an oversimplification. I did write. In high school, and then in college, I did write. I wrote pages and pages of free-style poems that, I thought, were going to show my budding genius and build the foundation of a successful career as a writer and a thinker. I imagined I would be invited to do speeches and readings. My life would finally make sense.

Now that.... that's not really an oversimplification. Though I sometimes wish it were. See, those years... well those years were very problematic. Without going into nauseating detail, suffice to say that I had years of depression to face and years of recovery after that yet to go. At the time, this craving to write, to act, to philosophize, all of this came out of a need to feel special, worthy, to fill that void inside of me, and it ultimately kept me from actually facing the hard work that I needed to do to really prepare to be a writer.

Those who have experienced mental illness in various forms and degrees can probably understand, much more quickly than most others who have not, that the mind can have an immense power over one's well being and sense of self. The very part that controls the gates of logic and self-care is sick! The very part that says "well, that's not very productive of you, moaning in the corner" is shunted aside by a foreboding, a palpable, physical sensation of fear (in the case of depression, at least) that says that you are worthless, leaching oxygen out of the air that could be breathed in by others more worthy than you.

Wow. That's enough of that, I think.

And yet, yep, yep, this is how I lived the years of the early to mid 90s. With an absolute certainty that I had found myself in a corner, the long end of a bad choice in a maze. And I was very, very seriously considering suicide.

(What does this have to do with writing a bloody book?!)

All of the sordid details of that little death spiral I will share when plied with alcohol in a safe environment. Maybe. But suffice to say that one of a small number of decisions and discoveries I made to help me get out of that funk was the realization that a big part of my depression was drawn from the belief that the only skill and career I had left as an option was writing. And my muse was gone. I was no longer inspired to write. None of what I wrote was compelling. My little nuggets of gold that I had in my hand, my creativity, had turned into lumps of tin.

So I decided to go ahead and let myself suicide.

I killed that part of me that was the actor, the writer, the dreamer, the philosophizer. I decide though that I would let the other half of me -- the boring worker, the 9-to-5er that came home and paid bills and watched the parade go by, fighting the impulse to run onto the streets and join in the fun -- to live on.

And for 10 years, I did just that. I had developed almost a phobia of anything of the creative in me. The very consideration of committing to a writing project would make me shake and sweat. Accuse me of being dramatic, and I'll stare you down with such conviction you'll walk away shaking your head. I was terrified.

And then time passed.

And friends reconnected.

And old memories came back to the surface.

And like Lazarus himself, that corpsed artist inside of me started belching up putrid coughs warning me that things were going to change around here, buddy! Things are going to change! And somehow I was ready for it.

I had spent 10 years recovering from depression and building my life from the ground up, developing a stable inner core that I could rely on.

(So at last we get on with the Writing??)

Besides the depression, I also had to face a late-diagnosed ADD. Seems to have been integrally involved with my depression, as it was a large part of the reason I could not commit to projects of nearly any kind long term, and certainly explained why I wrote great when I was inspired (short, frantic and mad bursts of writing till the wee hours of the morning!), but couldn't organize a thought for five minutes when I wasn't. As a creative (and successful) friend once put it, "At first we write because we are inspired. Later, we are inspired because we write." Well, it seems I had not figured out how to transition to that later stage.

And yet this process of tending to my core, building on my center, growing, has also led me to learn new tools, ways to write things down and track them, keep them around, knowing that I can use them later.

(Like when you finally get to the Writing part of this essay!)

Like now. When I finally face the realization that I really do want to write this long, fabled book again.

I last left my writing as a notion of a series of books that explored the nature of reality and its experience in a very direct, personal way for the hero of the story. Fortunately, I did not throw most of my writing away, choosing instead to pack it in boxes and wrap it in so much tape that it could easily be confused as a bean bag (though not a very squishy one) wrapped in a shopping bag and... well... tape.

Over the years before my breakdown, I had somehow got it in my head that ultimately I could not bring myself to write several books in separate worlds, all with their own history and characters. The more I found myself exploring the nature of the experience of reality, the more the universe itself had to be, I argued, the same universe. Different people see the world in entirely different ways, be it two crazy loony artists or two pragmatic business executives. The only way I could compellingly explore that was to drop the convenient dishonesty of creating a different universe from scratch each time I started a new story. Each story had to be part of the same world.

I started calling my project TGAEN. Or, "The Great American Existential Novel".

Now, here I am, facing the challenge I have set before me. And I realize I have to re-learn the process of writing. Practically the whole process of creating. I am a different person, who is more aware of his failings and strengths and tools. And I have set before me a task that is far beyond my current skill set.

I have a story that will likely be broken up into several novels. I still don't really know the main character, or the rules, or "laws of physics" I will be applying. In terms of meaning, message, take-away, inspiration, hell even in terms of conflict/resolution, I am completely unclear.

What I have is a series of very tantalizing back-story notes, an overarching tale of existence and the transformation of characters from the very beginning of time, themes that are difficult to convey to even me, who is describing and discovering them!

I am using Google Notebooks and Google Documents to track articles, quotes and ideas that seem to resonate with my project. I use my hand-held smart phone to coordinate much of this and to review. And recently I purchased a LiveScribe digital pen, thinking that maybe one problem is that, since I entered the world of the World Wide Web, perhaps I walked away from the one avenue my muse required. Hand to pen to paper.....

I have topics and themes and ideas and character sketches that are more complex in this vaporous stage than I can organize in my ADD-ridden brain.

I am nervous. Shaking -- just a little. And I am excited as hell. Even if I work on this till the day I die of old age, it will be the most enjoyable project I've ever done.

However, I'd like to make more progress than this.


Is there anyone who has suggestions, resources, ideas? Do I pay for a writer's coach, go to every writer's retreat? How to I manage to track and organize my story, when I am not yet even at the stage that I know what my story is going to be?

Who has found themselves in the same situations, facing a task that was larger than they were, and how did you break it down, and keep yourself motivated and on task?

I am interested in meeting anyone who can share their experiences and their tricks of the trade. Now that I have a paying career during the day, this is not about a desperate act of finding something useful to do. This is about finding out why this book won't let me go....

And finding out how it ends.

3 comments:

bb mumblings said...

so totally get it.

once, i was a painter.

then, i was a lawyer.

now, i am an amalgam of confusion which tends toward happiness...

welcome back corpse!

VSmirk said...

Thanks, @BBMumblings!

I am with you about the amalgam of confusion.

Love your Tweets, by the way!

ExquisiteTruth said...

As a former artist, cum software architect, I can understand how life intervenes.

As your friend, all I have to say is; I expect to see a short story within 90 days, or I call shenanigans.