Celtic Riverside – The Online Journal of James Keenan

I Am a Terrible Author (But a Strong Writer)

Nearly 15 years ago, I began writing a novel. Well, a series of novels…well, maybe a trilogy or just one long novel – perhaps broken into two parts. Oh, or a series of short stories all set in the same universe. Or novels set in the same universe but not necessarily interconnected, kind of like Stephen King. Maybe it will be a single novel. I don’t know.

At any rate, you have not read it and you have no idea what the story would cover because I have published and discussed exactly none of it. The story faced countless changes over the years – the central theme, the genre, the style, the cast, the overall tone – but the core of it remains the same. Sharing any details of a story only to throw out those details would hurt me. It would be like making a promise and then failing to deliver.

The critical thing is that I have been writing that entire time and continue to read others’ works. From a technical perspective, I am a strong writer. Not in this blog, per se (if you haven’t caught this already in prior posts, I do not edit these entries other than a basic check for spelling), but in formal assignments. Craft matters to me.

I am not an author though. Let me explain why.

The idea at the core of this story I have been trying to tell for the last fifteen years is one of escapism – not escapism for you, the reader, but for me, the writer. If one feels so inclined, peruse the Mental Health section of this blog for discussion of the various anxiety disorder and personality disorder that colour my existence.

The world through my eyes consists of people doing horrible, selfish, awful things and of people who seem apathetic to dealing with that. It consists of people who do care about those things but go about them in equally vitriolic or mean-spirited ways. Then we have an odd group somewhere in between who have a performative sense of outrage about things but do not do anything about them.

In a broad sense and ever sense my childhood, I have harboured a sense of despondence regarding the extent of the problems, mostly induced by humans, paired with my sense of individual powerlessness and a collaborative lack of will to address them. Sure, one could point at this or that and say, “See? People working to fix that problem.” Yet the problem persists and it’s just one. We need more people working on more of the problems.

The more reality presented me with a sense of anxiety and despondence, the more I retreated inward to a “happy place.” I liked to let my imagination run, at first as a sort of creative problem solving process and then increasingly as an escapist tendency. I love literature, film, and music for taking me into the safe, controlled confines of an artist’s mind, but I wanted control myself. Their influence began to shape my imagination further, to make it clearer in my mind.

And then I came across a new term in a description of another individual whose empire played a significant role in shaping my imagination:

During a peripatetic childhood of material and emotional deprivation, at least as he remembered it, he began drawing and retreating into his own imaginative worlds. That set a pattern. His life would become an ongoing effort to devise what psychologists call a ‘paracosm,’ an invented universe, that he could control as he could not control reality…For all his outward sociability, associates found him deeply private, complex, often moody, and finally opaque. No one seemed to know him.

That excerpt is from Neil Gabler’s biography on Walt Disney. While my childhood was not peripatetic or one of material or emotional deprivation, it was one of emotional angst and some intellectual and moral deprivation as just described.

My imagination developed into a paracosm. It was no longer a simple practice of daydreaming or imagining, it was a matter of travelling to a distant place like a Never Land or a Wonderland. I had a residence there, a home that also served my use of the method of Ioci – I stored memories and thoughts in this place the way one would store books. Accessing information in my mind sometimes involves quietly going to my paracosm, walking into the room where I stored the information and “taking it down from the shelf.”

When it comes to writing fiction, my primary motivation is to translate this paracosm into tangible stories that I might share with others; the way other authors have shared theirs with me. I love retreating into their worlds, but I desire the control over it that I would get from composing my own.

This is where the divide occurs.

I do not want to debate art here. The topic is subjective and far beyond the scope of this piece. What I believe I can state objectively, without much fear of contradiction, is that writing covers a vast range of technical and substantive accomplishment.

For example, one might sketch a perfect landscape – one that captures the detail so flawlessly it’s as though one were looking at the landscape itself or a photograph rather than a sketch. That’s a technical accomplishment. Artistically, as regards the substance, it may be little more than a pretty picture though. Artistic appreciation often involves the application of elements such as palette, shading, balance, and light. If the sketch is flawless but lacks any meaning behind the elemental composition, the sketch may underwhelm.

Writing is the same in that one might tell a colourful story poorly, with no regard for proper writing. We mostly all agree on terrible writing when we see it. Sure, the story has a plot (ish) and characters (poorly developed), so we recognise it as a story, but it’s poorly composed. It might be said to have substance but lack any technical proficiency.

Alternately, a story might have exceptional technical proficiency but lack substance. Imagine if one were to pick up a novel and it read with all the emotional investment, all the gravitas of an IKEA instruction manual. One could say of it that it’s grammatically and syntactically correct, and yet it would not be enjoyable.

One might also say something about the balance of artistic and commercial accomplishment. Clearly, some things are done with a greater sense of commercial accomplishment. The producers behind the project emphasise mass appeal of the final product to achieve a financial return at the expense of decisions that might enrich the project artistically. Sometimes people just want a fun escape though, and a project that focuses strongly on artistic accomplishment may not find a (financially suitable) market to warrant production.

The reason I have been able to enhance my writing ability over the years and lack any product to show for it is the intersection of these two concerns: escapism and commercialism.

First, my interest in the writing stems from my personal sense of escapism and not from a drive to be an author. One might have the drive to tell stories, whereas I feel a drive to tell specific stories. Specifically, I have a drive to tell the escapist stories that get me through the day when the realities of daily life begin to weigh on me.

The trouble begins when writing crosses the line from escapism to work. The challenge then is not laziness, but that same sense of escapism that begins distracting me in a search for a new outlet. The writing, often addressing the very elements that motivate the escapism, becomes so emotionally heavy that my mind begins to cry, “We need an escape.” As I am already writing, it seeks alternatives, “Go read. Watch a film. Listen to some music. Play a video game. Anything – just get into a fictional world right now.”

The usual escapism of my paracosm has itself become the reality from which I am seeking to escape. It derails the progress. Indeed, the current idea behind the novel is a character whose paracosm is under attack from reality when things become so ubiquitously bad that it bleeds over into the paracosm.

Second, though interconnected, is that balance of artistic and commercial focus. Part of me wants to keep things superficial and fun, just an entertaining read. That would relegate the final product to the ranks of propaganda, a story so contrived by the author that it begins with the point it sets out to prove and then manipulates the details of the story to accomplish that feat.

The counterpoint to this is where I try to focus my writing. Develop a central theme in the form of a question. This sets up the story much like a scientific experiment. What topic do I want to explore with this story? Then, rather than beginning with characters that I think are cool, I begin with a list of characters that serve that story. A protagonist whose background and makeup precludes their escape from the plot. They have an investment in the story because the circumstances surrounding that character demand an answer to the question posed. The opposition, the conflict of the story comes in the form of challenges to the question.

In this way (overly simplified), the story grows organically and rather writes itself. My focus as the writer, after exploring the initial setup and understanding the trajectory, is to execute the elemental composition of the story – to understand the characters and plot and to use my craft to move the story along at the appropriate pace.

What is the difference? If I am exploring a subject with the appropriate characters, at any given point there is something that must necessarily happen next. I do not mean to the point of being predictable for the reader, but in the sense that things flow organically and everything logically follows. Poorly written or with a particular conclusion in mind (propaganda), a writer may have to invent the event which pushes forward the narrative. This where one sees things like, most dramatically, deus ex machina.

The problem with my writing is, again, that I am not an author. I am an escapist with a talent for writing that I have worked to hone over the years. The focus of my story is my escapism, and therefore the focus of my story is whatever the current focus of my escapism. As time progresses and reality changes, the nature of the escapism changes and so too does the question at the heart of what would be the story.

Thus, not only am I constantly battling the impulse to escape the gravitas of the writing, but I am also constantly forced to revise the entire project when the central question changes. I might crank out something quickly or with less attention to craft to avoid that problem, but then I would consider the final product to be unworthy of my abilities.

Is this an objective problem? No, much of it relates directly to my personality disorder: OCPD. I have an inherent sense of perfectionism and workaholism.

“Just do your best.”

With anything I write for the purpose of publication, the answer to “Is that your best?” is “No – I can improve upon things.”

The result is a project nearly two decades in the making with no end in sight because of its OCPD author with the escapist tendencies. But at least I’ve become a better writer, right?

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