I adore my characters, but at times I’m exhausted merely by the thought of getting into their heads and hearts. After months of daily immersions in their story, I’ve felt more than ready to spend some time relaxing in my own.
Jenna St. Hilaire writes at some length in “The Real Writing Life” about the attendant frustrations of writing. We write, she says, in tears and blood, exhausted nights and drained emotions. We write—like we live—through pain.
Artists of all stripes have a cynical bent, and that whispers, or shouts, or, worst of all, reasonably argues from empirical, rational data that life is a lame joke. Writers, says our cynical bent, can create the greatest literary masterpiece, forge it in their souls, but still be reduced to become literary Fuller Brush men (or women), pandering and panhandling their feeble manuscript in a market so saturated that if it were diluted 80 per cent, it would be oversaturated.
As usual, our cynical bent is factually right. But not all right.
What our cynical bent misses is that two things can be true and not be in contradiction. My writing doesn’t matter. My writing does matter. The end. I’m writing.
The cynical bent is nonplussed, and starts gabbling about the law of non-contradiction. As soon as I start listening, I’ll stop writing. I can choose, however, to remain in happy oblivion of the law of non-contradiction while be aware of it, and keep writing.
Writing is hard work. Writing fiction is harder, in many ways. There’s a different kind of exhaustion for each kind of writing. Academic writing, for instance, leaves my physically exhausted and somewhat cranky. Fiction leaves me emotionally exhausted and somewhat cranky. That’s not precise, but at least the cranky bit’s persistent.
It is a challenge, and a great one, to inhabit the emotions of your characters, to interact with their lives. Especially when their lives are books unwilling to open, and you don’t know what just happened to them, or how they feel. Or—far worse—you know exactly how they feel and can’t for the screaming life of you put it into words. ‘Chester felt sad’ isn’t an inspiring sentence, unless you’re about two-years-old.
Then, as Jenna darkly reminds us, there’s the persistent peril of the Man on the Street—not Creepy Stalker Guy, for which you can request a restraining order, but the General Reading Public. They may hate what you’ve blethered away your life trying to create. As Tolkien wrote just before the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring, ‘I have held up my heart to be shot at.’
Is it still worth it?
Conventional wisdom (Ouch bad, Spa good) says no. But something inside us—something that keeps us standing outside after dark in hopes of seeing an unknown star, of finding a new planet—says, ‘Rubbish—I’d be doing this and loving it even if all the facts in Europe were raining on my head, and on fire.’
Even when we’re sitting in tears at the computer, feeling just like Chester ourselves now but still without a word for it, that something is dancing on a mountain in a thunderstorm.
But a simple bravo-chin-up-old-chap does little to console us.What, Jenna asks, should we say?
Perhaps “Just give it a try” is not answer enough for someone who wants to survive the process and remain human. Maybe we need something more like “Make an honest effort. Keep polishing, keep a healthy respect for the opinions of others, keep hold of your vision for the work, search for truth and kindness in your words, hang onto a sense of humor and a life outside writing, and remember that success is ultimately beyond the control of any one person. Also, you’ll need all the courage and humility you can muster, so work on those.”
Although deeply, resonantly true, that sentence, Jenna admits, is ‘long and awkward.’ In the time it takes to recite that, we might forget all about Chester and start getting interested in Jerund, who’s coolly battling Slavering Verisimilitudes in the Bungee Wood. Perhaps a distillation of the above would be:
Be British. Every man for himself.
But the sinking ship allusion is a bit gloomy for an aspiring writer. And that concept certainly wouldn’t work for a collaborative project. So perhaps, in those moment where we’re stuck with and feeling like Chester, we can mutter through the saltwater trickling through our clenched teeth
Exit the cogwheel, enter the pear.
But what does that mean? For pity’s sake, I don’t know. It could be stage directions, or quest instructions, or a band name, or a poem, or anything. But when your creativity is dancing on clouds and you’re stuck at your computer, you need whatever you can get. And it’s random enough, just slightly bizarre enough, that it just might work.
It did for this post.