Once upon a time I rode a train through the Rocky Mountains with my family. I think it was before I had started college. For long spans we passed nothing but scenery. Occasionally we would stop at a town and disembark for a couple of days. Eventually we arrived in Vancouver. It was a series of starts and stops, a journey with intermissions, like alternating beads strung on a necklace. Taken all together it’s a journey, but experiencing the individual moments was the alternation of being somewhere, and then being in between, nowhere, a rolling limbo…..
Inside this limbo I find myself stuck with myself on a seemingly endless series of starts and stops, only ever half arriving.
When will we arrive at the end?
BUT FIRST, A CONSIDERATION: Perceptions Of The Artist
There is a tendency to reflect upon genius and ask what role their mental health played in either helping or hindering the end results, whether it be art or science or whatever field of endeavour they had applied themselves to. It has been suggested that without a bit of craziness some truly monumental shifts in thinking wouldn’t have been possible, and that pioneers in art and science couldn’t have broken free of constricting and conservative patterns of thought, i.e. patterns that society regards as being taken-for-grant and every-day-commonsense.
What normal people might call sanity…..
Artists in particular are amongst those often depicted as being susceptible to manias and depressive troughs, perhaps schizophrenic and struggling with reality, and many are alcoholics, drug takers, hedonists and bohemians. People who are typically associated with anti-social patterns of thought and behaviour; free or alternative thinkers, morally ambiguous and just a little bit…. well, mad. It suggests that a certain level of madness is required to bring forth novel visions.
Who knows, perhaps such tendencies lie at the root of our departure from being just another ape and the beginnings of culture itself…..
But I digress, my point being simply that there is a perceived connection between madness and art. Yet beyond a simple connection, perhaps the question that lies behind it is not whether the madness makes the artist, but rather if the artist finds their madness in the making of art? Do they only crack under self imposed pressure to create?
UNDER PRESSURE: Perfection and Impatience
I put myself under pressure. I’m a perfectionist. What is the result of this? Seething frustration. I’m also an impatient person. I want to be further down the line than I am, to be at the destination already. The end result? More frustration.
And so overall I am unbearably bad tempered; I can snap and be intolerant, I don’t have time for bullshit questions while my work seems eclipsed by the neverendingness of the domestic chores that have to be done every day. Then it feels like the people around me are on my case which only makes it worse. They want to know why I’m so damned irritable, short tempered and obtuse.
It often appears to be hard for people on the outside of the process to understand the pressure that I put myself under, and worse is dealing with the way it warps reality, inch by inch every day. In my mind I see it like this: when I do something, it has to be done right, and that extends into the artistic process. I write, I edit, I write again, I edit again. Like a sculpture it builds in layers towards a finished result, constantly being worked over and over towards a state of completion.
So just as I see the destination, where the process is heading and I want it to be done already, I load up the manuscript to be faced with imperfection and the knowledge that all the work I have already done is only a fraction of what needs to be done. Just like the train entering the station it feels as if the closer we get to the end of the journey, the slower it is going. The train is slowing and slowing, and as it does so all I want to do is get onto the station’s platform, the end of the journey. So the impatience builds.
By extension there is the question of what underlies this impatience? Is it the knowledge that there is so much more work to do after this book? This effort to write one book is hard enough, and I’ve got a damned box of stuff on the shelf that wants to come to life! Then there’s that sense of mortality creeping up through the years. As I get older it feels like years have passed and here I am still complaining to all my faithful readers that I haven’t got anywhere. And it would be nice to actually earn some small income so that I could pay to get a few things fixed up around here……
Other pressing concerns certainly include a precarious feeling when it comes to my families living situation. Our original plan to live in a yurt was supposed to be a short term affair, one that would allow us to get our finances together, but instead its trapped us in a new dilemma. Without my extra income there’s no chance of getting free from the situation. We can only live our ‘alternative’ lifestyle thanks to the patch of land we rent from my folds, and now my father’s retiring there’s a real possibility that my parents will have to sell up and move to a cheaper situation. The complications of this burns in my subconscious all the time, and so the vicious circle comes around and around: the pressure goes up, it feels like I’m not getting anywhere, and the pressure goes up because I feel I’m not getting anywhere……
It’s a constant, baseline stress that makes me such a moody, short tempered and negative bastard. It effects mind and body and begins to recontextualize day to day life as something that is an unending struggle, as a constant pointless attempt at getting anywhere, that life itself is passing every day while I’m standing still, that time is running out even as I watch my boy growing up so quickly…..
What doesn’t make it any easier is that I am bound by my artistic temprament to write what I am writing, to write something that is actually going to stand the test of time, that will be treasured by the fans who are like me, lovers of fantasy.
LEGACY: Suffering For Your Art?
So, perhaps you can see why I posed the chicken and the egg question at the beginning? As I grappled with the work of writing, and wanting it to be true to my vision, I feel I am struggling against myself. It’s not healthy for the mind. In regard to the train metaphor, it’s like being in the dark tunnel, then suddenly emerging into the light of relief.
The tunnel, of course, is only as long and dark as you make it. But why? Why do that to yourself. There are times that it seems like people make a virtue out of suffering, and there are those that suggest that I could have made life easier on myself by not writing something so damn complex. The irony is that I was attempting to write a more straight forward tale, to do just a basic introduction to the world and the characters. Yet it still came out as something complex. But I don’t think it’s the complexity that is the problem – the structure is all there, the narrative works – no, the problem is the final form, and as I am am making this world come to life I want it to be as perfect as possible, to be an offering to the genre I am compelled to write within.
See, I love fantasy. I want to contribute something worthwhile to it, just like all those classics that I loved so much over the years, to be like the classic fantasy authors who made it into the Masterworks collections. That takes effort, it takes an exertion of pressure on oneself artisitcally, not just to make a living but to make a legacy. Under that pressure I imagine that I’m turning the base carbon of words into something like literary diamonds, something that’ll stand out, something that’ll stand the test of time so that when you re-read it two, five, ten years later it’s still as enjoyable as the first time you picked it up.
So surely it’ll be worth it, right? Or perhaps it’s nothing more that an appeal to vanity? I guess time will tell. For all the perception of being nowhere, I am actually somewhere in this process. We’re closer to arriving than departing, and while I’ve got a new set of problems to deal with, I just need to reapply myself without losing heart or succumbing to the feeling of just getting back into bed. After all, we’re on the right track to be done within a reasonable amount of time: it took some of my favourite authors two years to get their books together. Thinking back it’s been a year and a half, so I’m doing pretty good (and some of that was part time due to child care).
And doing work like this blog helps to unload the burdens that surround me as an author, so for those who keep reading this blog, I’d like to thank you. It certainly acts as a pressure valve; once it’s done and posted there’s a sense of relief and gathering momentum. It’s another inch closer to arriving at the destination, another step out of nowhere and on to somewhere.
UP NEXT: We’re gonna have a little talk about getting on board the hype train. The results of which may very well determine the first steps in publishing.