It’s six in the morning and I’m wide awake. As tired as my body is, my mind is already running in circles. It’s a writer’s mind whatever else might be said about it – the little scribbler scurries over the thin threads that droop from the uneven corners of my life frantically trying to draw together the fraying strands. The web it attempts to weave has a familiar shape, but it changes every day. Battered by fear and unwelcome facts, diminishment and disappointment, the shroud of narrative is woven again and again.
Sentience is an eternal search for narrative and meaning. The joke of it is that this struggle takes place in an entropic universe otherwise devoid of both. I do not mention any of this to deepen the gloom I suspect so many of us sometimes feel, but rather to look at the root of the problem and hopefully, by sharing, find some answers.
Our capacity to create narratives is both a blessing and a curse.
When David Copperfield speculates on whether he will be the hero of his life, I think he expresses something that’s fundamental to all human beings, but can be particularly sharp to people who find their lives centred on the creation of narrative. That those preoccupied with creating stories should get caught up in the idea of being part of a story themselves is perhaps inevitable. You show me a writer who’s never felt depressed or disappointed – that humdrum reality needs the extra shine they can find in their own imaginations and I’ll find you a tap-dancing purple unicorn…
“Not now, Clippy, I’m trying to make a point! Is that sequinned jacket mine? I told you last time! You’re stretching it out!
Who left this pile of rainbow poop on the rug?!”
The premise I am stumbling towards is this: Human beings are natural story tellers and story tellers have a tendency to expect life to make sense – it often won’t.
There are even times when our need to make sense of things will abstract us from what is actually happening. How many of us spend more time faming that perfect picture or phrasing the perfect anecdote than actually experiencing the moment we are in?
But the story gets me through
Naturally, the acknowledgement of the value of the stories we tell ourselves has to come hard on the heels of any warning against them.
Sometimes it’s only the dream that sustains us, but as people who work with narrative and understand the allure of stories, it is worth being mindful of the difference between inspiring hope and false expectations, between experience and fabrication.
It could hardly be argued that any of this is unique to writers. Stories have a capacity to sustain people when they would otherwise long since have collapsed into quivering mounds of emotional jelly. I do wonder, though, if the potential for disappointment with life doesn’t increase in proportion to one’s capacity to imagine something better (or in the case of those of us who suffer from anxiety, something worse).
Following your dreams can be a delicate balance between giving up at the first hurdle and running on air Loony Tunes style.
In recognising our vulnerability to narrative thinking we need to recognise the risks both of unrealistic pessimism and in deepening despondency when our expectations do not line up with our experience.
It’s important to not let go of the dream, but not cling too hard either.
I know – easier said than done. Particularly if you have invested much of your self-worth and sense of accomplishment in the stories you tell yourself. Pursuing a creative path can often require that you develop a hide thicker than the original manuscript for War and Peace, yet somehow maintain enough sensitivity to register the danger signs.
Things can get tough, you’re not alone, go easy on yourself
I can’t speak for everyone, but there is something a little voracious at the heart of my need to create. There are moments when I think that if I had any sense I would probably have packed in the writing game some time ago. In a world where people expect their entertainment spoon fed to them for free and are so spoiled for choice that fifteen minutes of fame can sound like an eternity, writing can be a thankless task. The thing is, and again I’m only speaking personally, there really isn’t much of a choice – nothing else is as fulfilling and the times when I have tried to suppress the urge to write have only left me even more unhappy.
But how does one deal with the gulf between our hopes and the reality that we are not at the heart of some great narrative? You won’t always get the girl or guy and sometimes failure isn’t the prelude to redemption, but yet more disappointment.
Stop expecting it to make sense and live in the moment.
Don’t blame yourself or worse others if nothing works out like you feel it should; above all, try to avoid the narrative that you are someone’s victim. Remember that the meaning has to come from you and you can’t impose it on the world any more than you should allow the world to tell you who you are. Work for the love of the story you are telling. Success lies in doing justice to your vision, not in the recognition your work might garner. You may or may not be the next J K Rowling, but so what?
Above all do not demand too much of yourself, the race is with your own shadow – writing certainly isn’t a sprint and realistically most of us little turtles aren’t going to make it to the wider ocean. If you can, enjoy the ride, it’s a bit of a cliché, but a writer’s life really has to be more about the journey than the destination.
While talking about the trap of setting your sights on fame and fortune I think it’s also worth saying a word or two on the misguided, but very human, tendency to resent the success of others. I’m sure every one of us has thought “why them, rather than me?” about some writer who gets their moment in the spotlight. For our own sakes we need to let those resentments go and recognise that if there is anyone on the planet who can understand how hard it can sometimes be to carry on it is other writers. If you are lucky enough to know some fellow travellers then the opportunity to support each other is something you should seize with both hands. Writing does not have to be an entirely lonely experience and it is not you against the world – though I know it can sometimes seem that way, that’s a story too and not one worth being part of.
“Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid, some heart once pregnant with celestial fire”
It is entirely possible that your light may never get out from under its particular bushel. Perhaps you will always be in the wrong place, at the wrong time… close, but cursed with a lamentably empty humidor. This is where the struggle really lies: acceptance. It’s easy to call yourself a writer when there is praise and recognition, but the true test of any commitment you might claim to your art lies in being able to believe in your work even when no one else will. To see its real value.
I should hasten to add that this is not about being insular or tone deaf. None of us is beyond criticism or error and any act of creation is implicitly about bringing an idea out into the world (where it may end up belonging to others as much as you). At the end of the day the trick is to keep sight of your vision without being consumed by it, to move with the world without missing a step in your own dance.
So, your work may not change the world, it may not make you the hero, rich or famous, but it is an expression of humanity, whatever corner of that vast continuum you inhabit. At its most pure your work is part of your acceptance of self, offered to the world with hope, but no particular expectation.
To sum up
I suppose this is the point where I’m supposed to synthesise all these concepts into a meaningful conclusion. A sound bite we can take away and add to the long list of platitudes that line our mental shelves – to be taken down only in the event of doubt.
It all needs to fit together after all, doesn’t it?
The capacity to find meaning is humanity’s saving grace and if we’re lucky it is something we can share with others; the trick is , perhaps, not to get hung up on a single story but rather to understand narrative as an ever changing matrix and that life is usually a step removed from how we imagine it (for better or worse) – we are not anything as simple as heroes or villains, always right or always wrong. There may be no rhyme or reason to what we live through and no one in the audience but ourselves, but the good news is every morning brings the chance to start a new tale.
Toby Bennett works and dreams in Cape Town, South Africa.
His writing is primarily fantasy and horror with the occasional digression into science and historical fiction.
His stories have appeared in several anthologies and many of his novels can be picked up in the Kindle store. Audio versions of some of his work can also be found on YouTube.
When he’s not writing he can be found roleplaying, gaming… or simply staring into the abyss – so far the abyss hasn’t stared back but he lives in hope.