To become a slave to the story

Sometimes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. My intentions are to write, to write well, to produce a story other people would find at least entertaining, inspiring at best.

Writing a story is hard work. It is more than simply sitting down and typing random letters and words. What storybuilding is is an impossible mesh of rigid planning and most chaotic improvization.

Hard work is all you need to make your ambitions into reality. Who hasn’t heard this one before? What they forgot to tell you is that it takes something else as well, something I’ve learned the hard way.

December 31st, 2015. The deadline I set for my current WIP novel, Tribes Asunder. It looked to be an easy goal in the middle of the year. It looked doable even in November. And by December 30th, it felt like I did it. Then all it would take was a month or two of proof-reading and that would be it.

The lies we tell ourselves and believe.

True, the writing part was done. That didn’t mean the process was finished or even close to completion. The story was finished but the manuscript was a mess. I understood what was written on it but others would not. Getting the story on paper was just the first part.

Not that I’ve never been here before. I’ve finished stories before. I’ve editted them before. But it feels as if for each project I learn the same rules anew. In a way, this is a good thing. It means I’m not wading into too familiar waters which would make it familiar and boring. and the process is always fresh. Each story is its own endeavour. Sometimes, having a gold-fish memory is a blessing. With each story, I felt like I’m writing my first and only piece.

So January 2016 came and I happily went into editting mode, ticking the editted scenes away.

Around April, the going became slow. I thought I was just getting lazy so I pushed myself harder. But this time, the cheerful abandon wasn’t working. My social life began to suffer as well. I found it harder to stand being in people’s company while at the same time yearning more for it.

I’ve been in this place before but I failed to recognize it. That bloody gold-fish memory again.

Short winter days, crapy weather, laborious day job and spending the last reserve of mental energy on editting, a wholly ungrateful process where progress can’t be measured in word count… All this led to full-fledged depression.

It took a friend to point out how tired I seemed and how uninterested I was in just about everything. He suggested a trip and the moment I heard him say the words, I knew it was something I had to do. So I went to Vienna and spent four days doing nothing but walking through a new city, speaking a language I barely knew. By the time I’d returned home, I realized how exhausted I truly was. It took another music concert and a dancing festival to begin to appreciate human company again.

I’ve overestimated myself. I believed hard work would be enough. But I’m not a machine, no matter how much I want it. Even the most dilligent people need time to recuperate.

When I look back, it seems perfectly clear. But it wasn’t clear at the time. It was as if the story had put me in a trance. It stopped being an inspirational project. Instead, it turned into an energy parasite and it had slowly drained the creative juice from every other part of my life.

The story should have been my project. Instead, I became its project.

I’d become a slave to the story.

Realizing this, my first reaction was anger. I felt like I’ve wasted precious time, wasted a portion of my life.

Well, not entirely wasted. Against the Tribe, a novella that serves as a companion to the already finished Tribes Asunder, is finished. There will be corrections, of course, adding bits, taking some away, the usual mop-up, but it’s there.

So no, it wasn’t a waste of time after all. Through it all, I’ve learned much about myself. I realized there are limits, that I’m not as perfect as I would like to be. This year, I’ve worked on developing a healthier social life. I lowered my expectations of people. I was too harsh with everyone, including myself. Finishing a story takes time, I shouldn’t be taking that personally.

What is the lesson in all of this? Don’t fall into the trap of believing your story is more important than your life. Always take time for family, friends and pursuits other than writing. As with everything, you must set up your boundaries and refuse to relent when temptation comes knocking. How can you hope to benefit from your story if you cracked your psychie like a glass of water in the process?

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