Call me (socially) irresponsible
I spent over a year chasing an idea. It was going to be my second novel and it felt like a good one. It felt like one worth fighting for. It changed no end as I worked on it. Characters altered. Whole plot lines came and went. To a certain extent, even the core message became something different. It so completely took over my writing that I now have over 100 pages of offcuts from it, let alone roughly the same in frustrated notes. I barely wrote anything else whilst I was doing battle with it. I couldn’t. It wouldn’t let me. I had to get it finished. I had to get it in front of other people. I had to prove all the work had been worth it.
Last week, I put it in a drawer.
And that’s not easy to tell you. Even now. Even after I’ve started to move on. There’s a part of me that still wants to go back and finish it. Only, I don’t think I’m ready yet. Or that’s what I’m telling myself. Maybe just to give myself a handy alibi.
So, why did I bring this up here, beyond the act of public confession? Well, I’ve come to realise that the thing which made this story hard to let go wasn’t all the work I’d put into it or even the other ideas I’d let slide to focus on it. No, this was story was hard to put down because I was finally trying to say something about society. Which feels incredibly important right now.
We’re living a world divided by fractures. There are fault lines opening wherever you look. Regardless of what you believe in, I don’t think there’s any getting away from it. Conversation has turned to screaming. Worry has turned to anger on one side and fear on the other. All of it fuelled by a sense of righteousness that is very possibly blinding us all. How can we not talk about that? How can we not address it? Well, this idea felt like it was my chance to do just that. So, why did I drop it in the end? Well, maybe because it was driving me insane. Maybe because it was too hard. Or maybe because I was afraid of where it would lead me.
For the record, any of these reasons make me feel like a coward.
Now, I don’t claim to have a political mind. Whenever I try and debate something I eventually just cave into shouting and storming away. It’s a very human reaction, but it solves nothing. It has made me wary of treading on the political discussion landmine. I’m not sure it belongs in my stories. I’m not sure I’m capable of the level of discourse that’s required when you start stitching modern social commentary into fiction. The thing is, though, this story felt a step in the right direction.
My first novel, Something Needs Bleeding, tried to deal with the concept of horror on a personal level. It was about how one person processes horror, how it changes them. It looked at how the damage it causes within them can change the stories they tell the world. The second novel was going to look at how society copes with horror. How we channel it and choose to ignore it, particularly if we can benefit from it. It was going to look at corporations and where we put our faith, both in religion and technology. Only it never quite got there. The first draft turned into some sort of tacky road trip, barely skirting the issues. When I realised I couldn’t simply tighten that up, I pulled it apart and tried again. And again. And again. I have broken it down and rebuilt it so many times, but it’s just not working.
The whole process was made so much worse because, as I struggled with restart after restart, I could see things in the real world were getting so much worse. It felt like I was in a race with all the bad news. It felt like I had to keep my head down and beat the political chaos to the finish line. It was not a productive way to write. You lose sight of what you’re trying to do. You lose sight of what your work is capable of doing. In the end, you lose sight where you started. All in all, it was a nightmare for me.
The only silver lining was that it helped me to believe that any form of sincerely created art should be capable of starting a discussion about our social situations. Whether it’s TV, movies, paintings, photos or books, I think a decent, heartfelt attempt to capture how the world affects you should get other people talking about it themselves.
(For the record, all of this makes me cringe. I only started to think of my writing as having any artistic merit over the past year or so and it still makes me deeply, deeply uncomfortable. I already have the beard and glasses. I own some brightly coloured shirts and patterned boots. Sometimes I catch myself thinking ‘Well, if the cliché fits…’.)
Still, for all of this, turning my back on the second novel hasn’t been easy. I know this story won’t change things but I feel bad for not trying to make some sort of a difference. I feel like I’ve turned my back on a responsibility that should have been more of a privilege than a chore. It’s just that if, I finish it now, I know it won’t be the story I set out to tell. I’ve overthought it. I’ve overcomplicated it. I’ve broken it apart and stitched it back together so many times that it just won’t hold its shape anymore.
This week, I’ve managed start writing a new story and it’s great. I mean, it’s a little ridiculous and it’s talking about something very different, but it’s the first time in ages that I’ve loved writing something. It’s an interesting idea and it’s talking about something that I really want to talk about. It’s just, at the same time, I don’t want to let the old idea die. The files are all on this computer. They’re only a few clicks away. I could go back to them right now, if I wanted. I could read over my many pages of notes. I could pick those characters up and dust them off again. I just don’t think I can face it. Not now. Not yet. Not until I’m able to process my own problems in such a way that they don’t block the story. Not until I can write the story without forcing it. Not until I can walk past someone reading a newspaper and not have the headline make me want to dive headfirst into traffic.
Which is why, when I’m ready, I’m going to go back to it. I am. I promise you, because I think I need to tell that story one day. I need to talk about how much the last two years have messed up my own personal compass and I need to do it with a clear head and decent intentions. So, I’m not burying it forever. I’m merely putting it away for now. When I’m ready to take it out and take another run at it, you’ll be the first to know.