STIMULUS: Twice before, a book had turned him inside out and altered who he was, had blasted apart his assumptions about the world, and thrust him onto a new ground where everything in the world suddenly looked different - and would remain different for the rest of time, for as long as he himself went on living in time and occupied space in the world.
For a writer, the completion and publication of a story is a shock to the system. Somewhat ironically, despite being universal among published authors, I am yet to find an author who has written a description of the sensation which has properly resonated with me. Weeks, months, sometimes years of sleepless nights, daily breakdowns, and 4am coffee runs, culminating in little more than scratches of ink, stored between two sheets of paperboard. At least on the surface.
For a writer, a novel is so much more: a novel is an expression of your identity, of your beliefs, of who you are, broadcast for the world to see. And once it's out there, people will know. People will read your story, and as people, they will form opinions based on it. Some will like your story, some won't. The issue is that more often than not, as a writer, you'll usually fall into the latter.
Going back to read my first novella was one of the most demoralizing experiences of my life. Filled with simple grammatical errors and uncountable plot holes, I commented at the time that the story was "more hole than plot". I became significantly more critical of my own writing, refusing to hit "publish" until I was confident that my story was perfect. In hindsight, however, I shouldn't have been surprised when others began to think I'd stopped writing altogether.
The Reality of Sisyphus
Trying to write a perfect story is, at best, a Sisyphean task. There was always one more plot hole to patch, one more word to change, one more step in the endless list of edits and error checks. I refused to even allow beta readers anymore, simply because I wasn't happy with the drafts even as drafts. I wanted my first version to be perfect, and my final release to be even better. And yet every day, I would read, I would change, I would come back the next day, and I would find something new to change.
Like Sisyphus, I felt doomed to endlessly roll the same rock up the same mountain for the rest of time: "didn't I say that wall was blue in the last chapter?", "isn't she supposed to be Canadian?", and worst of all, "does anyone even care if I write this?". Constantly doubting myself, I scrapped draft after draft until I finally felt that there was a version I was okay to send to test readers.
This tangled patchwork I called a story recieved the worst reaction from my test readers, ever. I was informed that in trying to patch together a perfectly cohesive narrative, I had torn out the beating heart of the story, and left it behind as I worked. It had become not a narrative but an academic paper, with no colour, no style, nothing to offer to a casual reader. This revelation was even more demoralising, and resulted in dozens of stories-to-be ending up scrapped because of what I saw as an additional hurdle to push the boulder past.
Onward and Downward
Eventually, it clicked with me that it wasn't the story that was changing: it was me. Every day I developed as a person, so my standards, my language, and my preferences changed. I was trying to edit the old me to become the new me, and then taking issue with the fact that yesterday's me couldn't meet the expectations of my future. It was a relief, then, to read the preface of Armageddon Outta Here by Derek Landy, which revealed that he and his editorial team experienced the same process with every word he wrote. He ended the story on the note that he felt almost unrecognisable when compared with the person who started the book, understanding that it was him on a physical level, but unable to accept that it was the same person on a mental level. It is good, I think, for an author to come to this realisation, because it helps understand WHY we write.
The Allegory of the Cave
The earliest remnant of humanity, older than any bones, pots, or burned bread, is a set of imprints, in a cave in Cáceres, Spain. Dating back 100,000 years, the imprints are actually paintings, negative stencils of human hands on the walls of the cave. Stripped of context, however, they could just as easily be the prints of a kindergarten child making their first artwork for their parents. Such a simple thing, yet when looked at on a deeper level, it means so much more. These imprints are considered by many as the part of history that humanity became "more man than beast". We stopped trying to survive, and started trying to be remembered. John Green's The Anthropocene Reviewed makes note of the stencils being found all over the world, sending a message to the future that "I was here, you are not new".
This is the same reason that I believe authors are driven to write. Just as evolution brought the Miocene humans to make their mark on the world through hand paintings, those of us fortunate enough to observe the Anthropocene express not just that "I was here", but also that "this is who I was, this is what I thought, this is what I believed". A novel, many of us have come to realise, is a shadow, an archive, a record of who you were, and what you thought of yourself and the world around you.
To Kill a Perfectionist
Our errors are what make the Anthropocene so amazing. We no longer have to fear for our lives, as the humans of the Miocene, Pliocene, and Holocene did. We no longer look over our shoulders fearing that death will come of any mistake. We still have much improvement to make as a society, but we like to think that we are different to the "cavepeople" of pre-history. Narratives remind us that we are not. They remind us that above all else, to be human is to want to be remembered, and that the humans of the past felt that urge just as strongly as we do today. We may not be new, we may not be the first, or the last, we may be naught but dust, forgotten, forever, but we are, above all, human. And just as a deer is driven to escape a pack of lions, we are driven to do whatever we can to be remembered. Novels are little more than a method through which we can present our assumptions about the world, thrust them onto new ground, pick them apart and put them back together to see how the pieces fit. But that's what being human is.