I inherited my love of reading from one of my older brothers, and naturally – like a lot of boys – gravitated to the allure of fantasy.
Reading The Lord of the Rings as a 12-year-old was as close to a divine experience as I’d ever had. It wasn’t just the story, although there’s enough in that to inspire awe and wonder. But what overwhelmed me more was the history this world contained – a history that spanned millennia and was imbued in every bit of geography, motivated every character, and contextualized every event.
One of my issues with storytelling is when it feels like the story, or the world in which it takes place, didn’t exist prior to page 1. It’s just a lot of stuff thrown together, a hastily constructed hodgepodge that is impressive if you don’t delve beneath the surface but, if you do, it unravels spectacularly.
The Lord of the Rings inspired me to write – to not only want to tell stories, but build worlds in which these stories unfolded.
I handwrote my first novel, the first installment in an intended fantasy tetralogy, when I was fifteen across two A5 exercise books. Staying up late every night, I would juice myself up on tea and write and write and write, my left-handed cursive deteriorating from messy to bare legible to unreadable. But I fell in love with the process – creating the story, but also finding out more and more about it with each word I scribbled down.
I rewrote that book first on a manual typewriter, then later (as a 137,000-word manuscript) on a PC – this is when PCs were just becoming home computers. But I had no idea what to do with it. This was a world pre-internet.
But writing was something I was good at – whether the words are any good is open to debate, but the act of sitting down and making myself write is something I’ve always been able to do.
I wrote another standalone fantasy epic that was 261,000-words long. There were short stories, and screenplays, although with the screenplays I tended to bounce around between ideas, always gravitating to something that was more appealing – well, until I taught myself to stick to one project until I finished it.
During this time, I battled mental health issues periodically, endured five years of agoraphobia, and wasn’t sure how to function in the world. But with writing, I always felt like I had some command of my life, and that made me feel worthwhile.
When I sit down to write something, I know I’ll finish it – that’s not a boast, but just a muscle I’ve developed from years of writing. It becomes a habit so ingrained that it’s indistinguishable from everyday necessities like washing, eating, or breathing.
I’ve learned that whatever I’m working on may not always excite me, or engage me, or even be attractive to me; I know there’ll be times I don’t feel like going back to it, that there’ll be times I hate it, that there’ll be times I want to erase it from existence. But that’s just part of the process. It’s not meant to come easily or magically any of the time, let alone the whole time.
I’ve also learned that I should always be evolving, should always be getting better – an epiphany completely oppositional to the quasi-epiphany I had decades ago that I couldn’t get much better than what I was writing back then. That’s the arrogance of inexperience – the belief I knew everything. Now I openly profess I know nothing.
Sometimes, that comes with crippling self-doubt. Is what I’m writing any good? Does it make any sense? Will people like it? Maybe it’s all terrible and I genuinely have no idea. Maybe this is why (and I don’t say this self-pityingly) I’ve only experienced underwhelming success (although, to be fair, that’s the best most writers accomplish).
I used to write thinking it would lead to recognition and money (or at least enough to live off) – that’s the naivety of inexperience. But when I was struggling to get published, and when I did and that level of success didn’t happen, I searched my motivations, and beyond all the window-dressing realized that I write because I want to tell my stories.
Still, there remains some element of ego.
I always believe whatever I’m working on will be THE ONE that catapults my writing into rarefied air – the strata where truly great writers are heralded, and which schlubs like me can only fantasize about (and fantasize about delusionally – I’d like to think I’d be noble but humble, but would likelier be an idiot).
When that doesn’t happen, my focus goes to whatever I’m working on next.
And then after that.
At some point, habit becomes obsession.
And obsessions becomes all you have left.