Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The urge

I saw this quotation today in a Facebook post by Otep Shamaya:

"If it doesn't come bursting out of you in spite of everything, don't do it -- If you're doing it for money or fame, don't do it. If you're doing it because you want women in your bed, don't do it -- If it's hard work just thinking about doing it, don't do it -- If you have to wait for it to roar out of you, then wait patiently. If it never does roar out of you, do something else."
-Charles Bukowski

Reading this, I realized that I have only experienced the phenomenon Bukowski describes once in my life, and it has been with this book. Never before have I felt like I had to make or do or accomplish something despite all common sense and reason. Never before have I felt like I would be driven insane if I let a creative urge go unrealized.

I don't completely agree with Bukowski's quote; I think that sometimes creative work feels like pulling teeth, not giving birth, but that doesn't necessarily mean the results won't be compelling. Prior to now, I think most of my creative endeavors have been like gardening: planting seeds and watering and watering and watching carefully and hoping to God that something worthwhile will eventually emerge from the dirt. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's usually not very exciting, although it can be gratifying in a quiet way.

I didn't start writing because I've always wanted to be a writer, or because I wanted to have the experience of writing a novel, or because I wanted to make money selling stories about vampires. (Although, if I could make money doing this, I'd obviously be ecstatic.) Nothing about the book was premeditated or contrived or forced.
I started writing because I had an idea that was clawing at the insides of my skull, desperate to be born into the world. If this hadn't been the case, I would have stopped before I was halfway done, I'm sure of it. Writing is a pain in the ass. It's hard. Writing a 100+k-word novel is a ton of work and I am really not the kind of person who would stick it out just because. The only reason I stuck it out was because I had to. The characters were holding me hostage.

This isn't to say that I didn't plant seeds for the story, but I planted them all by accident.
As you might already know, I'm a big tabletop RPG nerd. I love playing roleplaying games, mostly because I love creating characters and interacting with other people in a way I wouldn't do as my own self-- character stats and combat and experience points or whatever are just icing on that cake for me. I become totally involved with creating my characters' back stories and imagining their hidden motivations.

Last year I created a character for a Vampire: the Requiem game. His name was Adam and he was a socially awkward Ventrue.
At first I hated playing him. He was crap at mostly everything he tried to do because I had spent all of his points at character creation on things like the Medicine skill (as it turns out, vampires don't need first aid), and it wasn't super fun playing such an introvert. I almost decided to ask the storyteller to kill him off so that I could start over, but instead I decided to try working on his story and psyche so that I could feel interested in playing him even knowing that he'd probably continue to suck (no pun intended). So I worked on giving my soulless (in V:tR, vampires do not have souls) character some kind of spark.

I'm not exactly sure what I did, but it worked. It worked all too well.

I went from disinterested to obsessed. I started thinking about my character while driving, while at work, while cleaning, while I should have been sleeping... I started thinking about my Vampire: the Freaking Requiem character more than I was thinking about my bellydance career.

What a flagrant disregard for creative priorities.

Soon I came to resent the arbitrary restrictions the rules of the game were placing on my character-- not because I wanted him to be able to accomplish whatever he wanted and shoot lightning out of his fingertips, but because I was sick of being told how he should behave or what he should want by some stupid book.
My character was becoming too autonomous, too independent of my own control, for me to try to impose the rules of the game on him. I tried to make him conform, but he wasn't doing what I was telling him to do any more.
At some point, I stopped thinking of him as "my" character any more, since I'd lost control over him. Shortly thereafter, he started telling me what to do.

This is where my account starts to really make me sound insane.

He started keeping a journal. I was only the scribe; he told me what to write and I wrote it verbatim. I had some downtime at my babysitting job while the baby I was caring for was taking her nap. I'm sure I could have been reading or doing whatever else during that time, but, instead, I let Adam write in his journal. Terrifying vistas of reality began to emerge.
Based on these entries, I started to realize that my initial design for his character was almost completely inaccurate, based on a series of assumptions that no longer made any sense whatsoever. The rules of the game had started to seem less like arbitrary fetters imposed on him and more like vestigial growths full of cancer.
Still, my obsession deepened. I was watching it happen from the outside, powerless to call an end to it. I tried to stop caring about the character-- the level of devotion I'd developed was starting to seem pathological-- but I couldn't. I felt frustrated and at a loss, having dumped so much energy into what seemed like a creative dead end.

In early May, I accidentally found a release valve for all this obsession. In game, my character had just "purchased" an human assistant by means of experience points (yes I know this sounds ridiculous. perhaps because it is.) and I decided to write a short story about the two of them-- just for fun, since the scene wouldn't be something we could play out at the table.
This was either the best or worst thing I could have done. It took writing this silly little story to realize that I could actually just keep writing and not stop --and OH MY GOD I wouldn't have to adhere to the rules any more. I could rewrite the rules! Oh, my God, and I could create an entire cast of characters and a setting and a storyline...


I ruminated on this for about a week and a half. I wasn't a writer, I told myself. I didn't want to spend a whole lot of time on something that plagiarized elements from previously published work, either.
"This is a terrible idea," I said to myself. "It will be a huge waste of time and I already feel totally overwhelmed by my life."
Then, like magic, I suddenly found myself with enough free time to proceed with my nefarious deeds. I lost 3 ESL clients in the same week and I got a sinus infection, forcing me to stay home from the rest of my jobs.
"Well, okay," I said while high on cold medication. "I'll have to start by making an alternate vampire mythology-- otherwise it'll all be wasted effort. But I'm still not a writer, and this is all probably stupidness, so I won't tell anyone about it."
"Fair enough, Sara," I agreed with myself. "We'll keep it secret for now."

I started planning. I found other characters inside my head to become autonomous beings who bother me with their capricious demands. I came up with my own unique vampiresque undead type of thing to write about. At the time, I couldn't figure out what to call them, but I pressed on with the faith that I'd eventually figure something out (which I have, and which I am very pleased with).
Soon, I started writing the first chapter. That was in mid-May. I finished the first draft in late July.

Now-- I can't say whether or not what I have written is "worth anything" or if it is "good" or even "publishable". I put all these terms in quotations not to sound prickish but because they're totally subjective qualities and I'm not sure I'll ever be qualified to make those judgments. What I do know is that I would have lost some or all of my sense of self if I had refused to write it.
It seems totally absurd to say that this, my embarrassingly hack-y first novel-- about VAMPIRES, for Christ's sake-- is the purest and most authentic creative work I have ever produced, but it TOTALLY IS. It came into my brain from out of the ether, as if by magic, and all I had to do was force myself to shut up and write it.

Even if it never gets published-- even if I never finish the editing process (perish the thought!)-- the experience of birthing this weird thing that was clawing at my insides, begging to be brought into the world, has been one of the most meaningful and transformative experiences of my life, and I will always be grateful for it.

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