My science fiction short story, The Thinking Men, deemed a First Class piece of work by my university tutor, was my first First, as I said in my last post.
Perhaps the obvious sequence of events, following on from this revelation, includes a new bout of unmatched, never-before-reached inspiration and focus, coupled with constant results and a perpetual feeling of euphoria. Perhaps I was meant to see this moment as the turning point in the early stages of a nascent writer’s career.
Perhaps, but not quite.
Two further assignments have been required of me in the last two weeks. Both projects falling under the creative writing side of my degree. Considering my recent breakthrough, they should have been a piece of cake, yes? The muse should have been flowing from my brain to my fingertips with the profluence and fluidity of an all-powerful wizard. Agreed?
I do not know what should and shouldn’t have happened in this period. When a breakthrough occurs, perhaps a promotion or new high score or some form of actualization that has eluded the human mind until this moment, what is the protocol? Does everything that has come before cease to matter? Will this new benchmark be the basecamp for all future progress? I wish. It can be very easy, I believe, to achieve success once and then rest upon it. Examples are rife the world over. In the recent film Rush, two Formula 1 world champions are portrayed. One, Britain’s James Hunt, is a man who (so James believes) epitomizes everything that is brilliant about British people; the willingness to stare danger and worse in the face, simply to achieve success. The determination to see something through, whether the tribulations of the quest leave one bruised, scarred, even paralyzed. For James Hunt, winning the F1 World Championship is all about proving to himself and others that he can do it. Portrayed in most scenes with a beer, cigarette or glass of whiskey in hand, James is that sudden rush of fresh wind on a dry day. He is that feeling that anything can be achieved. Impossible odds can be defied and, in that final moment, when this success is realized, there will be glory, happiness, and the human race will acknowledge itself yet again as the most ambitious species on Earth.
Hunt’s counterpart in both his F1 career and the film — Niki Lauder — is the complete opposite. Composed, subtle, and pragmatic. A season is not ‘do or die’; it comes with statistics and percentages. Failure comes replete with a host of its own reasons. Reasons which can, and must, be rectified in order to enter the next season in a better condition. In order to win.
The same principle can apply to any sport, any activity or anything generally. It is a great accomplishment to achieve something once; it is a superb accomplishment and a true test (and, if you succeed, demonstration) of your resolve, to not simply rest on some plinth of success. Consistency is a trait which illustrates the values of a human being just as much as a short stint of drive and determination does, if not more. To wake up for five days in a row with the motivation to achieve something is one thing; to keep this motivation rolling for weeks, months and even years, is wholly another. People often remember the one hit wonder with hints of regret, with faint undertones of sorrow as people recall legends of motorsports, athletics, film, music, anything. In those undertones ever remains the question, what if? Eager, waiting on the tip of everybody’s tongue. Unspoken and yet…palpable.
When the time came, to sit down and begin the first of two short stories, I froze. The idea for this first story was planned vividly in my head. I understood where I wanted to begin; I understood where I wanted to get to. This in itself was slightly unusual for my writing process, as I tend to be a beginning and middle writer, allowing the piece to grow organically, with the ending something of a discovery…a journey. In workshops and seminars a lot of people bring pieces that start well and end a little weakly. When this happens, what tends to follow is a declaration that the writer hasn’t fully mapped out the middle section. The development, the problem, the interaction, the growth. In the last three months, some very powerful openings have come forth. Beautiful descriptions of landscape and creation. Great plotlines have been hinted at. Then, jumping to sections which would end the story smoothly, there have been some truly poignant, well-written scenes; however…if only they knew, and could give us a hint at how that ending was reached, then the conversations, the discussions, the workshop itself, could all benefit. There is a substantial gap in their plots. Ultimately, this is not something disastrous in a workshop. The purpose of the group is for people to analyse the work in front of them and offer one another critiques. For the first time in a long time, I had an ending in my mind. I knew where this story ended before I even sat down. I had the characters in my head, the relevant backstory which could justify the story. I had a revelation for my protagonist and the finale was all floating around in my brain. I had the middle. I basically had the whole story. So I sat down and sought to write it.
The story could be no more than 2200 words long. Not a great deal of freedom to move around in the scheme of things. The story involved multiple themes: exile, friendship, faith and sacrifice. There were family histories hinting at a fantasy culture and asides which would better suit a much longer structure. Once I’d written what could be considered the opening scene, 1700 words had been spent. Sitting at my desk, wondering, I dug out the sci-fi story I’d scored so well on. I read it slowly, carefully, trying to temper myself back into the psyche of this moment of creativity. I studied the pace, the dialogue, the fluidity between long and short passages.
During this lucubration, I stared at my own success, and froze.
This story I was working on, it was too long. I’d figured that already. Partly I was afraid to truly admit this, fearful of the encroaching deadline which waited, only a week and a half away. Opening a new document, I started over. A fresh idea. Same fantasy world, new city. New characters, new themes to explore; hubris, the sibling bond, deception. I finished the story in just under four hours. There were moments when I found there to be humour, moments when, suiting the tone, I felt sad, downbeat. By the end, while staring at the finished product, I couldn’t escape a nagging itch that what I had produced simply wasn’t good enough. Perhaps it was because I’d written so quickly, so smoothly. I realized, finally looking at the word count, that I’d tripped over the wire and stumbled into the 2500 words realm. 300 words needed hacking away. But those words, they wouldn’t go. They were needed. Finally, when I surrendered to the need for this story to be longer than the limit I was under obligation to adhere to, I was close to being a shaking wreck. Two stories attempted, two stories left in a folder. No progress on either assignment.
Where was I going wrong? Again and again, I went back to The Thinking Men, seeming to expect some mystical source to embrace my mind. I waited. I drank coffee, I slept. I read as much short fiction as I could to keep the structural requirements in my head. I pushed down as much of the character philosophy as I could without jeopardizing my style.
I’d won that first title, and in the process of defending it and attaining a second, I was drawing a blank. Again, and again.
The deadline for the two stories was 13th December. That I’m alive to write this is a testament to me eventually handing in two stories I had written which, A. adhered to the specified word limits, and B. I was happy enough with (mainly because I ran out of time…I would probably still be working on them otherwise) to hand in.
Looking back, I wonder if I paid too much attention to The Thinking Men. Continuing success is not simply replicating the first big achievement, I see now. The hard work is necessary more than ever. Your successful assignment, sports season or new promotion doesn’t simply hold your hand once you’ve got it. It sits back and watches you try to do it again, only, this time, you have to trust yourself. Until now, I had been writing hoping to score my first First Class essay; each time hoping what I produced was tantamount to the accolade I sought. Now that I had it, it was all about trusting myself to slowly feel my way through. To put aside the achievement and stumble around again, still with hope, still with fear, but with the extra help of having the confidence in my own abilities.
I’ll find out whether I succeeded in January.