52 Weeks of Writing: Week 51—The inevitable rambling on Christmas Eve.

52 Weeks of Writing: Week 51—The inevitable rambling on Christmas Eve.
Photo by Taisha Ellison / Unsplash

Here we are, at last. Not quite the end (that's next week), but this is the date I started writing the original Amnar books, twenty years ago.

Last year, I picked up the manuscripts from their dust-gathering shelves, and decided to spend a year editing them to see if I could shape them into something usable again.

TL;DR: It didn't work out like that.

This is a bit of a review of the year; I'll do the "what comes next" in week 52.

In my own defence, it was a really confusing and tricky year aside from writing. I'd thought submitting the thesis in December 2022 would be a straightforward process, and that this would mean the pressures of the PhD would be sloughed off my shoulders.

Of course not.

Instead, what happened was that I spent January having to re-submit the re-submission for reasons relating to both IT systems and confusion. At one point, I had email chains going with two or three other people asking me odd questions about either the thesis, the submission, or the system itself—which, obviously, I couldn't answer.

But it wasn't just that. Resubmission might have meant that I didn't have the pressure to work on the thesis, but it didn't eliminate the sensation of looming uncertainty around the result of the re-submission. I could, after all, have failed to meet the required standards or needed to do more work.

I was supposed to wait eight weeks for a response from the examiners. In fact, this took a lot longer and I only received the final confirmation of an A1 (i.e., no changes needed) result in May. For five months, I worried about whether I'd managed to do enough to please the examiners. That made it difficult to settle to anything else.

Even during the first part of the year, I was very distracted. I'd say I gave it a couple of months before I realised a solid re-write was the thing.

Problems with the original manuscripts are many-fold:

Bad writing.

Bad plot structure (or no plot structure).

Inconsistent characterisation.

Inconsistent world-building.

This is what happens when you pants a thing. When I started writing in 2003, I only had the barest sense of where this story would go. That was based on a previous draft I'd written way back in 1999, after renaming the imaginary world in my head to "Amnar" after a rather catastrophic hospital stay due to being too anorexic to live.

I also knew nothing of story structure back then, aside from what I picked up from being obsessed with books and films. In the last few years, I've read many books on structure and attended many courses. I've learnt a lot. I've also spent a great deal of time reading with more of a writer's eye, conscious of how sentences, scenes, and sequences are developed.

Once I knew I would need to do a full re-write, including developing a clearer plot, character motivation, and all the rest, I slid back into the hazy world of "I'm writing but also not-writing at the same time". That's been my default state for the intervening eighteen years between finishing the first drafts (2005), and coming back this time last year.

One practical and important note: I didn't set up a sensible, pragmatic strategy where I made myself sit with the text or think about the work every day. I did and do think about Amnar every day, but it's very chaotic and not even slightly structured. My head was and is all over the place, and I'm still figuring out what to do about my inability to focus and resistance to writing.

In early March, I signed up for 4TheWords, which I love and am obsessed by. It has helped me put writing all in one place, given me more enjoyment, so that when I resist writing, I can use the need to fight monsters with words as motivation. Also, the community is amazing and I love them.

In April, I did attempt to start a full re-write. This went... not so well.

Mostly this was down to two things: firstly, I was inundated with marking, and secondly, I was (unbeknownst to me) developing a very serious health issue.

The third thing was that I was just too anxious and scared to continue writing after the April Camp Nano ended. I was diagnosed with iron-deficiency anaemia, which was not fun. It meant I put what little energy I had into marking essays and had nothing left even for the basics of living.

Much of the summer is lost under a bumper crop of marking essays and exam scripts. Then there was also, for me specifically, organising and attending graduation, and the weird cliff post-PhD students fall off when you have to figure out what comes next. 

The summer Camp Nano, in July, went the same way as the April one, but for different reasons. Whereas I had anaemia in April, in the summer, I struggled because I didn't know what was supposed to come next. I wrote a whopping 80k words for a different Amnar novel, but still got stuck.

I've spent the intervening time between then and now on a combination of earning money via various exhausting means, and doing academic work. I gave a talk in November in my department. That's all I have to show for that. I'll come back to what I'm going to be doing next week.

In November, though, something did shift. I'd signed up for the Sense Writing course run by Madelyn Kent in October. That's in its last few weeks now. This seems to be what I've been looking for.

Every time I wrote (and, to be honest, write), I got these intense stings of terror. Not just creative anxiety but almost PTSD-ish symptoms. Freaking out on a level I couldn't control or manage. It happens for both academic and fiction writing. This is what I've been struggling with since 2006.

Sense Writing, rather than being about product (in the sense of plot, character, actual writing), is about process. It's about how you find your way to the plot, characters, actual writing. It's a very slow and gentle process of reconnection that I've found speaks to me in a way no other course has.

Everything else I've done starts with the assumption that you know, instinctively, how to imagine your way to a thing. Now, maybe we do and maybe we don't, but none of these courses even attempt to tackle how we go about imagining. Or what to do when trauma has come between yourself and imagining.

So, to condense the year somewhat, by November I wasn't writing about writing so much as I was explaining what happened in the intervening years.

I've very much kept those years under wraps. Two decades of misery, penury, struggle, and pain during which I often barely made it out alive. It feels a little unfinished, as I haven't yet written about the gradual rediscovery of academic work as a means of surviving in the world without continually falling apart.

I still find myself dealing with a nervous system that very much doesn't want to do anything at all. It's rough. I'm frustrated. I realise that to some degree the anxiety has become about the fact that I have this extreme anxiety. It's self-replicating. It's also constant and affects my capacity to function, on the most basic level.

I still spend the majority of every day in bed, exhausted, for example.

Last night, just for kicks, I opened up the Scrivener archive file with copies of the original Amnar documents and took another look. It's not pretty. Not utterly terrible, but I still think the only way to go is a complete re-write. In the last year alone, I've learnt so much about writing well, plotting, and structure, I do need to go back to the drawing board.

I haven't decided what to do next. I'd love to be able to write fiction just for fun, just for me, but my brain still freaks out at the very thought and I haven't found a way around that. Forcing doesn't work—that's at least one thing I've learned.

This week is that strange in-between world that, if you're not trapped in retail employment, tends to lose all focus and meaning. I've already forgotten what day of the week it is and only remembered when I realised I needed to do my weekly medication setup.

Tempted as I am to make big promises, I'm going to resist. I did that last year and it didn't work. I will be doing an intensive course in writing academic papers at the start of 2024, which may consume all my energy. But then, on the other hand, it might also force me into a reckoning with my nervous system that helps both my fiction and academic writing to thrive.

In the meantime, though, I'm using this as a moment for learning, and setting my expectations low.

For now, or at least, for this week, if you can rest, I hope you're able to. I hope this interval between one thing and the next is peaceful for you. I'm still figuring out how, if you're Amnari, you might spend the winter solstice, especially given it's going to depend on where you are.

Happy Holidays, everyone, and thank you to everyone who reads this rambling. You are awesome, even if you don't feel it.