The double-edged sword of being a writer is a neverending duel between two emotions: feeling great and then terrible or vise versa. Once you feel you’ve produced something good or even great, you’re faced with rejection which can cause doubt and inform the future of your work. Despite dismissals, you keep creating for the love of expression. Maybe that’s a triple-edged sword, if there is such a thing. This notion has been the subject of many conversations I’ve had with other writers as of late, Heather and Will to name a couple.
Just yesterday, Heather sent me a link to a recent lecture with Neil Gaiman on how stories last, and I’m grateful she did. Gaiman brings up many historical examples of how stories lead to the advancement of society and relates each to how stories span time. It’s a beautiful, funny, and poignant piece that’s truly worth your time, whether you’re a writer or not. Considering that you’re human (I think) it is very relatable and if you enjoy reading, then it will be especially so. I’ve captured a part of what Gaiman said regarding escapist fiction that spoke to me and inspired this post:
We [writers] decry too easily what we do, as being kind of trivial — the creation of stories as being a trivial thing. But the magic of escapist fiction … is that it can actually offer you a genuine escape from a bad place and, in the process of escaping, it can furnish you with armor, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better. I doubt there’s anybody who loves reading who hasn’t at some point gone to a book, sometimes when they’re young, as a means of escaping from an otherwise intolerable situation … and you know what, it’s a real escape — and when you come back, you come back better-armed than when you left … This is what we learn from it: Stories are worth risking your life for, they’re worth dying for. Written stories and oral stories both offer escape, escape from somewhere, escape to somewhere.
What is true and relatable about this part of the lecture is that we all have had to and will face an ordeal or two in our lives, and the tools to overcome hardship and doubt are all around us. Having been a child of divorced parents with a few stepparents along the way and yo-yoing between homes, I can tell you it can take a toll. There were times where it was defeating and isolating but I had to grow thick skin. Other times it was enlightening and beautiful, but those times are harder to remember. Recently, in my adulthood someone asked me, “How are you so strong?” I honestly didn’t know what to say, but I know now. The answer is escapist fiction. Stories like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Number the Stars, The Hobbit, Stardust, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Rat Queens, I Kill Giants, and many more all have built a strength in me that I channel when I need it. Songs even come to mind. It’s like how meditation gives you tools to use later and it’s exactly the magic Gaiman describes.
What he says above, I know to be true for me. Escapist fiction is the genre that has helped define my past, present, and likely my future. I have furnished my own armor through the stories I have read over my life and it has guided me consciously and subconsciously. It has had such a profound effect on me that it inspires a desire in me to write as well and help others build their own armor.
Back to the triple-edged sword-I’m the kind of writer that struggles with doubt. Doubt in my abilities, in the effectiveness of my stories, and the interest people may or may not have in them. It’s a pretty constant feeling but to tell an emotional story, you have to have emotions so using that doubt becomes key to my success (that’s the hope anyway). What Gaiman says about writers decrying their pursuits as being trivial sums up exactly how I feel most of the time. It’s a strange inner battle that I think a lot of people face who are and are not writers or creators. I think it’s something to do with our humanity, that we know we make mistakes, we know we’ll learn from hindsight since we can’t see the future, we know that there are no guarantees in life, etc., so we take pause and let doubt in in an effort to seek alternatives or rather, in fear of success and/or failure. Walking that line of doubt is akin to walking a tightrope that’s secured between two skyscrapers. I suppose to combat doubt altogether requires some mantras:
1. “Stories are worth risking your life for, they’re worth dying for.” ―Neil Gaiman
2. “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” ―Maya Angelou
3. “The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.” ―Mary Catherine Bateson
4. “Artists use lies to tell the truth. Yes, I created a lie. But because you believed it, you found something true about yourself.” ―Alan Moore, V for Vendetta
5. “Stories are a communal currency of humanity.” ―Tahir Shah, in Arabian Nights
6. “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” ―Frank Herbert, Dune
There’s really much, much more to Gaiman’s lecture and I invite you to listen to it on the site, The Long Now Foundation, as they played host and moderator. There’s a part where Gaiman speaks about the use of animals as characters—how it forces us to look through another pair of eyes, realize others exist, and ultimately how this act creates empathy which is just another gift fiction offers us. Continuing to read and/or write fiction is another way to combat the doubt, by forcing ourselves to escape our own minds to gain perspective.
Before I spoil all the parts of the talk, I guess what’s left to say is, thank you Heather for sharing this lovely piece. Thank you Neil Gaiman for your insight and storytelling abilities, and truly, if I could hug all the sound bites and the lecture as a whole, I would. Thanks go to The Long Now Foundation as well.
I hope you enjoy the podcast as much as I did!