Two deadlines before lunch

With two deadlines before lunch, I shouldn’t be writing this. Instead, I should be tending to those deadlines — methodically scratching away at the tasks in a way that guarantees both efficiency and quality. I should be working at them — letting my fresh second coffee animate the things I not-so-emphatically call ‘work-work’ instead of this work — the work of expression, the work of release.

But what I’ve learned over these past few weeks — in which ‘busy’ has been the watchword in a way that I’m not at all happy about — is that carving out the time for that ‘extra’ task is what will, in the end, make you think and work better in the long run.

I do journalism and copy writing to earn a living now, and I’m coming on to nearly a year of freelancing with that particular set of skills handy. Other opportunities may be in the offing once the summer is through — and there are some potentially life-changing events set to happen along the way — and of course, the ‘passion projects‘ will always be there; beacons of hope and motivation, of more expression, and more release.

But what this work means above all is that the effort often ends up feeling ephemeral. The work is not solid in any way — it fades away as the article makes its point and does its rounds, or the piece of copy writing is absorbed by the client and put to its work of passing on business information or getting those clicks in. It would be silly to invoke the Marxist idea of feeling alienated from the means of production (it probably borders on offensive for those charged with necessary but underpaid and demeaning manual labour) but there is at least a smidgen of psychological truth to the comparison, I think.

Which is why doing this is important, in this moment, right now. Just like it’s important to read every day no matter how overwhelming things get, or to try and write — not out of some point-scoring principle, but to help tamp down those deadline-shot nerves and fractured perceptions.

Because that’s what the internet — that other crucial tool for my freelance arsenal — has done for us. It has energised, but it’s also fractured and fragmented us. So that the more we’re lost in its morass, the harder it is to get out. You end up working in nervous-mode the whole time, and every day starts to feel like one of Hercules’ labours (yes, the one involving snake heads).

So instead of slicing off snake heads in a futile and frustrating sport, I try to carve out this time instead. In the hopes that it will provide the necessary breathing room to focus my remaining energy in a way that’s free of distraction and despair.

Now, back to those deadlines.

“When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity, lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune for longer than you can help. Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery of it” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book Six

 

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By all means, paint yourself into that corner

‘Don’t paint yourself into a corner’ doesn’t make for great writing advice.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, painting oneself into a corner and then struggling to get out of it is often what keeps the piece from sliding into complacency.

If you paint yourself into a corner, it means you’ve taken a decision and committed to it. It also means that to get out of that corner will require you to execute a seemingly impossible feat of mental dexterity.

And don’t lucky escapes feature in countless of our favourite stories from antiquity to now?

Of course, one never aims to paint oneself into a corner. Corners are not fun places to be, generally. After all, they are a staple of stereotypical classroom punishment for a reason.

If you paint yourself into a corner, it means you’ve taken a decision and committed to it

But the work of writing is fluid and conducive to change. And sometimes, that change is a matter of necessity, not choice. But maybe, that change — maddening and plan-shattering as it may be at the start — could turn out to be the spark that you needed to get your story going in the first place.

It could be that the corner was inevitable. That you thought you were heading out into a green valley of plenty but that in reality, you were stuck in a one-bedroom apartment and bumping your head in the corner of the room made you realise the reality of your predicament and now, how will you solve it?

In the end, neither structure nor inspiration will save your piece. You can believe that inspiration will see you through, but ultimately all flashes of inspiration are just that: flashes. And you can map out your story based on the most rigorously researched schema this side of Joseph Campbell or Robert McKee, but rely too much on the mold and the creases will begin to show.

Some of the scariest and most satisfying moments in my own writing process for MIBDUL came when I realised I’ve locked down some narrative choices early on that will severely limit me later.

But once the initial panic wore off, possibilities cropped up. And the best thing about these new possibilities — which I won’t reveal for spoilery reasons, obviously — is that they did not crop up out of thin air, as new images and ideas rearing for a stillbirth and countless rehashing before being beaten into story-appropriate shape. They were reactions to already-existing plot points and character arcs, and so they came into a world with a shape and texture ready to receive them.

In the end, neither structure nor inspiration will save your piece

Instead of a domestic corner that you’re ‘painting’ yourself into, perhaps another variant of the metaphor would be more useful.

I prefer to think of it as the corner of a boxing ring. A place to regroup after being beaten down, and from where you can plan a fresh attack based on knowledge you’ve just gleaned about an opponent whose strength you may have underestimated…

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Loneliness relief: collaboration & writing

Having slogged three years to write a debut novel – that’s really a novella – I’m finding myself more and more drawn to collaboration as a default mode of planning for and engaging in future projects.

It’s partly to do with wanting a fresh start – Two was revelatory and educational to write, but also a fearful trudge with no apparent end in sight (personal matters which coloured the narrative itself, and others that didn’t, further cast a shadow on the experience).

But it’s also simply down to that alchemy of opportunity and the desire to experiment with different forms. As is the same with most of my generational colleagues – I suppose – experiencing fiction was always a multi-media experience for me: what with cartoons, comics, video games, cinema and literature usually existing side-by-side, and even more so now that ‘media convergence’ is such a blatant aspect of everyday life that even the term itself sounds redundant.

TWO_TeodorReljic

A comic book project of mine is currently on the rocks, but some TV/film based stuff might just take off. Either way, the process of creation for each of these things was markedly different to what I experienced with the novel.

Brewing largely in my head throughout its three-year conception period, Two was as obstinate and unwieldy a draft of novel that you can imagine – perhaps more true than ever in this case, with a parallel narrative structure defining its contours.

The new projects, on the other hand, are being put together in an atmosphere of constant dialogue – quite literally,  plot points and character beats are drafted in conversation (with a whiteboard and marker never too far behind).

I’m finding it to be a great way of busting out of the warrens of endless possibility on the one hand, crippling self-doubt on the other, which tend to characterise the pitfalls of writing prose fiction from scratch. Collaboration both gets you out of your own head to enjoy some fresh air, and forces you to ‘make your case’ to another person at every turn.

Discovering the joys of structure mechanisms for storytelling is also something of a revolution for me. Again, like most people I know – or know of – I was initially sceptical of applying any form of overt structure to any piece of fiction I write a priori. For the usual reasons, of course: takes the fun out of it, ruins spontaneity, etc. Breaking out of that prejudice and exploring these options is proving to be far more liberating that I’d previously thought. But that’s something I’d like to talk about further in a future blog.

Here’s hoping that you’ll also hear more about the aforementioned projects here soon. Meanwhile, click here for all you need to know about Two, including where to order it from.

When it’s late

Cisk at the Newsroom

Working 12-hour shifts at the newspaper gives the night a particular edge, after it’s all over and you slump back home.

The exhaustion is expected, implicit even. But your sleep can’t be blissful: you’re too tired to shower, your brain is stuffed with news stories, with reams of digital copy the likes of which you’ve seen over and over again, week in and week out.

But there’s something democratising about this feeling. All glamour is stripped away after the 11pm mark hits, and you still find yourself at the office. At your desk, midway through a story, or waiting for a report to come in.

When you’re that tired, you should be sleeping. But if you’re deprived of sleep at that juncture, the dream world will seep through regardless. The belt that holds sleeping and waking is unbuckled, and just like that – while still firmly seated at your desk – you’re floating.

That same strange concentration, that same pinching together of thoughts and feelings happens, sometimes, when I write. My novel was probably borne out of just such a moment, and for all the necessary slogging, such moments are what I keep coming back for. What you keep coming back for.

But what you keep coming back to work for is something else entirely.

Which is to say, I need to make more of a habit of jotting things down. Lord knows how many of these fugue states have gone to waste clicking away on Facebook while waiting for a story to be wired in.

We should do our dreams justice.