Write Beat Death: Words To Save Your Soul

Writers are strange creatures; we tend to get rather anxious about almost every aspect of the creative process. The first draft, writer’s block, the editing process, our characters, narratives, plot mechanics, writing query letters, writing synopses, submitting queries, and generally anything else that goes along with the whole business. That’s even before you actually get anywhere, and have to vet contracts, sign contracts, manage rights… or you could go down the self-publishing route, where the list of things to get anxious gets even longer: distribution, artwork, typesetting, paper (paper!), design, marketing, promotional activity… sheesh! It’s enough to make you think, why bother?

It’s a more pertinent question than it seems on its flippant surface. Why do we bother? It’s difficult and the chances of any significant degree of success are infinitesimally small; writing – or engaging in any type of creative art – for the sake of generating a degree of success, is the very epitome of a high-risk, high-reward gambit. A very small handful writers (we know who they are, no need to mention them here) exist at the very top of the pyramid; a larger handful more are doing very-well-thank-you-very-much a few rungs below them, and everybody else is stuck at zero degrees of success, or so close to zero that it near enough makes no difference.

I include myself in this third category, of course. I wrote a novel a few years ago which went nowhere. My second novel was published by a small press (and hurrah for that! We take our small victories where we can find them). But I’ve written two subsequent novels that have gone nowhere. I’ve started writing a fifth. Why persist?

Books: unsuccessful

Not everybody is predisposed towards the artistic creative process; artists tend to be more liberal (not necessarily in the political sense, though there is correlation there) with respect to the flow of information, and are more open to new forms and types of information. But regardless of our inclination towards the creative process, it’s quite clear that we are creatures of narrative, and the drive to formulate things in terms of narrative is intensely strong within us; it can make sense of the universe much more holistically than science and engineering as it maps the world (or the universe) as a place for action, rather than merely an area of space identifiable by certain immutable parameters or chacteristics, no matter how complex they are. In my recent thoughts on Northern Lights I spent a few words cogitating on the permutations of the Chosen One motif, and concluded that the Chosen Ones always represent a character being presented with a choice between expediency and responsibility; the Dark Side or the Force; Death-Eater or good wizard; benevolent King or feckless tyrant; or, more simply, “to be or not to be”. Each of us has that choice to make, all the time, but we are moved by the great characters who are in turn moved and compelled to act, and especially to act in the right way, and especially after they have been tempted by some form of expedient alternative.

Narrative thus is a way to explain these psychological tendencies and reach down into the ancient roots of ourselves. We know what we must do. Writing these narratives, then, is surely a more immediate, and intimate means of trying to grapple with these choices. To take it further, writing must be the very act itself of finding the correct path. There is a certain illogical satisfaction that comes from writing, even if we never quite attain it; there is no such thing as perfection – there is only, “good enough” or, “that’ll do.” Strange to think that we pursue something which can’t be perfectly realised – or only does in certain rare instances.

Well, how about this? In The Gay Science Nietzsche proposed that the recession of religion in western civilisation would result in existential concerns (and he was right) as mankind struggled to fill the vacuum left by a Creator God, and which we’re only just starting to be able to reconcile by rethinking ideas of God that align with modern scientific principles. His way of phrasing it was that the veil of illusion that Christianity had provided had been ripped to shreds by scientific rationale, and we were left exposed to the harsh realities of the universe (an idea which a certain Mr Lovecraft certainly picked up and ran with) But Nietzsche said an interesting thing in addition to this in Thus Spake Zarathustra; that “one must have chaos in oneself to birth a dancing star.” Or, in other words, creativity is borne of anxiety. We can’t have the creative process without the existential chaos of life, and the knowledge of our own death. And which we wouldn’t have if we hadn’t awoken into consciousness.

Zarathustra: hairy

Writers are odd creatures, but then so are humans generally. Our wakening into consciousness means that we possess the grinding certainty of our own finitude, which runs violently counter to our own equally grinding instinct for self-preservation and lust for, in the words of Roy Batty, “More Life.” This fundamental conflict is known as Terror Management Theory. The conflict is amplified by our knowledge that it is not resolvable.

We can’t beat the biological certainty of death, but we can override its existential terror by distracting ourselves from it, and we can achieve that state of distraction exactly by considering – and acting out – the narratives that fulfil the idealistic nature of how to fill the time we have. By writing, we simultaneously acknowledge our finitude by creating worlds in which action is all – no character or world is permissible in fiction without a certain amount of agency: even in fiction such as Kafka’s absurd nightmares there is at least the aspiration towards agency, despite its being quashed by external forces. And by representing agency we present ourselves with the recipe for destroying death anxiety; a map of the world that allows us to navigate it in a way that brings the best possible chance of nobility, and honour, and truth. So if you’re struggling with writer’s block, just get that pen moving in any way you can – you might just save your life.

I’ll leave the last word to George Eliot, who says it rather more beautifully in Daniel Deronda.

‘…even if his ideas had been as true and precious as those of Columbus or Newton, many would have counted this yearning, taking it as the sublime part for a man to say, “If not I, then another,” and to hold cheap the meaning of his own life. But the fuller nature desires to be an agent, to create, and not merely to look on: strong love hungers to bless, and not merely to behold blessing. And while there is warmth enough in the sun to feed an energetic life, there will still be men to feel, “I am lord of this moment’s change, and will charge it with my soul.

Little Updates

This week Chris and I managed to record our first podcast episode, and it went really well. It featured the author Stephen Palmer as our guest, and we talked about a great many things. We are still garnering further content for the episode before it can be mixed down, with a release date scheduled for January. It’s very satisfying to have gotten this off the ground, and the discussion with Stephen was extremely interesting.

Also, this Friday I’ll be posting the final two chapters of The Gigantomachy of Antonios Costas, bringing that merry little story to a close. I may well publish a further novella in serial format in the new year, or something else. I hope folks have enjoyed it.

Published by Dan Jones

I'm a science fiction writer and podcaster. My debut novel Man O’War was published in 2018 by Snowbooks, and I’ve had a few short stories published here and there. I also host Chronscast, the official podcast of SFF Chronicles, the world's largest science-fiction and fantasy community. Away from writing I work for the UK Space Agency on a programme of space robotics for advanced satellite and planetary exploration technologies. All of which comes in rather handy when coming up with new ideas for science fiction stories.

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