The Evil Net of Low Days
CALEB JOSEPH WARNER
I am in the wake of having finished a small writing project and this is always a depressing place to be. Is this fundamental to the process?
I do really feel like everything I try to do turns into sand. And this isn’t just me being sad about having written a first draft with problems. Because when I write a first draft, it is the first product of a process that has taken months. Some people figure out while they write and then do about twenty-four drafts. I think about the story for a month or seven months, write an aggressive outline, and then plug in what was lacking in the skeleton. I have explained this all before.
But the one thing you cannot get down in an outline is the ending. The ending must always be pitch perfect. And you cannot ensure a perfect pitch during the concert solo if you have only practiced before going up on stage. You can plan the world over for a knock-out performance, but unforeseen things happen. We are caught in an evil net. You could get sick. Heck, you could die!
What really happens in a story, however, is that the story gets away from you. No matter how much you outline, when you throw down a thread that thread must always be connected or get cut. Pieces of the outline render themselves unconvincing in the light of what has been written. And once all the pieces have been laid down, there can only be one single way to end the story. And it is never what you had outlined.
The other problem that I have noticed is that even if you feel at home with the themes and symbols chosen, you will nevertheless seek to discover how those symbols interplay while writing. The urge to discover is irresistible, but it must be squashed. You must squash the urge to discover by abusing the dialog of your characters into pondering what this experience or that experience might mean in their lives. A philosophizing character will be the end of us all, especially if it is the crazy wife who up to that point had nothing but inchoate and obnoxious things to say.
Oh it’s all just vanity and vapor. I have been reading John Steinbeck’s journal he was writing as he worked on East of Eden and it has been the best book on writing indirectly I have ever read. But in it he maintains the orthodox doctrine of all beginning artists. And that orthodox doctrine, the foundational doctrine of all writers, is that they write to get at the mysterious and get at the impossible and get at the unseen. And it takes sweat and tears and an ambition and drive and pursuit that is always threatened by the natural, perishable things. But even in his forties, Steinbeck still had that urge. It is the beginning urge to capture the visions in your head. But the visions are not just some image or some plot or some character. It really is—and this is the orthodox, eternally pretentious line—a mysterious thing. It feels inside the brain like a textured, embedded thing. And the only way to get at it, to carve it out, is to write the story.
In this past story, I was trying to capture some vision of the eternal melancholy I get in the autumn months. Bound up in that is how I recall my childhood and how I recall the midwest and how I recall belief in God. I cannot tease these threads out but by writing a fitting end. And I failed to write a fitting end to the story. Yet again as Steinbeck said, you can only hope that some of that vision ekes out. If you’re lucky.
All that said, today is a low day. And everyone has those and there has been no discernible failure or sin on my part, except for the partial desire to wallow in this feeling, for it might justify future failures. As it stands now, I aim to maintain a long-ago kindled fire of joy. Meanwhile, I do feel like a failure who is not good at communicating or having conversations, who will not get into an MFA program even though he tried and who should maybe stop writing because it all just turns to sand.
What has compacted this depression and sense of inability is that the next story I was supposed to be writing just sounds like a complete joke. A complete and utter joke. I don’t want to write it. “But you don’t have to!” you say. Oh yes I do, I reply, and it is only a matter of time before I get a whole pile of ideas for the world building.
Until then, I am waiting for something beyond my control as the story ferments. I cannot just drum up the material necessary to make the story feel full and alive. But this is one of the longest processes. To think of the story and let it develop in your mind. I am depressed about it, because I see now how little thought I actually have put into the story as I sleep and eat and roam about the world.
The sad thing is that I need to tell it. Don’t ask me how or why. The additional sad thing is that I have the creeping suspicion that it is going to be a cataclysmic failure on par with the failure of my absurdist novel that took me eight months to write that seems to have gotten me nowhere for it is full of the most insane and inane elements combined since Francois Rabelais’ brain farts. And with this next story, how and to whom am I supposed to justify the scene where giant monsters battle each other? Someone perform deep exegesis on this and justify me.
But that is the temptation always, to undermine the natural force of the story by saying, “It must be explained outright in words other than the story.” I must resist this. The story is justified by the coherence. And the coherence is what makes the ending perfect. Now if only we could harness these forces and place them in a jar inside the chamber of our heart, that would be a real achievement.
The other reason why I feel depressed perhaps is because this week the task at hand is to not work on anything creative, but rather to write statements of purpose and take my driver’s test and edit old stories. When you add up these three things you get me sleeping in until noon. Would that this work involved grueling through a new story. But for now that is not open to me, for the time now is for foment and doing all that I have avoided, which is to look at the failures of my past foments. And to be appalled and to move on.
So let it be. Let us chart our course for the sun and pray for those who have real troubles and wake up early in the morning before the day grows evil and we stay in our apartments and we give up when we sense some dark we have to walk blindly through. What is this darkness for? It is not something that comes upon us. We are always walking in the darkness and it is only the moments when things seem to be alright and clear that we must fear. But that is why we have the light given to us, so we can be the lights in the dark place and the dark place is the perishable earth itself and these low days that number as many as the days of our lives.
We are all caught in an evil net. May Chewbacca cut us out.