Even more writing retrospection; or, Fear of Old Stories

There is a piece of music called Reverie by Ludovico Einaudi that I love, but haven’t listened to in over 6 years, until now. It’s a beautiful, calm, emotional piece, that at one time I listened to on repeat for hours. That time was when I was a student, my third undergraduate year and my Masters year, when I was working on a story called The General’s Secret. Friends from that time might recognise the title. I was obsessed with it. It consumed my thoughts, filled my dreams. I have on my computer 33 documents related to this story: notes, manuscripts, scenes, alternative endings, alternative beginnings, character sheets, outlines and restarts. And Reverie was the piece of music I listened to when writing all of them.

Reverie is on Einaudi’s 2009 album Nightbook.

At the time I was writing this story, I was convinced it was a great work, a magnum opus. The emotions I poured into it exhausted me. My obsession with the story led me to make notes about or even write scenes when I was meant to be paying attention to lectures or seminars. I spent time writing when I should have been studying. I pulled all-nighters to get essays done in the nick of time because I’d let the story take over my thoughts, fill my breaks from studying and push them beyond all reasonable boundaries.

In the end I came to the realisation that I had to drop the story, or I wouldn’t get a good grade for my masters degree – or wouldn’t get the degree at all. And when I dropped it, I had to drop Reverie too. The track that had been inexorably linked to the story could derail my determination to study hard.

I can see it in the “last modified” dates of my files. Ordered chronologically, there’s a fairly constant stream of documents from mid 2009 through to 26 May 2011, but then a gap of four months, ending the day after I handed in my MA dissertation. But after that I only created six more documents, none of them long, spread out over the last few months of 2011 and into early 2012: two new starts, three notes documents, one alternative ending.

I was scared of that story for the longest time. I dropped the protagonist and the world entirely from what I wrote about for a couple of years. I didn’t listen to Reverie, and after backing it up on my external hard drive, deleted it from my computer. It wasn’t until 2015 I felt able to return to the world, though the protagonist had changed a lot, and I picked a setting right at the start of her story, long before the events of The General’s Secret. I didn’t look back over my old notes, either for GS or for the other stories in the same world and with the same protagonist. I still didn’t listen to Reverie.

Partly I feared the obsession. If I’d let it get to me, that story could have ended my studies. As it was, it certainly contributed to lower grades than I might have had otherwise; work that I know I could have done better on. It harmed my relationships because I spent my time on that instead of with my fiance and my friends.

Part of it was the fear that I couldn’t write that well without the obsession. I cried when I was writing The General’s Secret. Writing betrayal scenes made me distrust everyone for days after; writing the final departure left me feeling as bereft as my protagonist was. The intensity of my writing experience convinced me that the quality of what I wrote must be incredible. Compared to what I had written before, it certainly felt like it was.

But here I am, six years after the last word I wrote on that project, listening to Reverie again for the first time since then, realising how much utter bullshit I had convinced myself of.

Because it wasn’t a magnum opus. It wasn’t incredible literature. It certainly wasn’t insurmountable quality that I could never even aspire to without also submitting to the obsessive and destructive mindset I had when I was writing it.

I’ve reread it. I finally overcame my fears and worries, and looked again at this story that, even when I was writing about my old stories last month, I couldn’t quite face. That’s how powerful that fear was: even when I was deliberately looking back at old stories to see how far I’d come, there remained a single exception that it has taken me three weeks to get over.

The General’s Secret is a juvenile story with stilted dialogue, contrived plot points, minimal characterisation and a very poor understanding of human emotion and motivations.

Thank goodness I didn’t give up my degree for it.

The reason that I can see that now is that my ability to judge the quality of writing has improved vastly in the last six years. That, I think, it due to a combination of factors: more experience of the world, more exposure to other stories both good and bad, and more practice writing.

But at the same time I can still recognise what I was trying to achieve. The clunky dialogue and contrivances and unrealistic reactions don’t completely obscure the powerful emotions I was trying to evoke. The betrayals, the loss, the realisations, the fears. The problem was that I didn’t have the skill or experience at that time to convey them well. And maybe I still don’t now, but what I do have instead is just enough experience to recognise where the gaps in my knowledge are, and the wisdom to write stories that don’t rely on them.

I won’t be writing The General’s Secret again, I think. There might be something in there that’s salvageable. Themes, worldbuilding elements, names. But not much. I’ve moved past it. My stories have evolved. My writing has improved. But most importantly, my own experiences have introduced me to a whole range of new things to write about. Conflicts I couldn’t have imagined, fears I didn’t understand, and all the beautiful ways that people can be.

And once more, I can listen to Ludovico Einaudi’s Reverie with all the implications of the title, instead of the obsession that I indulged in when I was meant to be studying.

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