Just Another Failed First Chapter
I write too much and I hate it.
When you get down to it, the purpose of writing is therapy. As an unfortunately toxic, unfortunately male individual of the species I share a genome with, I’m not good with emotions. For years and years, I thought them as this foreign invader against my psyche attacking my perfectly reasonable mind and distorting my worldview with biases and accusations against imaginary enemies that I never had, whether those enemies be myself, others, abstract concepts, or the idea of existence itself. In the war between the rationality gained through civilised education and the primal anxiety we feel just by virtue of being alive, the mistake I make is in fighting an irrational battle by thinking. I become more miserable by realising what exactly is wrong with me and yet failing to allow myself to feel what I ignore feeling, and so I suppress what I know damn well will never go away, thinking that, for once in my stupid life, civilisation will prevail. A lot of people wage this war. But they aren’t me, they can’t fight for me, and it’s hard to care about anyone who isn’t me.
That’s why I write. It’s like Scarface said — I can’t talk to my mother, so I talk to my diary. You just happen to be reading it. Do you really think, in real life, I radiate the type of animal charisma I braggadociously exhibit in in bits and bytes all across this meagre digital space I occupy? Do you think my opinions are as strongly-spoken to real people with real power to murder me for the crime of saying something they didn’t want to hear? My complaints about human beings come from the anxiety I feel knowing full well the majority of people are stupid in the majority of fields — including myself, I fear, sometimes. This stupidity manifests itself in emotional immaturity and the inability to understand when words are mere words and how correcting someone’s ill-informed opinion is less an attack on the totality of their being and merely a desire to make someone a little less ignorant than they were before. There this pervasive, passive idea that being smarter than someone else is the greatest insult you can give them. So I don’t argue with people. I let strangers be wrong, and let them live inside their little bubbles so long as they don’t affect my life. My opinions exist as mere words, and if you want to be less ignorant, you can read them without my offering.
Sure, there are other perks to the craft. You understand I offer criticism of fictional creations from time to time, but you can think of my whole online persona as a criticism of every little piece of mediocrity we allow into our lives, like a social gadfly who provokes victims of abnormal normality and makes those normies so very upset with me. Even so, words are just words, and no matter how eloquent they are, the best criticism is to do better. Whenever I pored through the shelves of my local library — before COVID-19 hit us all and forced us into pirating our books — I would look at the first page of all the paperback books and see which ones impressed me with their prose, which ones used all the words I liked reading, and which ones gave me the impression that the author was writing to be read rather than as a means to cash a royalty cheque. I read a quote once in some nonfiction book, maybe by Stephen King or Dale Carnegie, that you can tell if someone’s a good writer or not within the first three and a half sentences. And, sure, “I write too much and I hate it” isn’t in the Froge Special Reserve of opening sentences, but it’s functional, and more important, it’s true. The point is, my dearest reader, that no matter how arrogant I am, no matter how neurotic I am, I know as an experience in my existence that I can damn well write.
And, most of the time, I didn’t believe the people published in books can write. The typical response to this statement is to suggest that I, in my arrogance, in my naïvety, don’t know what I’m talking about, because I’ve never published no hecking fiction in my whole gosh-darned life. Am I so stupid to believe that I know more than the esteemed professionals, the college-educated English majors who work in publishing, who trawl through slush piles of manuscripts and offer hopes and dreams through cheques and advances, whose specific job is to determine what books belong in the library shelves us idiot audience members carelessly browse through? I think the question is bad. Not because it’s dishonest, but because it’s irrelevant. All the words I love is what my own eyes can read, and all a diploma gives you is the privilege to be wrong. All the words I write is what my mind will make, and all an editor offers is the corruption of words once pure. Art and business is inextricably intertwined, yet art gets the short end of the stick. Bad books sell all the time, and good books languish in obscurity. There is no rhyme or reason. Nobody knows anything. The best we can do is write for ourselves, and keep treating our words as therapy.
All this said, my worries of making some great work, some great novel, some magnum opus before my death… it all seems silly indeed. I wanted to write better. I wanted to create fiction. I wanted to get all these damn stories out of my head and into an intelligible form so I never have to think about them again. But I write too much, and yet, write too little. Too much concern about the right way to write, too little time spent writing. Too much prose about set dressing, too little plot to support it. Too much dialogue, not enough character, too little, too late, and so the worlds collapse. But when you get down to it, it’s just therapy. It’s about what I want to make. It’s about what I am personally okay with. When I bring forces out of my control into my art, such as what other people will think about it, what an editor will think about it, what the masses who might purchase a novel I create will think about it, it destroys the relationship I have with my work. That’s why so many artists take criticism so personally. It’s not about the work. It’s never about the work. It’s about you, always you, and those critics just don’t understand how much you’re a part of what you make. It’s evil, is what it is. But without critics, we’d be an even worse evil: ignorance.
For most of my life I concerned myself with the commonly-accepted ideas as to what good work is. I have objective metrics to compare the quality of works against each other on the basis of how satisfying the experience in reading them is in both narrative and prosaic forms. There is objectivity in art, and in a vaccuum, art can be objectively good. But we have taste, stupid us for being different, and so one man’s goodness is another man’s evil, and with it, controversy. Sometimes I think I write well, and sometimes I think what I’ve written is absolute nonsense. I compare myself to my influences whose work I find good the majority of time, and compare my work to theirs in an objective fashion. I look at how I innovate and evolve with my rhetoric and the way I construct my ideas. I learned the game. I followed the rules. I wrote, damn it. Even so, writing is an art in which we are all amateurs and where nobody is a master. You can’t solve writing, and although you can get pretty damn close, all you can really do is accept your work is as good enough as it’s ever going to be, and keep on reaching for that rainbow despite knowing it’ll disappear when you get there.
I’d like to think this constant series of intellectual trials, constantly second-guessing myself, constantly considering whether or not what I create is good enough, even in that stupid form into which it takes hold, made me mentally stronger by virtue of being my own worst critic. In reality it’s damaged my psyche and caused me to second-guess every action I take regarding my craft, even the stupid, insignificant actions, and playing back words over and over in my head stops me from doing the most important aspect of writing, which is… writing. Sure, learning more about the art and poring through blog posts and books and critics and TV Tropes and every other armchair expert under the sun will give you the context to correct mistakes you make in your work, whether it be your prose or plotting or so forth. But knowledge isn’t the most important thing to creation. The most important thing, the ground zero of which all creation comes from, is getting past your anxieties and sitting down to write each day knowing full well you are going to fail.
I consider two roads I have ahead of me. The one where I’m placated and produce nothing, or the one where I write while scared the whole damn time. The trick is this: you don’t get to escape fear. Whether it’s fear of failure or fear of failing to fail, you always feel that dread inside you, telling you to do something different than you currently do. But once you recognise your anxieties about writing, or art or whatever it is you so deeply desire to learn, you can understand the nature of those feelings, and then understand how little influence they have over you once you choose to ignore them. If you achieve your desires despite your fear, the fear disappears, but the achievement remains. If you shy away and try to suppress your fears, the fears remain, and you achieve nothing to show for it. Writing for me is fear, and I can’t say how much I’ve achieved. But I do enough to stave off my anxiety, and I get to show this failure for you to look at.
The following excerpt is all that I wrote of a novel idea I had two years ago. I looked at it after its creation and realised it would not be functional. There is far too much set dressing and exacting detail of mundane actions without a smidgen of plot to go around. In my head, any action which is not deliberately spelled-out might as well not exist, and the trouble I have is in understanding what is necessary to exist in a story. For this reason I’m more comfortable expressing myself through rhetoric and opinions rather than actions and expressions, because it’s far easier to write from the outlet of my own mind than it is to describe the going-ons of a fictional world I must create and interpret for every single sentence. But the suffering is the point, isn’t it? It wouldn’t be writing without it.
The plot is about a race of civilised cat people on the Moon under occupation by a foreign space force, as detailed through a single day in the life of an illiterate teenaged schoolgirl with a star shot in her head. The idea is to express the mundane circumstances of imperial aggression and the yearning for rebellion within even the most feeble people. It would be mildly magical and you will never get to read the novel, because it doesn’t exist. If you’d like to read it, fuck you.
The Cat with a Star in her Head
In glass bulbs above streets made of moondust are stars. The warm light of each lamp cover the children Up There, peering through tempered sheets held by weld and magic, a scattershot prism of iridescence and blessings gracing those who looked up, looked down, around each crevice and cranny in the buildings Up There, living in the cities Up There, and were born with special eyes that see starlight and never be blind. The lamps grow vines Up There, drooping down from air to ground in a jungle of flowers and fruit, bursting with sweet juice, falling down into the tiny spot of shade below, waiting to be picked up, squeezed out, and eaten by those children Up There, basking in that bit of cool within the warmth as made by the mages Up There.
The ground is never dirty but is dusty. Each pawprint on the pavement is imprinted, swept away by the next pedestrian, a bit of kickback and fluff the only evidence of being printed. The feel is soft with some crunch, like sand not wet nor dry, and Up There they walk barefoot, or not, depending on the fashion. The ground is above the ground Down There, a blasphemy to gravity, staying in the air from the magic of their ancestors, with the same spark of magic used for the lamps, and the lights, and the vines, and the cities… all the same magic, only in different quantities. There is much magic Up There. It’s their privilege to be there.
There is no weather, and there is no wind. It’s always night, and it’s always cold. It’s always dark, and the stars are bright. There’s no rain, shine, fog, or snow, and the sun itself stays static. No artificial light seeps in from Down There, and the grounddust is opaque, anyway. It’s a little blink in the void between Space, infinitum to the left, infinitum to the right, an endless sky above, and the feeling of permanence below one’s feet. Up There they have stayed for a few hundred years, and they are fragile in the face of infinity.
Up There is a girl named Star.
She’s nineteen and delicate. She sleeps in a blurite bed frame with a foreign mattress blanketed with leaves. Her room is small and spartan, four plasteel slats with a hole for a door and a tarp for a roof. Cloth covers the hole, and scribbles in wax pencil flank it. There are girl things on her lowboy and her dress forms a pile to its left. Her bookshelf is bare, sans her crossbow and bolts, and all is dusty, the floor especially.
She wakes up arbitrarily. City lamps dim at night, the city dins at day. A clock tower bongs every hour from ten to ten. The furry people then walk, and talk, and make arbitrary noises in their arbitrary lives, living them like they have forever to live, keeping on walking, and then sleeping again to do the same. Some of them work and some of them learn. Some of them do nothing. Some of them do things they don’t know why they do them. Technically, they live. Technically, they are alive.
There is no bong when she wakes up. Her eyes open like shutters, and she is heavy. Her left side, always, heavy in the mornings, always numb, always been slept on since four years of age, for the right side is damaged and painful. Her paw rests on the cool frame and the rest of her under the bedding. Her other paw under her cheek, she blinks, she keeps blinking, then lets her jaw slack open in a groaning yawn. Always heavy on awakening, even her face, even the taste in her mouth.
She does this routine when she wakes up, often broken. She grips the leaves on top of her, and pulls them to the floor until there’s a mat. The morning cold then wisps her white fur, ruffled, for she sleeps in only boyshorts. She makes a small scream, a little vocalisation, enough to wake her up a bit, and pushes her back to the wall against her bed. With care, she then rolls to her tummy, closes her eyes, feels for the leaves, and begins the process of clambering down a foot. She clambers until the floor and her are one, and she is careful, for she is heavy, and the floor is less soft when you fall.
This routine she does, and it is done this morning.
She lies on the floor and mumbles, she spreads her paws, off the leaves, onto the moondust and pats it a little. Her paws dusty, her body not, she remembers how silly this is, to have dusty paws, and gives a little giggle, just a little one, to herself, to nobody else, in this moment before she meets family to eat. She sighs stoically after this, a bitter thought in her that she should be tired, and so she becomes tired, again. She lies for a little bit, blinking, and paws at the dust.
Then it will get under her claws. And she’ll twitch a bit, upset at the stimulus, in her head and her belly and other stupid parts of her that feel bad for no real reason when the dust is under her claws. She’ll moan and get angry, she’ll frown with her teeth together, she’ll exhale and grumble and scrunch her face up like paper. All this causes her pain. Small pain. The emotion she loves to hate.
The pain is not part of the routine but is a convenience to her to tell her she is alive, awake, and is here, today, to live again, to live. Even if she does not think this, she knows this. It is embedded in her head.
In this pain she will get up sometime. She’s quiet now, her eyes roll to her clothes pile, and she smiles, just a little smile, at how lovely her clothes are and how stupid she is to, every day, throw them down there, all filthy, and have to wear them every day, for the clothes are lovely when they’re not in a pile, and they look beautiful on her, she thinks. They keep her warm, she thinks, as chill explores her back, legs, paws, tail, and everything else she likes about herself, even if she doesn’t like the cold… for it is cold, and with cold, is pain.
Her inner skin, that stuff under her fur, gets at her, and little shivers tell her, Star, that if you lie there, long enough, maybe hours or more, you will die. Maybe of hunger or thirst. Maybe of cold and ice. Maybe someone will come into her room, shoot her there, and she will cease to be. Either way, she will die. And it would be a shame, she often thinks, to die when a girl like her has so much to live for, even if it’s just herself. So she should stop her from dying.
In her frustration, in her little fears where her heart beats a little more, where the dust makes her mad and the chill makes her cool, she stops pawing. She moves her arms under her, and pushes herself to her knees, straight up. She sniffles, and some fuzz goes through her head, little flecks of white against black on her eyes. She yawns and rubs her frontpaw on her thighs, on her belly, on her other frontpaw, then claps them as she looks up towards the cieling, wondering when she’ll have herself a roof and not a tarp, a little glass something she can see out of, but without so much light, so maybe she’ll keep the tarp anyway.
She looks at her right paw with one eye squinting and her head tilting side-to-side, her mouth slack as her thumb checks under her claws for dust. None. She closes her mouth and smiles, her arm raised above her, her smile turned into a yawn, and smacks her mouth as she gets onto her fours, shoves one leg under her, then pushes into the ground as her body, through her muscles and bones, lifts up, both legs coming straight, until she is upright on top of her leafy bedding. Her arms rest on her head after this, and she stretches her spine, with little packs of heat flowing for just a moment, her sighing out some more.
In a second, she is cold again. She shivers with some twitches, and she spies wide-eyed with mouth agape towards her clothes pile. She takes a step —
Poof. Her hindpaw is dusty.
She makes an “mmrp” sound and steps back, rubbing it on the leaves. She moves it slightly, moves her head down, and sees the newborn filth. A little biege on a bit of black, and the shade is now discoloured. Her eyes widen some, then relax. She thinks it’s only dust. It’ll beat out. But her heart beats a slight bit fast, and in her head, she feels a little rush, a black stream of shame, to see such something so lovely, made from nature, made ugly because of her.
She whimpers, looks around her room, back at the clothes, at the floor, looks up, then breaths in and blanks her mind. If only she could run to them. Outrun the dust. Touch air without ground, grab everything she wanted, and then run. To just run, endlessly, to run, not to fly, but to run, towards nothing, to run. To feel her heart beat and know why it does, to have it go without bursting, to feel something in this way, that effortless speed, with just everything behind her, in a way that is fearless and natural and is all that you could want in life, to run.
She shakes her head and snaps back to her pile, frontpaws rubbing each other on her chest, back straight. She blinks, and defocuses her eyes. She makes a low-pitched whine, and stares at it. For three seconds, she stares, feeling nothing.
Her eyes focus again. She takes a step. Another one. Two more. One last step.
She is at the pile. Her hindpaws are dusty. She does not care.
She looks to her lowboy’s corner, reaches to grab it, and kneels without her knee touching the floor. With her paw she ruffles around the fabric, looking at nothing as she feels around, little fabrics between her pads, tiny fibres under her claws, her smiling as she sighs a wavering pitch. She holds the corner tighter, picking her favourite feelings, all fabric she knows not the names but are exotic, throwing them above her shoulder to nowhere.
A black dress fluffy inside smooth out. A knit sock with two yellow stripes. A fake, long, black shirt. Another sock. And a white collar, attached to it a yellow clip-on bow. All durable, all foreign. All she has worn many times before, for she had stopped growing when she got them.
She hummed, lifted herself, and turned behind her, then pouting. The big pile became two small ones, and the smaller one is deconstructed. She puts her paws on her hips and leans over a tiny angle. Her clothes are disrespected and disarrayed. Her dress looks wrinkled when its laid out in a crumble. One sock is facing a different direction from the other. She ponders at the floor, and thinks the pile provides ignorance, the floor provides clarity, and she’s not providing a safe space for what she wears. In this way, she feels shame again.
With the lowboy as support, she crouches to the floor, on her knees, scooping each thing up. First the fluffies and then the softs, and then the smooth and then the less-smooth. Her small pile is now hers, and standing up alone, she grips them all, hugging them, her cheek on the fluffies. She doesn’t know what. They’re all fluffy, to some degree, the same as she is.
She tilts her head sideways in a wink, and her eye peers her bed. The leaves at the bottom make her lips pucker, for they’re lying there, and she’ll have to make them not there later. But she walks there, looking down, looking for things to trip on and deciding not to trip, and with each half-step she’s there in ten steps and not five, and this is the maths she knows.
She drops them on the mattress, and they sink a tiny bit. She scratches that hollow point below the chest and above the navel and it tickles her, but she doesn’t laugh, as she ignores the touch of cold with the touch of her, feeling nothing. She scratches around her, yawns again, reaches for the bed, pats down on it, then puts her weight on it, turning around, and sitting.
Her knees are dusty. Her hindpaws are dusty. A lot of her is dusty. She looks at the new patches of stuff on her lower limbs, and raises her brows. She cares.
She slaps at them, scratches them, disrupts the grime and dirt and particulates amassed over a few seconds of her existence, digging them out and getting her claws musky, the matte spots ceasing to be as she makes anonymous noises with her mouth and her paws and the friction of getting tiny pieces of stuff out of her white hairs. After this, her heart cools down, and she sighs, as these parts are no longer stained, but they have been, and this makes her frown.
Her hindpaws are no longer dusty. Her frown becomes an open smile. A stupid grin, the most sincere of grins.