Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Sword of Stygma and the Upside-down Crown

entry the 5th

10:23am central time zone
putting the address in regular order now, jammies and an old t-shirt that needs to be washed, sitting on my bed using my mom's laptop, my bedroom, the house, the street, the hood, the town, the state, the country, etc.

Spam Count: 0

Much of this post is going to seem self-indulgent, whiney, bitter, and all-around negative. But it isn't. I want you to accept the idea, right now, that I'm not complaining in anything I say in this post. It's all meant to be informative. If you can keep that in mind and try to reconcile it with the crap you're actually reading, cool. If you're not inclined to believe me, then I recommend just not even reading this post. I mean, I want you to read it, but for your own sake don't waste your time.

End of disclaimer.

I got through my slump and am now working on the book again. I hope to start on the first draft soon. Like I said in my last post, there are always snags and complications and enemies to be found in any undertaking. But sometimes the project wouldn't even be possible without the villains.

If you read the first entry of this blog, you know that my villain is Bipolar Disorder. Well, that's where the recent slump came from. My polarity switched pretty suddenly from manic to depressed, and it took me several days to bounce back from the lethargy and hypersomnia, and several days more to recover my balance. Thing is, I wouldn't be able to write this book I'm working on if it weren't for my experiences with this mood disorder. Mostly because the entire trilogy is an allegory for the special challenges of life as a lunatic, but also because my mania gives me the energy and inspiration I use to get the work done.

Honestly, though? And I don't want to sound like I'm whining. But it isn't worth it.

Mania can be very enjoyable. Euphoric. Literally addicting in some cases. And the energy and creativity do provide definite advantages when they're present. And being crazy makes me special.

Even depression has its up-sides, in some ways. Sadness makes you sensitive to the suffering of others. Lethargy makes you think harder about how you spend what energy you do have, which tends to lead to a kind of minimalistic simplicity of life-style and thought that can be very liberating. Given time and experience, the emotional pain of depression quite often gives way to a sort of flat-line numbness, which is abhorent from the perspective of living life as a human being, but in truth gifts me with a sense of stillness and peace that, frankly, can be wonderful. There's a kind of invulnerability in apathy. It's not healthy, but it is useful.

I was in a writing group my first year in college, and I'll never forget this one essay that one of the girls wrote. She was a senior named Laura. She wrote an essay about the leaning tower of piza. The thesis of the essay was that it leans. Like, it really leans. Yeah, I know it's there in the name, and I'm sure you've seen postcards of the tower. But have you been there? Because this tower actually leans. You think you know what I'm saying, but you don't.

And that was the point of the essay. You have to have been there to really understand. I can describe the experience of being manic or depressed fairly articulately. I know the words to use to get my meaning across accurately. But just because you read that and understand what I'm talking about doesn't mean you know anything about it. Not really.

I'm not trying to be defensive, it's just true. Mania? Delusions? Most people will never experience anything like that, and nobody can really say they know unless they've experienced it. You can't fake being delusional, because by definition the deluded person doesn't believe they are deluded. It probably hasn't even occured to them that they might not actually be the second coming of Jesus, or Count Dracula, or Einstein. The "what if" game doesn't even work in this context. What if I believed something really weird that obviously wasn't true? If it were obvious, you wouldn't believe it. What if something I believe now, something I take for granted, is actually a bizarre delusion? That's getting closer, but in your mind you know you're just pretending. That's not the experience of a psychotic person.

And everybody thinks they know everything about clinical depression. Hell, most people think they've been clinically depressed before. But no, just because you were in a funk from the age of seventeen to the age of twenty-one does not mean you have a brain-chemistry imbalance.

And no, attempting suicide as a teenager does not automatically qualify you either. Average people do think about killing themselves. Accepting the painful nature of our lives as humans is not something we're born with, we have to develop it. It's difficult for just about everyone alive to trudge through some of the crap this world throws at you, and if you're not determined to make the best of things from the get-go, it's not surprising that you might rebel against the whole idea of living life at all.

If your depression is clinical rather than situational, you'll be able to tell. A normal person can be grumpy and discontent even if their life is easy and comfortable. Usually the unhappiness is existential. You're not really in pain, you're just constantly disappointed that your life isn't both meaningful and effortless. Whereas a clinically depressed person can feel happiness, can feel everything a normal person can feel, but they're very aware that they can't access those real emotions. When Plath created the metaphor of the bell-jar, she knew what she was talking about. But the glass cage isn't just social or functional, it's internal. Outside the bell-jar are your real feelings and thoughts. You can see them through the glass, you know they're there, but you can't have them.

A clinically depressed person doesn't have to plot or fantasize about suicide, or even think about it. It's there with them physically all the time. It's a lot like the urge to urinate. You might strongly believe peeing is a sin against God, but is that really going to stop you?

Some people come to suicide because they're tortured. For some of us, resisting suicide is torture.

And that's the nature of truly clinical mental illness. The person I really am isn't in pain. I'm not special or different. I'm not quixotic or eccentric. I don't need unrealistically grandiose ambitions to compensate for anything. I don't actually have Asperger's disease. But that's all outside the bell-jar. On a good day, I don't feel frustrated that I can't live the life that is, objectively, well within my reach. On a bad day--especially in the quiet, still, dark parts of the day, like lying in bed before you fall asleep--I wish for oblivion. On an average day, I fantasize about having a wife and kids. A nice little house. A college degree. A job where I sit at a desk. God, I want kids. Always have.

That's why it's not worth it. Even if I succeed beyond my wildest imaginings, even if I turn out to be the next Rowling or Tokien or Lucas, even if I could snap my fingers and be blissfully manic for a whole month, I would trade all of it if I could have that other life. The life I see everywhere I look.

How hard is it to just buckle down and get my degree? How hard is it to just get out there and meet a girl and fall in love and get married and produce offspring? Not hard at all. I'm pretty confident I could achieve those things with less effort than most people. I'm actually really good at school. I have a high IQ. As far as getting a girl? Ha. I'm kind, funny, intelligent, attentive, and--I'm told--reasonably good-looking, too. At least I would be if I shaved, ha ha.

My problem has nothing to do with difficulty. I'm not challenged. The problem is, I'm in a bell-jar, and in here I don't want any of those things. I do not want them. Don't care. Somebody throw me a rat's ass, and I'm good.

Okay, now comes the real point I want to make. I could choose to go after those goals anyway. I mean, I could make myself. It's not like it would hurt. But I don't think it would be right. Can you sort of see what I mean? If I can't give my 100% as a parent, I don't want to be a parent. And that feeling is here with me, inside the bell-jar. That's the bitter but healthy thought that the dementors here at Azkaban won't eat.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I'm going to become a fantasy novelist. Because fantasy doesn't matter enough to avoid, yet is valued enough by society that I might actually be able to get off the ground with it as a career. Plus, books are much more forgiving than people. People see you all the time, on your good days and your bad. But you only have to come to the book when you're ready. And even if you come to it when you're messed up, you can go back and edit it later, when you're healthy again. That doesn't work with kids so much. Probably not with wives either, unless I met a really really patient and understanding girl, in which case I wouldn't ever marry her because a saint like that deserves someone better than a sick freak.

Yes, I am a sick freak. That's the inscription on the side of the Sword of Stygma. "Sick freak" written over and over all down the length of the blade. You can't wield her unless you're willing to say it and mean it, and even then no one would want to wield that sword unless they were stuck with it in the first place. But a sword is a tool, and a tool can destroy or create, and I've got some things I intend to create because I think they might mean something to some people, and because I'm one of the only people who can.

And that, ultimately, is what I'm living for at this point. It's my crown, and it's upside-down because it's a crown absolutely no one wants. Most people wouldn't recognize it as a crown in the first place. But it's completely mine, and it's the most and best that I have, and hey, if I can't be a dad, I might was well be a king.

only very slightly self-pityingly,
fiasco joe

"Build me an army worthy of Mordor."
-Princess Leah

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

the question of evil

entry the 4th
5:11pm, central time zone
alabamordor, hothville, privet drive, minas morgul, hovel under the stairs, invisibility cloak, just slept three days strait

Spam Count: 214

Things never work out as smoothly as you expect them to at first. If this were not true, there would be no novels. What if Bilbo's magic ring had turned out not to be Sauron's Ring of Doom, but just what it appeared at first to be: a singularly useful little gadget, encountered by luck. Or, what if the ring wraiths had never known the name of Baggins, or the whereabouts of the shire? Or, what if, once the hobbits delivered the ring to rivendell, Gimli had succeded in chopping it in half with his axe, simple as that?

What if Saruman the White had remained loyal to Gandalf the Gray? What if the imperial stormtroopers hadn't killed uncle Owen and aunt Beru?

What if there were no villains?

I think this may be one of the reasons why only a few people can pull off writing an epic morality tale. J.R.R. Tolkien fought in world war one, and he wrote the Lord of the Rings trilogy while his son, Christopher, was fighting in world war two. He knew what evil was. In his heart, he had looked into the eye of Sauron, and it had changed him.

Similarly, J.K. Rowling met her Voldemort long before she had the idea for Harry Potter. One of her first jobs out of college was as a research assisstant at Amnesty International. Her department was researching the political situation in certain African countries, and it was Rowling's job to review information sent in from those places. Of course, the information had to be smuggled under the noses of the censor, because many places in Africa are run by fascist dictatorship. So the material Rowling looked at every day consisted of written accounts and photos of police brutality or torture or abduction or execution.

One day, walking through the halls of her office building, she heard a scream. A barely-human wail of terror and pain. A young woman poked her head out of her office and asked Rowling to get a hot drink for the man who was sitting with her. He had just received the news that, in retaliation for his communications with Amnesty International, the government of his home country had executed his mother.

I had wondered why Rowling chose to write a main character who was a boy, when she was female. I had thought she made Harry an orphan because it was an obvious way to win the readers' sympathies. No. It had simply been the closest she could get to representing the truth she knew.

Things are never as clear or simple or free of conflict as you first suppose they are. What if Lilly and James Potter had been death eaters, instead of Voldemort's enemies? What if one of the nazgul had found the One Ring in that cave instead of Bilbo Baggins of the Shire? What if Luke Skywalker had been raised by his real father?

fiasco joe

PS I haven't written word one of the treatment yet, I've been asleep for pretty much all of the last three days and nights.

"Listen, Fezzig. Hear that? That is the Sound of Ultimate Suffering. My heart made that sound the day my father died. The man in black makes it now."

Saturday, July 17, 2010


entry the 3rd
9:34pm, central time zone
alabama galaxy, outer huntsvegas, culdesac system, planet tatooine, wretched hive, walking carpet cantina, just woke up after sleeping for about twenty hours

Spam Count: 111

Hammered out a step-outline for Book One of my trilogy today. Came up with about 25 major scenes, which, according to Sensei McKee, is a little under half what a standard-length novel is supposed to have. That might be a good thing, though, as I'm informed that publishing houses love very-short manuscripts, especially from first-time authors.

The next step in The Process is called a "treatment". In a step-outline, you write a paragraph or so describing each major scene, where a scene is a turning point in the plot. In a treatment, you write a paragraph or so describing each "beat", where a beat is like a turn in a game of chess. The Main Characters make a new move, and the Forces of Antagonism make a move in response. Each beat sets up a new beat, just like each move in chess suggests a new response. Until someone achieves checkmate.

I was never all that great at chess, although I did have this one girl who rode the same bus as me in high school who said I looked like a Russian chess player before I started spiking my hair.

fiasco joe

"Size matters not. Judge me by my size, do you?"
-Frodo Baggins

Friday, July 16, 2010


entry the 2nd
6:17am, central time zone
western hemisphere, north america, united states, south-east, alabama, huntsville, the suburbs, my parents' house, desktop in the main room, in jammies and a t-shirt, no sleep for about eighteen hours

Spam Count: unknown

I try to write a blog entry when I've hit a turning point. I don't know how long it's been since I started building the fantasy world I'm featuring in my novel. I mean this version of it. Let's just call it a week. Oh, but I know how long I've been struggling with the idea. I was a kid when the name for the world came to me. I was in middle school. Sixth or seventh grade, I suppose.

I had just finished reading the first Xanth book, by Piers Anthony. I knew Xanth was a huge financial success. Even back then, that series pretty much filled an entire shelf at the fantasy/sci-fi section of Books-a-Million. Similar to how there's a map of Middle Earth in the opening pages of The Lord of the Rings, Mr. Anthony had included a map of Xanth. It was basically Florida. No, it was exactly Florida. He had modeled the geography of his fantasy land on the state where he happened to live. He had filled it with tropes from mythology and fairy-tales, along with some whimsical ideas that had probably popped right off the top of his head--I could have come up with them--and then he had inserted a self-portrait where the main character is supposed to go, and there was a book. The hardest part had probably been coming up with the frigging name.

A lightbulb flickered hesitantly over little Joseph's head.

One of the only definite memories of middle school itself is one time I was in the library. I was just in there, browsing, and I overheard a conversation between one of the girls' PE coaches and the librarian. The PE lady was holding a copy of The Fellowship of the Rings, asking the librarian about it. "I've heard it's good," she said.

"Do you know anything about Norse Mythology?" asked the librarian. "Because that whole universe is sort of what the author is trying to recreate..."

I was amused and disgusted. Who cared about Norse Mythology? I didn't know anything about Norse Mythology, and I still enjoyed Lord of the Rings. Hell, I ate, breathed, drank, slept, and showered in Middle Earth by that point in my youth. I wanted to defend the books to the PE lady. "Don't listen to this... this... librarian. It's just a good story. You'll like it."

Of course, I said nothing at all. Ever, at that point in my youth. Introvert.

So maybe I wasn't ready to deconstruct Tolkien's life's work at that point in my career, but, by God, I had Piers Anthony pegged. I was going to be rich. I was going to be the youngest published novelist in the history of the globe. I started right away. I drew a map of Alabama. We were studying Alabama geography in Social Studies that week, and I knew it had four basic regions, stacked on top of each other like layers in a cake. I can't even remember what they are now, but that wasn't important. There was a snow-zone, a jungle-zone, a desert-zone, and some other zone. Alabama has four major cities: Birmingham, Mobile, Montgomery, and Huntsville. So I whipped up four cities for my world. I didn't feel like making up a bunch more, so I came up with the idea that all the other cities in this world had been destroyed at some point, maybe in a big war or something. Awesome.

Next I threw in two main characters, the unlikely companions. Unlikely Companions might as well have been the subtitle on the novel I was reading at the time. Mine were a barbarian and a magician. They were young guys, though, just starting out, because that was like me. They were going to be rich and famous by the end of the story, I knew that much.

And that's about as far as I got.

I tried to come up with a bad-guy, but he was too vague to work with. His master plan was pretty much undeveloped, his motives were non-existent. I sort of hit a wall there, only I didn't realize I had hit it. So I started trying to come up with the plot. Hit a wall there too, so I skipped straight to trying to write the first draft. Had a first scene I was pretty okay with. And then the project wilted and died, like the seed planted in rocky soil.

There was a lot I had yet to grasp about novelcraft at the age of twelve or thirteen. Disappointing, I know, but I would learn. I would learn.

For instance, one of the things that makes Piers Anthony's Xanth world interesting was so obvious I missed it for years. It was established on the first page. Everyone in Xanth has one, and only one, magical "talent". Boom. For some, the talent is virtually useless, like creating a large pink spot to appear on a wall. For others, the talent is an X-Men-magnitude super-power. These super-talented individuals are referred to as Magicians, capital M. By law, only a Magician can be king of the land of Xanth.

In the biz, this is what we refer to as a Conceit, capital C. In terms of making up fantasy worlds, Conceit is about as important as Main Character. Or Plot. So, to get around to the beginning, a few days ago (I don't remember how many now, I haven't slept most nights, and the days are a blur) I made the vital discovery that the Conceit of my fantasy world was completely wrong. So I fixed it.

I fixed it, and the planets aligned, and the damn burst, and the whole thing went super-nova. That's why I haven't been sleeping much: I've been too busy desperately jotting down all the ideas created in that single moment.

In interviews and documentaries, J. K. Rowling talks a lot about what was going on in her life when the idea for Harry Potter first came to her (she was on a train with nothing to write with) and about what it was like developing the idea, composing the novel, and then trying to get it published. In fact, that whole story is sort of a legend in its own right. But in one documentary, she actually goes into her files and pulls out all the notebooks and journals and diaries and loose leafs she filled with the ideas that were coming to her when she finally got off that train and back home where she could work. She said she couldn't write fast enough for the flow of ideas, and that she became desperate to find sources of paper to put them down on. Anything would do. Scraps. Napkins. Day-planners.

I felt so envious when I saw that part of the documentary, because that was exactly what refused to happen to me with this novel. Until now.

I've filled what was left of a five-subject spiral-bound with everything from character names to ecosystems to chunks of plot to simple equations describing the dynamics behind certain symbolic objects. And I'm finished now. I know the entire story, and everything relevant about all the main characters. I can tell you anything about my fantasy world from the alpha to the omega. That's why this is a turning point, and that's why I'm writing this entry. It got a lot longer than I expected it to. Grew in the telling. That's how Tolkien put it in the introduction to his trilogy.

I could go on if I wanted. Want to talk about the idea-structure behind Lord of the Rings or Xanth or Harry Potter? Don't get me started.

fiasco joe

PS we could talk about that nerd stuff in the comments if you really wanna.

"Ad Nauseum, ad Infinitum, et ad Totalus Madnus."