Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Building a Sand Mandala

Photo credit: Taylor Clark Johnson, YouTube
Around this time last year, Coyote and I found ourselves spinning our wheels where O4S is concerned. It's very frustrating-- we're in the homestretch! Books V-VI, that's all we have to do, and the series is done. And it’s not that we don’t know how to end it—we do. We’ve plotted the end from the beginning. It’s just the words. They weren’t flowin’.

It’s not surprising, really. Last year, we went through the whirlwind of signing with a publisher, which was short-lived but very stressful. By the time we finished Books III-IV, (ye gods, THREE YEARS AGO now!), I had been through the grinder-- school, taking care of my ill spouse, my own health problems, finances, career upheaval. Now, Coyote is going through a similar grinder—school, health problems, taking care of an ill parent, etc.

I also think one of the reasons we’ve had such a hard time finishing off the series is because—well, do we really want it to end? Of course we don’t. Also, Corbenic, the world of Books III-IV, is our favorite place. How do we move on from that? I’m sure that someday we will, but it’s hard, Ringo. It’s real hard.

And then (speaking for myself on this), I spent several years producing a lot of work. In five years, I not only co-authored Books I-IV of the O4S series, but churned out a novel, a novella, two children’s books, short stories, poems, book reviews, blog posts, and a lot of marketing materials. Burnout was inevitable.

The Oatmeal brilliantly and succinctly captures how the creative process is like breathing—you can’t breathe out constantly. I knew this. Like Matthew Inman, I read a lot. I take long walks. I try to get out and meet new people. I attend art events. I watch movies. All of this replenishes my creative well. But none of these old standbys seemed to be working. 

So we knew WHY we were spinning our wheels. The question was—what to do about it? We tried taking a few breaks—three weeks here, a month there. We wanted to write. But maybe, for our creative health, we should refrain.

That didn’t help, either. Again, I can’t speak for Coyote here, but I know I wasn’t writing anything. No poems. No short stories. Nada. I was tapped out. I needed to find new subjects. I also found myself contemplating who I was as a writer—writing, in a way, is the longest relationship I have ever had. It had always been there for me. It had always been a way to escape—painful childhood stuff, health problems, money problems, bad jobs. But one day, I woke up and found that I didn’t really have those problems anymore. I didn't have anything I needed to escape from. I didn’t NEED writing the way I once did.

It’s not you, writing. It’s me. I have to figure out who I am now. Once I know who that is, I can figure out whether or not we can be together.

Well, I’ve decided that yes, I am still a writer, and yes, writing and I are happily back together. How?

We had a second honeymoon, writing and I. We built a sand mandala, Coyote and I. Those are some majorly mixed metaphors, but bear with me here.

At one point, while Coyote and I were working on Books III-IV, we started playing with what we call Alternate Timelines. It started innocuously enough. In a sense, all writers do it—working out plot points is like standing at a crossroads. You look down each road as far as you can, trying to see if it leads you to where you want to go. Some routes look tempting, but for some reason or other, you reject them. 

Sometimes, those rejected routes stay with you. Sometimes, your mind even coughs up a whole detour, an off-ramp, a total departure from the original journey. 

For us, this happened one day, when Coyote asked me, “What if Alyssa had been born in Corbenic?” The concept fascinated me. And just like that, the first Alternate Timeline was born. We wrote up an outline and have almost 90 pages exploring that idea. 

But that was only the first. We have four other Alternate Timelines, exploring different “What Ifs.” Basically, we’re writing our own fanfic. (I suppose I picked a good time to bring this up, what with the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child fervor.)  

Last February, I thought of a fifth timeline. I wondered what would have happened if Alyssa had wandered into Corbenic during the reign of King James, Leo’s grandfather. Seven months later, we have 125,000 words. That’s almost 500 pages. I’d say the story is a little more than half finished, but it’s really astonishing how quickly it’s grown. 

And you know what? It’s been a blast, it’s been a work-out, it's been a learning experience, and I feel 100% satisfied. Coyote’s and my partnership feels like it’s back in sync. My creative juices have been primed and I’m back to working on other stuff—poems, mostly, and some other projects as well, but it’s too early to talk about them yet.

As we’ve been writing this, the practical part of my brain keeps going, “What are you DOING? You can’t publish this—at least, not anytime soon. What's the point?”

But the pointlessness kinda IS the point, know what I mean, jellybean? This is what I mean by second honeymoon stuff—on one hand, it’s been sheer indulgence, but on the other, it’s allowed writing and me to get re-acquainted. It reminded me that this is why I write in the first place—to amuse myself. To have a good time. If you enjoy something, it should never be considered a waste of time. 

It’s also been a surprisingly spiritual endeavor. We’re building a sand mandala—a rather large artistic undertaking that will ultimately be dismantled. It’s an exercise in impermanence. (We are, after all, dust motes, are we not?) Even if we had written something that could be published, even if it was something that sold millions of copies, our work will eventually be forgotten, swept away by time. That reality becomes very stark when you write something you KNOW no one but you will ever care about.

So it’s up to us to find our own worth, to follow our own paths, regardless of how others may see it.

When we finish, I think, we’ll be ready to go back to the main storyline. Thanks to those of you who've stuck it out with us.

As always, I'd love to hear from you. Please feel free to leave comments/questions below. 

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