The demon at the crossroads

(Note: I don’t usually content-warn for specific blog posts, but this one contains a lot of reflections on suicide – not as something I want to do, but what it means to me, as a person who has been suicidal and still has suicidal thoughts, so it rather merits a heads up.)

I’ve been experimenting with how much design I can do without actually paying money for upgrades. As it turns out, a fair bit. Not as much as I want, but more than I thought, as long as I’m armed with Photoshop and Font Squirrel. I didn’t quite realise I could carry over so much of my developing design skills to the web; I don’t know why it took me so long to realise that I could make my own header. So expect more changes and tweaks, because it’s really quite addicting. One day I’ll have the money to either learn how to make a website from scratch or pay for the upgrades, and then I’ll really have fun.

And since I’ve been updating my resume and designing business cards (I’m starting to find myself in positions where I need them) well, new domain. I dare say it’s a better investment than an Ever After High Maddie doll (and cheaper, at least here in Australia). The thing that really makes me smile is the new email address I created through having said domain – finally, I have a gender-neutral professional-resembling email!

(There’s not much to see on my Port Carmila site, if anyone noticed it … yet. Why, yes, I may be editing a bunch of older short stories and turning them into ebooks. I may be writing this so I therefore have to go and do it. Accountability is awesome.)

Where have I been?

I have done something this year I said I was going to do – not many of the things I have to do, mind, but something I wanted.

My novel (working title Something They Call Glory) is finished and has been handed over to Emanuel Cachia of Error Proof (I’ll add a link when his gorgeous new website is up) and Julia Kyle of Havering (many resources for the Australian author) for their thoughts, opinions, feelings and improvements. I have written a full-length speculative fiction novel where all three narrating protagonists are trans (trans man, trans woman, non-binary person), where most of the supporting cast are non-binary, transgender, queer and poly, where the main character is a non-binary person who uses gender-neutral pronouns, where two protagonists suffer mental illnesses (and are heroes anyway), where one suffers chronic pain (and is a hero anyway) where the vast majority of the sympathetic supporting cast are female (to the extent that most characters with power/ability to take action are women or non-binary folk), where the two children are a queer cis girl and a trans girl (both of whom know they’re queer and trans respectively), where the mentor figure is a butch intersex woman, where the main paring are an asexual man and a kinky pansexual person, and where the plot is incidental to all of the above (save one character’s disability).

I really hope that paragraph is enough to convince the world that this book needs to exist. I don’t know of anything that takes a mainstream fantasy plot and serves it up with a goodly helping of trans inclusion by dint of making every narrator trans (and often some other form of queer). Sure, I know of mainstream fantasy novels that include trans characters (well, a couple) but they’re mostly supporting characters, not the outright protagonists. I know of mainstream fantasy novels that deal in gender-neutral pronouns, but mostly in aliens, fantastic ‘other’ cultures and AI … not human people, in societies not so different from ours, who look binary gender in the eye and know it’s not theirs. I wanted to create a world where trans people are romantically and sexually desirable (passing irrelevant), where gender can actually be pretty damn simple (you are what you say you are, end of) and where mental illness can be spoken of, diagnosed, acknowledged, treated and managed on the path of one’s becoming a hero.

This novel matters so much to me in terms of providing the kind of heroes I should have been able to read as an eighteen-year-old, and I hope like fuck it matters to someone else, because it pains me to know that I live in a world where I am not deemed worthy of being a hero – hence my intention to provide as many different kinds of heroes in the one book as I can. (Well, except for cis men. You can hear the depth of my sorrow, I’m sure.) Strong women of all kinds, strong people, strong slightly-unconventional families who love each other to pieces, strong crazy folk, strong queer folk, strong poly folk, strong PWD folk. Most of whom aren’t white and are of migrant heritage.

Now you know where I’ve been for the last few weeks. No apologies.

With any luck I will get it back later this year, not be faced with an insurmountable list of things to fix, and then be able to start sending this book around to agents.

I want this book to be accessible – by which I mean, on the fantasy shelves at Dymocks or Minotaur – because the eighteen-year-old me, who devoured every fantasy novel I could get my hands on, should’ve been able to pick up a book and find people like the person I’d discover myself to be in the narratives that made me cry and laugh and feel. I know that’s not going to be easy, and I know society and the publishing industry by its nature make this more difficult than it should be, but I have to try, which is why I’m wrestling with my anxiety to start this journey. Some days I can tell myself that I’m a good writer, that I’m better than some people who are published, and that has to help – and some days I wonder why the fuck I’m even doing this, because who the fuck am I to decide that I’m better than anyone or that I’m the right person to write this book?

Because I will tell you: I am fucking terrified.

Those strong people in my stories? I don’t feel like I’m one of them. Even though my strong folk are in fact people who struggle with depression and anxiety and fear, even though my main character would sooner attempt suicide than be a hero at one point, I still feel like a weak, broken, craven chicken in comparison, and this is the point where psychologists the world over give me that patented therapeutic look and quietly ask why I need to be so unkind to myself. Those four words are spectacularly awful ones. They are, in fact, words my characters have uttered and have begun to overcome.

We know, as creatives, that not everyone is going to like what we do, but in our heart of hearts many of us are insecure people who desperately want everyone to love our art because one tiny criticism (or a few) means our art is therefore worthless. Our handling of our message can’t be powerful or compelling enough if people despise it, right? If people aren’t willing to take a risk on us, we therefore must have failed to say something meaningful? (Oh, oppression, how much I hate thee.) I know I’m not the only one that feels this way – most of us just don’t admit it, and that’s actually far more problematic than the insecurity itself. It means we anxious, silenced-by-ourselves creatives have to somehow soldier on in a world where we not only fail to be okay with the fact that people are going to hate our art, often for reasons outside our control (like, say, being an oppressed minority) but we fail to pretend to be okay with it. What the hell do we do then but curl up in our cave and tremble? Why do we have to operate in a world that sets us up for failure just because we happen to be a little more plagued by doubt (and for minorities, for people born in the world of monsters, how can we not have that doubt and anxiety?) than is permissible to acknowledge?

Real bravery, the kind of courage that makes for inspirational stories and inspirational storytelling, doesn’t involve sitting there and pretending that of course it doesn’t matter if our creativity, our art, our passion and our work, is loathed. Of course it fucking matters. It fucking hurts to hear someone tell me that my fucking language, style and voice is inappropriate for the kinds of stories I write; it fucking hurts to hear someone tell me my pronouns and characters are inaccessible. The heroes that matter, though, aren’t fearless. The heroes that matter to me aren’t fearless. The teachers who confess their flaws and failings and fears are the teachers and writers I want to be – those who have the courage to admit that sometimes they too are broken by the demands of the creative life. The hero that matters to me is the hero that attempts suicide out of despair and, afterwards, takes that painful, terrifying step towards a life they can live, a life that is not easy (otherwise they wouldn’t be suicidal: suicide is never easy, and I despise depictions of it as such, but sometimes life is so damn hard it makes suicide look easier by comparison) but holds something worth the living.

For me, that’s writing. I have to write. I can’t not write even though it’s the worst cause of my chronic pain. In fact, it’s more than that: I have to tell stories. In my advanced non-fiction class we’ve been discussing headline writing for news-type copy, and the more we read these sorts of articles, the more I know that I can’t write like this – write advertising copy or news journalism. I’m a storyteller. I tell stories about people, and while I do write in other forms, I need to be passionate about the subject in order for it to work, and it’s really only ever a sideline to what I do best. I tell stories about the human condition, about me, about the universe, and it’s the human connection that drives me. I write, but it’s truly just a mechanism of telling a story.

(I have an assignment that involves interviewing an ESL migrant, and as someone of migrant heritage myself, someone who grew up in a family where certain stories were too horrific to tell, I’m so excited even if my sensory processing issues make interviewing and transcribing someone else’s words challenging. It’ll be worth it to be able to tell someone’s story as the treasure it is; I cried just talking to her for a few minutes. Her story, by the way, doesn’t sound particularly grand or dramatic, but a story doesn’t have to be those things to be precious.)

The other jobs I do – design, layout, editing, production, now even tutoring – are still all about enabling people to tell stories, talking about telling stories or engaging with the community of storytellers. I can’t do a nine to five desk job for the rest of my life and be happy in it. I can’t do a job that isn’t, in some way, furthering the cause of story (even if that cause is ‘paying the rent so I can go and write on weekends while I try to find something better’).

Story is my life, my raison d’etre, the reason I am alive. It is my communion with the sacred, my connection with the universe. The thing that drove me to contemplate suicide, three years ago, was the fact that my injury forced me to endure the reality of my old life without the ability to escape the pain through telling stories. That also started me on the road to taking the writing and creative life seriously, such that I have now been able to work on publications and write (and redraft, redraft, redraft) a novel. For me suicidal ideation was that moment of understanding that I could not live the life I was living, and, fortunately, I managed to find the right people to help me get out of that life, people who appreciate and even envy the drive I have. This is where being a minority is an advantage, because I have a clear and wonderful grasp on what it is I need to write and why. I know where I fit in the grand tapestry of taletellers. I know who I am and what I do, and I know people who have greater talent than I’ll ever possess who stagnate because of that lack. Talent is a fine and glorious thing, but it’s not all that useful without motivation and drive.

You’d think, having that, the quest of story would be easy.

That snort of gasping laughter is me, by the way.

Suicide would have been so much easier. It would have been a tragedy, but it would have been easier. A constant war against my anxiety and self-esteem? A constant war with society, set up as it is to deny me my gender and personhood? Signing up for a life spent with my heart in my mouth, doing things that terrify me, making my thoughts and feelings and identity (because there is no such thing as death of the author, really: the author is laid bare in every word, in all their faults and strengths) plain to the world? A few moments of pain compared to a life of it? There’s nothing easy about this, nothing at all, and yet it’s not really a choice. I was suicidal because I reached a point where I could not live as the person I was, the person working eight-hour days in a non-creative job, the person ghosting through life lived without authenticity. My chronic pain just made me reach that point in my twenties; I had my mid-life crisis three decades sooner.

Live or die. Both of them are steep hills to climb.

This is why hero narratives matter, because this is life, the kind of life that matters – a life spent in combat with monsters, a life spent risking one’s sanity and health, a life spent in danger. Hero narratives prepare us for the vulnerability and danger of an authentic life; they teach us that monsters can be fought, dangers overcome, a happy ending achieved. I want with every breath for someone else to have written my novel. Not because I want to read it without putting in the effort – I actually love the process of writing, and I think I adore the process of redrafting and editing even more – but because I am terrified of everything that lies between me and getting this book on that shelf, and I’d dearly love for someone else to endure that suffering. I want someone else to be a hero – seriously, does anyone want to throw the ring into Mount Doom? Real heroism doesn’t involve facing down a monster as much as it involves facing down ourselves in order to then go on and face the monster. Our own fears need to be fought to make any passionate, meaningful change in the world, and that is about the hardest thing anyone can ever do.

For all that we live in a society founded on grand hero narratives, we’re terrible at living them ourselves. By the by, I don’t mean that small acts of heroism aren’t equal to throwing the ring into Mount Doom: they are. I believe that as much as I believe that every story is worth telling. I mean that Western society distorts the notion of heroism so much that sporting stars and athletes and celebrities are our gods, that we are encouraged to live a kind of soulless life where exceptionalism – and to be a hero is to be exceptional in some fashion, which is I think the difference between a hero and a protagonist – is discouraged in favour of the shelter and protection of sameness and the ordinary. Think on high school, and how dangerous it is to be different; think on minorities and their lived experiences in the world, and everything they have to overcome just to exist. Society has a strong and inflexible notion of the kind of people we are expected to be – non-binary people, as just one example, live the cruel consequences of that.

I don’t understand why suicide is something regarded with such despair and disdain by society, given that many people are living the still-breathing equivalent. Does the idea that someone who commits, attempts or contemplates suicide is lesser, a coward, weak, selfish or worthy of disdain come from the idea that if the people around us can surrender to rules of society, to being and acting and feeling and living without individual authenticity, those of us who can’t are broken? Are we broken because we look at the world and know that we just can’t follow those rules?

Thing is, suicidal ideation doesn’t end when one is on medication or stable. It’s a habit and it lingers. (So does the need to self-harm.) I still tell myself, on a regular basis, that I should kill myself or hurt myself. Sometimes for the crime of making a mistake, but sometimes just for the so-called crime of having the guts to put myself or my work out there: I should kill myself, sayeth my brain and my socialisation, for trying to live an authentic life. I should kill myself for being different and wrong. I should kill myself for being visionary enough to know, just a little, of whom it is I actually am and what I want to do. I know that’s my brain and my upbringing and everything I ever learned about the person I am supposed to be talking, and I have to face it down every time that monster inside of me rears its head and tells me I’m not supposed to be the person I am.

But damn, does it make life harder than it has to be!

My psychologist says that art, real art, the kind of art that has message and meaning, isn’t created to please people. It’s created to showcase the uncomfortable, to tell a story that hasn’t been told, to make people question and consider and think. I believe this. This is why I write what I write, in the main – and it’s why I struggle to do anything with the words I write, because I’m not supposed to make people uncomfortable. I’m not supposed to write things that are different and unsafe and confronting.

Except I can’t do that. I can’t sit down at the keyboard and write something that’s ‘safe’. The words don’t come.

It’s not really a choice for me, at the end of the day. It’s live in fear, doing what I have to do – what the universe plainly nudged me into doing, or why else do I have the skills I do, living in the situation I am in? – or don’t live at all. The kind of hero I want to read about isn’t a hero that pretends they’re not terrified at the thought of embarking on their quest. The kind of hero I want to read about is a quaking, human wreck who admits they’re terrified and goes on their quest anyway, shaking in their boots all the while.

So here I am. I’m terrified.

And I’m in desperate want of a world where I can read a book about a suicidal-ideation-suffering non-binary hero (not a hero despite hir mental illness but because of it), and that, alas, requires showcasing my uncomfortable.

I want my generation’s children to grow up in a world where it is safe to be different and exceptional.

Did I say that I’m terrified?