That same goal almost broke me.
When I set out to write my latest attempt at a novel, my explicit goal from almost the very beginning was that this book was going to be the greatest fantasy novel of all time. My reasoning was thus: I could spend my career writing twenty pretty solid books, or put twenty books-worth of solid content into a single, concise novel that would make me remembered for all eternity for its sheer depth and quality. That might sound ridiculous, but for an early twenty-something who has always had a tendency to bite off more than they can chew, it seemed possible to me at the time.
There is a history to this, I should mention. I’d made an attempt at writing a fantasy novel before this one, and it hadn’t gone as well as I’d hoped. The document (eight different POV characters and over 200,000 words) became sprawling and messy and inconsistent quality-wise, and it had been taking more and more of a toll on my mental health. I finally came to the painful decision to shelve it. This was a personal failing in my eyes, an indicator of my lack of ability to reach my ambitions—but this new book was supposed to be the glorious redemption, the validation of my budding talent, my second chance to prove what I could do.
I thought that by imposing such a high demand on myself, I wouldn’t fall into the same traps I had with the previous book. At first, it worked. I was spotting lots of genuine issues that I could rectify early before it meant more work fixing them later on.
But rather soon, things started to go very wrong.
In my desire to make an unparalleled novel, I began to imagine flaws where there were none. It quickly got to the point where nothing in my book was good enough to leave untouched. Those parts that were good enough I simply forgot or ignored. On the occasion I happened to stumble onto reading one of the really good parts, I might suddenly find myself inspired to keep writing. But it never lasted long, because my attention would always turn back, sooner or later, to the various issues with the book, whether real or imagined.
There had been a lot of mental anguish with shelving the previous attempt—but that time I hadn’t put on myself quite the same expectations as I had with this book.
There is no measuring the pressure of the demand I had imposed on myself. I became crippled by the fear of making a single decision involving the plot or characters that might hurt the quality, that might make it anything less than ‘perfect’.
Of course, the more pressure I felt, the less I found myself actually writing. When I was able to summon the energy to write something, it was either not very good, or at the very best I usually perceived it as not very good. I fiddled and fiddled with countless, little things that had no impact on the book—because I was too scared to actually do something that might make an impact.
Every day I went to bed not having done what I perceived as enough work on the book was pain, which only made things even worse. It got to the point that even opening the document made me feel sick.
I began to suffer from physical pain as a result of my mental anguish. My body ached all the time, especially my back that I’d herniated years ago. I got stabbing pains in my arms and neck. It always felt like I was suffering from one ailment or another.
I had been driven all this time by the desire for fame and adoration more than I was driven to write a good book. I’d lost touch with what making art was about, and in the process I fell out of love with the story, the setting, and the characters, because those same things were causing me nothing by pain. I fell out of love with writing as a whole, because writing itself had become almost nothing but pain.
Eventually, it all became too much. I had something of a mental break down. I’d had several of these before, what you might call the nervous attack equivalent of a mini-stroke, something major enough to cause significant distress, but not quite enough that you could overtly point to it as a full psychotic break. This was the worst of them yet. Thankfully, this time I happened to be staying at home with my parents for the holidays. I realized then how done I was with living life this way. That I needed to reach out for help.
I was lucky to have supportive and understanding parents who I could talk to about the pain the book was causing me. Doing so made me realize how unhealthy my situation was. It made me realize that nothing—no amount of fame or success—was worth this level of unhappiness and pain.
I came to terms with myself, slowly, painfully, that I didn’t need to write the greatest fantasy novel of all time, and that even if the book was on its way to achieving that goal in some form, the pain it was causing me was no longer worth it. Of course, one of the things that had caused me all this pain was that I had no hard standard of what ‘Greatest Fantasy Novel of All Time’ even meant, no explicit standard I was measuring my own work against. The more I thought about it, the more I realized even my very favorite works had their own flaws. That didn’t make them not ‘great’. I had set a non-existent standard for myself, and bet my own self-worth on that same standard.
In my six or so months working on the previous book, I hadn’t taken a single break throughout the process, which I think contributed to my complete burnout. This time, I didn’t shelve the book outright like I had with the previous. Instead of slamming my head into a wall working on a book to the point that I was so disgusted that I felt like I had to shelve it, I took a step back and am currently giving myself a long period where I hardly write in the book at all. I work at my own pace now, dipping into and out of the book and various other projects without imposing on myself any hard time limits.
If I even begin to feel toxic, negative thoughts involving my work, I walk away from whatever I’m working on, and remind myself this: “live in the present without judgment.” Banal-sounding, maybe, but it’s the most banal truisms that are often the most, well, true. These words allow me to enjoy life in the moment more often, instead of always casting judgment on my past mistakes and thus fearing the choices I might make in the future, never being able to enjoy the present as a result.
It’s a fascinating and challenging balancing act, I’ll admit, the juggle between holding yourself to a high enough standard that you still get good work done while also treating yourself with care and compassion. A juggling act that I’m still fumbling with. I find lately that I’m almost being too easy on myself, to the point that my productivity has decreased a noticeable amount. I still know this is better than the way things once were, but it’s something I can still work on.
Looking at it now, without the twisted lens I’d learned to see my work through, I know that my current book has a huge amount of potential, much of it already fulfilled. It’s just a matter of leaving alone what does work and fixing what doesn’t. It’s a matter of fixing one issue after another—writing not in leaps, but in baby steps, one after the next.
Evan Lindeman thinks of himself more than anything as an adherent to the “New Weird” in the fashion of writers like China Mieville and Jeff Vandermeer. Most of his work tends to explore human nature through the lens of speculative fiction and horror, often specifically in terms of familial relations, mental illness and class struggle.