How much time do you suppose Henry Darger spent world-building before he started writing?
I read a post on someone else’s blog recently titled Forget Self-Improvement.
It was interesting, in that it suggested that the reason we don’t do things, or follow through on some things, is because we want the end results without doing the steps required to get there. His point, which I think many readers missed, was not that we should simply give up on doing the hard things to get where we want to be, to accomplish our goals, but, rather, that we should learn to love the process. Some of the smaller-minded commenters seemed to think that the post was advocating doing only what was easy for us, because, surely, that which is easy is the only thing we can possibly love. Their argument was if we didn’t do difficult things, no one would ever achieve any worthy or laudable goals. But, again, I think the point is to learn to love the hard work that’s involved in achieving those goals, so that the goals themselves aren’t the point, but the hard work is. If we love working at something, the end results will take care of themselves!
There’s a saying among writers; “People don’t like writing, they like having written.”
And therein lies a problem in my thinking about writing. There was a time when I loved writing. I actually loved the process of stringing together words and sentences to craft a narrative. I really, honestly, enjoyed a well-crafted sentence, especially if I had done the crafting. And, yes, I loved telling stories.
But, somewhere along the line, the end result became more important than the process for me. The story written and submitted for sale was my ultimate goal and, eventually, I got so caught up in writing the right thing to get published that, well, that the whole thing just lost its charm. What had been a labor of love became more labor than love, and finally, it became something I used to do, once upon a time.
I did, over the years, make a few flailing attempts to start writing again. Not much came of them, though. For one thing, I got very bogged down in the idea of “doing it the right way”. Many of the stories that have taken up residence in my subconscious are what most people would call “fantasy” or “science fiction”. To do those kinds of stories “right”, of course, takes research and pre-planning and charts and diagrams and maps. What I discovered, thanks to the internet, that bitch goddess of endless information and community and time-wasters, that people called that “research” and planning “world building”.
It has such a delicious, God-like sound to it! The idea of building an entire world, from scratch, appealed to me. I dove into it, reading as much as I could find in the forums of various groups dedicated to building these worlds of imagination. I slipped sideways into the constructed language sub-set of world builders for a bit, thinking that it might give me a better handle on where and how to begin my own fantasy worlds. I even took part in a world-building game, in the form of an encyclopedia. Of course, I was focused on fantasy world building, but, really, every kind of fiction is a kind of world building. The world in that piece of fiction, short or long, is created by the writer. It includes things that writer wants to be part of their world, and excludes things they don’t. Every writer is a world-builder.
But, I was hooked. I was hooked specifically by the idea that if I did enough work, I could make a more realistic and original fantasy world than I had ever read about before. And, so I read books on everything from language to biomechanics to mapping to ancient technology to… Well, you name it, and I probably read a book, or two, or three, on the subject in the name of research for world building.
But, what all those things were, ultimately, was a lengthy exercise in avoidance.
Avoidance of the hard work that I used to enjoy.
I read, somewhere, a science-fiction author say in an interview that he did virtually no active “world building” before starting to write. And, what’s more, that he felt doing too much world building would kill his interest in the story itself. He felt it wouldn’t give him any room to discover that world, any room to move around and get to know the characters.
I’m pretty sure that author was William Gibson, but I’m honestly not positive any more.
I have to admit that my initial reaction to that was anger almost to the point of outrage. It was so antithetical to what I had been, in theory, doing for so long that it disturbed me greatly. The funny thing is, I wasn’t always that way. In the old days, before I “knew better”, I would maybe sketch a map or a few phrases of a language and the start writing. No research, virtually no planning, just writing.
Just the work.
I’d feel the stories. Some were better than others, of course, but I’d mostly just feel them out. I worked in short form, because, even then, I had built up the defense in my mind that novels took lots of planning and an outline and, well, research. That didn’t matter to me, though, because I was just writing short stories.
I can trace what happened, the actual event, that changed that for me, though.
A former co-worker, who was also quite literate, probably more so than I, actually, asked me how I did my research for my stories. You see, I’d given him something to look at for me, to read and give me notes on. He wanted to know what my process was, for what reasons I can hardly imagine now. And, when I told him that I didn’t really research, he laughed at me.
He laughed at me.
And that was it. That was the point at which I suddenly had to do furious research in great, heaping mounds and bucket-fulls. And, it was also the point at which I essentially stopped writing.
I eventually put other names on it. I was world building. I was being “sensible”. I was studying for a professional certification. But, in the end, what I was really doing was avoiding being laughed at for “doing it wrong”.
All of which brings me back to fellow Chicagoan, Henry Darger.
Mr. Darger was an orphan and a recluse. Born in Chicago in 1892, he navigate life with few friends and a few, menial jobs that provided a fairly bare existence for him. Enough to dress simply, to eat enough, to rent a small apartment, and, as it turns out, pursue his real passion; writing and illustrating a 15, 145 page novel titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.
But, no one knew about this, and his other amazingly long works, until he was dying in 1973.
He was a loner, you see, and did this work in solitude, sharing it with no one. It was only discovered when his landlord went in to get him a few things for his stay in the hospital. When his landlord asked him about it, he said he’d never shared it with anyone because he didn’t think anyone would be interested. When his landlord corrected that misconception, Mr. Darger’s only response was, “Too late now.”
But, my point here is that the work was the thing.
Darger has become a celebrated artist, now that he’s dead, and the work he did has been appreciated by many, even though that’s not why he did it. It was a labor of love. It was what he did. It was how he spent his time and, I think, and expression of part of his soul. He had no goal in mind. He wasn’t trying to become a famous artist or author. He didn’t have a plan to sell this to make money off it. It’s just what he did because he loved it.
Am I saying that I want to become like Henry Darger? Well, not really. I don’t want to have few friends and live painfully alone, my master work unappreciated until I die. But, I do want to write and create art, not for some end goal, but for the sake of creating it. I want to be so passionate about a project that it occupies my thoughts and directs my decisions about life.
I want to do something for the love of doing it again.
So, I’m going to try and set aside my God-like, world-building obsession and try writing again.
In a way, this is the start of it. This and the “Morning Pages” exercises from Julia Cameron’s excellent book, The Artist’s Way. The best way to get over writer’s block is to write, so that’s what I’m doing, here and elsewhere.
I hope this helped someone who read it, even though I wrote it for me, not you. I hope it reminds you of something you loved doing for its own sake and that you want to do again. I hope it reminds you of why you loved doing it and why you miss it.
And, I hope that you start doing it again, like I’ve started writing.