Losing touch with reality

I’ve been writing for what I think is about four years now, but really, it feels like I’ve been doing it for a lot longer. About a year from now, provided that things go as planned, I’ll be beginning my creative writing honours project. Right now, I’m just starting the unit that will define my undergraduate degree. Creative writing supervised project. It’s an intro to honours class. And I’m writing what I’ve grown accustomed to: Speculative fiction. Since I started writing as a hobby I’ve been writing the speculative. There have only been one-off cases in short stories and poems where I’ve actually set stories in the real world. I go through phases, but I’ve never been a realist.

I started out writing gothic horror. I read a couple of H.P. Lovecraft and turned into the next big Lovecraft imitator. To some extent, I still like horror, especially when it’s heavily stylised. I don’t like stories about raping babies, snuff porn and shit like that. I guess you could say I don’t like unethical horror with no backbone to anchor it to. I hate thinking people will read extreme gore/porn horror to get their kicks. I’ve always been drawn more towards the stuff that’s driven by a good story. At that point I was yet to get into the whole cultural studies thing, but now I’m more inclined to go for a story that’s driven by some sort of cultural or moral code. I haven’t read much horror in a while.

As for the gothic… I think of it not so much as a genre, but rather as a style. Gothic is a mood, a feeling. It shapes the way we feel about texts. It’s very countercultural. I love the gothic. And not just in the narrow eerie castles and vampires and monsters and stuff, but the whole idea of playing off cultural anxieties, the concept of the dark and mysterious, the ‘unknown’, doubling, what’s not to love about it? I’ve always had an obscure fascination for the gothic.

Then I broadened out to science fiction. One of my favourite books was science fiction, and I loved the world building, the rich details, the depths at which the story touched upon issues of war, religion, philosophy and the very concept of human nature, character development, and stuff like that. It resonated with the real world while being set in an entirely separate world. I wrote a few science fiction stories in with my gothic horror, and I liked the freedom and power associated with world-building.

Then came the subgenres. Steampunk, cyberpunk, dieselpunk, biopunk, all sorts of punk. It was awesome. The aesthetics of -punk genres are pretty awesome. For NaNoWriMo a couple of years ago I wrote a steampunk novel. It was a really entertaining and rewarding experience, but that story is not worth the effort of editing. Steampunk is a bit of a mish-mash genre. It’s got its style, and some vague guidelines/rules to stick to, but other than that it’s fair game. An inventor’s paradise. And that’s the way with a lot of new genres. Just go nuts.

Since then I took that idea and ran. I hate cliches. I hate tropes that are so common they might as well be cliches. My writing turned into a sort of quest narrative, searching for originality. Creativity. Uniqueness. Something special that no one else has. Reality is so overrated. It may sound a bit like the sort of thing you’d come across in a suicide note, but reality is just so mind-numbingly everywhere. You’d expect people would be bored of reading about it. I know I certainly get bored writing it.

That’s not to say there aren’t good realist narratives around. I enjoy reading  a good realist narrative, and I know people who enjoy writing it. It’s just not my thing. My next big thing was fantasy. Stories about things that are very unreal. The impossible. The ridiculous. The strange and outlandish worlds where people go to find the mysteries of the fantastical. I guess in hindsight, some of the stories I wrote back then were “urban fantasy” or “new weird” or maybe even borderlining on “bizarro”, but it wasn’t something I identified with back then. I was writing whatever and enjoying writing whatever. And two things I seemed to really start zeroing in on were dialogue and character development. A story about a sick giant and an asshole clown came to life from making the story seem organic. Strange characters acting in familiar ways. Interacting like real people, talking and changing like real people. Speculative fiction became more than just escapism, it became a mode of accessing reality through fiction, and not just in a world-building sort of way.

Then came the bizarro phase, and the pandora’s box came open. I could write about anything. Nothing was too strange. Nothing was too outlandish. Whatever was wild or freaky before seemed so tame and generic. I tapped into my experimental side and pulled out all sorts of strange, surreal things. I loved it. And the more I got into it the more I loved it. But something was missing. It felt too chaotic. Too busy. Too wild and creative. Almost inaccessible. I looked at what other writers were doing, and tried to figure out how to tap into the chaos and become its master. There’s no point to writing bizarre surreal stories if they don’t mean anything, if they’re not anchored to anything real or sincere. Kind of how I felt with horror. That’s my take on it anyway.

My reading tastes have grown pretty wide, and my latest phase has taken me through a few graphic novels and manga, of varying themes and genres of themselves, just processed through a different medium. And again on film I’ve started watching a couple of spaghetti westerns, a plethora of anime films, plenty of cyberpunk and ninja films, as well as Studio Ghibli stuff, some space westerns, urban gothic, and straight up sci-fi. I’ve found that drawing from lots of different sources for ideas is a great way to go. Tapping into different genres and blending them into something that’s entirely different. Not just in genre aesthetics, but also with reference to style, plot, setting, character development and things like that. With all my cultural studies at uni, it’s great to be able to watch a film and pick up on how it utilizes a character in a way that renegotiates the cultural conceptions of genre, or stuff like that.

And it’s from all this genre blending and depth of storytelling that I find myself hunting for a research question. For all that speculative fiction is written off as childish or escapist literature, how does a writer approach a work of speculative fiction and a) make it unique, and b) make it relatable? I’m working on a bizarro/steampunk space western at the moment, and figuring out how to give the characters a sense of gender displacement to renegotiate the cultural conception of masculinity. There’s nothing to say that can’t be done with urban fantasy or gothic cyberpunk or whatever.

I’ll probably just keep going through the genres, hoarding them as I go, picking up aesthetic features and narrative tips and tricks to give my writing depth and meaning. This creative writing project should be interesting, and I’m looking forward to the exegesis/research paper too. Weird.

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