Writing is hard.
No, seriously. It’s really, really hard. And in my experience, it follows a pretty predictable pattern:
- Daydream an idea: Dialogue! Characters! Emotions! This moment must be preserved! This story must be told! I am a genius, this is my greatest work yet, I must share it with the good people of this planet! Time to practice interview questions in my head!
- Okay, so write it: …wait, what?
- Sit in front of the computer, banging head against the keyboard: Why are words so hard? How could this happen to me, an innocent? What cruel god has bestowed such suffering upon me?
- Sulk: Sulk. Wail at partner. Sulk. Scream from the balcony. Sulk.
- Write it down: Okay, this time we actually write it down. Caffeine will help, don’t be afraid.
From there, if I’m lucky, I’ll feel satisfied with what I wrote and continue until I am exhausted or distracted or both. If not, the cycle repeats again from step three, and I grow increasingly difficult to live with as a human being. Have I mentioned that Sienna is a saint?
As it turns out, this cycle is pretty familiar to most writers. And it’s why I’m so proud to say that I’ve completed my first work for The Shale Project.
Tales from a Library was largely born out of a reaction to many goings-on in my life. I had just moved to Canada and was graced with a lot of free time after having previously been worked to death in retail. Along with that, I finally reached my breaking point with the story I’d been jabbing unceremoniously with a stick for about eight years, and decided I needed to step back for the sake of being able to finish it, ever. Finally, after working as an editor and a publicist and a web designer and everything but a writer, I felt as though I needed to write something, just to prove to myself that I could.
Aaaaalso I have an unhealthy preoccupation with the shalledrim. According to Sienna’s novel, that’s pretty normal. (“They had gone from respected spectres of collective memory to–well, to cult object”). But it didn’t stop me from interrupting mundane conversations with things like “they’re just so scary like have you ever thought about how scary they are I know you made them but they’re so scary” and “but they’re so pretty and I want to pet them can they purr like cats please please please why are you looking at me like that it’s a perfectly valid question wait where are you going???”
I knew I wanted to write something, I knew I was interested in post-Shattering shalledrim-human relations, and I knew I had time. Which meant, of course, that I needed a deadline. Because without a deadline, I end up doing and redoing a project for eight years with only the beautiful name Kecperež Novkjev to show for it. And that’s owed almost entirely to our resident linguist.
So, remarkably, with a bunch of rough ideas and a newly-imposed timeline, I completed ten stories in about six months. It was absolutely exhilarating, pretty consistently terrifying, and taught me a lot about my own writing. For the sake of sharing with the class, lest you make the same mistakes I did, I’m going to tell you the biggest lessons I learned. Behold!
Five Things I Learned from Writing “Tales from a Library”
1. Style is Mutable
Listen. I love Princess Gamzhey as much as the next pigeon. But before I started working on TfaL, I never would have imagined that hers would be the kind of story that I would write. I’ve always loved comedy, but most of the time it manifests in my writing as laugh-to-keep-from-crying. Think high stakes with humor to balance out the tension, lots of intensity that allows characters to foster powerful emotional bonds, that kind of thing.
Gamzhey has roughly negative two stakes, both of which have been driven blithely through the hearts of those who inconvenience her. Her behavior is absolutely absurd and larger than life, and her relationship with Lap Chai lacks the shared trauma I tend to sprinkle atop many of the relationships I build. But in the end, writing it gave me lots of laughs, and it showed me that I have much greater range than I thought. I might even answer to my parents’ pleas of “will you please just write something nice for once, please?”
With every story I wrote, I had a chance to experiment with style and tone, and create a selection of stories that didn’t end up blending together. From the choice to use present-tense for the first time, to the willingness to write something light, to the attempts to open up some of my own personal anxieties more clearly in my stories (Did you mean: The Unquiet Road?), I’ve learned that the only boundaries that exist within writing are the ones we self-impose.
2. Don’t Let the Perfect Get in the Way of the Good
While deadlines have been extremely motivating for me, they also have presented a serious challenge: eventually, sooner than I’d like, I have to stop writing. Given my writing track record, I hadn’t had to deal with this problem since writing papers for university, and I’d forgotten what it’s like to feel at peace when you aren’t quite satisfied.
It was actually in school where I first learned this lesson. I was falling apart, looking at a terrible draft of a paper I had procrastinated on for way too long. With only an hour left to finish and the disheartening knowledge of how good my writing could have been if I’d managed my time better, my roommate stepped in with wisdom that had once been passed down to her: “Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. …or the good get in the way of the mediocre. Or the mediocre get in the way of the done.”
To this day, it’s some of the best advice I’ve ever received. Whenever I start getting worked up, I remind myself that the obsessive quest for perfect writing is often a good way to get no writing done at all. Sometimes, good has to be enough–that’s what editors are there for!
Some of my stories don’t feel done yet. None of them feel perfect. But I can say that I feel proud of them, and glad to be able to share them with my community. Looking back, I might have made my deadlines a little too tight, but I’ve grown a lot from this process. And I can always come back to them later. When I’m ready.
3. You Have to Do It for You
This is a hard one. Honestly, this lesson was one of the most painful to learn, and one of the most important in pursuing an artistic career: sometimes you’re going to bust your ass, you’re going to work unbelievably hard to produce something you love… and no one’s going to see it.
People are busy. They have lives. Some of them love you but aren’t interested in what you’re creating. Social media algorithms will hide all your writing posts, but will boost a picture of your mother’s extraordinarily fat cat to thousands of people. You will feel rejected. You will feel hurt. You will grab your face, whimpering, “More people have seen that stupid cat in five hours than have seen my art in my whole life.”
All of this is reality. And it’s also okay.
Early on, I struggled with this problem a lot. Sharing is one of my favourite parts of the artistic process, and it was hard to realize that sometimes people are not going to be available to share with. When this happened to me early on and the despair kicked in, all I could turn to was the writing itself and ask, Am I proud of this? Do I like to read it for my own enjoyment?
Incredibly, the answer was yes. From there, I committed to writing as though I would be the only one reading it. That way, no matter what happened, I would produce something I loved. And after releasing the need to have the approval of others, I was liberated by how personal and authentic my writing became.
4. That Being Said, Community is KEY
So yes I’ve found some inner peace and it’s wonderful, but I have also been completely blessed by an incredible community of artists and friends and artist-friends who understand the struggle and want to listen and share. Writing is generally a pretty solitary activity, and it can be dangerous to be alone in your head for so long just waiting for the “everything is terrible and so are you” voice to show up. Having people read the drafts and listen to the ranting and write silently beside you is one of the most motivating things in the world.
Obviously, Sienna plays a huge part in this–we’re a little two-person artistic ecosystem, and our writing always feels like a baby we’ve nourished and brought to life together. I would not be the writer I am without her. My dear friend Jen Frankel sat and wrote with me more times than I can count, happily sipped on tea I blended for protagonists, fed me beautiful steak, and listened to me whine like it was her job. Cameron Currie sent supportive messages and commentary after each and every story–when I’d post them, I found myself excitedly waiting for his feedback, enthusiastic about his own enthusiasm. Carisa Van de Wetering, the original Shale fan, lifted my spirits by yelling and playing around and telling every single person to go read–she’s proof that reader friends are just as vital to the process as writer friends. Irene Zhong, who let out many a mighty “How DARE you.” Joy Silvey, who sent me private messages with in-depth analysis that made me tear up. My dad, calling me on the phone on Tuesdays to talk about his favourite stories, encouraging me to keep writing things that turn out nicely for the characters. My mom, insisting that my least favourite story of the bunch was the best. Every comment, every like. Bastien. Caleb. Cass. Karin. Matt. Cel. Minh. C. Many more. So many names.
As I said, writing is generally a solitary thing. Pursuing artistic passions can be lonely and vulnerable, and you spend a lot of time doubting if it’s the right thing to do. During this process, I learned the value of taking a moment to reflect on the people who support your work. It was (and is!) humbling, and balancing, and reminded me to check in on my artist friends as well. After all, just because you care about someone and the things they create doesn’t mean they know it.
I am so, so grateful.
5. You Will Write the Story You Need
There were a lot of other ideas that didn’t make it into Tales from a Library. I drafted several different stories along the way that never quite did what I wanted, or that no longer seemed relevant by the time I was coming up on posting them. Initially I was afraid that I wouldn’t have enough ideas, but the real trouble I ran into was that many of the ideas I had were not needed in the moment.
The Wandering Literates were a lot more fun in early planning. We were going to talk about their specific role in establishing the library, but then Ravan Tan needed to grieve, and I guess I did too. (Though that didn’t stop me from bursting into tears right before I posted, realizing that this tale from a library did not have a library in it.) One of the daughters of the Prophet Evin had a lot of things to say. It wasn’t the right time. As much as I wanted her story, she was not ready to tell it. The charming socialite took a step back in favor of a boy who was upset he could not go to Greatwood Park. More often than not, adventure and action were replaced by quiet intimacy.
As I look back on these tales, I see a lot of unintentional, recurring themes: grief, loss, what value holding onto, how we empathize with what we fear. When I look at my own life as it stands right now, I see Tales from a Library as a snapshot of my own processing. It sounds cliché, but despite what I might have initially wanted, I’ve ended up with a collection of stories that I needed. Needed to hear, needed to tell. Needed.
And I can’t wait to learn what it is I need next.