On how writing a story slew a demon or two
About a decade ago I started writing what was to become an incomplete if not unfinished story that formed the start of my journey dealing with what at the time was a mental health crisis. Essentially it was a semi-autobiographical medieval mythical fantasy that was slammed by a couple of English literature students at the time. It would be – I didn’t write it as a piece of literature, I wrote it as a therapeutic experience.
Essentially the story is about how an individual – me – overcomes his/my fears. At the time these were the fears of dying, pain, imprisonment, war, racism and religious fundamentalism. Each of these fears were represented by a creature from the role-playing-game Heroes of Might and Magic III. For dying, a zombie (though think Power Lich). For pain, think the Serpent Lord/Chaos Hydra. For imprisonment, think the Minotaur. For war, think the Arch Devil. For racism, think the Cyclopes King, and for religious fundamentalism, think the fire genie/efreeti sultan.
Throughout this adventure I was not alone. There were a host of creatures who were on my side – not just because I was on theirs. What still strikes me to this day is that I wrote over 50,000 words in what was the final six months of an undergraduate degree. The words just kept on flowing. I’d be writing in the middle of lectures – giving this strange impression that I was taking copious notes when I was doing anything but. No one knew.
Rumours flew around prior to my starting writing that I’d had a nervous breakdown or the like. I certainly headed back home for the first half of the first time of my final year. That is true. How I ended up scoring 2:1’s for my assessed essays for that term I will never really know given that I missed half the term and all of the lectures.
The development of the story throughout my final two terms at university were part of a wider change of mindset and lifestyle – trying to come to terms with what essentially is a disability: a condition that otherwise prevents me from performing at the peak of my ability. It would take a further six months of counselling post-university to both acknowledge and try and come to terms with that. Change of diet, an exercise regime and a realisation that going down the traditional ‘graduate from university and go into a high-pressured graduate job’ (a la Life on a piece of paper) was just not going to happen.
When I look back on the characters in the story itself, there are a couple of things that stand out. The first is the number of lead female characters. With the exception of myself, most of the characters and creatures are female. The second is the role of ‘elders’ – the far older and far wiser creatures of the realm and their interaction with me. Of the latter, one of them takes the form of a dragon matriarch, and another the form of a cloud giant. With creatures so grand, picking arguments with them is not the done thing. (Other than St George and Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk, how many dragon-slayers or giant-slayers can you think of off the top of your head? Exactly!) Remember that at the time, I was still getting used to the ‘adult to older adult’ inter-relationships having just grown out (age-wise) of my teens.
Of the four main female characters, they took the form of various creatures: An angel, a wizard, an elf and a fairy. I started off thinking that all four would be of broadly similar age to me at the time – late teens/early 20s. Yet as I wrote the story each of the four characters developed personalities of their own. The angel ended up becoming a few years older (and wiser) than me, while the elf and the fairy ended up becoming far younger – because it matched the personalities of the creatures that they were. The process of how this happened is very difficult to describe. Essentially I ‘lost control’ of them – in particular the fairy. It’s a strange concept of losing control of a character you’ve created. But that was part of the fun.
Within each of the four ‘daughters of the realm’ is a little piece of me. It wasn’t something I planned in advance of writing – it was something that seemed to emerge in the process of it. Yet at the same time, not being ‘the complete me’ gave each of them something of a freedom that perhaps I had been lacking. The fairy for example had a playfulness that I was never able to fully realise as a child because of the dark shadow of church. The elf had a love of music that one I think can only have where that love is nurtured and not crushed by the expectation of my parents’ generation. The wizard had a level of stubbornness that perhaps I would have had if I were not paralysed by anxiety and fear during my late teens. And the angel? Similar to what I am now – a case of “It doesn’t matter anymore what the others think”. I later on found out that following the mindset of any one of the four at given times in life nearly always ended up in doing more things, achieving greater things and having more fun. “Because it’ll be fuuuuuuun!!!!” can be a surprisingly powerful argument in the face of anxiety that otherwise was all-too-often out of control.
There are a number of scenarios that still give me a little buzz even now. The idea of being able to stand up for otherwise much weaker/less powerful creatures. A sort of “They’re with me. If you’ve got a problem with them, then you have a problem with me. Shall we sort it out now or would you like to come back at a later date?” sort of thing. Then there’s the scenario of someone – or something else arriving with not a moment to lose. Think of being almost surrounded by hostile warriors only for a number of very large and powerful friendly dragons deciding to fly in and land next to you. Clichéd definitely, but it was my way of trying to show to myself that I was not alone, even though those days were incredibly lonely ones. Writing the story (as well as volunteering with the Brighton Peace and Environment Centre) were my way of dealing with both that loneliness and the anger I felt (and still feel to this day) of a university experience that should have been so much more fulfilling yet ended up being anything but.
There was also the music aspect to it – writing a couple of scenes to pieces of music. A scene coming face-to-face with the Arch Devil was written to Setting Sun by the Chemical Brothers. (“You’re the devil in me…you’re part of the life I’ve never had, I’ll tell you now it’s just too bad”). The fire genie’s song not surprisingly is Fire Starter by The Prodigy – as is “No good” for the zombie (“I don’t need ‘no body'”) and “Poison” for the serpent lord by the same band. Some of you may also be familiar with “Ich bin ein Auslander” (I am a foreigner) by Pop Will Eat Itself which represented the Cyclopes King.
Although Puffles was not part of the original story, Puffles did feature in what was to follow. It was how I stumbled across the little bundle of fun. Puffles managed to get captured by some evil knights along with two other baby dragons. Unfortunately said evil knights stumbled across myself and friendly creatures on their route back. I think we managed to “persuade” them that these baby dragons wanted to remain in my care – weight of numbers and something along the lines of convincing the evil knights that they did want to live the following day seemed to do the trick. A combination of pesky fairies picking the locks, a powerful wizard hitting the knights with magic spells and the appearance of a very big dragon worked wonders.
My original intention was to return Puffles to the magic forest but I was persuaded by a giant dragon fairy that Puffles was better off in my care on the grounds that I had rescued Puffles from the evil knights. (When was the last time you heard of a human winning an argument with a giant dragon fairy!?!? Exactly!!!) And that, ladies and gentlemen is how I ended up becoming best friends with a little dragon fairy.