If you are one of the three people who follow my literary journey, you’ll know that it takes years for me to write a novel. Working full time and squeezing writing into the margins of a life is a hard way to go. The whole process happens in fits and starts as my brain tries to leap the gap between technical professional and professional dreamer. My corpus callosum aches on good days and lies flaccid and spent on the bad ones.
(Side note: why is “flaccid” an adjective given to only one noun? Every time I try to reject that unspoken rule, the resulting imagery is disturbing.)
These past few years, I’ve been working on a novel called The Cuttlefish. Inspired by The Scarlet Pimpernel, but with witches, queers, and set in the fantasy world of Eire.
A common perception is that a writer knows what they intend to write about, then sets about doing it. My experience is different. I write my way forward into the fog, no idea what is happening, to whom, or why. Somewhere around the halfway point, it hits me, “oh, that’s what this is about!” I’m then obliged to go back to the beginning and start over, with a better understanding of what I am writing. In The Cuttlefish, I’ve noticed a theme: rejection of the “chosen one” narrative.
Not this Time, Luke
Look, I cheer for Luke Skywalker as much as anyone, but the concept of a predestined world savior often overlooks the nuances of real-life successes and struggles, and the true nature of heroism which, in my view, involves doing the most you can with the hand that you’re dealt.
Chosen one stories reinforce the juvenile faith that we are uniquely pre-destined for greatness. This idea, from Harry Potter to Paul Atreides often centers on a preordained protagonist marked by fate. These stories, while massively entertaining, suggest that waiting for one’s grand destiny is just as likely a route to success as actively shaping one’s life.
Comforting as this notion is, it can lead to disillusionment if you buy into it. My generation—thrown outdoors to raise themselves in a never-ending Lord of the Flies game of kick the can—hovered over their own children and raised them to believe they were uniquely destined for greatness, simply for drawing breath. This, in turn, has led to the privilege paradox in which young adults of well-off, otherwise healthy environments are suffering the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, and unhappiness of any group in the country. Life, as many of us learn the hard way, is less about a grand, cosmic unfolding and more about the everyday choices we make.
Again, don’t get me wrong. I love Neo, Lyra, and Rand al’Thor. Am I blaming Luke Skywalker? No. Does the current generational shift reflect on the themes in my work? Yes.
As an art teacher, I was always careful to say, “I like how you made that line.” Or “You did a great job of working past your frustration.” I avoided saying, “Wow, that’s great!” and definitely not, “You are talented.” I wanted every student to feel the accomplishment of their accumulated decisions. I mean, isn’t that most of life’s journey, really? All the small battles? Few of us, after all, are secret children of Zeus.
Find Out Who You Are and Do it on Purpose
In The Cuttlefish, I am realizing, Emelee is not a chosen one. Even the name echoes this fact. Cuttlefish are not the most attractive fish in the sea.
I wanted to mirror a more realistic and, arguably, a more inspiring paradigm. A tale where success is a collective endeavor, and heroism is accessible to everyone through their actions and choices. It’s a story for all of us who aren’t ‘chosen’ in the traditional sense but choose ourselves every day through hard work, collaboration, and the decisions we make.
In realizing my own influences and the threads I’ve been unconsciously weaving, I now need to go back to the beginning and pull them through deliberately. To quote Dolly Parton, “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”
At this point in the writing process, I am reminded of those macrame owls every neighbor lady in America made back in the 70’s. If this book were one of those owls, it would be perfect from the top down until just below the chest, where holes and tangles and unbalanced knots would appear. At the bottom, there’d be no mustard yellow hemp feet clutching a branch, just a wad of mismatched cords dangling into space.
Here’s to the unsung heroes, the collaborative victories, and the hard-earned triumphs! Here’s to weaving this newly-discovered thread through my owl, which is my own heroic undertaking for now.