Survivor starts on what, in hindsight, now seems an ominous note. Reverse numbered chapters start at 47 and slowly count down to the main character’s fiery death, as he delivers his life story into the black box of a plane while it plummets inescapably to destruction. As I watched the numbers drop, it became an uncomfortably poignant metaphor for my own writing journey.
When I started reading Survivor, I had just finished writing my second novel and was riding the wave of euphoria that comes from finishing a manuscript. Before I had even begun the process of distilling the first draft into something of any quality, my imagination had already bolted and was feeding me images of a grand success. I think it’s natural to let your mind wander in this way, because after investing so much of your time, energy and self into a story, the possibility that it might have all been for nothing is utterly frightening.
Like many writers I have a deeply entrenched fear of failure. Not of failing, that’s unavoidable and I think an essential part of any progressive writing journey. What I mean is failure; a static end point where the road literally disappears from under your feet and you are left suspended in mid-air like Wile E. Coyote while those watching you wait for you to realise the hopelessness of your situation. As a new and virtually unpublished writer, the feeling of being watched and judged as you chase your proverbial road runner comes with the same perception: you are not expected to succeed.
It was with this mixture of ecstasy and apprehension that I reopened the manuscript of my first novel, which I had left dormant for a while, with the belief that all it needed was one more edit to iron out the last few issues before I could finally begin the process of sending my major work into the world. Fuelled by Palahniuk’s compulsive storytelling I dove into the manuscript expecting to find a similarly compelling story. I remembered feeling so inspired when I wrote it. However, I got two or three chapters in and was forced to admit that it was a first novel in every awful sense. It was badly written, difficult to follow and more of an angsty rant than I remembered. I sat staring at the screen, dumb-struck that this first novel, the piece of work on which I based my decision to declare myself a writer, had to be either abandoned or rewritten entirely.
I made the mistake of comparing my first attempts at writing to that of a seasoned and professionally edited veteran. To this I added the unsubstantial belief that my first attempts should be similar. The gap between what I could do and what I wanted to do seemed too wide. Up until then it had always been about resolve and committing to put words down on the page. After completing two manuscripts, the desire and resolve were set - it was now a question of basic ability. In Survivor I saw so many of the writing attributes that felt suddenly so far beyond my abilities.
Palahniuk doesn’t write magical realism but there is a strong element of the fantastic in all his writing. His subtle insertion of the surreal into a very real setting has been a model that I’ve tried to emulate in my fiction, pursuing Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s elusive “willing suspension of disbelief”. I am a huge fan of magical realism as a genre but a lot of what I’ve read tends to view the magic part of realism as an exhortation of the unbounded infantile imagination.
Palahniuk’s brand of the fantastic, however, has a gritty and sinister edge. Rather than celebrating the imagination that is lost as we “mature”, Palahniuk looks at the extent to which we as flawed and fully empowered adults can pervert that imagination.
Palahniuk has his fair share of critics. I recently met someone who, when I told them about my love of Palahniuk’s writing, referred to the man as a “guilty pleasure”. When you read a Palahniuk story, to some extent you know what you are getting. He is no literary master in the vein of Salman Rushdie or Isabelle Allende, but there is something in his style of storytelling and fascinatingly constructed plots that remain a strong source of inspiration for me. So when I saw them so completely lacking in my work I was shattered.
When you feel confronted by a grave threat, control moves from the parts of your brain responsible for rational cognition to the more primitive limbic system, which is responsible for the infamous fight or flight response. This is immensely useful if the threat you face is a physical one, a wild animal, a rockslide and the like but when the threat is a more existential one, it is unhelpful to say the least. The fear, the doubt, the sense of imminent destruction and the need to run away felt so real but they were and are simply the hardwired reflexes of a cautious mind. For me, at that moment, it felt like I had failed at one of the things that mattered most to me.
I stood up from my computer, left the ninety thousand-odd offending words on the screen, and took a break from all things writing for a few days. The shock slowly dissipated. Although I still felt shaken, the desire to write and the love of storytelling didn’t go away. Neither did the fear that I would never get it right - I don’t think it ever will. The thing about fear though is that it requires immanency to be sustained. What I’ve learned to practice in response to crises of confidence is patience – an active patience where the work never stops. The fear will always subside, because no matter how far away the goal is, if you never stop moving you will eventually get there.
Raphael Solarsh is an emerging writer of fiction from Melbourne. He put out a self-published collection of short works in 2013 entitled Outliers: Stories of Searching, the contents of which can be viewed at raphaelsolarsh.com. Raphael is currently working though his second manuscript which, unlike the first, will hopefully not end up in the trash.
Is there a book that taught you something about writing or life? If you'd like to share your story, get in touch with our Online Editor Sam, on email@example.com
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.