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The Loveably Painful Lion-Dog, Or: A Self-Examination of My Troubles Writing

An anniversary is coming up that I'm far from eager to observe. Almost a year ago was the last time I updated A (Lion-)Dog Among Gods, hereafter referred to as Lion-Dog. I've given some comment on the story, my lack of updates, and my feeling on the likelihood of future updates before, but that's mostly been in drips and drabs. If you'll permit me, though, I'd like to use this chance to do a bit of soul-searching and maybe clarify a lot of things on my mind. I won't ask total understanding from you, as that would probably be impossible, but I will ask that you try to understand where I'm coming from. More than just Lion-Dog, I'd like to get into the various difficulties I have with writing, creativity in general, and thinking and perceiving. Chances are good that it will raise more questions than answers, and I'm not really seeking solutions from anyone. I just want a better idea of where I've gone wrong and where I keep going wrong. If there's a way to avoid that in future, all the better.

To start with, Lion-Dog has its origins in my various troubles. I was left adrift with no projects to work on after the demise of Don't Call Me a Glutton and the hasty 'conclusion' of Grass is Greener, not to mention the (official) departure of my long-time collaborator from THP that year. There was an attempt at a collaboration project with someone else the year before that fell apart quickly and ignominiously, and I felt I was dried-up as far as ideas of my own. As a favour to me, a very kind someone agreed to help me get back on my feet. Whilst I think there would be some difference in opinion between us on the matter, they presented me with the better part of the premise to begin from, some discussions following bringing me as far as the first couple of posts. There were a number of the broad strokes left yet undecided, and I believe the person helping me even said that their general intention was for me to 'figure out the rest later'. Both of us now know this was a little bit foolish of an assumption to make of my creative ability.

I quickly ran into walls partway into the opening 'arc' — the whole issue of 'arcs' something I will get into later — to the befuddlement and annoyance of my benefactor. By their reckoning, I should have been able to simply extrapolate happenings from the characters themselves and a bit of imagination. I was at a loss; absolutely nothing came to mind. As we fumbled back and forth on the topic of how creative processes work, the one thread that became apparent was that I lacked an assumed common faculty. This was when I was introduced to the concept of aphantasia, a realisation that freed me in some ways and continues to make me miserable in others. Here, we'll take our first digression to talk a bit about aphantasia and what it means to me.

Aphantasia itself is one of those things that someone might encounter and think it's something people make up to be 'quirky', but I can assure you that it's quite real. It's basically defined as an inability to 'visualise' things in one's mind to some extent or another. Some people are able to visualise to a rough degree but perhaps with no fidelity to real objects, whilst others may have no ability at all. I lie in the latter camp, totally lacking any faculty for mental visualisation. All my life, I'd been assured that it was something that all people could do, and I suppose I may have fooled myself into believing that I could do it, but I've made the realisation that I was in error this whole time. Of course, there are other forms of mentalisation I'm also unable to do. For instance, I don't hear things in my head. This means that, unlike many, I have no form of 'internal monologue' as a thought process. I also can't recall things like smells or tastes in any meaningful way. If I'm not directly sensing or experiencing it, there is no way for my brain to replicate it. Though I can know things in the sense of having some kind of factual understanding, they are 'distant' from any actual stimulus and thus there are certain limitations to how well I can say I 'understand' them. This presents a lot of trouble when it comes to things like creativity, as you might well glean.

Probably one of the biggest troubles aphantasia presents to me in particular, being a 'total aphantasiac' — with no internal visualisation, no internal monologue, etc. — is extreme difficulty in maintaining a coherent train of thought without externalising it. Whilst it may vary, my understanding is that most people conduct their thoughts through an internal monologue in their own 'inner voice', discrete thoughts themselves being in the form of whatever statements voiced. Lacking this ability, I have to make whatever manifestation of the thought process externally perceivable (i.e., audible or visible) to me; how to do this effectively is a big issue in and of itself. If things get more complicated than a low degree, being able to keep things straight becomes a challenge, maybe even impossible. In particular, without some kind of established pieces as 'guide rails', the thought process can be a monumental task to keep on or steer back to a productive track. This means that areas of uncertainty, without firmly decided facts or decisions, are an active risk to the actual process of synthesis. Of course, creativity involves a lot of making decisions in absense of these staked-down pieces unless one is following a well-trod formula, with decisions essentially made by default.

I linger on 'decisions' here to underscore that one of the key problems to writing for me is related to decision-making. Returning to Lion-Dog, nothing had been decided for the highest-level facets of the story, the generalities of 'what happens' across the entirety. There was something of a beginning but no end, and certainly no middle to speak of. What did exist was the vague idea of 'arcs' to structure the story around. As mentioned prior, things came to a crawl coming to the end of the 'introduction arc', but I guess I should clarify what that was generally intended to be a part of: Somewhere early on, in discussions, the notion of having a piece of the story dedicated to each Moriya Shrine resident came up. I latched onto that for want of other ideas, and it soon fossilised into something of a (brittle) core for Lion-Dog. 'Five arcs' was a phrase that would crop up from my end in a lot of discussions afterward, referring to the introduction arc, the separate Moriya arcs, and an ending arc. That might seem like a pretty firm decision for even that stage of things, but it was anything but firm or decided. Did I actually have anything in mind for those arcs? Absolutely not. The most I had for the beginning was a sense that some 'trouble' had to be established, followed by explication across the three principle characters, further followed by some resolution at the end for Aun. If you're a reader, you might object at this point and say something about the pictures Aya shows Aun in an early update. Surely, you might think, those are a sign that some consideration was made early on. You would be wrong to think so, though, because the contents were actually random details thrown out in talks with my collaborator. Which is to say: I made it several updates into the opening 'arc' of the story without any real consideration for what the core conflict(s) of the story would be, and I had positively no thought in my head of any possibilities of such. What I was doing up to that point could be fancifully called treading water right before sinking up to my neck.

Slightly wandering off-sequence, I'll address another elephant in the room based on early 'decisions'. I have realised in the course of going back over all that's happened that I have a rather harmful habit when it comes to my flailing attempts at deciding story matters. Namely, lacking other thoughts, if something should be either suggested or simply presents itself as some obvious stop-gap, a decision for the sake of having made one, then I will grab onto it and latch on for dear life, unable to let go for fear of never coming up with anything to displace it. In this case, a pretty dire attempt at floating has been hung on tying the events of Lion-Dog — at least, in some spiritual sense — to those of Suspended, my contest piece from a couple of years ago featuring Suwako as the perspective character. As far as I can attach a reasoning to it, the desire to do so is mostly because of a certain sense of conflict inherent in Suspended's setup and events, muddled as they are. Most concretely, the plans for a 'summit' between the Moriya goddesses and 'some important tengu' creates a background gravity that, to my dysfunctional brain, seems like it would be enough to suggest what 'should' happen. There is also the matter of Suwako's story arc being otherwise undecided in any sense beyond the faintest sense that it should be tied to Suspended. That's why, for instance, Suwako brings up the ropeway and her desire to ride it mid-way into the introduction arc. Hints are dropped in less-than-subtle degrees that I'm trying to tie everything in some way to Suspended, whether advisable or not. I'd honestly think that it isn't advisable, considering that story was a mess in and of itself. However, if not for Suspended, then I have totally no idea what to do about Suwako; there is nothing I can think of that actually gives her a place in the story beyond her general annoyance at Sanae and Kanako. This, of course, demonstrates a slightly more fundamental piece of trouble for me when it comes to writing.

Generalising creative processes is hard, mind, so there are likely many to which this wouldn't apply, but it seems to me from limited attempts at understanding how others work that the process of writing fiction starts at some kind of motivating desire to tell a story about something. So, right away, I run into a problem before even starting: I don't know what I want to accomplish in writing. It's a question that has been put to me time and again, and I can come up with no answer at any time. At least, I can't come up with a useful answer; the truth is that I have a want to 'write something', but there's too little for anyone, much less myself, to get a handhold on that it's essentially a meaningless statement. The next best thing I can manage, though still not very useful, is to have in mind certain very minor bits and pieces that I want to include in a story in some way. These are never particularly concrete points, so they're difficult to develop much from. Bringing things back to Suspended for a moment, attempting to talk over a concept for the story, I voiced an unfocused desire to include an element of 'public transit' in a story. That ultimately took the form of the ropeway as the setting for most of the piece, but it provided little in the way of motivational material for the story itself, nothing to really draw a plot from. This has been characterised in some discussions with someone as 'spectacle', so that's the term I use for it now.

It might be tempting to suggest simply trying to build a story up based on bits of spectacle. After all, it's at least some idea of what I want to do, right? Unfortunately, I've tried that a few times. If anything, that's all I had to go on with a number of failed shorts from last year and early this year. It's a very problematic sort of process, because it seems so intuitive that stringing together distantly appealing emotional resonances would result in an idea of what I actually want to write. Very recently, I tried to write something of a 'ghost story' featuring Sanae. I'd discovered through some reading that I liked the styles of a few different Japanese authors and felt a need to mimic them. The inciting bit was a scene written based on the incredibly vague motivation of a bullied high-schooler Sanae, arguably based entirely on clichés because I'd nothing else in mind. This turned into one of the people involved in the scene returning as part of a half-baked ghost story. Whilst there may have been individual bits, copied loosely from writers like Murakami Haruki and the like, that were interesting in their own way, the core of the story was very thin and underdeveloped. I worked with someone to 'make it better', but I ran into the same frustration as always: nothing in mind for what to actually do. Even if the story was technically 'complete', I wasn't happy with any of it. It only struck me in the middle of a night of fitful sleep that the problem was as simple as it was devastating. The whole thing had been an immense ordeal to write because it wasn't what I wanted. Upon realising that, I totally lost interest and gave up on 'finishing' the piece. This very same process has played out a number of times with other bits of writing, attempting to 'retrofit' a story concept around some pieces of spectacle in hopes that one mildly appealing thing plus another equals an appealing story.

So, having got most of the way through the intro arc, I leaned harder on my long-suffering helping hand and assembled enough pieces to finish things out to that point. Readers may remember that there was a relatively long pause following the closing of that arc. As you might now imagine, that's because I needed time and space to figure out what to do next. Just prior, I'd debated endlessly over which Moriya to follow up with, not wanting to leave it to a reader vote, and I had ultimately settled on Kanako, so that's what the end of the arc reflected. That's all that was settled at the time, unfortunately. Beyond a couple of tiny glints of spectacle lifted spiritually from questionable sources, I had nothing of any serious value in mind for actual events of a Kanako arc. I was still hell-bent on trying to use that to push everything forward, leading to a few updates pushed out over slow months of discouragement and irregular work. There were a few conversations with my now-weary friend in the interim where certain approaches were taken to fill gaps, but no real long-standing resolutions came out of them. Worse, though tentative decisions were made as a result, many of those broke down quickly over time. I once had something of an 'outline' of the Kanako arc that layed a few things out in broad terms. This outline showed its weaknesses immediately when I tried using it as a basis for a couple of updates. Lacking any true understanding what I was trying to accomplish, I got very stuck trying to puzzle out some extensive dialogue scenes. I found myself questioning why those scenes were even there and soon afterward what value the whole damned arc held for me anymore. After the struggle to finish the latest couple of updates, it became clear to me that nothing about my approaches thus far had been working. I doubted whether I had it in me to continue, but I didn't want to let go of the story for fear of having nothing else. That's more or less where I stand now.

Which brings me to the present. Having learnt all of this, where do I go from here? Unfortunately, I still have no idea. Knowing the causal side of things doesn't necessarily help me puzzle out the more procedural ones. Most of what I've given as an issue can fall under a general blanket problem of conceptualisation, but how do I actually deal with that? Aphantasia presents its own issues when it comes to actually being able to bring thoughts together in a meaningful way creatively. My need to externalise my thinking means my best bet is some kind of notetaking. Yet, in the past, I've attempted making notes and found them utterly useless for any sort of further derivation, overwhelming in their disorder and inanity. My brainstorming process is largely one that relies on others to act as sounding boards, yet I'd be hard-pressed to be able to communicate anything meaningfully. After all, I can't even say for sure what I want to accomplish at any given point. How do ask for help without knowing what actually requires assistance? More than that, I'm profoundly unhappy with what I've done thus far. I've muddled my way through by means I can hardly recount, and the result has been a mess, to my mind. Reading back previous Lion-Dog updates, I find myself wanting to scrap it all and start over; that is, of course, a terrible idea given what happened with Don't Call Me a Glutton. Things are inconsistently dealt with in ways that I can't simply ignore and move on from. I barely even feel like I have an understanding of how to treat Aun, the main character. All I know is that I want to carry on somehow. Every failure is extremely painful to me, hurting any other motivation I might have afterward. I don't want to lose any more. I have nothing else meaningful in my life, so I have to do something. I just don't know what yet.