“Let me not seem to have lived in vain” – Tycho Brahe, one of history’s greatest scientist, dying words
It’s important to know your mythology, because it reveals what cultures care about.
One of the running themes throughout the Old Testament is patience. This is because it was written for cultures feeling terribly oppressed and abandoned by their god, so their stories are about how patience pays off even when you think it can’t possibly. Samson is promised by God he will destroy his enemies as long as he keeps the faith. He disobeys, then loses his great strength, but at the last moment, has a chance to destroy his enemies. When all is lost to a conquering king that God promised to kill, Judith marries the victorious Holofernes, gets him drunk and cuts his head off. And when Abraham is promised a son, he gets older and older, and even when he and his wife are nine hundred years old, God delivers on his promises, with a son called Isaac.
Now, previously, like Samson, Abraham had disobeyed God and lost the faith, telling his wife to sleep with another man. So God is, as is often the way, wary of Abraham’s faith, so he devises one final test to check Abraham has learnt the lesson that God always fulfills his promises, and orders Abraham to kill Isaac. Spoilers: once it is clear Abraham is on board, God relents at the last second, and presumably Isaac grows up with severe trust issues.
Modern eyes find the story of Isaac difficult to deal with and it leads to discussions about the nature of trust in a deity – but those discussions tend to be grounded in the idea that what Abraham is doing is an abomination because he is killing an innocent. But that’s NOT the point of the story. The point of the story is Abraham is asked to destroy the very thing he wants most, the thing God promised him eight hundred years ago: descendants. Abraham doesn’t care about life, not his own, certainly. He lives in a culture where death is a constant and the only sense of assuredness and constancy is passing your name onto children and grandchildren.
The story of Abraham dates from somewhere between 1500 to 600 BC. Fast forward a thousand years and Jesus has a very different message in his philosophy, where he promises an individual salvation from death. Society in the Middle East is now at a point where death is no longer so certain that nobody cares about it. People want to live forever. Skip forward another 1600 years or so and it’s the 17th century. The Dark Ages are over, the 100 Years War is Over, the religious wars of Europe are ending, and the plague is now so rare its extremely localized appearance is a scary minor event, not a world-ending apocalypse. People now think they really can live forever, because they just don’t see death everywhere they go any more. In many cases this causes people to turn away from religion, meaning it has to be reformed; while others becomes straight-up humanists and atheists. Other parts of culture are horrified by this trend so they invent the memento mori: the inclusion in every work of art of a skull or another symbol of death to remind the viewer they are going to die. It’s considered very important in some cultures to include this, lest the beauty of the art without it seduce you back to thinking you’re immortal. They literally refuse to let you forget you will die, because they think that will kill you and society.
Fast forward another four hundred years to the late 20th century. Modern medicine is unbelievable. We destroy the Third Horseman by eliminating polio and expunging smallpox. Life expectancy shoots through the roof. The implementation of plastics and universal plumbing make hygiene possible at unimaginable levels a century ago. Random death is so uncommon or great fears coalesce into the one disease we seemingly can’t cure – cancer. And some of us are so sure we’ll live forever we stop vaccinating our children. We’ve lost our fear of death even on a population level – and that can be dangerous. But mostly we talk instead of poor health outcomes. For many, a life lived in pain or weakness is far more frightening than death. Euthanasia is on the table because as a culture we believe there is something worse than death: a life of suffering, or fear, or regret.
And those things are bad, but every society has its unthinkable horrors that must be warded against. Abraham feared nothing so much as being childless. 17th century folk did fear their souls going to Hell. And we fear our lives being wasted. And when we have those kind of all-encompassing existential fears, there are those who would turn them into cultural touchstones and cult-like beliefs. We have our own memento-moris of this age. We have a series of books and shows listing hundreds or thousands of things to do BEFORE YOU DIE, lest you live a life of lower value. A life lived in fear is a life half-lived. Begin it now, the self-helpers demand, lest you waste a moment not beginning. Follow your dream and your bliss. Quit your job and roam the earth before you get too old. Live like there’s no tomorrow. Don’t die still wondering. Take a chance. Live life to the fullest. You should be writing. Just do it. And have a Coke while you do.
Like most things, there’s some truth in this. It’s important not to settle for a reality filled with pain, suffering and abuse, and to seek out support and tiny ways to spiral upwards away from such things. But like most things, it’s exaggerated and expounded and shoved down our throats to a terrifying and disgusting degree. And it’s just not helpful. Not for most people.
And it’s enormously unhelpful to a large section of people. People who can’t begin it now. People who don’t have the privilege of money or health or freedom that you do. People who see suffering every second so they need no memento-mori to remind them. People who instead need memento-vivas, reminders that life is okay as it is. Pictures of puppies and kittens, for example. (Of course, advertising likes to tell you to embrace the status quo just as much as it likes to cast you as the hero of just doing it, but advertising ruins everything.)
Nothing has been more damaging to my writing career as the pressure of being told to do it and do it now. That brings it with it a terrifying sense of urgency, a sense that your ideas are a limited resource, and those ones burning and bubbling out of you every second will be lost if you don’t write them down. That your duty is to eternity and every lost moment is betraying yourself and everyone else. Make great art, ordered Neil Gaiman, but you must add Joss Whedon’s addition: don’t write a story if you don’t have a story to tell. I’ve sat at blank pages and gripped pens and screamed at my body to make the words, because everything else was the most disgusting thing, the most unbearable thing: to live a life half-lived, to not create, not use my gift.
I was born a gifted child so from the very beginning educators beat into me with emotional wounds the sense of wastage. But I have learnt, at last, through bloody battles, that nothing is wasted. Ever. And if you are going to create, you need to know that. Your ideas will seem to go nowhere. They will bubble out like steam and appear to fade into the ether. They will die on the page or never make it that far. And it will look like the garden is empty.
But life goes on and those ideas and attempts lie dormant and wait. And sometimes, they come back to life in the most amazing ways, but only when they are ready. You cannot pick the fruit before it is ripe. The Divyavadana, Buddhist scriptures written in sanskrit in the 2nd century BC provides the quote I keep beside my desk:
“What we have done will not be lost to all eternity. Everything ripens at its time and becomes fruit at its hour.”
Seven years ago I started work on a project for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, a supplement for Estalia, the Spanish-equivalent of the setting. It’s finished now, an epic tome of 144 pages that took an amazing amount of work. Several times I completely abandoned it. Several times I knew it could never be done. And I needed to think that, or it could NOT have been done. I tried to give it to others so that the fans would not be denied the product they wanted, but others didn’t want it. I asked for help, and got some at some time, none at others, and then at last, the right help at the right time, when I was strong enough to use it. Because you see, they didn’t want the book, they wanted MY book.
But not even that; apart from a few posts in approval, nobody really cares. Ultimately, we don’t make art for our audience, it doesn’t make sense to do it like that. And while it’s wonderful to see that this project ripened at its time, it’s the ripening that mattered, more than the finished product. I’m proud of it, but I’m more happy with the process. I learned more from the process and I cherish the process more. Which is why it wouldn’t matter if it had died. It was only once I let go and accepted it might that I had space to heal and ripen to a point where maybe it could be done. Once I knew I could live without it, I could make it. Once I knew my life was not betrayed by stepping away from my dream, I could live authentically enough to have art within me.
Tycho Brahe was one of the greatest astronomers the world had ever known and his measurements were so precise that they weren’t bettered until the 20th century. Without his work, his colleague Johannes Kepler could never have discovered elliptical planet movement, and Newton could never have discovered gravity. But Brahe lived his entire life in fear of being forgotten, of being a nobody, and on his death bed, he prayed to God and all who would hear him that he might mean something. Kepler, himself neurotic and afraid, found understanding in his friend’s last words. And Kepler’s reflection also sits beside my desk to remind me what matters.
“The roads that lead a man to knowledge are as wondrous as that knowledge itself”
See the road, and walk it haphazardly. You can’t force it. You shouln’t be writing; you should be growing to a place where writing is natural, and safe, and joyful, and how you get there is yours to discover. Don’t let anyone tell you they know the best way for you to go – or that you need to start going now, lest you waste your precious time. You’ll go when you’re ready. You really do have time. And anything else is madness.
And I hope you enjoy Swords of the South.