The Big Idea: A. J. Smith
Reading can be a form of escapism, but so can writing. Author A. J. Smith’s tells us about his experience with this in the Big Idea for his newest novel, The Sword Falls. Delve into his journey with fantasy writing, and see just how quickly a hobby can turn into a profession.
A. J. SMITH:
I can write myself into corners, around corners; into and over walls and, mostly frequently, down dead-end alleyways. I get stuck, change my mind, delete and rewrite entire sections, and generally twist myself into knots trying to make everything hang together and become something people actually want to read. It’s never linear or straightforward, and is frequently seasoned with crippling self-doubt. I don’t say any of this to elicit sympathy or to moan on about the struggles of a fantasy novelist. It’s just necessary background to explain why I would never stop doing it.
I should probably confess at this stage that I am bipolar, and use writing as a form of therapy.
Let me start at the beginning. I always knew my mind didn’t work the same as other people, but I didn’t get a useful diagnosis until my mid twenties. By then, I’d been unknowingly self-medicating with the empty page for years. My therapy of choice at the time was drawing elaborate fantasy maps and concocting role-playing games set within. I think I was good at it, and it was the only thing I did that didn’t make me feel I should be doing something else. When a doctor told me I was a manic depressive, I went home and planned a role-playing game.
For years I maintained stability through a complicated dance of medication, fantasy role-playing, and filling the empty page. It was escapism, pure and simple, and I grew to love it. I wrote all sorts of things, experimenting with a hundred different genres and plotlines. Whenever the real world got too much, I retreated to the empty page. I sincerely loved writing and, when I decided to write my first novel, I grew to love it even more. When something is so important to you, you want to know if you’re any good at it. A close friend of mine issued a friendly challenge, wanting to know if I could write an entire book. I believe my reaction was to wonder why I’d not tried before.
For three or four months, with a few exceptions, it was basically the only thing I did. I pillaged role-playing plots, and found that I already had a world and a deep mythology. I got a massive kick as I immersed myself in a complicated world and told a story. There’s a wonderful sense of peace and glee that accompanies fantasy writing. It’s any world you want it to be, with any kind of people you want to populate it with. And it makes me smile when nothing else can. My mind and I have not always been particularly good friends, but we bonded as I wrote.
I remember saying at the time that, if I managed to work out how to write an entire book, I wouldn’t stop writing them. That was seven books ago, and I have no plans to stop. Sometimes you’re just meant to be doing something, and I’m meant to be doing this. As for my mental health, I go through phases of extreme creativity, and periods of deep reflection and planning, but I never stop writing. It’s my therapy and my medication, and I really hope people enjoy it… though I wouldn’t stop if they didn’t.
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