Blame My Dissertation

Blame My Dissertation

I haven’t been sleeping as much as I’d like recently. I probably still sleep more than the average person; it’s still the Easter break, I’m still fatigued, and I don’t often get up before noon. But I’m not sleeping well. I find it difficult to drop off, however late it is when I go to bed; a lot of that’s to do with anxiety, and I’ve had some significant panic attacks lately, though I’m not certain why.

Even once I get to sleep, I’ve been having seriously weird dreams. Some of them are anxiety dreams, about having to recite one of my poems by heart and not having been given time to memorise it, and some of them are just downright odd. Last night, my dream featured someone I haven’t seen for ten years, barring two brief encounters — once in the snow and once at a Duke of Edinburgh presentation evening when we were seventeen. They were just kind of … there, in my dream, for no apparent reason. The weirdest part was that I remembered their name but they didn’t seem to.

And sometimes I don’t sleep because I’m distracted by new novel ideas. Which is a comparatively fun reason not to go to bed, because yay, ideas, but it’s also frustrating — I don’t have time to write a novel right now. I don’t even have time to plan a novel. I have a dissertation to polish and hand in; a piece of French coursework to research, write, polish and hand in (I haven’t got very far yet); an Anglo-Saxon History essay to research and write; exams to revise for; a book blog to resurrect after an unintentionally long hiatus; and so on and so forth.

The earliest I’d be able to get to this is mid June and yet when I sat down the other night to write down a scene I’d come up with, just so I didn’t forget it…

… I found myself a bit over half an hour later with, well, more than I’d bargained for:

(Notebook is a Paper-Oh Quadro, btw. I’ve been using small Paper-Oh notebooks for my journal for about a year now, and when I saw a larger one going cheap in Heffers, I thought I’d give it a go. I like the paper quality, they open flat, and they’re substantially cheaper than Moleskines. Plus, magnet closure. I’m a fan.)

The weirdest thing about the scene I wrote down is that I don’t actually like it. I settled somewhat unintentionally into a very particular writing style: it’s quite an old-fashioned narrative voice, in first person and past tense. It’s the kind of narration that’s very conscious of being narration — the narrator occasionally talks about the fact they’re telling a story, if you know what I mean. It’s not my usual style at all; the last book I worked on was a fourth draft of Butterfly of Night, which is written in third person, present tense, to give it a screenplay-like immediacy.

Then again, this is an entirely different book to Butterfly of Night, because while that’s a violent, fast-paced, screwed up book about a teenage assassin, this is about magic — quite the transition.

Specifically, it’s about studying magic and then realising you can do it, and it’s also about anxiety. There are two things to blame for this, and I was about to put them into an order, but in truth, I’m not sure which one really goes first.

Chronologically, my dissertation comes first, as I’ve been working on that for a while. It’s about magic in two medieval Irish texts: Tochmarc Étaíne and Acallam na Senórach. I’ve spent a lot of time picking out particular incidences of magic in these stories and comparing and contrasting them, as well as looking at their historical context and the background that informs them. While reading for it, I came across the following paragraph:

From “Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages” by Stephen A Mitchell

My immediate thought was, “I wish my anxiety would create magic, instead of just panic attacks.”

The second factor, at least chronologically speaking, was that I read Strange The Dreamer by Laini Taylor. Towards the beginning of this book, the protagonist is studying folklore and fairytales and stories about magic because he’s obsessed with the lost city of Weep and wants to know everything he can about it. He studies magic in much the same way as I’d like to, if I didn’t have a ten thousand word limit: extensively and in detail, not ruling out fairytales just because they’re aimed at children, but seeing grains of truth in everything.

So I read this book. And I thought about my dissertation. And I thought about this idea of magic being created from anxiety.

And I had an idea for a story about a student of literature, studying magic (probably in medieval literature, if we’re going for the ‘write what you know’ approach), who has an anxiety disorder. One day, they think they’re about to have a panic attack, but somehow instead they channel the excess nervous energy into performing magic for the first time…

And, you know, it needs work. One thing I know for sure is that magic won’t ‘cure’ the anxiety disorder or make it go away, but it will provide a more productive way for the character to channel it. I know it’ll be heavily influenced by my own experiences as an anxious student of magic, but I also want to give this character distinctive features and experiences so that it’s not merely a self-insert. I haven’t got a plot as such yet, so it’s mostly only a premise.

But this idea has been haunting me rather, and keeping me up at night because I just want to think about it (instead of my French essay). The more I read for my dissertation, the more I want to look at other magic (in folklore and in more recent literature), and since I can’t do that as part of my formal studies, I want to put it in a novel instead. I’ve found in myself an interest in studying that I haven’t felt for a long time. I actually want to go sit in a library and follow up on all the references that interest me. I don’t even remember the last time I was this enthusiastic to study something.

That’s always the way, though, isn’t it? As soon as it’s not within the limits or requirements of your actual degree, it’s a thousand times more interesting…

It’s practically finished, so of course NOW is when I’m getting passionate about it.

Anyway, unless I get distracted by another idea or decide to edit Butterfly of Night again, I’ll be working on that this summer. I’m going travelling in Ireland (more on that at … some point?), hoping to visit various places of mythological and folkloric significance, so I can see that finding its way into the book too. I mean, let’s be real, this book is for me: it’s me saying, “What if my anxiety could be something fun and productive instead of horrible and debilitating?” Even if it ends up being crappy and self-inserty and no one wants to read it, I get to explore that possibility. That sounds worth the time, to be honest.

Any fun ideas come your way recently to distract you? Tell me about them!

Oh, and also, I made some minor changes to the blog’s theme, mostly font-related. If you notice any issues, let me know. :)

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