by Katherine Heath Shaeffer
I have to write. Specifically, I have to write science fiction and fantasy.
I can't stop.
It's not just a matter of writing for catharsis (though there's an element of that in my writing) or of writing the story that I want to read (though there's an element of that, too). It's not just a matter of honoring, through emulation, the escapist fantasies that got me through the toughest times in my life (and to this day the writing of escapist literature is one of the noblest pursuits I can imagine) or of contributing allegorically to whatever ethical debates are in vogue this season.
I write because I'm a writing addict. Writing is an addictive and self-destructive behavior.
I believe that writing requires a specific kind of sacrifice. As I write, I find myself donating things I remember and things I've dreamed to my fiction. Because, no matter how implausible the premise, in a way I am always writing from experience: my experience of being able to imagine what would happen in the case of my implausible premise. And as I write down memory and dream, I lose them. Not wholly. I'm not giving myself amnesia here. But I don't get to keep these thoughts and images as they were originally constructed in my mind, because I have reconstructed them, through writing.
It's like that family story that's about you when you were a kid: you know that the story is not the whole truth, but you hear it so many times that the 'traditional' version that your parents tell at Thanksgiving every year superimposes itself upon the 'whole truth' that you remember until one day, for the life of you you can't recall what the flaws in your parents' version were, so you just go with it. You and your family have lived with this version so long that it's the truth now, no matter what really happened.
It's like explaining last night's dream to someone after you wake up. Dreams often don't make sense, but the dream you had last night was so wild and interesting that you have to share it with someone, so you fudge the details a little, connecting point A to point B so that the fluidly juxtaposed images of your dreaming mind come together to make a story. Then, when you try to remember your dream, it is not the dream that you invoke but the story you told of your dream. Because we are humans and patterns are easier for us to remember than lacks-of-pattern. So. You've lost a dream but gained a story.
Maybe you write that story. And so it goes.
Even the most fantastic of tales are constructed from the building blocks of memory, just as you can draw a beautiful dragon using the building blocks you develop from studying the anatomy of birds, bats snakes and fish. Or turtles and pterodactyls. (Hey, it's your dragon. Draw what you want.)
It's like that scene in Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Yes, I am dipping into the great well of Star Trek metaphors. Don't judge me.) In “The Measure of a Man,” Data refuses to allow his android body to be dismantled, studied, and reconstructed because he believes that, though his memories will technically stay intact, the 'flavor' of those memories will be lost. Data makes it sound like this is a horrible thing that can only happen to androids, but to me it just sounds like what happens to any of my memories, once I try to tell it.
For me, at least, writing is erosion. It requires sacrificing those loves and fears I hold closest to my heart and reconstructing them into tools. It requires breaking down what I feel, what I remember, what I dream and writing it onto the page in a way that a reader can access. I may lose the immediacy of the feeling, but sometimes, if I am very lucky, I can translate that immediacy -- or a version of it -- to the page.
This self-erosion is both bittersweet and exhilarating.
Katherine Heath Shaeffer is a writer and graduate student who lives in Gainesville, Florida with her boyfriend and three cats. She is the current Production Editor of the academic journal ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies. She has a short story forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction. Katherine's article Beauty and the Body and the Beast, along with her short story The Witch, the Curse and the Prince were published in the May issue of Penumbra eMag.