I think my accountant has an awfully hard job keeping my books. Not because I don’t properly document of my expenses or neglect to settle my bills on time—I studied finance and banking at the Warsaw School of Economics and even now I behave pretty much like an accountant (plus my mom was a chief accountant, so my fussy financial habits may be genetic). It’s just that my accountant has difficulty balancing my expenses with my revenues. Especially since recently I’ve been working particularly diligently on accumulating even more expenses, not least by going on a cruise to the Croatian islands and Montenegro. I don’t know if he’d let me claim this as a professional expense, but I’m not going to worry about it since I came back with some nice material (though not very much). I think it’ll help ensure that my new novel—Seasick, which is scheduled for 2017—will be really good. At least for now, as I formulate my plans for the book, I’m optimistic, but as you may know things always look great at the planning stage.
My accountant doesn’t understand that writers really need to travel (or at least I need to). This profession is sexy at first glance—a lot of people have told me that they’d like to exchange their job for mine—but it isn’t as easy as it looks. Recently, on Twitter, I exchanged messages with an artist in another country, who, like me, gave up a career in the IT industry, in that case to design jewelry rather than to write books. We ended up agreeing that by making a change we had simply jumped from the frying pan straight into the fire. Exactly the same rules apply to artists as apply in a standard office job: you have to keep to a schedule, maintain high quality, come up with innovative solutions, do precision work, be persistent, and search for new approaches even when it seems as if they don’t exist. And to this long list we added that there’s a large amount of stress that doesn’t come from the outside world, the way it might in a regular job, but from within the creator himself. Artists are often uncertain of themselves, tormented by the fear that they’ve created something exceptional for the last time, and the certainty that this is unacceptable—and all the same there’s a schedule and deadline. Plus, of course, the intrusive thoughts that are common for artists make an appearance: “I suck,” “my job sucks,” “I can’t,” “I’m brilliant,” “I’m an imbecile,” and so on.
From time to time I need to take a break from all that—and from spending whole days at my computer as well. Sometimes I work so much that my hands hurt. I often suffer from headaches: new ideas swirl crazily around in my head and the characters have big, very loud parties in there, instead of staying between the covers of the book and shutting up. I work 24/7, and I have no weekends, no holidays—either I’m writing or I’m thinking about writing. To stop my thoughts I have to leave home. That way sometimes, just sometimes, I manage to stop writing for a moment.
What’s more, when I’m working I feel like I’m on a voyage. Even if I don’t move physically, I still travel. I go from one alternate reality to another, sometimes because I want to, while at other time it just happens without my intending it to. That’s not so bad when I travel to places that exist, or at least are probable, but when I visit worlds that are completely off the wall, populated by magical creatures, things can get pretty bad. The jump from one world to another is usually very rapid—and even more so when I read work by the new writers I often help, meaning I have to visit their imaginary worlds as well as my own. So I have a variety of worlds, some alien enough to be scary, they’re so colorful and overwhelming. I move from one to another to another, and suddenly feel seasick—it’s a lot like the feeling I got while traveling by yacht from Komiza to Palmizana this September. It was windy, and tall waves pounded the yacht and tried to sink it. So I left the deck—I was afraid I’d be washed away—and went inside instead. Stupid. It was impossible to sit or stand, so I collapsed on the sofa and cried and prayed that this terrible journey would come to an end.
Eventually it was over, but I still wasn’t happy. When we moored in the marina, surrounded by the rocks and the quiet, I couldn’t even get up. My whole body shook, as if I had a high fever. I flipped over. I couldn’t go down to the pier, where my crew had prepared a bed, and where I would rest and wait to get better. In the end they just dragged me there and laid me on the pier, gave me water, and took care of cleaning the boat. From time to time they’d check to make sure that I was alive—I wasn’t. Despite being dead, I felt the pier swinging and rocking—an impossibility since it was made of concrete. I was dead, and felt that I couldn’t even drink the water they gave me. I was dead, but unfortunate enough to know that I wasn’t 100% dead, and I felt so bad that I wanted to finish the job. I stayed that way for three long days. I put the details of this undead state into Seasick. What goes on in my head when I’m working is a lot like that pitiful state. It hurts. And although they say about real seasickness that once you experience it you’ll never get sick again, a writer’s “seasickness” comes back over and over and over again.
The only way to temporarily escape this crazy journey is to leave my work space—the post I occupy facing a gray wall filled with story notes, each stupider than the last, each tinged with seasickness—and go ashore for a while. But it feels strange, leaving the studio and going out, because for a while the seasickness actually gets worse. At that point I feel literally like I did then, lying on the pier in Palmizana, suffering. I see the world, the real world, but it doesn’t appeal to me, and fictional worlds creep in to cover it up. I say to myself “this isn’t real” when I see alternate realities trying to invade, changing reality to suit their own shape. And I don’t always manage to distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t, especially in the first few moments that I encounter reality and have to adapt to the new circumstances. I feel a little like an animal who’s suddenly been released from a secure reserve to live in the wild. It’s kind of cool, but scary.
To regain my balance, I have to leave the ship that is my novel, my work-in-progress, and walk on solid ground, preferably far from the sea, but mostly far from my work space, which will be trying to call me back. Hence my recent trip to Montenegro, a place which, while unfortunately on the sea, is peaceful and quiet—you can safely stare at the water without getting on a boat. Staring like this helps me. While I’m doing it I can’t work, and I have the feeling that in some way I’m getting to understand the sea, and that maybe when I get back home I’ll understand my books as well—that they’ll no longer carry and toss me, like a yacht in a storm. It’s a kind of stupid hope, but I keep trying to understand. Maybe the day will come that I’ll be in control of the story, and the story will no longer control me. I look forward to it.
When staring gets boring, Montenegro has lots of other entertaining options, many of which are mindless, which is great. Porto Montenegro is a place where, once summer’s over, literally nothing happens, and that was just what I needed. So I spent hours in the sauna, jacuzzi, and swimming pool, which was really terribly boring. Material for the book? I thought it would somehow find its way into my head by itself, that I could safely go on autopilot—maybe listen to the world, but not too attentively. The sauna made me sleepy, and so did the jacuzzi, so from time to time I’d get into the pool to wake myself up a bit, drifting on the surface of the water. I stared at the ceiling.
And the attention that otherwise might have automatically gone into to my writing was also partly absorbed with the matter of travelling by car across Montenegro. I’m not an expert at Google Maps, and I’m not a good driver, but rather than take the ferry—which would have taken me and my irreplaceable Ford from Herceg Novi to Tivat across the Bay of Kotor, but which might have made me seasick all over again—I decided to travel around the bay, losing my way several times (even though there’s only a single road). I didn’t mind. I took a lot of very good photos and cursed like crazy, and thanks to the cursing I arrived at Tivat pretty relaxed.
And then in Tivat I relaxed even more…
How should I end this post, which was supposed to be about my trip to Croatia, Montenegro, and so on, but turned into a long essay on writing books? It’s funny—maybe a little scary—that after a while any subject I’m talking about turns into a story about how I write. What I write, when I write. Either I’m a workaholic, or I’m just an artist. A writer.
So next week I won’t even pretend to write about something other than writing. Let me tell you about the pros and cons of knowing other writers. Feel free to drop by!