Dystopian Anxiety: Why I’m Rewriting My Novel (Again)

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Confession: sometimes I wonder if I have a single personality trait that doesn’t stem from anxiety. I spent a good chunk of my life feeling like an alien who didn’t fit in anywhere, and I adapted my behaviour accordingly. I lurk on the sidelines, I keep my mouth shut in group situations, fuelled by the assumption that everyone secretly hates me. When I like people and want to be friends with them, I clam up. What if I annoy them by standing near them? Have I looked at them too often, do they think I’m weird? Are they repulsed by me? Time to go hide in my corner.
Maybe no one hates me right now, but my anxiety-induced behaviour will make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Anxiety has been the lens through which I interact with the world for as long as I can remember. I used to think I was just shy, and would grow out of it eventually, but that day never came. I am not shy, I am terrified.

You can tell a lot about someone by the books they’re drawn to. The books we read show what themes and ideas we value enough to invest our time in. It pains me to admit that I can’t remember the last time I read a novel. Two years of English Literature at university sucked my love of books right out of me. (Somehow 3 years of Film & Television didn’t have the same effect on my TV consumption). All I seem to read these days are astrology articles and self-help books, maybe the occasional bit of feminist theory if the patriarchy particularly aggravated me that day. Long, long ago when I was home-schooled, before formal education sapped the life out of me and poisoned my love of literature, I had two great literary loves: fantasy, and dystopia.

When I first began writing novels, aged 12, I wrote historical fantasy. But I began to find the historical genre too restrictive. At 14, I read Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, and it rocked my world. I remember standing in the teenage section of my town’s independent bookshop (which sadly closed a couple of years later), trying to decide whether to buy this book, because a novel set in the future certainly wouldn’t be my thing. But the movie was coming out soon, and Taylor Swift had a song in the soundtrack, so I figured I should at least give it a chance. And I loved it.

A few months later, I read Veronica Roth’s Divergent, which I still consider to be one of the books that fundamentally shaped me into the person I am today. Through these books, and many others that I have long since forgotten, my love of dystopia was born. At 14, I wrote my 3rd novel, and unlike the first two, which were set in the 17th century, this novel was set 300 years into the future. Looking back, I wouldn’t necessarily classify it as dystopian. Mostly because 14-year-old Eliza was a little sketchy on the world building. I tend to care more about my characters’ emotional lives than the worlds they live in.

The trilogy I wrote when I was 14-15 was self-published. Sort of. These books were published through my mum’s self-publishing label that she used to publish parenting books, and were therefore mostly read by her readers, who may have been a little shocked at the twisted concoctions of my dark 14-year-old mind. For a number of reasons, mostly relating to autonomy, branding, and my crippling perfectionism, I decided, at 17, to rewrite my novels. My plan was to self-publish them again — they wouldn’t differ enough from the originals that I could submit them to a traditional publisher as a new book. But at least this way I would be in control, I could market them to the right audience, and put my books out into the world as something I could be proud of, rather than something I look back at and cringe.

It’s been 3.5 years, and every time I think I’m close to finishing the rewrite, something holds me back.

Initially, I focused on psychological realism in the rewrite. I wanted to go deeper and darker, stop self-censoring the way I had at 14. A central theme in the novel is mental and physical autonomy, and there is a storyline that deals with mind control and implied rape. I glossed over it a lot in the original version, simply because I didn’t have the emotional maturity at that age to explore those topics in a way that would do them justice.

The next layer of rewrites focused on race, sexual orientation, and social justice. I had a book full of straight, white people. I had one gay character, who died, and a bisexual villain. 14-year-old Eliza wasn’t particularly woke.
In terms of race, my novels are set in Russia and Estonia, so demographically it makes sense that my characters were mostly white. However, ⅔ of my main characters come from immigrant backgrounds. Just because I grew up in a small town where practically everyone is not only white, but have families that lived in that town for generations, it doesn’t mean it is an accurate representation of the world. So I changed some of my characters’ races and sexual orientations. I removed more problematic tropes and storylines. And still, something was missing.

I’ve been a feminist for many years, but my passion for the cause has increased lately. I entered 2019 in a flurry of feminist rage that never quite dissipated. I realised everything that motivates me — personally, creatively, academically — comes back to a strong need to do feminist work. And this is particularly important for my novel.

In January, I was talking with my favourite lecturer, who is basically my feminist guru at this point. I find wisdom in everything she says, even when all she says is “I don’t have the answers.” I was sitting in her office, ranting about men invalidating women’s experiences, the lack of diversity in one of my class’s reading lists, men questioning my career choices, etc. She responded by talking about the importance of forming solidarity networks with other women. I filed it away in my brain to analyse at a later date, and continued my rant.

A couple of weeks later, I was having a conversation with a classmate about a completely different topic, and the word ‘solidarity’ came up again.. In the context of them showing solidarity with me. And it moved me, a lot. I felt like I wasn’t alone, that the whole world wasn’t against me, even if a little bit of it was. As I walked home, a light bulb switched on in my brain. I knew what was missing from my novel. I was trying to tell a story about female empowerment, with a revolution led by only one woman. There was no solidarity, no networks of women standing with my main character.

As much as I love Divergent and The Hunger Games, I feel like feminism has moved on from the days of one-woman revolutions being the height of empowerment. Feminism, and revolutions, come from working together.

So I decided to rewrite. I will completely alter the middle of my novel, and write a revolution that is a more timely reflection of the good parts of modern feminism. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt since changing the time period of my book by 150 years and changing the sexual orientation of two of my characters, it’s that as soon as you tug on one narrative thread, you risk unravelling the entire plot. But there is a certain freedom that comes from destruction — is that not why I was drawn to post-apocalyptic novels in the first place?

Dystopia reflects the cultural zeitgeist, it takes society’s biggest fears and places them in a funky new setting to explore them in every disturbing detail. In short, dystopia is a genre bred from anxiety. I live and breathe anxiety, yet it is not something that has previously seeped into my novels. (Though someone did once tell me my blog reads like I’m paranoid, so maybe it’s not too big a stretch for me).

The other week, I — the World’s Most Awkward Person — attempted to make small talk. I spent half an hour babbling about climate change and the impending apocalypse, and how everything is pointless because we’re all going to die. Thankfully I don’t have to see the person again, because I don’t think I could deal with being known as Doomsday Girl for all eternity.

After I got over the embarrassment of making a fool of myself in a social situation for the umpteenth time, something occurred to me: I am writing a novel set in the future, but the main anxiety of my generation is that we don’t have a future. I had already changed the century my novel was set in, to make it 130 years in the future instead of 300. But even then: how do we know the earth won’t be uninhabitable by 2150? Not to be dramatic, but the planet is dying, and I have very little faith in the human race to collectively get our shit together before it’s too late. It terrifies me. It scares me more than social interaction, and almost as much as finding a mouse in my kitchen. I crave security and certainty, and the world is ending. In order for the world not to end, our entire civilisation will have to change drastically within the course of my lifetime, and that, too, is terrifying. I can envision a better world, but that is no guarantee of one.

No wonder I am an anxious wreck!

Now that I am planning to tear my book apart at the metaphorical seams in the name of feminism, I don’t want to stop there. I want to make my book dystopian. I want to tackle climate change and the rise of technology, and all the other things that scare me. I want to use the medium of dystopian writing to explore cultural and generational anxieties, as well as my own anxieties that stem from them.

Lately I’ve felt a desperate need for attention. I just want to sit down with someone and talk about things that matter, without them looking at their phone, or getting distracted by squirrels, or talking over me because they think they know what I’m trying to say before I’ve even said it. I want someone to hold space for me. I want someone to listen to me, because I am screaming on the inside, and anxiety makes me paralysed. As I sat here, writing this blog, I realised that writing is how I give myself attention. It is a conversation with myself, a carving out of space where I can be heard. And it has been too long since I’ve allowed myself to have that.

Maybe I’m not craving attention from others, but from myself. By rewriting my novel (again!) I am making space to learn who I am at this point in my life — what my hopes are, my fears, my beliefs and anxieties about the world. Writing a dystopian novel is the perfect way to explore my dark side, the unsavoury parts of me that I hide from the world, the parts of me I worry no one will ever accept or love. Maybe by building this tower out of my anxiety, putting it into words and fictional context, it won’t haunt me so much in the non-fictional world.

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