• C J Halbard

The goldfish and the tangle

If a goldfish wrote a horror novel, would it be about drowning?

I used this question as a signpost when I was trying to find my way into Project Tempest, sketching out big bits of story architecture while digging into moments of key emotion. There’s this weird, stressful period in the middle of many creative processes when you’ve forgotten why you started but haven’t figured where you’re really heading. You get lost somewhere out in the middle and your brain revolts, dribbling chemicals, throwing the clutch on your nerves and stomach and decision-making ability. It’s no fun, and it happens in everything from relationships to startup businesses to trying to pick lunch orders. Not to mention building a story world.

I imagine you’ve been there yourself. We know the territory, right? That gut feeling. A friend of mine calls it the tangle, and his day job is guiding web designers through it, helping them emerge blinking into the sunlight of a decision about the right font to use on that burger ad. Maybe that sounds flakey but he used to do the same thing for soldiers, and women who’ve been hit, and according to him it’s all the same forest we’re lost in sometimes.

My own way through the tangle is putting up signposts for myself, often to do with absurd questions rooted in contradiction.

What’s the thing you’ve forgotten?

Why are you here and not there?

How does the climate feel about change?

And, of course that goldfish, let’s call her Flappy, just moseying along, thinking and dreaming about horror novels in 15-second bursts, a piscatorial Stephen King in the making…

What I’m really doing, I think, is distracting myself long enough to let deep, weird, true things crawl up from inside me. The real question, lost out there in the tangle, is:

What’s the world I see? How does that lead to the thing I have to create?

Project Tempest is a story setting with a point of view. I’ll talk more about exactly what that point of view is in other posts soon - let’s just say it scares the hell out of me - but here are the two main things it comes from. The world I see.

First, I grew up in small town New Zealand, in places that for most of the last two centuries were the literal end of the earth. The estuary that slugs its way to the Pacific ocean past the town of Whitianga on the Coromandel peninsula. The ruins of a 19th century storeship torn apart in a storm on Buffalo Beach. The local dairy store with a single half-broke arcade machine, Frogger, in a lean-to past the ice cream freezer. People whose faces loom out of the past unreadable. As close to Antarctica as you can get without being a penguin.

Tempest Bay, the town I’ve built, comes from those places. Small towns are probably small towns the world over, but that very particular Kiwi flavour of them shaped me down to the marrow of my bones. And so it slithers up inside the tangle whenever I’m lost.

The second thing is harder to convey but it’s always there, more fundamental, primordial even. I remember the feeling of being 4 years old, wriggling impatiently on a mat in kindergarten. Feeling waves of light and heat and noise and emotion washing over me like salt water on a shoreline. People, connections, words all around me, my brain grinding like a tiny tractor engine trying to interpret them but somehow, on some basic level, failing to comprehend. This feeling that everyone gets it but me. A tangled forest between me and everybody else’s reality.

That feeling has many labels but the best thing to do might be to ignore all of them and start right back from scratch. That’s where Project Tempest began, that’s the way I found through the creative challenge of getting it off the ground.

In the end, maybe it’s my job to be the goldfish who writes about drowning. So here we flapping go.