R. S. Penney: Give yourself permission to screw up

R. S. Penney: I have a condition called keratoconus, which means that my corneas are warped and my vision is impaired. This began to manifest in my left eye when I was twenty-three. I remember driving home from Toronto and seeing this blur of colored lights on my left side. I told my optometrist about this, but, unfortunately, she just kept saying, “Oh, your vision changes as you get older.” I remind you that I was twenty-three.

So, unfortunately, the condition progressed to the point where the cornea in my left eye had to be replaced. I hit my lowest point in the spring of 2012. I was twenty-nine. At that point, I was coping with lots of headaches and lots of dizzy spells. That, combined with various life difficulties, put me into a deep depression. For a year, I couldn’t write at all. I reached into my head for ideas, and there was just nothing there.

That was terrifying for me because I have always been a storytelling machine. For as long as I can remember, I couldn’t turn off my imagination. But in the summer of 2012, my imagination just … shut down.

Now, it was a long process, clawing my way out of that pit. I went to the doctor and tried to figure out the source of the headaches. It wasn’t until the summer of 2013 that I got a diagnosis. I started taking medication to deal with the depression.

In the fall of 2013, I had a flash of inspiration. The Justice Keepers Saga was something I had wanted to write ever since I was a teenager. I went through so many drafts that ended up in a garbage can. Finally, I had an idea of how I could get back to basics: stop trying to show all the world-building in the first novel. Just do a tight story about a boy and a girl standing together against the forces of evil. That story became Symbiosis.

I had surgery in the summer of 2014 to replace my cornea. I went into the operating room two days after finishing the first draft of Symbiosis. It was about a month and a half of recovery before I could even look at a screen, and in that time, I was right back down in the pit of despair.

I knew I had to keep writing; if I didn’t, I would sink into depression again. So, I started Friction. The next two Justice Keepers novels — Friction and Entanglement — were quite possibly the most difficult of my career. Your eyes heal very slowly. It took over a year for my vision to stabilize.

Combine headaches, dizzy spells and the specter of depression whispering in your thoughts, and it’s very hard to write indeed. I would lose my train of thought in the middle of a sentence. I would forget why I started a paragraph. And here’s the thing: when you can’t see straight, you make more typos. (Don’t sell those books short; my editor and I corrected those flaws.)

I’ve always been good at plot twists and character development, but in the last four years, I’ve gotten a lot better at the nuts and bolts of novel writing. My sentences are more elegant; my vocabulary is broader. I sometimes wish that I could remake those early books with the skill I have now. Though a lot of fans tell me I’m too hard on my early work.

The thing is, I had to write them. Honestly, writing was the thing that drove the suicidal thoughts away. I had to write those books, and I had to do it with a body and mind that were not in the peak of health.

So if you’re struggling with an illness and art is the thing that keeps you going, my advice to you is this: give yourself permission to screw up. You know, it’s like that Pink song? “I was always in a fight because I can’t do nothing right.” I’ve never been into Top-40 pop, but that one always resonated with me. In fact, Jack Hunter embracing his identity as a screw-up is going to be a major theme in upcoming Justice Keeper books.

Treasure that spark of creativity; work through the pain to turn that inspiration into something tangible, and don’t be afraid to mess up. And if you ever need advice, feel free to reach out on Twitter. I like to help other artists.

R.S. Penney is the author of the Justice Keepers Saga. His latest novel Desa Kincaid: Bounty Hunter, is currently available in paperback and ebook. Follow him on Twitter.

Photo and art design by Steven S. Drachman.