Canst Thou Minister To A Mind Diseased?

Over the weekend I had to explain several times how books come to me.  (I’ve decided, btw, that this is the reason I – at least for now – prefer to work out of contract.  Because it allows this to happen.)

The book I mostly had to explain was A Few Good Men, and what happened was this: I’d just started Darkship Renegades, and the local con was in town – January.  It has a bad habit of hitting just as I come off the holidays and my brain is engaging again.  (No, I don’t take the holidays off, but I’ll admit I probably should.  Precious little gets done, and that usually of the administrivia type “clean the drawers” or “organize outlines” or…  Because when the world presses that close about me, none of that isolation needed to immerse myself in the dream happens.)  So, I worked on DSR until the LAST possible minute, and then Dan started muttering about dragging me to the con still attached to my computer, and how we had panels, and we were LATE.

I ducked into the bathroom to put my makeup on.  And there, mascara wand in hand, the opening of A Few Good Men hit – with its own flavor and distinctive voice.

The world celebrates great prison breaks.  The French territories still commemorate the day in which the dreaded Bastille burst open before the righteous fury of the peasantry and disgorged into the light of day the innocent, the aggrieved, the tortured and the oppressed.
    They forget that every time a prison is opened, it also disgorges, amid the righteous and innocent, the con artists, the rapists, the murderers and the monsters.    
    Monsters like me.

That voice, and the story was so prevalent in my mind I actually read that paragraph – as well as a bit of A Fatal Stain – at my reading.  I think I bewildered the readers.  But to me, it mattered.  I already had the entire book in my head, you see.

Did I do something to bring that about?  Not consciously.  In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion the best way to explain how novels “hit” my mind is the old excuse of someone being caught drunk, disorderly and Southern, “I was sitting on my front porch, reading my Bible, when suddenly–”

What I mean by all this is that many writers – I don’t know if it’s most – experience most of the their books – even I have gone at them the rational way before – as stunning intrusions into their ordered daily life.  You might not be sitting on your front porch, reading your Bible, but you’ll be putting on makeup, or washing dishes or – last week – ironing up a storm.  And all of a sudden, out of nowhere there will be a “voice” or a “personality” or a full story in your head, loud as an Hallelujah chorus and twice as startling.

And when that happens you HAVE to write it.  There is no other choice.

Well, at least there is no other choice if you’re an inexperienced author.  If you are, over the years you’ve developed several methods of delaying, indefinitely filing or putting a stake through the d*mn things before they have time to take over.

This is especially needed because they have a tendency to “attack” when you’re midway through something else.  Depending on your school of thought – more on this later – this happens because you are already tuned to whatever it is that “broadcasts” these ideas OR because you don’t really want to finish the current novel (because you’re afraid it won’t be very good, or because you don’t actually like hard work, or because you feel unequal to it, or–) and the new idea is your subconscious giving you an out.  You take your pick, I’m not religious about either option.

EXCEPT that with 23 novels under my belt (that’s the SOLD ones, mind.  Another eight, perhaps nine – who keeps count? – before.) I don’t often feel like I can finish a novel and I’m familiar with the compromise of bringing the ideal platonic vision into the hard world outside the cave.  And yet, the things still attack – always – just as I hit stride on another novel.  Also, if I’m ill or out of it and AM struggling with the novel, slogging every half page as if I were breaking granite off a mountain side, the other ideas DON’T hit.  That would seem to be advantage side one.

In fact, I’ve just been reading a book on mental illness, focusing particularly on schizophrenics (it has some application to The Brave And The Free, though most of what is happening to Reehat is self-induced.)  Many writers – those of us who experience ideas as intrusive eruptions of the outside upon our thoughts – would, I suspect be classified as low-level schizophrenics: the point at which you experience part of your thoughts as an outside reality, but don’t confuse them with reality.

The difference is that we don’t seem to progress to the later stages which most schizophrenics who require outside intervention do.  (Well, most of us don’t progress to the later stages.  As in most other places in society the introduction of certain type of recreational drugs into the artistic society in the sixties and seventies broke some writers badly: mostly those who experience stories as coming from the outside.)  Also most of us can integrate more or less well into the everyday life around us.

Yes, it is often less well, as many of us have problems juggling the inner and the outer life.  But most of us are as sane as anyone else required to take fictional stories and people seriously for a large portion of their working time.  Still you find most of us living perfectly mundane-yawn-inducing lives.  When not pounding the keyboard till our fingers bleed, we are parents, housewives, computer programmers, students, and often, until we make enough to live from, manual laborers of some sort.  (I’ve often thought if all else fails I’ll go into house cleaning.  I can do it, and it has the huge advantage of my being able to day dream through it.  The problem of course would be how many ideas would attack while cleaning in the trance.)

We are perfectly normal until we can get together with our kind and explain this odd issue we all suffer from and which would have “normal” people wishing to commit us all.
Are we truly insane?  Who knows?  While I’m not one of those who believes mental illness is a society construct due to the strains of capitalism (and of course Marxists were NOT being hypocritical, when they said that while supporting a system that DID punish political dissent as mental illness – after all, you’d have to be insane to oppose the Marxian paradise.  See?  All explained.  Tails I win, Heads you lose.  If you run into a situation like this, you might be in the presence of the corrupt Marxist philosophy.)  Nor do I think “we’re crazy because of industrialization” nor any of it.

I think the brain is a complex biological mechanism that not only can be thrown off by defects of manufacture (genetic defects I mean) and dents acquired in use (environmental pressures) but also can be influenced by whatever is going on in the rest of the body.

The later is very hard for me to accept because I like to think I’m in control of what I think and what I think with.  However, having been caught in an off-kilter hormonal cycle from hell off and on for ten years (no, not menopause.  Menopause is relatively easy to understand by comparison) I’ve come to realize that in at least one part of this cycle (which will keep worsening if not interrupted) I get so profoundly depressed that the only reason not to commit suicide is that I can’t muster enough energy.

By definition any “genteel” sort of affliction that doesn’t interfere much with how others around you experience you and might even bring pleasure to others – via stories – does not require treatment.

The truth is most of us would fight you tooth and nail if you tried to treat us.  See, the dream-state we enter when writing can be experienced as pleasurable or not, but one thing it is: intense.  We experience more intensity when working than most people do in their daily lives.  And one thing human beings have proven they can’t stand is boredom.  All the junkies who prefer bad trips to humdrum are living (or sometimes dead) proof of this.

So if you have a mechanism in your mind that can take you elsewhere and elsewhen and make you – for a time – someone else, but which is mostly under control and doesn’t affect your daily life, has no physical bad effects and is free – would you give it up?  I don’t know about you, brother, but I wouldn’t.  In fact I don’t.  In fact, sharing with other writers the belief that most decongestants  “turn of the writer thing” I will go through winter honking like a goose and sounding like Darth Vader rather than take them.

Since we’ve learned there are adaptations – celibacy – that benefit a colony of organisms even while not benefitting the organism, it’s in fact entirely possible that writers are a positive adaptation.  I have this theory that they gave Indo-European culture the boost to become the dominant culture in the world.  Writers are, for lack of a better explanation, the thing in the human community that tells people what they are.

Or we could all be nuttier than good quality fruitcake, of course.  This is possible.  But as long as we keep track of which voices in our heads are really hours, and which reality is really reality, there is no reason for anyone to intervene.
Now, in the past the way to keep the “writer thing” in its place was business.  If you were a working professional, you had to deep six, delay or modify many ideas, so you could finish/run with the ones that would support you.  (I can’t tell you how to kill, delay or modify the strong-presenting dreams, because what works for me might not work for you.  Thought avoidance works for the kill, but for the delay often you have to write down a few pages and reassure yourself it will be there when you come back to it – which is what I did with AFGM.  For “modify” you might have to write it out first, then edit ruthlessly.)

With indie that’s more difficult.  It’s easier to jump from dream to dream, never fully interacting with reality.

Can I help you with that?  Well, so far I’ve been keeping track of which world my body is actually in.  Finishing something before moving on is another thing.  I’m currently writing four novels at once, which is the best compromise I’ve found.

Generally, to keep your balance, remember reality is the thing that bites you if you ignore it.  You can spend time with hands over ears going lalalalalala at your character, but you’re not going to get evicted for failure to pay the mortgage THERE – you will for failing to pay it here.  Remember that kids and pets are important in the REAL reality.  If you don’t feed and pet your cats, they’ll sit around your desk and not let you write.  And kids need to be fed, cleaned, and moderately paid attention to.

And always remember which voice in your head is truly yours.

If you do that, you’ll keep balanced between reality and dream, you might even make a living off the dream AND there will be no reason to give you anti-psychotics.  Which, friends tell me, interfere with the writing-thing like nobody’s business.

That’s the best I can do for you.  It’s a battle we each must fight alone.  The success in fighting it determines whether you become a professional writer or a common, garden-variety nut.

Good luck.

126 responses to “Canst Thou Minister To A Mind Diseased?

  1. Many writers – those of us who experience ideas as intrusive eruptions of the outside upon our thoughts – would, I suspect be classified as low-level schizophrenics: the point at which you experience part of your thoughts as an outside reality, but don’t confuse them with reality.

    It got distracting enough when I was holding down the afternoon drive show on a rock station that I tried ritalin for A.D.D. I had to stop quickly as my show got far less creative, though I didn’t notice it myself. The ability to latch on to something someone says and immediately turn tangent and funny with it apparently takes a stake through the heart when anti-depressants are applied.

    While the focus factor such a drug might impart, I’m loathe to consider it because I’m afraid it will kill, or seriously maim, whatever mechanism exists in my grey matter that allows me to make odd connections that I hope will both entertain readers AND keep them on their toes.

  2. “I might benefit” was supposed to come after “While”. Lack of focus strikes again!

  3. The way my stories come to me is that a scene flashes into my head. (This is also how my concept photography happens.) I see the scene, I hear the character speaking – usually only one or two very powerful sentences.

    The work for me is figuring out how the character got where they are, who they are talking to, and what is going to happen next. Almost all my stories start in the middle and work toward both ends. Quite literally – I’ll write the scene out, then try to figure out a good starting point and a good ending point, write those, and then try to hook them together so they meet in the scene. (Although to be fair the scene is rarely in the literal middle: it’s usually somewhere toward the end although it could be anywhere.)

    When I get a really good flash, I always write it down. However, sometimes I just look at it and say, “Yeah, that’s cool, all right, but I have no idea what happens next,” and set it aside. Sometimes something comes to me and I go back to it. Sometimes not. But I never force it.

    I can write to spec – last weekend I wrote a 15,000 word short story without a flash, only a general, “I am going to write a story where X, Y, and Z happens,” and that’s what I did. But it’s not as much fun.

    • Pretty close, though I can get an opening, or a character talking, or a scene. I CAN — and do — write without those, but novel length it’s a SLOG.

    • This is exactly how I write too. FLASH – scene someplace in the story. Write it down. FLASH – another scene someplace else. Write it down. FLASH – ending. Write it down. Work backwards to initial conditions and write beginning. Connect the dots. It’s the connecting dots that usually gets me stuck, although sometimes – once in awhile – it flows like water over Niagara. But those characters are always “with me” after that.

      • The connecting dots sucks, I usually get a flash, a scene or sometimes the main outline of a story and a series of scenes, but the connecting parts I struggle with. I can battle for hours to write a couple pages leading up to the action scene that is clear in my head, then when I get to it it spins out in my head faster than I can type, and I am typing as fast as my fingers will move. In a few minutes I can write three times as much as I did in the last few hours, but it always takes a lot more editing for typos (less actually for content, because I am seeing it all in my head as I type) once I am done. Of course sometimes my brian is spinning faster than my fingers and it all goes off on a tangent that I didn’t plan, which might mean the next two scenes I had in my head no longer work, because I just killed off one of the characters that play a major role in them, in the first scene. ;)

        • Amen! The worst for me has come in two of my own works. In both, I knew the beginning and the end, but I had no idea how to connect the dots and bring them together. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have fun trying.

  4. Yeah, the flashes that reach out of nowhere and grab you are the most fun. Most of mine hit during the day. Only one was a dream that had me up and typing at 2AM.

    And yeah, it can be tough sometimes to step away from the keyboard and interact with family.

    I’m empty-nesting it now, but I still try to stick to a bit of real life routine. Sit down dinner with husband. Movie, in or out, every weekend. Generally with dinner out after. It can be weird, sometimes. I lose track of time. Tom consults, so at the moment he has three offices, two with long term clients, and one at home. Sets his own hours. Tries, with little success, to not work weekends. Which means I have less of an anchor in the time stream. It can be odd. And gets odder when a Character grabs you. (ATM, a giddy teenage girl has decided to fall in love with the Wrong Guy! Hopefully by the time I get back to her, she will have realized her error.)

    • I hate the flashes that happen just before I drift off to sleep and am too tired to get up and write them down. And then, when I get up the next whenever, all I can remember is a particularly brill line of dialog and no clue where it came from, where it’s going, or — even sometimes — who said it.

      • For less than fifty dollars – way less, if you shop around – you can buy a tiny digital voice recorder to keep by your bed. Your smartphone, if you have one, may also integrate this technology. If it gets you ONE story idea which you then turn into something you can sell, it will pay for itself.

        I’m going to go buy one at lunch today, actually. Although I am buying it to record hypnotherapy sessions so I can make CD’s for people, I’ll probably keep it next to my bed for ideas like this. Just have to make sure to swap out the SD card… :)

        • Your smartphone, if you have one, may also integrate this technology.

          If you have a smartphone, there are a number of apps actually designed for exactly this sort of thing. I use one called Catch. It allows for the instant “note to self” type recordings, as well as picture, video, and text notes, all with hashtag functionality.

          I use it during my afternoon commutes (mostly because I’m an automaton driver in the morning…don’t tell the denizens of 270 Northbound). Later that evening, I’ll go back and organize the voice notes by typing them into the proper works in progress. Very easy and quick to set up.

  5. Interesting.

  6. Many writers – those of us who experience ideas as intrusive eruptions of the outside upon our thoughts – would, I suspect be classified as low-level schizophrenics: the point at which you experience part of your thoughts as an outside reality, but don’t confuse them with reality.

    I had a friend who used Ritalin to get through college. I saw her creativity crash and burn. So yes, I am afraid of psychotropic drugs. Also, when I was first dx’d with my disease I was put on extremely high dosages of prednisone (100 mg daily for six months). I went through aural and visual hallucinations. I felt like I was drowning. I had paranoid schizophrenia.

    I learned later that people with mild schizophrenia (or a genetic pre-disposition) will get the extreme side-effects of prednisone on high dosages. Also, I learned the hard way that disease and meds change our thinking. Cytoxan (first chemo found for cancer) was used to get my disease under control. It also dropped my IQ twenty points and I have never recovered. It was a hard thing for me to accept. I had lived on a high level for so long (able to memorize and make connections between disciplines) that when I couldn’t I wanted to die. I had to learn to live without that rarefied air.

    When I am in the zone, I am really in a trance. I see it, I feel it, and I am there. If that is mental disease, I don’t want to be cured. I used to do that when reading Hawking and other science books and documents. I would daydream about how they fit together. I can hardly remember those times now. It makes me kind of cry to remember.

    Oh well, I still have words and worlds waiting for me to write.

    • I meant changed the brain (mine in particular).

    • Codeine gives me balance problems and aural and visual hallucinations. I’d rather be in pain!

      • I don’t touch codeine after my one experience for it when I was having migraines. It knocked me out for three days. I would rather be in pain. I can’t even take painkillers now except for surgery.

      • Did you happen to jot any of the cooler hallucinations down, or did your pen keep slipping off the tall side of the paper? :) Hallucinations are fascinating to me. Not enough to delve into recreationally creating them on purpose, mind you, but fascinating nonetheless.

        • singing geckos are not something I wish to write.

        • Ummm – mine were like being in deep ocean waters. Scared and wondering if that tentacle was going to grab me …

          • The one time I was operated on (appendectomy) I just remember being very sleepy. I didn’t get any of the fun disconnect I was expecting.

            On the other hand, I get very, VERY vivid images, sounds, and sensations right at the edge of falling asleep. Enough that I try to keep a notebook by the bed.

            • I get those too.. sometimes I can’t tell if I am in real life or not.

            • After wisdom teeth extraction (all four in one go), the anti-inflammatories made me see pink elephants. Yes, the pink elephants of cartoon legend. I lay on the floor of my bedroom watching them and being a touch surprised that “gee, they really are pink!” But I also knew that they were real-in-my-mind, not real-in-the-world.

              • As we left the dentist’s office in center city Philadelphia, after I had my wisdom teeth removed, I assured my mother that I was completely capable of walking home. I then proceeded to walk straight into the nearest light pole. She gently steered me into a taxi for the few blocks home. She settled me down and went out to get the prescribed pain killers in case I needed them. (For some reason she did not trust my assurances that I would not be needing them.) I distinctly recall knowing that my pain was a brightly colored helium filled balloon on a very very long string somehow attached to me.

      • I hear that kind of stuff a lot. Me, I **love** me some vicodin. Trouble isn’t when I’m on it, it’s getting off it that’s the problem. And, since they won’t give me an unlimited supply for free, eventually, I have to.
        M

        • I have a chronic pain problem from a bad back. I’ve taken vicodin, and it doesn’t do anything for me. I took oxycontin for awhile, but to get enough to even dull the edges made me so flipped out I was incoherent. My wife pleaded with me to quit taking it, so I did. Right now, I’m taking ultram, which sometimes takes care of the pain, and sometimes doesn’t I’ve never seen any hallucinations from any of it, sorry to say. My weird dreams come without any outside influence.

          • No vicodin doesn’t make me hallucinate, maybe because when I have to use it, then I use it sparingly. It makes me groggy and fall asleep.

            MIKE – have you tried visualization techniques? Been to a chiropractor? Or use ice in a plastic bag. I use all of these for pain since I am not allowed to use painkillers unless I am really hurting. It is bad for my kidneys.

            If you have tried these things then sorry – Just no one should be in that much pain. Since I am off the OTC pain pills, my pain is less.

            • Actually Cyn, I’ve tried just about everything I could EXCEPT acupuncture. The only reason I haven’t tried that is because neither Tricare nor Medicare will pay for it. I had a chiropractor say he wouldn’t touch my back with a 10-foot pole. I’ve learned how to use biofeedback, and I can usually get to sleep using that, but it doesn’t always last through the night. Heat and ice can help, but only to dull the edges. I have a TENS unit, and it can take care of some of the pain. My problem is my pain comes from several different problems, and can’t be addressed by a single treatment.

              • ouch Mike – my friend uses acupuncture for things like breathing and when she had pneumonia. She has half a lung because of a Vasculitis disease (the same one I have). She uses a train Chinese practitioner. I haven’t used acupuncture so I don’t know if it works or not, but my friend swears by it.

                It just sounds too painful. Biofeedback helps me a lot. But my problems are usually anemia, kidneys, or stretched muscles caused by a constant use of prednisone.

  7. I wish I had a consistent spring for my creativity, but it can hit me when I’m waking up, or reading a history book, or driving a car, or (gawd help me) while making love (fortunately, that hasn’t happened in several years).

    Even worse, I can be busy writing when another story idea comes to me, and I have to quit #1 in order to start writing #2.

    Bloody nonsense. Life would have been so much easier if I’d been a deckhand on a trawler.

    • My biggest frustration in this department is that when I can’t write, ie, if I’m at work, watching the kids, commuting, etc, I have a strong compulsion to write. However! When I can write, when the kids are in bed for the night, no chores, nothing pressing needing done, etc, I find all the distractions in the world to keep me from writing.

      I’ve also noticed that if I’ve got any kind of downtime at all without internet access, I feel a compulsion to get a blank piece of paper and pencil/pen, but when I DO have a computer and access…no compulsion.

      Very aggravating, but I checked with my mom. No receipt and no warranty.

      • This sounds like the old dilemma of how desirable you find a woman who has all the time in the world to be with you and there is nothing to stop you versus when you and your high school girlfriend had ten minutes until her parents came home. :-D

    • This likely explains why I have about 4-5 series going at the same time at the moment, with one-shots on the side…

    • What drives me crazy is the inspiration I get from this blog — twelve times a day! But then, I’ve always been a little bit on the “odd” side.

  8. As to the pro-survival function of writers, I think the Creator put in a Randomizer subroutine just to make sure things don’t get so predictable we start thinking we got here on our own. Adapt or die.

    • Are you suggesting…”If you’ve got a manuscript, you didn’t write that. Somebody else made that happen” ?

      • Sometimes unfortunately it does feel like that. BUT I’m fairly sure it wasn’t the government who made it happen!

        • Oh, don’t be so bourgeois. I’m sure you used some public roads or bridges to finish your last novel. In fact, if there are ANY public roads or bridges in ANY settings in ANYTHING you write…:)

          • You. Are. A. BAD. Man. Sit in the corner. Go.

          • Don’t forget the teachers, and firefighters, and police. :-)

            • Love the If you can read, thank a teacher bumper sticker. My parents taught me to read with phonics before I started school. As I explained in a previous line of posts the public school system hampered my ability to read in an attempt to correct my parent’s well meaning foolishness.

              • They did this to my younger kid. Took me years to get him to read properly again. And schools destroyed my handwriting. My dad had taught me to write — lefthanded, ball point pen — school made me use a quill because ballpoints destroyed your handwriting. And with a quill you HAVE to use your right hand. The results are not pretty.

              • Someday, I will find the person who laid out the alleged “phonics” worksheets I had to do when I was in grade school, and I will make them fill in the blanks, and for every square nanometer they go outside the lines, I will remove a square centimeter of their flesh with a dull knife.

                Alas, they are probably long dead. Time to start studying applied necromancy, so I can raise them and then kill them again.

                “I will give her a multitude of lives and tear each one from her quivering flesh!”

      • Hey, my private sector books are doing just fine. It’s my public sector ones that are having trouble.

  9. Most of my books come from a character in my head. They just randomly show up, like the stupid sea dragon or Captain Annie. I don’t think to myself “Okay, this scene needs so and so character, guess I have to make one up”. Hah. That’d be the SANE way of doing things.

    Nope, I get the much more *boom* there they are response from my brain when I start to write a book. Little scenes, disjointed puzzle pieces, scattered around. For Corruptor, I actually was halfway through the first draft when I realized my main character was not the real main character. The main character smacked me in between the eyes when the original main character accidentally ran into another group running around.

    But… it makes me wonder. How does a mind look at a puzzle piece and determine that a single piece is perfect for starting some massive puzzle? How does the brain gloss over all the other pieces and focuses on just that one? I mean, does it look for something interesting before it builds the puzzle, or is it a more calculated approach? And if it’s calculated, does that mean we follow a ingrained format when writing/building/putting together a puzzle?

    It’d be interesting to see was S2LA has to say about it.

    • The neuropsych world really needs to put together a really thorough study of different kinds of writers and creative processings. I don’t know why nobody’s gone after it; it’s a fairly obvious bunch of people to use.

    • I am one of the non-writers here. I get the occasional glimpse of a character, delicious sentence, or plum paragraph turning up in my head. But there is never so much as a clue as to what puzzle or pie they belong in. So, I would conclude, being a writer is not just having a mind that produces such, but one that insists on somehow providing them with a whole structure.

      • That’s a good way of putting it. In your case, if inspiration strikes, jot it down and forget about it. When inspiration strikes again, probably prima facie a completely different and unrelated tidbit, jot it down. It might be months or even years later, but once you’ve amassed a collection of such jots, a bolt of lightning might lash through that ties a bunch of them together into something greater than the sum of its parts. THEN you might feel that pressure that you just have to get it written.

  10. John Nash of A Beutiful Mind fame described similar things with his advanced math thinking. When in the midst of his mental illness in the 60s and 70s his useful math output went to zero since he had trouble telling the difference from the delusions and his inspired thinking. As he learned to tell the difference in the 80s he finally started outputting work again.

  11. Lois McMaster Bujold found that she couldn’t work well on a contract, either, whereas some people thrive on deadlines and structure. Different people’s creativity works differently.

  12. I don’t think it’s a form of schizophrenia. Rather, I think that schizophrenia is a defective form of what you’re describing.

    1. Everybody dreams, and generally one is expected to take one’s dreams seriously while experiencing them. Some people lucid-dream, some people remember their dreams and act on them, and sometimes they do seem to be either the brain processing a problem or an outside message (in cases of mystics). So it’s not just GIGO, even if mostly it’s just the brain cleaning itself out. Being able to carry the full-simulation power of a dream into waking life would seem to give one additional processing power.

    2. There are multiple forms of neural processing, including many that allow the brain to multi-task. What you describe would seem to be a shortcut for writing thoughts. Nobody thinks it’s weird for musicians to have an audial imagination of a tune; so it’s not weird to have audial or visual imagination of scenes and characters. It’s just a more holistic way to go.

    3. It could be argued that it’s weirder to be able to sit down and make up a story line by line, with no images in your head, no voices for your characters, nothing but yourself and your hands and brain spitting it out. I’ve never had any kind of imagination experience of the kind you describe, and many authors never do. Heck, I can’t even visualize anything in my head, so far as I can tell. So where does it come from at all, and how are we processing it?

  13. Re: boost to Indo-European culture, they would have been bards, not writers. And oddly, the just-concentrate-and-spit-it-out composers seem to have been more of the professional bard and poet types. The go-into-a-trance-and-see-stuff types often fell into special religious categories. But of course, composition has always been a bit mysterious.

    The other thing to bear in mind is that memory-palace visual memory techniques were very popular in societies that overlapped oral and literary culture. People with strong visual and audial mental processing would have had an advantage with that. (Obviously, if you can’t really picture things in your head, picturing storing things in specific visual places in your head is kinda counter-intuitive. I can do memory-palace stuff, but for me it’s more like mapping things’ location than picturing them.)

    • Interestingly I have almost no visualization power unless writing/drawing.
      And I meant the Indo-European thing as bards/story tellers. One of the few things we know about the culture is that story poems going on FOREVER were big. And writing is JUST a way of story telling. The thing and the whole of the thing is the story. (Ancient Greece, even blurred the lines between playwright and speaker-for-the-gods. We’ve always been… considered a little odd.)

      • Huh. Now that really is interesting.

        So do you mean — “When I have something in my hands” (including mascara wand!), or “when I am coming up with a writing-drawing-related thing”?

        • Your visualizations might hit you with more power because they are so specialized, or you might just experience them more powerfully because you don’t associate them with any non-creative experiences (like grocery shopping, or mental indexing of info, or other stuff that visual processors or eidetic memory people do).

        • I mean, unless I’m assaulted by novel/idea/scene/character I have no power of visualization, either auditory or visual. I get ideas for pictures the same way as for writing — a picture forms in my mind. BUT other than that I can’t visualize ANYTHING. If you tell me to close my eyes and visualize the room I’m sitting in, there’s no picture. I can give you a word picture, but not a picture picture. My night dreams are people with little swirls of fog instead of faces (actually fog-shaped people.) and they move in fog. I get the landscape, etc. in word descriptions. So when there’s an image/person/voice in my mind? It’s a story or a drawing.

          • Consider yourself lucky, then, at least in this aspect. I have a vivid inner movie running in every waking moment. It can be quite distracting, I can tell you, as well as helpful depending on the situation. I envy your lack of this inner-viewing, however, in that I’m able to vividly picture injury to my children. Auto accident, running out in the street, accidental falls down stairs, accidents with scissors…any of the myriad ways young children can be hurt or can hurt themselves…painted in HD inside the ol’ noggin.

            There are times when a thought will occur to me along those lines, something that might have happened if I had not (insert parental precaution here), when I get a physical shiver, sort of a “shake it off” sort of thing because the imagery was so real.

            I don’t pray much for myself. I pray that my children are free from suffering and pain. As a sci-fi/horror reader and now writer…I can imagine quite a lot of suffering and pain.

            • Scott, I hear you on that. I have always been a visualizer. Heck, I went into astronomy/physics partly because I was/am capable of handling 4D visualization. For me, there is a strong sense of watching/hearing/experiencing something happening and writing it down. And occasionally as I’m looking for the right words, I visualize how it’s supposed to look on the page, too. As a result I’ve been told I write very cinematically. Which is true in more ways than just visualization, as I write the story out of chronological sequence, too.

            • (shudders) I have the same problem with visualizing bad things happening. I have to stop myself and force the imagery to go in a positive way, or else I’m worried sick until I see whomever the images were about again.

              On the other hand, I’m not a dreamer. Oh, I dream, but with few exceptions, my dreams consist of short, often disjointed, clips that make no sense whatsoever. They’re sharp enough as far as images go, but their subjective duration is only seconds, vs the minutes, hours, or even days that some of my friends speak of.

              • Trust me, though I can’t see it in pictures, I hear the WORDS. As in “And then they pried the expedition from the front of the eighteen wheeler, all because crazy writer lady didn’t brake in time.”

                • I also hear words too ;-) when I get started. It is very strange.

                  • Anyone ever have one of those “Peanuts” collections from decades ago? The really old Charlie Brown/Snoopy stuff? We had a ton of them. I can remember a specific type of dream I used to have concerning those. In the dream, I was reading a Peanuts collection…same artwork, style, etc, but I could tell out of my peripheral that the dialog balloons were all blank except for the very next one after the one I was reading. I could almost tell within the dream that I was filling the balloons one step ahead of where I was reading.

                    Later, this same sort of thing with novels, but instead of dialog balloons, the next paragraph would be filling itself in even as I was reading the one immediately preceding it, with nothing but whitespace on the other side.

                    It’s the closest I’ve ever “seen” my subconscious and conscious working together…sort of.

                    • And the interesting thing is that we are not supposed to be able to read in our dreams. Something about the dream and the reading ability residing in different parts of the brain, and the reading part isn’t firing when the dreaming stuff is going on. But I have started reading very clearly in my dreams.

                      I have also always had “technicolor” dreams that are sometimes (and more and more frequently, now) hard to tell from waking reality, to the point that I would swear up and down that something happened when all the people involved said it didn’t.

                      Then there are the ones that happen after I dream them… >.<

                    • I have variously heard that dreams have limits such as that you can’t read, don’t see in color. One of my favorites is that you will never actually die in your dream, because if you do it would kill you. Momma, a great lover of the cinema, told me that sometimes her dreams not only in Technicolor, but came with opening and closing credits. I have experienced this myself. I have also dreamed that I was hit, crushed and killed by a train, but as far as I can tell I am still alive. ;-)

                    • I have died in my dreams, by drowning and fire most spectacularly.

                    • Hmm, if you die in your dreams AND believe in reincarnation … or raising the dead a la Lazarus … or in zombies … or vampires …

                    • I have very vivid dreams too. Plus I have had night terrors and nightmares since I was five years old (or earlier). I found that when I write or do something creative, I have less nightmares.

                      Interestingly the only time I quit dreaming was just before I had my first crisis. It was like I had no future, so no dreams. As soon as I started on my meds and was getting better, I started dreaming again.

                      I dream in technicolor too. It surprises me that my hubby rarely remembers his dreams.

                    • I love/hate those dreams (reading or comics dreams). I always want to read them again, but for obvious reasons… can’t. They’re more devastating to me than the occasional “shopping spree” or other windfall-dream to wake up from because I can’t help feeling like something excellent was lost (whether it be “my” comic/story or the “lost work” of someone famous).

                      re: not supposed to be able to read in dreams
                      I’d heard that too. The Batman episode I saw it in messed me up for ages because the show said “you can’t read in dreams, so if you’re reading, you know you’re awake” – and yet, here I was, reading in dreams. It would take me some time after waking up to decipher whether or not something “actually happened”.

                      It wasn’t until very recently that I heard that, yes, of course you can read in dreams. But if you start over and try to re-read the text, it will change. Often dramatically, though usually in the same theme and sometimes with some of the same phrases.

                    • Has anyone else read their not yet written books in dreams?

                    • Not yet, but I have found myself in one of two scenes from my manuscript. One’s not so bad, although the emotional context is steep and that’s what hits me in the dream. The other scene is not as pleasant. I did a LOT of research on a set-piece battle…to the extent of interviewing instructors at the naval war college…and I think it seeped into the dreamtime there for a while. Not fun at all to be in; quite nice to think about the next day on the commute to work :) My sense of it was that if it was that unpleasant to my subconscious, it’s going to work as a set-piece in my novel.

                    • I was frantically scribbling down notes about a really cool dream I had — and just before I woke up, I realized that the reason my notes were so very illegible was that they were dream notes and I wouldn’t be able to bring the paper with me anyway.

                      I was really annoyed. It was a cool dream.

                  • Stephanie – you mean the true dreams? I started having those when I hit puberty. –

              • This is something that many people experience. It’s rare to NEVER have long narrative form dreams, and usually it turns out that what’s really happening is that you don’t remember them. This can be tested by monitoring REM/brainwave patterns: people who say they don’t dream or don’t have narrative dreams usually turn out to be having reasonably typical dream episodes. If you wake them up at just the right time you can sometimes get them to remember them much more clearly, but not always.

                People who don’t have dream episodes of “typical” lengths, remember them or not, often have a lot of trouble sleeping or feel like “sleep doesn’t do them much good.” If this doesn’t happen to you – while there are no hard and fast rules – then odds are you’re not remembering them, not that you’re not having them.

                The other thing that makes this confusing is that while we have multiple REM phases during sleep, we don’t have the same kind of dreams during each phase. A “full” night’s sleep will typically have three full REM phases, each of which seems to serve slightly different purposes in terms of cognitive processing. A person who is a fairly sound sleeper and sleeps through the night will have very different dream memories than a person who sleeps fitfully and approaches full consciousness with less than six hours or so of sleep.

                • I am the sound sleeper (I still remember my dreams). My hubby is the fitful 6 hour sleeper and doesn’t remember his. ;-)

                • Well, yes, I recognize the fact that I am only remembering a tiny fraction of the dreams I must actually have (I couldn’t remember if there were an average of 3 or 4 REM cycles during a normal sleep period). I just expected to have a more even distribution of the memories. If that’s not likely, it makes me feel a little more… normal.

                  • ditto to tiny fraction – I studied dreams for awhile because I had such interesting ones. Imho dream dictionaries are a waste of money. ;-) Dreams are personalized to the dreamer.

                    • Wish I could remember the name of the book I had 35 years ago ( or thereabouts, was still in school, not close to graduation). It was about dream interpretation, but while it gave POSSIBLE interpretations for different things, it focused on the fact that it was all symbology, and that the only correct interpretation was the one that FELT right to the person who had the dream.

                    • I probably have read it or one like it. The problem is, without the ability to know YOUR symbols all these things prove… lacking.

                    • Yeah, Monica. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

                    • HOWARD JOHNSON IS RIGHT!!!

                    • Umm – start with Jungian archtypes and then do a free think (what does axe mean to you)… or maybe in my last dream maybe teeth actually means teeth. I had a dream that I was going to lose a tooth before it happened. Unfortunately I was stuck in the tooth imagery of illness not realizing that I was getting a warning.

                      Miscommunication maybe? Or denial?

                      Another unfortunate is that some dreams are there for cleaning out the mind garbage can. ;-) It is hard to know which is which sometimes.

                      A dream journal that you can go back and compare with recent history is actually the best way to find out your personal symbols. For instance, when I have a mother in my dream it means disaster. –a very personal symbol. A mother in your dream may mean caring and comfort.

                      So forth.

                    • I think you are falling prey to a fundamental error of category, here. Dream dictionaries are certainly not a waste of money from the sellers’ perspective, only the buyers’.

                    • only the buyers

                      Don’t forget the person that drove the buyer to the store so they could use their birthday money.

                    • Nope, not a waste of their money or time. Their gift to the buyer was a good independent of what the buyer’s use of it.

                    • I suppose that’s true. It gives the driver more time to cork all the knives and forks in the house.

                  • Wayne Blackburn

                    Funny – after talking about how I seldom remember longer dreams with a storyline, this morning I had one that was far longer than my normal, and even had a discernible theme to it. Mostly it involved running from something, but at least there was a reason (I can’t remember it, but I know it was there).

          • Very interesting, because I had no trouble seeing much of the world you word painted in the MBE series.

            When I read or tell a story I can variously see, feel, hear, smell or taste. (It is not always pleasant.) When I tell of me, as person familiar with the Atlantic Ocean, first meeting the Grate Lakes I taste that peculiar air as I climb over the dune and see the water stretched out before me. As the waves come to shore and the water reaches to the horizon I ponder, just as I did the first time. And it strikes me anew, the air lacks salt.

          • This is actually pretty common. I had no idea until I started studying hypnotherapy: I’m a very visual person, and I can’t imagine not having images form in your head whenever you think about stuff. But anywhere from a quarter to half of the population, according to my instructors, will not be able to visualize, and you have to have methods to deal with that if you want to get through to their subconscious. (Subconsciouses? Oddly, they haven’t taught me the plural of that word. No matter how I type it it looks weird. :) ) It’s not hard, you just have to be aware that you can’t always say, “Visualize a sunlit meadow” to somebody and then just tear on from there.

        • I mean, I can’t solve the simplest visual puzzles or problems. My visual IQ is probably lower than my cats’ At least I’ve been told that in tests I test visually at “severely impaired” levels, but verbally off the scale. I’ve always assumed I was odd.

          • Hmm. That really is specialization! I think some of it comes from having bad eyesight as a little kid (like I did, and like you’ve mentioned you did).
            Possibly your brain’s visual processing area didn’t like the visual input it was getting from your eyes, and decided to make up its own instead.

            Alternately, it’s possible that you’ve just got some kind of fun associations going among various neurons in various parts of your brain, so that certain specific conditions make the neurons start flashing off all together. You were a smart kid, you had a lot of different experiences all throughout life from early on, and all those things make pathways and associations happen in unusual amounts and combinations.

            Either way, your brain obviously takes full advantage of whatever you’ve got. Even to an annoying extent. :)

            For Mr. McGlasson above, the visual imagination seems to be associated both with story imagination and with foresight of potential problems (no matter how remote). Maybe he’s got a problem-solving system going on overdrive?

            [I don’t really know what I’m talking about with neuropsych, but I can make some educated guesses.]

      • One branch of the family is story tellers. It came out in various forms, few of them written. While I can tell a story, I have never felt entirely comfortable with the written word. When you are speaking a story there is an energy created between you and your listeners which feeds the story. To me the blank page is intimidating, it just lies there waiting to bite.

        • My family’s only claim to literary fame is a pretty good one. My mom’s maiden name is Baum and is a great, great (I think) niece to…drumroll please…Frank L. S’no big deal, mind you, as that’s as literary as it gets on either side and no big whup was ever made of our being related. The one piece of family lore that has always been handed down, though, was that the whole yarn about the Wizard Of Oz being a wry political satire about monetary policy and the gold standard is absolute bunk.

          • I have very found memories of Daddy reading Baum’s Oz books out-loud to me. It was from a set of original editions. Those stories and the illustrations are part of why I am enamored of steam-punk. Still, Lewis Carroll just spoke to the very core of me, and I am an Alice girl.

            I took a course on children’s fantasy literature in High School. I was accompanied by a friend who was as much an Oz girl as I was an Alice girl. At the time Psychology Today had published this elaborate analysis of the sexual imagery in Oz and the teacher was really into this stuff. He also tried to apply similar analysis to Alice. It effected my friend and I quite differently, which I expect has to do with our preferences. My friend ended up in tears, it was as if he had violated some part of her innocence. I was able to laugh it off.

            • The new “Great And Powerful Oz” movie, sort of a Wizard origin story, is coming out later this year. Having seen the trailer, I think they’re going overboard with the CGI. I think it’s a great tool and can work wonders for both scenery and characters, but if it’s not handled properly, the characters can look so…CGI. I’m just hoping it doesn’t do the damage to the canon that attempts like “Tinman” did. Gawd that was awful.

          • I figured that one out by reading the whole Oz series for an English class. (I forget the snappy title, but it was something about Commercialism/Materialism and English lit — surprisingly fairly interesting, with looks at Class and the like, though I hated most of the books and managed to get through the classes with skimming while the teacher was lecturing…) No political satire, just someone telling stories (and betting pathetically for people to read his other stuff, for a while, till he gave up, imported his favorite characters from the other series into Oz, and resigned himself to his Emerald City fate).

            I wound up not having finished the whole series (had to get my mom to send it up to me) before the mid-term paper was due, so I talked to the teacher and, instead of two 10-page papers, wrote one 20-pager on Oz and whatnot. Which saved me from having to write about any of the things I really didn’t want to read. *does the English Major Cool Paper Boogie*

            Cool relation, too! (I’m apparently related to Edgar Cayce, m’self, which may or may not explain things… My mother describes meeting him. Her father shook his hand, and their hands, together, were extremely similar. Definitely related.)

    • ppaulshoward

      There was a novel that I read a few years ago about an Irish Bard visiting Roman Britain. One of the Romans asked him if he knew a Greek story and he replied that he hoped to get somebody to read it to him. The Roman sneered at him for not knowing how to read and the Bard made a comment about the Roman having to reread something while once he learned something he didn’t need to reread it. He then proceeded to give the listeners a telling of Virgil’s Aeneid (from memory). [Wink]

      Minor note, apparently he could read Irish but believed that if the writer “demanded” him to do something that he had to do it because “Irish writing had a magical element (at least in his mind)”.

      • Hm. Don’t know that one. And it would be an interesting period to write, because of course we don’t know much about pre-Christian Ireland, and all the Ogham writing from back then is just name inscriptions on graves and the like. The Simon Says thing is an odd way to turn that, but it’s a fun way to talk about the belief that some speech and writing had real power behind it. (Professional Irish satirists were supposed to be able to embarrass and poison rats to death with their venomous poetry, which is why Shakespeare talks about rhyming rats to death.)

        Irish poets (filidh) were some of the first to adopt Christianity and classical learning and to become missionaries and leaders of monasteries, while maintaining the old oral learning and memorization as well. (Which fit in with classical learning, too.) To pass all the grades in a bardic school, you had to memorize literally hundreds of poems and tales that were part of the standard repertoire, as well as all sorts of useful and academic info and languages and such. Latin too, and often enough Greek to be dangerous. (Especially since the bardic schools sorta competed with the monastery and law schools.)

        We have a fair amount of medieval Irish translations of classical work (usually including helpful footnotes and glosses, but often adding in fun Irish details to make it more of a rounded story from the Irish point of view), and a lot of inventive Irish use of late-classical Latin’s weird vocab and grammar tricks. (Most people blame Hisperica Famina on the Irish.) Even in Ireland before the Famine, an awful lot of peasant Irish farmers knew Latin and Greek by heart as well as Irish. (Education from a hedge schoolmaster you can keep in your head, despite the Penal Laws. Possessions, not so much.)

        • Sometimes I wonder…mom is into geneology as I think I’ve mentioned before. One of the things she’s discovered is that there is a bardic tradition in the family and one ancestor was the high bard to the last King at Tara, or some such. Might’ve been another, lesser king. Can’t recall right now.

          But so I wonder if there is something in the genetics, something passed down; I have the Celtic coloration that nobody else in my family has – what else Celtic got passed on?

          • It wouldn’t surprise me a bit. The known bardic/poetic families got around.

            • My family had a lot of opera singers and poets. My grandfather used to write poetry and I would correct when I was eight. Also I think Chaucer might be related to me on two lines. My family used to go back and forth with some wagon trains in the mid-1800s to provide entertainment – fiddle etc. There are some funny stories about my family especially the Bagley side.

        • There is an observation, from Jascha Heifitz maybe? : How come so many Jews play the violin? Because a piano is so hard to carry when fleeing a pogrom.

  14. Ah, decongestants. Pseudo-ephedrine, alas, my friend, because otherwise I get sinusitis, which is even worse for my ability to write.

  15. Fascinating. I get story ideas as pictures to an extent, but even more appear as words. Not quite like the opening of Star Wars, because I hear them in a way I still can’t quite pin down. As I write, the pictures appear in my mind, so strong that sometimes I don’t see the computer screen or keyboard anymore. However, many plot solutions only appear in or through pictures, like a sunrise this past Saturday that produced material leading to an idea that kicked open a stuck story.

  16. The Midnight Disease by Alice W. Flaherty

    An in-depth look at relations between neurology and other brain science, and writing — everything from writer’s block to hypergraphia. A marvelously fascinating book.

  17. I’ve gotten the idea over the years that stories are sneaky bastards. Thieves, if you will.

    When I’m searching for them, obviously I’m inviting them into my head. Any of them is welcome to come in and make itself at home. I may not use them immediately, but I take down their information (as much as they’re inclined to give me at that time) and tell them I’ll call them again when I’m ready for them, if they’re not strong and hale enough to get to work right away or if I don’t at this moment have the ability to make proper use of them or if they’re too shy to tell me enough to make a decision on.

    Of course, as I said – they’re often thieves. So invitations often spook them. I feel they think they’ll be caught and caged if they respond to an invitation in a prompt manner, which is why the non-talkative ones or the ones not yet ready tend to show up.

    But then I’ll go take a bath/shower to mull over the ideas, or roll into bed to sleep. That’s when they most often pounce – when I’m considering someone else (and like cats, they can’t stand the idea that they might get left out) or when I’ve left my doors and windows unlocked.

    I don’t usually get ideas at any other time than when I’m looking for them, mulling over them, or sleeping, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get jumped in the alley, so to speak. Usually I can half expect it. I mean, you walk down a dark, twisty alley in a bad part of town (ie: reading, watching something, drawing) and, well, it happens, right? And when you’re moseying along the countryside, minding your own business (doing something semi-mindless like riding/driving somewhere or scrubbing the bathroom clean), well, there’s highwaymen there.

    I’m not sure which of these is the most dangerous of the sneakthieves. All of them are likely to be bold if they’re of mind to be, assaulting me with vivid images or lines of dialogue or a scene that writes itself. Generally I have to do the heavy lifting or stitching to get scenes to work together, though.

    /rambles

    • I have been mugged by visions of yarn crafts…

      • Oh yeah. When I was really working in furniture, I’d be at a thrift store looking at an unprepossessing piece and see what I could make of it, clear as day.

        • Yes! Sometimes, but not always.

          Along with yarn crafting I also do jewelry work. I will stand in a store looking at a wall of yarn or beads and wait for inspiration for the next project. Seems like a logical place, no? Nothing. Then I can be driving along and something glimpsed in the corner of the eye, like a bit of a garden, a display in a window, or I know not what, will reach out and grab me by the throat insisting, ‘Here. Here is an idea.’

          Of course, it often requires yarn or elements that I cannot find. :-(

          • You know, I’m not a yarn or bead crafter and I’m not a sculptor, but sometimes, when I wake up in the penumbra of my bedroom, looking out, I see… something and it’s heartbreakingly beautiful and I think, in that state, that it’s a sculpture or a piece of jewelry. Then the light comes in or I wake fully and it’s a mundane object. I wish I could remember the “glimpsed vision” long enough to execute it.