The Shadows Within

One of the few proofs I have that we are a novel someone is writing – pauses to let her audience absorb this and dial the men in white coats. Chill. I’ll give you more reason for that before I’m done – is that the same themes seem to surface around you, whether or not you could be the cause of them.

Yes, I know the rational (ah!) Explanation for this which is that you suddenly just notice these themes. To this, I want to say – BS (which of course, means Baby Snot) – you know that isn’t true. Oh, sure there are instances when you suddenly become aware of say, exploding head syndrome, so when your friend starts talking about waking up with this loud exploding noise in their head, you know what it is. But most cases of cluster coincidence aren’t like that. They’re events or subjects unusual enough in themselves that you’d notice or remember them at any time.

Kind of like, you find a book in a library sale about the great flu epidemic in the twenties, a subject that never interested you before but the book looks cool and you bring it home. And suddenly every blog you check into (yes, this WAS several years ago) is burning up with bird flu news.

Something like this happened to me yesterday, as I was talking to a friend – not Kate Paulk – about metaphysics, which caused me to refer to the well known effects of meddling with the paranormal. No, whether you believe in the paranormal or not, there are definite psychological effects of attempting to explore it. Some people think the girls in the Salem Witch Trials drove themselves nuts that way first, I don’t need to mention, (I hope) Joe Fisher’s Hungry ghosts, and people have talked about how the deeper Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got into the paranormal, the more his cognitive/critical faculties seemed to deteriorate.

And it occurred to me that writing is a sort of shamanism. Oh, not always. At least I hear reports of writers who are perfectly rational and write in a “paint by the numbers” fashion. However – and I wish to stress this – none of those are writers I’m close to or who trust me with their process.

Those who trust me with their process treat the whole thing almost like a supernatural “gift”. The story comes when it wants to. It takes turns that scare us. The characters become alive to us.

Now, again, before you reach for the “I love me” jacket for everyone of your writer friends, let me point out that there are degrees in this. There are things I can’t get my characters to do no matter how hard I try, but I do have control over the plot and what happens. (Otherwise my books would be this sort of formless blob where I tell you what someone had for breakfast.) And I can choose how deeply to get involved.

Most professional writers are like that. We keep the otherworldly qualities of the work confined, restrained. We are willing to move on from a world because it’s not selling, etc.

However, at the same time, you do need to keep some bits of lucid dream, some bits of “not me” in it.

Where does the “not me” come from. I don’t know. It depends on your opinion of shamanism and your view of the supernatural. I have my opinions, but I’m not going there because I have no proof.

It could be that writers are simply highly advanced machines for reading the ethos of their time and translate it into a sort of dream that processes the input. I.e. if you view humanity and the mind of humanity as a collective organism, we do what your brain does when you’re asleep. We process the disparate inputs that the world receives all the time into a coherent form for storing. (Actually that makes a lot of sense, since to an extent the psychological function of story tellers is to give “moral” to the formless.)

In the same way that in the dream what you dream is true even if it makes no sense – yes, your pet poodle really can become a six foot python and talk to you across the breakfast table – writers have to sort of kind of assume a certain amount of “existence” for their worlds and characters.

The problem is to do this you have to “go inside” and assume as truth experiences that aren’t shared with any other living human being and experiences that depend on “senses” you don’t share with the rest of humanity. (At least I don’t. I know other writers who have actual, vivid auditory/visual hallucinations/dreams. In my case, it’s more like I remember the events or conversations, but there’s never actual sensory input.) You have to do this, because that lucid dream is often right, while your rational attempts at plot/character are wrong and will feel wrong to your reader.

On the other hand as my friend Kate – in one of those coincidences <G> – talked about in her blog yesterday, you must always keep in mind which world is real. It’s very tempting to sit back and just watch the worlds of your imagination, like the main character’s wife in Farenheit 451, but if you do, you lose your own life, as it spins away from you. Worse, if you go inside too much weird stuff starts to happen, the same sort of weird stuff that you get if you get involved in the paranormal. I’ve heard of characters crossing between heads and becoming obnoxious in a poltergeist sort of way. I’ve heard of writers who become depressed and think they’re possessed by their characters (some of it leading to suicide attempts.) I’ve heard of people who get, wholesale, historical facts that they couldn’t have known except through their characters.

But the same “insane making” slipperiness exists there as in any psychic phenomena. some of the historical facts will be wrong. The characters as they cross between heads assume the persona of that universal human myth character, the trickster, and sometimes definite malevolent characteristics. I’ve never heard of anyone’s character leading them to a better life or a more fulfilled emotional state.

You see what I’m saying? If you step full into the “not me”, it’s like stepping into a dream, where things are never fully rational, and suddenly a man eating lion can jump out of your closet.

Are these phenomena real? I don’t know. Again, it depends on your religious beliefs, and I’m so not touching that. But it doesn’t need the belief in the supernatural to explain it, particularly when characters cross between heads of people who are friends or in the same writers’ group. There are mechanics of group madness (probably an outgrowth of mechanisms that once encouraged tribal cohesion) and mass illusion.

Frankly, as far as I’m concerned, I much rather avoid anything supernatural and any paranormal explanations as far as humanly possible. I’d much rather examine things through the lens of reason.

Unfortunately my profession doesn’t allow me to. So everyday I sit at my desk and go hunting in the half lands where what’s real might or might not be and where every voice in the shadows might be a danger to my sanity.

And I take what I can from the shifting wraith lands and bring it back and tame it, and shape it with reason and make it safe for human consumption.

Which doesn’t make it either safer or saner for me. And which scares me and worries me when a whole book seems to come through my fingers without much control. Yes, I’m willing to concede I probably have gotten to where most of these processes are subconscious for me, and that’s all that’s happening. On the other hand, given the place I work at the edge of, I hate letting go of high control and strict rationality. And I have to do that, to stay on this side. I have to hold rationality and dream one in each hand, and never conflate them.

It is the job of the dream-hunter to go beyond the safe edges of reason and to work, uneasily, between shadow and light.

6 responses to “The Shadows Within

  1. If you have a character, or several of them, haunting you, does it help to get rid of them if you do write their story down?

    I kind of have that problem, characters who came to me when I was about fifteen or sixteen, and who refuse to go away (and I’m about 50 now – and when I say ‘haunt’, well that does sometimes go near what you might call supernatural. Dreams, mostly, though.). Maybe I should finally try to write the bastards, and their story. Problem has been that that particular story has never quite come together. But perhaps I should do it anyway, even if the end result is a crappy story.

    • Marja,

      That is one complex question. The answer at least as I and others have experienced it is “it depends.” I think the only way you’re going to tame that type of thing is if you make a point of writing for publication — i.e. of imposing a structure and changing “real” events when you write. If you just try to write what you “see” that will encourage rather than discourage the haunting.
      I URGE you to study Dwight Swain’s Techniques of The Selling Writer then apply them to the story (ies). Who knows, if you write them and put them on Amazon you might be the next Amanda Hocking.

      • Thanks. I think I’ll try that.

        I have that Swain’s book somewhere, read it last about four years ago. Just need to find it, I moved a couple of years ago and while I’m sure it’s somewhere I haven’t been able to find it since. Lots of books.

  2. It isn’t difficult to hypothesize a mechanism for such a group consciousness – pheromones, for example, have demonstrated an ability to synchronize menstrual cycles of women living as a group, and certainly there are things going on in the realms of infrared and ultraviolet spectra — but, as you implicitly argued, we’ve no proof for the supernatural (if we did it would be merely natural, nicht wahr?)

    Perhaps these characters are thoughts transmitted across Time (cough*Sequentialism is illusion*cough) or perhaps they stem from the same roots as multiple personality disorder (or perhaps I repeat myself) or they might even be a form of demonic possession. Until we have a firmer grasp on the basis for human consciousness I doubt we’ve any business speculating more broadly. I merely enjoy the show and appreciate those of you who grapple with such demons for my amusement.

  3. RES — you wouldn’t be the first person to suggest that all writers are sufferers from some form of personality disorder.

    Actually I believe it is a natural or at least an adaptive mechanism for human beings, since shared beliefs help band/tribe/group cohesion.
    I was writing here from the “what it feels like” point of view rather than the objective external observation pov. “What it feels like” puts us at odds with a society that prizes reason and objective observation.
    No danger we’ll stop doing it. I said it before I think we’re all descended from some pre-historic madman….

    • Oh, heck, H – I believe ALL humans suffer from some form of personality disorder. It is just that some are better at disguising it, some are more congenial/adaptive, and some are more unpleasant.

      Sigh – I only WISH our society “prizes reason and objective observation.” Rather it likes to seem as if it prizes those things, but try arguing any number of contemporary intellectual fashions and you’re quickly disabused of the notion. One of the great virtues of learning History (and reading SF) is that it develops an appreciation for all the beliefs based on Reason and Objective Observation (and that *itch, Science) which time and perspective have shown to be utter codswallop. Phrenology, Eugenics, the orbital model of the atom — our intellectual attic is cluttered with the detritus of past Reason and Objective Observation.