*So you don’t worry — I am better. Much better. Unfortunately the antibiotic messes with my fluid balance which has given me headaches from beyond, so I’m putting this here from a few years ago.
Two interesting observations — I’d just “lost” a fledgeling when I wrote this. No to the best of my knowledge he’s not dead — it’s been a few years — but I couldn’t get him to understand the difference between stories you tell yourself and stories you tell the world. In the end, he preferred his inner narration and refused to shape it in a way others might be interested. This memory was revived recently by a certain obsessive author that some of my fans/friends have tangled with. The thing is, they keep thinking this man is especially crazy or dangerous, but my feeling is “there but for the grace of G-d go I — and every other professional writer. Sometimes I think the miracle is that we DO pull away sufficiently to write stuff others want to read.”
The Tight Rope Act — a blast from the past post from February 2011
When I was very little and very sickly, before I learned how to read much less write, I spent the time I was kept alone, indoors, while recovering from some dread awfuls, making lego houses. It came naturally, after that, to make up stories about the people who lived in the lego houses.
After a while, learning and listening to adults became a mission of finding facts and “how things work” to incorporate into my stories. Some of the story lines and some of the characters have been with me in one form or another since then.
Needless to say I started writing stories as soon as I could write for a long time without discomfort – about six. But the “untamed” story lines, the ones that I told myself, continued in the background. And some of these people became as real to me as my best friends.
Right here I want it to be perfectly clear I don’t hear voices and I don’t see things. Having just watched Harvey, this is an important distinction to make. The only way I see things others don’t is if my fever is through the roof (and then mostly I see cartoon characters. Don’t ask. Tom and Jerry, yep) or if I take anything morphine-based, which seems to have a disproportionate effect on me, which is why I don’t take it unless the pain is truly unbearable. (Unbearable – can’t stop either crying or throwing up JUST from the pain.) Then I see Tom and Jerry speaking Latin to each other. (You wish I was joking. You’re just jealous because you don’t have the high class hallucinations we published authors get.)
This is not auditory or visual or any of that type of input. I’ve HEARD some writers have those. I’ve read The Evolution Of The Bicameral Mind. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
My storylines and characters exist in the same space as the “constant internal narration.” If you have no clue what I’m talking about, you’ve never stepped back and thought about it. There is a voice, always, inside your head telling you who you are. That voice sometimes takes on multiple tones and allows you to debate things with yourself. “No, I shouldn’t go to the store, because” “But I need to go to the store.” Etc. there’s also the times it replays arguments you had, or conversations where you’re not sure you got your point across. The story lines and characters are sort of like that, only these conversations never happened in the real world. Yet, it has the same feel. I.e., I can’t just change a character or what he/she says, just like I can’t just change what my mom told me when I was three. I’ve always figured it’s because my subconscious is a MUCH better writer than I am and creates this stuff without asking me about it. Usually I find the characteristics that bugged me about a character or a situation are needed – at least if these characters/situations are in an actual story (more on that later.)
From what I’ve found, I’m not unique in this. Most, if not all writers, have this going on in their heads. Some with one world, some with several, some with a world that’s much like our own, some with wildly alien lands. Some writers even have the full blown auditory/visual thing going.
Which brings me to why I’m writing this. Most of us who have this in ANY degree think we’re completely alone and possibly insane. My first clue I was not totally alone was when I read an interview with Rex Stout, when someone asked him how Nero Wolfe was doing, and Stout was able to give him the exact place Wolfe was, what he was reading, etc. as though Nero lived next door. After that, I became a member of a tightly knit writers’ group and found I wasn’t alone.
I still have the two or three “primitive” and hyper extended story lines going on in my head, but these days I tend to shove them to the back. I’ve learned to put my peculiarity in service of my art, and I USE that in the service of my writing. If a character never comes alive – and yes, I’ve had those – and the scenes don’t start playing themselves out in my head – including scenes I’d NEVER put in the book but which explain actions in the book – then the book is very difficult to write. To date I’ve done three that way, and I’m not going to tell you which, because I don’t think you can tell. It was just hell to write. And I have had one set of books in which only ONE character came to life. The others were “placers”. This is strikingly obvious and reviewers have noted it.
In addition, I have stories that come to my head by means of a fully formed character wanting to discuss things. This is why walking, ironing and repetitive tasks are ideal for coming up with story ideas. The mind goes somewhere else.
Again, I assume – and it’s the only explanation I can come up with – that as a result of my boring, lonely childhood my mind learned to amuse itself by playing chess between my conscious and my subconscious. My subconscious sets up the board, as it were, and throws up these situations and creatures for the conscious to play with. This is also not a bad analogy by the way on how to control it, survive it and use it.
So, why am I telling you this? Well… there are several reasons.
First of all, there is a huge possible trap for new writers who are of the type I am – people who want to write because the stories won’t leave them alone.
If you think of your world as pretty toys, spun out by your subconscious to amuse YOU particularly, you’ll understand how fascinating these stories are to the people who created them. Most of them, once they become hyperextended over years partake a lot of the characteristics of soaps, or even Lost (coff.) People die. People come back to life. Bizarre and purposeless stuff happens. But because these are designed to catch YOU and they are aimed specifically at you, you’ll remain fascinated. If your particular angle is sex, your plots will have tons of sex. Mine had/has tons and tons of medical details – because I grew up in a family with a lot of doctors and absorbed a lot of the interest, even if I never wanted to do it myself. These days mine also have a ton of start up businesses, economics and new inventions, because those subjects fascinate me.
For new writers, who are afraid to talk to anyone about it, the danger is that they will get caught in the first world they (subconsciously) created and which to them is so immensely fascinating. ANYONE who has been in a writers’ group for any time knows the “eternal beginner” who writes story after story after story in a world that is obviously NOT commercial by anyone else’s standards – a world that’s so targeted or so icky or so bizarre that you know no one else will ever buy it. But the writer remains trapped. If you read Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett, and examine the dromes, these are something like it. The dream catches you to feed the dream. If you go on in it, you’ll never be published (more on why this is important later) and you and the drome will eventually die together.
The type of writer who does this type of story usually has ABSOLUTELY no control over them, either. You start noticing after a while, that their stories partake this dream-like and formless quality and it’s not unusual, if you approach them, to be told that “it happened that way.” That means they’re being used by the subconscious, instead of using it. It’s one of the many ways potentially great authors die on the vine.
Worse, with the advent of self publishing as economically feasible and THE way to get in, a lot of these writers will churn out endless novels that two people read, and go quietly insane, never understanding why they don’t sell more.
So what can you do about it?
1– (Sorry to use Pratchett as a guide here, but the man presumably knows what this is like.) Always remember which voice is yours, there inside your head. This is very important because it’s easy to become fascinated by a character and let it take over. I wonder how many of the cases of “possession” or personality disorders are just that.
Remember that your mind is yours. For whatever reason, you created this mechanism to cope with reality. Perhaps like me you were just bored and lonely. Or perhaps, like others, the situation was unbearable and you escaped it.
You might not even remember the circumstances, but do, please, remember, you are you — the other “voices” are just stories wanting to be told.
2- Seize the story, instead of the other way around. Yes, okay, people getting complex operations to repair bizarre injuries might be endlessly fascinating to you. Understand it’s not fascinating to most people. Your world might marry high tech and a neolithic society, because at the time you created it you had clue zero how that stuff worked. Understand you can’t use it that way in a story, unless you explain it. Then deliberately intervene. “No, it didn’t happen that way, it happened this way.” Give the story form, shape it (studying stories that worked commercially helps, here) and write it as a commercial story. You’ll find this helps too. Once it’s out there, in commercial form, it will cease to obsess you. Though you’ll probably get others and have to write them too…
3- Take a clue from stories about possession (I believe a lot of them centered on this type of mechanism) and bring in more devils to drive out that one devil. Weirdly, this does work. By conjuring up a lot of different stories (not in the same world) it divides your subconscious’ ability to create lures for you. That means each story line will be SLIGHTLY less fascinating to you, personally, and you’ll take better control of it.
4 – Publish it. Eric Flint has been known to say that if you’re not crazy when you become a writer, you’ll be by the time you’re a professional. He says this is not so much because we have to work with imagination at a level kids do, but because we live such solitary isolated lives, in which weird thoughts and ideas can seem perfectly plausible. It is the same with your world. You must expose it to the sunshine of other people’s minds. All the unpublished, cherished, obsessed upon worlds I know grow in “ick” factor. It’s the nature of the beast to make itself even more targeted and push more buttons. Which means “more insane” and also “would cause more readers to run screaming into the night” And, UNFORTUNATELY more importantly “will distort my sense of reality till I start reacting oddly to real life.” You must make it passable enough for other people to read. And this will allow you to control you own obsessions and move on.
As writers, we’re creatures who shape dreams. To some extent these dreams also shape our lives. We must walk that fine line every day. I hope this will help people stay on it, without falling into either side.