Voices in My Head
I hear voices. My characters talk to me – Billy, Eva, and Jolene in Old Wounds to the Heart, Nate and Christine in The Closing, and a host of characters you will never meet because they’re confined in the jail cells of my aborted novels. They all spoke to me. In their own voices.
In Old Wounds, Eva Gitlow sprang into existence almost fully formed. I tweaked aspects of her persona as I wrote, but the essence of her character came over me in a rush, and she took off with my story. For three chapters the words ran across the computer screen like they knew where they were going, even if I didn’t. She said and did things that seemed not to come out of me, but out of her, as though she existed independently from my imagination. She, rather than I, seemed to control the interplay between her and Billy Kirby. Billy was proud that he looked much younger than his years. Eva asked him how old he was. “I’m eighty,” he said, and I heard her deep voice reply, “Isn’t that amazing, Mister Kirby? You don’t look a day over seventy-nine.” Billy flinched. I did, too, and then I laughed out loud. Later in that scene, Billy and Eva stood on her front porch, talking. Out of the blue she grabbed him and kissed him full on the lips. Billy was shocked. I was too. I didn’t see it coming, and yet I know it came from me. Everything Eva said and did in those chapters fascinated me, and I don’t know where most of it came from.
My Inner Lawyer told me to keep my mouth shut about all this. He’s worried about commitment proceedings. I tend to discount his advice. All that time he spent fighting junk-yard dogs has made him paranoid, and when you get right down to it, he’s just another voice in my head. He’s no more real than Eva. But I worried that he might have a point on this hearing voices business.
So I talked to some writers and did some research and determined that, if I’m crazy, I’m apparently in pretty good company. In a writing conference when I was asked what I enjoyed about writing, I mentioned the voices. There was a short silence (my Inner Lawyer held his breath) and then the man next to me said in a hollow voice, “I thought I was the only one.” Most writers I talked to said they experienced some form of character independence.
All you have to do is Google the question “Do writers hear voices?” to confirm this. Hundreds of articles pop up. To mention just a few: Karen Dionne wrote, “I woke up in the middle of the night, and this character was in my head talking to me, telling me her history and who she was. I wasn’t dreaming about this character. She was just there, as real as if she were sitting in a chair beside me.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/karen-dionne/when-characters-talk-writ_b_4993933.html
Angela Addams says she doesn’t hear voices, but that many writers, some of them NY Times bestselling authors, including Anne Rice, tell her their characters speak to them. Addams asked the followers of her blog if their characters sometimes seem to do things on their own. An outpouring of responses chronicled varying degrees of character independence, from subtle whispers in the ear to the full-blown hijacking of stories. http://www.blog.angelaaddams.com/2011/02/do-your-characters-talk-to-you.html
Hugh Howey starts off his blog post, So you want to be a writer, this way. “Sitting in your underwear, hearing voices, talking to people who are not there, mumbling to yourself . . . Assuming this sounds like the ideal life for you . . . then the life of a professional writer is what you’re after.” http://www.hughhowey.com/so-you-want-to-be-a-writer/
For the record, my Inner Lawyer points out that I do not talk to my characters; they talk to me. And it’s a hard and fast rule with me that I always write with my pants on.
So what’s going on here? Why do we hear these voices?
The most convincing explanation I’ve read about this phenomenon comes from the book, From Where You Dream, by Robert Bentley. Bentley says that successful fiction-writing requires the writer to enter a “dreamspace,” a dream-like state of mind, something akin to day dreaming. When we sleep dream, the thoughts and actions of the figures in our dreams are sometimes so different from our own that we feel like they come from outside us, but Bentley thinks they come from our unconscious mind, from a reservoir of decomposed memories, imagined events, visions, and random thoughts.
He says the best writing comes from tapping into that reservoir. To do that, you mimic a dream state, dreaming while awake. “It’s very much like an intensive daydream, but a daydream you are and are not controlling.” This zone is difficult to enter. He suggests sealing yourself off in a special writing place. Stay away from television programs, the internet, newspapers, conversation or other analytical stimulus. Each time you reach the dreamspace, it’s easier to find it the next time, so writing regularly is another key to unlocking its door.
In my case, these experiences have been rare. Most of the time, I create the dialogue and spin out the scenes with a deliberate intent, and I’ve never experienced a trance-like state or anything approaching what I would consider a true dream zone. Even when Eva seemed to come to life in Old Wounds, I didn’t feel transported into a dreamspace. I knew I still sat at my desk, staring at my computer (fully clothed, by the way!). But in very special moments when the writing is going well, the magic comes and my characters almost seem to take on a life of their own.
Another time it happened for me was in The Closing. At the end of an emotionally charged scene, Nate Abbitt and his myopic elderly private investigator, Clarence Shifflett, had just been released from jail. They were sitting together in Nate’s car and Clarence asked Nate if he was all right and Nate said he was okay. Then Nate turned to Clarence and said, “How about you?” I saw Clarence pull his hat down low over his eyes and I heard his gravelly pipes scratch out, “I’ll never be the same.” I couldn’t have heard it more clearly if he’d been sitting beside me.
Of course, Clarence wasn’t sitting beside me. And he didn’t say the words. Because he’s not real. And Eva Gitlow’s not real. And Billy and Jolene and Nate and Christine, none of them are real. You don’t have to tell me. I know I made them up. . . I know this. . . I do . . . Really.