Voices in My Head

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.