Insanity--The Character(s) of a Writer
Let me start this post with a disclaimer. Everything in here is just opinion. More specifically, it is my opinion as it pertains to writers of fiction, such as myself. None of this is based on science, statistics or medical evidence of any kind. Nor is any of this meant to apply to that rare and admirable breed of writer who takes on the challenge of non-fiction. So, all that being said, feel free to read on.
The other day, I posted a quote on my Facebook status that read, “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia." ~E.L. Doctorow. Although Mr. Doctorow probably meant the quote to be taken as tongue in cheek, it really struck a chord with me, and I found myself thinking about it a little more deeply. After a bit of reflection and self-analysis, I decided that the quote is, to some extent, true.
You see, growing up, I pretty much thought I was nuts. Not in the cute, “oh you’re just a little wild and crazy kid” kind of way—rather, in the “you are certifiably insane and ought to be locked up” kind of way. You see, I had a cast of characters living inside my head. Not the scary “Sybil” variety, i.e. they didn’t pop up at odd moments and take control of my life. It was more like a television set had been implanted inside my head, and I had instant access to some really cool shows. I could turn it on or off anytime I wanted, and I lived vicariously through the characters who had fascinating lives of their own within this hidden world. I had quite a cast at my disposal, and whenever I was bored, angry, frightened, anxious—or sometimes just because—I would simply turn to whatever “channel” I wanted and retreat into another world filled with drama and adventure. I’d sit for hours, staring at nothing in particular, just letting it all unwind inside my mind. It came in very handy at school when the teacher was babbling about something I couldn’t care less about (and they wonder to this day why I still can’t do long division correctly). It came in handy when, as the youngest of five, my viewing preferences for our one and only television really didn’t matter. It came in handy when my mother would make me go to bed ridiculously early simply because she needed the peace and quiet; It came in handy when my parents dragged me along on endless appointments with realtors and home builders and financial institutions in preparation for their major move from
Back then, I didn’t worry about it. I was a child. Children were supposed to play pretend. To me, this was just a form of pretend. And, on occasion, I would even slip into one of my characters, find out what it was like to be him or her. It was all in good fun. But as I got older, progressing through my teen years and into young adulthood, my cast of characters, rather than diminishing, actually grew, with more spin-offs than “All in the Family,” and plots so complex I had to make a flow chart to keep up. I had figured out by then that these “mind games” I played were not a common experience shared by my peers or, if they had been, were abandoned along with childhood. Consequently, I began to feel that perhaps there was something not quite right with me. I tried several times to stop the constant parade of adventure going on in my head, but when I did, I found that I truly missed my characters. I felt cheated, and it would put me in a foul mood. Ultimately, when boredom and frustration reared their ugly heads, I would fall back on old habits. It was like an addiction.
So I kept it up, eventually surrendering to the notion that this was simply a part of who I was, and it would never go away. Besides, it caused no harm that I was aware of. Still, I told no one about this secret world I had invented for fear that they would confirm what I already suspected—that I was certifiably insane.
Time passed and, as the stresses of life eventually took their toll, I ended up across the desk from a psychologist, trying to resolve unresolved grief while grappling with a childhood that was less than stellar. In the course of these deep and confidential conversations, the spirit moved me to finally confess my treasured secret. With a mix of trepidation and relief, I told my psychologist about the cast of characters in my head, and the constant intrigue and companionship they had provided over the years. He nodded and smiled and asked a few questions until finally, gathering my nerve, I asked him, point blank, “So, tell me, does that make me crazy?” With a look of bemusement, he sat back, looked me straight in the eye, and said with a chuckle, “You’re not crazy. You’re a writer.” He then proceeded to tell me of how several other confused writers had come into his office at one time or another, wondering, too, if they were crazy for experiencing the same phenomenon I had just described.
Apparently, I was not alone in my affliction after all.
I simply hadn’t had the brains to figure out that what I was imagining in my head needed to be put down on paper.
And so a writer was born. I sorted through the reams of stories backlogged within my psyche and shuffled through the mob of characters I’d created in order to find those most suitable for this new project. And when I found just the right ones (actually, the most persistent and vocal of the bunch), I sat down in front of a keyboard and let them tell their story. I never intended to have anyone read what I was writing, but wrote solely for my own enjoyment. It gave life and breath to what had been trapped for so many years in my mind, and that alone was strangely gratifying. I gave my characters free reign, and they guided me through an adventure that later developed into my debut novel, TURN OF THE SENTRY. I never used an outline, and never told my characters what to do. I was just the transcriptionist. If I had to describe the sensation, it would be like turning on your favorite TV show, and writing down everything you heard while trying to describe everything you saw. Some days it was quite a challenge, and I struggled to keep up and find the right words without getting in the way of the story. But each day was exciting in its own right because I never knew for sure what was going to happen, and I never knew how or when it would end. And as I continued to tell their tale on paper, the other characters in my head quieted down, lulled by act of the storytelling. They didn’t disappear, mind you, but their zeal was quelled slightly by the inherent promise that one day they, too, would have their turn.
So what is my point in relaying this bit of personal trivia? It is two-fold, really. First, in my humble opinion and as I see it, a person does not learn to be a writer. Sure, you can learn all the rules that pertain to writing—you can learn about the parts of speech and sentence structure, and rhythm, and tense, and all that stuff you read about in creative writing courses. There are formulas for developing and outlining a story; formulas for creating believable characters; formulas for writing natural-sounding dialogue; formulas for developing plots and subplots; and so on. But a person does not learn to be a writer by following the rules anymore than a person learns to be an artist by doing a paint-by-number project. The urge to write—the compulsion to write—is inborn. It is woven into the very fabric of a writer’s soul. It springs from their heart, their being, their very selves and, in fact, it is a part of their very selves that they commit to paper when they write. Which brings up my second point: Despite my therapist’s assertions to the contrary, it is my firm and honest belief that writers, for the most part, harbor a sanctioned form of insanity. I believe every true writer of fiction is a little insane, albeit a socially acceptable form of insanity.
The need to write is based upon a strange, persistent and sometimes disturbing compulsion to escape into an unseen dimension—another realm, if you will. For every writer of fiction, there is some part of their psyche that is detached from the world around them and tethered somewhere else. Writers have the ability to retreat into another world at will. It’s not an escape from “reality” per se, since the world created by the writer is, for us, real to some degree. Rather, it is a passage into an alternate world, and by describing that world on paper, its existence is somehow validated, and that part of ourselves which remains there, even during those hours when we are going about our lives in the “real” world, is validated as well.
If you have this “Writer's Gene,” as I call it, it does not guarantee you’ll produce a best seller—hell, it doesn’t even mean you’ll produce something worth publishing. What it does guarantee, however, is that you will write. You will have to write. You will be unhappy—even miserable—if you don’t and you will never feel completely satisfied until you do. And I can practically guarantee you that those books that you’ve read that are really, really good—you know the ones I’m talking about: the ones you can’t put down, even when it’s 2:00 in the morning and you’re dying to get some sleep; the ones that stay in the back of your mind long after the last page has been turned; the ones that you will pick up again and again, just to relive the experience—those books were all written by someone harboring the sanctioned insanity of the Writer’s Gene.
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