Canst Thou Minister To A Mind Diseased?
by Sarah Hoyt
Over the weekend I had to explain several times how books come to me. (I’ve decided, btw, that this is the reason I – at least for now – prefer to work out of contract. Because it allows this to happen.)
The book I mostly had to explain was A Few Good Men, and what happened was this: I’d just started Darkship Renegades, and the local con was in town – January. It has a bad habit of hitting just as I come off the holidays and my brain is engaging again. (No, I don’t take the holidays off, but I’ll admit I probably should. Precious little gets done, and that usually of the administrivia type “clean the drawers” or “organize outlines” or… Because when the world presses that close about me, none of that isolation needed to immerse myself in the dream happens.) So, I worked on DSR until the LAST possible minute, and then Dan started muttering about dragging me to the con still attached to my computer, and how we had panels, and we were LATE.
I ducked into the bathroom to put my makeup on. And there, mascara wand in hand, the opening of A Few Good Men hit – with its own flavor and distinctive voice.
The world celebrates great prison breaks. The French territories still commemorate the day in which the dreaded Bastille burst open before the righteous fury of the peasantry and disgorged into the light of day the innocent, the aggrieved, the tortured and the oppressed.
They forget that every time a prison is opened, it also disgorges, amid the righteous and innocent, the con artists, the rapists, the murderers and the monsters.
Monsters like me.
That voice, and the story was so prevalent in my mind I actually read that paragraph – as well as a bit of A Fatal Stain – at my reading. I think I bewildered the readers. But to me, it mattered. I already had the entire book in my head, you see.
Did I do something to bring that about? Not consciously. In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion the best way to explain how novels “hit” my mind is the old excuse of someone being caught drunk, disorderly and Southern, “I was sitting on my front porch, reading my Bible, when suddenly–”
What I mean by all this is that many writers – I don’t know if it’s most – experience most of the their books – even I have gone at them the rational way before – as stunning intrusions into their ordered daily life. You might not be sitting on your front porch, reading your Bible, but you’ll be putting on makeup, or washing dishes or – last week – ironing up a storm. And all of a sudden, out of nowhere there will be a “voice” or a “personality” or a full story in your head, loud as an Hallelujah chorus and twice as startling.
And when that happens you HAVE to write it. There is no other choice.
Well, at least there is no other choice if you’re an inexperienced author. If you are, over the years you’ve developed several methods of delaying, indefinitely filing or putting a stake through the d*mn things before they have time to take over.
This is especially needed because they have a tendency to “attack” when you’re midway through something else. Depending on your school of thought – more on this later – this happens because you are already tuned to whatever it is that “broadcasts” these ideas OR because you don’t really want to finish the current novel (because you’re afraid it won’t be very good, or because you don’t actually like hard work, or because you feel unequal to it, or–) and the new idea is your subconscious giving you an out. You take your pick, I’m not religious about either option.
EXCEPT that with 23 novels under my belt (that’s the SOLD ones, mind. Another eight, perhaps nine – who keeps count? – before.) I don’t often feel like I can finish a novel and I’m familiar with the compromise of bringing the ideal platonic vision into the hard world outside the cave. And yet, the things still attack – always – just as I hit stride on another novel. Also, if I’m ill or out of it and AM struggling with the novel, slogging every half page as if I were breaking granite off a mountain side, the other ideas DON’T hit. That would seem to be advantage side one.
In fact, I’ve just been reading a book on mental illness, focusing particularly on schizophrenics (it has some application to The Brave And The Free, though most of what is happening to Reehat is self-induced.) Many writers – those of us who experience ideas as intrusive eruptions of the outside upon our thoughts – would, I suspect be classified as low-level schizophrenics: the point at which you experience part of your thoughts as an outside reality, but don’t confuse them with reality.
The difference is that we don’t seem to progress to the later stages which most schizophrenics who require outside intervention do. (Well, most of us don’t progress to the later stages. As in most other places in society the introduction of certain type of recreational drugs into the artistic society in the sixties and seventies broke some writers badly: mostly those who experience stories as coming from the outside.) Also most of us can integrate more or less well into the everyday life around us.
Yes, it is often less well, as many of us have problems juggling the inner and the outer life. But most of us are as sane as anyone else required to take fictional stories and people seriously for a large portion of their working time. Still you find most of us living perfectly mundane-yawn-inducing lives. When not pounding the keyboard till our fingers bleed, we are parents, housewives, computer programmers, students, and often, until we make enough to live from, manual laborers of some sort. (I’ve often thought if all else fails I’ll go into house cleaning. I can do it, and it has the huge advantage of my being able to day dream through it. The problem of course would be how many ideas would attack while cleaning in the trance.)
We are perfectly normal until we can get together with our kind and explain this odd issue we all suffer from and which would have “normal” people wishing to commit us all.
Are we truly insane? Who knows? While I’m not one of those who believes mental illness is a society construct due to the strains of capitalism (and of course Marxists were NOT being hypocritical, when they said that while supporting a system that DID punish political dissent as mental illness – after all, you’d have to be insane to oppose the Marxian paradise. See? All explained. Tails I win, Heads you lose. If you run into a situation like this, you might be in the presence of the corrupt Marxist philosophy.) Nor do I think “we’re crazy because of industrialization” nor any of it.
I think the brain is a complex biological mechanism that not only can be thrown off by defects of manufacture (genetic defects I mean) and dents acquired in use (environmental pressures) but also can be influenced by whatever is going on in the rest of the body.
The later is very hard for me to accept because I like to think I’m in control of what I think and what I think with. However, having been caught in an off-kilter hormonal cycle from hell off and on for ten years (no, not menopause. Menopause is relatively easy to understand by comparison) I’ve come to realize that in at least one part of this cycle (which will keep worsening if not interrupted) I get so profoundly depressed that the only reason not to commit suicide is that I can’t muster enough energy.
By definition any “genteel” sort of affliction that doesn’t interfere much with how others around you experience you and might even bring pleasure to others – via stories – does not require treatment.
The truth is most of us would fight you tooth and nail if you tried to treat us. See, the dream-state we enter when writing can be experienced as pleasurable or not, but one thing it is: intense. We experience more intensity when working than most people do in their daily lives. And one thing human beings have proven they can’t stand is boredom. All the junkies who prefer bad trips to humdrum are living (or sometimes dead) proof of this.
So if you have a mechanism in your mind that can take you elsewhere and elsewhen and make you – for a time – someone else, but which is mostly under control and doesn’t affect your daily life, has no physical bad effects and is free – would you give it up? I don’t know about you, brother, but I wouldn’t. In fact I don’t. In fact, sharing with other writers the belief that most decongestants “turn of the writer thing” I will go through winter honking like a goose and sounding like Darth Vader rather than take them.
Since we’ve learned there are adaptations – celibacy – that benefit a colony of organisms even while not benefitting the organism, it’s in fact entirely possible that writers are a positive adaptation. I have this theory that they gave Indo-European culture the boost to become the dominant culture in the world. Writers are, for lack of a better explanation, the thing in the human community that tells people what they are.
Or we could all be nuttier than good quality fruitcake, of course. This is possible. But as long as we keep track of which voices in our heads are really hours, and which reality is really reality, there is no reason for anyone to intervene.
Now, in the past the way to keep the “writer thing” in its place was business. If you were a working professional, you had to deep six, delay or modify many ideas, so you could finish/run with the ones that would support you. (I can’t tell you how to kill, delay or modify the strong-presenting dreams, because what works for me might not work for you. Thought avoidance works for the kill, but for the delay often you have to write down a few pages and reassure yourself it will be there when you come back to it – which is what I did with AFGM. For “modify” you might have to write it out first, then edit ruthlessly.)
With indie that’s more difficult. It’s easier to jump from dream to dream, never fully interacting with reality.
Can I help you with that? Well, so far I’ve been keeping track of which world my body is actually in. Finishing something before moving on is another thing. I’m currently writing four novels at once, which is the best compromise I’ve found.
Generally, to keep your balance, remember reality is the thing that bites you if you ignore it. You can spend time with hands over ears going lalalalalala at your character, but you’re not going to get evicted for failure to pay the mortgage THERE – you will for failing to pay it here. Remember that kids and pets are important in the REAL reality. If you don’t feed and pet your cats, they’ll sit around your desk and not let you write. And kids need to be fed, cleaned, and moderately paid attention to.
And always remember which voice in your head is truly yours.
If you do that, you’ll keep balanced between reality and dream, you might even make a living off the dream AND there will be no reason to give you anti-psychotics. Which, friends tell me, interfere with the writing-thing like nobody’s business.
That’s the best I can do for you. It’s a battle we each must fight alone. The success in fighting it determines whether you become a professional writer or a common, garden-variety nut.