On Friday I did some creative writing. I often do, but this day was different because I plowed into my story and didn’t stop. That’s unusual for me. There are lots of distractions about: my cat (who looks like a cow) demands to go out and be let in and be fed and play in the bath and get stroked. The other cat gazes at me and rubs her head on the computer. Fifi sleeps. My daughter texts, I have a client’s edit to get through, a trip to Trader Joe’s looms, taxes, Facebook, Bubble Witch. You know.
That’s why Friday was unusual. I invented a character, gave him a name and wrote… and wrote. The name I chose seemed pretty random. It popped into my head, and I went with it. It wasn’t a common name, but I liked it because it sounded authentic, like someone by that name could actually exist.
On Sunday I clicked on a New York Times article about the Malaysian plane that vanished over the Indian Ocean. It was the first piece I’d read that mentioned the names of the passengers… and one of those names was the name I had chosen for my character.
I stared at my laptop. Read the name over and over again, then checked my story. There it was. I had to have seen it somewhere else, I told myself, but I have no conscious recollection of where or whether that’s the only explanation. I thought about the collective unconscious, that vast, mysterious arena where the millions of ideas and thoughts of a billion people swarm and collide. I thought about empathy and energy, clairvoyance and psychic ability. I felt wretched about the real character and will obviously change the name of my invented one, but questions around how this might have happened linger, and I got to thinking about the wealth of untapped potential housed in our DNA and brain cells. Robin’s series on brain triggers explores the senses and how accessing them can enhance our writing, and I wanted to explore the fathomless deep that extends beyond our physicality, a sense we don’t yet understand but is acknowledged by mystics and spiritual leaders across the board. I believe that tapping into this aspect of ourselves can be a rich source of inspiration and creativity, something we writers can never get too much of.
I also decided to write this without doing any research or preparation. So what you see is what you get, and it may just be rubbish. Fair warning.
- The Shadow. Positive can’t exist without negative. Every real aspect of being, from the physical to the metaphysical, emotional to the intellectual, lives in uneasy balance with its counterpart, which deserves as much respect. What separates them is choice, which occurs at the level of awareness, but also at one of those levels we don’t understand. Social conditioning, circumstances, upbringing and genetic disposition all play a part, but once we reach adulthood, we mostly choose whether to be kind or hostile, compassionate or impervious, a curmudgeon or sweetheart. Whether we decide to favor the light or the dark, they do coexist, and the dark doesn’t take orders. Its voice can manifest in a sudden surge of jealousy when our best friend gets published and we don’t; a desire to send our newly married ex 456 takeaway dinners and tell the delivery service he’ll pay for it COD (also that he’s a little hard of hearing, so they’ll need to shout); or a sudden, vicious thrill of delight when we find out fashion models have to get airbrushed to look the way they do. Some of us act on dark impulses, but most of us pretend they don’t exist or squash them. Which doesn’t help, because then all they do is lurk and get us when we least expect them to show up. The shadow has a lot to say, and as writers, its blather is fabulous material for understanding the complex nature of characters. We can enrich our protagonists and antagonists by juggling their dark elements, those that either dominate or hide, for at the heart of the struggle between the two lies conflict. And it’s conflict that makes the novel.
- The whispers. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. On Sunday something else happened that made me sit up and take note. My dentist posted an article on Facebook about the dangers of root canalled teeth, and one of my friends took issue with it. It made him mad. It was unscientific and puerile, the research originated in 1922 and flossing and brushing were all we had to do to maintain the luster and safety of our pearly whites. While we were in the midst of our friendly debate, a crown attached to a root canalled tooth FELL OUT of his mouth. Alarmed when he took a closer look at it, he’s now considering having the tooth pulled rather than repeat the process. This article started him on a path that he’ll now investigate more seriously. On top of the name thing, I nearly fell over backwards. He called it a coincidence, but I could tell that part of his mind was blown by the synchronicity. Somewhere between my latching on to the article and his becoming inflamed (no pun intended) about it, something happened that we can’t really explain. I’m not sure what it is, but now he’ll get the tooth checked and maybe pulled. Maybe, just maybe, some kind of urgent message was being conveyed. (To me too, because I can tell you, when I next go to the dentist, my root canalled tooth is coming out.) As writers, exploring these strange, inexplicable coincidences allows our fiction to expand in ways that entertain all sorts of possibilities. Maybe malicious tooth gods are involved. Maybe an ancestor is looking out for my friend. We need to listen to whispers and messages, even the ones that make no rational sense, the ones that come to us in mysterious ways. I don’t say open up to believing debilitating thoughts or insane tooth articles, but the willingness to listen creates a conduit to the sub/unconscious, and trusting things we can’t see allows our creativity to leap out of confinement roaring, not cowering.
- The ghosts. Okay, so now you’re really going to think I’m daft. A neighbor told me once that my daughter and I live with a ghost, an unhappy old man who died in our apartment, all alone. Talk about a curmudgeon. She suggested I sage the rooms, and I did so, but now and again, I have a strange sense of not being alone. A couple of nights ago, another neighbor came for dinner, and for the first hour, she felt really uncomfortable. Then as the night wore on, she started to relax. Upon leaving, she turned to me and said, “It’s okay, he likes you and your daughter. You bring him comfort. He feels kind of protective towards you.” In case you’re wondering, yes, we live in San Francisco, a city known to be quirky and creative. I’m okay with that. Now if I wrote that in a memoir, you’d recommend a trip to the mental ward and maybe have a word with the doctor yourself, but in fiction, oh boy, does that old man have a story to tell.
Making peace with demons doesn’t give them the right to enslave us, it just gives us a more expansive view of the universe and its complexities. Too often we choose gray over black or white, the middle over the extremities, the fence rather than a side. I believe that balance can only be found in weighing the opposites, and we can only do that when we look them both in the eyes.