On Inspiration and Trusting your Instinct (or, Writing as a Mental Disorder)


As seen on the Let The Words Flow blog:

If you’re a writer, and I mean a Writer, then you are probably somewhat insane. Consider the following quotes for context:

Writing became such a process of discovery that I couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning: I wanted to know what I was going to say. ~Sharon O’Brien

First, find out what your character wants. Then, just follow him. ~Ray Bradbury.

Being an author is like being in charge of your own personal insane asylum. ~Graycie Harmon

Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia. ~E.L. Doctorow

When I first began writing Antebellum (formerly known as Woman’s World), all I had was a premise: What would the world be like if women had been the dominant gender throughout the ages, not men? I wondered if there would be peace or war, slavery or freedom, what the government would look like, who would raise the children, would children even be important, and what would men’s roles be? I wanted to examine this world, our world, in a different light. Ultimately I decided men would be kept as slaves: menial workers and companions, both holding the nation and families together as caretakers and the working class, leaving women to pursue knowledge, science, and art.

I began with a female character about to take her first slave. I didn’t know her name, or his name, or anything about their society at all. But as the sentences began to pile on top of each other, it became clear that my characters knew everything I didn’t. I followed them as a tourist, stalking them through my keyboard, learning about their customs and responsibilities, their emotions and struggles. They wanted things, and would fight for what they wanted. I was enthralled.

I also thought I was a little crazy. In school I was taught that the writing process had definite steps; first there was a brainstorming session, then a rough draft, then three re-edits until you had a final copy. In elementary school, this was the way writing was done, and there was no room for negotiation. In fourth grade, I knew I wanted to be a writer, and loved the creativity of just going at it on paper, but hated this drafting/editing process and knew I would never be able to take being a writer if I had to do that nonsense all the time.

So, when I began writing Antebellum at the age of 14, I didn’t know anything about real writers or real writing, but I had found this magic world inside myself, this trance-like interaction between my imagination and my more logical self, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Other aspiring writers I met in school didn’t have this (they also lacked my natural instinct for grammar and plots not based on their favorite anime), and so I felt very alone, a little frustrated, and misunderstood. My teachers hadn’t any inkling what I was talking about, either.

Then, in 9th grade I picked up a book from my English teacher’s personal library: Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. It was a quick, strange read, but at the end I found total gold: an interview with the author. That three-page or so interview completely changed my writing life. Bradbury revealed that he had the same, strange, magical process of writing. He likened his writing process to following his characters around with a notepad, writing down what they do.

I had found my people. There were others like me. I wasn’t strange or half-crazy, no, I was just a REAL writer! I was thrilled. I began calling myself a writer from that day on. It was who and what I was, and what I would always be, published or not.

Writing after that became far more enjoyable. I learned to listen to my subconscious pulling and give my creative side free range to make up anything it wanted to. Our brains are so smart once we stop analyzing what and how we’re actually thinking. My subconscious had whole plots worked out I wasn’t even aware of. These plans would emerge unexpectedly and surprise me.

For example (those who read the Antebellum series when it was available on Fictionpress will remember this), one day I was sitting at my desk, typing along on my second book, Apostasy, when suddenly one of my characters blurted out to another that she was pregnant.

I stopped, took my hands off the keyboard, and looked at the screen more closely. Had I really written that? That wasn’t in my conscious plan. I had no intention of making this character pregnant. Her pregnancy had nothing to do with the plot I was developing; in fact, it threatened to ruin what long-term plans I did have.

However, while my conscious self didn’t have a plan, my subconscious self certainly did. Later on in the third book this unexpected pregnancy twist surfaced again and revealed its surprising plan, throwing in a most-excellent plot-twist towards the end that intrigued and delighted readers.

It was a leap of faith to accept that unexpected turn of events, and I’m glad I did. That experience taught me a lot about the subconscious writing process and about the power of our minds. It was also useful for helping me trust myself in a similar situation years later, as I was working on my fifth book, Go Look There.

I had just graduated from high school, and my family unexpectedly moved to north Alabama. For a graduation present, my father bought me a laptop (which I type this article on now, two years later). We were stuck in corporate housing for what ended up being two months, and I had nothing to do except play on my laptop (without even the internet; too cruel!) and write. I had brought some of my current writing projects with me on CD, as my desktop was moved along with the rest of our stuff, and began toying with some short stories I had written. There was one in particular I was working on which featured a girl with a mental retardation that made her smell attractive to butterflies. At her 8th grade graduation outside, butterflies came and swarmed her, and the crowd’s reaction to both this girl and this miraculous event served as a pointed social critique.

This all sounded nice in theory, and the story had hints of what I ultimately wanted the reader to feel (magic, spookiness, etc.), but it was missing something. It didn’t have what I call ‘saturation,’ where every sentence is rich with meaning and/or description, and as soon as you read the first few lines of the story you feel as if you are living it.

I tried several variations of the story, but it still felt flat and unoriginal, so I decided (going with that subconscious instinct), to change the perspective from third person to first person. For the eyes and ears of the story I chose the school janitor, who had a special relationship with the children and the school that parents attending could not have. His name was Ephram Carson. A novel was born.

(You can read this chapter on my website here)

Ephram is the most strongly-defined character I’ve ever written (you can see his character analysis on my website, too), and he had stories to tell, only the first of which was this strange, haunting butterfly episode. In fact, it was this experience, along with another tragedy involving a child and butterflies, that created a stigma in the town that functioned as a sort of curse. Ephram wrote letters to the school psychiatrist, Angelica, recounting the strange, spooky, and often sad stories of the children of the town. I got to incorporate more of my short stories into the novel and add new ones, and the project turned itself into my favorite novel so far, Go Look There (never before shared on Fictionpress, unfortunately).

If I hadn’t have trusted my instincts and changed the perspective of the story, even though it meant a complete rewrite and working with an unfamiliar character (at first), I would never have arrived at the novel my subconscious had in store for me.

Now, whenever I can I try to enlighten other young writers to the subconscious effect, and reassure them they aren’t crazy; they’re just legitimate!

In writing, your mind is your most useful tool. Forget your computer, forget your keyboard, forget your typewriter or your notepad and pens. If you had nothing else in the world, not even your voice or hands, you could still make up stories. Your work doesn’t come from your tools, but your brain. Remember that.

Now get out there and make some magic.

PS: I’m guest-blogging tomorrow at the blog of Jess Granger, whose first book, Beyond the Rain, came out in August of this year (click the link for sexy/beautiful cover!)

-Savannah J. Foley

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