28 July 2005

The Insanity of Writing

While reading Adam's review of The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, I was reminded of the emptiness of the real Peter Sellers; no such person existed, at least, not during his later years. He lost himself to the characters he portrayed; he had no discernible personality of his own.

Many people would label Sellers predicament as mental illness, and I'm inclined to agree. Why?

Although my situation wasn't the same as Dr. Strangelove's, I suffered the delight of losing myself in a story during my winter term in an Advanced Fiction Writing course. Professor Craig Wright structures the class so the students work on one short story the entire term. The point was to illustrate the necessity to revise, revise, revise, and revise again until you get the story just right.

Now, about halfway through the term, I had revised my short story about eight times (that's nearly two revisions a week). Professor Wright told us to make some obvious changes to the story for the next time we met. I sat down to my story, looking at how I could improve it. I didn't see any major changes I could make without completely reinventing the story, but went ahead and started to jot down some ideas I hadn't considered before. Then I sat down at the keyboard to make the changes; that's when it happened.

The narrator of the story spoke to me, in my head. I heard his voice as though he were speaking over my shoulder. He told me to accept the protagonist as he was, everyone in the story had, so why shouldn't I? His exact words: "Quit jerking Mike around."

This freaked me out. I stood up from the keyboard, walked outside, and blinked in the sun of an unusual heatwave for late February. I breathed, cleared my mind, and returned to the keyboard. "Still here," announced the narrator. I jumped up rubbing my face and hair incredulously. I stopped all further revisions for the weekend.

I e-mailed my professor about the predicament, and he gave me an out for that week. I think it pleased him that I had such delusions; it meant I was really working at the story.

Little over a week later, I saw Saul Williams, sat in the second row, two arm-reaches away from him. He spoke of debating with his characters, internally, and Renee ribbed me. Saul spotted the motion and smiled.

The following week, Kim Stafford, son of the late poet William Stafford, visited the Decker Writing Studio of the SOU English & Writing Department. I discussed my situation with him in some length, and he told me that such moments of insanity make the writing worth it. It means the stories are living and breeding inside me, just trying to get out to the world—or something like that. He also told me to listen to the voices and talk to them.

I haven't had a relapse since. Then again, I haven't worked so hard at a story since. I already have troubles distinguishing between what I learned in a dream and what I learned while awake. I kind of want to go nuts again, hearing characters' voices and the like. My fear is that I won't be able to step back over the threshold to "sanity" once I've allowed myself to became a vessel for my stories.


theresa said...

Reading you describe the experience makes me both envious and frightened for you. It's too bad there isn't an on/off switch.

Kyle Stich said...

I think there may be an on/off switch, or at least a dimmer, but I haven't found it yet.

Robert Casserly said...

Buck up, comrade, and get back in there! I think this is simply another manifestation of the Shanachie's gift in you. It's a herald, not a nightmare.

Kyle Stich said...

"It's a herald, not a nightmare."

I think this is what Craig and Kim were trying to tell me, too.