Thursday, May 11, 2006

The voices in our heads

(Originally posted on July 25, 2005.)

Unless you're schizophrenic (or a writer, and is there all that much difference, really?) you may be a little creeped out by this: most fiction writers, at least from time to time, hear voices in their heads. When we write dialogue we are not making up conversations so much as transcribing the ones we hear in our minds.

I guess it's a little like the way we dream at night. Our subconscious minds slip their leashes and raid the data banks of our memories for odd bits and then string them together to make good dreams, bad dreams, or downright weird dreams. It's not something we do on purpose. Generally, we wake up shaking our heads and muttering, "Where on earth did that come from?"

That's what it's like for writers. We can get so caught up in our own stories that sometimes we feel like we're watching them, not creating them. We don't plan for the protagonist to say something wise or funny or shocking; we hear him say it and then we simply write it down. Yes, we've created the characters and the situations, but our story people often surprise us and drag us with them into wholly unexpected situations. Like the dreamer, we're not really in control. And yet our stories, like dreams, are coming straight out of our own minds.

I don't know if most writers are born hearing voices or if it's something we just pick up. But I can tell you that when an imagination is exercised daily, it becomes stronger. Writers are often asked if they're afraid of running out of ideas. We aren't, any more than a track star is worried that a long, hard run will use up all of his leg muscles. He might tire and need a rest (writer's block) but he'll come back stronger because excersize doesn't deplete muscles, it builds them.

This morning when I should have been doing laundry, thinking about which suitcases to pack, and getting otherwise organized for my trip to Reno, I've been working on a romance novel. No, I'm not under a deadline; my editor doesn't even know about this project (although I'll tell her in a couple of days). But when I woke up this morning the hero of my story was talking, and because I was afraid he wasn't going to repeat himself at a more convenient time, I hurried downstairs to my office and began taking notes.


Pamela J Weatherill said...

My characters come on holidays with me too!!!!!

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I try not to listen to them!

Nuh listen every time I talk!

No I don't!

Yes you do!

See what I mean!

Lori said...

I remember the first time I was shocked to find something out about one of my characters, she was adopted & I didn't know that about her! Why didn't she tell me sooner, I wondered? :) It's like a 3 ring circus in my mind some days. Thanks for this post. Hope your migraine is calmed down, by the way. I've lived with them for over 30 years so you have my sympathies!

pacatrue said...

I was thinking about this a bit and it may not be all that weird. (I'm a grad in linguistics, so I'm about to go all... linguisticky and cognitive sciencey on you). There is a large body of evidence that when you speak normally, just as part of your every day activity, that you have some sort of thought you want to express, and then you use the tools of your language to express that thought. This is a vast simplification, of course. Think of something being "on the tip of my tongue". What this usually is is that you know what you are trying to say but you can't quite get the right form. You know the word but the sounds just won't come. People can ask you, "is it Bangladesh?" and you say, "no, that's not it, but it starts with a 'b', I think." Subconsciously, you know what you want to say, but you can't quite get it. There are even tests in other languages like French that have grammatical gender, where words are masculine or feminine as part of the language's grammar. In some "tip of the tongue" states French speakers even know if their word is masculine or feminine, but they can't come up with the word. This is all just evidence that your mind does a lot of work that you cannot consciously see.

I remember deciding to get married nine years ago now. I didn't ever write down a list of reasons to do it or think about it much consciously. I just kept getting this growing feeling that it was the right decision. My mind was apparently going over and over the idea, and I only began to catch on to this fact later. I think it is pretty rare when we "mull things over" that we do it consciously. Instead, we let our minds work on the problem while we wash the dishes and wait for an answer.

So for everyone, when we speak, it is like we are consciously forming thoughts that we subconsciously already had. I think this is basically what writers are doing too. Their mind is playing the scenes and characters out subconsciously, and then writers have the knack of getting those scenes out into the parts of their mind they can view. Maybe some people are less able to get those scenes out of themselves.

This isn't supposed to be some sort of new agey thing or Freudian bit. The simple truth is that our mind does a lot of things that we don't pay attention to. My mind just made my heart beat. Thankfully, I don't have to pay attention to that or I'd be dead one absent-minded day. Conversations in our head are the same, I think.

Gina Burgess said...

Yes. I can identify with this, Brenda. My characters also speak with accents and twangs and some with a Brit-kind of humor. That one cracks me up. I'm glad to know I don't need a shrink ;)

Brenda Coulter said...

I'm glad to know I don't need a shrink

Gina, sweetie, I never said that. Being just like me is hardly proof of your sanity. ;-)

Lori, my migraines are getting better. Thanks for asking.

Interesting insights, Pacatrue. Feel free to go all linguisticky on us whenever you like.

Janny said...


I don't know about "most" writers hearing voices...I hear about a lot of them who do, but I never have. So I tend to shy away from blanket pronouncements like "most writers ________" (do, hear, believe, act, love...anything in particular).

Why? Because some poor newbie out there is reading all this stuff, soaking it up like a sponge. I mean, we all did it. We HUNG on every word a "real writer" said. And if what they talked about wasn't part of our experience, we started doubting whether we were really "artistic" enough to do this writing-thing.

So while I enjoy hearing about people who have other people walking around talking in their heads (I don't necessarily want to be you, but...) I'd ask that we not make it sound like all, or even most, writers "have" this as part of the creative process. Otherwise, we might find some poor newbies going out and taking mind-altering drugs to try and hear the voices "everybody else hears."

If the newbie goes out and takes mind-altering drugs for some other private reason, we have no culpability in that, however. (Just covering us all. :-))

Speaking of mind-altering drugs, Brenda, I used to get migraines, too. I don't anymore. I will willingly share with anyone who suffers this way some things that worked for me, if you like. Just ask!

Have fun, and now I have to go link my blog up with yours....:-)


Brenda Coulter said...

Nah, Janny, I'm sticking by what I wrote about "most" writers because that's what I hear when talking to my writing friends. This blog is about my experience as a writer, and that has been my experience.

I'm afraid I don't feel any particular burden to give aspiring authors the kid-glove treatment. If that sounds unsympathetic, let me explain that I'm a self-starter who didn't need any "nurturing" to get published, so I'm not really in tune with writers who have to look outside of themselves for motivation and validation. It's just a personality difference, that's all, so I'm not apologizing for it.

Thanks for taking the time to comment. You're welcome to stop by and argue with me any time!