December 1, 2010

Writing is a partnership with your brain

It's not me who writes; it really isn't. I set the stage but what walks out on it is not me, at least not my conscious self. It's a sort of temporary, augmented self -- but even that description fails.

Here's the thing. When I write, all I do is open a door and something comes charging out, and suddenly my fingers are flying across the keyboard and I'm writing. 

There's that pesky identity problem again: I said, "I'm writing," as if I was referring to myself. Thinking of it this way may be convenient but it's not accurate. It doesn't tell half the tale. Something within me comes out to write fiction. That's the short version. I never suspected the existence of this being before writing fiction. In none of my extensive, nonfiction writing did anything remotely like this ever occur. I just wrote in the "normal" fashion and it was my conscious mind that did the writing. End of story.

But with fiction it was there the very first time. I've come to call my writing partner Phil (using the name of a character in one of my books; it's an inside joke). Others call Phil the Muse, I guess, though I think they mean only inspiration rather than a creature that takes over your body as if you're a zombie. Me, I don't talk Muses. The whole capital-letter, vague-entity thing puts me off, so I went with Phil.

I call out to Phil sometimes. Before writing, I'll ask, "Phil! Are you with me?" Because sometimes he isn't, though this is rare. For the most part, he shows up when I need him. And when the writing day is done, I often thank him by name. See, I believe what I'm saying here. Phil exists.

And Phil writes. I mean, this guy is fast. I watch my fingers as they move at lightning speed, typing whatever Phil wants. I see the words go up on the screen and I read them -- but I do this as an observer. I even comment to myself as the scene reels out on the screen.

I'll say, "What the heck is that?" or "I thought we weren't going there!" or "Would you look at that!" It just happens and all the while, "I" never stop typing. But it's not me doing it; I would know. It's Phil. It's just the way it works.

But it all has to mean something, right? So here's my take. I think we fiction writers work with different aspects of our mental machinery, various modules that come together to make up what we call our mind. As writers, we supply certain skills: literary judgment, a deep understanding of the meaning of words, an artful sense of structure, an innate ability to strike a certain tone, and the mental apparatus required to tell a story.

To this we add ingredients dictated by our conscious mind: the story idea, the characters and goals of the story, planned outlines of places, events and timelines, and a particular sense of style that will dominate and define this particular fictional world. We're ready to write.

But when we start, something strange happens. Through some mental magic, an artful coming-together of farflung mental components and abilities, we are able to create a virtual writer for a short period of time. Set the stage appropriately and this being comes into existence. It moves with a more fluid gait than we could ever achieve, and has a sense of comfort and style that goes far beyond what we, as conscious writers, could ever claim to possess. For a time, this personality exists and he writes. I believe this. Go, Phil!

All we do as writers is watch and adopt a hands-off attitude. We let the power run wild, let its passion take hold of the story and move it forward. We watch as the virtual writer dances through the scenes, always moving more swiftly and adroitly than a mere mortal. We let this power unwind fully. We watch as it runs its course and finally lunges across the finish line. And there in its wake is a finished scene.

This is what writing fiction feels like to me. I've read posts by other fiction writers who described something similar. Writers come up with their own terms for this process, their own notions about how it takes place. But something wild happens every time we write fiction. If you don't believe me, just ask any fiction writer who is passionate about her work.  

I put it right up there in the post title: writing is a partnership with your brain. It's almost like emergent behavior -- what comes out is so much greater than the ingredients. I feel honored after writing, as if I was visited by another whose skills are far greater than my own. I always come back to that: it is an "other" -- the Muse, Phil, whatever. It's how fiction gets written.

Any other takes on this? (This is why the Flying Spaghetti Monster created comment buttons, you know. Just sayin'.)

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