Those voices in your head

As many of us know, the act of getting a story out of our heads and onto the page requires forcing the two unruly siblings living our in our brains — the uptight, fussy Internal Editor and the wild, emotive, elusive Beast — to work together.

I’ve long known (and squabbled with) my old frenemy, the Internal Editor, but I didn’t have a term for describing the Beast until I went to Viable Paradise and heard Laura Mixon lecture about the ancient, buried part of your brain that plucks patterns from a web of emotions, sensations, and evolutionary cunning.   It is from here that the well of creativity springs to nourish our storytelling.

For me, activating the Internal Editor is a breeze.  In fact, sometimes it’s a bit too easy; before I know it I’m putting off advancing the plot in favor of obsessing over the structure of a single paragraph.  As I’ve already blogged about, this year I’m trying NaNoWriMo for the first time, and the experience has brought the push and pull between the Editor and the Beast into even sharper focus.  After all, the point of NaNo is to shut the Editor up altogether and let the Beast have free reign to drive the story along at top speed.

On the one hand, I’ve found it physically painful not to go back over what I’ve written.  It’s hardwired in my DNA (perhaps a hold-over from grad school days?) to tweak the wording, revise the dialogue, and insert new scenes to shed better light on the characters and their behavior.  Plus, I staunchly maintain there’s solid value in this type of revision — more often than not, editing can help illuminate the path ahead and open doors to new plot developments you wouldn’t have otherwise found.

On the other hand, embracing the NaNo approach (as best I can) has liberated my Beast.  Telling the Editor to shut up and just pour the story onto the page without looking back is thrilling.  And the stuff that comes out is often surprising.  Of course, it can also lead thousands of words in the wrong direction, fingers taping in a frenzy of Beast-driven madness.  When I come back to myself, I find my characters have said stupid things and done even stupider things, and the Internal Editor is waiting, hands on his hips, saying “I told you so.”  Which sucks.

The real trick, I think, is to get your Beast to talk to you while you aren’t writing.  Coaxing him out and encouraging him to whisper yet-unrevealed plot secrets is about as hard as getting a cat to perform tricks.  I find it happens (the coaxing of the Beast, that is, not the cat tricks) most often when I’m in the thick of working on a project but am currently doing something else – especially something requiring minimal active engagement with the world around me.

For instance, in the last week, my Beast has visited me with gifts while I was:

  • sitting on the subway staring at my own reflection in the window against the blackness of the tunnel
  • sitting under a dryer at the hair salon with my head full of color foils (and without my glasses on, rendering me essentially blind)
  • walking outside on a route so familiar I didn’t need to look where I was going

In all three instances, I fell into a sort of trance and followed the Beast down new and deliciously twisty avenues of storytelling in my novel.  When I snapped out of it, for a moment I had forgotten where I was.  It’s possible I was even talking to myself (which on the New York City subway would put me in good company).

Thus far, my Beast flat-out refuses to appear when directly invoked, so, naturally, none of these episodes of Beast-contact were activated on purpose.  Nor did any of them happen when I had a pen and paper convenient to hand.  Thanks a lot, Beast.

Though, I’m finding there are certain activities that will usually lure him from hiding – including long walks and (ugh) trips to the gym.  Washing dishes, folding laundry, and ironing are also good bets.  Maybe the Beast just likes a clean house?

What are your tricks for getting your Beast to communicate with you?