Writers are a curious lot. Let us alone with a bit of paper and a writing tool of some sort (ink, graphite, wax) and, well, we can get into all sorts mischief.
But what is that separates us from other art forms, I wonder? Give that same bit of paper and tool to another type of artist and you’ll be handed back a portrait, a landscape, some fantastic new abstract design. No. What makes a writer unique isn’t their propensity toward stationary (though we are quiet fond of a good pen and the smell of tree relics). I think, what sets us apart from other arts is something we have in us that when told with a straight face to certain people would have them questioning our sanity. Our art form is based on something that’s hard to feel comfortable saying in daily conversation. The foundation of our art is the fact that we can hear voices.
How does a new writer bring up the fact that they hear voices without receiving that side glance or raised eyebrow? We can’t so we don’t. If we bring the topic up at all, it is not until the merit of the one we are speaking to has been tested and found worthy. It is why a lot of beginning writers have doubts about introducing themselves as writers. It takes another writer to really understand this concept, or at least someone who has been around writers long enough to know.
It makes us a bit odd too. Writers hear voices. In their heads.We don’t believe these voices are real, even when they do wake us up in the middle of the night. We don’t go about following all their suggestions for world domination or revenge or burning the place down. But we don’t ignore them either. No, we listen. Patiently. We wait with enthusiasm. We carefully attend to every word, arduously forming those words with letters so others may one day read them. We take these other people we have been, these other lives we have lived and we give them life, raising them like candles in the night to share the light with others.
Of course there have been times for me when the opposite has been true. My characters are just that: characters with personalities and minds and habits all their own. But an interesting character alone does not a story make. It needs plot, a setting, a structure, a rising action. While the motivations of characters may drive these sorts of things, trying to reign characters into a plot line of your own choosing is impossible. It’s one of the hardest lessons I’ve ever faced. Knowing what I’ve wanted to do with a story, and yet having the characters, fully formed, disagreeing completely with my intentions. They have been known to shut the place down.
It seems like a bit of high school drama, but I’ve had characters quit speaking to me all together. It’s silly, I know, but it’s happened. I don’t know if other writers get like this with their characters or not. Usually, for me, the plot line comes first, often in my dreams. What happens later is that I must go on a quest to begin to understand that character and their motivations, to understand why the plot moved as it did. The more research I do, and the more often I write how they think, the better I understand what they want to do, where they want the story to go.
But there are parts to every plot line that I don’t see in dreams that I have to make up on the spot. One on particular occasion, I split up two really close characters that were becoming too hard to write without the other present in the scene. I attempted to separate them just to make the plot a bit more interesting.
I couldn’t write another word of dialog for the next two weeks. It was as if they had simply crossed their arms, looked away, and refused to open their mouths for the entire time I had been trying to get the story to go again. My lesson quite learned, I changed the scene. The moment I stepped back and allowed my inner voices guide the scene, the story flowed once more.
My life since I’ve left college hasn’t exactly been what I thought it would be. I’ve taken up two jobs to make ends meet. I’ve become a skilled cook to keep costs down. I’ve tried to keep my whimsy and my spontaneity and my ‘this is happening’ in check. I kept backtracking in my thoughts, tediously laying out the path of my mind so that others might follow, might keep up with my thoughts that move at the speed of light.
The efforts I’d expended in all these places came at a cost. While I found myself able to cope with shorter fictions and with characters that were new, it seemed that the characters I’d known since I was twelve, who in a way knew me best, had all but abandoned me, quietly slipping away into the night to become strangers even though I knew their voices far better than I have ever known the back of my own hand.
I think sometime in the past three or four years, I’d lost the sense of them altogether. I didn’t have time for them, not anymore. It was time to grow up, time to focus on following the plot line society had structured for me. But the more I kept pushing, the more I kept forcing myself into the direction I thought I should go, the more I forced myself to make sure I stuck to the usual plot line that is handed out to children from day one like candy, the less myself I became. The night before New Year’s Eve 2016, I had a dream, a nightmare really, not for content, but for how it simply overpowered me as it presented a reckoning of my inner turmoil I’d been pretending did not exist.
I’ve always put a lot of stock in my dreams. Not only has it been the fodder for many a story idea, but when I reach my lowest, when my world is literally falling apart at the seams, my dreams have always been the way I’ve processed and accepted emotions I don’t usually display.
I awoke the last morning of 2015 unable to shake off the feeling because I knew I stood at a crossroads in my life. I spent the entire day thinking it over, shivering at times from the severity of it. Should I continue forward with the plot line, the one I thought I wanted, at the expense of the true voice of the character? Or should I take the more terrifying course and abandon the plot line I’d set up for myself in favor of remaining true to my own character, to who I am? It’s been nearly six months since that dream, and I am still dealing with the fallout of the choices I made because of it.
Little by little, the days have grown clearer as my thoughts and feelings have no longer been weighed down by the act of having to make a decision. Two mornings ago I woke up with a scene from my first story,SKS, in my head. I’d written this scene once before nearly ten years ago that same summer my characters had refused to speak to me. The scene belongs to the story I’d started when I was twelve, but left unfinished because I knew enough to know I didn’t have the life experience to get it right yet. As I got out of bed, as I brushed my teeth, as I ate breakfast, the scene repeatedly played out in my head.
The scene opens when my knight errant finally returns home broken, defeated, emotionally scarred and generally a wreck after the dragons she’s faced. She as well as the the people she left behind, all my beloved characters, spoke with voices I have not heard in years. It alone was enough to make me tremble. This morning as I began to write it, I found their lines were clearer and truer than I ever recalled in all my teenage years I spent sitting on the sidelines and documenting the story as it unfolded before me. As I typed this post, I realized I understood this scene now. We might have both been broken, defeated, emotionally scarred and generally a wreck, but we’d both chosen to remain true to ourselves.
I am finally home.
Love and Lightning,
M. L. Trumbull