By Abbie Williams
One of my longtime favorite serial comic strips was always Gary Larson’s “The Far Side”. I used to tear pages from my desk calendar to tack on my classroom door so that students could be treated to Larson’s bone-dry wit as they entered, daily installments of the deliciously cynical, oft-sagacious humor that never failed to improve my day. One, of which I was particularly fond, pictured a serene-looking man lounging against a door frame. The caption was something along the lines of: “Gary’s mind was quiet resting place for ideas”; but clearly Gary Larson, the writer in question, did not suffer from this sort of graveyard of the mind.
Because writers’ minds are not restful spaces. There is no “quiet place” to be found there. In fact the screaming, stampeding turmoil present on any given day is enough to make you believe in dragons…or switching to decaf. (Right, like a writer could ever switch to decaf…might as well tell us to quit smoking, too. And to quit adding another inch of gin to that tonic before staying up until 3 a.m. to revise the last paragraph of chapter five for the twelfth time…)
Heh. Stereotypes. Besides, “dragons” invade writers’ minds on a routine rotating schedule.
It’s like daily experiencing an anxiety-fueled adrenaline buzz — but I don’t know any writer who would actually change that, as the lack of internal quiet space is a crucial element of the creative process. Writers are observant. (So are bird watchers, scientists, and sous chefs). What sets writers apart is the ability not only to observe but to then recreate the observation in word form — so that it is summarily projected into a reader’s mind.
Within the realm of fiction, it doesn’t matter if the original observation is now twisted, spun, sharpened, softened, riddled, agitated, embellished, embroidered, laden with symbolism or laced with the writer’s own experience; maybe it has even morphed into something entirely new in the churning brew of the writer’s mind — what matters is that the writer has successfully transfigured the observation into something worth reading.
It’s an alchemical process — I’m no expert, but I have read extensively about alchemy (that fascinating chemistry of the Middle Ages, in which a “lesser” substance such as shale was thought to be capable, through the correct series of intricate processes, of being transformed into a much more valuable one, such as gold). In other words, magic. The magic of alchemizing that figurative shale into figurative gold to produce something worthy. The magic of overcoming that metaphorical dragon with the potent elixir of your words.
The story (or song, or poem; all art, for that matter) itself is alchemy actualized, magic realized. A story is rarely born, fully-formed, in a writer’s mind. Instead it unfolds in increments, in fits and starts, revealing itself as you go. Those moments, curled over my keyboard and typing as quickly as I am able, are when I feel most attuned to whatever indefinable wonder it is that keeps the stars apart (i love you, e.e. cummings), connected perhaps to something beyond myself; submitting to the clamoring stories that long to be told, to the characters tugging at my hair and my elbows, vying for attention.
To words that flow along across the page like water in a secret woodland brook where I am occasionally allowed the privilege to kneel and sink my hands, to sift through the smooth blue pebbles along the bottom which have been submerged so long they forgot what it means to breathe; and in that moment come maddeningly close to something so beautiful and sacred that it fucking hurts…the setting sun gets caught in the lowest branches of the willow tree then, red and blinding and no longer benign, and I rush back to myself with cold skin and sun-dazzled vision, wracking my brain, dying to remember what I almost understood.
It’s not sane.
But the crazy is necessary. I don’t believe that writers must ultimately suffer emotional and/or physical trauma to produce their best work, although that does certainly help. The thing is, writers “suffer” all the time, and I don’t mean to be glib; I hate glib.
I mean that it’s the good old ubiquitous suffering of artists, the way that the anxious, creative mind (which, I would argue, is also the empathetic and compassionate one) seeks to explain the details of the world to itself, and in turn, to others. The way the unquiet mind cannot help but observe (and is in fact drawn to) the external suffering that exists all around in conjunction with the magnificence and beauty that also comprises our shared world. The eternal conundrum of the coexistence of horror and rapture.
And eventually, all art coils around to touch upon this universal theme, even if the artist is not yet ready to go there. The “suffering” is the recognition of the human experience and the subsequent need to express, to create, to find a satisfactory explanation for it (whether in paint, clay, song, stanza, story, or otherwise); I would further argue that, even unarticulated, those trapped in unquiet minds understand this need. And, if they are lucky, have learned to revel in the crazy, even as it drags them from bed and steals their peace.
A ringmaster would say, “The show must go on!” and a writer would say the same of the story. Just like the journey rather than the destination is what counts and is what you learn from, so counts the process to create the story, or poem, or art.
Embracing the noise in your mind is the first step in making peace with it; in other words, intentionally entering and acknowledging that unknown territory in your head. Just as ancient seafaring mapmakers marked uncharted wilderness with illustrations of dragons – here be dragons – those anxiety-fueled dragons lurking in your mind can be overcome. Giving them occasional creative control is actually a great idea, albeit a brave one.
I tend to prefer solitude because I am never truly alone; there is always a stirring of excited anticipation that I hope and pray never deserts me, a sense of exhilaration, of looking toward the next horizon, hurrying around the curve in the path ahead, discovering a new character whispering (and then yelling) in my ear.
I want to tell stories. I want to hear those voices in my head, be haunted by them until they’ve poured out (as well as I can manage) onto a page. I want to sit by the brook in the woods (where I envision writing happening) and feel the icy water that originated from a spring deep inside the hidden places of the earth, because that place is where I find peace. I try not to be frustrated by the unending anxiety that accompanies the unquiet mind, that feeling of unrest, the sense that I could do so much more, and so much better, that it’s ridiculous to pursue an art form as a potential career. I try to be mindful.
But it’s not easy — and so I write.
Abbie Williams has been addicted to writing since childhood. An avid lover of language, history, and women’s studies, when she isn’t writing, teaching, or taking care of her busy family of five, you can find her hanging out lakeside in the wilds of her beautiful home state, Minnesota.