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Hearing Voices and Managing Multiple Personalities When Writing

Hearing Voices and Managing Multiple Personalities When Writing

Writing is a risky business. You have to take chances and there are no guarantees that the chances you take will have a good result.

There is an old saying: “A good beginning will have a good ending.” I can attest that this old chestnut sends the needle of the BS-O-Meter dangerously into the red zone. I have had countless good beginnings – setting down words that move with such fluidity they soon become streams of sentences that quickly flow into lakes of paragraphs. Inevitably the winds of doubt and skepticism come sweeping in and reduce them to puddles.

Anyone who writes on a regular basis knows this because writers work in their minds. What they do in their minds is imaginary and becomes something beautiful or worthwhile only if it connects with the imagination of the reader’s mind. A writer cannot do what a sculptor does with clay, what a visual artist does with paints, or what a composer does with constantly rearranging do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do. There is sensory involvement with those art forms. Whatever pleasure a reader derives from reading something takes place in his imagination just as the writing takes place in the imagination of the writer.

The question I receive more frequently than any other is where do my ideas come from. My standard answer is: “I don’t know,” because the real answer would probably cause the questioner to bring in an exorcist. The answer is that I hear voices, which places me somewhere between Joan of Arc and Son of Sam. I am not as saintly as Joan, nor as pathologically deranged as David Berkowitz, though many of my friends may challenge the latter part of that sentence since there is a smidgeon of abnormality that comes with writing.

The voices I hear come to me mostly at night. Maybe it takes a body at rest to be open to receive bizarre communication. Thus there is pen and paper on the nightstand to record the messages before they disassemble into the dimensions of a dream world. The next suitable venue for hearing voices is the shower. Perhaps the washing away of earthly grit is symbolic of washing away distractions, and you know how writers love symbolism. There is risk involved, too, in separating the prosaic from the extraordinary. Are the voices telling me to conserve water or to produce the great American novel?

Aside from hearing voices, multiple personalities play large rolls in producing a literary gem on a regular basis. The advice of many writing coaches is: “be yourself.” Being myself isn’t good enough. By myself I would be a writer of grocery lists or an instructor in one of those writing mills that used to advertise on matchbook covers. There are times when I want to be a three dot journalist like Herb Caen … “Pretty girls smoking cigars are like roses dipped in mustard” … or write insightful commentary like Thomas Sowell: “It is usually futile to try to talk facts and analysis to people who are enjoying a sense of moral superiority in their ignorance.” Or knock out homers the way Roger Angell did when writing about baseball: “Infield practice is more mystic ritual than preparation, encouraging the big-leaguer, no less than the duffer in the stands, to believe in spite of all the evidence that playing baseball is a snap.” What is happening is several writers are wrangling for control of my keyboard. I like to think that Caen, Sowell, and Angell are dwelling within me. My selection of selves, though, cannot be limited to those three. There are times when I aim for Melville, but Mickey Spillane brushes Herman’s fingers away from the keys and I turn out: “Moby, Private Dick.” My mind must be a democracy in which all parties, even the crazy ones, have their say. Without balance, sanity (my own) would be impossible.

The voices and the personalities that I channel are not always there. This is more than evident in first drafts. Even Joan of Arc isn’t available as she is busily establishing a defense because Robert Mueller is investigating her for colluding with arsonists. The voices begin to show up during the revisions. Psychologists have pointed out that few writers are wise in life. They become wise (if they do) through revision – which answers the second most frequently asked question I get – how long does it take to write a column? Sometimes minutes, sometimes days, sometimes longer when several voices are speaking to me at once. I listen to all of them – but at some point democracy turns into a dictatorship, and writing truly becomes an actionable offense for which I will be judged because my name, not theirs, is on the page.

Contact Jerry at jerry@jerrygervase.com

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