Authors — especially those who write fiction — can be classified in any number of ways, but among my favorite categories are “uncannily brilliant,” “deeply devoted to substance abuse” and “just plain nuts.” The jury remains divided about which camp I fall into, but at last poll the Twelve Angry Critics leaned toward acquittal by virtue of insanity.
After much rumination, I’m inclined to agree. There’s plenty of evidence, after all. What else but insanity could explain the devolution of an otherwise relatively well-adjusted, reasonably intelligent, fairly articulate person into a raving lunatic who engages in lengthy conversations with imaginary friends — or worse, imaginary enemies?
No one warned me about this unnerving possibility when I signed on to write fiction. Shouldn’t there be a clause in my contract somewhere? I’d like to see a label like the ones pharmaceutical companies are required to include with medications: “WARNING: Possible side effects of the writing life may include spreading hips, estrangement from family and friends, deteriorating eyesight, insomnia, abbreviated attention span, inability to abandon lost causes, crabbiness, extended periods of depression punctuated by brief euphoria, loss of interest in the real world, self-doubt, a tendency to woolgather at odd moments, and talking to people who don’t exist.”
It’s that last one that plays most decisively into the insanity defense. (Wouldn’t we all be ecstatic if spreading hips did?)
Talking to characters is what a jury might consider the smoking gun — at least in my case. By “talking,” I don’t mean the occasional rhetorical “Hmm. What would you do if…?” I mean carrying on protracted give-and-take conversations. Actually, arguments might be a better term.
After nearly twenty-five years, my significant other has learned just to ignore the patently loony behavior. Crazy babbling and fixed stares no longer cause him to reach for the phone number of the nice men with white coats and butterfly nets. (Of course, this is the same man who frequently finds his life in jeopardy when he bursts into my writing space to tell me some horrendous, funny-only-to-men joke just as I’m about to craft the quintessential bit of dialog that will save the day, so his judgment is questionable, at best.)
But I digress (which ought to be another of those fully disclosed possible side effects). About those character interactions: Lately I’ve begun to feel like a temperamental director dealing with a herd of malcontents and unrepentant hams.
“Gah! Cut! Cut!” I yell, tearing out my hair by double handfuls.
“What? What did we do?”
“That’s a good question. Exactly what is it you thought you were doing there?”
“Improvising? You do realize there’s a script, right?”
“Yeah, but it’s all wrong right here. Nobody behaves like that. It’s bogus.”
“Bogus?” I shake my head and sigh with weariness that knows no bounds. “See — this is part of the problem: You’re from the 19th century; that word’s not in your vocabulary. Who gave you permission to take off on your own little tangent?”
Just about then, another character usually joins the fray. “You know, if I were the hero, I’d—”
|The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1910.|
Courtesy the Munch Museum
Depending on the character, at this point he’ll either sulk — meaning I have to expend valuable mental energy soothing his wounded feelings — or dive into a particularly vile tirade denouncing my writing ability. The latter does nothing to improve my relationship with a cast already doubting my fitness to be their leader.
Every so often, I find someone from a completely different project costuming himself or herself in the current project’s wardrobe and sneaking onto the set.
“You there — the Merry Man in the back. Aren’t you supposed to be on Stage 4 plotting with the rest of the gang in Last Train to Comanche Wells?”
“Uh… Well, yeah,” he’ll answer, shuffling his dusty cowboy boots. “But… Well, to tell you the truth, ma’am, they’re about to bore me to death over there. And it’s confusing — very confusing.”
“Incompetents and amateurs!” I explode. “Who’s in charge on Stage 4? I want him nuked.”
“Nuked?” (Misplaced Cowboy Guy only thought he was confused before.)
“Oh fer cryin’ out loud… Ask one of the Rigelians to explain it to you.”
About the time I begin chastising the hero from Chaste Through the Snow because he won’t stop pressing the heroine’s heaving bosom to his manly chest while for the umpteenth time uttering “Your eyes are like limpid sapphire pools” as she faints at the prospect of consummating their forbidden lust, I find myself consumed by heaving sobs of despair. It’s precisely at that moment the gaggle of slightly flighty but endearing, hard-as-nails southern belles escapes the pages of The Bougainvillea Ladies’ Luncheon Club and rushes to console me.
“Get away from me! I don’t want chocolate. Well, I do, but not right now.”
“Hon, what you need is a good roll in the sack with that hunk from Chaste.”
“You know, my deah mama always told me—”
“Oh for pity’s sake. Just gimme the damn chocolate and go back to fanning yourselves on the verandah, will you? Why can’t any of you behave?”
Half of them mutter “ingrate” under their breaths, and the others cluck knowingly and whisper, “This time the villain lives, but the writer is about to perish by her own hand.”
“I can hear you, you know.” Buncha know-it-all buttinskis. (I’m not above an occasional under-the-breath mutter myself.)
Perhaps insanity is a virtue after all. A rubber room looks more appealing all the time.
GIVEAWAY: Because I really would like to offload some of the ill-behaved louts in my head, I’ll send one of today’s commenters an autographed print copy of either Wishing for a Cowboy (in which my debut short story “Peaches” appears) or the soon-to-be-released Valentine’s Day anthology Hearts and Spurs. (I have a story in that one, too.) The winner may choose which book he or she would like to receive. Look for my debut novel, Prodigal Gun, later this year from Prairie Rose.