The problem with writing all the time is that it takes over your brain. After sitting at my computer for long hours, I become a sort of schizophrenic computer myself. I might walk away from whatever I’m working on, but it’s still there, moving in a perpetual loop of sentences before my eyes…before my eyes…before my eyes... It’s like I have a thumb drive plugged into the back of my head, one feeding data onto my internal screen, complete with a maniacally blinking cursor.
Sometimes I turn on the radio to distract myself. Maybe I’ll listen to a little news. But this only leads to a weird disorder I call psycho-frantic transcription. The radio commentator will be interviewing someone, and in my head I see every word they are saying as if it were printed on a page. Complete with punctuation and dialogue tags. For example – “Exactly how much did you know about the Senator’s liaison with his dog groomer’s wife?” he asked derisively. Or – “I’m not at liberty to discuss that,” she replied with a sigh indicating a weariness of the demoralizing political scandal in which she has suddenly found herself embroiled. What’s odd is how I’m often able to write what they say before they even say it, as if I’m actually creating the questions and answers myself, as if I’m one step ahead of these ethereal characters coming to me over the air waves, as if, weirdly, I am actually influencing world affairs just by the simple act of listening to the radio. This causes a momentary, if delusional, ecstasy wherein I imagine myself to be the right hand man of God. With my power, I enthuse, just think of the difference I could make in the world. Imagine the wrongs I could right. Imagine the funny things I could make our mayor do with the city planner. This, I vaguely understand, is not healthy.
So then I’ll switch off the radio (Who wants to be so bothered with shaping humanity’s destiny anyway?) and do chores around the house. But something as seemingly benign as emptying the dishwasher is not so simple for a writer. First the action must be plotted.
Our unwitting protagonist will open the dishwasher with gusto, but then, in an inciting incident leading to a whole series of misadventures, he will meet his first challenge and plot point when he realizes the machine has failed to clean last night’s cooked-on lasagna noodles from the casserole dish. The would-be hero now faces his first conundrum – will he bravely scrub the dish by hand in the sink, or will he deny the call to action and retreat into a cowardly existence that will haunt him into the rising action of the next scene when his wife Kristin – a sort of domestic femme fatale – gets home and finds that neither the dishes are clean, nor the washer emptied, and hell is to be paid?
Before it gets too out of hand, I generally opt to go for a run. And although I start out alone, it’s not long before one of my characters is jogging along like a hologram beside me, talking at length about how he sees his existence playing out in the upcoming novel.
“I should definitely get the girl in the end,” he suggests, “or even some time well before the end.”
“You mean the one you meet in the barn?”
“No! Gad! Not her! I mean the pretty one who works in the health food store.”
“Well that’s kind of predictable isn’t it?”
“Are you saying I’m not pretty?”
“Where did you come from?”
“You mean, what’s my backstory? You’ll have to ask the writer.”
“Oh, well, I guess I figured you were orphaned at an early age after your mother drowned in the Thames while washing purebred spaniels for the gentry.”
“Wait a minute. Didn’t you tell me that my mother drowned in the Thames? Are you saying she’s my sister?”
“Well…hmmm, it’s a clever possibility. But I’ll have to work that out when I get back to my desk.”
“Well, I think you need to work it out here and now, you writer! I have the right to know if I’m to be engaged to my own sister, don’t I?”
“Will our children have inbred characteristics that will cause them grief in a possible sequel?”
“I’ll have to work it out,” I say, and then try to outrun them.
But of course, I can’t outrun them. I can’t outrun any of it. I’m a writer, for crying out loud. A word processor. A fantasy shaper. These characters are etched onto my internal hard drive, as integral to my being as are my cells.
When I get home, Kristin is at the sink.
“Did you have a good run?” she asks, a hint of resentment in her voice for having to tackle the lasagna dish by herself.
“Yes, well, sure,” I respond guiltily. How can I explain? “I was working things out for my next blockbuster.” I try to change direction, try to push the book stuff out of our life for a minute. “Did you hear anything from Grace?”
“Yes, she got the job.”
My teenage daughter has found summer employment at the health food store, and I am thankful because this means she won’t have to take the job at the dog groomer’s. “Great.”
My wife looks at me, suds up to her elbows. “What do you really think about it?”
“No, really. I think it’s great.” And I do, because now Grace can buy her own dang shoes. But that’s not what first comes to mind. What I really think is almost embarrassing, as if the deranged computer inside my head is merely using me for a medium, speaking through me like some cold-hearted literary strategist.
“It will do her good,” I say. “It’s a great setting; health foods have so many symbolic nuances. Thematically, it’s a good choice, since food of any kind is so often a source of joy and angst for many, and it plays well with the struggle between the mortal and spiritual aspects of existence. And I think a job will build great character development in our daughter – a major player in the next chapter of our family’s continuing story.”
I blush when I say it, but it just comes out of me that way.
Kristin just rolls her eyes with a weariness that says – he’s weird, but I love him.