Wednesday, 16 February 2011

LITTLE VOICES IN MY HEAD

Oh, the little voices! They whisper to me, my precious. They whisper in my heeeead...

 Freaked out yet?

Well, don't be. You have these little voices too. The difference is that I am *aware* of mine. And the reason I am aware, is because I'm a writer.

What, what, WHAT? Am I saying that all writers suffer from auditory hallucinations and/or are dangerously unstable? Am I saying that EVERYONE hears voices? Stop the crazy!

No, no, my precious. The crazy goes on. This post was inspired by a comment from Isabel, who asked in the comments if anyone else finds themselves mentally 'narrating' their life. That is, as you move through your ordinary day, somewhere in your head there's a constant voice-over of your hair-brushing or your walk to school or your biology lesson, as if it were a scene in a book that you were writing. You find yourself picking out the details that you would chose to describe, the ones you would change, pondering if 'pale gold' is a better phrase than 'honey coloured' for sunlight, considering what scene should follow, etc.

For some of us this voiceover is a constant thing that we are always aware of. For others, it's something that you notice occasionally and are slightly worried by. I'm sure there are also people who never experience this and who are, as they read this blog, edging away from their computer screen and checking the doors and windows just in case a deranged Zolah comes bursting in with an axe.

Let me explain. You know that question? The dreaded question that writers get asked the most out of all the questions in the universe? That one. Where do you get your ideas?

The answer is FROM THE LITTLE VOICES IN MY HEAD.

It's true. The narrating voice that tries to turn your Monday morning bowl of cereal into an exciting scene of cornflake versus Cheerio suspense, that ponders how to describe your P.E. teacher in a way that would make her seem like a possibility for an undercover supervillain, that observes every detail of your daily walk home and speculates on what would happen if the house behind the wall was haunted, or if you suddenly heard someone crying for help behind that tree - that is the WRITER'S VOICE. Or the artist's voice, the actor's voice, the sculptor's voice, the achitect's voice. It's where all the ideas come from.

The thing is, this constant voice-over can be...disturbing. Let's face it, it's not pleasant when in the middle of being horribly sick, you hear it whispering 'Wow, you should be making notes on this, you'll never remember the exact texture of that vomit'. It's worrying, when trying to comfort a friend, that a tiny part of you is thinking 'The way she's crying without making a sound is really moving. I should use that'. It can be horribly upsetting when you yourself are in the midst of terrible grief, to realise that there's a tiny part of you which is standing off to the side memorising it all in case of future need.

The little voice is not an emotional thing. It's DETACHED. It's like a flash-drive plugged into your brain, recording everything without being touched by any of it. It's so detached from you and your emotions that it can even seem a bit alien, like someone else talking in your brain. Because, after all, you would never be so callous as to make mental notes on the way that your sister's face flushes up when she cries, just on the off-change you wanted to write a crying scene. Right?

Here's the thing, though. Humans only use a tiny part of their brain capacity. The part that they do use is a constant, flashing lightshow of sensations and impulses. The average brain is processing millions of information fragments every second of the day. Your grey matter is listening, smelling, feeling, tasting, reacting. It's keeping your heart pumping, doing your homework, carrying on a conversation with your friend, listening to the TV, eating this omelette, wondering if the dog needs a bath. All at once!

If you don't train yourself to make use of any added pieces of brain capacity you can (even in the form of a Voice in the Head) how on earth will you ever manage to notice any story ideas floating past in the middle of all the information that is flying at you every moment you are conscious? You won't, is the answer.

The ideas will be there. They're everywhere. Ideas are like dust motes. You can't breathe without stirring millions up. But most people are so busy getting on with their lives that they don't notice them. THEY DON'T EVEN SEE THE IDEAS THERE. That's why Where do you get your ideas? is the most popular question writers get asked. Non-writers think ideas are rare, precious, fragile. They're not. It's the ability to actually *see* the ideas that is rare and precious and fragile.

Everyone's born with it. Few keep it into adulthood. Entirely well-meaning people, like your parents and relatives, will try to crush it. Many teachers crush it all day long with one hand tied behind their backs. Friends who want you to fit in will crush it under the weight of their expectations. None of these people realise what they're doing, of course! Most would be horrified at the thought. It's just that they want you to focus, concentrate, act normal, stop day-dreaming, pay attention, get outside and play in the sun, stop telling stories...eh, you've probably heard them all.

So here it is. If you want to be a writer, if you want to be able to see the ideas drifting past you, if you'd rather not be 'normal' thanks very much? Hang onto the little voice in your head with both hands, and your fingernails. And your teeth if necessary. Pay attention to it. Feed it by opening your eyes to the world around you. It will repay you a thousandfold.

If not? Resign yourself to asking other people where they get their ideas from, and seeing the look of resigned boredom in their eyes as they struggle to explain.

How many of you hear that little narrating voice? And who's willing to admit to it??

28 comments:

Lynsey Newton said...

LOVE THIS POST A LOT! Also, I recognise my own actions in there and am pleased that other people do it too - and I mean the little voices in my head and also the "try to remember what this horrible experience feels like so you can use it later". I DO THAT. Oh dear.

Zoë Marriott said...

Not 'oh, dear'!. 'Yay, I'm one of natures gifted observers'!. Got it?

Bekah said...

You know, I don't really have a narrator's voice in my head, but I *do* have an editor's voice. What pops into my mind at any given second is a sentence about something going on in my life, already red-marked and with a blinking cursor erasing some word from right to left, writing and re-writing the description of whatever trivial bit it pleases. The content itself usually is not significant; but my mind is obsessed with presenting it in the best way possible, just for my own enjoyment!

Zoë Marriott said...

That's still the narrator's voice, I think - just a highly critical version of it. Learning to turn the bloody thing off when it's in critical mode is another post's worth!

Nara said...

I was reading this, and thinking; Uh? I certainly don't have a voice in my head.

But, thinking about it, I do have. I remember observing this voice when I was a few years younger, and it felt as though I kept narrating my life and imagining how to act as though I was a character in a story and even going over scenes that could happen if so and so happened. When I stopped noticing this voice, I thought it had gone and I was over my strange phase.

But, that voice hasn't actually left me, it's just that I am so used to it now after years of writing, that it has become a part of me and such a normality that I don't notice it. Funny though, all the same to think that I still have that narrator, but I'm completely used to it now.

Zoë Marriott said...

I have to admit Nara, that when I'm working the voice seems to attach itself to the book (playing a constant showreel of upcoming scenes in the back of my head) and stay out of my actual life. I think part of the reason I'm so batty when I'm not working on anything (like when I'm trying to have 'time off' ha ha) is that the voice starts commenting on real life again and after a while it's a bit wearing.

I also think that I'm probably a bit unusual in that I've always been very aware of the narrating voice and it's always been VERY LOUD. Like, from being a tiny child. A bit of a quirk in my brain chemistry, perhaps, like the propensity to depression or whatever. I'm sure a lot of writers have this without ever really being aware of it. But it must BE there, or they'd be the ones saying 'Where do you get your ideas...'

Megha said...

I have that voice, and I just realised it.

One thing I realised was that when I narrate to myself, it's always in third person or in future tense, or even in the YOU perspective. Yet when I write these are harder than writing from the I perspective.

I mean, the little things in my story (like the way someone cries without making a sound etc) are from my own experience, but my current work (historical fiction) is hardly something I can relate to.

But I guess that's part of being a writer. You have to be able to step into others' shoes, and show the world your story from someone who's not like you at all. Imagination. *Le Sigh*

Zoë Marriott said...

Well, exactly, Megha! None of my work remotely reflects the realities of my own existence. I think narrating your own life just helps you to home those skills that you need to narrative an imaginary character's life (and I always narrate in third person too, but I vastly prefer to write using *I*!).

Shveta Thakrar said...

Oh, my gods, Zoe, did you crawl inside my head?! Even as a child, before I ever dreamed of writing, I mentally narrated my life. I used to get mad at myself and try to stop it, thinking that was one of the things that made me weird. But should it choose to come back, it's more than welcome now. :)

In the meantime, I do notice things like how I'm reacting to things like grief, though I believe part of that is to help keep it from being overwhelming in the moment. Oh, and because I'm fascinated by how people work and don't. (It just happens to be good stuff for writing!)

Zoë Marriott said...

See, you're not as wierd as you thought, are you? I think the reason why that little distant part of the brain originally developed was probably to help people deal with extreme emotions. Some part of you still needs to be aware of the need to breathe and eat and stay out of the paths of cars and away from cliff-edges even when you're completely devastated by grief or uplifted by happiness. So I think that paying attention to the distant voice can be useful for other things than just writing. It helps you cope. Lose track of rationality completely and you get into a whole world of trouble.

Isabel said...

LOL! Thanks for posting about this, Zoe!
I've never, ever thought about it as weird or creepy. I think it's kinda fun! And it helps, definitely. No worries, guys! It's perfectly fine. Great, even!
I know the little voices, definitely, but I don't think I experience the part where I take note of the way my friend is crying, or something, so that I can use it later. Or maybe I do, and I just don't realize it!
Oh, yeah. SUPER AWESOME MAJOR PLOT IDEA/FIXER THAT CAME TO ME AT SCHOOL TODAY!!!!!!! Haha, you should have seen me during Spanish class. Scribbling away on little pieces of scrap paper hardly larger than my thumb. And then, later on, when I had 5 pages left to read before I could finish Unearthly, but I couldn't read. ARGH!!!! Now I finished. I'm so excited, cuz my class always goes to the library to get books, and it's a great opportunity, but up till now we weren't allowed to visit the YA section, (I know, right!!!!) but now we can!!! I got Ash. :) I'm so excited to start it!

Zoë Marriott said...

I never really thought it was weird either, until I saw other writers post about how strange it was to have this detached part of the brain talking away, and how they wondered if they were the only ones. That was when I realised that EVERYONE didn't have the narrative voice. But by then I knew I wanted to be a writer, so I thought it was probably a good thing, and by and large it is. Although I could have done with a break from it when I was in the hospital last year!

Isabel said...

LOL!
I've been thinking about the second part you talked about, and I kinda think that maybe I do that too. Also, when I'm feeling badly or I'm really sad about something, the voice describes my feelings, so I kind of am doing that, right? Sorry. This probably sounds completely mental to those people who don't actually have this little voice. Haha.

Zoë Marriott said...

Well, everything you do is going to seem mental to SOMEONE, Isabel. The fact that I liked to read and carried books around with me made most of the people I went to school with very uncomfortable! So you just can't worry about that. Let other people think what they're going to think. The ones who are worth being friends with will have the maturity and intelligence not to judge you just because you're different.

Alex Mullarky said...

Oh yes... but the trouble can be with an overactive imagination I will be in the shower, thinking of for example a scene from "The Grudge" which I accidentally watched a bit of while I was sitting in a pub without realising what it was, I'll start to think, Imagine if I began to hear a loud, creepy gurgling noise from the drain. Imagine if I switched off the shower and stepped out and looked in the mirror and saw a TERRIFYING BLUE PERSON BEHIND ME.

*ahem*

Of course, this is all hypothetical.

*shifts awkwardly*

I hope this demonstrates that I understand.

Isabel said...

I've never understood the people who hate reading. Sometimes I feel bad for them. They don't know what they're missing out on. I respect the people who don't really enjoy writing all that much - I mean, not everybody does - but when people make fun of other people because of it... it's just not right, or fair. I wish people would be more respectful and tolerant sometimes.

Big history test on the Industrial Revolution today! Wish me luck!

Alex Mullarky said...

P.S. Zoe, I went to a school where we were actually encouraged to bring in a reading book and carry it around with us, which when I changed schools I realised was a very rare thing. But I didn't get trouble about it; the worst thing for me was hearing someone say "I never read books." THEN they're afraid of me because of the expression of horror and complete and utter lack of comprehension on my face.

Zoë Marriott said...

LOL! Yes, Alex, I definitely get it. I've been known to do the same thing, which I why I only watch horror movies in the bright daylight in the sun!

Isabel: Good luck with your test!

Megha said...

Oh my gosh. I never realised how similar I was to others. So I'm not a freak.

You know, I used to ask myself if I was going mental reading. Whoopdedoo! I'm not!

Isabel said...

I've been looking over the comments. I actually do think in the "I" perspective when using the narrative voice. Although I alternate between present tense and past tense. I used to write in past tense and third person, but for the book I'm working on now I made a huge change and now I'm writing in first person, present tense. It actually comes super-naturally to me. I love it. Anyone write in present tense? Anyone ever tried it?

I also think that I'm probably a bit unusual in that I've always been very aware of the narrating voice and it's always been VERY LOUD.
I'm the exact same. Very rarely do I not notice the little voice. I know when I'm doing it. Most of the time I'm do it intentionally, actually! And it's loud. Very loud.

Isabel said...

Okay, I have a confession to make. You know how you always talk about re-reading? The thing is...
I'm not a re-reader.
I know, I know! I wish I was! I want to be! But... I just never get around to re-reading books, even my favorites, and if I try, they just don't grip me. I need to have the suspense, the wondering-what-happens-next of the reading experience. Will you forgive me? Again, I wish I was a re-reader. I feel so guilty about it...

sadie said...

I have read your post and the comments a couple of times and have honestly been thinking about whether or not I have a little voice in my head and I don't. I have a soundtrack. Kind of strange right? Music plays in my head like an ipod that reflects my mood, situation, and stuff like that. Hmm...

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: Try following my policy. If you really love a book, put it away for one year, minimum. Maybe even longer. THEN try to re-read it. If you're anything like me, you'll have forgotten enough of the details that it feels almost like reading a new book, with an added sense of meeting up with an old friend again. If this doesn't work, then maybe it's just a feature of you. Which is a shame, but only because it means you're missing out on the FUN of re-reading - not because it makes you inferior in anyway! It would be a strange world if everyone was the same.

Sadie: Like I said to Isabel, everyone is different. If the detached part of your brain speaks to you with music, that's just a unique feature of your brain - and very interesting!

bfree15 said...

I have only recently opened myself to my narrator’s voice since the purchase of my first notebook. It is amazing what things come to mind when you allow it to flow freely. Now I have to carry my notebook around with me everywhere just incase something suddenly pops into my head and I need to write it down.

Sadie: I understand what you mean about the music. I find myself thinking at different situations if ‘this’ moment in time was a scene in a movie then ‘this’ song would be playing right now.

Isabel said...

I'm leaving today to go to Quebec to ski. I'll be back by Wednesday. Love you all! See ya!

Zoë Marriott said...

Bfree: It's like I always say, notebooks are an indispensible tool.

Isabel: Have a lovely time!

Isabel said...

Thank You! I will. It's already starting to feel like spring here, so after Quebec, we're going to say goodbye to winter! I must tell you, this little hint of spring time does not add to my enthusiasm for skiing, but I'll make the best of it and enjoy my last time skiing for this season.

Megha said...

Zoe: My notebook is EXTREMELY helpful. It's the first time I've kept a notebook JUST for one story. And I'm loving it. I can re-read my notes, and all these questions pop up in my head, and I note the answer down, and then... *hyperventilates* It's awesome.

By the way, please check out how my notebook looks here: https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/PijJC_Gmw7yw2pFyo7WgLQ?feat=directlink !

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