Wednesday, 31 July 2013


Happy Thursday, Dear Readers!

Today we bid a sad farewell to July 2013. It's been an epic month. Somehow we managed to fit in a Wimbledon win for Andy Murray, Britain's first heat-wave since 2007 (the year The Swan Kingdom came out!), a royal baby, AND - let's not forget - both InCreWriJul, and the publication of The Night Itself. Frankly I feel we could all use a bit of a holiday after that, but it's not to be, at least here in Zolahland: Darkness Hidden edits have landed. This means I'll be spending today and most probably the next month wandering around muttering to myself, with a permanently furrowed brow, inky fingers and pens sticking out of my hair (whenever I'm not glued to my computer). 

It seems entirely appropriate, then, that I should offer you a RetroThursday about one of the slightly shady secrets of the writing life: THE 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 that's all part of being a writer (or any creative sort of person, really).

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 madness!

No, no, my precious. The madness 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?


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 in that tree - that is the WRITER'S VOICE. Or the artist's voice. The actor's voice. The sculptor's voice. The musician'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-chance you wanted to write a crying scene. Right?

Here's a quote from one of my favourite books, an adult mystery novel from the 1930's by Dorothy Sayers, called Gaudy Night: 
"Detachment is a rare virtue, and very few people find it lovable, either in themselves or in others. If you ever find a person who likes you in spite of it — still more, because of it — that liking has very great value, because it is perfectly sincere, and because, with that person, you will never need to be anything but sincere yourself."
I love this quote, because it's so very, very true.

Humans only use a tiny part of their brain capacity for conscious thought. Most of our grey matter is a constant, flashing lightshow of electrical impulses, sensations, instincts and memories that we're barely aware of, if we're aware of them at all. The average brain is processing millions of tiny fragments of information brought to it by our whole bodies every second of the day. Our brains are always listening, smelling, feeling, tasting, reacting. In any given moment they're keeping all our organs functioning, giving us the manual detexerity and ideas to scribble notes for homework, carrying on a conversation with our friend on Facebook, listening to the TV with one ear, thinking about making an omelette and running through all the combinations of ingredients in the fridge, and noticing absently that the dog needs a bath.

That detached little voice is an added extra. And if you don't train yourself to make use of any added pieces of brain capacity you have (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 alive?

You won't, is the answer.

And what a tremendous, tragic waste that would be.

The ideas will still 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 ARE 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 too, from kindness. 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, not be weird, get outside and play in the sun with all the other kids, stop telling silly, 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. Embrace that tiny detached part of yourself as the gift it is. 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??


Q said...

I add silent dialogue tags when I'm in conversations with people, and I'm imagining how conversations with people would go all the time. I also describe the scenery to myself as I walk down the street, with lots of metaphors and discussion about how it makes me feel. I am definitely a character in my own life story.

Zoë Marriott said...

Q: It's great if you can convince yourself 'I am the hero of this story', too :)

Rebecca Lindsay said...

It always happens to me, especially when I am walking home with my earphones in. Whenever I see a new person, I ask myself what their story is and I imagine a completely different life for them, filled with amazing adventures.
And whenever there is a rain, thunder or snow storm I imagine that I am the only person in the world, safe in my little house.

Zoë Marriott said...

Rebecca: I always try to figure out some dramatic way to describe the thunder and lightning that no one's used before...

Isabel said...

Yes, one of my favorite posts!! I remember being so surprised this happened to other people/writers when you posted this haha!

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: That's so lovely to hear! Thank you. I wish there'd been someone around to tell me I wasn't the only one when I was a teenager, I must say...

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