I’m supposed to be on holiday. Am so exhausted after a busy year that most of me just wants to lie in front of the TV and watch cooking shows (just about the only television that doesn’t arouse anger, disgust, frustration or political fury!) But I’m being stalked by a story – and every time my mind relaxes the damn thing sneaks another tentacle into my brain.
Our wonderful NZ writer Elizabeth Knox, in her brilliant Dreamhunter books, describes a world where dreams can be stalked and trapped, then ‘broadcast’ to the public. She evokes a vividly realised ‘Place’ where the dreams run free, a kind of psychological landscape that only a few special dreamhunters have the natural ability and sensitivity to enter into and survive. I think this works as a wonderful metaphor for how a writer receives stories - only, to me, the premise of who plays stalker and prey is reversed.
This is how it seems to work in my metaphorical world: out there in the universal ether are an infinite number of stories, spawning and morphing like the star-nurseries of the Milky Way. Perhaps this place is best described as the collective unconscious – the place where all human experience, hopes, dreams, loves, hates, losses and gains jostle around looking for an open receptacle to pour themselves into – like a crab in search of a new shell.
Once they spot their intended prey/home they start the long slow stalking process – one that will eventually lead to a fully formed story colonising a writer’s mind in order to make its way out into the real world. Sometimes the prey is a willing victim to this psychological take-over; other times, as with my own tired brain right now, the prey puts up a fight before realising that there really is no escape and that all resistance is futile: the story always wins!
The process starts with a ridiculous and totally random thought — a ‘what if’ kind of spark that appears from out of nowhere, an uninvited stranger at the door. It knocks until I register its existence; waves from the shadows if I dare peep out through the blinds. I have no idea where it came from or what the hell it wants. But it starts to whisper at me, feeding me lines of a script I’m yet to write... and so the colonising starts to take place.
Suddenly I begin to notice links to this forthright new idea everywhere – items in the newspaper, a snippet on the radio, a book someone recommends that is just so totally ‘right’. And the idea starts to build, taking up more and more space in my head – flesh growing on its bones, music forming on its lips. It starts to converse with me: feeding me whole lines of dialogue or narrative so vivid and real that I’m forced to rush to pen and paper to write them down.
‘Come play with me,’ it whispers.
‘No! I’m already engaged to an idea I promised to be faithful to until the end.’
‘But can’t you love me too? I promise that I’ll wait until your current lover’s out then only sneak into your thoughts in the dead of night.’ Its tone is wheedling now, knowing I’m a sucker for its call. ‘You know you want me,’ it teases in the quiet hours. ‘You know I’m the most fascinating and diverting story you’ve ever had.’
By now it’s got its fingers hooked firmly around my heart. I can’t reject it any more. It’s part of me and growing, like a tumour, in my brain — and the only way to silence it is to write it out.
It doesn’t matter that I’m still editing the finishing touches on the last story, it demands attention now. I start to take more notes, shape it into something that gives voice to all the reoccurring themes on which my life is made. I promise it that, as soon as possible, I’ll finish with the old story and give this new lover the time to grow a fulfilling and substantial relationship – a story that has shape and force and meaning, so it can step out into the world fully realised, standing on its own. They always do step out eventually – my job is just to nurture them until they’re strong enough. I’m their enabler.
Do I feel used? No, not at all! I’m a serial monogamist – deeply in love with each new story before I’m blindsided and seduced by the next. Would I want it any other way? Hell no! If these stories stopped their knocking at my door I dare say I’d be devastated and bereft.
It’s just that now and then I’d like a little time to rest the brain cells in between each heady romance... sit out a waltz or two before the next giddying dance.