Writers are haunted creatures.
Everyone is a writer, of course. You invent stories every day. Your flights of fancy, your daydreams, your alternate scenarios, your fears.
But if you make things up explicitly, all the time, it changes you. You exist in the eye of a hurricane. Everything around is in flux.
How do you get your ideas?
That’s the classic question. The corresponding answer is usually something like “they just come to me”, but it’s a half-truth. We all know that, deep down. The reality is more prosaic: your outlook alters, such that everything is an idea. In the same way that a former spy can never fully switch off their vigilance, a writer’s imagination just becomes perpetually active.
Reading is what makes it possible - you have to read in order to be able to write - but you have to write to actually activate this shift in perspective. It happens fast: within days. The problem isn’t ever finding ideas; it’s filtering them.
When I listen to music, it’s a soundtrack to a scene - or usually ten different scenes. People I meet or see are characters. Places are settings. Idle points of interest are window-dressing, for added colour. Anecdotes from others become my own memories, in a dozen permutations.
Once it starts happening, you can’t stop it.
Writers aren’t figurative deities, playing with their characters’ lives; we’re more like avid spectators, powerless to look away. The really unsettling thing is that these stories (some with a coherent narrative, but most just fragments, appearing and disappearing within minutes) strongly seem to be pre-existing artefacts. Found objects. We hear a voice whisper things, and those things have the quality of being truths. We find them familiar, even though they’re new.
To write is to live in different times and places, and even more strikingly, to share your identity with a thousand other people, stepping back out of the frame a hundred times a day to just watch and transcribe.
We killed your favourite character? Imagine how we felt. We had to actually see it happen, then bear the unpleasant duty of relaying the news to you.
Writing isn’t about sitting down and deciding what happens next; it’s more like listening carefully. The actual agency that produces the story is unknown, and is a separate consciousness. It never speaks, except to narrate. It has no name, no face, and only marginal concern for how we might feel about the events it describes.
That’s the dirty secret about writing fiction: it’s all plagiarism. The greedy copying-down of tales told by a shrouded and nameless Other, whispering from another place.
The voice never quiets. Sometimes it stops abruptly in the middle of a tale and doesn’t return to it for hours, days, weeks or months - but only because it’s gone onto another story, without a pause. Its motivations are obscure, and its moods always shifting.
A door has been pushed open, just a crack, and it can no longer be closed. Somehow, the frame has warped, and there’s a cold breeze blowing through the gap. You can feel it even now.
If you listen carefully, it almost sounds like words.