The mad headspace of a writer

The mad headspace of a writer

It was while I was reading my short stories every week on BBC Radio Oxford that the penny finally dropped that I have multiple personalities. Not in a clinical sense – you could never describe it as a ‘disorder’ exactly. I’ve kept it under wraps and confined it, for the most part, to the realm of my writing. Readers of my stories and novels have often asked me which of the characters I’ve written are ‘me’, and the honest answer is usually “all of them.” It’s true that some are easier to own than others. For instance, in my most recent novel ‘Dangerous People’, I can relate to both central protagonists, Violet and Drew, as aspects of my personality that in some guise or another show up in several of my novels. At least in this latest one I’ve avoiding casting the male hero as a psychotherapist. Is that progress? It probably speaks of how much I’ve now let go of that particular identity. It is, after all, only a role, just as ‘author’ is a role – expedient names we choose to present our individuality to the world.

Age and gender have very little to do with aspects of self. Our archetypes are ageless, and reside, both male and female, within the psyche of us all. My psychotherapy training included psychodrama, in which we enacted traditional fairytales, intuitively choosing our own and picking other members of the group to play the different characters. We were all stunned to see how close to our real life stories they turned out to be – and even more so to find that the parts assigned to us by other people brought out latent aspects of ourselves we immediately recognised, even when we didn’t much like them. I remember the painful experience of playing the wicked witch in someone else’s Hansel and Gretel story. That wasn’t me – surely? But I managed to come up with a chillingly convincing script as I immersed myself in the role.

That process underlined for me how amazingly fractured and malleable our self-identity can be, when given free rein to express itself. As a writer, I’d already had an insight into that when analysing my work, but for others in our group it came as a somewhat scary revelation. I eventually emerged from my training considerably madder than when I began, but in a good way. Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I? I suppose by ‘mad’ I really mean ‘liberated’. There’s something so freeing about recognising that our persona is simply a convenient mask we wear, and ‘self’ is not necessarily fixed, but contains a number of sub-personalities who take over the show when circumstances call them up. I must add that there is a marked difference between holding this awareness and the psychological disorder where each individual ‘alternative’ aspect is cut off from the rest. That is not what I’m describing here, and it’s often a tortuous journey for someone living with that dilemma to discover and create dialogue and unity within their fragmented self.

But back to the aspects of self exposed and unravelled while writing a novel… the unpleasant characters are the ones that are hardest to own, those that dwell for the most part in our shadow and only emerge when provoked perhaps, or in solitary moments when we feel undeniably murderous rage throbbing hotly in our veins. We all have superheroes and villains hiding in our psyche – why else would we love them so much when we see them writ large on the movie screen? I take great pleasure in writing about the parts of my personality that rarely have the opportunity to hold centre stage. The classic victim Imogen in ‘Dangerous People’ gets to whine and sulk and persecute from her unassailable position of abandoned self-pity. Sophie teeters on the brink of barely repressed lunacy after a lifetime of emotional sacrifice. Osborne takes the oblivious narcissism of the egocentric author to an outrageous level. And Lewis… Ah, Lewis… how I relished allowing his character to reveal itself – shocking even me at times with the extent of his obsessive self delusion and where unchecked it ultimately leads him.

I usually find that when I’m writing about these parts of me that aren’t really me (or not the ‘me’ I recognise) I begin to develop an empathic understanding for how they came to be the way they are. We are all so wounded by life, one way or another, that our crimes against one another are explicable even if not easily forgivable. I like to leave clues for the reader like the trail of breadcrumbs left by Hansel and Gretel in the enchanted forest, so that no one judges too readily the actions that begin to make more sense when the bigger picture unfolds like a well-creased map of the inner world. I suppose that’s something I’ve learned to do over the years, not just through being a psychotherapist but because if you live long enough life gives you the opportunity to run the gamut of relationships. From defenceless child all the way through arrogant youth and dynastic adulthood to vulnerable old age we acquire experience from different perspectives that teaches us we are not simply one thing, and we change and grow and hopefully look back with wisdom and compassion on our younger, ignorant self.

So next time you find yourself thinking, for whatever reason: “I don’t know what got into me!” be assured it was just another glorious or inglorious aspect of you that snuck in through the back door of your mind and pushed its way to the front of the queue of performance artists in your psyche. I wish I could claim originality for saying all the world’s a stage and we are merely players, strutting our stuff and in our lifetime playing many parts – but with so many fellow scribes among my readers I don’t think I’d get away with it.

You can find ‘Dangerous People’ on Amazon by following this link:

And listen to an excerpt from the novel here:

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5 thoughts on “The mad headspace of a writer”

  1. … yet again, lesley, your writing ~ incredible as always ~ gently leads the reader to another depth in their psyche to be touched and reminded that it contains not just the rich diversity of the person we believe ourselves to be but the complex and often alarming surprise there is more ~ revelations that can be scary stuff for the weak of heart but providing insight for one curious to learn and emboldened to examine what that is … you are a beacon of light in what can be a very dark cave of unknowns and a reminder that discovery of those lead to understanding of the foibles in ourselves and perhaps an acceptance of the shortcomings in others …

  2. You are so right, Lesley, in that a writer’s characters tend to be aspects of themselves. I do the same thing when people ask which of my characters is “me.” All of them, I say!
    Another phenomenon I have noticed that surprises me is that some readers don’t like ANY characters who are less than pretty much perfect. They say they want to read only about “admirable” people. Seriously, this has been said to me, more than once. I have thought about this and considered that perhaps less admirable characters remind a reader of his or her own faults, which causes discomfort.
    This does not apply to cartoony evil characters–no one minds those. It is the protagonists and antagonists who are recognizably real people who have flaws and faults. Some readers seem quite uncomfortable with them! Have you ever run across this?
    Anyway, I really enjoyed your essay. Rings true for me.

  3. Ah lovely Lesley, with everything you write it feels like you were writing exclusively to me and about me. I’m nearly at the end of Dangerous People and loving it. I can so easily slip into each character, it’s scary. I don’t want to admit my Imogen or Lewis sides but they’re lurking there along with my Drew and Violet. I’ve loved everything I’ve read of yours but is particularly great. I’m savouring every delicious sentence.

  4. I love your writing, Lesley, and the depth of character within your words. I love immersing myself into a character’s world and wondering where they came from, not in the book, but in the writer’s psyche! That’s the enquring mind of a fellow writer…
    For me the best part of being a writer is allowing myself the opportunity to escape within minds that wouldn’t come out anywhere but on paper. I love the liberation!

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