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 one of my recent novels ‘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 one I avoided 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 both male and female and all shades in between reside within the psyche of us all. My psychotherapy training included psychodrama, in which we enacted traditional fairy tales, 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 recognized, 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 analyzing my work, but for others in our training group it came as a somewhat scary revelation. I eventually emerged from my psychotherapy 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 recognizing 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 condition to discover and create dialogue and unity within their fragmented self.

But back to the aspects of self exposed and unraveled while writing a novel… the unpleasant characters are those that are hardest to own, though paradoxically often the easiest to write, the ones 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 passive-aggressively 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 recognize) I begin to develop an empathetic 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, and that teaches us we are not simply one thing. 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: Dangerous People

And listen to an excerpt from the novel here: Dangerous People Extract

You can discover more about all my books at Lesley Hayes