What is this thing we call writing?

Since I don’t watch a lot of TV, I missed the debut season of the series LOST, even though two of my sons had independently mentioned they thought I would like the show. So, right before the second season started, I loaded up our Netflix list and my husband and I watched the whole season in a week … or was it a weekend. Whatever. The experience was intense.

In case you don’t know what LOST is about, it’s the story of a mysterious island that, seemingly, is under control of the forces of good and evil. These forces control the lives of certain people, at least to some degree, and eventually bring them to the island. This series focuses on the survivors of a plane that crashed on the island.

WARNING! Possible spoiler alert in the next paragraph:

This final season seems to be showing us that these “survivors” are leading lives in two dimensions: they crashed; they didn’t crash. Of course, this is an examination of the nature of time and existence, which is something I consider daily. And naturally, I like to consider it in the light of writing.

What is the nature of The Muse? What exactly is this state we call creativity? Do we truly “make up” our stories or do we channel some alternate reality, or past life, or even future life, if you consider time a man-made convention. Are we simply recording the collective unconscious?

Your thoughts?

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39 thoughts on “What is this thing we call writing?

  1. I like notions of alternate realities and such, and you know I love ‘Lost’ —

    — But I dislike and disagree with the idea that a writer is ‘channeling’ something.

    Writing is original, creative work, not just typing up something that happened elsewhere.

    While it can -feel- like you are observing something instead of creating it, that to me is just a sign that it is going very well, that all the creative cylinders are firing at maximum — not that I am no longer being creative and am instead merely ‘channeling’ an event that ‘really’ happened.


      1. Nope, not a one.
        Coincidently, I read this line on the very next web page after yours:
        “I heard prolific novelist Joyce Carol Oates on the local public radio show Forum recently, and she cautioned the host, Michael Krasny, not to go too far with the delusion that characters in novels are real people to the novelist. It is admittedly a real feeling, but the rational mind of the writer also knows that the characters are her invention.”


          1. Yes, the mind is marvelous and mixed up thing.
            That feeling of ‘writing what happened in another reality” comes from, I think, one part of your mind listening in on another part.
            Our brains, and, correspondingly, our minds, are multiple complex mechanisms, and the feeling / appearance of wholeness and unity is a necessary illusion.

            I don’t understand your second question.


          2. Paul, first about the question you didn’t understand. I wondered if you thought the speculation in my post was actually a statement of my own beliefs.

            Are the brain and the mind the same thing? Both are complex marvels, no doubt.

            I was not proposing that we are conscious of any sort of “channeling.” When I write, even while “in the zone” I’m conscious that the words are coming from my own mind. That does not mean that I don’t wonder, at times, whether I am deluded to think so.


          3. You ended each sentence with a question mark! So, I did not take it as a statement of your personal beliefs.

            I think the brain is the hardware, with some firmware running, and the mind is the result of the software programs enabled by that hardware.
            [And that is just a clumsy analogy, not an outright comparison.]


          4. Um … yeah … I’ll take your word on the hardware/ firmware/ software thing. 🙂

            Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this, Paul. I’m always fascinated with other writers’ views of the process of writing.


  2. This is a fascinating question. I, like Paul, don’t believe I’m channeling anyone, or pulling down truths from an alternate reality. But there is something magic about writing when you get in the “zone”. Characters seem to live and breathe and do things of their own accord.

    Because I write historical fiction, the wish that you could channel someone is very strong! I joke to myself that for my upcoming novel, Anastasia’s Secret, I was channeling the young grand duchess. But of course, there’s a huge difference between that and letting your imagination free to “be” that person, and making creative judgments that aren’t entirely conscious.

    This is the first time I’ve written a book in the first person of an actual historical character, and it was a risk. So many people have their own ideas about who Anastasia was and what happened to her. I anticipate that some will love and some will hate the result—something that has already played out in the Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus reviews. PW called it “a magnetic reimagining” that would have a “broad appeal”, where Kirkus—well, let’s not go there…


    1. Susanne, thank you for visiting my blog and leaving a comment. I can see where a writer of historical fiction might welcome a little true channeling. 🙂

      So, you’re a writer who reads her negative reviews? I wish you much success on your soon-to-be published novel.


  3. Linda, there have been times when I feel as if I’m channeling in some way. The characters and words that pour out (and they do pour – it is not a struggle) are very different that who I am in language, thought, and experience. It doesn’t happen frequently.

    I don’t know how it happens or where it’s from, but it’s fun and I honor it.


    1. Pamela, thank you for commenting on this post. The hit count tells me that it’s been read by dozens of visitors, but as you can see, few braved a comment. I was beginning to think I was the only writer who ever experienced such thoughts.

      You said: “The characters and words that pour out (and they do pour – it is not a struggle) are very different that who I am in language, thought, and experience.” I agree and that’s what starts me questioning. I don’t suppose we can know whence come the words, but I do wonder.


  4. Very provocative questions you raise, Linda.

    I lean toward recording the collective unconscious because stories that resonate have clearly tapped into a common human experience. There are so many common experiences and emotions, yet they’re all unique to each individual. I think this is why there are only a “handful” (or whatever number you subscribe to) of “plots” but an infinite variety of stories and characters.

    That said, Paul’s analogy of hardware/ firmware/ software is an excellent one. (And the working of software, to me, is just as mysterious as the mind.)


    1. I drive myself a little crazy with these thoughts, Cathryn. 😉 I’ve ventured close to a spiritual topic here, but I do think our opinions on this surely stem from our life philosophy. And I agree that we all use the same few basic plots, which at the least speaks to the common concerns of mankind. We just each use our own words to convey a part of the myth.

      As for computers, they work by magic. Don’t they?


  5. Great, thought-provoking questions — and I’m still wrestling with the answers.

    I think there are similarities between a ‘collective unconscious’ and the ‘human condition’ in general. Maybe it’s just a matter of semantics. Maybe the definition or reach of this collective unconscious expands/contracts depending on whether or not a person happens to believe in past/future lives.

    Yikes. The dog ABSOLUTELY HAS TO GO OUT NOW and has no patience for this sort of thinking…..


    1. I’ll be wrestling with them for the rest of my life … and then I hope I get some answers. 🙂 Uh-oh, wars have started over semantics. My choice of the word channeling was not a wise one.


  6. I could spend hours contemplating what my life would be if I had made different decisions along the way. Ditto for my characters. It is like exploring different dimensions. If she chooses to walk through the dark parking lot alone she may find trouble, but if she decides to ask someone to walk with her, yet, a different outcome. It’s one of the fun things about writing. We control the destiny of our characters. We create the conflict.

    I don’t think I’m channeling when I write and I do enjoy the control I have.
    That being said, like Pamela and Suzanne, my characters can and do take on their own lives, which can be just as much fun as having control. It certainly has a magical quality.


    1. I do love the that we’re able to write the “what ifs” in fiction.

      My plan is to take all the credit when my novel gets rave reviews and to blame it on “whatever” when it’s panned. 😉


  7. I’m coming back to this. Psychology has quite a lot to say about mind as an emergent property of brain, not all of which I can articulate with any confidence, and writing fiction has given me a new perspective on the perceived reality/imagined construction of characters. I seem to be able to write male dialogue and it feels natural as I produce it (hopefully also to the reader) but I know that it isn’t me. Separate and distinct but integrated and cohesive. I want to ponder on this.


    1. You said: I seem to be able to write male dialogue and it feels natural as I produce it (hopefully also to the reader) but I know that it isn’t me. I can relate to that. The main character in both my novels are male, which intrigues me.

      I would love to hear what more you have to say on this, and hope I can follow it. 🙂


        1. Follow it, I mean. Myself.
          Just saw Brian Cox (Prof Brian Cox – particle physicist) on a cookery programme. I have no talents at either so it’s a good thing he’s eye candy, at least I can follow the view!


          1. Nope! He was making some kind of chocolate confection! But he was also fielding questions such as ‘What’s outside the universe?’ (nothing – this IS the universe) and ‘When will we have teleportation?’ (Now – a whole photon got teleported under the Danube evidently). This is the man who used to be a rock star (keyboards in D:Ream), not to be confused with Brian MAY (Queen) lately PhD in astrophysics. We know how to make ’em over here!


          2. Universe: think we’re talking Big Bang, Einsteinian, expanding – with all that temporal relativity stuff (like I know!).
            Brian May started out in astrophysics and had a 30 year hiatus mucking about with a popular beat combo before nipping back to finish his dissertation. Respeck!


  8. Hmmm, very interesting thread here.

    I too feel that there is this whole hardware issue Paul brought up, plus the collective memory, and since having kids I am becoming a strong believer in genetic memory (hey – if it exits in monarchs, why not humans? But i think we’ve discussed this….).

    I think imagination plays the largest role, and just getting lost in it, so that to me, it does feel real. I, unlike JCO, do not have such a clear distinction that my characters are not real. After all, when it comes to the brain, there is no dinstiction in its response to memory verus reality.


    1. Interesting thought that our fictional characters are ‘real’ in our heads, no less so than the many personalities of a person with MPD.
      Writing = controlled insanity.


  9. Boy did I pick the wrong weekend to be out of town. What a great conversation! I’ve really enjoyed reading all of the comments.

    Time, Space, Reality, and Perception rank very high on my list of desirable topics and when you roll all of this into a conversation about writing — well — it’s like a little piece of heaven.

    Great discussion.


  10. My characters have, for the most part, pretty much taken over in my writing. What I’m finding interesting is that my character who is sorta kinda my alter-ego is the one character I’m struggling with the most and the one who seems most reluctant to do much of anything without me telling her what to do and say. The others are defining their own realities and moving ahead on their merry way and I’m just trying to catch up with them.

    I would agree that writing = insanity. Not so sure how much ‘controlled’ always figures into the equation, though.


    1. Natasha, it’s interesting that your alter ego is the one giving you the most trouble. Sounds like you’re working through something there. Maybe you two should take a walk. 😉


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