Look, we all hear them. Let’s stop pretending. Some tell us to eat that monster sized Toblerone, which shrinks when we extract it from the packet. Others tell us to inflict physical harm on those who seek to annoy or derail us. Mostly we resist, despite the internal struggle. We know we’ll be sorry tomorrow as we stand on the scales, or in front of the magistrate.
I grew up in that generation where it still wasn’t safe to admit to the voices. Mentioning such a thing to any kind of professional would mean a trip to the doctor. Mental illness was something fearful and inevitably led to an indefinite stay in what we uncharitably termed, ‘the loony bin.’ We all knew where it was and we didn’t wish to go there. So where did that leave a child with very definite voices in her head?
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother
He wasn’t heavy because he wasn’t real. Yet he appeared in all my show and tells on a Monday morning at our strict air force school in West Germany. All my illustrations contained my brother, Stephen and sister, Rebecca. A happy family of five who did cool things. Kids who picked on the tiny girl with the fuzzy hair and glasses became terrified of my brother Stephen. When in reality, Rebecca thumped them for me. I guess they reasoned if she proved that scary, Stephen needed avoiding.
No more Stephen
I still remember my confused parents arriving home after parents’ evening shortly before my eighth birthday. To their credit they played it pretty cool. But for the first time I realised the merits of keeping my brother’s exploits quiet. I pity them the awkward conversation with my teacher. The next day, I eyed the wall display entitled, ‘Our Family’ with my picture hugging the edge of the board. There we were, my father in his best blues with his arm around my floral mother. The rest of us stood in various stages of growth with Stephen almost as tall as Dad. It might have been okay but for the pitying looks of the teacher and the ‘chat’ with my head of year. No more Stephen.
The lunatic in the corner
As a forty-something year old woman, I’m comfortable with the voices in my head. It seems there’s only a problem when I speak to them in public. The difference now is that I write what they’re saying and get paid for it. Nowadays I feel fortunate. I might be physically alone in the corner, but I’m smiling at some exploit in my head. There’s an internal audio book running, but I can interject and change the dialogue or setting. Somewhere along the line, the voices became characters and my novels gave them life. It legitimises them, but only to a point.
A fan once asked how I thought up the plots to my mysteries and I answered off the cuff. “I ask them and they tell me.”
Her eyes rolled back in her head for a second and then she nodded. I’m still not sure of the impact of my statement and worried about it after.
My husband asked me only recently how I kept the different stories straight in my head. I thought about it for a moment. I only created one family tree and that was for All Saints. Everyone else’s, I just remember. Or I ask them. “Hana, what’s your brother’s name again? I’ve forgotten.”
How hard can it be?
A year off
I decided to take a year off writing in 2017 and spend the time marketing and editing. It felt like a good opportunity to make everything crisp and clean. I worried the voices might leave. If you ask someone to shut up enough, eventually that’s what they do.
That hasn’t happened, but if anything, I feel more stressed than ever. I’m doing courses, making corrections, tidying up my act and following a business plan, but it’s harder than it looks. I contemplated writing a short cozy mystery for a multi-author boxed set and dipped my toe back into Deleilah Dereham Hanover’s world. “Great!” she shouted with enthusiasm and grabbed my arm. “We want you to write something from our teenage years. I want you to explain the Fat Boy, the Foreigner, the Foster Kid and the Female.” She stopped, her tone serious. “But you can’t reveal who Seline’s father is, so you’ll need to pay attention.”
A happy afternoon whipped by in a dream and I’d created a decent first few chapters and a plan. I need to work out who to kill now.
It felt good to go to the little town in the foothills of Pirongia and Deleilah’s easy company.
What about the asylums?
What about them? The Lawn mental facility dominated the skyline in our town. Beautifully constructed with manicured gardens, it hid generations of those who listened to the voices in their heads. Before it became an office building and conference centre, Husband and I visited an open day and looked at the tiny cells which housed our city’s hidden secret. I look back now and wonder how many of them were writers without access to paper. It’s a sobering thought.
The voices can drive you crazy when they’re clamouring for a hearing. Last year saw me writing three books at once and I wouldn’t recommend that. Three groups of characters vying for my attention sounded like constant white noise. They gave me a headache and invaded my dreams.
Which plot do we lose?
We might look like we’ve lost the plot, but often we’re just balancing many at the same time. But there is a tendency to lose a grip on the real plot in front of our noses. 2013 was that year for me. I released five full length novels of over 150,000 words each. I remember very little of that year, other than it wasn’t a good one personally. Diving into Hana Du Rose’s world felt like the kids returning to Narnia, but my family struggled on the outside without me.
I chose that. I escaped there and it allowed me to function on the outside like a robot. Hiding in Hana world like a stowaway gave me respite from the horror elsewhere. To tell you a little secret, One Heartbeat is as much about me as it is her. For the duration of that novel, Hana and I melded together and it was a very dangerous place to venture. The ending will tell you all you need to know because we needed to part ways.
Be kind with us
We’re not insane. We’re different. We hear voices in our heads. They don’t make me kill people or pull legs off spiders. You won’t see my mugshot on the news in ‘New Zealand’s Most Wanted’ ads. I’m actually in control of them and not the other way around. As a society we love all those phrases which indicate someone’s deficiencies, especially the mental ones.
“She’s gone mad.”
“He’s losing the plot.”
“A few potatoes short of a sack.”
“A few biscuits short of a packet.”
It’s not really cool but it’s ingrained in our culture and so we add to it with our own clever phrases.
Don’t get lost in those other worlds, tempting as it might be. You know where the exit is. Periodically use it.
I’ve found a legitimate way to speak to the voices in public. It’s called a Dictaphone. I record what the voices want to say and write it down when I get near paper. Mobile phones also have speech to text capability and Google Docs allows you to do that also. Nobody looks twice at someone speaking into a device. In my experience, our internal characters use us as a conduit. They just want someone to listen and take them seriously. They rarely repeat themselves if you write it down the first time.
I imagine it being like the magician’s trick where he pulls coloured flags from his sleeve. They just keep coming and coming like they’ll never end. That’s what it’s like being a writer with live characters.
I know I’m not alone. There’s a whole community of us out there who find writing a release. We talk about our characters as though they’re real. We have whole empires in our heads. We’re not crazy, we just hear voices in our heads.
K T Bowes is the writer of 20 novels, many bestselling.
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