Writing crazy or crazy writing?

As many of you know I have been working on a manuscript with a protagonist that suffers from mental illness.  During this endeavor, and trying to get it well underway I kindly asked for, and received, great advice in regard to music and literature that would aid in getting me to that crazy place- you know, so I could write “crazy”.  All advice has been wonderful, beneficial and has resulted in me being able to write  several pages from my main character’s point of view- in the mental health care facility.  I have not read overmuch of characters that were in such an institution and so have had to rely upon non-fiction works, a friend’s knowledge and of course the ever so useful online forums.

While we can all postulate that Holden Caufield was in an asylum when he was telling us his story in The Catcher in the Rye he didn’t talk about the place so it’s not particularly helpful in this department. Now, torture on the other hand I’ve read about a great deal in works of fiction (yeah for the Spanish Inquisition!) but again- not the same thing as a person in a residential mental health care facility suffering from a serious condition.  Although I suppose if people made it out of the hands of the “high inquisitor” they would have benefitted from TLC- both physically and mentally.

I digress.  Near as I can tell writing crazy requires new rules.  Admittedly I didn’t really see the danger in this attempt when I had been thinking about the diagnosis of the character as well as the plot involved but I see it now.  Pushing myself into the realm of a fantastical fixation/obsession as well as the fighting of it has been difficult.  To do so requires the use of a term I’ve never been keen on:  stream of consciousness.  Perhaps some people can do this while separating themselves from the character, from the view point, and remain a safe distance away from the frustrating and terrifying mindset where control is something actively being sought after- but I can not.

I envision the character, I think of how his body feels, how is mind keeps going round and round with itself, how it tries to interrupt, tries to rationalize and all this while I’m sitting in a chair and writing everything I “see” and “feel”.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say it paralyzes me but I will say it causes sleep disturbances (I often dream of the characters when I get into the story I’m working on) and a certain amount of anxiety I’m not altogether sure originates solely from the lack of sleep.

This issue has led me to take more time with the opening sequence of the novel than I did in my previous work as well as seriously contemplate how long I really want or need this character to remain in this facility.  I don’t like the idea of taking a coward’s way out as my predilection is to just take breaks and let the beginning go where it may for however long it needs to- but this way the story won’t suffer and neither does my family.  (Have I mentioned I get really cranky when I don’t sleep well?!)

This journey, always interesting I must say, has led me to wonder if other people have this problem.  What about in visual art?  Do you set out to express a certain view, emotion or ideal?  Do you just let the work take you where it will?  Do you remain separate, aloof when thinking of the character’s POV?  The emotion of the piece you’re working on?


2 responses to “Writing crazy or crazy writing?

  • Anna C. Bowling

    Very interesting post. I generally find at least one of my characters in any given project has some sort of mental illness (though in the periods I write in, they don’t call it that) which can provide some big challenges for the writer. I’ve also found that the big challenges often lead to big rewards, so for me, it’s worthwhile.

    A character has to be what that character has to be for his/her role in that particular story. Which includes those with psychological issues, and to use a quote from my favorite writing instructor from my college days, “if the stars are real, then the mud had better be real also.” That stuck with me. Using music, art, etc, that go down the path of a character who needs to see things a certain way to serve their function is a big help, and I do find that stream of consciousness is also a very effective tool. I think it gets better with practice. You’ll find your balance.

  • kimberlyloomis

    Thanks for sharing that quote with me, Anna. That is absolutely wonderful and so very true! I’ve ultimately always walked away from literature that made me struggle along with the character, to root for or against them, feeling incredibly grateful for having read it. The happy ending without the believable struggle means little.

    When I get through with a few projects (including a book or two I need to finish reading) I would love to check out one of yours. Any particular one you’d recommend over another?

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