Writing Fiction: Altered States

Sorry, I just had a vision of William Hurt suspended upside down with snakes on his face and various flashing lights, but that isn’t what this is about at all, and anyway, that’s Ken Russell for you.

What I was actually thinking about is how often an altered state of mind can help in writing fiction.  In 2009 I was on a meditation retreat in Italy.  At the time I had been working on my second novel.  It was going ok but the plot lacked something dynamic.  I had put all thoughts of writing aside for the retreat and was meditating one day in the lovely converted chapel which was our shrine.  Suddenly, unbidden, the solution to the main plot problem came into my mind.  Even afterwards it seemed perfect (and does to this day) but I hadn’t sought it, if anything I was probably battling the pain in my knees.

And this wasn’t the only time.  Often in my morning meditation, a sentence that I have written the day before will be presented to me in a better form (and then there is the battle of whether to write it down or continue meditating)

There was a fashion in the 60s and 70s, of thinking that the only real writers were drunk ones and that getting pissed or high on drugs was the best way to access the inner writing daemon.  A quote from Aubrey’s Brief Lives in a recent article in The Guardian described how drunk Ben Jonson was whenever he sat down to write: “He would many times exceed in drinke (Canarie was his beloved liquour); then he would tumble home to bed and, when he had thoroughly perspired, then to studie.’  I’ve tried this but my handwriting got so bad I couldn’t even read it after, (but I’m sure it was genius).

Charles Dickens used to go for a good old-fashioned walk: pounding the heath and talking to the various characters in his head.  Stephen King listens to loud heavy metal music.  Jenny Colgan suggests having a bath (it wasn’t personal).

I guess this is all just another way of talking about accessing a ‘muse’.  It doesn’t seem to be something that can be forced.  Occasionally I’ll find that while writing I can see the next few sentences ahead of me and there is a race to get them down in time.  The sensation is a little like being in a trance.  For the most part, however, it’s just good old plodding along putting one word in front of another.


9 thoughts on “Writing Fiction: Altered States

      1. Oh yes, he was also a pedophile (or at least in love with his 9 year old next door neighbor, Alice). Sometimes what inspires authors are more interesting than what they actually wrote!

      2. Alice I knew about. There was a very good film called Dreamchild about the elderly Alice trying to remember what had actually happened as she arrives in US for a tribute to Lewis Carroll. But I didn’t know about the opium (I was going to make a joke about hookahs but it didn’t seem appropriate – oh look, I did it anyway).

      3. It was back in the 80s and may not have had a US release. But if you can get it, it’s worth it. A Dennis Potter script. I think the accusations of abuse are unproved but the whole photographing-little-girls-in-the-nude is concerning enough.

  1. To add to your list of artificially stimulated writers and opiates:

    In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure dome decree …

    So goes the poem by Coleridge who apparently was heavily addicted to and creatively dependent on laudanum. The rest of the poem becomes (assuming my recall of A level English is somewhere near, as it is rarely total) a lament about inspiration and writing. He’d been tripping on opium and received a lengthy flash of inspiration, but, to his intense chagrin, whilst setting it down he was interrupted by a visitor and the rest of the lines vanished out of his head. Cue famous poem, which was nice for him.

    So you’ve clearly established a better regime than Coleridge. Get your focus while on retreat and bingo, your chances of being interrupted by an inconvenient visitor are much reduced. After that you just have to sign up with Thomas Edison and his views on inspiration (but hopefully avoid the perspiration).

    1. Thanks Pete, I’d forgotten that. ‘The Man from Porlock’, shame to have that as the one thing people remember you for.
      I do wonder how often people who use stimulants are actually writing under the influence or whether they do it in sober moments. This is purely based on the observation that most people in that state talk nonsense.

      1. But it’s such significant nonsense …

        Wasn’t Aldous Huxley a bit of an LSD user? Like you said in your post there was a fashion in the 60s for LSD parties (early acid house parties?) and creatives sought out their muses. I also seem to remember reading they had an antidote/neutraliser which they could use if it all went a bit haywire (or it got past their bedtime, maybe).

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