Writing Game: Placebos

A paediatrician friend told me that his favourite cartoon was of a man at a surgery saying, ‘I’ll take the placebo if it makes you feel better, doctor.’  Or there’s my favourite, The Simpsons, when the people of Springfield rush to the hospital for a miracle drug and are told it is just a placebo.  ‘Where can we get these placebos?’ someone shouts.

But so much for the joke.  A recent Horizon programme showed how something as simple as a pill filled with sugar or corn flour can help in recovery from IBS and Parkinson’s in full flare-up.  A fake procedure aids recovery from vertebral fractures.  And it’s not just health.  The performance of the British cycling team was so improved that one cyclist recorded a personal best time.  A climber was able to function at low oxygen levels.  Best effects are from being given a large red and white pill by someone wearing a white coat.  But it can even work when you know you are being given a placebo.

So, my question is this.  What if you were given a new miracle pill for your particular field of endeavour, and told that, for the period of taking that pill, your performance would improve to a standard beyond that which you thought you would be capable of?  What would you find yourself able to do?

For me, I would find myself able to write with the mastery of Jane Austen, the energy of Charles Dickens; fluency of Penelope Lively; the informal humour of Raymond Chandler; the wit of PG Wodehouse; the poetry of Ken Kesey.

The fictional world would present itself to me as if I were just a stenographer sitting in the scene with the characters.  No longer needing to worry about plot, because that was just something that happened in front of me.  And at the end, I would be able to look back and see how things had connected up, and why the protagonist now finds him/herself where she is.  A fully realised world with insights and knowledge about it seamlessly woven into the prose.  Characters who had both humour and suffering.  A plot that drew you along with a sense of mystery and disclosed something deeper towards the end.

As an experiment, I tried this on a chapter I was rewriting.  Using, as my placebo, a large vitamin pill taken with a glass of fizzy water (no, really).  And certainly there were insights.  Somehow I relaxed more easily into the point-of-view of the main character.  So much so, that when I tried to change something she had said because it didn’t seem right, she got quite cross.  I put it back the way it was.

What we’re talking about would be familiar to anyone who uses solution-focused techniques.  It’s a mild form of self-hypnosis that helps you to overcome the barriers that normally exist.

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