Monday, September 10, 2018

In a Writing State of Mind

I’ll admit, I’m a pantser. I don't plan ahead when I'm writing.  It's a discovery process.   I know what the first scene of my books look like and what I want my ending to feel like. Most times, I’m not even sure who the bad guy is.

That being said, I began this blog by typing it in my hotel room in Phoenix. My wife Cindy was still asleep, I had a cup of a coffee and a breakfast sandwich from the café downstairs, and the lights were dim. Later that day, I’d sit on two panels at the Poisoned Pen Mystery Conference. While in Arizona, I had a great time mingling with other novelists, and talking with readers and aspiring writers. And of course the highlight was spending some time with Ian Rankin and Hank Phillippi Ryan who are delightful individuals, as well as my Poisoned Pen family of wonderful writers. What was extra special was meeting fellow Type M for Murder contributor Donis Casey. It was so nice to meet you in person, Donis!

Even though I was in Phoenix, I did my best to work on my third Geneva Chase mystery. A couple of months ago, Annette (my editor) and Barbara (my publisher) signed off on the first hundred pages of Graveyard Bay. In the first chapter, two bodies are found chained to the forks of a mammoth forklift used in boatyard marinas. The tines of the giant machine are under the dark, gray surface of the icy bay leading to Long Island Sound.


I’m thirty chapters into Graveyard Bay but in the back of my mind, I’d envisioned the ending and it was really messy. I was not satisfied, I hate messy. I’d wrestled with the ending for weeks and just hadn’t been able to envision an ending that both makes me happy and scares the bejesus out of me.

But it came at four o’clock that Phoenix morning. I got up out of bed, went into the hotel bathroom and wrote it all down in my notebook so that I wouldn’t forget it once the sun had come up over the Arizona landscape.

And guess what? It was the ending I’d been looking for.

What precipitated my epiphany? One, I was at a conference filled with mystery writers and readers. I was surrounded by creativity and those who appreciate it. That has an incredibly positive effect on the writing process.

In addition to that, however, my wife, who has a PhD in Psychology, and after she had her first cup of coffee, explained that it might have had something to do with time of night when the ideas came to me, that nether world between dream and reality. She says it’s called hypnagogia.


When I Googled it, this is what I found: Hypnagogia is a well described neurological phenomenon that can occur when one is waking up (hypnapompic) or going to sleep (hypnagogic). It is an in-between state where one is neither fully awake nor fully asleep.

The term hypnagogia comes from the Greek words for “sleep” and “guide,” suggesting the period of being led into slumber. In this state, which lasts a few minutes at most, you’re essentially in limbo between two states of consciousness.

According to Carlolyn Gregnoire in an article for Huffington Post, surrealist artist Salvador Dali called hypnagogia “the slumber with a key,” and he used it as creative inspiration for many of his imaginative paintings.

“You must resolve the problem of ‘sleeping without sleeping,’ which is the essence of the dialectics of the dream, since it is a repose which walks in equilibrium on the taut and invisible wire which separates sleeping from waking,” Dali wrote in the book 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship.

Mary Shelley, too, said she got the inspiration for Frankenstein from a “waking dream” in the wee hours of the morning, “I saw with eyes shut, but acute mental vision.”

To what extent, then I wonder, are we in a waking dream state while we’re writing, even in the cold light of day? At some point, don’t we find ourselves immersed in the scene we’re writing? When we’re driving to the grocery store, aren’t we listening to dialogue between characters in our head? During a particularly stressful point in our story, don’t we feel what our protagonist is feeling?

Stephen King once described his writing process in this way:
“There are certain things I do if I sit down to write…I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning…I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.”

I guess ultimately, it’s difficult to be creative if you’re trying too hard. Sometimes you just have to let it flow, and, once every so often, it comes to you when you’re half awake.

Happy writing, happy dreaming.


Donis Casey said...

Good to see you, too, Tom! And I'm glad to have a name for that state of mind from where most of my best ideas come, so thanks, Cindy. p.s. I hope the hurricane misses you.

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