Who Really Writes The Stories?

All writers are privy to a big secret. They rarely talk about it among themselves, but when someone foolishly raises it, there are embarrassed smiles and nods and a few mumbled words of agreement. The reason is simple: to admit the big secret would mean admitting intellectually dangerous things to yourself and to risk the rest of the world calling you a crackpot.

So I’m going to tell you about here.

Writers are deeply troubled about the genesis of their stories. Not only that, they have nightmares about the reality of said stories, and their meaning and potency beyond the words on the printed page.

To illustrate, I’ll give you some examples from my own work. In World’s End I wrote about the main characters visiting Glastonbury Abbey where they uncovered secret knowledge encoded in the design of the ancient Abbey’s floor. Due to the vagaries of the way I work, I’d already semi-written this scene before I went to Glastonbury to conduct the research on the detail of the setting. While I was there, I came across a book which discussed how secret knowledge had been encoded in the Abbey’s floor, but the knowledge and much of the pattern had been destroyed in a fire almost a thousand years ago.

Now I had never come across this before. I swear I made it up. It’s just coincidence, right? It’s the kind of thing that could have happened, so no reason why it shouldn’t have happened.

Except the same thing happened again when I was writing Darkest Hour: something I was convinced I made up, came to light while I was researching Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh.

And it happened again during the writing of Jack of Ravens. Three times I have written about real things that were completely beyond my knowledge.

Most writers will tell you this happens all the time during the creation of a story. Stephen King has spoken (in On Writing, I think) about how he has come to consider his creative process more like archaeology: how the story is already fully-formed somewhere and he is simply digging it out of the sand.

Other authors have told me in very concerned tones about how what they have written has somehow started to affect the ‘real’ world. Graham Joyce speaks eloquently about near-supernatural happenings on a Greek island that echoed the story on which he was working, House of Lost Dreams. Robert Graves has written about the strange pile-up of coincidence and synchronicity during the writing of The White Goddess when books would mysteriously fall from shelves, open on the correct page with the information for which he had been frantically searching for days.

Both Alan Moore and Grant Morrison have spoken about the use of the imagination during the writing process as an act of magic, and it’s difficult for many writers not to believe that. Strange, irrational things happen during the creative process. There’s a sense of tapping into something else, and once tapped that something else coming into your life to haunt you for a while.

So now I’ve got this out into the open I’d be interested to hear about the experiences of others…

0 thoughts on “Who Really Writes The Stories?”

  1. I seem to recall that Tolkien once said something similar. When he was writing The Lord of Rings he believed that he was uncovering what really happened, rather than making it up himself. Unfortunately, I don’t have a reference right now. It’s quite possibly somewhere in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

  2. May well be a lot of truth in that, Mark. I just wish the buggers, whoever or whatever they are, would hand over the rest of my novel-in-progress to me!

    It’s a shamanic notion: the writer or poet as a shaman (Seamus Heaney touches upon this in many of his poems) tapping into the Muse or Muses. A scientist would say that – as remarkable as it may seem – it is nothing more than the mind tapping into all the sub-conscious and almost unconscious gathered cultural flotsam and jetsam, then processing it all coherently with a given point of – very often associated – focus. Not anything magical about it, but remarkable in terms of the processing power of the human brain.

    Me, I tend to side with John Keats in drinking to the destruction of Newton for explaining the rainbow!

  3. I have been working on a story setting for a long while and from time to time when I’m reading up on history things will have happened in exactly the way the model I’m creating would expect them to, sometimes to the point where I get a little shiver and the uncanny feeling that I’m uncovering a kind of truth. I suppose the mark of a coherent narrative world is that you can treat it as a filter on your own experience and the setting doesn’t fall apart.

    The counterbalance to that I suppose is to look at how good we are at making patterns and wonder whether it is as much a question of remembering the coincidences that look significant rather than the misses, which may be more numerous but less memorable.

  4. Breakfast, that is indeed, according to some, the flaw in synchronicity. See for example The Science of Discworld, chapter 22 “Nine Times out of Ten” for a discussion of coincidences, probability and sample spaces. On p. 254, the authors write ‘What we must not do, then, is to look back at past events and find significance in the inevitable few that look odd. … Every pattern of raindrops on the pavement is unique. We’re not saying that if one such pattern happens to spell your name, this is not to be wondered at – but if your name had been written on the pavement in Beijing during the Ming dynasty, at midnight, nobody would have noticed.’

    On the other hand, Deepak Chopra once wrote in Namaste, April 2001: ‘The fact that something hasn’t happened on other occasions doesn’t diminish the miracle when it does happen. That may not be what’s currently called a scientific viewpoint, but it fits the definition of magic.’

    So, which viewpoint do we want to follow?

  5. One of the themes in Marks’ books is significant co-incidence and it does seem to me that perhaps the easiest way for any outside intelligence to interact with ourselves is co-incidence, a dice that falls one way rather than another, a shuffle of cards that brings some to the top and pushes others down, the tangle of dropping yarrow stalks. I also find it interesting how people who believe in the use of Affirmations or Prayer or Chaos Magic seem to find that co-incidence works in their favour. Is this because they are working like Llonio in Lloyd Alexander’s wonderful Prydein stories, or because the human mind can interact with its surroundings in a way that extends around time?

    I find neither of those options unappealing.

  6. Okay. If the whole parallel and/or infinite universe(s) shennanigans is correct, then somewhere, somewhen, somehow, the stories that writers write have already happened. And if there are an infinite number of universes, then there must – by definition – be one in which fiction writers are simply those people who have the ability to sub-consciously channel the histories of other (parallel) universes and then write what they ‘imagine’.

    So why shouldn’t that particular universe (or sub-set of universes) be our own…?

    Or have I got the wrong end of the stick entirely (no quantum physicist, me…)

  7. No, that fits the branes/string theory model. Of course, it means there is a universe somewhere filled with Guy N Smith’s giant crabs…

  8. Wow. What a subject. I have had a few odd experieces – don’t we all – where I have sat down to write an outline of a novel, chapter by chapter, a rough idea and sketch…I have walked into a bookshop and honest to goodness, there I found a book in a similar vein. This slays me, each time it happens. I invariably have to buy them anyway, to see if they are anything like what I imagine and invariably the similarities are there…spooky!

    I tend to think there are a finite number of stories out there and somehow those with the ability to tap into these, into the shared subsconsious, are the creative types, the poets, the songwriters, the writers.

    And this partial from Breakfast is what gives me the abdabs: “…or because the human mind can interact with its surroundings in a way that extends around time?”

    The inevitable quote is…”there are more things…”

  9. This occurrence is not confined to writers but visual artists also. It is the nature of creativity that once you open up or enter into the stream of it the whole universe supports you with synchronicities and gifts to spur you on. Creativity is also, at its root, not personal and when we tap in we have access to everything that is known by humankind which is why you uncover truths that you have had no access to consciously. Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic resonance could explain this. Many great artists have asserted that their best work existed outside of themselves and they brought it forth like a medium fully formed. It is the quality of the channel, when we take the idea and apply our vision fully in an authentic way, that we make the artwork personal.

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