Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Religion of Writing: Part Five -- Gastromancy and Other Voices

I first talked about gastromancy back in April and how it was the beginning of ventriloquism. It was also the beginning of people using "the voice of god" as a way of manipulating people. "God has told me that you should all give me all of your sheep and do whatever I say!" Okay, well, that part probably went back before gastromancy, but gastromancy made it that much more believable since other people could hear the voice of god rumbling in the prophet's tummy.

The truth is that people throughout history have claimed to have heard "god" and used that as a means of making other people do what they say. "If you don't obey me, god will smite you! I know because god told me so!" And how do you deal with that? I mean, how do you know whether that person is hearing god or not, especially if you're not. And what do you do when different people are saying that god is saying things that conflict with each other? That's simple: more than one god.

That's one of the things I like about the Bible. Very often (more often than not), the people in the Bible demand proof that it is, actually, the voice of God they're hearing. Moses needed a burning bush, then the pharaoh, along with all of the Israelites, needed a bunch of plagues before they were convinced. And, even then, they didn't do such a great job of doing what they were told. Gideon had to play "wet my fleece" with the Lord before he'd do what he was told. And Jonah... well, he just disobeyed. But being puked up on the shore by a giant "fish" was pretty good evidence for the people of Nineveh that God was talking.

Things aren't so dramatic these days, though, and I have to doubt any time anyone ever tells me "well, God told me to do it." Why? Because 99% of the time, "God" just happens to be telling them to do the thing that they already want to do. Even if that thing is wrong. What amuses me most, though, is when, later, they quit doing that thing, or do the other thing that is opposed to the first thing, also because "God" told them so.

Personally, I don't ever want God to show up and actually talk to me. Seriously. Look in the Bible and give me one example where God shows up to tell anyone something good. You know, like the lottery numbers. No. God shows up and says things like, "Build a giant boat," or, "Surprise! You're gonna have a baby!" or, even worse, "Saul [before he was Paul], you've been bad. Stop it! Oh, and I'm gonna make you blind for a while just to prove my point." So, yeah, I've know people my whole life that have said things like, "I wish God would just tell me what to do" [because He's been busy telling other people what to do], but I think I'll pass on that. Usually, whatever it is they're looking for guidance about is already covered in the Bible, anyway, and they're just hoping God will show up and tell them something different.

All of that to say that all those people I have known in churches that are always going on about "hearing the voice of god" and what god is saying to them, or what he's telling them to do, or telling them to tell other people to do, remind me a lot of writers that go around talking about hearing the voices of their characters in their head. I just never know quite what to make of it.

I mean, I get it. I get the whole thinking about your story all of the time, but, me, I never hear my characters talking in my head. And it weirds me out more than a little to hear so many writers talk about that all the time. Am I supposed to be hearing voices in my head? I don't think so. That sounds like crazy talk to me. I mean, like, you need to get help, real help, crazy talk. Or do they just mean they're thinking about their stories all the time?

See, the thing is, not only do those people in church go around talking about how they "hear God," many of them actually believe it. And, yeah, you could say, "Maybe, they are just so much more spiritual than you, and they really are hearing God," and that may be true for some of them, but, with a lot of them, it's just like the whole speaking in tongues thing: they've made themselves believe that it's a really happening when it's not. What? How can I tell? Well, they spend their lives going from one mess to another doing what they "heard" God tell them to do. They wreck other people's lives, destroy friendships, and hurt people, and that just doesn't fit in with the whole "be excellent to each other" thing that Jesus said to do. But, then, maybe these people have some other god that they're not telling anyone about. Or, maybe, they just want to use the responsibility escape clause, "God told me to."

A lot of these writers that talk about hearing the voices of their characters are kind of the same way. I mean that in that they are always talking about the messes their books are in because they've been listening to their characters and they don't know how to fix the steaming pile their manuscripts have become. Well, short of trashing them and starting over. Which always makes me think, "Why are you listening to these voices? It's your story; make them do what you want." Which is not to say that I don't believe in character integrity, because I totally do, but, still, take some control! And, if you can't, if the voices in your head really are that powerful, maybe you really do need some help. Or, maybe, it's just another way of getting around not being able to produce a complete manuscript, "No, really, I am a good and competent writer; it's just that these characters in my head keep telling me to write stupid stuff." It's their fault, not mine.

So, yeah, I know this particular thing may be a sacred cow I don't really want to take a bite of. Everyone has (and should have) their own process, and if yours involves hearing voices in your head, well, I don't want to get in the way of that. But, then, I have known a few people who really did hear voices in their heads, and none of those situations turned out well, so it always leaves me wondering when writers talk about this phenomenon. I guess, if you do hear your characters talking, make sure they stay just characters for your stories. And, well, be the boss of them, too.


  1. This seems a role play. For me to do it successfully I have to put myself in that character. By that I mean I consciously try to talk and act like the character I've created. And in truth when I did those blogs (unsuccessful as they were/are), where I talk to my cat, I created a character for him. I think pretending an imaginary character is real, giving him a voice and thinking "what would this character say," is hugely different from thinking an imaginary character is talking to you.

  2. I have never heard characters talking in my head. My muse doesn't talk either. And neither have taken over my writing.
    God doesn't talk as much as he just shows.

  3. With all of those voices in one's head, I sure hope there is a good shrink on retainer.

  4. All this stuff about God talking to people has me hearing the opening verse of "Highway 61 Revisited" in my head.

    My characters don't speak to me. I've never had one pipe up and say, "Hey, I want a Slurpee; can we stop for a Slurpee?" or "Hey, why did you make me kill that guy? I didn't like that." On the other hand, when I'm in full-on writing moding, I see/hear scenes in my head, so I'll see/hear my characters interacting with each other in the book world. I never mistake it for reality.

  5. My characters talk to me and they tell me TO BURN EVERYTHING TO THE MOTHERF*****G GROUND.

    Also, I knew a girl who liked to think she was talking to God. And she would pray to him to ask him advice on everything, even like what sandwich she should eat that day (I'm not exaggerating that bit - she told me this to my face).

    Remember - roast beef is okay, but God prefers pastrami.

  6. I like Beer's comment.

    I think you may have Jesus confused with Bill and/or Ted, but the basic point remains the same.

    As far as whether it would be good or bad if God talked to you, I suppose that depends on why God is talking to you. In Noah's case, God's talking saved Noah and his family. In Job's case, it wasn't so good, even though Job stayed faithful. Jesus talked to lots of people, generally to good effect.

    To separate your points here, I believe in the power of prayer and God, but I don't treat God like a genie who can give you a bike just because you pray for it; generally when I pray I am praying for someone else. If I ask for anything of my own, it's usually along the lines of "wisdom" etc. And I think those prayers come true.

    But I don't 'hear' God talking to me, ever. I sometimes feel as though God is taking a particular interest in me, listening to me, and I find that comforting and strengthening, but it's never like God is on my bluetooth.

    As for writing? I never let anyone dictate to me where a story goes, let alone a character. That's usually because I don't entirely know where the story is going to go. This morning I was thinking how great it would be to be able to write like Nick Harkaway, my newest literary idol, with all details and backstory and clever allusions and such, and I think part of the reason I don't/can't do that is that I'm too much in a hurry to find out where the story will end up. Maybe if I ever bothered to do a second draft, I'd be able to add even more in.

    On that note, I'll add that the story I'm doing for you is almost done. I yesterday did a rare revision, wiping out nearly two pages of the near-ending and redoing it, because after writing a whole scene I didn't like the scene at all. I wrote it, and then later in the day was taking a walk with Mr F around the neighborhood, and the scene kept replaying in my mind, as if it were being rehearsed, and the more it did the more I didn't like it. The only way I could stop thinking about it was to make a mental note to delete the whole thing, entirely, and so I did that, made a note, and was able to then focus on the walk, which was good because lately, Mr F makes me jog.

    Then I deleted the whole scene when I got home.

    It wasn't my characters talking to me, though: it was my own self, thinking "yeah, the scene seemed okay but it sucks."

  7. Í've often wondered about people who kind of claim their characters live in their heads, but if the book turns out good who cares? Maybe that's why I have never written a book, nobody in my head has ever asked me to write about them.

  8. Not sure I hear my character's voices in my head, but when I'm writing they can come up with some interesting things to say. And, yes, I do give them a long leash to let them figure out what they want to do next. But, uh, I'm fully aware that it's all in MY head and they are MY thoughts.

  9. David: I think so, too, but so many writers talk about their characters "talking to" them, I have to think they mean something different. I've done acting and RPGs and, of course, writing, and I've never had anything close to having characters talking in my head.

    Alex: I think my muse is off in Hawaii or something.

    JKIR,F!: That's what I'm saying!

    JeffO: I do a lot of visualization when I'm writing, but it usually has to do with the look of things and how people move rather than hearing what they're saying.

    I don't know that song...

    ABftS: Hey, well, I've had people (yes, more than one) tell me they heard God tell them to cheat on their partners, generally for reasons like "God said He wants me to be happy." And, yeah, I've know people (girls) who would pray and listen for God to tell them what to wear on a given day.

    Briane: Who, me? Confuse something. Never happen.
    I think prayer is good. But, then, prayer is talking -to-, not hearing his voice in your ear.
    And I'm also not saying that God didn't speak to people to bring about good things, but those things were generally not positive in the telling.
    You really are gonna make me break down and read this guy, aren't you?

    I'm looking forward to this story of yours.

    Jo: On the one hand, I agree with that entirely... on the other, well, voices in your head? Maybe it's my lack of experience with it.

  10. L.G.: Well, that's a good thing, then. The ones I wonder about are those people that talk about their characters as if they are real people. Like, and I just thought of this, those women that talk about soap opera characters as if they are real people. I think that's kind of the same thing.

  11. I don't hear voices in my head, but when I'm writing dialogue, it just seems to flow since I know them so well, I know what they'd say in that situation. I don't have a muse.
    As to God, He listens, and he does, at times, reveal His will. But I've never heard His voice, and it would probably make me wet my pants, if it's like that scene in Exodus where the Israelites beg Moses to just tell them what God says, but it's too scary to actually listen to him.
    Love your analogies in this series. Brilliant, in my opinion.
    Tina @ Life is Good

  12. Maybe the whole "I hear my characters talking in my head" thing is just an excuse for a writer to use when they know they've just been pantsing and written 50 pages of a story that doesn't make any sense, has no continuity, and is just all around bad. At least in this way, they have someone to blame.

  13. God tells people to do what they want? What a coincidence!

    I've "heard" my characters talking, but only if I imagine the scene in my head. I always wondered about people who said the characters appeared and told the stories themselves. But I guess it's just me not really understanding another writer's process. If it works, it works.

  14. Tina: Mostly, I've found God's will pretty clearly stated in the Bible. I don't understand why it is that people have such a hard time with that. Except, well, it does require reading, and it often involves things like "love your neighbor" which most people balk at.

    Michael: I think that's certainly part of it. Okay, a lot of it.

    Jeanne: I know! It's amazing!

    I think it works as long as those characters are only telling them to write stories. What happens when they move on to "bigger" things?

  15. I've never heard my characters "talk" to me, or whatever, but I guess everyone has a different 'process'.

    As far as God talking to people, I've never taken it to mean you actually "hear a voice", or anything like that, just more of a feeling of what one should do.

    I don't think God is going to advise on what sandwich you need to eat that day, but who knows.

  16. Mark: Oh, well, I have known people in numbers you might find surprising that have claimed to have heard the audible voice of God telling them what to do. And some of that was scary stuff.

  17. To be honest, I don't think much of what people do in the name of God stands up to any sort of rational scrutiny. The whole thing about God showing up and talking would be nice because then there is no more guesswork concerning his will. I know you said it's pretty plain to you from reading the bible, but other people feel the same way, and have drawn different conclusions about what that will is. Which is fine by me, except when some guy decides God's will is to beat me with a hammer until I agree with his point of view.

    In fact, I think that was Charlemagne's main method of conversion... except with swords and axes instead of hammers. But then again, he did convert pretty much the bulk of Saxon Europe to christianity with that method.

    So I'd sympathize with those wanting God to hang out and just talk. Could have avoided a lot of confusion that way. Even if I did pretty much have it all right, he'd need to straighten out all the other folks that have gotten everything so screwed up.

    Man, that came off really snarky. Not my intent. Just thinking with my fingers (and no filter, apparently).

    Anyway, I know I've heard people say things about their characters talking to them, but I thought it was people just making stuff off. Never has such a thing happened to me. I have been writing and gotten so caught up in what I was doing that I forgot I was actually typing for brief periods, but that's a long ways from having characters in my head talking to me.

  18. Rusty: Well, I'm talking pretty basic stuff, like:
    Love your neighbor as yourself.
    Don't kill people.
    Don't take other people's stuff.

    If we looked at issues through some more basic type glasses, I think we wouldn't have all the issues we do. I mean, if corporations had to answer to the idea of whether they were stealing, the whole world would be a lot different.