The Other People in My Head

Not too long ago, I opined to a friend who is not a writer that I understood why certain parts of the writing process could be difficult, such as plotting or structure. “But,” I said, “I don’t understand why dialogue would be hard. We all use dialogue every day when we talk to each other. All you have to do is listen to the characters talking in your head and write down what they say.”

My friend gave me a look that was part humor, part concern. “Joanna,” she replied gently, “most of us do not have other people talking in our heads.”

Oh… Oops.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have other voices with me, other stories playing out behind the scenes as I went about my daily business. Sometimes it feels like I can direct the action, but often, I really am just an observer. The characters have minds of their own and trying to bend them to my will usually means that the story goes off the rails.

The benefit of this scheme is that I can do a lot of writing without having any sort of notepad or keyboard. When a story is going well, I just sit at my computer and download everything I’ve been thinking about in one go. I can write up to 15,000 words per day like this.

The downside to this particular writing process is that the people in my head don’t talk very loudly. Not that this is a bad thing overall. If they were too raucous, I’d probably end up with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Real life has to come first. However, when real life is demanding or stressful, the characters can be hard to hear.

I look like this a lot.

That is sort of where I am these days, as I am endeavoring to get a new book off the ground. These are unfamiliar characters to me, so I don’t know them very well yet. This means I need more silence—inner and outer—to be able to hear them. I am trying to create that space so that I can get started on the story, but it’s difficult with so much going on around me.

All this is to say…if you catch me staring off into space, not paying attention to my surroundings, I’m not deliberately ignoring you. I’m just momentarily listening to someone else.

6 Responses to “The Other People in My Head”

  1. Garrett Rooney

    It took me a disturbingly long time to realize that the “Joanna is sitting in a corner staring off into nowhere” behavior was actually a desirable thing, at least from the point of view of someone who wants to get a look at the next chapter in your current work in progress 😉

  2. Amanda Wilde

    “…most of us do not have other people talking in our heads.”

    Freaks 😉

  3. Mary

    This is a very interesting issue. I can’t help but think it goes back to the earliest creatures who could formulate “what-if” scenarios. That may or may not include any creature that can use a tool. Do crows, ravens and rooks go through a what-if scenario of –“What-if I had a longer, narrower beak? Wait could I use that stick like a beak?”–in order to come up with the idea of using a stick to poke larvae out of a hole? More to the point of Joanna’s post, do they “hear” that idea as a voice in their head? Do elephants, who seem to treasure the memories of friends and family members for decades, “hear” those individuals’ voices in their minds during years of separation? I’m not sure I believe that most of us do not have other people talking in our heads. Maybe some of us just perceive the phenomenon differently. I know that some unfortunate people totally externalize the voices, possibly due to chemical imbalances. I know a person who attributed her intuitive knowledge of what family members were thinking to telepathy, rather than to long history and daily familiarity. She was mentally unbalanced in other, obvious ways. My personal belief is that people who believe they have a relationship with an unseen being, like Jesus or God or a deceased relative, are also mis-attributing the voices that originate in their own brains. Biologically we are makers of meaning, detectors of patterns, projectors of feelings, dedicated anthropomorphizers, and incessant speculators on the what-if? question. No wonder we hear voices. Yes, I do too.

    • Joanna Schaffhausen

      That’s an interesting question, Mary, about what other animals might hear in their heads! I took a class in college that was devoted to the subject of what we could or could not know about other kinds of minds, especially animals. Our desire to interpret their behavior through our own experiences, to anthropomorphize them as you say, muddies the waters quite a bit.

      I do think it’s very common, possibly even universal, to have the feeling that different parts of yourself are talking inside your head. For example, when you’re debating several possible options, you may feel like part of you wants option A while the other argues for option B. It can really seem like they are arguing! Neuroscience has actually proven this is a real and biological phenomenon. Patients who had the bundle of nerves cut that usually connects the two hemispheres of the brain ended up with the sensation that they had two selves in one head. The two parts of their brain could disagree on actions and even life goals, such as what career to pursue. Unfortunately, the two brains had to share one body, so such divergence proved problematic. For most of us, the brain remains connected, so the different parts have to duke it out internally to come to some sort of agreement. I certainly experience this kind of internal warring too, but it is a decidedly different phenomenon than listening to characters chatter away at me.

  4. nikki

    For people like me, the great frustration is hearing all those voices – and like you, I’ve heard them my whole life, always concocting “what if” scenarios, always reading and watching and thinking, “If X had happened instead of Y…or if the reaction had been Q instead of R…” but not being able to get those thoughts from my head to the paper. There was a brief period of time in the mid 90s when I had some success with it, but even then, it was a laborious process. I’ve tried all the tips – keeping pen and paper nearby at all times, speaking the dialogue aloud into a recorder…every now and again when I’m cleaning, I’ll come across a page with a story snippet, almost always a bit of dialogue. I was never able to look at those snippets as being whole and complete in and of themselves though. Thus, I’ve often joked with my writer friends that I have the soul of poet trapped in an accountants mind. 😉

    • Joanna Schaffhausen

      It is so frustrating when the words on the page won’t cooperate! I think it’s rare that the story comes out exactly how you envision it, especially with a first draft. The one I am working on now is giving me fits. I feel like I open the computer and we just sit there glaring at one another!


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