“What does it feel like for you when you finish a book and have to let go of those characters?” someone asked me at a recent book reading. I asked, “Have you ever finished reading a book and felt a little depressed afterward?” Many heads around the room nodded. “Well, imagine that feeling, then double it.”
Characters come into my mind uninvited, and they tend to stay until their stories have been told. They move in like squatters, dragging their baggage and relatives and histories and dirty laundry in with them. “Move over!” they tell each other. “I was here first.” They take up as much room as they can and jostle for my undivided observation, talking and singing and yelling and crying. Sometimes they keep me up at night, and sometimes, if I’ve been able to fall into dreams, they wake me with dialogue or whispered confessions. They become, because of their ever-presence, real. In fact, it sometimes seems as though I know my imaginary people even better than my real ones.
And they are there…until they are not. When the book is finished, a new group of itinerants move into my imagination encampment and tell the other ones to move out, move on. “She’s done with you!” they say.
But that’s not true. I go through at least a few of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief until I finally end up at the point of acceptance, whereupon I pick up the detritus they’ve left behind and put it in a box with their names on it and tuck it into a gray fold of memory for safekeeping. But I’m never really done with them.
While the next pack of transients is settling in, unpacking their things and making flattering overtures to get my attention, other voices sneak in as well. There’s the sniffy, pinch-lipped one that says, “So you’ve written other books. You’ve probably won’t be able to do it again. In fact, you probably shouldn’t even try.” There’s the panicky one that whimpers, “What if it’s not good? What if you write it, and nobody wants to read it?” And the most derisive one of all: the contemptuous, sneering voice of a sourpuss in his dotage that bleats things like, “You think you’re so smart. Wait until everyone finds out the truth about you and your blah blah blah. Even if you somehow were able to come up with two salient thoughts to rub together, you’d still sound like an idiot on the page.”
Those naysaying voices arrive uninvited, but unlike those belonging to my characters, they are not welcome to stay. If I allowed them to, they’d run the place down. Thought-crime would be rampant. They’d spray ugly graffiti everywhere:
Life in the Imagination Encampment would become untenable, and my characters would all relocate to more welcome minds and get written into other people’s stories.
In her bestselling book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott describes the exercise she does to silence the critics. She imagines each of the voices as a belonging to a mouse. She picks each one up by the tail and drops them into a jar that has a volume control button. “Turn it all the way up for a minute, and listen to the stream of angry, neglected, guilt-mongering voices. Then turn it all the way down and watch the frantic mice lunge at the glass, trying to get to you.” Leave the volume down, she advises, and get back to work.
Getting back to work is really the only way to ignore the fear and uncertainty and doubt that the ugly voices would have me believe. And it’s the only way to hear the other voices—the ones whispering their secrets and struggles to me in the dark, the ones whose stories I want to tell, the ones I will come to know and to love and eventually, to miss.