What do you call someone who is detached from reality and lives in a fantasy world? A schizophrenic? Delusional? How about a writer?
People have told me they think Ian, the main character in my book Dot Dead is really me. That’s flattering since he’s younger, more attractive, and smarter than I am, but it’s just not true. In fact, I think those people have the situation exactly backwards. While writing the book, I became Ian. I lived in an alternate world as Ian and made my way through that messy place as him. When he checks voicemail one day, Ian gets a message left for him by a person since murdered. A shiver went up my back and my scalp tingled when I wrote that. I was there. I was Ian.
Back in grad school when I was writing my thesis on British diplomacy just before World War II, I caught myself writing checks dated 1939. (No, I was not in grad school then. I’m old but not that old.) For ten or twelve hours a day, I time-traveled and became Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, and company trying to figure out how to deal with the Nazi menace. Putting yourself in another time and place, walking in another person’s shoes – isn’t that what writing is all about? And there’s no need to defy the laws of physics to do it. You just need a laptop and the ability to live in an alternate world.
Some writers do meticulous outlining before starting the first chapter. Not me. I write in the first person because I want to be in that alternate world and experience what the narrator is seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and thinking. So I can become him. Tess Gerritsen recently blogged about this: “I have no idea where my story will take me when I sit down to write the first page.” Me neither. Finding out where I'm going in an alternative world is what makes writing so exciting to me.
It all kind of reminds me of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter, hero of A Princess of Mars, who magically travels between two different worlds. (Same thing for the kids in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.) Don’t we writers escape from the workaday world and move to another, more interesting one while thumping on the keyboard?
So where do you draw the line between being a writer and being a little unhinged? As for me, I draw no line, but a circle. I’m both.
P.S. Just in case you were wondering what I had in common with Zach Braff, Marilu Henner, Bob Marley, Michelle Phillips, Billy Dee Williams, Merle Haggard, André Previn, James Watson, Walter Huston, Butch Cassidy, and Raphael.... We were all born on April 6!