By Stephen Jay Schwartz

What fascinates me is the never-ending sentence running wild in my mind, bursting through my thoughts like the long, paper dragon in the streets of San Francisco during Chinese New Year.  There’s always a sentence running, always an editor running at its side, clipping, grooming, evaluating. 

It’s been this way all my life.  Always the third-person observer, the narrator in my head describing everything I see, “…he stood high on his toes to throw the paper bag over the fence…the car passed and she turned to wave, forgetting the cup of coffee in her hand…the man impatiently pulled the little dog on the leash, dragging it through the muddy park…”

My God, will this inner voice ever shut the fuck up?  I mean, really, it’s maddening.  It gets worse when I’m tired, when my defenses are down.  And if I’m sick, running a fever, touched by a hallucination or two…forget about it – “The Nyquil settled into the acids of his stomach, reacting like dry ice in water, the green liquid turning into gas in his belly, settling into his bowels under a river of…”

Enough.  Stop it.

This has got to be a writer thing, right?

I used to feel very much alone living with my inner narrator and then I went to my first Bouchercon and met a hundred other authors.  I recognized the same look in their eyes when they talked, or when they sat in rooms watching others talk, and I sensed the narration behind their eyes.  I’d follow their glances around the room and imagined how their sentences described the things they saw, and wondered if they described them as I did.  And I wondered if their narrators drove them crazy as well.

I wonder what occupies the minds of surgeons?  Do they constantly run the scalpel through the tissue of their mind’s eye?  Is the path of the blade ever-changing as their internal surgeon writes and rewrites each operation?

Do engineers see schematics?  The blueprints of a bridge designing and re-designing itself in their dreams?

Do painters see colors and shapes and diminishing perspective when they shop for their vegetables at Ralphs? 

How do people get through their days?

In my life I’ve been a writer, filmmaker and musician.  As a filmmaker I’d watch a man walk across the street and I’d see the coverage in my head; long shot, medium shot from the front using a long lens, medium shot from the back, close up of his foot touching the sidewalk on the other side, close up of the bumper of the car that just missed him, long shot to see the car pass and the man turn to watch it go, medium frontal shot as he reacts to almost having been hit. 

Now, imagine how difficult it would be if I went to a Lakers game.

But, even as I lived in the language of film, I still had to hear that pesky narrator describing each scene as if it were written in a screenplay.  When I watch movies, I imagine how each scene looks in the script—CUT TO: Football player on the field, on his back, the paramedics surrounding him.  CUT TO:  Tom Cruise reacts.  CUT TO:  The family at home, watching the TV, the player’s wife standing, her body shaking.  INSERT:  TV screen, wide shot of the field, pandemonium. 

Again, it drives me nuts because I just want to sit back and enjoy “Jerry Maguire.”  Instead, I’m typing the damn screenplay in my head.

I met an author at Bouchercon who had damaged his fingers and had to resort to using some voice-activated software to help him finish his book on deadline.  Once the software recognized his voice he could speak his novel into the computer and the words would magically appear.  However, he would have to speak it like this, “Percy stepped into the street comma his long comma black hair trailing in the wind period space…”  He said that, after a while, it produced a clarity of thought he never knew existed.  Alan Jacobson was with us and he said he used the software, too, and one day when he was talking to his wife he said, “Do you mind stopping by the store comma when you’ve got some extra time question mark.”  He stared blankly ahead, then said, “Did I just say comma question mark?”

I don’t think I’ll ever use that software.  There’s no way I want my inner narrator inserting punctuation into my daily observations.

It’s strange, too, because I started in music early on, beginning with clarinet in the fourth grade.  And yet I never saw the world as musical notes.  I don’t remember my mind blaring symphonies the way my inner narrator drones on with the prose.  And yet, even as a kid playing that clarinet, I found myself describing and re-describing my environment with silent words. 

I think I’ve been wired as a writer from the start.  And it’s taken forty years for me to realize that this is how I function best.  Not as a public speaker or an actor or musician or surgeon.  I see the world in words, in three acts.  I see mundane daily events and the words that run through my head create drama.  I want everything to have meaning, though few things in life have meaning on their own.  The narrator infuses meaning, demands a good story.  I see spectacular, open-ended climaxes, because even in the end there are questions that remain. 

I daydream of dreamless sleep, sometimes, just for the silence that exists when the narrator takes his leave.


38 thoughts on “THE WORLD OF THE WORD

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    Great post. I see the action of my books unfolding as a movie in my head and I'm always striving to write down exactly what I see on that mental screen, so when people read the book, they're watching the same movie.

    I found Andy a great T-shirt in the States last time we were over. On the front it says: 'I do what the voices in my wife's head tell me to…'

  2. toni mcgee causey

    Zoe, I love that t-shirt… I need to get one for Carl.

    Stephen, YES. It is such a relief to see this. I am constantly trying to shut the narrator up. Especially when really bad or really good things are happening and I should be focusing on them and not *also narrating* them while they're happening.

    I am so glad I'm not alone.

  3. Debbie

    Hey Zoë, this one's for you! (Gotta love fireworks unless you're trying to think or sleep.)
    "Remember, remember the fifth of November. the Gunpowder, Treason and Plot. I see no reason why the Gunpowder Treason Should ever be forgot." …"

    Stephen, like you and Zoë, I too see my stories playing out as movies, the angles, details so intricate that I have to refrain from including them. Sometimes, when bored, I'll study a room in my MS. The dust, the worn carpet, the texture of the stone fireplace, and the creaks of the floor. I can place my characters almost anywhere and watch them. And yes, this is a little frightening.

    My inner narritor speaks quietly in the background, but is always available for a running commentary. You have to admit, it's very helpful when writing.

  4. Darlene

    As a kid I was flabbergasted that everyone didn't have an inner narrator, a kind of Greek chorus in their head. Or want to re-arrange the fruit section in the grocery store to create a different color combination. And I'm fairly sure most people don't look at a dumpster as a possible source of art materials and a great place to hide a body.

  5. billie

    Yes, I do this too. There was a period of time when my children were very young when I had one evening a week set aside for writing. The days in between were crazy – entire paragraphs and scenes would play in my head all week long until I got to Thursday and could do write them out. Between that and the "normal" narration it was hard to get a moment's peace.

    The funny thing is that I have always done this narration thing but I also always "ride." Ever since I can remember I ride a horse – it's most obvious in my consciousness when I'm driving, b/c the horse (and me riding) are alongside the car, navigating whatever obstacles present themselves. When I'm just walking or "on my own two feet" it's easier b/c my body is more synced with the imaginary horse.

    It does go away when I'm actually riding my horses – which, by the way, is the only time the narration stops. I think that's part of why I love riding so much – it is perfectly quiet and I'm centered – no narrator, no horse alongside – everything has come together for me.

    Looking forward to more comments!

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hey Debbie

    "Remember, remember the fifth of November. the Gunpowder, Treason and Plot. I see no reason why the Gunpowder Treason Should ever be forgot." …"

    Guy Fawkes was framed!

  7. Robert Gregory Browne

    Most of my life I wanted to be a film director (until I found out it's the LAST thing any sane person would want to be), but I've always found myself looking at the world as if it's a movie set and I'm scouting locations and working out camera angles.

    I think it carries through as a novelist, because, to me, my novels are merely movies on the page. A great way to be a director, by the way. Nobody to deal with but your editor. But I still see the world in scenes….

    And…. ACTION!

  8. PK the Bookeemonster

    So, you writers, is YOUR voice you're hearing or is it the characters'? As I reader and not a writer, I don't experience this. I do have an inner dialogue but it's me with myself. I'm usually making snarky comments to myself. 🙂

  9. Louise Ure

    Stephen, I had to give this one some serious thought. I don't have a full-time narrator. When something good or happy is going on, I'm totally in the moment and there's no internal watcher around. When it's something sad or scary, the narrator shows up and notices everything.

  10. Debbie

    PK, (what the voices sound like?) depends on whether I'm writing and/or meditating on the WIP. At those times, (WIP) characters talk to me. There are places I can't put my characters because they'd just say, "I wouldn't do that…go there." Yes, I can carry on a conversation with them. Me: "Okay, I understand, but lets just say that somehow you were there…." And the character, "But I wouldn't be. Period." Trust me, there's no arguing with them; it's their story and I'm just writing it down.

    That other narration, for me anyway, is just a bland commentary like talk radio in the background. Every so often something seems a little louder and penetrates my conciousness and I acknowledge it-usually with a laugh.

    Finally, there's that voice you mentioned. Sarcastic, argumentative, and generally a riot to hang out with (if I do say so myself)! On a good day it's utterances never make it out of my head.
    All the voices often leave me overwhelmed. I add to that the constant cries of the phone, laundry machines, stove, 'mommy', 'Debbie', 'honey', inbox-4 new messages, other inbox, fb, friends-'Can we get together….'. Every so often I crash.

    Zoë, I love a good conspiracy theory.Got one that would piss off half (no, probably more) of the American's I know. But Guy Fawkes…. It's one of those stories that if you read with your brain engaged you can't help but say, 'Huh? Really, and people are buying this?" Kinda like the magic bullet. Seriously, a bullet that um, changes direction?

  11. pari noskin taichert

    You know, I think Spencer is on to something with STRANGER THAN FICTION. Though exaggerated, the author's narration is a key part of it.

    I narrate and see and write all in my mind — often while living my daily life — and that's precisely why I always look so damn befuddled.

    Hey, Stephen . . . are you going to be in NM soon?

  12. Dao

    Recently, I've heard this line in my head: "Dao said,'…' " before I actually say anything. It's a bit bizarre. Also, things are narrated in past tense. And for the first time in my life, I listen to people when they talk, study the way they talk – when they pause, raise their voices, and how fast they speak- so I can recreate them in dialogs. Since I'm not so much of a speaker, observing people talk is more fun to me. It is strange but since I started writing, it seems like I began to see life and people with a different lens. I also carry a camera with me just in case I need to take some pictures. You'll never know, that may be the setting of your next novel.

  13. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Sorry I'm so late to the comments, guys, but my Internet went down at the house, so I'm pilfering off my computer at the office.

    God, what great comments! Who knew there were so many different individuals residing in the individuals I know? Next time I have dinner with any one of you we'll have to book a table for ten.

    Zoe, I LOVE the T-shirt quote.

    Ooops, gotta run, boss is hovering…

  14. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Back again. By the way, I saw "Stranger than Fiction" and I totally dig it. Great film, and exceptional writing. The "narrator voice" sounds like it came from a novel, it's very rare to find that quality of narration in a film that wasn't adapted from a novel.

  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Love this post. Guilty, guilty, guilty. And I'm sure people in other fields have the same thing going in their own languages. I know when I hear music I'm always picking out my harmony part, or worse, thinking of how I'd choreograph it.

    I heard Joe Landsdale say once, very heavily, that writers are almost always exhausted because we can never turn it off, that the synapses are always firing.

    And PK, writers also always have dialogue with ourselves going on on our heads. On top of all the rest of it. Ugh. (It was great to meet you f2f in SF – so sorry we never got to sit down for a drink!

  16. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Oh, Pari – I will be in New Mexico next weekend – I'll be in Albuquerque signing BEAT at Bookworks, on Rio Grande Blvd, on Sunday, November 14, at 3:00 pm.
    I'm also going to be at Left Coast in gorgeous Santa Fe next year.

  17. Kagey

    I do narrate to myself quite a bit, but not constantly. It is heavily influenced by what I'm working on at the moment. If I've spent the day on poetry, the voice in my head might be tossing out the best description of my child's hand on his toy, the look of determination on his face and on and on, even if I hadn't thought of writing a poem on the subject. When I've been prepping for the Composition I class I teach, I find my thoughts taking on the tone of lectures. It's a very authoritative voice!

    As for whether musicians do some variant of this — the answer is that at least some do. A friend of mine said my apartment drove him crazy because the hum of my fridge and the pitch of the some other appliance were only a half step apart and clashed. He also lamented that he couldn't just listen to most music anymore because his brain was dissecting the parts, the composition, etc.

  18. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Kagey – I'm right there with your friend regarding the dissonance of household appliances. As musicians in the Western tradition, we tend not to appreciate the co-mingling of quarter-steps.

    I forgot to mention that if I hang around someone with an accent, my inner narrator begins to take on their accent. Now, this REALLY drives me nuts. Sure, it's fun for a while, but after a while it just messes with my head.

  19. Spencer Seidel

    Speaking of accents, I pick them up quickly like you, Stephen. When I was in my early 20's, I used to watch Spinal Tap obsessively, and for perhaps two years after that period I had to fight the urge to speak like Nigel Tufnel everywhere. Anyway, that ability does come in handy for creating realistic dialog. Writing "in character" works!

  20. Reine

    My narrator is a bit more visual- and completely annoying. As soon as the narration begins the camera rolls, and my memory propels the story in space. The worst of it is the way it messes with my memory, My narrator is very adaptive – ADA accessible. All my memories recall me with power wheelchair including my pre-chair experience.

    Had a good laugh with your speech-to-text commentary! I'm finding that it's not working for me as well as it used to. That comma question mark stuff produces its own visions, and I often see commas, and periods, and question marks floating across time and space to join words that need them.

  21. Allison Brennan

    I don't have a narrator. I see everything unfold, like a silent movie. Maybe that's why I talk to myself all the time. :/

    But I always knew I would be a writer because I create stories around strangers, particularly if I'm bored. Elaborate backstories, like the guy in Starbucks every day with the poodle is in witness protection and is really a former accountant for a big crime family. Or that the backpack the nervous kid is wearing is filled with money from his brother's drug deals and he has to get it to his brother's dealer or their sister will be killed. Or the garbage bag by the side of the road has a dead body in it. Who dumped it? Why? A serial killer? Boyfriend? Why not bury it? Who's inside? Has she been reported missing?

  22. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Reine – that's pretty intense, that your inner narrator recalls you in your pre-chair state. Is this the same with your dreams? Do you like the speech to text program? Was it difficult getting used to this? Is there a way around the comma, question mark stuff?

    Allison – I've seen the guy with the poodle, and he's definitely in the Witness Protection Program. And you better not write about him, because he's in my next novel.

  23. KDJames

    *snort* I love this: “Did I just say comma question mark?”

    For me the voice is not narration, but conversation. Dialog. Sometimes, rarely, I am part of the conversation. But usually it's, um, others. Okay, that sounds weird, but I guess I'm in good company on that front. They pretty much stop if I'm singing. Huh. I just realized I sing a lot while I'm cooking. Maybe it helps me focus. I'm an excellent cook. 😉

    Until four or five years ago, I just assumed everyone had voices in their head. I'm telling you, THAT conversation with my older sister is memorable. "What do you mean, you hear voices? What kind of voices?" Sigh. I should have asked her what she had in her head instead.

    Thanks for this post, Stephen. Very comforting.

  24. JT Ellison

    I adore this post. It's one of the questions in life that drives me mad – WHAT IS EVERYONE ELSE THINKING. Not about me, but about the situation in front of us. I actually asked Randy the other day what men think about while they're watching a football game. He explained, in some detail, and I found it fascinating. I see a totally different sort of story. I also drive myself crazy wondering WHO everyone is – their story, their lives, their loves, their pain. It's an occupational hazard.

    You are wonderful!

  25. Reine

    Stephen, it is pretty intense, yes. Anything I recall doing, I remember doing it from a wheelchair. If it happens to be something that I couldn't have done as a wheelchair user, like get to the 4th floor of Andover Hall, I find myself wondering how I got up there. It takes a second to realise it's a semi-false memory, and I have a good laugh. I like to think it means I've adjusted well- hah! XD

    I'm having to use my old iSpeech because I can't update this MacBook to be compatible with the new Dragon Dictate for Mac 2.0. It is supposed to be a huge improvement, but it still requires lots and lots of special voice commands including:
    * Mouse movement with voice commands.
    * Mouse clicking with voice commands including clicks with modifiers, double clicking, etc., is now built in.
    * Proofreading documents with the Mac’s built in text-to-speech commands.
    * New editing commands to match commands familiar to Windows Naturally Speaking users.
    I'm not good at memorizing voice commands!

  26. Reine

    Stephen, it is pretty intense, yes. Anything I recall doing, I remember doing it from a wheelchair. If it happens to be something that I couldn't have done as a wheelchair user, like get to the 4th floor of Andover Hall, I find myself wondering how I got up there. It takes a second to realise it's a semi-false memory, and I have a good laugh. I like to think it means I've adjusted well- hah! XD

    I'm having to use my old iSpeech because I can't update this MacBook to be compatible with the new Dragon Dictate for Mac 2.0. It is supposed to be a huge improvement, but it still requires lots and lots of special voice commands including:
    * Mouse movement with voice commands.
    * Mouse clicking with voice commands including clicks with modifiers, double clicking, etc., is now built in.
    * Proofreading documents with the Mac’s built in text-to-speech commands.
    * New editing commands to match commands familiar to Windows Naturally Speaking users.
    I'm not good at memorizing voice commands!

  27. Debbie

    Reine, know it's late, and there's probably nobody out there but I love those memories. My friend has ALS and when I looked at her wedding photo's a month ago, I wondered how it was that she was standing!
    I too have memory issues related to my blindness. I'll suddenly recall something so vividly, like the scratches on a dime, the way blades of grass twist and weave on a lawn, the way cotton weaving on bedding looks fuzzy when worn and frayed strands stick up, colour from the painted pattern so vivid on the strand. And then, it blurs. Almost like my mind is saying, 'you're not allowed to see this'. Sometimes when the vivid memories resurface, I can go through them like a slide show, choosing what I want to see again. Sounds dull, but it amuses me. (Windex drop on a tv screen, magnifying the three colour pixels,; brick texture vs morter smoothness; the cut end of lumber….)
    As for dreams, they are both with and without sight. The ones that freak me out, are the one's where I can see the things I've never seen…my husband, my kids…. I sometimes wonder if I got my eyesight back if I'd be unnerved by my own reflection, having aged over twenty years. scince I last saw myself clearly
    About those voices, my husband grilled me when he found out about them. Must go consult with them and find out how much we can reveal!

  28. Reine

    Hi Debbie,
    I'm up. On my way to bed, but up still. I loved reading your post, and I will comment more here tomorrow, because it really does touch me. I wanted to tell you at least how much the memory of senses, such as the type you mention – the way you describe them – what that means to me. The memories that mingle past and present, as if they have their own life, so sure they are…
    My mother, who could not talk for years before she died, told me that she spoke in her dreams and cried when she woke up. She died young, as did my father, so I treasure these memories, despite the sadness. Tomorrow.

  29. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Debbie and Reine – thank you so much for your sharing here. I've been on a plane to Seattle and I just got to a computer – it's 1:00 am. I love reading what you both are saying. Powerful stuff. Beautiful imagery. I'm getting lost in your descriptions.

    Keep the dialogue going….

    And, everyone, thanks for commenting today. I really enjoyed reading what everyone had to say.

  30. Reine

    Hey, Stephen and Debbie… finally made it back… too much NaNo-NaNo. I wish my hands would do the impossible and remember what to do without benefit of a lot of motor neurons! Dysphagia, too, gets in the way of speech to text. Ah well, I knew I wouldn't be able to keep up, but I did pretty well for a few days and will try to be happy for that. :wicked-bad smiley face:

    Debbie, to read about your seeing the faces of those you've never seen… mm… so very electric. I had a dream about my little brother who died in infancy. He was about ten in the dream, and he told me his name. He seemed to be on his own and had no relationship with our parents. It was reassuring to me, his being without them and being happy and okay.

  31. Debbie

    Reine, my friend Kathey (ALS) just got the speech to text software that you use. Her computer is now set up so that she can control the tv. I'm so happy to know that there is something in her life that she's in control of again.
    I'm glad that you took the NaNoWriMo challenge. As long as you're enjoying the writing process, keep going and let us know how you're doing. I'm pretty sure I'm going to join in next year.

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