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.