Writing with your inner child
A guest post by Naomi Bulger, author of Airmail
In the early 1990s, everybody in therapy circles was talking about the “inner child.” I know this because my father was a group therapist and social worker, and I worked part time at his office during my first year studying literature at university.
Your “inner child” was supposed to be a part of you that you had long since forgotten or suppressed. He or she, once accessed, could help you overcome whatever it was in your past that haunted you. This would lead to a healthier and more fulfilled adult life.
Dad had this nifty trick for “accessing” your inner child, and it all had to do with writing letters. First, write a note to the childhood you, asking them what you want to know. Something simple, like “Dear seven-year-old Naomi, why did you always feel sick before swimming lessons?” Then swap the pen into your off-hand (so if you’re right-handed, use your left hand). You’re now the child-you, so answer the question. This sounds kooky but just try it and you will be astonished at what happens. What goes down on paper bypasses your brain, and you will be learning as you read what your hand writes. Creepy, but cool.
What does this have to do with writing my little magic realism novella Airmail? Well, a lot of things happened while I was writing Airmail that had a similar effect as using my Dad’s technique to access my inner child. And the results, the words that appeared on my screen, were just as surprising and illuminating to me.
The first thing that happened was that I suffered extreme insomnia. At the time, I was operating on between two and five hours of sleep a night, and this went on for over a month. I spent my days in a dream state where nothing ever quite seemed real.
Secondly, I dusted off my French grandmother’s antique typewriter. In Airmail, if you haven’t yet read it, a young woman in New York writes letters to a complete stranger, an old man named G.L. Solomon, in Australia. Initially I struggled to grasp the character of the old man and his reactions to receiving these letters. So an actor-friend of mine role-played the old man for me, while I role-played the young woman (Anouk), posting him letters. I typed some of the letters using the antique typewriter, but it wasn’t easy. Many of the keys stuck so typing was slow and somewhat stilted. Moreover, the only ribbon we had was red, so the words appeared like blood on the page. I typed things that surprised me, like, “I am the paper tiger that haunts your nightmares and destroys your dreams.”
The third thing was that I used to write Airmail at work. This isn’t as dishonest as it sounds. I had a contract job at an investment bank where I was essentially their writer-monkey on call. I had no clearance, and literally nothing to do unless they set me a specific task. No emails, no Internet, no projects, no initiative to take. So while I waited to be asked “can you draft this policy,” or “can you write a memo,” I wrote Airmail. Unfortunately, a fluorescent light over my desk started flickering, and continued flickering until they fixed it more than a week later. Try sitting under a flickering fluorescent light even for one hour. Reality distends, warps, loops.
All of this culminated in Chapter 6 of Airmail one day as I sat typing under the flickering light, among the bankers. Entirely outside of my intention, Anouk wrote to the old man, “Dear Mr G.L., I am writing to you from the Other Side.”
This was never meant to happen. Airmail was supposed to be an innocuous part-travel, part adventure novel, chronicling the stories of a broken but quirky young girl as she travelled around the world. And yet here I was. Only six chapters in, and my main character had declared herself to be dead!
I hit delete and tried again. And again. And again. Anouk was determined to write this letter from the Other Side, and she wasn’t brooking any argument from me. I consulted an author-friend, whose advice was direct and to the point. “Clearly you can’t change it. If you don’t want to give up, you have to go with it.”
So go with it I did, and the course of Airmail and its characters were changed forever. Somehow the month of insomnia, the sticky typewriter with red ink and the flickering, fluorescent light combined to create a kind of “inner child” experience by which the characters in my book surprised me, even as I typed them.
Ordinarily I’m a bit of a control-freak, and I didn’t let go easily. But I guess you could say I wrote Airmail with a hefty dose of help from my inner child.
My question for you: Do you write your stories, or do they write you?
Airmail, a new magic realism novella by Naomi Bulger, was published in April 2011, and is available online at Barnes & Noble and numerous other good bookstores. Naomi maintains a blog about writing, creativity and the absurdities of life at http://www.naomibulger.com/, and she promises to write a personal letter of thanks to everyone who buys a copy of Airmail.