In the evening, when I most frequently sit down to write, I have to wait for the ghosts to come out before I begin. Many nights, I find myself struggling to focus at first. It is not ideal to write in the evenings, I know, but there is no better time for me — the obligations of work and family keep me busy throughout the day, and it is only when the sun has set that I am able to sit down and cultivate some quiet. I like the evenings best for storytelling anyway; I consider myself a small kind of witch, and the eveningtime is when the best ghosts come out to play.
These are not the ghosts of the dead, in my mind, but the ghosts of those who have yet to be.
You might think I’m crazy, and I’m sorry if I gave you that impression. I am generally a relentlessly sane person. I do not believe in poltergeists, or haints, or ghouls, or any of the other kinds of spirits that lurk in folktales. What I do believe is that inspiration is a fickle thing, and reaching out for an idea can feel like grabbing a handful of mist some days, just the same as if you caught the glimpse of a ghost out of the corner of your eye.
In the evenings, I get my computer and sit in the broad chair snuggled up against my bedroom window. Sometimes I light candles, other nights I open the window. A few trees tall enough to lean over my building stand beside the window, and the shape of the leaves make a dark tracery against the sky. We have a fair amount of light pollution here, so it takes an especially clear night for the stars to shine down on us; otherwise, the night sky is a flat plate, all one color: a strange, indescribable tone somewhere between saffron and silver. When I look out and up at that sky, I feel it pressing down on me. This is the time when I write, and when the ghosts come to me.
I am a small kind of witch, so I do not believe much in ghosts, spirits, or magic. I believe instead in the power of the mind and the incredible magic worked by circumstance and chance. I believe that each and every one of us has immeasurable power, and we shape and redefine the world in meaningful ways each day. When I sit down to write each night, I open myself up to my own power, and I try to let go of all the rules and judgements. I try to let the ghosts come to me. They are wisps of thought and feeling, little impressions that come to me and then slip away into silence. I have to listen very closely to them, or I might lose them. The ghosts tell me how to write.
Recently I was reading Anne Lamott, who says that the act of listening to your characters is like listening to your broccoli. The inspiring quote being that “your broccoli will tell you how to eat it”. She means that to write about your characters authentically and vividly, you have to listen to them–let them tell their own story, to a degree.
I agree, but my characters come to me as ghosts. They are whispers of inspiration, hard to grasp and harder to let go.
I hear them strongest in the evenings. They come to me and tell me that they would do this, and say that, but only when I sit down in front of the computer and put my fingers to the keys. Before that, when I am out for a walk or standing in line at the grocery store or generally wishing I could be writing, the ghosts do not come. They are fickle. They wait for me to sit down, make myself ready, and begin to type.
And then, only then, do they possess me. They slip inside me. They give voice to their feelings, and I shape sentences around them. Sometimes they run away early, and leave me in the middle of the sentence, lost. Sometimes they leave for weeks on end, forcing me into day after day of tortured typing, and only return when I least expect them. Some nights I cannot let go of my self-doubts and anxieties, and the ghosts remain just out of reach. They are not always friendly ghosts, and they demand a lot of me–everything I have to give.
But the ghosts always return. They tell me their stories, and when I let myself listen, I am swept away by my writing. I am haunted by them, and I like it that way.