Let me just say, I was thrilled that she didn’t ask me what my novel is about. That’s just about the worst question you can ask me. Instead, she asked: How do you come up with ideas for stories?
My answer: Before I go to sleep, I return to the story I made up the night, week or year before. I’ve done this for years. Currently, I’m working through the most horrific ways that a previous mistress of the king can torture the new mistress of the king in a post-apocalyptic, Wonderland-ish setting for my second novel, Mean Girls, Versailles (working title).
Clearly, I’m a giant dumbass because I said some version of this out loud — not to a fellow writer who would be down with my freaky — but to a therapist. Without pause, she said, “sounds like dissociative disorder.” The least she could have done is ask me about my childhood first.
My first reaction was to dispatch a heavy dose of side eye and walk away.
My second reaction:
To be fair, the word makes sense, as I actively and voluntarily dissociate from thoughts that prevent me from falling or staying asleep at night. I do this by making up bedtime stories. When I was younger, this was to drown out the noise of sketchy neighborhoods and the alternating quiet or storm of my house, depending on the day and which parent I happened to live with at that particular time. I mentally rewrote novels and movies to fit my own tastes and gender requirements — Rambo? Totally a chick. Most times, the stories germinated from an inkling of an image or a feeling — the solar eclipse when I was in kindergarten; the dank and drippy frontier jail in my Wild West hometown; the way a certain football player’s freshly showered hair stuck to his skin when he walked into the gym for the high school dance and never asked me to dance even though I sent him super psychic vibes of extreme girl crush want. (Rejection is protection. Trust.)
I haven’t changed much over the years. I still want to “dissociate” from the night terrors of meetings I forgot to schedule and ongoing spreadsheet anxiety. Despite my best efforts, I cannot shut down my brain after Novel Incubator alumni meetings or writing group meetups or nights when I huff TV for three hours straight. If I don’t actively force my brain into a story, I will never get the recommended number of sleep hours that the Jordan’s Furniture guy tells me is critical for a functional member of society.
On a recent trip home to Arkansas, my Dad reacquainted me with a painting that my Grandma found at a flea market in Albuquerque. The painting is a portrait of (I’m not joking) the young ghost who (allegedly) kicked my Grandma’s car seat, terrified my mom by blowing into her ear in the middle of the night, honked the horn even though it had been disconnected and left fingernail clippings on the bedside table (though I’m pretty sure Grandpa is to blame for that one). That night, after seeing the painting again, all I could think about was that ghost child finding me in the middle of the sticks, in a place that Google maps can’t even find, convinced that my thoughts would vibrate across the spectral plane like a human-hunting GPS. The only thing that calmed me was a story — when the stress is high, go to Versailles!
So yes, therapist of yore, I “dissociate.” I tell myself bedtime stories because it wards off the baddies. But I also tell myself bedtime stories for an added benefit — by the time I sit down to write a novel, the world and characters have already been built in my head. All that’s left is to put them on the page and see what happens next.
Plus, I consulted with my best friend, who is also a psychotherapist. She assured me that it was totally inappropriate to be pathologized in ten minutes let alone without a proper, solicited and thorough diagnostic assessment. Then, she gave me references for therapists. But that’s a story for another time.
So suck it, unnamed therapist! Dissociative bedtime story-crafting is totally legit.
* The author in no way suggests that individuals rely on story craft alone to address the issues of anxiety, depression, trauma, grief/loss, addiction, adjustment to life stressors, identity or self-esteem and encourages those individuals to seek professional help.