On Inspiration and Trusting Your Instinct (or, Writing as a Mental Disorder)

11 Nov

By Savannah J. Foley


If you’re a writer, and I mean a Writer, then you are probably somewhat insane. Consider the following quotes for context:

Writing became such a process of discovery that I couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning: I wanted to know what I was going to say. ~Sharon O’Brien


First, find out what your character wants. Then, just follow him. ~Ray Bradbury.

Being an author is like being in charge of your own personal insane asylum. ~Graycie Harmon

Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia. ~E.L. Doctorow

When I first began writing Antebellum (formerly known as Woman’s World), all I had was a premise: What would the world be like if women had been the dominant gender throughout the ages, not men? I wondered if there would be peace or war, slavery or freedom, what the government would look like, who would raise the children, would children even be important, and what would men’s roles be? I wanted to examine this world, our world, in a different light. Ultimately I decided men would be kept as slaves: menial workers and companions, both holding the nation and families together as caretakers and the working class, leaving women to pursue knowledge, science, and art.

I began with a female character about to take her first slave. I didn’t know her name, or his name, or anything about their society at all. But as the sentences began to pile on top of each other, it became clear that my characters knew everything I didn’t. I followed them as a tourist, stalking them through my keyboard, learning about their customs and responsibilities, their emotions and struggles. They wanted things, and would fight for what they wanted. I was enthralled.

I also thought I was a little crazy. In school I was taught that the writing process had definite steps; first there was a brainstorming session, then a rough draft, then three re-edits until you had a final copy. In elementary school, this was the way writing was done, and there was no room for negotiation. In fourth grade, I knew I wanted to be a writer, and loved the creativity of just going at it on paper, but hated this drafting/editing process and knew I would never be able to take being a writer if I had to do that nonsense all the time.

So, when I began writing Antebellum at the age of 14, I didn’t know anything about real writers or real writing, but I had found this magic world inside myself, this trance-like interaction between my imagination and my more logical self, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Other aspiring writers I met in school didn’t have this (they also lacked my natural instinct for grammar and plots not based on their favorite anime), and so I felt very alone, a little frustrated, and misunderstood. My teachers hadn’t any inkling what I was talking about, either.

Then, in 9th grade I picked up a book from my English teacher’s personal library: Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. It was a quick, strange read, but at the end I found total gold: an interview with the author. That three-page or so interview completely changed my writing life. Bradbury revealed that he had the same, strange, magical process of writing. He likened his writing process to following his characters around with a notepad, writing down what they do.

I had found my people. There were others like me. I wasn’t strange or half-crazy, no, I was just a REAL writer! I was thrilled. I began calling myself a writer from that day on. It was who and what I was, and what I would always be, published or not.

Writing after that became far more enjoyable. I learned to listen to my subconscious pulling and give my creative side free range to make up anything it wanted to. Our brains are so smart once we stop analyzing what and how we’re actually thinking. My subconscious had whole plots worked out I wasn’t even aware of. These plans would emerge unexpectedly and surprise me.

For example (those who read the Antebellum series when it was available on Fictionpress will remember this), one day I was sitting at my desk, typing along on my second book, Apostasy, when suddenly one of my characters blurted out to another that she was pregnant.

I stopped, took my hands off the keyboard, and looked at the screen more closely. Had I really written that? That wasn’t in my conscious plan. I had no intention of making this character pregnant. Her pregnancy had nothing to do with the plot I was developing; in fact, it threatened to ruin what long-term plans I did have.

However, while my conscious self didn’t have a plan, my subconscious self certainly did. Later on in the third book this unexpected pregnancy twist surfaced again and revealed its surprising plan, throwing in a most-excellent plot-twist towards the end that intrigued and delighted readers.

It was a leap of faith to accept that unexpected turn of events, and I’m glad I did. That experience taught me a lot about the subconscious writing process and about the power of our minds. It was also useful for helping me trust myself in a similar situation years later, as I was working on my fifth book, Go Look There.

I had just graduated from high school, and my family unexpectedly moved to north Alabama. For a graduation present, my father bought me a laptop (which I type this article on now, two years later). We were stuck in corporate housing for what ended up being two months, and I had nothing to do except play on my laptop (without even the internet; too cruel!) and write. I had brought some of my current writing projects with me on CD, as my desktop was moved along with the rest of our stuff, and began toying with some short stories I had written. There was one in particular I was working on which featured a girl with a mental retardation that made her smell attractive to butterflies. At her 8th grade graduation outside, butterflies came and swarmed her, and the crowd’s reaction to both this girl and this miraculous event served as a pointed social critique.

This all sounded nice in theory, and the story had hints of what I ultimately wanted the reader to feel (magic, spookiness, etc.), but it was missing something. It didn’t have what I call ‘saturation,’ where every sentence is rich with meaning and/or description, and as soon as you read the first few lines of the story you feel as if you are living it.

I tried several variations of the story, but it still felt flat and unoriginal, so I decided (going with that subconscious instinct), to change the perspective from third person to first person. For the eyes and ears of the story I chose the school janitor, who had a special relationship with the children and the school that parents attending could not have. His name was Ephram Carson. A novel was born.

(You can read this chapter on my website here)

Ephram is the most strongly-defined character I’ve ever written (you can see his character analysis on my website, too), and he had stories to tell, only the first of which was this strange, haunting butterfly episode. In fact, it was this experience, along with another tragedy involving a child and butterflies, that created a stigma in the town that functioned as a sort of curse. Ephram wrote letters to the school psychiatrist, Angelica, recounting the strange, spooky, and often sad stories of the children of the town. I got to incorporate more of my short stories into the novel and add new ones, and the project turned itself into my favorite novel so far, Go Look There (never before shared on Fictionpress, unfortunately).

If I hadn’t have trusted my instincts and changed the perspective of the story, even though it meant a complete rewrite and working with an unfamiliar character (at first), I would never have arrived at the novel my subconscious had in store for me.

Now, whenever I can I try to enlighten other young writers to the subconscious effect, and reassure them they aren’t crazy; they’re just legitimate!

In writing, your mind is your most useful tool. Forget your computer, forget your keyboard, forget your typewriter or your notepad and pens. If you had nothing else in the world, not even your voice or hands, you could still make up stories. Your work doesn’t come from your tools, but your brain. Remember that.

Now get out there and make some magic.

PS: I’m guest-blogging tomorrow at the blog of Jess Granger, whose first book, Beyond the Rain, came out in August of this year (click the link for sexy/beautiful cover!)


Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Woman’s World (now known as Antebellum) series on Fictionpress. She has written five novels, owns her own freelance writing company, and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency trying to sell Antebellum. Her website is http://www.savannahjfoley.com.

19 Responses to “On Inspiration and Trusting Your Instinct (or, Writing as a Mental Disorder)”

  1. Alexandra Shostak at 7:30 AM #

    When you were describing being in elementary school, and loving to write but being frustrated with the process, that was exactly how it went for me! I remember the teacher would announce we were going to write a story as one of our projects. Before the next words even came out of her mouth, ideas would start to pour into my head, only to be dashed against the wall when the teacher then gave us a prompt. Nothing I’d just come up with worked with the prompt, and instead of being excited, I hated the assignment. I didn’t want to write the outline, or any of the stupid “pre-story” stuff we did. I just wanted to write a story.

    I love this post, because it IS almost like having a mental disorder where all these people and worlds live inside your head, waiting to get out. Whenever someone asks me about my “process” or whatever, I don’t know what to say, because my process is that I just sit there and type as my characters do stuff, talk to each other, and get involved in a lot of stuff that’s probably really bad for them. Haha I have very little say in the matter–all I can do is manipulate my words to get the point across as deftly as possible.

    • svonnah at 7:35 AM #

      I totally agree! It’s like looking at those 3D illusion magic pictures… you have to hold your brain just so and access that part of yourself that won’t shut up!

  2. rachelsimon at 8:03 AM #

    Great article, Savannah! Its really neat for me to read other people’s processes because I’m one of those people who can’t write every day (I tend to get blocked) and I actually have to take a break.

    I also agree; it is a little like a mental disorder. 😛 I am an extrovert (meaning I, like, NEED to be around people to survive, haha), but yet I can’t write around other people. I am way too social! I end up talking, not writing. So now I have been “forcing” (not really since I heart my characters…er… please don’t kill me, guys) myself to stay home and write. And I’m thanking goodness that it was Alexandra I told that the love interest in my story asked me to sleep with him (it was awkward; I told him I was the Author and No!) and not someone else. Someone else would’ve thought I was insane!!!

    Its interesting what you say about your assignments in fourth grade because (although my memory’s a little fuzzy) I remember being really free to write whatever I wished. But then again, maybe its because I went to a small school with the same group of kids for six years and we all ended up in “Roles”? Hm… Thats something for me to analyze. LOL!

    Great article, Savannah, and have fun guest posting on that blog! 🙂

    • svonnah at 8:09 AM #

      My characters don’t talk to me to that extent, but I know a few other writers whose characters act like yours, down to the sexual innuendo, lol! Mine are separate from me, like watching a movie, but they also belong to me. 🙂

      • Alexandra Shostak at 8:26 AM #

        Mine are a weird combination of both–mostly it’s like watching a movie (except with feelings–I can feel/experience everything they do) but sometimes I’ll get this really awkward “oh, Remy would love this” or “Jesse would say ______ right now” in real life, and that’s just awkward because if I said any of that aloud, nobody would know what I was talking about. And I have to remind myself that they aren’t real in the same sense that I am (though I do think they’re real in another way!)

      • sarahjmaas at 2:33 PM #

        lol, Alexandra–I’ll never forget that time we were at that party in the hills, and you and I spent like…30 minutes imagining/laughing about what our characters would be doing at the party if they were there/real. ❤ I'm cracking up right now as i write this.

  3. sara at 12:07 PM #

    “hated this drafting/editing process”

    I am right there with you! In high school when we had to write outlines before the actual stories/essays/whatever… I’d always write the story first and then go back and write the outline, haha.

    I also totally agree about the mental disorder. I walk around my house and mutter to myself when I’m trying to figure out the next turn for the story to take. My husband loves to try and catch me doing it…

    • svonnah at 12:12 PM #

      I would write the outline afterwards, too! I didn’t really know what I was going to stay until I got in there and started saying it!

  4. Stephanie at 1:33 PM #

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one who does this! I tend to go into my writing with only a vague idea of what my world is like, and it’s very much like discovering things as I write. Everything just takes on a life of its own, and I think that’s the way it should be.

    • svonnah at 1:54 PM #

      I agree totally! There seems to be two types of writers out there: magic-insane writers and method writers. I’m so glad to be on the magic-insane side (though the Methods seem to make more money…)

  5. junebugger at 8:54 PM #

    In my first draft I find that I write from the heart. Hence, the reason why my first drafts are always melodramatic mush. Haha. It takes so much time to put some brain into my writing. But yes. I find that my heart comes before my brain. I know now how important a balance is between the two…

    Thank you so much for this post! Though I have finished my manuscript, I want to start a new story, and yet I was so intimidated. I kept asking myself: WHERE do I start? Should I work out an outline? Should I brainstorm? So many questions. But your article cleared it up for me: Just WRITE something and follow the characters. Trust my instincts.

    But harder said than done *sobs* I’m so used to my structured way of writing that becomes a hinderance to me…

    I’ll try this out though

    • svonnah at 9:04 PM #

      I’m in the same boat as you; starting over. I haven’t worked on a novel in two years! But I realized something VERY IMPORTANT today: All of my novels that have failed in the past, they all had one thing in common… I didn’t have a firm understanding of my setting. With my good novels, I knew exactly what their houses looked like, and the city, and the nation, etc. With the new projects, I was just writing actions without any context. I’m taking some time now to develop what my characters’ houses and rooms and cities look like so I’ll know what world to step into when I go to write them.

  6. Jess Granger at 8:55 AM #

    Thanks for joining me at the Butterfly Blog, Savannah.

    I love your article. I’ve always been a writer too. When I was in High School, I had the same teacher for three of my four years, (she kept switching grades, I think she was following me) and she understood me.

    I used to write stories by hand in the back of my binder, not for a grade or anything, just to write them. I think she used to read them when she’d have us all turn in our binders for grading, but she never said a word. She also made us write stories incorporating our vocab words. We didn’t have to do any tedious brainstorming, in fact when people asked how long it had to be, she’d ask, “How short can you make it?” Instead, I wrote one continuous story linking all of the vocab lists for the year. It was fun.

    I too hated the “brainstorming” part especially. Remember that stupid circle with all the lines coming out? Dumb. Completely useless for me.

    However, now as a professional author, I’m an outline queen. I couldn’t do this without planning. The trick is to find a way to “just tell your story,” that fills your heart, then turn that into a professional manuscript.

    For me, I broke out the old notebooks, just like when I was in High School. I write out the story as if I’m just entertaining myself trying to connect all the dots without worrying about the “craft.” My rough handwritten “outlines” of the book are hysterical to read, but the story is all there, surprise plot twists and all.

    Once I have that, I write the formal synopsis, ironing out all the story problems of the book from my handwritten outline. Then I use that as a guide as I write the actual book.

    Knowing where I’m going gives me the freedom to really sink into the detail of the writing as I’m writing it, because I’m not worried about where the story is heading. I already know.

    But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this business, it’s that everyone does things completely differently. The only true rule is to find what works for you. (Which is why making all students do the same prewriting “tasks” is pointless.)

    Thanks again for visiting, Savannah, and good luck to you in your writing!


    • Savannah J. Foley at 9:14 AM #

      I hated that web outline, too! That was the exact one I had in mind as I was writing the article, actually.

      Bringing out the old college-ruled notebooks really does it for me. I’m a pen-writer these days, but can only write stories in pencil. It’s cleaner, somehow.

      Thanks again for having me! And thanks for fixing those pesky link problems.

  7. Maybelle at 12:13 PM #

    The plan v. intuitive writing thing – I’ve always had a bit of a struggle with that too. It may be different for everyone, but I personally feel better if I have an outline or even a symbol/character analysis before I begin writing… it’s like building proper painting techniques before going all-out on a blank canvas.

    Sometimes, however, it’s the little sparks of intuition that really add flavour or originality to your story. This is what I love about writing stories as opposed to academic essays. There are so many twists and turns you can incorporate into a story, so many puzzles you can leave for your reader.

    (I really hated, though, how teachers grade you for “process works” or “outlines”. It’s good to have them especially when writing something as logical and analytical as an essay, but each person thinks differently and I don’t think they should be graded on a standard way of “thinking”.)

    • svonnah at 1:09 PM #

      I agree that outlines are very, very helpful, and I’m not discouraging use of them at all. My point was that you can’t logic your way into a fine piece of art, and your best writing probably comes from when you let go of the process and just start letting the words flow!

      Okay, that was corny. But you get the point. 🙂

  8. vigrx at 6:59 PM #

    Wow! Thank you! I always wanted to write in my site something like that. Can I take part of your post to my blog?

  9. Schedule at 7:29 PM #

    Best you should change the post title On Inspiration and Trusting Your Instinct (or, Writing as a Mental Disorder) Let The Words Flow to more catching for your subject you write. I liked the post yet.


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