At any one time, there are five dozen different ideas, responsibilities and obligations running through my head. Sometimes I feel like a juggler trapped in his worst nightmare. There I am with nothing but my mere two hands to keep hundreds of balls in the air. The problem can get particularly bad late at night as I’m trying to drift off to sleep. Here the unwanted thoughts come: appointments I’m afraid I will forget (no matter how many times they are written down), things I failed to finish that day at work, the next day’s priorities, a litany of school meetings or other mom obligations and on and on and on.
Somehow, along the way, during some forgotten but nonetheless pivotal night long past, I discovered that the best way to escape these thoughts and to calm my mind was to start going over the plot of my latest book in my head, visualizing the characters as alive while I searched for ever better ways to tweak the plot. There is something so wonderful, so restful and so immediate about disappearing into my imagination in this way. As I concentrate on my characters and what they will do next, my whole mind calms. My body relaxes and my thoughts focus on a single track, bringing satisfaction, relief and, eventually, sleep. I don’t always remember what comes to me in those moments before I finally fall asleep, but I know they play an important role in making my books real when I sit down to write.
A few nights ago, it happened to me again — I had so many things to think about that, though I was physically tired, I was finding it hard to fall asleep. So I did what I have learned to do. I pulled up the latest Casey Jones plot in my mind and began meandering through it, enjoying the journey through a world that existed only in my head. But this time, something felt different. Disappearing into my story laid open a flash of memory so fresh it was as if it had happened to me only days ago. Suddenly, I was nine or ten years old, living in the rambling Victorian house on Park Drive in Raleigh, hidden away in a bedroom closet I had lined with pillows. With only a flashlight for illumination, I was carefully printing out my latest story on notebook paper, lost in my own world and completely oblivious to the world whirling around me.
That was when I felt it. That was when I got it.All my life, starting when I was very young and being brought up in a wonderfully chaotic yet frequently precarious-feeling childhood, I have escaped into my fiction when my need for order and control becomes too great to ignore. From those earliest stories, which brought me peace in a noisy, crowded family house… all the way through high school, with so much about myself and others not yet learned… and onward to college, where everything was so new and the possibilities so endless it was terrifying if you made the mistake of thinking about it… and onward to life in New York City… and then back to North Carolina and motherhood… and, now, to a far-too-full-to-handle-without-stress life: my characters and stories have always been there for me, as loyal as any friend or partner could ever be, allowing me to find peace in solitary worlds that are always waiting for me inside my mind.
It is not often that we learn something so important about ourselves. (I suppose we could more often, if we were paying closer attention, but like everyone else, I am often too busy living to reflect on my life.) It felt good to get to know another small corner of myself. It felt even better to know that there was something about me still unchanged from my childhood, still strong, still there to help me cope with a most-changed world.
But, most of all, knowing this about myself made me come to realize an even greater truth: writers are not born. Writers are made. For, oh, so very many reasons.