How do the voices speak?

Crowd of voices

Photo by Anton Kraev

David Napthine writes:-

My colleagues John Foxwell and Angela Woods recently conducted a survey with hundreds of writers (a follow up to one in 2014 at the Edinburgh International Book Festival). Framed within a precise methodology it has elicited fascinating insights into the role of “the voice” in writing. It is well worth reading.

On the other hand my approach is distinguished by a lack of rigorous methodology, its hallmark being a series of bald questions to provoke conversation.

I asked the question “how do the voices speak?” Writers have interpreted this in different ways (which is what I hoped for). For some, like C.H., the first indication that a voice is about to “speak” comes through sensation “like a breeze through my mind, a drift of ideas apparently randomly juxtaposed”. Then “the words jostle to be noticed, compel me to work with them”. In a similar vein R.C. describes “a trickle, an underground stream that disappears for a while before resurfacing” which at other times becomes a torrent to which “I have to surrender myself completely.” and “drown in their torrent”. These voices then become demanding and challenging “random fragments of characters, conversations, ideas, words and phrases.”

For FH “They speak quietly in volume but with an intensity that makes it hard to ignore them. It is a continuous urging.

Uncomfortable though the babble of voices may be they do seem to serve a purpose. They bully the writer to write. It’s almost as if these voices are crying out to be heard by others and they ‘use’ the writer to give them expression. There could be a more prosaic explanation. Writers need to write just as runners need to run and mothers need to mother. Writing is a part of who they are, their identity as people, so there exists a predisposition to be open to as much as possible so that they can be who they are.

Others do not talk of voice. SC:-

“In ‘Robinson Crusoe’ (I adapted this for radio) Defoe describes Crusoe as ignoring or obeying the dictates of his conscience – an inner feeling of rightness. I think my sense of ideas is akin to this notion. Not a voice as such but a feeling.”

This “inner feeling of rightness” finds echo with RH:-

“The sudden surprising thought/ feeling/conviction. I don’t call it a voice as I don’t hear anyone speak. But it has the clarity of a voice. It encourages a particular decision. It feels quite different from the usual more gradual process towards a decision.”

This idea of the “inner sense” that guides, be it conscience, conviction, or feeling, though not an auditory hallucination as such indicates, perhaps, a heightened consciousness that manifests when we are in a state of focused thought (creative or otherwise). The emergence of that feeling or sensation into the realm of interpretation and action has “the clarity of a voice” without it being a vocal presence

EP is very specific as to how the voices speak, distinguishing between poetry and other writing:-

“(the voices speak) like me, if it’s poetry, like a particular character if it’s prose, so depends on the gender and culture of the character. I wrote a novel in poems, many in first person voices of characters living in Byker, so teenage Geordie slang or Scottish nana or a refugee mother with broken English. I heard them all with their accents and vocabulary in my head.”

Here we have character voices, conjured by the imagination of the writer,  speaking clearly within that imaginary or fictional world. KF records the same experience:-

“The writing voices speak inside my head in the voice of a character.”

But as the statement implies she hears other voices and these “are outside me, around two to three feet away and from different positions and more than one voice.”

KF makes a very clear distinction between the two voice-hearing experiences with one being much more pleasant and bearable than the other. The writing voices are heard in, and in the vicinity of, the writing room whereas the others can be heard anywhere. The writing voices stop when KF has finished writing (or soon after) and has left the writing room. I pretend no answer to this but I wonder if the mental state a writer is in (e.g. in “the zone” or preparing to be in “the zone”) creates a framework of expectation that lets the voices speak.

For CP the experience of a voice speaking was vivid:-

“I saw the character in my house following me around as I did things, such as make myself coffee or check email. He spoke using the same voice as he does in the story, but unlike normally he addressed me directly. He speaks with a cultured accent, very much one of an Oxford Professor type. Measured, calm, which made it all the more shocking when he became irate, which didn’t happen until I said I wasn’t understanding some of his points. My characters don’t normally leave the story world, and he was in my world. It wasn’t frightening, but it was unsettling. I knew something different was happening and I had no idea why.”

This voice is very specific in its speaking. A product of the writer’s imagination, the character is so strong that it can step out of the storyworld and act in this world (1). The writer goes on to say that his conversation with the character began:-

After he held up a copy of the manuscript and said “We need to talk about this.” I felt it was my entering the room, as if it was my arrival that triggered the beginning of the conversation.

It is interesting to note that here the writer is still the initiator of the conversation and that it was triggered by a physical action. This phenomenon of the character stepping out of the storyworld is the subject of a significant study by project members (2).

As a counterpoint to all of the above I will leave you the words of BK:-

I don’t “hear” voices in my head.  I can just do dialogue in different voices.  I don’t know why.

 “I don’t know why” is perhaps an appropriate ending for this post


  1. Relationship of writer to character is explored in future post
  1. See for example “Uncharted features and dynamics of reading: Voices, characters, and crossing of experiences” by Ben Alderson-Day, Marco Bernini, Charles Fernyhough in


What the voices say


CurtainPhoto by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

David Napthine writes

The writer’s creative relationship with their “inner voices” is like living with a long-term partner. It changes with circumstances, mood and desire. It can be intimate, fractious, helpful and confusing. And like any long-term relationship it’s not always, if ever, thought about. So when asking writers’ blunt questions like “What do the voices say?” I’ve felt like that gossipy, nosy neighbour who wants to know the far end of a fart about your life. And then talks about it to all and sundry.

This is what the neighbours are up to.

Some writers have no “inner voice” as we might commonly understand it. The playwright SC said

The word “voices” feels wrong to me. It’s more a feeling, an instinct that pushes me in one direction rather than another. I don’t hear a voice or voices – I have ideas – some are summoned when I’m trying to think about ideas and some arrive unbidden…..

Whilst the scriptwriter BK was much more direct

I don’t really hear voices inside me at all. I am very deeply interested in how people speak and what they say, their rhythms, insecurities – everything about them. Whether it’s coincidence or not I don’t know, but both my sister and me are very good mimics. I seem to be able to know somehow how a character would be or what they would say in a certain situation – even the most awful people, men as well. I don’t know why I can do this.

I can understand this. Like them I’m primarily a scriptwriter and playwright and I wonder if that requires a specific relationship to our “inner voices”. Our characters are given over to actors and directors who then interrogate, discuss and dissect them, changing words and actions. The rehearsal room can be a brutal place for a writer as they see their characters change, even become strangers. Of course, it can also be a delight when creative collaboration allows our characters to grow and live. But does the very existence of the rehearsal room mean that playwrights (un)consciously distance themselves from the “inner voice”.

If the inner voice is prominent is it helpful? For RC the inner voices “tell me their story and how I should write it down. When they speak, I live in a parallel world. What if? What if? A constant echo.”

Likewise FH

“It is the voice’s story. I liken it to when sculpture’s say that they are simply freeing the statue from stone – the voices already exist, I just need to translate their story and their words from inner existence to outer reality, from my head to the page.”

There is clarity in this relationship but for others it’s not so straightforward. The poet CH:-

My inner voice tugs at me – washes up words, phrases, images and notions – sometimes when I’m focussed – at other times when I’m between sleep and waking or in a light sleep. It feels important to ‘net’ them and not let them float away.

When EP is writing poetry

“…sometimes words and lines or phrases just pop into my head, and repeat themselves, insisting they want to be heard/written down.

Now is there something in the poetic form that lends itself to this particular “vocal intrusion”? The poet searches for the right word and phrase that conforms to the chosen poetic structure. I should imagine this can be wearying so why not let that “inner voice” do the work? Maybe the “inner voice” is saying “it’s my job to do that” and enthusiastically goes ahead. Its enthusiasm is such, however, that it will insist on telling you whatever it has discovered irrespective of the time of day or what you are doing. This might explain why, when writing prose, EP has a different relationship

“…. they are characters in the novel and I’m thinking about them in a scene, I imagine where they are, what’s happened before and then I let them loose and see what they say, try and hear them talking to each other or themselves”

HG is a poet and actor. His inner voice will have a familiar ring to many

“Oh prime ‘Imposter syndrome’ territory here! “You’ll be lucky to get away with this, son” “What are you playing at, pretending you have anything worth hearing?” and worst of all “Stop showing off!” I think it’s definitely working-class linked! I lost count of the amount of times I was shut up as a kid with “Stop showing off!” or “Don’t get ideas above your station”. This stuff sticks.” 

An undermining voice, one that has the potential to disrupt, even destroy, creativity, illustrates that what the inner voice/narrative says and how it speaks can be shaped by the cultural and social milieu of the individual, framing their view of themselves and limiting their expectations. Dealing with that inner voice requires persistence, even courage.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018. Part 1

David Napthine writes

Writers’ Inner Voices were at this year’s festival along with all those other writers, in and out of the yurt, with their own (sometimes inner) voices jumbling away. Our workshops took place in one half of the Festival Bookshop on George Street. It was safe there. Venture out into the city beyond and you’d return knackered from side-stepping avid pursuers of cultural encounters hunting in packs.

Did I say George Street? One workshop took place here.



HMP SHOTTS is a maximum security prison in the unprepossessing Lanarkshire countryside and a million fish suppers from The People’s Friend and Monarch of the Glen. There a bunch of blokes you’d pass by in the street gathered for a writing workshop. There were questions and banter. And then stories. In one, a man wakes up in a graveyard, tired and hungover. His first thought is “Oh no, not again”. So we talked about where the story can go from this point and I mentioned how writers often use classic story structures (e.g. folktales and myths). I asked them to choose a folk tale to frame this story. They chose Snow White. So now the man in the graveyard with a remorseful hangover was now a Snow White. Where are the seven dwarfs someone asked? An anarchic riff discovered that Happy had scored and Grumpy had piles. I asked them to imagine our Snow White hearing a voice. What does the voice say? It says “it’s happening again, isn’t it?” But who does the voice belong to? They each tried different ways of saying the words out loud and the character changed accordingly – a polis, a social worker, Doc, Rumpelstiltskin who had wandered in from a different story. Then someone spoke the words quietly and the voice moved into Snow White’s head. And it didn’t bode well.

The character’s voice is the totality of that voice; it is the when and where, the pitch and the tone, the speed and the volume. So when participants read the same character’s words out loud but with a different emphasis on any of the above, it changed our understanding of that character.

Playwrights know this. They have the voice of a character in their head. Then the actor employs different expressive values that can usurp the story. Sometimes this (interpretation of the text) is supported by the Director. At that point the writer and their voices are diminished. That can be fine. The writer doesn’t always know what they have written, its value and its intention, and insights of colleagues can prevent an unfortunate production. At other times it can make for a very emotionally messy rehearsal room where far from any voices being diminished or disappearing, more voices appear speaking louder and often at the same time. In that cacophony, where some sort of compromise has to emerge before the opening night, the writer’s (inner) is lost. And I often wonder what the consequences are.


Are writing workshops about writing or story? Perhaps the word “writing” makes us think about the mechanics – format, structure, getting published, handy hints etc. whereas “story” is about imagination and creating a relationship with the reader/listener. So with a workshop entitled “creating a character map” what would you expect? This is what you got.

Edin 2

We ran interactive workshops entitled “creating a character map” with children and with teachers (separate workshops) using maps, dice, and playing cards to create a story-world and characters, and placing the character within that story-world to illustrate how characters evolve through their encounters and experiences within that story-world. Such playful techniques develop the imagination by breaking the fear of the blank page (and how to begin writing), the technical expectations (e.g. spelling and grammar), underdeveloped motor skills (particularly with young children) that can block any creative flow. Out of the random and discursive, the visual jottings and jostling thoughts, story and characters emerge. These can then be fashioned into a finished work and in that re-writing (where “writing” builds upon “story”) the writer develops an intimacy with both the story-world and the characters. It is that intimacy, emerging from the random and shaped into the coherent, that lets the reader in.

Now Mary had found a company in Barcelona that produced blank maps that can be folded down like a street map and put in your pocket. I was impressed. So were the participants who happily drew the their story-world on these maps then took them away to continue at home or with their friends, or in school with their pupils. Perhaps the success of the workshop can be seen in this desire to continue, do more, and share with others.

Story Map 2



From David Napthine


Photo by Wenni Zhou

John Foxwell and I have been exploring Writers’ Inner Voices with a variety of writers groups. We have been struck by their spirit of enquiry, their willingness to experiment and share individual and collective discoveries, and the interest they have in the phenomenon and its implications for the individual, for writing, and for society; all this plus tea, coffee, cake and biscuits. We have taken away from each group valuable insights into Writers’ Inner Voices which are finding their way into our work.

At the end of each session we have asked the writers if they would be willing to creatively respond to the following questions; What do the voices say? How do the voices speak? Who do the voices belong to? When do you hear the voices? Where do you hear the voices?

We begin with two contributions from members of the U3A (University of the Third Age) writers group in Ashington, Northumberland with more to follow in subsequent posts.



Maria Nelson Langford

Voices?  You bet I hear them – some days quiet, restrained yet insistent, other days loud, peremptory, demanding. I tell them to shut up, leave me alone. But they don’t listen, just keep following me around, poking, prodding.  Today I’m planning to complete my story “The Island” and sit down after breakfast, focused, determined.

The telephone shrills. My concentration is immediately broken. A friend tells me she’s teaching her granddaughter to knit but the child is experiencing all kinds of unimaginable difficulties. So what? I’ve other things requiring my attention. Even before I replace the phone I hear a voice gurgling with mirth –

“Little Ellie knitting

in red and blue and white,

pokes the needle up her nose,

gives herself a fright.

Next she knitted in her hair

which was long and curly.

Knitters moral “Just beware

of all that’s plain and purly.”

I don’t want this rubbish I tell the voice.  I’m trying to write something serious.  Just go away. Leave me in peace. But it doesn’t.  It’s suddenly joined by others and my day takes a completely different turn.  I’m scribbling the stupidest things on scraps of paper everywhere – I can’t seem to stop.

The merest sight, smell, sound, taste of something sets it off.  Already there’s been a crocodile with a toothy smile, a hedgehog like a pincushion, a bigamist major, millipedes wearing shoes, my great aunt’s legacy, a man walking upside down, an army chasing Martians and a multitude of others – all complete and utter nonsense. Where the heck’s it all coming from?  I’m at it all day spewing it out.

“The Island” lies in the middle of the ocean, deserted.

I’m frustrated, irritated, by the end of the afternoon running out of energy fighting voices. In the kitchen I start to prepare dinner.  Reaching into the fridge for strawberries – oh! no – there’s another voice –

“Little Tommy picking strawberries

picks five pounds and consumes four,

cycles home with all his booty

vomits on the bathroom floor.

Tommie’s mum complains “Oh Tommy

couldn’t you have reached the sink?”

Tom defiant, tells her proudly

“Bet you’ve not seen puke this pink.”

Look, I scream at the voice, you are driving me mad, round the bend; all my screws are coming loose. I don’t want this nonsense; it’s not even remotely clever.  It’s embarrassing, humiliating. I’m a serious writer not a clown.

“Maybe too serious?” asks the voice. “perhaps it would be good to lighten things up once in a while.”

“What? – with garbage?” I counter. But there’s no reply.

I stroll along the beach seeking calm, watch oystercatchers, idly examine shells, listen to the sea.   The sun has gone, as though pulled by an unseen hand to the far side of the world.  Light is fading, colours muted.  Birds are silenced.  It’s enchanting, magical.  I climb the dunes above the shore.

I stand on the edge of twilight,

watching and listening –

listening to the sea sounds,

the constant rustle and whisper

and the far waves distant thunder,

watching for the first pale star

to pierce the darkening fabric of the sky –

watching and listening

for this is the magic hour.

I return home quiet, serene – voices like the birds, temporarily silenced. Not even a whisper.

Somewhere in the East another morning is waiting.  So is “The Island.”


The Voice

Betty Davis

I awoke startled, but why? Then I heard a voice saying, ‘get out’ in an odd metallic sound. Was this real or imagined? Was it perhaps from some story I had been reading?

What should I do? I live in a sheltered housing building where we each have our own apartment and we are advised to stay put in cases of emergency, (just like Grenfell!)

I got up, put on my dressing gown and slippers, looked out of the window but saw no signs of anything untoward. I picked up my handbag and moved towards the door still with a voice ringing in my head saying, ‘get out, get out!’

In the corridor everything was eerily quiet but still I had the urge to obey. The lift wasn’t working which was a warning sign but still I was on my own.

I made my way downstairs and to the front door. Should I stay in or go out? Did someone want me out of my flat for some reason? Was someone playing a joke on me? Had my snoring kept my neighbour awake and this was his revenge on me?

I went and stood outside for a while but it was freezing cold. The voice had stopped! I went back inside and into the warmth of my flat. I got back into bed and a voice within me said “Do you always do as you are told, even when you are sleep walking!”




The Writer and The Estate Agent

Man and woman.jpg

David Napthine writes:-

Writers I’ve talked to about ‘Inner Voices’ have been very generous; willing to disclose their experiences, their understanding of the phenomenon, and how, if at all, it informs their work. They might not have thought much about the questions I have asked, they may even have been irritated by them, but they have not inferred/assumed that I am questioning their sanity.

Yet it is held by many that there is a link between madness and creativity. I’m not entirely convinced though stories abound of writers battling mental ill-health though whether such a condition is a necessary prerequisite to creative endeavour is debatable.

I do think, however, that there is an expectation within our cultural framework (established and nurtured by anecdote, reportage, output, biography, autobiography and by writers themselves) that writers should see and experience things differently because they are creative.

“So you’re a writer?”


“And you hear voices?”


“So you should”


“So you’re an Estate Agent?”


“And you hear voices?”


“You need help”

The writer is “allowed” to hear voices, feel presences, be depressed, and exhibit behaviour that does not conform to the norm. This is not to dismiss those writers who experience mental distress but to argue that different social and occupational groupings have different levels of acceptance of these phenomena. As important, the writer is expected to express their inner world, use it in their writing to enlighten and entertain (which can be both therapeutic and joyful). The Estate Agent cannot, must not, and dare not express their inner world if that inner world is beset by ill-health. There is no opportunity for their everyday world will not accept it

The expectation/acceptance that writers are “different” arises not because of what they write but because they write. It is in that messy and shadowy world in which the writer lives as they begin to write, glimpse a scene, create character, develop story, grasp for description and slowly take up residence in The Idea, that voices may speak, shout, mumble and whisper, that they start to feel and sense the story emerge from the half-light, “see” what they’re writing about, and begin to understand who they are. And as the writing continues the writer invents and re-frames, lives with nuance, ambiguity, diversion, getting lost and that uncertain exploration of the emotions and states that creative writing generates.

If the estate agent was allowed to do this – live and write in that unstructured and half-understood world, write as they will, scribble and scrawl, mutter and pace, search and meander – they too would gain a greater understanding of who they are. They would have licence to talk to their voices, live with their visions, hang out with their feelings, troubled or not.  There does not have to be an ending – a daily journal, an article, a recovery story or whatever – only the “writer” is obliged to edit, re-structure, and present a coherent finished work.

So is there a link between “madness” and creativity? The writer is “allowed” to explore emotional states, the dark and the light, the unbidden and the unknown. That is not “mad” that is being human and alive to who you are. Let the estate agent do the same but with no demand to produce something. No finished story, no structured narrative. For it is the act, not the subject matter, of writing that is important.


Paper People – How Writers (and Readers) Create Characters

paper dolls

Jennifer Hodgson writes:

The students I teach, although very able literary critics, sometimes need reminding that the characters in the books that they are interpreting are not, in fact, real people. It’s very easily done. Even the most sophisticated reader, when faced with the vivid and oversized inhabitants of fictional worlds, can easily become, as William H. Gass puts it a little bluntly  in his essay “The Concept of Character in Fiction” (1971), a ‘gullible and superstitious clot’.

We are all apt to forget at times that the startling likeness between fictional characters and human beings is only analogous – that these are paper people, not real ones. ‘Fiction’s fruit survives its handling and continues growing off the tree’, writes Gass. Where the text is silent we nonetheless attempt to infer characters’ histories, speculate upon their motivations, diagnose precisely what it is that ails them. In the margins of my students’ essays I scribble the occasional reminder that characters are merely assemblages of words with human shape. Gass, no doubt, would do similarly. He writes that ‘nothing whatever that is appropriate to persons can be correctly said’ of characters.

But nonetheless characters persist in exerting their peculiar affective power upon us. We cannot resist making moral judgements of them, identifying with them – even writing new stories, fan fictions, to explore their existence beyond the original text from which they sprung. Characters, then, cannot be real, but they most certainly can be ‘real’. This is, of course, how fiction works: by building worlds and birthing people that we know to be false but temporarily accept as ‘true’. And so, whilst I’ll continue to steer my students towards only attending to what’s actually there in the text, the means by which what’s actually there in the text produces such a powerful imaginative response in readers, and how writers create such effects, is certainly worth thinking through.

Our study indicates that writers themselves share the illusion. Just as through reading we feel we come to ‘know’ people who momentarily seem ‘real’, many of the authors we interviewed spoke of the writing of characters not as a process of creating them but becoming acquainted with them through language. One writer detailed how she ‘writes into’ a character, likening the experience to ‘getting to know a friend’. Another spoke of their characters as being ‘like someone you know well’, saying he is ‘conscious of them as real people’. They commented too on the importance of characters feeling alive and autonomous. The vast majority described the success of their characters as being dependent upon how ‘real’ they feel: ‘I’ve got to build the character strong enough that the character feels real enough’, one commented.

Readers’ strange intimacies with fictional characters are not surprising. After all, through the novelistic depictions of their lives we come to know characters so well – better than we know one another, certainly, and perhaps better than we know ourselves. Novels have the special capacity to reveal what is impossible to know in real life: the unspoken perceptions, thoughts and feelings of another. For many critics, this paradox is what constitutes the distinctiveness of fiction. They argue that it is fiction’s facility to create these bloodless beings that nonetheless appear to be richly delineated and psychologically coherent individuals that makes the form so compellingly lifelike. E.M. Forster’s famous distinction between ‘round’ characters (complex, with psychological depth, capable of transformation) and those that are ‘flat’ (archetypal, caricatured, expressive only of a single idea) is still influential. In their recent book The Good of the Novel (2011), Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan argue that ‘[n]ovelistic truth… has to do with character’ and ‘the novel’s key strength is the disclosure of interiority’. For Forster a mixture of the two is necessary for fiction – Dickens is only a ‘good but imperfect’ writer because of what Forster sees as his overuse of characters that tend towards the flat.

Interestingly enough, his distinction is borne out by our study. There were marked differences in how the novelists we interviewed experienced their primary and secondary characters. The vast majority of the writers we interviewed said they experience their protagonists as having a complex interior life and in some cases a rich existence beyond the specificities of the plot in which they find themselves. Secondary characters, however, tend to develop more pragmatically, coalescing as and when necessary to the thrust of the narrative and were generally only experienced visually.

Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that throughout literary history, many writers have sought to develop alternative versions of personhood in fiction. The idea that with literary modernism came a new conception of the self not as unified and integral but centreless, fragmentary and dispersed is a familiar one. But the long history of the novel is awash with ‘flat’ characters who challenge conventional conceptions about what it is to be a self, as this recent article in the New Yorker explores. Some of the most interesting contemporary writing presents a vision of selfhood as affectless and opaque, totally devoid of essence, presence or unity. Recent notable examples include Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005), Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (2014) and Teju Cole’s Open City (2011).

Many of the innovative writers of the mid-twentieth-century were especially eager to debunk the notion of the ‘rounded’ character and, by extension, the illusion they perceived fiction as propagating that another human being could ever really be known. In the novels from this period by authors like Elizabeth Bowen, Henry Green, William Sansom, Muriel Spark and Ivy Compton Burnett characters are indefinable, inexistent, centreless husks of people. Spark’s brilliant ur-metafiction, The Comforters (1957), is a prime example. In the novel, the main character, Caroline, ‘hears’ a typing ghost composing the action of the novel as she lives it and one minor character, Mrs Hogg, simply disappears upon fulfilling her function. To underline the point, one-third of the way through the book Spark issues the following disclaimer: ‘at this point in the narrative, it might be as well to state that the characters in this novel are all fictitious, and do not refer to any living persons whatsoever’. Compton-Burnett, another writer who resolutely refused to invite readers into the consciousnesses of her characters, issued a similar caveat when reflecting upon her own novels:

People in life hardly seem to be definite enough to appear in print… I believe that we know much less of each other than we think, that it would be a great shock to find oneself suddenly behind another person’s eyes. The things we think we know about each other, we often imagine and read in.

Writers such as these take great pains make the make the boundaries between fiction and life absolutely clear. Many of them argue that by doing so they offer a more lifelike rendition of what it is to be a self. For others, however, it is this rendering of the inner life that at once sets narrative prose apart from reality whilst providing a portal via which readers can immerse themselves in fictional worlds. For just as fiction makes imaginary people seem alive and vital, so too it makes those worlds seem solid and somehow ‘real’.

Elaine Scarry’s study of the literary imagination, Dreaming by the Book (2001), explores the techniques novelists use to set forth and substantiate the worlds of fiction. In the book she argues that writers of narrative prose vivify the images of the imagination by mimicking the structures of perception – how and why the objects of the real world look, sound and feel the way that they do. Fiction, Scarry argues, is a set of instructions for imagining a world. And as such, its capacity to reflect the inner life is crucial. Novels invite their readers not just to imagine a world, but to imagine what it is like to experience it. In fiction, there is always someone through whom the world is perceived, someone who holds the point of view – although it’s worth reminding ourselves that this needn’t be the same as the person doing the narrating.

Our study indicates that a kind of empathic throwing of the imagination plays an important role in creating this lens through which a story is communicated. The majority of the writers we interviewed said that they have the sense of inhabiting the interior world of their protagonists and ‘looking out through their eyes’. One writer commented that experiencing their character was like ‘wriggling down inside them’ and ‘thinking how would this feel?’ Another said of a particular character ‘she was not an external person that I could see, I would have a hard time describing her. I had a visual sense of absolutely everything else, the landscape, the other characters, but not her because I was inside her.’ For one the process is ‘like I’m sort of writing in her head… just behind her eyes or something, or I’m up in her head so I can hear her voice’.


Jennifer Hodgson writes:

Flow is that pleasurable state of complete absorption in the task at hand. It’s a kind of deep focus, where all else falls away, the mind stops its wondering, and you become fully engaged in what you are doing. Time flies when you’re experiencing flow; other concerns – even bodily needs – lapse, self-consciousness breaks and every thought and action seems to unfurl effortlessly, one after the other.

Sportspeople refer to it as being “in the zone”, characterising the experience as one of optimum athletic performance: a string of perfect passes, or the uncanny ability to find oneself in exactly the right place at the right time on the sports field. But such experiences are not only confined to athletic endeavour.

For the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the term in the 1970s to flowdescribe an experience that has existed under various names throughout history, flow is universal and a crucial part of human happiness. Anyone can experience flow, he argues, given a task that is sufficiently engaging – challenging but still just about achievable. Most of us will have had experiences of flow, be it whilst running, dancing, playing chess, reading or being engrossed in our work.

Flow is intimately associated with the creative process. Of course, the stereotype of the otherworldly ‘creative genius’, oblivious to all but their muse, is a familiar one. But describing exactly how it feels to experience flow is a trickier matter. During it, our sense of self-awareness is lost and when it stops, it can be difficult to reconstitute exactly how it felt. With this in mind, who better to ask what flow feels like than a group of people well-versed in putting into words those aspects of our experience that seem to defy easy description: writers.

Here are comments on what it feels like to experience flow from several of the authors taking part in our study:

This writer reports feeling at once lost in the task of writing but also very much ‘present’ and ‘grounded’:

For me, it always feels completely normal… I don’t mean it’s coming out all perfect and everything’s all wonderful, you know, there’s stuff there and it’s coming out, and I’m in that presence and I’m in that character. It feels a very present thing to be and to do… There’s the consciousness, there’s this thing that you’re in it and you’re doing it, and in one sense you’re lost in it, but in the other sense it’s entirely, there’s a consciousness… You don’t feel, for example, kind of spaced out in any way, or that sort of a thing, I always feel really quite grounded. In fact, you know, very, in my own body actually.

This one speaks of the loss of self-awareness:

You’re absent from yourself. If you’re actually writing – rather than researching or lolloping around or thinking – you’re absent from yourself. You don’t have the usual interior drone. You’re not physically aware of yourself. You’re in the zone, if you’re a sportsman.

This writer describes the experience of flow as like donning ‘mental blinkers’:

It’s like being somewhere else… It’s almost as if somebody puts blinkers on me, sort of mental blinkers, and I am watching what’s going on.

This one uses music to try to create the optimum conditions for flow. They know they’ve experienced it when the songs have changed and they haven’t noticed:

Well sometimes you sit with a piece of paper and nothing comes, and nothing comes and nothing comes. And then if there’s a bit of a breakthrough… and suddenly you forget you’re writing. I always have music on in the background when I’m writing, and I’ve purposely got a stereo that I can get three of four CDs in at one, and spend half the morning choosing what order they come in. But if I press play at the beginning and then it goes through and I haven’t noticed the changing of songs, I haven’t noticed the changing of CDs, and suddenly it’s silence in the room, and I’ve produced a couple of pages, then that’s when yes this has worked. It’s flowing, it doesn’t feel like hard work, it doesn’t feel like a struggle.

This writer reports not feeling conscious of bodily needs or time during flow. And interestingly also comments that flow brings with it a kind of optimum creativity:

It’s very hard to know because you do go into a sort of zone when you’re not really terribly conscious of what you’re doing. You don’t feel hunger, you don’t feel thirst, you don’t know what time it is, and you’re in that zone and something’s triggered it off. And that might take weeks, it might take years, and when it happens (clicks fingers), it flows, and the best poems actually need very little revision.

Finally, this writer speaks of the pleasures of flow – and how it motivates them to embark on the difficult task of writing:

There are times when I get into flow, that wonderful feeling, and I think that must be the motivator. Sometimes it feels like a hard slog, it’s like going out for a run or something. I want to drool in front of the television; I’m too tired, blah, blah, blah. But once you get into it, it’s intrinsically satisfying.

So every time you sit down to write, there is a possibility that it’s going to give up its magic to you. Now it doesn’t always, but you always know there’s a possibility there that it will.

Writers on Writing: Susan Sontag

sontagSusan Sontag would have been something of a dream subject for our study. Luckily, her diaries record her fascinating and intimate reflections upon the origins of literary creativity and the writing life. Here, Jennifer Hodgson explores just a few of her insights.

Susan Sontag was one of the leading intellectuals of the twentieth century, but is perhaps better known for her celebrated essays than for her fiction writing, which includes the novels The Benefactor (1963), Death Kit (1967), the best-selling The Volcano Lover (1992) and In America (2000).

Her diaries, however, reveal that Sontag’s abiding literary ambitions eclipsed her myriad achievements in criticism. ‘[B]eing a novelist’ was her ambition ‘even when she was writing her best essays’ notes her son, David Rieff, in his preface to the second volume, published by Penguin under the name As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh (2012).

In Sontag’s “The Art of Fiction” interview with The Paris Review in 1995 she comments that ‘fiction is freedom’ as opposed to the ‘constrained form’ of the essay:

Freedom to tell stories and freedom to be discursive, too. But essayistic discursiveness, in the context of fiction, has an entirely different meaning. It is always voiced.

Perhaps Sontag’s abiding attraction to prose narrative was something to do with the opportunity it offered her to temporarily cast off her well-honed critical voice and adopt the voices of others. ‘Imagination,’ she writes in the diaries, is to do with ‘having many voices in one’s head. The freedom for that.’

As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh is a fascinating document of the swirl and eddy of Sontag’s thought, containing within it the ad hoc aphorisms, aides-memoires and reading notes that were later to coalesce into era-defining essays such as “Notes on Camp” (1964), “On Style” (1965) and “The Pornographic Imagination” (1967). And, as we might expect, her insights about the act of literary creation are vital too.

For Sontag, as for many of the writers who took part in our study, the experience of writing is an elusive one which troubles ordinary conceptions about individual autonomy and agency. Of the writing process she comments:

I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.

I experience the writing as given to me – sometimes almost as dictated. I let it come, try not to interfere with it. I respect it, because it’s me and yet more that me. It’s personal and transpersonal, both.

She also reflects upon the quality of this unusual experience. Echoing some of the writers we’ve spoken to, she locates the origins of her creative writing with what she calls a “tone” which, during the writing process, begins to frame other aspects of her experience:

I’m not looking for a plot – I’m looking for a “tone”, a “color”, and the rest will follow… I know I “have” a story when the form (tone) comes, and everything seems relevant to it.

However, whilst almost all of the writers we interviewed reported overwhelmingly positive responses to this aspect of the creative process, Sontag is more ambivalent. The quote below reveals that she was by no means an altogether willing servant of her muse. She insists that that origins of her creative energies lie not with inspiration – as traditional conceptions of creativity would have it – but with what she calls “visitation”. The distinction is an interesting one. Both connote a kind of influence that seems to be received from an external source. But inspiration, of course, tends to describe a divine force that is willingly assimilated, whereas the term Sontag chooses, “visitation”, means something rather different – more officious, less benign. In the quote, she figures herself as a kind of dutiful worker busied at the production line of creativity:

Four days a year perhaps I have “visits” – things come. Visitations rather than inspirations. I live the rest of the year on that – executing the orders & sketches I’ve taken down… I turn myself into a commodity. The typewriter is my assembly-line. But what else could I do?

Although, like many of the writers in our study, Sontag conceives of creativity as having an external origin, this doesn’t make her role as a writer easy. There’s no sense here of writerly endeavour as a kind of effortless channelling. She comments memorably upon the difficulties associated with the business of encasing thoughts in words and writing them down:

Writing is a little door. Some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won’t come through.

Elsewhere she notes of a bad day at the writing desk:

Two good days of work on the story, much material, vivid associations, crowds of details. But the writing doesn’t pour. It’s too laborious, too constructed.

As is so often the case with the private writing that we address to ourselves, at times Sontag’s diaries are self-admonishing. They contain several examples of the rules that writers are apt to impose on themselves in the attempt to discipline a pursuit that is difficult and ephemeral in equal measure:

I will get up every morning no later than eight.
(I can break this rule once a week.)
I will have lunch only with Roger [Straus].
(”No, I don’t go out for lunch.” Can break this rule once every two weeks.)
I will write in the Notebook every day.
(Model: Lichtenberg’s Waste Books.)
I will tell people not to call in the morning or not answer the phone.
I will try to confine my reading to the evening.
(I read too much – as an escape from writing.)

Quotations from Susan Sontag, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Diaries 1964-1980, ed. David Rieff (London: Penguin, 2012)

What does your inner voice sound like?

Jennifer Hodgson writes:

Try it for yourself: stop what you’re doing and try to listen in to the mind’s ear. What can you hear? Indeed, are you hearing at all? Can you say, definitively, that your inner voice sounds in the sense that we usually understand it? If not, how are you perceiving what it is that you’re experiencing? Now try to describe this inner voice. Are you able to put into words what it feels like to “tune in” to the voice you hear in your head – if, indeed, you are hearing it at all?

If you’re having trouble, you’re in excellent company. The poet and critic Denise Riley describes the process of “tuning in” to the inner voice like this:

If I swing my attention onto my inner speech, I’m aware of it sounding in a very thin version of my own tone of voice. I catch myself in its silent sound, a paradox audible only to me. We don’t, though, seem to have much of a vocabulary, an odd lack, for this everyday sensation. On what, then, does my conviction of the tonality of my inward voice depend? Do I have a sort of inner ear designed to pick up this voice which owns nothing by way of articulation? For I can detect my usual accents and the timbre of my voice as soon as I try to overhear myself by trapping the faint sonority of my inner words. But they are audible, if that’s the adjective, only in a depleted form which keeps some faint colouration but is far less resonant in the ear than when I’m speaking aloud… It’s as if an inner ear is alert to my inner voice, although what happens isn’t exactly an instance of hearing my own voice speaking. So when I think I can overhear my own inner speech, what do I mean? […] Is it more of an ear-voice, which detects it at the same time as it issues it? But I do have the feeling of hearing something, in the same way that I can run a tune audibly through my head, yet without humming it even silently. Or I want to say that I “hear” it; there’s not an exact verb for this peculiar kind of hearing something which isn’t actually sounded, and which evades any measurement of articulation. Yet a kind of hearing it surely is.

From Denise Riley, “A Voice Without A Mouth,” Qui Parle, Vol 14, No. 2 (Spring/Summer 2004), pp. 57-104.

The inner voice is a very common aspect of most of our lives. Although a small minority of people claim never to experience it, the vast majority of us are very familiar with the clamour of voices that make up the mind’s chatter. At any one time, that voice may be distinctly your own: rehearsing a dreaded talk with your boss, or chastising yourself for forgetting an important appointment. But you might just as easily recognise it as the voice of a parent, a celebrity, an old friend or a much-loved schoolteacher. Such self-talk is an example of what philosophers and psychologists call “mental imagery”, an experience which resembles a perceptual experience but lacks any source of sensory input. As Riley comments in the quote above, despite our familiarity with what we might call “hearing in the head”, there are far more ways of talking about visual experiences of this kind than there are auditory ones – hence why we use the term “imagery” to denote the broad gamut of “quasi-sensory” experiences that occur in our minds.

We talk of “picturing in our mind’s eye” for example, or of “visualising”, or of “having an image in our head”. But beyond the auditory experiences with which we are specifically concerned here, it is very likely that similar experiences in other sensory modes (or, indeed, combinations thereof) are just as common: motor imagery, haptic imagery and olfactory imagery, for example.

This notion that we far more commonly speak of what we see with our mind’s eye than of what we hear with our mind’s ear provided the jumping off point for last week’s meeting of the Hearing the Voice project’s Voice Club. Sam Wilkinson provided a philosophical take on the ways in which perceptual imagery of this kind can constitute and enhance our thinking, whilst Patricia Waugh turned to literary representations of mental imagery in the work of Proust, Woolf and Henry Green. (You can read more about Voice Club here.)

Pinning down precisely the nature and function of auditory mental imagery has long been the subject of debates amongst philosophers, psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists. And this challenge of knowing what we mean when we talk about our inner voices also arose during our interviews with writers at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last year. We asked them the same questions we posed to you at the top of this blog post. And it seems that describing exactly what their inner voices sounded like (if indeed they sounded at all) and how it felt to experience them taxed even veteran writer’s well-honed powers of description.

Here’s a sample of their responses:

This writer doubts whether the “thought voice” is verbal at all. Perhaps, they ponder, the content of the mind only becomes encased in words when we attend to it:

1. I think it’s just a thought voice.  A voice of thought; it’s not a voice of words.  I suppose, when you pay attention to it, I suppose it’s a bit like mediation in a way, you focus on something.  You focus and then the words come.  So it’s almost like the old days when you used to develop photographs in a dark room and the image would emerge, it’s like that.

This one insists that in general they don’t have an inner voice, but then modifies their first comment to explain that their inner voice is not a discordant one. They also describe “hearing” the voices of their loved ones:

2. I don’t have an inner voice. My inner voice is not at all different from my outer voice. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking x and saying y. I will occasionally hear the voice of one of my late parents, or a teacher I was very close to.

For this writer, the inner voice “doesn’t sound like anything”. Its quality seems to lie somewhere between “hearing” and “seeing”:

3. This is very odd; in a weird kind of way it doesn’t sound at all… I’m saying I’m hearing a voice but I can’t actually tell you what it sounds like.  And if you pushed me on that I’d probably say it doesn’t sound like anything, it doesn’t actually sound like I’m hearing but I am hearing it.  It’s like it’s a silent voice, but it’s not like I’m seeing text, so there’s something going on.  But it’s not, I’m hearing it rather than seeing it, but I’m not actually hearing a definite loud voice.  That’s about the only way I can describe it…

This writer invokes the observer effect to describe why the inner voice is so elusive:

4. Does it speak in complete sentences?  I have no idea… I never even think about it. And even now I couldn’t tell you, even though I’ve been asked the question because I think thinking about it changes it.  So, I can’t say.

And finally, this writer describes the kind of inner voice that is probably familiar to many of us:

5. I don’t know… It is a really hard question to answer.  I mean I have a really rich inner life all the time… I think the days that I just don’t ever talk to myself are kind of wasted days… I am talking to myself all the time, and sometimes all that mundane stuff, just I have to check my email or I wonder are the kids up, or what time does Tesco close, you know.

To find out more about the Writers’ Inner Voices Study, please click here.

Writers’ Inner Voices in the media

Jennifer Hodgson writes:

One of the most rewarding aspects of working on the Writers’ Inner Voices study has been how our work on inner voice and literary creativity seems to have captured people’s imaginations. Both readers and writers alike have responded with great interest to our exploration of this rather mysterious aspect of the writing process. So we’re delighted to draw readers’ attention to two recent appearances of our research in the media, where they can find out more about our findings.

Open Book on BBC Radio 4

We were delighted to be invited to appear on the latest edition of BBC Radio 4’s Open Book, in which host Mariella Frostrup interviews our researcher Jennifer Hodgson about the study’s findings. Taking a closer look at the ways in which writers experience the characters that they create, they discussed how critical hearing the voices of characters is to the writing process – many writers have told us they can’t write without it.

The programme is available to stream or download here, and you can listen to our segment here

Mslexia magazine

In the spring issue of Mslexia magazine Jennifer Hodgson explores the interplay of inner voice and the literary imagination in the context of our fascination with writers’ lives, habits and creative rituals. In the article, she examines the complex and various ways in which writers experience the voices of their characters, the impact this has on the writing process and the creative strategies writers develop to tune back in when their inner voice goes silent. There are quotes and anecdotes from the writers themselves, together with insights into exactly what it was like to interview 25 representatives of the great and the good of literary culture about the most intimate and unusual aspects of their writing life last year during the Edinburgh International Festival.

Mslexia is available now in newsagents.