Deciphering old dreams, gaining insight and why keeping a dream journal is a good idea.

Deciphering old dreams, gaining insight and why keeping a dream journal is a good idea.

I’m a bit of a believer in dreams being the way many things (including our own unconscious) can communicate with us, but rather often the meaning is harder to fathom.

I’m not talking about those random replay dreams, where the recent past is rehashed, or those anxiety dreams where we play out our fears.

I’m talking about the dreams that seem to have no foothold in the usual run of dreams. They’re often the ones we remember when we wake, and often, they haunt us for days, or even years afterwards.

The following is a dream I recorded early in 2009, pre-dating the start of this blog by perhaps a week or two.

I dreamed I was travelling down a river, towards my home. I don’t live near a river, and never have lived close enough to one to the scenario I knew was true in the dream, that my home was only a very short distance from the water. In real life, I’d never chose to live so close to a body of water that can be so temperamental, but in the dream I accepted this as normal reality.

Until, that is, I rounded the corner of the river-bend and where I had expected to find a short stretch of water and my home a little way beyond it, the whole topography had changed. The river had become a dead end, a lagoon of cloudy water, almost like a T junction. I could go no further, unless I took to the water, and even then, I couldn’t see my home at all. The water swirled, like flood waters, full of eddies and a milky wash of clay from the fields, and I knew it to be deep and dangerous.

I turned to the left hand side, where the arm of the T led me and found that as well as the work to change the course of the river, work was in progress to build a footpath through what were fast becoming marshes. Brand new duck-boards had been laid across the mud, and a new bridge, all resinous with fresh pine and larch, ended near the duck-boards, the steps rising to greet me. As I approached, a woman came down the bridge steps and told me, “They haven’t finished it yet, you can’t get through that way,” and encouraged me to try and follow where the duck-boards led me. I couldn’t see where the new path led, but I climbed over the foot of the bridge and began to try and follow the wooden path.

By this stage I was feeling very frustrated that I couldn’t get home and angry that “they” had changed the route without giving me either warning of the work or any alternative route to my home. The woman had vanished and I was alone again, standing below the bridge, unable to either see where to go or make a single step forward because the duck-boards had given way to thick sticky mud and no path was visible at all.

Revisiting this dream in the light of where I was at that point in my life in 2009 is curious. I’d reached a point of stasis, stagnation even in my creative life. I was still writing but not able to share my work with anyone. I’d not even considered blogging, or self-publishing. I was, I think, still submitting the odd manuscript to publishers. But everything had reached a dead-end. I’d been asked by an editor at Random House to put together a proposal for a book about the decline of the Church of England, and had submitted the proposal only to have it rejected. I’d tried one last time to get my agent to respond to a letter. Nothing was working; I was stuck. Looking back, I can see it was a bleak time. I was working under someone who hated me, and that looked like it’d never change.

Looking at it now, I wonder if perhaps I was subconsciously responding to the changing face of publishing, picked up here and there, and seeing that it was being prepared but was not quite ready. The way through the marshes was being built but was incomplete. I did not begin my journey until more than a year after the dream and even then, it was like wading through thick mud to launch a book. I had hoped I had found a partner to work with but a year on, that died a death. I was effectively left alone in the marshes, unable to proceed till I had processed that grief.

Yet, having this record of my dream is powerful. I can analyse it with more skill as I revisit it. This is a dream I had in February of this year:

I am on my knees trying to dust/polish the skirting boards, but am having to do it very carefully. There are a number of occupied cobwebs and I am trying not to harm the spiders or damage their webs if I can avoid it. The spiders are the long legged sort, quite beautiful but they are unhappy about having their webs disturbed. I dust painstakingly but nevertheless dislodge several spiders who then run off. I sit back on my heels to make sure they are away from harm and try to clean again. The dream shifts slightly, and I find that I am cleaning a massive fireplace, the kind you see in castles and stately homes. There is a lot of small debris like leaves and bits of moss that I sweep into the centre. The hearth itself is unused, and has been unused for a long time, and indeed has been painted a uniform white with gloss paint. I sweep everything into the centre where a fire would have been and as I try and gather up the dross, I find that there are several items amid the rubbish. They are very large crystal clusters, the ones that look rather like small castles themselves. I am delighted and then worried to find them. Delighted because they are beautiful and worried because I don’t know if I am allowed to keep them. I examine one closely. I wonder if in fact it is crystalline rock salt, but it is so clear and when I taste it, it doesn’t taste salty. I then wonder if it is actually ice, because it seems so shiny and wet looking. But though it is cold, it does not melt when I hold it up. I hold it up to a window, through which I can see a river scene ahead, very serene and beautiful. The crystal is so clear that each image I see through each “turret” of a crystal point is undistorted and true. Then something wakes me and when I dream again, the dream of before is lost.

I like spiders, see them as totems of writing, weaving of words. I’m trying to clean up my mental surroundings but I am struggling to do so without damaging my spiders. When I am cleaning the hearth, it feels like I am trying to clean something that has been left alone and never used. I recognise it as a hearth but there is no fire there and hasn’t been for a long time. I don’t know what this hearth represents, and am aware this may be key. The rubbish is all natural rubbish of dust and leaves and twigs and dry grass and so on, the kind of dross that might blow into an abandoned home. Finding the crystal is a wonderful moment, it’s the last thing one would expect but I have concerns that it is meant for me and worry that if I take it I am stealing. Yet through the crystal nothing distorts or alters. I analyse its nature very closely and assess it as real and true.

Jung wrote of dreams being the royal road to the unconscious. To make conscious the deep and often disturbing contents of our psyches is a frightening proposition but right now, while I am enjoying a remission from the severe symptoms of depression I am acutely aware that this is a gift of time and personal serenity I must use wisely. I am therefore glad both that I often record my dreams, and also that I am beginning to dream again.

Has the way we read changed ~ comparing the literary past with the present

Has the way we read changed ~ comparing the literary past with the present

Over my life, I have been an intermittently voracious reader. Sometimes I will seem to wake like a bear after winter and devour book after book in rapid succession. Other times, like a well fed python, I won’t read for months on end. Sometimes it ties in with the problems concentrating brought on by stress, anxiety and depression, that I can’t focus on reading at all. At others, I shut out the troublesome intrusions of reality by getting lost in the pages of a book.

At Christmas a Twitter pal, Bert, sent me a book he said was his favourite esoteric text. I was very surprised when it arrived to see that it was a novel by Neville Shute, whom I’d never read before. I read a few pages, was very puzzled and got sidetracked by Christmas things.

A few weeks ago, I decided to tackle the monstrous pile of unread books in my living room and picked up Round the Bend. I finished it in less than a week, but I had to make a change to the way I read. I had to let go of my need to know in advance what the book was about and where it was going. The copy I was sent is not a modern reprint but an original, and there was no blurb for me to get my bearings from. The dust jacket just featured praise for the author for other novels. There was nothing about what this novel was about. It threw me completely. I’m used to starting a book knowing what it is going to be about, mostly. Who it is about and why. That’s the power of the blurb, like a film trailer, to hook the audience and make them decide(or not) to read one book rather than another.

The style of the book was utterly different too. Rambling and relaxed, the story meandered like an English country road, taking me down lanes and through villages. Compared to a modern novel where you are face to face with the action within three pages, it was slow. It was full of information about ‘planes and engines and aviation and the Near and Far East, all things I would have said I have little or no interest in.

But once I let go of my unconscious preconceptions of what I needed from a novel, I was gripped. The prose, for all its apparent relaxed pace was drawing me a subtle but very detailed and powerful picture. It slipped in without me realising how deeply the images and descriptions were affecting me. It was an extraordinary experience of being absorbed by a book, of becoming involved as a vitally interested observer, as though the narrator were telling his story directly to me.

And by the end, I could see why Bert had classified it as an esoteric book. It got very deeply under my skin.

But it made me think how much our reading experience is shaped by fashions in writing and publishing. A book like Round The Bend would simple never make it past the slush pile now. It would be considered too slow, and far too long for modern audiences. When I was submitting work to publishers first over twenty years ago, the word count for a first novel had to be a minimum of 100k words. That has dropped. Apart from the brick-thick blockbuster beach read novels, books have become slimmer. Anorexic in some cases. Writers are encouraged to get straight to the point, to hook your reader (= the editor) in the first few pages, preferably from the first paragraph or even sentence. There’s no room for building tension, or character or setting the scenes. Bang, from the first page, you have to have your hook in your reader’s mind so they keep reading.

Now, when I did my degree (which I know is a long time ago) I read a vast amount of classic novels, and I can say that the vast majority of them would be cast aside by editors for a host of reasons, but basically because they do not fit the way people read today or the reasons people read. Perhaps film, television, and the internet are responsible. We’re informed of news in sound-bites we can swallow whole, documentaries recap information every five minutes and writers are exhorted to “murder their darlings” and dispose of every word or metaphor that doesn’t point directly and unequivocally to the central plot of your story. There’s no room for gentle side plots and the inevitable unanswered questions. Readers (as shaped by the demands of publishers) have become as children demanding, “Tell me a story, mummy. Tell me a story before I go to bed. Only ten minutes because I’m tired.”

Yes, we all have horrendously busy lives. Yes, we need to be entertained and soothed. But words are marvellous things. Did you know that certain words have been found to have an effect on the brain? Words can shape the brain, influence it and even change it. And it seems to me that in this hurly-burly attempt to get straight to the story the words that have been pruned out are the ones that give meaning and power to the story.

I know of a lot of folk who skip lengthy descriptions. I’m guilty of it myself, at times, because I want to find out what happens in a story. I’m turned off heavily by anything to do with brand names or labels, for anything from cars to clothes. Mention Gucci and the rest and my eyes glaze over. But descriptions of place, and persons and atmosphere are the way that the writer shares their inner vision with the reader. It’s not purely about creating background but about conveying the depth and richness of the writer’s mind and their conception of their story. It’s that depth that means a story will stay with you after you finish it.

It is said that there are only something like six basic plots for a novel. I’m far from convinced of this but it is true that the likelihood of a plot being truly original is very much diminished over the years. All the good plots have been done, I suspect, but that’s no reason to stop writing. In one of my favourite childhood books, Madeleine L’Engle’s   A Wrinkle in Time life is compared to a sonnet. You have a fixed form that makes a poem a sonnet, but you are completely free to say whatever you like. It’s like this for a novel too. The structure that makes a novel, or even the fairly standard plots, are your framework but within those you are free to write what you like, how you like.

Novels reflect the times they were written in. Analysing the novels of today,  tailored and polished to a high gloss and designed for the short attention spans of busy people, they might seem also stripped of soul and denuded of depth and meaning.

And this is something that worries me.

The Geriatric Teenager

The geriatric teenager 

  I never felt the need to rebel

When I was a teenager;

 I was too busy planning my escape.

Tunnels take a lot of work, you know.

But now I’m touching middle age

 I feel like misbehaving.

 I’d like to do all those things

 I never thought to do

 At the allocated time:

 Wear stupid clothes,

 Dye my hair pink,

Get drunk and puke in public.

I won’t, though.

 People forgive teenagers:

 It’s just their age, they say.

They won’t forgive me;

I should know better.

The Buddha in the Basement ~ a dream

The Buddha in the Basement ~ a dream

A few weeks ago, I woke with a bad migraine. It was so bad I had to phone in sick, but something came out of a day spent in bed, dosed with migraine medication and tea brought to me by my lovely daughter each time I feebly called out.

The dream begins in a familiar enough way, of trying to escape from a building:

I dream I am trying to move out of something, a building. I have my bicycle with me but I try to ride it through what seems like a cave or similar with rough floors littered with debris, rocks and bricks. At the end of the cave, there is light and I find that there is a hole in the ceiling. I can see there is a room up there, so I manage to lift my bike up to it but climbing up myself is impossible. I’m not strong enough. When I settle back on the level, I find that I am in a house of some sort, brightly painted wooden doors, and at first I feel fear that I am trespassing but there is no one there. The door in front of me is like a cottage interior door, painted blues and has an old fashioned latch, which I lift and go through. The light inside is bluish and at first I think it’s a big wet room, or an inside swimming pool but as I go in I see that the big room is another sort of cave. There’s a kind of pond but when I look closer I see it is a kind of a shrine. That’s when the dream becomes lucid because I think, there is no one here, I am in charge of this and know I am dreaming. The pond has a big beautiful Buddha statue on one side, and a few other features. I see a fountain that is not playing so I raise my hand to make it play and a smoke machine also starts pumping out mist that is scented with incense. I wave my hand again and little lights begin to appear round the pond, again, and soft music starts to play. The shrine seems to come to life. There are fish too in the water and they glitter as they come to the surface. To one side there are other smaller shrines, and I examine those. One is built like a kind of model  camp, with a fire at the middle that lights up as I wave my hand over it. The people light up too, as if coming to life. Another is a tiny ancient looking town, and I wave my hand and see tiny lights appear at windows and doors and minarets. The people seem to be alive again too. I stand back and look at all the shrines. There is an overall feeling of peace and a gentle blue light permeates everything. The Buddha shrine seems to have a number of objects that are a deep royal blue, or midnight blue too, stones and beads and things I cannot identify. Blue lights shine in the water too, and shimmer as the fish pass over them. It’s beautiful.

Given that this dream pre-dates by some days my change in terms of depression lifting, I can only feel that on some level it was prophetic. I am still pondering this one, but if you have an insight you think you would like to share, I’d be happy to hear it. The slow returning of dreams is beginning to change my internal world, and for the better too.

I’m feeling better at present than I have consistently felt for some years. More than the simple bad year, in fact. I feel back on track, having been somehow lured off my chosen path down a dead-end. I can travel on now. It’s a good feeling.

 

Sunshine through the clouds ~ a respite from darkness

Sunshine through the clouds ~ a respite from darkness

It’s been grim, this last year. Things have happened that have upset me vastly. Today marks the year’s mind of the death of something special, something I have mourned and truly grieved over as much as if a person dear to me died. The reality is they never truly existed. There have been home and family issues I don’t like to talk about and work issues to boot. I hit a rock bottom on my birthday and I reached as low an ebb as I have been in many years.

Depression sucks. Even without it, the last year would have been hard. With it, I went into a very dark place indeed. But I continued to function, somehow. Last week, I saw a full-blown shrink, and talked a bit. Actually, mostly she read the letter I’d sent and asked questions. Gently, sensitively; she respected my views. I was offered a tentative diagnosis and was told that the waiting list for a talking therapy is four to six months. She respected my wish not to take any medication; I’d explained at some length my reasons.

I’ve become aware that perhaps sometimes I seem to be asking for help and then refusing to take it. I’d like to make it clear that as far as mental health medications are concerned I believe they can be a lifeline to those in mental distress and they may well be essential during acute phases with a  great number of people. However, during the twenty or so years since I first saw a consultant psychiatrist I have tried a significant number, probably from every family of drugs. My experience was always negative. Side effects made normal existence impossible, even if I did, as advised, persist with them. My body did not adapt to them and any benefits they may have had were swallowed up in being virtually comatose for weeks. My first consultant only prescribed the then-new wonder drug Prozac as a means of stabilising me enough to undergo some form of psychotherapy. This was our agreement; it was what he felt I needed. He was the last psychiatrist I truly trusted and if you’re out there Dr Lee, thank you. However, we moved house and areas before I reached a point of being stable enough, and the same pattern was repeated. Each time we moved, I got sent to the end of a new waiting list until finally, I asked when would I have a chance for a therapy. At that point I was told that was only now available in that area for the acutely ill. I persisted with the Prozac for some years, believing I couldn’t do without it. At some point, about ten years ago, I slowly came off it, explored a lot of alternative health measures and found I could do without it. Moreover I discovered that a number of things I had thought to be the effect of the depression was in fact a side effect of the Prozac. They were things that made life that bit harder to endure, let’s just put it like that. I am not against medication. I am just wary of them. My experience has been poor and I see time and again people experiencing such dreadful side effects that must make life even harder. Some people have no side effects at all and for them, the meds are the ticket they need back to a normal life. But it’s so very individual. Medicine is like that. I have a dear friend who cannot take co-codamol and throws up if she takes it; I have a bad reaction to Ibuprofen and other anti-inflammatories but I can cope very nicely with codeine. Just as our bodies are unique, so too are our minds.

My own instincts about my body are often spot-on. I refused to have a hysterectomy to deal with certain gynaecological issues, partly because while it might solve one, it would create several others and exacerbate still more, but also because I had a sense of it being time-limited. I had a “knowing” that menopause was closer than they thought based on blood tests or whatnot. It turns out I was right. Quite without apparent warning, it kicked in just after Christmas and the torment of hot flushes every ten minutes just added to my sleep problems. Lack of sleep, hormonal tsunamis and depression just piled on top of me. I had constant thoughts of harming myself.

This is where it changes.

I was referred to see a gynaecologist but by the time my appointment came I had found a solution. Having tried several herbal remedies to no avail, I found a cream that you apply externally (yes, hormones). The very first night, it worked. Using a topical method means the hormones are absorbed quicker and without the liver breaking them down. The consultant prescribed the same hormone but in tablet form. I’ve not taken any yet; I may not need to. I’ve weighed the possibly carcinogenic effects against the benefit of using the product for a limited period of time while my body adjusts to its new state. It’s worth it. Being woken in a terrible sweat ten times a night is simply unendurable on top of everything else.

I was having sleep issues even before the hot flushes, so it’s something to do with the underlying, pervasive depression. Regular readers will know my search for a solution has been pretty wide. But then I remembered I’d taken 5htp in the past and it helped my sleep. So a fortnight ago, I bought some more. They have worked for me. The only side effect I’ve had is extremely vivid dreaming and sometimes nightmares. Yes, I know. For once a side effect I like. I’ve bemoaned my lack of dreams a long while.

What I hadn’t realise before is that 5hpt is also an anti-depressant. And it is working. I’ve not felt this way for a long while. It’s like stepping from midwinter to early summer in one bound. Oh, I still feel down and upset at things, but in a different way. I feel I can cope with it. Before I felt I was constantly on the brink of losing it.

Now, the curious thing is that I have never wanted a magic pill to take away my symptoms, to just make it better. Not really. I’ve always wanted to understand what is truly going on at a deep level. The why of depression if you like. I have long had an instinct that the answers to this question are somehow very important. This may be why I have perhaps seemed to some as if I have rejected their suggestions; I don’t just want to feel better, I want to BE better, to seek wholeness and healing on a very powerful scale. Many of the short term strategies I have tried over the years are effective only on a short term basis because they do not address the issues that hide at the core. Nowadays, while I do get plenty of exercise walking and cycling, it would be unwise to seek the endorphine rush (itself quite addictive) of extremely strenuous exercise as I have hyper-mobile joints that are subject to damage. Believe me, I have looked into and tried a great many of the suggestions people have made for dealing with depression.

But now the real work can perhaps begin, the soul archaeology that seeks the neglected soul parts, the shadowy bits I am repulsed by and refuse to acknowledge and I can say: here I am, now we can talk perhaps?

Is Light hurt by Darkness? ~ searching for meaning in life

Is Light hurt by Darkness? ~ searching for meaning in life

I’ve been haunted lately by images and semi-visions of shadows, dreams of living darkness that consumes everything in its path. I had a vivid nightmare some weeks back where patches of shadow were sentient and hungry, and swallowed up both light and life. Darker than darkness, voids that reflect no light and absorb everything.

Last night I finally read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I’d hesitated first about buying it, then about reading it, simply because of associations with a person no longer part of my life, but realised that was idiotic. A book that has had a hundred or more printings and sold over nine million copies cannot really be tainted by one person’s opinion of it. So I read it and am still thinking about it. I suspect I will read it again many times before finally writing about the book itself; I am writing here about some thoughts that have been sparked by it.

One of the central premises of Frankl’s book and indeed of the psychotherapy Frankl founded, Logotherapy, is that to live, people need to find meaning in their lives.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logotherapy

Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones. Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life. We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stand we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.

“We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” and that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances”.

Now, Frankl survived concentration camps and therefore has in my opinion the crown when it comes to suffering and finding meaning in suffering. Anything I have experienced is nothing to what he survived. However, my old friend the Mad Priest has said on a number of occasions that comparing one person’s sufferings with that of another is both ludicrous and insulting: suffering is suffering.

This is what dear old Wiki says about Frankl’s views on depression:

Depression

Viktor Frankl believed depression occurred at the psychological, physiological, and spiritual levels. At the psychological level, he believed that feelings of inadequacy stem from undertaking tasks beyond our abilities. At the physiological level, he recognized a “vital low”, which he defined as a “diminishment of physical energy” Finally, Frankl believed that at the spiritual level, the depressed man faces tension between who he actually is in relation to what he should be. Frankl refers to this as the gaping abyss (Frankl; page 202). Finally Frankl suggests that if goals seem unreachable, an individual loses a sense of future and thus meaning resulting in depression. Thus logotherapy aims “to change the patient’s attitude toward her disease as well as toward her life as a task” (Frankl, page 200)

Reading this, I had a strong sense of this chiming with my own experiences and beliefs. I am not what I should be. But what should I be?

Lying in the bath this morning, I let my mind wander off by itself. It never goes very far but this time it came back with a few curious thoughts. I mused on my own name. I have two Christian names that both derive from Latin, and translated mean Living Light. It set me wondering whether light is harmed by darkness. The nightmares about the consuming shadows have shaken me rather a lot, and while I know that Light is merely a form of energy if you use purely physics, I started to wonder if in some sense darkness is something more sentient, more aggressive, an entity rather than simply the absence of light. Scientists among you might be tutting at this point. But metaphysicians and mystics have asked this question for millennia, about this apparent war between light and darkness.

Then I started musing about the word Logos. In Greek it means a number of things, and while it is often translated as WORD, it can also be translated as MEANING, hence Dr Frankl using the term logotherapy (literally, healing through meaning). In John’s Gospel, the term Logos is used as Word and refers to Jesus (probably):

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

So we are back to the struggle between light and dark, between life and death and between meaning and void.

My initial question, (Is light hurt by darkness) takes on a more personal meaning when aligned with this struggle. Are my efforts to exist in a meaningful way damaged by the rising tide of darkness that emerges both from within my own psyche and from the world beyond me? Can I integrate, indeed, should I integrate, my own darkness? Is life about keeping the dark at bay or is it about understanding that darkness is not evil but rather a different state of being essential to survival? Is not only my life but life on earth meaningless or meaningful?

In some of the most harrowing parts of the book, Frankl wrote of those who gave up their hold on life, those whose struggle to find meaning in their sufferings proved too much for them, and who lay down and became unresponsive to stimuli and died, even when their health was not as compromised as many. Often they would smoke a cigarette long hoarded as collateral for barter, clearly accepting that they might as well just enjoy that one simple pleasure and let go of their grip on life. I cannot help wondering now whether our collective consumerism and cultural hedonism is not somehow akin to this.

My own search for meaning in my life is a struggle right now. I had for a while thought that my writing, (which I pretentiously call My Work) might be a strong contender, but since I’ve hardly written anything worthwhile(fiction anyway) in over a year, I am not convinced this hits the spot. Perhaps my meaning still awaits my discovery of it. I can only hope so.  

Balancing peripheral characters with main characters ~ or how to stop Sideshow Bob murdering Bart Simpson.

Balancing peripheral characters with main characters ~ or how to stop Sideshow Bob murdering Bart Simpson.

 

 

One of the few novels I never actually finished was Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I was set it over Easter in my final year at university, as a part of my course entitled, “The Art of the Novel”. I forced myself to read a quarter of it, got bogged down and in the end got my flatmate to read it for me and give me a précis later. She very kindly did so, but it was all wasted when I got to the first tutorial and my tutor (in free-fall into a nervous breakdown) gave us a bright and brittle smile, said, “Right, you all read Anna Karenina, didn’t you?” and things went downhill from then on.

My problem with the novel was a combination of the three-course dinner that was every name and the sheer number of characters. I simply couldn’t cope with bonding with that many; I needed to know who was the main character(s) and tune out the rest. It’s one of the reasons why I often struggle with fantasy, particularly the epic style fantasy with a cast of thousands and a long list of who everyone is and how they relate to each other. I’ve also found a great deal of it is cardboard cut-out writing, where a character is generated by a need for certain qualities and that is really all they bring to the story. You don’t often get a sense of who that person truly is and what brought them to that point; seldom do you get a feeling that their story has an entire book or two’s worth of living to explore. They’re not real people, they’re something created for a purpose.

I have a head full of imaginary friends, and if truth be told, they’re often more vivid at times than many of my “real” friends. Like the “real” people in my life, I often know a great deal about some and less about others, but it’s not unusual to find one steps forward and reveals a snapshot of their back-story. With real life friends, it’s not unusual to discover extraordinary things about them many years into the relationship, things you have often had a kind of background awareness of but never really discussed. For example, I was aware of one friend’s army family upbringing but until recently I never knew she’d been born in the Far East. That brings a whole new dimension to an already interesting person.

It can be the same with the people in my head. Usually the main characters of a story are familiar to me, old friends if you like. But the others are often not so well known to me, friends of friends perhaps and I can be aware of them living their lives just beyond my inner sight and yet not closely aware of the particulars of their deepest workings. Then one day, they do or say something that I hadn’t been aware I knew about.

When that happens, I usually step back and take another look at them.

In my novel Strangers and Pilgrims, one of the six main characters Gareth has an older sister who steps into try and help him out of his breakdown. A number of folks have said they wanted to know more about Angela Forester, because though she only appears in a short section of the book, she made an impression strong enough for readers to want to know more about her. She’s a peripheral character in two other novels (as yet unpublished) and I am beginning to think she might just have a story to tell me of her own.

Likewise, Isobel from Away With The Fairies started out as best supporting actress in another novel, due to be published this year. She popped up in the story as a very vivid sidekick to the main character about two thirds through the story. She caught my interest.

This is where the problems can begin. A peripheral character can sometimes sing a siren song, like an intriguing new lover, enticing you to divert the attention, the flow of the story and entirely hijack the key role. They might start to seem more interesting to you, the writer, than the main character you have been bonded at the hip with for so long.

I have some advice for you if this happens. Simply this: DON’T PANIC. It happens to most writers at some time and in all honesty, it needs to. This is the internally generated inspiration a good writer needs. Your first move, once you become aware of what is happening, is to step back a little. Go and spend some time with this pushy peripheral and talk to them. Take them out for a coffee, but make sure they know this is NOT a date. Let them fill you in on their life, on who they are and what they want, and also why they have appeared in this novel. Take notes, listen attentively, and when they’ve told you enough to be going on with, make a deal with them. Tell them that you’ll write more about them. Tell them they’ll maybe get their own novel to star in. But also tell them not now, not this novel. Be patient and wait their turn and you’ll get onto it as soon as you can and then you will do them proud. Ask them, are they content to try and steal the stage from someone else, or would they rather have the chance to be the star from the start?

This usually works very well. The upstart becomes much more manageable and the information they’ve given you about themselves adds depth and richness to the story and the main character. You don’t need to tell the reader very much about it; it tends to be enough that you know and a kind of ghostly hologram appears, a kind of signature that is often the marker that makes readers say, “I’d like to know more about X,” rather than the bewilderment they might feel if X has totally usurped the storyline from your star. The bonus of it is that you now have your next star on-side, co-operative and bursting to get started working with you.

However, not all peripherals are actually the same. It’s easy as a writer to get sidetracked and obsessed by the need to populate the background of a novel with convincing portraits of people, to give it colour and depth. It’s a little like trying to paint a crowd scene. If you watched the trilogy of films of Lord of the Rings, the vast armies of both sides were very cleverly presented. Panoramic shots of orc hordes in their tens of thousands juxtaposed with rapid close ups of the ranks, showing the astonishing range of differences between not only tribes of orcs but individuals within it. It gave a powerful impression of both the scale of an army and the nature of the individuals within it. But let’s face it, none of us wants to see shot after shot of orcs like mugshots, regiment after regiment of perfectly coiffed elves,going on for ten or more minutes, do we? It’s enough that we know they’re all there and it’s the same with writing. You don’t need to describe everyone in the park in detail; you use the same technique, brief panoramic overview, a few vivid details and it’s enough. It’s not dissimilar to the techniques of Impressionist painting. In our striving for reality in writing it’s tempting to get so focused on details that we forget we are really trying to create the bigger picture. Not every peripheral character needs to be any more than that.

My final thought is that just as you get to know the people in your life, and their lives ebb and flow in harmony with yours (or not!) it’s important to get to know the people in your head, your “imaginary friends” better. This is not about mapping out character details, like a shopping list, but allowing themselves to reveal themselves organically, just as people in real life do. You can’t know everything about them consciously, but unconsciously you do. So trust the process and let them talk to you and let the new stars step forth shyly (or boldly) to conquer their world.

This article first appeared at Thea Atkinson’s blog. Do check her out; she has a fabulous range of dark fiction and a brand new YA title out.