I supposed I was primed to enjoy this year’s Readercon because I found the very first panel so interesting. The official title was “The Origin of Character in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” and James Patrick Kelly led off with a quick precis of Julian Jaynes’s thesis that ancient people had a divided mind that communicated internally as voices, which they thought were the voices of gods. Nowadays, writers just call them characters.
Everyone had a story that began as a voice speaking. Elizabeth Hand told of a voice so compelling she spent the next ten hours typing until she had a complete story. Eileen Gunn told of Richard Nixon speaking from an alternate world where he became a game show host. Ellen Kushner noted that everyone talks about voices. For her the people come first.
Daryl Gregory offered the explanation that we’re social animals modeling the other people. That’s why your subconscious spits out characters. Peter Straub said for writers the unconscious speaks. The voice is never wrong. The lesson is to listen to it. Kelly added that you can trust “the little guy,” the subconsious, precisely because he speaks so rarely.
So how do you hear the voice? Here’s where the advice came tumbling out. Straub and Kushner said, Walk! Stop thinking about it. Allow yourself to be receptive. Gregory said to touch the story every day, to keep it in mind. Kelly likes swimming. Gunn and Kushner like driving. Just make sure you have a way to write it down or someone to talk to. Sleep can help, Straub said, if you remember the dream. Pay attention to what you’re thinking when you get up.
This is where I started thinking, considering how much we have learned about how the mind works, how your subconscious is always looking around you, trying to gauge what other people are up to, and filled with everything you’ve seen or heard or read, it’s always working on problems that we’re not consciously aware. When the audience got our chance, I asked if they ever get the feeling that “little guy” speaks up only when he’s finally ready to let go of a problem, because he can’t do anything more with it. Is he saying, Here’s an idea. Your turn.
The answer, in short, no. My takeaway: your subconscious isn’t that mean.
And while I was musing and formulating for a later question, Kushner suggested having someone interview you as the character. Answer quickly. Don’t think about what the outline says. After Gregory, Gunn, and Kushner all confessed to straying from outlines, Straub said he too outlines and leaves it. You should allow yourself to experience fear, ignorance, and darkness, he said. “Self-doubt is a besetting problem that you overcome only by writing a lot.”
7 thoughts on “Readercon Characters”
Bicameral mind, voices from the subconscious, internal entities…this is all just writing workshop mumbo-jumbo. I almost wish there was a law to make people stop talking about it after their first couple years of serious workshops.
With a heading like “Readercon Characters” I thought / hoped you were talking about a different phenomenon. For me, this was the most eyebrow-raising character at Readercon:
Both for her unorthodox appearance (…she was the one wearing the medusa mask on Friday…) as well as her input to the panel where I heard her (…her ideas and contributions were so far out there that to me they shot right past the thought-provoking and interesting into the sad and delusional).
Wait, you were there Friday? I totally missed you! I look forward to arguing with you about voices and consciousness later.
Yeah, I was there in the morning and then again in the evening on Friday. Sat in on four sessions, but had to run in and out. I bumped into Michael, and saw one of our meetup people there (not sure if he saw me, I was on the way out). Never spotted you, though.
Did you go see Julian Jaynes speak, back in the day? I remember some of the questions seemed to faze him after his talk, especially:
“What about people who have been isolated from civilzation, in places South America, and New Guinea?”
I’ve always meant to read the book, since there’s an issue of X-Men in which Beast is shown reading it. I did not find the talk convincing.
Never read the book or heard him. There are ideas that are interesting because they’re true. And then there are ideas that are just, um, interesting.
Wow. Unless I misunderstand the whole theory, isn’t saying someone is “pre-bicameral” akin to saying….nothing at all? I should brush up, because it’s his theory and he made that statement, but I don’t follow at all. What was he arguing there…that prior to the bicameral mind, there was no consciousness at all? No wonder the idea makes inroads in speculative fiction.
Pam…excellent point. I need to remember that phrasing.
I haven’t read Jaynes, so I’m not going to make any guesses about what he meant by “consciousness” except to say that the impression I received from Kelly’s description was that Jaynes redefined it to mean whatever the heck he was really talking about.
It’s a pity no one mentioned Gene Wolfe’s Soldier in the Mist. I didn’t think of it until it was too late.
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