Writers Do the Strangest Things


Fish Do the Strangest Things, by Leonora Hornblow, Arthur Hornblow, Michael K. FirthWhen I was a little kid, I read a series of books on nature and science called” _____ Do the Strangest Things.” There was “Birds Do the Strangest Things” (Owls can turn their heads around 360 degrees, and bowerbirds collect colorful plastic items for their nests!) and “Fish Do the Strangest Things” (Triggerfish can spit water at insects and knock them out of the air, and African Lungfish can live out of water for years at a time!) and “Mammals do the Strangest Things” (Human beings purposefully kill one another and are slowly destroying their only habitat! — Okay, that entry I made up…)  Anyway, I loved those books and remember them vividly.  So, I thought it might be fun to do my own abbreviated version of the book, but for writers.  Because let’s face it:  Writers truly do the strangest things.

I have known from a very, very young age that I was going to be a writer, because I tend to look at the world through a writer’s eyes.  And this, I believe, is one of those things that fellow writers understand and non-writers just don’t.  Whenever I see or hear or taste or smell or feel something striking — good or bad — my first thought is “How would I write this?”  A beautiful sunset?  I can’t just sit there and enjoy it; I have to compose it in my head.  I have to find the right words, so that when I next need to write a sunset scene, I’ll have this to draw upon.  Food tastes are among my favorite things to “write” as I experience them, because conveying flavor in innovative ways can be so difficult.  This, I think, is probably the strange thing I do that is most beneficial to my writing.  Many of the experiences I’ve written in this way have found their way into my books, and that has to be a good thing, right?

I also (and this one is just a little bit embarrassing actually) make up encounters with people in my head.  Real people who I know.  And me.  In imaginary encounters.  I play out the dialogue in my mind, putting words in the other person’s mouth, and then responding as I would.  And I imagine facial expressions, tones of voice, gestures, etc.  I do this a lot when I’m alone in my car, driving to a convention or something of the sort.  And I’ll do it with just about any person in my life.  I’ve “written” encounters with my parents, both of whom have been dead for more than 15 years.  I’ve written conversations with my wife, with my kids, with my siblings, with friends from high school whom I’ve not seen for twenty years, with old girlfriends, with colleagues, with my editor, etc.  You get the idea.  Sometimes these are just idle imaginings.  Sometimes they’re a chance to vent anger and frustrations in ways that I would never articulate in an actual conversation.  Weird, I know.  But I do it.

I rewrite other people’s books in my head as I read them.  Yeah, that’s probably not the nicest thing to do.  And it’s something that I am reluctant to admit, because I’m sure that I have rewritten at least a sentence or two from the books of pretty much everyone who contributes to this site.  I’m sorry, all right?  I cannot read my own work without looking for a better way to say everything, and this tendency has slowly crept into my recreational reading as well.  There was one book — published by a major New York house — that I started to read several years ago — not by anyone here on MW; I swear it — and I had to “rewrite” the opening paragraph twice before I could move on to the next graph.  Needless to say, I didn’t get much past the first chapter of that book.  My rewrites of most books are limited to a sentence or two here and there.  And I have gone so far as to rewrite sentences from true classics.  Hawthorne, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Melville, Stegner:  None of them has escaped my imaginary red pen.  So my friends and colleagues are in very good company.  But I do worry about my sanity.

I never throw anything away.  There is a scene in an otherwise wonderful episode of The West Wing, in which the Rob Lowe character, Presidential speechwriter Sam Seaborne, is asked by the President to write a section of the State of the Union in which the President will announce a Federal program to cure cancer within ten years. They ultimately decide to jettison the section because it’s not realistic and they can’t fund it.  And so Sam simply deletes the passage!  He deletes it!!  No, no, no, no, no, NO!!!  A writer would never, ever throw something like that away.  He would put it in a separate file and save it under some cryptic name so that he could return to it later and at least use it for parts.  He would find a way to salvage the language even if the policy proposal didn’t work out.  But he would NOT throw it away without any way of retrieving it.  At least this writer wouldn’t. I keep everything, even if it’s just a scrap of text.  In fact, I have scraps all over my computer, all of them labeled as such with a character’s name.  Now, this leads to some unfortunate filenames — “Ethan scrap” run together as a filename is “Ethanscrap.”  And a well placed possessive apostrophe changes the meaning of that quite significantly.  But the point remains — I never throw away anything at all.

I keep little talismans on my desk just in front of my computer.  Each has a different meaning to me, but all of them lead me to the same place.  One is a small ceramic sculpture from Acoma, New Mexico of the mythical Storyteller.  I bought it on a magical day spent with my wife in Acoma at the very outset of my career, before I had published anything. Another is a newspaper horoscope from that same era that basically said “Follow your dream” in language that was so perfect it seemed to have been written just for me.  There is a pendant I bought in New Zealand, when my career was taking a new turn, that is supposed to bring prosperity and good fortune.  And there are a few others as well.  As I say, each has a different meaning, but they all give me hope and remind me of why I put up with the struggles and setbacks this crazy business throws in my path.

These are a few of my strange things.  Just as the lungfish can’t spit water at insects and the bowerbird can’t turn its head 360 degrees, we need to remember that every writer is not of the same exact species.  If you have never “written” a sunset you’ve seen or a meal you’ve eaten, that doesn’t make you any less a writer.  We all have our idiosyncrasies.  So what are some of yours?  Time to share!

David B. Coe

31 comments to Writers Do the Strangest Things

  • *raises hand* Yep, guilty of re-writing conversations in my head. And aloud. When DH and I are talking and I say something, I’ve sometimes written his response in my head. Sometimes I even tell him about it.

    I don’t write descriptions of everything, but I take photos like mad for the same reason. The visuals bring me back. And when I do write notes, it’s impressions, often stream-of-consciousness. Like when we went to the pool at the Flamingo in Vegas last month, where barely anyone went in the water but they all lay around in their skimpy swimwear, and what exactly did that do for the morale of the lifeguards, if they cared at all? That sort of thing.

    And I know that this is definitely not true for everyone, but one of my quirks is that I can write with other people present, whether in person or online (i.e. Twitter). It just usually also involves a set of headphones to create that artificial personal space.

  • mudepoz

    I have enough trouble keeping TRACK of the conversations around me much less re-write them. Though I do have a tendency to keep notes of students convo’s. They fascinate me. I guess I’m a closet voyeur.
    I’m also a closet 10 year old boy. Dog. *Nods head* Yup.

  • “David,” Faith says, “I don’t like people seeing inside my head.”
    “Faith, I wasn’t looking inside your head.”
    “But how did you know that I carry on conversations all the time with … let’s call it my ‘well-charactered imagination’.”
    “Because sometimes you mutter and make hand motions when you think no one is looking. And you get this intent look on your face, with odd flashing emotions, like you’re talking to someone.”
    “Oh. Crap.”
    “It’s okay, Faith. I bet lots of insane writers do that.”

  • This is the first “I’m a writer because…” post I’ve really connected with. Most of the time, I don’t do or feel what people around here have said they do or feel. I totally do the conversation thing. Until just now, I thought it was something everyone did. I do it with my characters, and I do it with real people in my life–often when I’m *ahem* emotional. I made up worlds all the time when I was a kid (survival skill for an only child). I think about how I’d write situations or things I see. And I definitely rewrite stuff as a I read it. I try really hard not to do that though–just like I try, sometimes, to turn of my “analysis/English prof” thing when I read or watch something for fun.

    Thanks for the post–it’s nice to know other people do the same stuff!

  • Gorby

    Yes, writers do the strangest things… Like taking long walks during raining night with neither umbrella, coat, nor shoes for protection… Or maybe that’s just me.

    I don’t really write down descriptions much, at least not as much as I should, but I do write fictional encounters with real people. I also take real encounters and analyze them endlessly, digging at what motivates people.

    I also write down impressions of people or objects in poetry form—not descriptions, just impressions.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    The best thing about being a writer is that nothing goes to waste. When you have strange experiences, you can be comforted by the thought that someday, you’ll probably put them to use.

    The most fun I had in China this winter was blogging about the strange things I saw…it made me look harder at what was around me–notice and appreciated it–so that I could share it in a way that might interest or amuse someone else. But even in ordinary life, I do this.

    Last night, I dreamt I had been sent back to college for some reason. The first thing I did in the dream, was try to get into the bookstore to get a nice notebook that I could use to write down what was happening in a journal for my husband, who was not there with me. (Apparently, it was a computerless dream.) I was amused that this was my subconscious’s first line of defense. 😉

  • Laura, I wish I could write with people around. Even earphones don’t help with that. I like silence, solitude. I have HAD to learn how to write with my kids around making noise, listening to music, interrupting me again and again, but that doesn’t mean that I like it. As for the rest, yes it sounds oh so familiar. Thanks for the comment.

    Mud, I think we’re all closet (or not-so-closet) voyeurs. As for the dog thing, that’s pretty much yours…

    Love it, Faith. And sometimes I wonder if “insane writers” isn’t redundant.

    Emily, thanks, glad you liked the post. Sounds like you and I have a lot of the same stuff going on in our writer-minds.

    Gorby, I love walking in a warm summer rain (I don’t do the no shoes no umbrella thing in the cooler months). Writing in poetry form actually sounds like something I’d like to try. I used to write a lot of poetry — years ago. None of it was very good, but it was cathartic.

  • Jagi, I love that. Even in your dreams you have good writer habits. Bravo. Re. China — during our year in Australia I did much the same thing. We kept a family blog and I wrote a good deal of it, collecting experiences, taking mental notes on pretty much everything, and then parking myself in front of my computer to get it all down for the blog.

  • Sometimes, after sleeping long and hard, I wake up reciting in my mind a story never written and quickly forgotten. Maybe someday I will be able to write it down.

    I also have a fairly photogenic mind. I don’t know if anyone has read Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, but he has a character who can mentally take a picture of the world around her, then redraw it perfectly later. I can do something similar (though not in the detail she can). I will frame a sunset, a person, or a scene in my mind and then recall it for story material later.

  • Guess I’ll start with ritual. I have a box of sort of focusing stones, all for creativity/inspiration, keeping focus, and clearing negative energy, that I open and set next to the laptop. There’s natural citrine, wulfenite, blue kyanite, selenite, hematite, and black tourmaline. I have an aromatherapy candle for creativity that I open that’s bergamot and cedar. Then there’s the music. Same music, every time. It’s a Gundam 00 soundtrack, anime music, but all without lyrics. Seems to work for all genres. I tried switching it, but it didn’t work.

    I also have a shot of vodka or two sitting nearby. 😉 It’s for relaxing me and getting me into the writing without trying to over-analyze what I’m putting on the screen. Evidently, I have the same curse some of the literary greats had. 😉

    Beyond the ritual portion, I do tend to imagine conversations in my head, usually with visuals as well.

    I’m a foodie so I’m almost always thinking about the flavors and how to describe them. The fun part is trying to describe them without using the actual names of the herbs/spices/etc, just in case I’m writing in a world where words like sage or rosemary or curry don’t exist.

    I listen to conversations. I can’t help it. When I’m in a large crowd, a part of my discomfort comes from the fact that there are so many conversations going on around me that my brain can’t keep track and filter them all. It’s like having telepathy you can’t shut off. On the upside, it helps with writing conversations.

    I pace. When I’m trying to figure something out that’s just not jelling, I pace. We have a long dining area that’s kind of tailor made for pacing. If I don’t pace, I go and soak in the tub, mumbling as I talk myself through it. Actually, I do that a lot, mumble to myself. I do it so much and our daughter has heard the reason so many times that now she just asks me if I’m trying to figure something out again. 😉

    I don’t rewrite other works in my head, but I do have the internal editor that gets annoyed when I see common errors. Oh, and when I’m writing romance, sometimes I’ll stop to write a sex scene to quell perceived sexual tension between characters. They’re scenes that will never enter the book. I set ‘em aside in a file and move on.

    There’s more, but I’ll be at it all day if I continue.

  • Mark, that first line should be the first line of a story or novel. So many possibilities! I would love to have a more photographic memory — what a resource that would be. Thanks for the comment.

    Daniel, I think if I had a shot of vodka handy when I wrote, I’d spend more time napping and less time writing. But each to his or her own…. I like the rituals, and like you I do get up and walk around a bit. That can be very helpful. I’m a foodie, too, and love writing food scenes. Also, I love wines, and enjoy writing about them.

  • Unicorn

    I discuss my story ideas with horses, dogs, and cows, and I can have a tremendous argument about whether the word “detonate” belonged in Paragraph 3 all by myself.
    The conversation thing? I do that all the time. Especially with characters. I looooove writing conversations between one of my characters (or anyone’s character) and myself. Only in my head, so far, but it would be fun to do it on paper.
    I come up with ideas in the middle of the night and amazingly I still remember them the next morning.
    While I go through my daily life, I write it in my head. As in, “I decide it’s time to feed the horses. ‘Mom, I’m going to feed the horses,’ I yell. ‘Okay, but dress warm,’ she replies.” Like that. Constantly.
    Thanks for the fun post!

  • I’m so glad to hear that others write imaginary encounters in their minds! That’s how I often entertain myself when insomnia strikes, or when I’m stuck in an airport, or driving. Sometimes I replay and revise actual encounters I’ve had but mostly I make up encounters that have never happened and are unlikely ever to happen. Sometimes I also think about how I’d write events as they are actually happening–this isn’t always a good idea, but sometimes it helps me gain perspective on emotional and/or annoying situations, especially if I imagine myself as the antagonist and the annoying person in front of me as the beleaguered protagonist.

  • Making up encounters with people you know? Boy, howdy. I do this constantly. Sometimes my planning for the scene I’m about to write (the actual scene in my actual book) gets completely hijacked by my careful imagining (and reimagining, and revising, and editing) of these imaginary encounters in my head. And no, I won’t be telling you about ANY of them. But I’m glad its not just me.

  • Unicorn, I love the idea of discussing story ideas with animals, and actually I used to talk about my work with my beloved Buddy the Wonder Dog. I miss him and our “talks” very much. I sometimes remember story ideas from the middle of the night, but I find that those I remember always turn out to be crap. I’m convinced, though, that the ones I forget are pure gold….

    SiSi, thanks for the comment. I am going to try the role-reversal thing in future conversations. Given that I live with two teenagers, I think that would probably be a useful exercise.

    A.J., I know just what you mean re. the hijacking. Sometimes I will find myself sitting at my desk, staring out the window, having gone from working on pre-Revolutionary Boston, to working out issues with my kids, my wife, my editor, etc….

  • Gypsyharper

    This post really resonates with me, because I do almost all of those things. It makes me feel like I’m going down the right path to know other writers do them also. I’m always writing imaginary conversations in my head – often things I wish I could say because I’m upset about something, but sometimes just some cool thing I want to tell someone about and how I’ll describe it, and what they’ll say.

    Daniel, I love the idea of the focusing stones! I’ve always been kind of a rock collector, and have lots of interestingly shaped and colored stones, though I’d never thought of using stones as a writing focus. I do have a little stone figurine of a howling coyote that found his way into a writing prompt with a character from my WIP once. There’s something about the way it’s carved that I just find inspiring.

    I take a lot of photographs, too, and collect images on Flickr and other places that seem to evoke the feeling or scene I’m trying to write. Most of my ideas come to me initially in the form of imagery or atmospheric feeling, so photographs really help me to get that sense back when I go to write a scene.

  • And it’s not just about writing! I replay those imaginary conversations all the time, and I find myself talking through dialogue in the shower. Which can get really uncomfortable when the wife is in the next room and hears me talking about zombies or something similar while shampooing. A year or two ago I was programming the lighting for a play that I was designing, and the executive director of the theatre (whose office was right behind the wall where I was working) comes out into the theatre and asks me “Do you always talk to yourself when you work?”

    Yep. All the time. ALLLLL the time.

  • Beatriz

    David, thank you for this post! I write (and re-write) conversations all the, especially when I’ve got too much time in the car.

    John- I swear I do my best writing in the shower; it’s where I go to unknot whatever stubborn problem is irking me. Of course, since I do tech writing my boss doesn’t appreciate me saying “I’ll be back in an hour, I have to do wash my hair.”

  • Beatriz

    (clearly, as evidenced by my comment above, proofreading is a skill that not even a hot shower and a head full of bubbles can provide.)

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Yeah, so imaginary conversations (also imaginary fight sequences) and mentally writing things I’m seeing, doing, etc. are completely me. I also pretty much assumed most people hold imaginary conversations. However, though being a writer has not been a long-term aspiration of mine, I suppose the mental descriptions of things should have tipped me off sooner that I am predisposed to writing.

    Also, I used to know a girl who was very people oriented. Very. To the point that her friends hid on occasion just to get a little time by themselves. She found out that I would sometimes walk home from work – a trek that took me about 45 minutes – and was completely boggled that I could spend so much time by myself. She asked, “When you’re walking…are you *thinking*?” Um. Yeah. Though I know many people are content taking long walks, I would be fairly surprised to meet a writer who couldn’t entertain themselves for a 45 minute stretch…

  • Incorrigible pack-rat and self-converser here; I’ll puzzle out a scene in my head and occasionally write it from different points of view, to get a handle on how the consequences of one character’s actions ripple out into my fictional world.

    Even if what I’ve written doesn’t get used, I hang on to it; I think of such things as “deleted scenes”.

    And, like John G. Harkness above, I talk-talk-talk to myself. A lot. Like Popeye muttering.

    Amusing Anecdote Time: I was in the lounge at a building where Angela was in a meeting. I had set up camp for the day: set up my laptop, had access to building power, had my snacks and drinks, had my portable wi-fi hotspot; all the comforts of home, really. I got settled and relaxed and after a while went on one of my riffs. I had been at this for several minutes when I happened to glance over my shoulder and noticed that someone else had come in the lounge without me hearing. To the fellow’s credit, he was doing a wonderful job of ignoring the nutcase creative type across the room talking to himself.

    Moral of the story? When setting up camp in an academic lounge, make sure that you are facing the door.

    Maybe I should invest in a Bluetooth headset? At least then I would look like I’m talking to another human being…

  • ajp88

    I am guilty of every example you gave, David. I’ll spend an hour having a fictional argument in my head. I’ll try different lines to see how it changes the course of the conversation and then when I finally confront the culprit everything just fizzles out into an, “Okay…” But I always have the better version of events in my mind.

    I work in a restaurant. Whenever I come across a unique, possibly fantasy sounding name for one of our customers, I immediately write it down in my journal or save it for future use in my phone. I steal names, I confess it. Similarly, if someone has a modern name I often change it to the fantasy counterpart from my own writing or some of my favorite books when I write it on the ticket. Tom becomes Tahm, Dani Dany or Daenerys, Jamie to Jaime.

    Great article!

  • “No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.”
    —H. G. Wells

  • Wow. So much here that describes me too. The fighting with other people in my head thing – yeah, that happens. I don’t talk to myself in the car, but I do have long, involved conversations (aloud) with imaginary people in the car. Sometimes I get so immersed in the emotion of a scene that it takes me a few minutes of walking around to pull myself back from it once the scene is done and get my emotional equilibrium back. When I was in 3rd grade I figured out that not everybody else had a miniature reporter in their head narrating and commenting on every single thing they did. At the time mine had a Walter Winchell voice and fedora had – I really thought of him as a tiny journalist who lived in my brain. As I’ve gotten older, he’s changed and become more of a cheerleader/story teller than a journalist; sometimes it’s my own voice commenting to me about what’s going on, but there’s some part of me that’s always telling myself the story of my life. My narrator gets louder when I’m bored – I have to be absolutely, completely absorbed in what I’m doing for him to shut up and even then…

  • Gypsy, thanks for the comment. I’m a photographer as well, and find that my search for vivid visual imagery helps later when I’m back at the computer, trying to describe scenes, places, etc.

    John — yeah, so do I. All the time. Makes me question my sanity now and then. Of course, I’m a professional writer, so I SHOULD be questioning my sanity….

    Beatriz, you’re welcome. Glad you liked the post.

    Hep, 45 minutes is nothing, right? I can drive for eight hours without music or radio, just thinking, composing, playing with dialogue and plot points, etc. Alone time is invaluable.

    Gerald, I have learned to mutter to myself without moving my lips or making a sound. Valuable skill. Thanks for the comment.

    AJP, thanks. I love the idea of collecting names at work, especially since I am always on the lookout for new names to use.

    Wolf, nice quote. Thanks.

    Sarah — “I really thought of him as a tiny journalist who lived in my brain.” I just love that, and yes, I know exactly what you mean, because I sort of had the same thing when I was a kid. I hadn’t thought of it until I read your comment, but I definitely used to have this third person voice commentary on what I was doing going on in the back of my head. Amazing. Thanks for the comment.

  • David, I practice difficult conversations with real people in my head. Not that the real thing ever goes the way I practiced, but hey, I try.

    I’m also a writing packrat. I have lots of fragments and deleted scenes that I just couldn’t bear to part with. I figure the words were good, I just thought of them sooner than I needed them, so tucking them away will save me effort when the right time does come along.

  • Razziecat

    David, your post made me laugh out loud, once for the title and once for your scraps. “Ethan’s crap.” Poor Ethan! I needed the laugh, though.

    I do imagine conversations all the time. This might be why my characters sometimes have entire conversations that seem to enter my head in a compressed burst–it’s all there, I just have to tease it out. I once woke up with song lyrics in my head, too (based on another author’s work). Music helps me focus and concentrate, as well as drown out other noises, but once in a while makes me “zone out” and write something that I honestly have no idea where it came from.

    And boy, do I save bits of writing! I have tons of stuff from before I ever got a computer, little snippets and partial scenes, bits of dialog, descriptions of characters from several points of view, maps, glossaries, and so on; plus all the stuff on my computer. I save intriguing photos, too, of faces that fascinate me or that look (to me) like my characters. I wonder what those people would think if they knew I saw them as troubled mages or troublesome starship commanders? 🙂

  • Writers do the Strangest Things… uh huh. Yup. Absolutely. The conversations with my self, others, characters, inanimate objects – most certainly. Shampoo suds and pillows as idea-generators – of course.

    Several years ago, I was talking to my dad on our front porch. I don’t remember what, exactly, we were talking about, but I said something like, “You know how, when you’re driving down the road and you think, ‘that would be the perfect place to set up as a sniper,’ or as you’re walking through the state fair you realize how easy it would be to…” He looked at me for a long moment, his brow furrowed. “Lyn, normal people don’t think those things.

    When I’m in an airport or mall or park, I create stories about the people I see around me. The lady at the jewelry counter? She’s filthy rich and trying to find something she doesn’t already own. The man looking at animals in the pet store? He’s a wizard, looking for a familiar. The little girl in the toy store? She heard voices and she’s trying to find the talking toys.

    I’m tactile, so I’m constantly describing to myself how things feel. Food is only half taste – I have to get the texture of it, how it feels on my tongue. The sting of a single snowflake melting on my cheek. I’ll ignore a growing itch until I can tell myself what it feels like, then relish in the scratching as I describe THAT feeling…

    I watch my dogs (6 of ’em) and create conversations between them depending on what they’re doing…

  • bonesweetbone

    I like to steal other peoples’ characters. Not for anything nefarious, of course, but oftentimes I’ll find myself imagining how I would react if they just appeared in the real world from the middle of their stories. How I’d react. How they’d react. That sort of thing. Even more fun if they aren’t from modern times.

    I’m bad about editing things as I read, too. I’m just as harsh with my own work, though.

  • Misty, I definitely do that, too — rehearsing difficult interactions. That, to me at least, is a bit different, thought it certainly draws on the same skill set. 🙂 And yes to the fragment collection…

    Razz, thanks. Sounds like you and I have many of the same tendencies.

    Lyn, that conversation with your father sounds all too familiar. I remember early in my career explaining my creative process to my brother — and he is an artist, too, but a visual artist — and he looked at me as if I was from outer space. We are just Different.

    Bone, oh yes, I am tough, tough, tough on my own work — far more than I am on anyone else’s. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t read-edit everything.

  • sagablessed

    I am like Faith. At work I get weird looks because I speak outloud dialogue and practice the gestures without knowing it. I even have been told I do the voices.
    When I have difficulty writing, I use a lit candle and a cup of tea as a prayer for inspiration. I will also take a walk and just watch and listen to other people. It is amazing how much inspiration I find when just being a recipient of other’s lives.

    On a side note….writing is hard work. Work I love, but hard work none the less.