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On the Far Side of the Curtain: The Psychology of a Fledgling Author

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Imagination is more important than knowledge. Albert Einstein

A friend of mine had this quote tattooed prominently on her left forearm. She is a writer.

So am I.

She is an author.

I will be.

My first novel will be published soon. I'm excited. And scared.

Imagination is the stock in trade of creative writers.

Knowledge is too, but I think the idea behind Einstein's observation is that knowledge is acquired. Imagination is, simply, not lost then grows and matures and is refined by each individual creative writer.

Children have wonderful, active, and unfettered imaginations, don't they? They talk to imaginary friends. They scribble with crayons on a piece of paper and call it their house. They fear monsters under the bed in the middle of the night. My childhood demon was the Wolfman created by Lon Chaney Jr.

Children live in different worlds much of the time. Adults smile indulgently and pull out the hackneyed reassurance, "They'll grow out of it."

Eventually, most people come to believe that our imaginary friends don't really exist. That scribbles are only scribbles, except to Hermann Rorschach. That monsters do not live under the bed. Most people slowly close the door on their realm of fantasy. Many lock that door. Far too many throw away the key never to look back.

Most creative writers either never close that door, or don't lock it so they can sneak back in from time to time.

Many, like me, tear it down forever and replace it with a transparent curtain, then focus on the ability to ease back and forth across its border.

I'll leave it to psychologists to determine the cost of trading in our imaginary friends and the monsters under the bed for worldly wisdom. For me, I don't know what I would do without them.

On the far side of the curtain, you see, is the unshackled, limitless imagination.

When I create a novel or short story, I cross that transparent curtain and stride happily into the middle of that world to take in everything around me. Characters form. Situations arise. The characters react to those situations. I write it all down, including descriptions of, oh ... say a gothic house, the dead shrubbery surrounding it, the smell of petroleum on the grassless lawn where rusted-out cars once sat. I heart rate increases because behind the front door stands the monster that still occupies the dark under my bed.

The characters speak. I listen, then write it down. I even take on the role of each character speaking the dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds natural and authentic.

What about those characters? How do I invent them?

I don't.

Once I'm on the far side of the curtain the characters introduce themselves to me. Just walk right up and shake my hand or give me a good ol' bearhug. They tell me about themselves and I pay attention. Once we're properly introduced, they play out scenes. I watch. Those scenes and situations that make me laugh, cry, think, thrill me, or otherwise move me, make it onto the page.

In this world, I make the acquaintance of many different people, all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, proclivities and eccentricities. Don't mistake me. Ultimately, all of them come from me. Are me.

Yes, even the villains.

Whatever actions these horrific folks take, I have to justify, or they will read like a mustache twirling Snidely Whiplash who ties the ingenue to the railroad track for no reason beyond pure cackling evil. I have to give make them plausible. To this, I have to get under their skin and believe in these despicable actions myself, even if only briefly.

Actors refer to this justification process as "playing Hitler."

To justify the actions of my not-so-savory characters, I ask that question that we Baby Boomers have to endure with an eyeroll from the Millennials. Why? I have to be able to get into characters hearts and minds by asking why. I get out of it by providing satisfactory answers. So, when the villain acts, it is me.

Pretty vulnerable, huh?

When someone reads my villains and tells me, "Rock, I wanted to strangle that son-of-a-biscuit," I succeeded.

When a child of my imaginations dies, and someone cries, I succeeded.

And here, I go through a mini-grieving process when I kill a character I love. Not just because I'm losing that person. But, I'm the dying person, too. I go through the entire Elisabeth Kübler-Ross model. You remember those five stages? Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. I know them well. I've been through them more times than I can count.

If someone says, "I didn't believe a word of it," then I failed. Somehow, I let my character or characters down. I didn't get into his or her head and heart enough to know them, so I tried to fake it on the page. I didn't fully cross the curtain into the next world. I played it safe. And the story sucked.

The latter has happened more times than I'd like to think about.

I'm a long way from having this process mastered, but the times I have mastered it have given me the highest of highs.

By getting to know these children of mine, I expand my knowledge of humanity because I live them myself, even if vicariously.

I can understand racists because I've experienced that inner fear they have of not being as good as others, then unfairly placing the blame outwardly on an entire group of people. It's a lashing out from the pain and paranoia. It's an abused dog who tries to bite someone trying to save it. It's an instinctual response to abject fear. No child was ever born a racist. No dog was ever born vicious. Something happened somewhere in their upbringing. When I can see that in characters, I can work with them and be true to them even though I deplore their actions. That's how an actor plays Hitler. That's how great villains are created.

The thing is, I can only see it and experience it on the far side of the curtain. In the real world, I can only think it and, to a small degree, feel it.

What about this notion of characters introducing themselves to me?

In a novel I hope to publish next year, I have a mixed race lesbian couple as major supporting characters. I didn't wake up and think, "Wow. I think I'll create a mixed race lesbian couple today. Wouldn't that be cool?" The characters presented themselves to me and told me who they were. One, because I couldn't think of a married last name for her. Then it occurred that she had not married. What about love, I asked her. She answered. Yes. Now, I understand. The second character, her life partner, came to me through her dialogue in the same way.

Automatic writing? Oh, yes. I believe very much in that.

When done right, the process really is organic.

"But you're a middle-aged white heterosexual male, how can you create them," you ask. "How can you understand them? How can you portray them with any degree of accuracy? Isn't that cultural appropriation?"

Not even close. Can we burn that notion right now, please?

They're human. I'm human. We all-of-us experience love, hate, hope and fear. We all have prejudices and eccentricities. We all laugh. We all cry. We can all comfort, and, yes, we can all kill. So, when the character differs from my norm, whether the character is Muslim, gay, or a young woman of the nineteenth century, I begin the exploration process with those qualities we all share before projecting outward to those things unique to an individual character.

Essentially, I relate to them on a human level first, then move on to distinguishing features. For those, I have research.

I do this with animals, too. I begin with those qualities we share as living creatures. If you've ever noticed the difference between a dog lowering its head in sadness and tucking its tail between its legs from fear, or wildly wagging that tail while jumping on its human to lick that well-loved face from sheer joy, then you understand what I mean. We've all been sad. We've all been frightened. We've all experienced exuberant joy.

That is where I begin.

In the same way, I can understand drug abuse because I have abused food and alcohol, more so than I'd like to think about. I don't wash my hands fifty times a day, but I can relate to people who are that obsessive about it because I have my own eccentricities. Those eccentricities, even though they differ, tie us all together regardless of the externals.

Charles Dickens had to touch things three times before moving on. Okay, fine. He insisted on arranging his room so that his head pointed north when he slept (even in hotels). Great. He gave each of his ten children ridiculous nicknames like Lucifer Box, The Ocean Spectre, Chickenstalker, Mr. H. Plorn, and Skittles. Yes, he nicknamed his child for a candy that had not yet been invented.

But I understand all of that because I wear Aloha shirts as much as I can, despite my friends' good-natured derisions and scorn. I have a collection of 68. I love the spirit of Aloha and Ohana.

The thing is, though characters introduce themselves to me, they have to take themselves through my life experiences and fantasies to find their own. That's why every character has me in them. Yes, even the villains.

For me, writing has always been a psychological endeavor because my stories are character driven. I talk to them. They talk to me. I listen. By doing that, I learn about people all over the world of so very many persuasions. I learn to appreciate beliefs I don't necessarily share. I can understand them or come damn close if I am completely honest with myself, and I am on the far side of the curtain.

I try to keep the threshold between that curtain in mind. The trick is to know that the curtain is there; to see it like waves of heat rising off the earth. But only crossing over when in storytelling mode. I'm still trying to lift the curtain up only when writing, and immediately ring it down when the work is over.

Oh, but most times I enjoy the far side of that curtain too much, especially after a few drinks. Sometimes because of a few drinks.

Many, if not most, creative writers enjoy the fantasy world more than the real one. They'd rather be on the far side of the curtain. So would I, but I learned that it is not in anyone's best interest, especially mine.

Does this have anything to do with the autism spectrum? Just asking.

Crossing back from the far side can be difficult, sometimes impossible. Look at the lengthy list of creative writers who have abused alcohol and drugs over time.

Edgar Allan Poe pretty much drank himself to death. As did Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dylan Thomas. Toss in Jack London, Carson McCullers, and Jack Kerouac.

Capote even knew what he was doing.

"I drink," he said, "because it the only time I can stand it."

Hemingway put it another way. "A man doesn't exist until he is drunk."

Drinking is one of the fast ways to cross over to the far side of the curtain.

Dorothy Parker made it to 73 before dying of a heart attack brought on by longtime alcohol abuse. Louisa May Alcott died at 55 of a stroke. A decades-long addiction to laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) didn't help. Samuel Taylor Coleridge also took opium. Robert Louis Stevenson loved him some cocaine out there on Treasure Island. He was only 44 when he died.

Tennessee Williams became a lifelong alcoholic at an early age.

Stephen King was pretty much addicted to everything before an intervention organized by his wife Tabitha started him on the road to sobriety. Bless his heart, he turns 71 this year. You go, Steve!

A number of great creative writers aggressively and deliberately (as opposed to accidentally) committed suicide like Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and Sylvia Plath. Ditto Hunter S. Thompson and Anne Sexton.

John O'Brien committed suicide at 33 after selling the movie rights to his novel Leaving Las Vegas, the story of an alcoholic writer who alienated everyone he knew, then left it all behind to drink himself to death in, you guessed it, Las Vegas. Was the novel a long suicide note? O'Brien's father thought so.

It's a hard novel to read. It's a hard movie to watch, but I was drawn to each like a fly to a spider web.

I threw away the book and movie because spiders eat flies.

Why is this? Why?

Simply, most creative writers, including myself, prefer the world on the far side of the curtain. It's a world of people who want to be around us, not people who look at us as eccentrics, even freaks, while simultaneously praising our stories. We are more comfortable there, more at ease surrounded by the children of our mind. We are accepted for who we are. We are loved.

I have created women I've fallen in love with and would give anything to escort back into reality.

Besides drinking, a snort of cocaine, a swig of laudanum, or a few pills offer entry into that seemingly perfect world. Too many of us are more than willing to pay that price ... at least once.

In my case, sanity reminds me that I can't those women back. Of course, that knowledge doesn't make it easier to take, and may help explain why I haven't had a serious relationship in more than 30 years.

It stands to reason, doesn't it? I created those women I long to bring back. Of course, they're perfect, even with the flaws that every realistic fictional character has. No woman in the real world can compete with the creations of the mind, right? That's a bit oversimplified, but there is truth in it. The real world isn't nearly so predictable.

Creative writers have control of their world on the far side of the curtain. It's so tempting to stay there sometimes.

Writers often become depressed after finishing a work because of the intensity of the experiences on the far side of the curtain. After that intensity, they have to say goodbye to that beautiful, complex world they created.

William Faulkner went on benders that lasted months. So did Capote ... for years.

And it's because each of the worlds we create doesn't last. Each is fleeting. Each becomes solid, then dissolves from our imagination onto the pages of a manuscript and we are left alone again, to cope with a world we don't understand nearly as well.

Something has to replace it, or trouble isn't far behind.

I try to read, or go to a movie, or invite people to dinner. Maybe start a new project. Maybe take a long drive listening to music, or an audio book. Writing an article like this helps tremendously. I'm lucky because I can play the guitar, decently for an amateur. I can sing brilliantly if no one is listening, other than my friends on the far side of the curtain. To them, I'm Elvis, Roy Orbison, and Bruno Mars all rolled into one. Ed Sheeran, too. I like him.

Most of us learn to cope with reality and accept the winks and the subtle finger-pointings of those who have thrown away the key to their imagination. Most of us have friends on the reality side of the curtain, both writers and non-writers, who understand and empathize. Friends who are there for us and, for whom, we are there. These people are our foundation. I like to think I help my friends, writing and non-writing. If I don't, then I am negligent because they sure help me.

But then again, I have spent solitary evenings overeating and overdrinking. Time after time after time. Some evenings chicken fried steak with cream gravy, mashed potatoes, corn and rolls dripping with butter eased that horrible pain; that empty feeling that the time I spend alone trying to communicate with others hasn't worked. Maybe even a slice or two or three of pecan pie as an exclamation point. Other nights it took a couple of bottles of wine. On far too many evenings, it took both.

I needed bariatric surgery on December 28, 2016, and, after that, a good long look in the mirror.

I understand better now. Hell, I should. I'm 60 years old.

But it's a precarious stability. It's walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls with no balancing beam. One misstep, and you're in trouble. Panic, and you die.

Those who panic and stay on the far side of the curtain too much for too long end up like Raymond Chandler and Shirley Jackson. Those who can't cope at all with the corporeal world wind up like Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and Sylvia Plath.

Maybe I'm just reminding myself yet again that when I raise the curtain, walk over, and have a party with the children of my mind, I have to be careful, especially when I have a glass or two (or six) of wine beside me—or inside me. Or ... no, I'm not going there. I've come so far this last year and a half, and I'm determined not to give in. But, it is an ongoing battle.

My saving grace is that I learn about myself through creative writing. I learn about other people, too. Their hopes and fears. Their goodness and their evil. And I love that. I can bring all of it back across the curtain into reality and find happiness here. Though I prefer the far side of the curtain, and am more comfortable there, I have more than come to terms with the near side. I even like it. Some days, I love it.

Of course, I still have monsters under the bed. I always will. And that's okay.

Consider this, though. I'm currently a year and half younger than Ernest Hemingway was when he sent himself to the far side of the curtain forever. By that point, he had published everything he ever would.


I'm just getting started and confident (most times) that I have a long way to go.

For me the psychology of creative writing on the near side of our curtain is best expressed by Hemingway, himself.

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

On the far side lies whatever you want. Whatever your heart desires. It takes amazing strength to walk away. I hope that I always have that strength.

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Rocky Hatley

Rocky began his professional creative journey as an actor. He is a twenty-seven-year member of the Screen Actors Guild (now SAG-AFTRA) and has appeared on the shows Divorce Court, SuperForce, and Welcome Freshman among others. He also played two roles in the movie New! Improved! Real-Life American Fairy Tale.

He has taught recreational SCUBA diving under PADI and SSI and counts Palancar Reef in Cozumel as the ultimate in scenic SCUBA diving, especially the caves.

He enjoys visiting friends, travel, and playing his guitar, and is proud to be the human of Captain Hook, his 17-year-old tuxedo cat. And yes, he really does have a collection of 68 Aloha shirts.

Rocky's novel Catch a Falling Star under the name R. O. Hatley will soon be available as an eBook and paperback. He is currently constructing his website rohatley.com and his author Facebook page R. O. Hatley.

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