By Mark Stevens
Two random tidbits last week got me fired up.
The first was from a story in The New Yorker about new research into the positive effects of psychedelic drugs—psilocybin in particular.
The second was a line uttered by Alexandra Fuller during a podcast of her Tattered Cover presentation for her new memoir, Leaving Before the Rains Come.
Combined, the two comments got me stewing over inertia, anesthesia, deadness, stasis, status quo, acceptance, monotony, stability, order, constancy and all those other awful traits which are the bane of good fiction and the certainly mean the beginning of a long slow death for a good character.
Okay, let me back up a tad.
In the New Yorker story called “The Trip Treatment,” author Michael Pollan (author of many fine books about food, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma) dropped the following little bomb:
Most psychologists believe that your personality is “fixed” by age thirty “and thereafter is unlikely to substantially change.”
One of the cool side effects that scientists are studying is the ability of hallucinogens to alter thought patterns—and personality—not only during the “trip” but after as well. Addictions are being eliminated, for instance, and attitudes permanently altered through “psychedelic therapy.”
My mind was blown—these are researchers at top-flight institutions like N.Y.U. and John Hopkins looking into treating patients and improving the quality of life through a properly dosed trip. In the instruction manual for those taking psychedelic trips as part of the research, they are encouraged to face their monsters. Isn’t that the basis of most great fiction? (It’s a great article.)
Okay, hold that thought for a second but, if you’re over 30 years old, do you think your character is “fixed?” Do you think the personality of your characters, if they are over 30 years old, is locked in place? Are they really facing their monsters?
Next, Alexandra Fuller’s speech at The Tattered Cover attacked—and I do mean attacked—how men have generally screwed up the world and it’s time for the male of the species to step aside and give women a shot. Can’t be much worse, can it?
This was one of many themes in a powerful talk about identity and self and women finding true, unadorned freedom.
Fuller is a force. She’s feisty, forward and, from what I gather, fearless. (Must now read Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.)
Anyway, Fuller talked a lot about society growing comfortable and complacent and encouraged everyone listening to get down to their “absolute bedrock of self” and understand what voices are running their lives. Her message was aimed particularly at women, almost kind of a “rise up out of your chairs” speech from the movie “Network.” She invoked Franz Kafka’s rejoinder that it’s a writer’s duty to take an axe to the “frozen sea” inside us.
Here’s one nugget from Fuller: “If someone else is in possession of your mind, then you’re not in possession of your voice.”
And, back to the magazine story about psychedelic study, another researcher noted how we all pay a “steep price” for the order and ego in the adult mind. Adults, he said, give up their “ability to be open to surprises, our ability to think flexibly, and our ability to value nature.”
Writes Pollan: “The sovereign ego can be a despot.”
I’m not here with answers.
I’m not here with “ta da.”
I’m just here to wonder about my characters and how to give them a good jolt.
If they aren’t challenging the voices in their heads, the voices running their lives, then they are slouching and slipping toward anesthesia.
And that’s not a recipe for powerful stories.
So I’ve got to figure out a way to have them face their monsters, grab the axe and whack the frozen sea.
Maybe I need to send them on a little trip.