Monday Motivation: The multiverse of your imagination
I am large, I contain multitudes, wrote Walt Whitman.
And it’s true. We waltz through our lives playing an infinite number of roles. There’s our breakfast self, our boardroom self, our fatherly self, our damaged self, our autocratic self…
And we hope that, threaded through all of these performances, there’s a true self that brings together in some fairly robust synthesis all these contradictory personalities.
If our armies become unruly, we have a problem, ground control. Those multitudes can run amok, and give rise to the sort of disorder that inspired books like The Three Faces of Eve, or Sybil.
Charles Dickens’s army consisted of over 2 000 distinct characters. He peopled his stories with Magwitches and Copperfields, Uriah Heeps and the Barnacle family, Martin Chuzzlewit and Miss Havisham, each a splinter, if you like, of his own personality, each of them a possibility in the multiverse of his imagination.
Which brings me round, naturally, to Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, who, in 1862 met with Dickens, a writer whose work he greatly admired, to talk about writing and literature. Years later, Dostoevsky published an account of that meeting in which Dickens spoke about his creative process.
Here’s what Dostoevsky wrote: ‘He told me that all the good, simple people in his novels are what he wanted to have been; and his villains were what he was, or, rather, what he found in himself, his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless, and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me, one who feels as he ought to feel, and one who feels the opposite. “From the one who feels the opposite, I make my evil characters; from the one who feels as a man ought to feel, I try to live my life…”’
Caught within each of us are, as Whitman said, multitudes. We’re a more or less integrated amalgam of beneficence and mischief. Writers seek to tease out these different strands and make of each separate impulse a character. For our complex characters, we weave together contradictory threads: the desire to do good in the world and the contradictory desire to destroy our enemies.
Writing demands honesty of us primarily, I believe, because it requires that we hold up to scrutiny these less than admirable traits that we must acknowledge are just as much, and just as legitimate, aspects of who we are, as our more commendable qualities.
We can write about selfish monsters because we recognize within ourselves the makings of a selfish monster; we can write about the talented Mr Ripley because there is within us the seed of a ruthless psychopath. We can be kind – but we can also imagine what it’s like to be cruel, because cruelty, like kindness, is also one of our potentialities.
These are uncomfortable thoughts, but if they were not true, then Dickens could not have left us his legacy, nor Shakespeare his.
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: The characters who shape our lives‘