Suitcase Secrets

Finding inspiration for ‘The Bird Box’ in unexpected places.

 

When a dead man speaks people listen. There is just something compelling about a voice that reaches out to us from beyond the grave. I’m not referring to spooks here, but rather to mankind’s phenomenal ability to impress ourselves onto the fabric of this world even long after the physical self has departed.

Music, literature, art, etc., are some of the common daily communications we have with the dead. The emotive essence lingers on. But for one fragment of society their voices came forward in a much humbler way.

When I set out to write my novel The Bird Box I spent some time on the grounds and in the buildings of a former insane asylum. Although the physical location was beautiful it was best described as a melancholy beauty. The memory of the former patients lingered.

I began to wonder about them. Not as patients but as people. Who were they? Before and during their committal’s? What had their lives been like? Their childhoods? Had they flown kites? Liked kittens? Plums? Had they been bold and adventurous or shy and cautious? What had formed their hopes and dreams and secret fears?

I went to the Mental Health Archives in search of answers. I found none. Researching patient files was often heartbreaking. Not so much by what was written there, but by the lack thereof.

After the initial admittance notes there was very little new information. Staff were busy and it was not uncommon to have whole lives –40–50–60– years condensed down to a few brief notes.

The brevity of it haunted me. Not that I blamed the staff. Their hands were more than full with practical matters. But still, it felt inhumane to me that whole lives had been pared down to a few paltry lines. I wanted to know who these people were. Above and beyond the narrow label of psychiatric patient.

I was soon to find out. Their voices began a torrent of stories into my mind. They demanded a place on my page. They had stories to tell; lives and loves, laughter and tears. They too had experienced great joys and devastating loss. They had suffered deeply as well and yet none of these things fully defined them.

Synchronistically, as I was writing their stories I was sent a link to Jon Crispin’s stunningly evocative photographs of the Willard Asylum Suitcases. Jon’s photographs visually dovetailed so perfectly with my written efforts to portray the person behind the label of psychiatric patient that I knew immediately I had to travel to the exhibit The Changing Face of What is Normal in San Francisco to further explore his work.

What followed was an astounding opportunity to speak with the dead. Or rather – listen. Displayed alongside some of Jon’s photographs were the original suitcases and their contents. Each suitcase, no matter how carefully or haphazardly it had been packed for that initial trip to the asylum, spoke volumes to me. Each one was a virtual time-capsule illuminating the individuality of its owner. Bibles and poetry books, family pictures, lotions, musical instruments, detailed diaries, loving letters. Objects as seemingly disparate from one another as mending kits and (in one case) a small hand-gun. Items that symbolically spoke of the desperate need to either mend or end the suffering.

Few people in our society’s history have been so reviled and disenfranchised as the mentally ill. Our discomfort and fear of those we could not understand or control led to some less than glorious years.

Those committed to the care of an asylum were in some ways excommunicated from the rest of humanity. They were held in institutions where their sense of autonomy was met with resistance. Their personal mail was opened and relieved of any unsettling or dissenting content. Their objections were routinely overruled. Not only did they become powerless they became voiceless as well.

Obviously it was far easier to silence people back then in an age before today’s instant and ubiquitous technology. Problematic dissenters were easier to erase; sometimes permanently.

And sometimes not so permanently as evidenced with the Willard suitcases. The contents of the suitcases serve to form an intimate choir of ghostly voices. They speak of each person’s individuality. Of their uniqueness. Some of them give evidence of seemingly competent minds while others show an obviously distorted grip on reality. Mental illness can be frightening. Perhaps to no one more so than to the person caught within its shifting shadows.

The people who filled the wards of the former insane asylums were as individual as they were unique. To paint them all the same would be but an erroneous reverse stroke of history. The contents of the suitcases they left behind now speak formidably for these long dead patients.

I have listened to their stories and endeavoured to capture the echo of their hearts and minds in my novel The Bird Box. These were people who contributed to the diversity of life. And their lives mattered.

http://www.willardsuitcases.com

I love creating worlds where readers get that eerie feeling that, somehow, it all feels strangely real to them. It’s the most intimate form of communication. My words birthing visions in the reader’s mind.

 

I truly love this novel. The quirky but inspirational characters who have come to feel like my friends after so many long hours together writing their stories. I am excited to finally get to introduce them to you. Please let me know your thoughts on this story. So many questions raised. Lots of thought-provoking moments. A few tugs at the heart strings. And of course a good deal of laughter because even in the midsts of hardship the indominatable human spirit will insist on finding humour!

 

And I love that as well.  - KJ Steele

 

Someone once likened beginning a  fictional work as being similar to approaching a blank wall. A wall that has no windows and no doors, and yet your job as a writer is to get to the other side. And I think that is a very apt description. Where does one begin? I may have vague reflections of misty characters flowing around me, but what do they say? And how do they say it? What do they care about? What causes them to wince? What makes them laugh?

Of course, sometimes the job is easier and the characters flow across the page with bossy pronouncements of what makes them upset, or exactly what they would like to say. In instances like this, I am challenged to listen carefully, and try to keep up with the story unfolding within me. But, generally, these moments are gifts of sudden inspiration which occur randomly, and infrequently.

More often, at least for me, I am required to listen quietly to catch the current of story or character that is unfolding. My process then is to make a quick ‘sketch’ of the direction the story-line is taking. Usually this piece of writing is very ‘skeletal’. Once I have completed ‘telling myself’ where the story is going, I will re-write the whole section several times, each time filling in, shadowing and high-lighting the story with words and phrasing much the same way an artist would layer the detail onto their paintings.

My novel No Story to Tell was written with a combination of these methods. Actually, I never intended to write a novel at all. My intent was to–‘create two characters and a conflict, and write a paragraph’– an assignment for an evening writing class. As soon as my pencil hit the paper, however, I was swept away, trying to keep pace with the words flowing through my head and onto my page. Clearly, someone had something they wanted to say . . . and had apparently been holding their tongue for quite some time!

So who, or what part of me, was that which spilled the story forward at the first sign of a blank page? Certainly it was not the ‘conscious’ part of me. I had never had so much as a glancing thought about the characters, or the story which was now barging into my life. I was continually surprised by new characters and plot twists. Several times over the course of writing my novel, when a previously unforeseen situation presented itself, I said, “Well now, I wouldn’t of thought of that.”

I believe No Story to Tell emerged from a place deep inside of me. A place deep within my sub-conscious mind, where the novel could incubate and grow free of my conscious mind’s internal censors. It truly was a story that demanded to be told. All it required was for me to listen carefully, get out of my own way, and be disciplined enough to set the words down on the paper. I wish I could say that was as easy as it sounds. It wasn’t.

No Story to Tell was not always an easy novel to write. There were times when I would have quit, if I’d been able to. But I wasn’t able to. The process of writing it both challenged, and changed me. It is my hope that those who read it will be inspired toward positive change as well.

 

 

 

I do not journal. A pursuit, I am led to believe by some, that is almost synonymous with being a writer. I had a writer friend once, who was so distraught about my lack of journalling, that she promptly went out and bought me my very own journal, as if that would somehow rectify the problem. Writer’s write, they say. Which is true enough, of course, but we do not all necessarily write in journals.

To be fair, I must admit, I did attempt to fill that gift-book of accusingly empty pages. I even had a good run at it, diligently filling several. ‘Ah,’ I’d thought, so this is how it is to journal. Not so hard. Just a random run through the mind and an effortless setting down of thoughts. Easy. Until I glanced back over my words and read what had crawled onto my page. A few quick rips, the flick of a Bic, and my journal became empty once again. And stayed that way.

Writing is a courageous act. An author allows their innermost self to blister and fester and swoon across the page. You display yourself in a glass jar, out on the shelf for others to peer into, and judge or mis-judge, at leisure. And, you do not have the luxury of ripping out the un-pretty glimpses you would rather keep hidden.

Writing, at least for me, is bound by a certain contract. I do not so much think up what I will write, as I listen for the words that want to be written. Sometimes, the words are pleasant and playful. But, more often, they are direct and insightful. Sometimes, they dig a little deeper than I have been happy to follow. But, like I mentioned, for me, writing is a contract. I am committed to writing down whatever comes forward. Whether I want to own it or not. We all have our secret selves that act out discreetly inside our minds. A writer takes that self and exposes it straight across the page.

Which is not to suggest that all writing is a direct reflection of its author. Part of the fun of writing creatively is having the chance to play ‘dress-up’ with various characters. I don’t necessarily want to be a swamp-mouthed, whiskey-drinking ex-nun living in an abandoned rail-road car in upstate New York–but it really is interesting, and often surprising–to try that character on and roam around inside that sort of life for a while. Vicarious living as a career, I suppose you could say.

And that is where writing really opens doors for an author. There is no place that can hold us or restrict us. With the pen as our steed and our imaginations as our wings, the author becomes a Pegasus of freedom. As long as we are willing to be swept away into worlds never visited–and courageous enough to share with our readers what we find there–there is simply no place we cannot go, no character we cannot be, and no life we cannot live. And there is a great expansiveness in that.

 

It was an illuminating moment for me when I first became aware of the music playing in my writing. I was part way through a sentence, the words temporarily eluding me in the hide and seek game they sometimes play, when all of a sudden I realized I had a vague cadence dancing through my mind, offering to take me gracefully forward. Sitting quietly, I could hear the tone of the last word which would sum up my non-existent sentence. Except there were no words offered as the bridge which would propel me there. Just the ethereal music of the way the sentence would, not only sound, but also feel.

When the words eventually emerged, I wrote them down with a new respect, more aware of their internal rhythm. It changed the way in which I write. Now, when I become lost in the forest of blankness, I merely fall quiet in my mind and wait. Sometimes, the words will push themselves forward. Other times, I have to listen for their music first, be patient with their vaporous dance before they will reveal themselves in bodily form. While at times quite lovely, this discovery of the symphony forming in my novel, No Story to Tell, also presented a few challenges.

When the time came to subject the manuscript to a rigorous copy-editing, there were a few occasions where my copy-editor felt it was best to re-structure some of the sentences. Upon reading his proposed recommendations, I had to agree his suggestions had merit. Often, a longer sentence, when split into two, or even three, shorter, more concise sentences, becomes more reader-friendly. I struggled greatly with these changes. In a few instances, I applied the new structure. I re-read the sentences over and over. Yes, they were now better in form. They would have made my high-school English teacher mark them off enthusiastically with a bright, bold, red check mark. But, I couldn’t do it. They had lost their music. Grammatically correct, but somewhat soul-less. If this was a symphony that had played out on my page, then it was up to me not to erase the cadence of that gentle beat with my writer’s baton. In the end, I reverted almost every sentence back to its original form. (Fortunately, I was working with a very wise and extremely patient copy-editor who understood what I was attempting to achieve.)

This proved to be a valuable learning experience for me as an author. It taught me to trust the innate flow and movement of a piece of writing. It taught me that prose is far more than just words strung together across the page to tell a story. Prose– or at least my style of prose– is more like an intricate dance, each word a note specifically placed, creating a strong internal rhythm for the reader.

 


Have you ever wondered if you can be born into the wrong life? It is a question I have occasionally asked myself, somewhat seriously, at various junctures in my own life. I suspect it is a question many people wonder about, even if the calling forth of the actual words seem too risky. It is certainly a question the protagonist in my novel No Story to Tell tries very hard not to ask herself.

So, what does it actually mean to be born into the wrong life? I’m sure virtually every teenager would attest most strenuously that they are positive they have been way-laid by a directionally-challenged stork. Most teenagers look at their parents’ oh-so-uncool behavior and sum up rather quickly that they have obviously been adopted and their real parents (who are currently busy fronting some frothing music group) will eventually be back around to pick them up. This is (sort-of) normal adolescence wishful thinking, though, and not really what I’m referring to with my question.

For me, feeling like I may have been born into the wrong life was a bit more subtle. That vague discomfort that settles over you as you look around and watch everyone else leading seemingly contented lives, while you feel a steady pick-pick-pick inside of you. You feel like you should be somewhere else. Doing something different. You walk through your days, but the world around you does not feed you. You are malnourished in some inexplicable way. There is a clear sense that something is missing. And, you cannot help but wonder, if it is possible that you simply do not fit inside the life you were born into.

How many uber-talented dancers, artists, musicians, mathematicians, etc., have languished inside of their brilliance for the simple reason that they were born into an unsupportive environment? How many flames have burnt out in the solitary rooms of unproductive lives? And, if they had been born into different circumstances, how brightly could they have shone? I’ve spent a great deal of time researching the patient archives of early insane asylums for my next novel, and I often find the residue there of creative lives snuffed out. Born into the wrong time. Born into the wrong life. Their stories haunt me.

I’m sure there are many different view-points on this, and I’d love to hear back from you regarding yours. For myself, I have come to look at it this way: Perhaps when we are born into a life that is wrong for us, we have merely been given the opportunity to grow into a life that is more fitting. But, truly, I have to admit, it’s a rather tidy hypothesis. And it would have been completely useless to all those whose lives were locked away behind the asylum walls.

 

Today for Day 5 of my January 2012 Virtual Book Tour with Pump Up Your Book I visit Mad Moose Mama. Stop by to see what she thought of “No Story to Tell.” Thanks so much for following my tour!

Today for Day 4 of my January 2012 Virtual Book Tour with Pump Up Your Book I visit Jersey Girl Book Reviews and talk about Victoria.  Stop on by to see what I have to say.  Thanks so much for following my tour!

 

Today for Day 3 of my January 2012 Virtual Book Tour with Pump Up Your Book I visit Passion for Novels and  Jersey Girl Book Reviews come on over to see what is going on.  Thanks so much for following my tour!

 

Today for Day 2 of my January 2012 Virtual Book Tour with Pump Up Your Book I visit Everyday is an Adventure, come on over to see what she says about the book.  Thanks so much for following my tour!