When I was six years old, my family took a trip on a ferry boat. I don’t remember where it was or where we were going, but what I do remember is my sister—only eight or nine at the time—telling my mother that the woman standing by the railing was about to jump. Since the woman did not appear to be doing anything unusual, our mother dismissed my sister’s prediction as the workings of an over-active imagination. But ten or twenty minutes later, as the ferry boat neared the dock, the woman climbed over the railing and dropped into the water. *
Did my sister notice some tiny details of behavior that no one else had observed? Did she have a true psychic experience, the curtain of space-time rippling open for a few seconds? Or was it something in between—an innate intuition about how people are feeling, what they might do?
My sister went on to have many more experiences like that one, most of them not quite as dramatic but still surprising. I, on the other hand, have never had any psychic ability. In fact, I would say I have the opposite of psychic ability. Virtually every prediction I have made (whether aloud or in my head) has not come true—which is probably a good thing, given that my predictions tend to be on the order of “This plane is about to crash” or “My wife is about to run away with that really successful writer who looks like Ryan Gosling.”
Given that writing is all about understanding the human heart, seeing where it is, why it is doing what it is doing, where it might go, you would expect my sister to be the novelist in the family and me to be an accountant or mobile app programmer. In fact, it’s almost the opposite. I am the novelist in my family, and my sister has, for a large part of her life, been the journalist.
Think about that: The person with the near-psychic intuition gravitates toward the factual here and now—reporting on events that are already in the past—whereas the person with no intuition at all makes his living (if you can call it that) imagining what other people might do, how they might act. Does that make any sense?
Well, it might. Because I think I do have some intuition, though not nearly as dramatic as my sister’s. At one of my previous jobs, I amused myself and my co-workers by writing a soap opera based loosely on personalities within the company. In this soap opera, two co-workers were having a torrid love affair on a deserted island. Later, one of these people complained, and I found out why: she was having an affair with the other co-worker. At first I kicked myself for being so clueless, but I wasn’t really clueless. I had observed enough about these two people to know that there was some attraction between them. I just didn’t know I’d observed it.
So maybe there are different types of intuition. One might be attuned to the present—understanding what is going on and why in a way that other people might not see. Another might be attuned to the future—being able to predict, based on very little information, what people are going to do, where they might go. Another could be about the heart—being able to see with utmost clarity all the pathos and turmoil going on inside a person. Maybe there is even an intuition for the past—being able to see events in ways that would never occur to other people.
What does any of this have to do with writing? Well, we like to think of writers as particularly insightful people—deep-thinking deep-feeling souls who are able to peer into the human psyche, unfold it like a complicated piece of origami. And there may be some truth to that (he said very self-servingly). But what if it isn’t about insight?
So much has been written about how the subconscious mind influences creativity—how the most important and/or surprising aspects of a book often seem to come from hidden wellsprings within the author. But I would go one step further and wonder if maybe intuition is the driving force—the shuttle that runs back and forth between the real world and the subconscious, delivering tiny treasures of information to the subconscious and bearing the reaction—fear, pathos, understanding, excitement—back to the surface.
I picture it as a mechanism composed of two powerful impulses. The first is to obsessively gather certain kinds of information—nuggets of sight, sound, action, words that, for whatever reason, the subconscious craves. The second is to take whatever the subconscious has made of these nuggets—the shiver or thrills or tears or sheer curiosity—and deliver them back to the surface in the form that feels most essential.
Thus, an eight year old girl takes in clues no one else has noticed, maybe because at a young age she is already super-attuned to people who are distraught and dysfunctional. The clues ring an alarm deep inside her, and once the alarm is rung, her intuition drives her to report what she’s seen. The shuttle has made its complete trip.
Does that mean everyone has some kind of intuition? If so, why isn’t everyone a novelist? I’m not sure about the first question. As for the second, I think that every intuition comes with its own means of expression, and that means may or may not be creative. My sister’s intuition led her to report what she saw. What career did she end up in? Reporter. My intuition led me to create a story about two people having an affair. What career did I end up in? Fiction writer.
What’s your intuition? Does it influence your writing? Or do you have other ways to express it?
* Thanks in part to my sister’s concern, the woman did not slip into the water unnoticed. The crew stopped the ferry and fished her out, and her suicide attempt—or whatever it was—failed.