Magical Realism and Realistic Magic: How Stories Come Alive and Keep Us Alive

The three books in my Other Place series are magical realism books. The reason for this, technically, is that the main characters experience shared dreams and sometimes foray into psychotic states.

I have a hard time calling that magical realism. Shared psychosis is real. I’ve seen it, and I’ve experienced it; not at quite the level my characters do, but pretty close.

The part of the series that seems magical to me is the overarching story. Many plot events are larger-than-life and fantastical. All the elements in the “real world” and the “dream world” fit together perfectly in a way that makes sense and is orderly.

That’s because an outside power is organizing them (me), and because there are a limited number of characters in the plot to affect events. If your life starts having a plotline that coherent, it’s either time to get your medication adjusted or go to church: the meddlesome Old Testament God is back and he’s got his eye on you.

Human beings create order where there is none. We constantly tell ourselves stories about the world in order to simplify and make sense of it. This process is what keeps us alive.

Our need to create order stems from an animal need for survival and procreation. We build houses, plow the earth into neat rows for crops, and comb our hair in order to get laid and have a safe, hospitable place to replicate our genes.  However, our need for order has far outstripped what is needed for those basic purposes. We essentially are in a battle against the unknown: we’re trying to organize the chaos into something we can understand and manage. We’re trying to build walls to keep out death.

That is because man cannot survive on bread alone. We have self-awareness and the ability to reason. Without claws and fur, we need to figure things out to survive. We do that by making connections between events and outcomes. But we make a lot of connections that don’t necessarily exist in a physical sense. Those false connections can take on such meaning in the context of a culture, however, that they affect human behavior a lot more than physical stimuli. Sometimes this results in whole groups of people being organized out of existence, because there’s no place for them in someone’s scheme of things, but often they work to our advantage.

These ethereal connections are based in our survival instinct, also, and in many ways they keep us alive. Our laws and moral sense—all of them stories about what is acceptable human behavior and what isn’t—make us feel safer and more comfortable, more in control of ourselves and surroundings, and can keep people from acting too much out of fear or anger. We also have rituals to help us through grief, trauma, and loss. This helps us make sense of the weirdness of life, so that we don’t go insane.

Most of us lose the thread of our cultural story sometimes, though. We look around and wonder WTF is going on in this crazy world, and why anyone even bothers trying to survive in a place that’s so messed up. Other animals don’t have to worry about this existential shit—this is our gift for being conscious, self-aware creatures. Happy birthday.

After those moments of angst, however, the great majority of people are able to pick up the common thread again and move on. Some of us have a harder time with that.

I’ve been diagnosed with all sorts of fairly insane-sounding disorders. If you ask me, my mind just works a certain way, and usually the only major disadvantage to that is how it can bring me into conflict with others’ story about the world.

On good days, I trundle through as well as anyone else, laughing at mindless television shows and finding beauty in the little things. I still feel like I’m a minor character in someone else’s story, but I can play along well enough.

Other times, everything most people see as reality seems to me like it’s a movie projected on a thin veil that could be ripped away at any second. Life seems so weird that I figure I must be missing something, because the ways people act make no sense to me. I can’t suspend disbelief well enough to participate in my cultural story very well.

On bad days, that veil gets ripped completely away. All those stories we tell ourselves to keep ourselves alive and procreating cease to have meaning. I have to struggle to even maintain the basic-survival notion that I need to stay alive for my kid. The sense I’m missing something that others have, or failing to understand something that they do understand, is much stronger. I figure that’s why they keep living when it is so pointless to do so. I think most people reading this can identify with that feeling on some level.

Here is where I lose most of you, though. On the very worst days—few and far between, thank God—all those stories we tell ourselves disappear so completely from my consciousness and my poor brain starts making up completely new stories to make sense of my surroundings. That means that you and I could be looking at exactly the same thing but our brains would interpret it in completely different ways, so it’s very hard for me to effectively communicate with anyone. My brain making up these stories is a survival technique because, like I said, these stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world are how we are able to function. The stories my brain makes up are actually generally no more ludicrous than the ones supposedly sane people make up, but they are inconsistent with our cultural narrative and so make me vulnerable. My brain’s survival technique makes it more likely that I’ll be hurt or killed—written out of society’s plotline because there’s no part for me.

Psychotic people are much more likely to hurt themselves than others. We are probably less of a threat, on average, than non-psychotic people. But we are much more likely to be hurt or killed by others than non-psychotic people are. You all know, I trust, your propensity to shy away from psychotic people under the (almost always false) impression that they are dangerous. I’m a five-foot-tall female, so people rarely consider me dangerous, but I’ve been taken advantage of, physically and emotionally hurt, and abandoned because of my propensity to believe my own story. Those people thought they were justified in their behavior: they thought they were helping me, or protecting themselves. They were the delusional ones, in my opinion, but to each their own.

My friend/partner Phoenix, who has schizophrenia, is six-foot-three and well-muscled, but as gentle as they come. He has been beaten into a coma just for talking what other people saw as “nonsense”. He’s been arrested for having a nonviolent psychotic episode in his own yard. And he’s been nearly shot by police, simply because his brain lost the thread of the common narrative and started making up a different story, even though he posed no credible threat to anyone.

As soon as Phoenix and I walked into each other’s lives, I felt like I’d finally found another human being on a deserted planet. Even when I think I’m dead and that everyone else is a spirit trying to guide me into the afterlife; or that everyone else knows something I don’t; I know Phoenix is real and that he’s usually living in the same story I am. And that makes it a lot easier.

This is what is called shared psychosis.

Anyone who follows me on social media knows about Phoenix. I wrote him into a novel after having a short conversation with him, and ended up extrapolating what little I knew of him into a well-rounded character—Justin, from the Other Place series. Justin isn’t Phoenix, but when I felt the compulsion to seek Phoenix out again (after the novels were already drafted) there were spine-tingling similarities. And, after I knew him, the similarities in character seemed to extend to similarities in plot.

These connections, real or imagined, form a more coherent plotline than I usually see in real life. It seems at times our lives are intimately connected with my writing. In fact, Phoenix gets mad if I write about something that would cause harm to either of us if it came true. For his benefit, I try to loosely correlate those plot points with stuff that’s already happened, or else write about characters so wildly different from us that the connection is harder to make. Or I just don’t tell him my plotlines, because I don’t think the connection between them and our lives is as close as he does. Or I usually don’t, anyway.

Once, when I lost the thread, I began to believe I could make my dreams reality through the force of belief, and that I had the power to completely organize our lives through my writing. I thought that I was meant to write the Other Place series in order to give people a window into what it’s like to be psychotic, so people like us would be more acceptable to society. I might make some money off of my stories, too, so Phoenix and I could have something to survive on.

I believed that, like in the books, the physical world and the world in our minds were orderly, and fit together seamlessly. Essentially, I believed I could write us into society’s narrative.

Just as further illustration of how deep shared psychosis can go, I also thought, during that episode, that Phoenix and I could hear each other’s thoughts—that our connection in the real world was as intense as in the books. He says that part was true, but I can’t remember what we said out loud and what we thought, so I can’t call him on his bullshit. I do know that we’re often able to follow one another’s thoughts without speaking, and start conversations in the middle; we pick up on cues from each other that other people completely misunderstand. Other people do this, too. If you know someone well, you can follow their plotline well enough to gauge their thoughts even at a distance, at least at times. Telepathy isn’t too far off. My story isn’t much crazier than most.

Unfortunately, the physical world intrudes into our plotlines more in reality than it does in books. We’re not the only ones in control of events, and the story isn’t just about us as individuals. I, for one, do believe there is a coherent overarching plotline, but one of the ways almost sure to drive me over the edge to one extent or another is trying to figure out what it is and how it works. It’s too big for my brain to understand completely, so it cuts it into bite-sized pieces. This can result in some fairly out-there plots.

Maybe the Other Place series will create some order in my personal narrative, though. Maybe I’ve captured enough of the truth within our human experience to make my books compelling to people. I do know that this belief has been a driving force in my life, and makes me work hard to gain more control over my personal plotline. It’s made me feel like I have purpose, and like there might finally be a comfortable place for me in society’s narrative. Whether I’m ultimately called crazy, or just a heavy dreamer that made her dreams come true, all depends on how my life story goes from here on out.

The first book in the Other Place series, entitled The Hustle, released on 5/31/16. The second book, The Other Place, releases on 7/5/16. The third and final installment (Synchronicity) is in the process of final revision.

Find The Other Place Series on Amazon.

 

 

 

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