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What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Sybil and Dexter

School Daze

During my latter high school years and my first few semesters of college, I thought I wanted to be a psychologist.

Oh, I retained my dreams of writerhood — but I also harbored the saddening yet firm conviction that one such as I could never make a living at writing. Part of my joy in writing has always been finding out what makes people tick and integrating that knowledge into my characters. I also wanted to use my talents to help others, so psychology seemed a great fit.

Much to my dismay, I discovered fairly early on that to pursue this vocation to its fullest, I would need at least a master’s degree, if not a doctorate. Since I had no interest in being in school until age 30, I dropped Psych to a minor and eventually graduated with a bachelor’s in English/Writing. But even though I didn’t complete my Psych major, the classes I took in that field have continually provided me with some of the best writing resource materials.

My very first psych class was Abnormal Psychology. Technically, I shouldn’t have been able to get into that class, as I hadn’t taken the General Psych prerequisite. A mix-up at the registrar’s office landed me smack dab in the middle of schizophrenia, psychosis, and personality disorders — and though I struggled to understand half of what was going on (not having learnt the basics, you see), I loved every moment of it.

That first semester, my greatest challenge was the research paper. I’d never in my life written a research paper, didn’t really know what a research paper was, much less how to craft one. I was completely mortified at my ignorance when, in my second or third consultation with my professor, he informed me that an article out of Reader’s Digest would not, in fact, qualify as legitimate source material.

Needless to say, I shifted into a somewhat more scientific mode (and eventually received a B on the paper and in the class, I might add).

The topic for that first ever research paper was dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder. There must be something in my own psychological background that’s responsible for my decades-long fascination with this condition, but I don’t know what that something is. Suffice it to say I’ve always been fascinated, and writing that research paper only served to heighten my interest.

Present Daze

Fast-forward to today, and I’m working my way through my To-Read Shelf (my collection of books I intend to finish before the year is out, angels and ministers of grace defend me). My current read happens to be Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber – the famous case of a woman diagnosed with sixteen different personalities in the 1950s.

This book is certainly not fare for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. Halfway through the novel, the writer chronicles the beginnings of Sybil’s dissociation: the result of horrible abuse (starting in infancy) by her mother, as well as her passive father’s refusal to acknowledge the abuse consciously or do anything about it. I happened to be eating breakfast when I got to the gritty part, and I had to set my food aside. Sybil’s description of what happened to her turned my stomach the way no horror novel ever has.

Still, this woman’s story sucks me in. I am a firm believer in the concept gnothi seautonknow thyself — and I see clearly Sybil’s efforts to know herselves through uncovering the truth of her past. As her therapy progresses, she discovers the true nature and development of her own character…

…and the nature and development of character are, of course, what we writers are all about. No wonder I can’t disconnect from this story until I read all the way to the end.

So, that’s Sybil: tracking her sixteen different personalities and trying to integrate them into a coherent whole. Another current writerly fascination I’m harboring is the TV show Dexter (based on the novels by Jeff Lindsay).

Dexter is a serial killer who lives by the rules his adoptive father bequeathed to him, the main one being that he kill only other serial killers. He does forensics for the Miami Metro Police Department, which lets him access the records of his intended victims. The character narrates the series, giving a mind-blowing view into the thoughts and emotions — or, rather, lack thereof — of a psychopath.

An ironic side note: According to Wikipedia, the Latin word dexter means “right hand side, skillful, fortunate, favorable, proper, fitting” — which leads me to wonder about author Jeff Lindsay’s sense of humor.

Anyway. Yes, I know it’s fiction. Yes, I know that much of Dexter’s viewpoint is simplified and sensationalized for the sake of putting on a good TV show. Still, what makes it so good — especially to this abnormal psych buff — is its verisimilitude. It jives so well with what I studied in that undergrad class so many years ago…

…and I find myself rubbing my hands gleefully together, knowing that if I ever write a psychopath, I now have some easily accessible source material.

Near-Future Daze

But wait — what’s that I hear? Could it be…? Is it really…? Why yes, I do believe it is! Dearly beloved inklings, we are gathered here today to celebrate the quickly approaching start of NaNoWriMo! Yea verily, Aaron has mentioned it a few times over the last week or so, I do believe. I hope you’ve been paying attention, because it’s time to go out to the garage, open the hood, and check to make sure the engine is a go. We still have time to tinker — but not nearly as much as we had a few weeks ago!

And for me, that’s where Sybil and Dexter come in — ’cause I’ve got the third novel in a trilogy to write, and my main character is gonna be facing one humdinger of a psychopathic demon. Dexter couldn’t have entered my creative life at a better time. As for Sybil, I’m thinking of the development of her personality and wondering about the genesis of my favorite demon’s abnormal psychology.

It’s all pointing in the same direction, folks. Here’s to the merging of lines into an explosive point at 0:00 a.m. on November 1, 2010!

And that’s WILAWriTWe!

Photo credit Julie V. Photography.

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