I came home from work late last night and found my wife watching the Sally Field classic, Sybil. For anyone not familiar with this flick, it details the mostly true story of a young woman in New York suffering from multiple personality disorder, a disease that leads her along a path of fear and danger, both from the outside world and from herself, as a doctor struggles to understand and help her. You hear jokes about people having multiple personalities all the time, but a true case such as Sybil’s is exceedingly rare and offers a fascinating look into a world most of us cannot comprehend.
Still, as I sat watching the movie, part of me did understand, the part that writes the stories. Being a writer, in a much more benign sense, requires you to assume multiple personalities–your main characters, your supporting cast, etc.–that, at its best, completely immerses you into another mind, another set of perception often completely different from our own as we sit in our desk chairs or on our sofas. That we make this choice to go inside someone else’s head, to become someone else for a time, voluntarily says something vital about our necessity to write. The one thing nearly we would sacrifice last if asked to do so is our identity, our sense of who and what we are. As writers, though, we can only find success by doing just this, by giving up our own thoughts for those of another as they pour from our minds, down through our hands, and onto the page.
I do realize that Sybil’s (and, by proxy, every other true sufferer of the disorder) case is a much more frightening thing than writing a novel and do not wish to make that comparison at all. Instead, I find it fascinating that something so incomprehensible to us in our sane, reasonable minds is exactly what leads us to success as we are composing. We engage in controlled insanity, temporary displacement of our identities, to accomplish even the basest scene of dialogue or narration. We give up control of ourselves in order to control lives that do not even exist beyond the pages of our work. Just as Sybil confronts long periods of missing time, so do we as we compose. A scene that lasts only a few seconds in the story may take hours to complete. I cannot even count the times I’ve finished my daily writing and been shocked by how much time I’ve spent wandering the realms of unreality. Just as Sybil hears the voices of those sharing her body, we hear the voices of our characters, their dialogue sounding as real to our ears as that of a family member in the next room. I often get caught by my employees at work, mouthing pieces of dialogue under my breath, working out the exact cadence and word choice before I even start to compose. No wonder they think I’m a little off.
So, if you haven’t seen Sybil, I strongly recommend it. Sally Field does an amazing job as the tormented title character and some scenes and images (like the green kitchen) stay with you long after the movie has ended. Also, like all great movies, it reflects aspects of life that we often don’t see until we are, like I was last night, confronted head on by the underlying connections of truth and fiction, both of which are closer together than we often think.