The creative process of the world’s greatest auteurs has long been been the subject of intrigue and discussion among curious readers and aspiring writers. What was their daily routine? Where did they get their ideas? How did they develop the plots, the settings, the characters that have delighted millions of readers over the centuries?
Some authors say they themselves actually have little to do with it. Authors throughout the ages have described the phenomenon of tuning into a mysterious writers’ muse—the unseen fountain of inspiration that springs words into one’s mind and onto the page.
In Ancient Rome, the word “genius” actually meant a guiding spirit that accompanied a talented artist or writer. Ray Bradbury once said his work was actually produced by “the other me.” Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert gave a TED talk on the subject that went viral. And just this year, Edinburgh International Book Festival and Durham University launched a joint research venture called Writers’ Inner Voices, intended to explore this very topic. The aim of the project is to “understand writers’ and storytellers’ inner speech,” according to the website, “and the role that the inner voice or voices play in the process of literary creation.”
But one author in particular has was recently revealed to have had a fascinating cast of character voices in his head: 19th-century English classics writer Charles Dickens. Last month, English scholar Peter Garratt wrote in The Guardian that Dickens “understood his astonishing writing practice as the summoning of voices.”
In 1872, a literary critic claimed, “Every word said by his characters was distinctly heard by him.”
“[W]hen I sit down to my book, some beneficent power shows it all to me, and tempts me to be interested,” Dickens wrote in a letter to his good friend John Foster, “and I don’t invent it—really do not—but see it, and write it down.”
While writing Martin Chuzzlewit, Garratt points out, the memorable character of Mrs. Gamp—an incompetent, drunken nurse—interrupted Dickens often, “whispering to him in the most inopportune places—sometimes even in church—that he was compelled to fight her off by force,” explained 19th-century American author James Martin Peebles.
Dickens later came to be known as much for the theatricality of his public book readings as he was for the writing itself. He entertained crowds by reading his works using colorful, uncanny voices to animate each character. “It was [always] more than a reading,” wrote the Dickens biographer Edgar Johnson in the 1950s. “[I]t was an extraordinary exhibition of acting that seized upon its auditors with a mesmeric possession.” Ostensibly, Dickens was acting out each character as they sounded when they first entered his mind, uninvited.
We may be used to viewing writing as a strictly solitary activity—but the revelations of literary geniuses like Dickens prove that the writer’s life isn’t so quiet after all.