The Liminality of Writing

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about liminal spaces.

Liminality is the borderline area, the frontier, the place that, as a Lewis Carroll character might say, is neither here nor there. The uneasiness of being between two worlds. Rites of passage move people through liminal moments. Borders move people through liminal places.

That liminality is on my mind because I’ve recently been having trouble sleeping, and so I’ve been hyper-aware of that almost-but-not-quite asleep moment during which (as in all liminal spaces) magic quite clearly occurs.

For me, magic always has to do with writing. I am a writer not just in the sense that writing is what I do, but also in that it’s my most authentic and innate self. When I’m not actually writing I’m either reading—or thinking about writing.

So I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised that my recent reluctant familiarity with the toppling-off time between waking and sleeping should have given me a gift. A whole lot of gifts, actually, because numerous full-fledged, amazing, and clever novels have been conceived, phrases from them constructed, characters from them become familiar. I’ve written more books in that liminal space than I have in several decades of my writing life.

The great pity, of course, is that I can’t remember anything about them the next morning.

It’s a shadow world and so it’s quite fitting, really, that I should be spending time there. It’s filled with people who will never have their voices heard and places that will never be described, mysteries that won’t be solved and love affairs that won’t reach the first kiss. And in some ways that’s not so very different from real life.

Ask any successful author if everything they’ve ever written has been published, and they’ll probably laugh at you. We all have ideas that start out strong and peter out, characters who never feel quite true, plots that are missing just that final elusive twist. We have hard drives filled with notes for novels, filled with chapters one through 18 of a 23-chapter book, filled with mysterious digital scribblings that read, “Michael—25 yrs old—sister—instruments—Bulgaria.” We have folders that hold moments, hours, even years of our lives, discarded and passed over, sitting and waiting for something that might never happen.

Those hard drives are our shadow worlds, filled with ghosts who live stubbornly on in them because we are too hopeful to ever delete them for good, confident that one day inspiration will strike and the words will come pouring out and the results will win the Pulitzer.

Talk about liminality.

It can be a good space, though. A space of challenge and discomfort; a place of growth. A space where the subconscious can come into its own and make sardonic remarks about our workaday selves. A space where we can touch our most intimate childhood wonder and our most ancient tribal fears.

Where we can try out the idea for a novel that ultimately doesn’t work—but that made us a better writer in the process.

One of my favorite mystery authors, Phil Rickman, writes a lot about the liminal space of the border country between England and Wales. In his books, odd and disconcerting things happen there. Power shifts, history echoes, unexplainable events occur. People behave in ways that they, much less others, don’t understand. There’s a force there, Rickman is saying, that’s as real as it is invisible, and it’s not safe.

That’s perhaps the real issue with liminal spaces. They’re not safe. Anything can happen there. Demons and angels dance, memories surface, words flow together into a torrent of poetry that one has only to capture. And there it is again. It can’t be captured. My waking self has nothing in common with my liminal falling-asleep self. One of them may well be a better writer, but the other is a writer who actually gets things written.

Maybe a sleeping pill is the answer.