‘Behold, with my naked hands did I part my ribs,
Baring my heart in a basin of scarlet.
Into this did I plunge my quill,
Drawing it forth pulsing, each drop warm.
And ere it cooled wrote, tempering each note
With a fever or purifying it in meditation.’
That’s the beginning of a poem by a writer called Patience Worth, and the piece would be unremarkable were it not for the fact that the author claimed to be dead.
On July 8th 1913, Pearl Curran was using the Ouija board with a friend when she received the message that would change her life. That night, the planchette was moving across the board with unusual vigour. Letter by letter, it spelt out the following:
‘Many moons ago I lived. Again I come. Patience Worth my name. Wait, I would speak with thee. If thou shalt live, then so shall I. I make my bread at thy hearth. Good friends, let us be merrie. The time for work is past. Let the tabby drowse and blink her wisdom to the firelog.’
When asked, she said she had lived from 1649-1694. Curran would go on to write six novels which she said were dictated by Patience Worth, as well as dozens of poems. She said that, in her mind’s eye, Worth looked: ‘probably about thirty years. Her hair was dark red, mahogany, her eyes brown, and large and deep, her mouth firm and set, as though repressing strong feelings. Her hair had been disarranged by her cap, and was in big, glossy, soft waves.’ Curran also saw Patience ‘sitting on a horse, holding a bundle tied in sail-cloth, tied with thongs and wearing a coarse cloth cape, brown-gray, with hood like a cowl, peaked. The face is in shadow. She is small and her feet are small—with coarse square-toed shoes and gray woollen stockings.’
Now, not everything that Worth came out with was artistic gold. When asked, she offered a few impromptu proverbs which include such timeless maxims as: ‘A lollipop is but a breeder of pain’ and ‘The salt of today will not serve to catch the bird of tomorrow.’
And not everyone was convinced of Worth’s otherworldly origins. Critics contended her claim to be from the latter half of the 17th century was somewhat undermined by her setting a novel in Victorian England, some two hundred years after she died. Her language wasn’t consistent with the period either, she was strangely reluctant to give details of her life and when people tried to investigate they could find no record of anyone matching her description.
So. Do I think Pearl Curran was a fraud? No. Do I think Patience Worth was a dead writer using her as a conduit? Also no. Yet here are six novels. Here are all these poems. They came from somewhere. So who did it?
Today I’m going to need you to breach the veil between worlds. Someone is waiting to speak to you. You don’t need to believe in life after death or other, parallel realities. They’ll be waiting for you just the same.
So first of all I’d like you to what Curran did and tune into this person’s appearance. Remember how she saw Patience Worth’s hair and face, her expression, ‘her mouth firm and set, as though repressing strong feelings’ and then she saw her in a scene, on a horse with a sailcloth bundle. ‘She is small and her feet are small’.
I’m going to give you three minutes. I want you to stop and imagine a person in your head. If you need to, you can briefly close your eyes. Perhaps they’re working on something. Perhaps they notice you. Notice the structure of their face. Their hair. Their expression. The details of their clothing. Where are they? And what thoughts and feelings arise in you as you observe them? What sense are you getting of their personality?
The image might come with sounds, or smells, a sense of temperature. I want you to take three minutes to feel that, to experience it, and to get down just a few lines, a paragraph or so, describing it. I realise that doesn’t feel like long, it’s not. But that’s ok. I’ll start the timer, then when I come back we’ll go from there.
Right. Three minutes. Ready? Go.
Ok so now you’ve got the beginnings of a description. Maybe there were some parts you found it hard to visualise, as if they were hidden from you. Don’t worry. They’ll come in time. So for the last seven minutes, what we’re going to do is bid this person speak. Did they look like they wanted to talk? What do you think they’d have to say? And whom would they address?
So we’re going to do this as a dialogue, as a conversation. I think it’s impolite to just expect them to talk without giving anything back. One side’s going to be you, and one side is them. You might like to open by simply saying: ‘Hello.’ How they respond will tell you a lot. Are they welcoming? Hesistant? Suspicious? Do they acknowledge you at all? If they’re quiet, can you think of ways you might be able to coax them into opening up? On the other hand, they might be so garrulous it’s hard to get them to stay on topic – it might be them who ends up asking you all the questions.
For the purposes of this exercise I’d like you to keep this pure dialogue. No physical descriptions, dialogue tags, not placing it in a story. Just you and them. Don’t worry about where it’s going on whether it makes sense. You can just feel and trust your way through, and, like we’ve talked about before, discover rather than plan this person and their answers.
How’s that sound? I’ll time you for seven minutes, you have a little chat. Ready?
And there we have it. I hope that was interesting for you both. What did you discover? Anything surprising?
That’s certainly one of the most writerly exercises we’ve done so far. I featured it in the Couch to 80k Writing Boot Camp and I wanted to return to it here because I really do feel this kind of communing with the imaginary in a state halfway between the mystical and unbridled play is really the heart of writing fiction.