The Effect of Mood on the Imagination

Redwoods in the Muir Woods National Monument, California

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt, which begins on page 177, deals with the effect of mood on the imagination, a frequent issue in a book with as many emotional shocks as this one. Mood has a huge impact on creativity. As I’ve stated elsewhere, the novel you write while depressed or emotionally exhausted will be a very different work from the one you write while you’re feeling healthy and upbeat.

The results of the reader-mail project described below can still be seen on my website. Even now, my website is the hobby I turn to when I have a few weeks of leisure time.

Elena and I didn’t have much space in that little hospital room, and I had long ago exhausted the fun of exploring the different public spaces in the building. I was homesick for Joe and my pets and our house in Germany.

But at least I could go stretch my imagination in my various fantasy worlds. I had put together a complicated web project to occupy my time. I was moving the most interesting questions readers had asked me onto pages on my website. Thinking about those questions took me to new places. They were helping me stay calm and optimistic.

I brought up my email and rummaged through stored messages, looking for interesting questions.

Why does Paul carve Maddie as a tree? one reader had written. That seems like a weird thing to do.

Paul and Maddie were characters in my Scottish werewolf book. It was such a sad, sweet love story that my heart melted as I read the question, and my bad mood vanished at once. I loved Maddie for her frank, open nature, and I loved my poor woodcarver, Paul, for the suffering he had lived through. Together, they were my favorite story couple.

Maddie doesn’t care for it any more than you would, I wrote. She’s down-to-earth and has a very different view of herself than Paul has of her. And as I wrote, my imagination played for me a scene in the small, windowless sod house full of peat smoke.

The wooden figure was different. It still had a tree’s crown of leaves and apples, but the trunk had turned into a pale, slim girl. Leaves grew out of her hair, and her two arms stretched out to become branches. Maddie walked toward the doorway and turned the carving in the light, studying it with wonder.

“It’s you,” said a voice from the doorway, and she looked up to find Paul there. “At least, it looks like you,” he added awkwardly. “Do you like it? I had just finished it that first morning when I looked up and saw you talking to Ned, and then I looked down and saw you in the wood.”

Maddie examined it. The tree girl was slender and sweet, poised and graceful. Maddie could see that she was happy by the lift of her arms and her chin. Happy to be an apple tree, happy to grow where she was planted. The tip of one toe-root just showed beneath her long skirt.

“After I saw you,” he went on, “every block of wood I saw had you inside it.”

“But why would you carve me? Who would want to see me?” Maddie held out the tree girl. “Just me, I’m not fancy like this.”

Paul took the carving to look at it and then at her. She could tell that somehow he still saw the resemblance.

“You’re beautiful, Madeleine,” he said.

As I watched my two young characters, I felt again the love they had for one another—that magical first love that has such wonder in it. I’m glad I wrote their story, I thought. I’m glad I brought them to life. Maddie has such a generous heart, and Paul makes such a fascinating monster.

“Oh, hey,” I said to Elena over my shoulder, “I forgot to tell you, but your sister says she hopes you get well soon.”

“I don’t want anything from her!”

The tone was so vehement that it stopped me cold. My hands froze on the keyboard. Elena had been calm and philosophical for so long now that I had forgotten she could still sound like this.

“But . . . ,” I said.

“I don’t know why you write to her!” Elena continued furiously. “I don’t want you to tell her another word about me! She’s the reason I’m stuck here. I’m sick because of her!”

After all the time and all the hard words that had already gone by, I ought to be prepared for this sort of thing. But to run into such violent hostility between two of the people I loved best in the world . . .

Without a word, I went back to my questions and answers. But the color had drained out of my day.

How old are Paul and Maddie in the book? wrote another reader.

Who cares? I thought. Paul and Maddie aren’t real. They aren’t real, and they don’t exist.

Hopelessness welled up inside me.

My family is broken, I thought. My family is irretrievably broken. I’m the mother, and I’ve let my children become damaged and ill. Two children in the hospital—not one, but two! Hatred and bitterness—how did it happen? What kind of mother would let that happen?

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of redwoods in the Muir Woods National Monument, California, copyright 2015 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

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