Sleep No More: Novel Writing

Sleep No More

Sleep No More, as described by The New York Times, is “‘Macbeth’ in a hotel,” because it’s kind of a play kind of performance art kind of voyeurism kind of spectator sport but not really any of the above. Which is why the NY Times calls it “‘Macbeth’ in a hotel”–the vaguest of monikers.

And yes, it has a little to do with Macbeth. But not really. Kind of.

The hotel in question is called “The McKittrick Hotel” built out of the ruins of three abandoned Chelsea warehouses (it’s not really a hotel, and never was a hotel, so again, kind of but not really).

Sleep No More is fiction down to the studs in which the audience spectators roam without agenda or direction. In which spectators are as much the performance as the actors; at one point, I looked around the room and wondered if the actors saw us in the same way we saw them, as we stood in masks that hid facial expressions.That they were our mirrors as we were unto them.

For the first hour, I roamed confused and alone and dismayed and frustrated and frightened, fighting every impulse to tear off my mask and leave. I didn’t really “get it” and felt very lost, just as one might feel when invited to a large, sprawling, ghostly, hotel all alone. But not really alone. Because you’re surrounded by other ghostly masks.

But then–a character rushed by, followed by a handful of white-masked spectators. I followed. Her hands bloodied, she attempt to wash them; ah, Lady MacBeth.

It was then I had a character to which I could be devoted. To follow. To be my proxy for the landscape. My curiosity intensified, and my fear receded. I followed the character through all manner of darkness to the end. A character can be a very effective tour guide.

My Sleep No More experience was not very different from my creative process. I understand that everyone’s experience is unique and based on the solitary–the performance is designed to that end, the masks making it so that people have a hard time reuniting within the space, the darkness making it so people cannot see each other. Together, but alone. Kind of.

Sleep No More:
I’m led through a winding tunnel void of light–some people feel their way through–and in my case, I yelped and a member of SNM’s staff walked me through, my hand on his elbow. Thinking I was going to DIE. Thinking no one told me about this darkness. Thinking what had I gotten myself into. Thinking hell no. Thinking I had to do this.

Darkness, (not so) coincidentally is a state that I associate with my creative process, and the source of my inspiration. It is discombobulating. It’s frightening. Terrifying. Like falling. Like dying.

Sleep No More:
I went through this alone, having arrived well ahead of my companion.

We are all alone.

Sleep No More:
My companion for the evening, Karissa, met me at the bar, well-prepped by now (thanks to my tweets) on my apprehension and fear of the dark. We put on our masks. Entered a room (an elevator), and eventually exited on an upper floor. There was a fork almost immediately, and Karissa turned right. Since we were holding hands, I followed her into…a….cemetery. For real. A dark cemetery. Inside a hotel.

I balked. “Oh, hells no!” I yelped, even though talking is verboten. And yet Karissa continued forward, as I thought, “Is this girl really Asian?” (we Asians (except for Karissa) have a general superstitious fear of cemeteries). Darkness + cemetery is not for me. Hells no. Have you watched “Scooby Doo?” Have you read Poe?

I spun around and walked into more “welcoming” rooms (a nursery with babies hanging from the ceiling, and a room full of bathtubs, one containing seemingly bloodied water).

I stayed in these rooms, because every time I tried to wander away, I would encounter a more dimly lit hallway lined with doors (creeeeepy) or that damn cemetery. I went downstairs, and I encountered a FOREST. Have you read Poe? Have you read Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow?” Ohnothankyou.

I asked a black-masked attendant where the bar, the place where we were to go “if we got overwhelmed” might be.

“The bar’s not open for another hour,” she said.

I just wanted to suck my thumb and hide under the covers somewhere. Come find me at the end, Karissa!

Well, they say to explore on your own, if possible. Mission accomplished within the first ten seconds. Argh.

Some people take awhile to trust the scenery. Your readers’ trust my vary. Your readers’ immersion into your narrative is unique.

Sleep No More:
There are folks who revel over the naked boobies and naked penises in the show (yes, I totally saw cock). There is a voyeuristic element to the experience, per the New York Times. Thanks to the mask, any dropped jaws were hidden. People got really close and personal to the actors. I stayed at the edges.

We are the performers to the performers. It is all a matter of perspective.

Sleep No More:
I could barely see the path before me in rooms and spaces so dimly lit that the corners of rooms were invisible, my field of vision rounded in darkness.

But for me, it was a complete immersion into my deepest darkest fears. My fear of the dark. Of the unknown. Of losing control. In many ways, the set itself felt like my subconscious.

Our mind can never be fully illuminated to ourselves. It is the ultimate black box.

And the thing in which the mind dwells–the brain, is just as mysterious. I have a black spot in my brain from a stroke, and yet the synapses grew around the spot, in a magical healing.

The novelist must know what’s in the darkness so that the reader can trust her.

Sleep No More:
I followed the main character, getting a sense of the disjointed narrative. Finally making sense of the performance. It’s incredibly non-linear, there are no spoken words, and it is more an impression of “Macbeth” than it is Macbeth.”

After Lady Macbeth’s narrative began to loop, I explored the other spaces.

I followed minor characters in their shorter narrative loops. Saw where their narratives intersected with the main characters. Was not sure how it all fit together. But saw that they did.

The supporting characters. The story subplots. The ones that enrich a story, but the ones without which a story could survive. That a story cannot merely survive. That an artist can overcomplicate and things can be edited out, but only later. That a story has different narratives in its characters.

That people read for characters that they will follow for hundreds of pages. That everything rests upon the protagonist.

That when constructing a novel, I don’t think of the story in one fell swoop, but investigate these arcs and alleys. That I follow characters and sometimes their stories don’t go anywhere. That a novel can only be completed by following every road and possibility.

That in a draft, I don’t know how it all fits together, exactly. But I know and see that it does.

Sleep No More:
I stayed in a room for the last half hour. I stayed in the ballroom. Up in a balcony. And I saw scenes flit by. Random characters. Pieces of story. But I got to know the room. Its corners. Its lights. Its smells. When actors come into a room, the lights brighten (but not too much). But I saw two people dancing across the floor, in the dark. I saw they were wearing two white masks. The audience, performing.

An audience can engage in a story. A reader can fully engage in a story.

Setting is a character.

Stay in a room.

Sleep No More:
There is a grand finale in which no questions are answered.

No answers need be addressed.

Sleep No More:
I glimpsed Karissa near the end. I’d been keeping my eye out for someone wearing a white cardigan all night long; we’d been nowhere near each other throughout the show. Her experience was different than mine, having explored rooms I hadn’t approached, and having followed different characters in the narrative. “Penis? You saw penis?” Yes I did. She hadn’t.

We walked tentatively out into the NYC night. From darkness into darkness.

The reader is transformed from reading your novel. A novelist’s brain is transformed upon completing a novel.

Sleep No More:
My fitbit said I walked more than 4 miles during the experience. It’s unlike any physical experience I’ve ever had, because it resembles the psychological. The closest I ever came to this was in high school band initiation, wherein I was blindfolded and led through the woods.

There is a process of giving in. Of trusting the world around me. Of believing that no ghoul will pop out of the dark and assault me. That this is safe. That this darkness is safe.


Filed under New York City, The World, Writing

3 responses to “Sleep No More: Novel Writing

  1. Excellent post. You can learn a lot about writing from other things in the world, not just from writing (in fact, I think if you just learn from other writers, your work will be rather limited).

    I linked to this post from my blog.

    • @Anthony: thank you. I was uncertain about this post–so disjointed, but then again, so is the act of novel-writing, and the experience of Sleep No More. Thank you for linking!

  2. Pingback: storytelling lessons from all over » Anthony Lee Collins

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