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Heeding the Muse, Part VI - The Mobius Strip of Writing

Heeding the Muse, Part VI - The Mobius Strip of Writing

By Joseph Nichols, Bluegrass Writers Studio

We’ve arrived at the final blog in my series, “Heeding the Muse”.  What follows is both a statement and a warning, from me to you, and, before that, from one of the great authors of our time.  If you have not ever done so, I urge you to do an internet search for Stephen King’s short story, “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet”.  This, then, is my interpretation of said tale.

            Lord Byron once said, “If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.”  On the other hand, E. L. Doctorow, in his own time, wrote, “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”  As a writer myself, there have been definite moments when I identified with both of these authors, but no more so, and in equal measures of both statements, than when I recently experienced Stephen King’s “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet”.  For me, there exists no deeper terror than recognizing the possible truths in this tale.  In the following text, I will argue that “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet” is an introspective lesson, from one writer to another, about the duality of writing and its inescapably concomitant relationship with madness.  It is, at one time, a warning and an invocation to any who would follow in this master’s shadow.  The message, then, can best be paraphrased using more of the author’s own words:  Here, there be monsters.

To unravel the meta-fictional element of this tale, we will start with the broader views of madness, steadily narrowing our focus to the implications specifically encoded for King’s fellow writers.  From the first moment the retired editor’s voice intones, “Madness is a flexible bullet” (496), we find ourselves side by side with his captive audience, which tellingly includes a young writer and his wife.  Like in many of King’s stories, the narrator can easily be confused with King, himself; likewise, we hear our own questions and fears, as they arise, voiced by the editor’s companions.  One reply seems to answer the combined questions, presenting us with a metaphor that, I believe, is the key to understanding King’s message.  The editor says, “Trying to understand the flexible bullet is like trying to understand how a Mobius strip can have only one side” (501).  Before we unpack the idea of the flexible bullet, let’s spend a moment explaining a Mobius strip. 

Though typically a mathematical concept, a practical example of a Mobius strip can be created by taking in hand a long strip of paper between one’s forefinger and thumb, with one of the two sides of the paper facing you.  If you twist the ends of the paper in opposite directions and then, while still twisted, attach the two ends of the paper together, you create a shape similar to an infinity symbol:  A Mobius Strip.  It goes without saying that prior to this process, the slip of paper possessed two sides, or planes.  The finished Mobius Strip, however, possesses only one plane.  If you take a pencil and start drawing a line down the center of the strip, it will travel the length of the paper, in essence circling the strip twice, before arriving back at your starting point, proving that two planes have been transformed into only one.  As I said, the Mobius Strip is primarily a mathematical idea, but it has interesting applications of which King would have been aware:  This shape is used in typewriters and printers to double the usable printing space on a single ribbon.  As we first discuss the flexible bullet of madness and, later, the process of writing, keep this geometrical shape in mind.

As stated before, the editor describes madness as a flexible bullet, a form of mental suicide (496).  He says that doctors agree true death is measured by the death of the mind (496).  He says, “When you shoot yourself in the head, you just can’t tell what’s going to happen”, that you could achieve your suicidal goal or you could merely render yourself paralyzed, cursed to live life in that state (498).  The bullet could also ricochet off the inside of your skull, murdering a bystander in the process (498).  For these reasons, the bullet becomes “flexible”, following its own haphazard trajectory before, finally, coming to rest where it shall.  Since this metaphor is referring to madness, consider what dangers occur when a person is driven insane.  He might simply end his own life or he might end up locked away in a mental health facility.  Aside from the emotional and financial strain this can place on his loved ones, the story seems to imply something more sinister.  There is the possibility that the man’s madness could “spread” through his community; like poison in a well, the insane ramblings of a crazy person can plant ideas in the minds of his neighbors which, eventually, lead to their own madness.  Here, then, is the ricochet.

The editor, or possibly King, goes on to explain how mere superstition gives birth to this full-blown madness.  He describes a great struggle between the Rational Mind and the Irrational Subconscious, a doubling of the mind which occurs when confronted with a particular superstition (511).  The example he provides is walking under ladders.  In the moment that a person walks up to a ladder on the sidewalk, he is faced with a choice, a choice made due to conflicting messages in his mind.  The person has previously heard (or been poisoned with) the idea that walking under ladders is bad luck, so his rational mind assures him that “Walking under ladders is harmless” (511).  The irrational subconscious replies, “Not walking under ladders is also harmless” (511).  The person then chooses to which voice he will listen, a decision is made, and he either walks under the ladder or around it.  The rational mind and the irrational subconscious reintegrate themselves into the combined mind—and all is well.  Like our slip of paper, which once possessed two planes, there now remains one mental Mobius Strip, if you will.  The question arises, however:  Which of the two planes has disappeared?  Is the rational mind, as before, the ruling party?  Or has the entire mind been drawn down into the realm of the irrational subconscious, the place the editor describes as “a small, padded room inside all of us, where the only furnishings is a small card table, and the only thing on the card table is a revolver loaded with flexible bullets” (511).  By flirting with the superstitious, by giving physical motion to what was once merely irrational ideas, the person’s “reality has skewed”; he has given that strip of paper a twist and, thereby, set himself along a Mobius Strip which can only lead to one place:  Madness.  Eventual, inevitable, madness.

Just as King’s tale uses the bookend method of storytelling, one character telling a story about another character who is telling a story about another person going crazy, there exists another level of the Mobius Strip metaphor.  It is buried, deeper still, within the lines of the story, an encrypted message which writers will recognize.  Perhaps more true than for the general public, there is madness in the art of a writer.  Any writer worth his salt will tell you that writing is not a pastime, a hobby, which he finds amusing.  Writing is also more complex than a method of making money (for if this was the goal of the writing lifestyle, then there are endlessly more profitable ventures to pursue).  A writer writes because it is at the core of his being; he writes because he is a writer, because he must write.  But for a writer, especially one who operates in the realm of speculative fiction, his craft becomes his reality. 

Day after day, he immerses himself within a fantasy world.  He travels its roads, he communes with its denizens, and the entire process necessarily demands that he do so in isolation from the rational world in which he lives, breathes, eats, and sleeps.  Like the man flirting with superstition, he opens himself to possibilities that defy that rational world and, by proxy, his rational mind.  He has shut himself away within the small, padded room of the irrational subconscious.  One day, he realizes that this fictional world has become as much a part of his life, if not more, as the real one.  How many stories have been written about writer’s receiving visits from their characters, now flesh and blood personas, who inform the writer of his mistakes in their creation? 

And yet, like the man who has begun to believe in the superstition of the ladders, he has not yet fired the flexible bullet into his mind.  For this to occur there must be another step.  The editor describes a change in the process, one which places the revolver against the temple, as the person externalizes his experience.  With the ladders, it is a letter to city hall—he is admitting his superstition to an outside public, making a claim that they, too, are in danger due to the ladders. 

As a writer, this change occurs when you go public; when you choose to make an effort to get published, you are releasing your finished work to the eyes of editors, agents, publishers, and eventually, if all goes well, to the world at large.  This is surely a form of madness!  What will happen after you are published?  The world might laugh at your efforts, destroying your credibility and labeling you a failure.  Worse yet, like the authors mentioned at the beginning of King’s story, you could find success, success which will then demand that you plunge deeper into that fantasy world to find further stories, and thereby further into your own irrational subconscious.  Further into madness. 

And yet, if we are to be writers—true writers—is there anything else that we can do?

Here, then, is our deeper definition of the Mobius Strip.  A writer must write, and as long as he keeps that work to himself, perhaps only he has been affected.  But in choosing to be a writer, a published, credible writer, he has twisted the paper, has created a Mobius Strip, has fashioned a single plane of his life along which he will afterwards follow.  A plane which, inevitably, may lead to his own madness. 

It is a decision, King writes to us, that should not be made lightly.

It is a possibility all writers must face. 

For along that path there be monsters…the greatest of which may, in fact, be within you.



*All citations taken from...

King, Stephen. Skeleton Crew. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1985. Print

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Kristen Thompson

Published on June 04, 2014

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