Part 1: A Novelist Asks: Am I Channeling or Imagining?

Part 1: A Novelist Asks: Am I Channeling or Imagining?

two man and woman standing back to back
Photo: Dolo Iglesias

“My name is Carlos, and I want you to tell my story. Will you listen, or not?”

Those were the words that came through my pen on a November morning while I was writing in my journal.

The words pushed themselves through the ink to land on the page and began a two-year odyssey with a feisty and poetic character named Carlos Peña who shared his story about love, murder, Flamenco, reincarnation and redemption in the pages that would become my novel Cante Bardo.

In the months I wrote the novel, Carlos became deeply real to me as I penned his story in the early mornings before I headed out to work. As writer Deena Metzger writes in her book Writing for Your Life:

…we can find ourselves in a narrative relationship with a figure from another reality. It almost doesn’t matter who comes or what the exalted one says. What does matter is that we are entering into an alliance with an inner figure as if he or she were a living person; the consequences of our relationship may turn out to be as profound as any we’ve had…


In the excerpt below, I share the first part of the afterword from Cante Bardo,  in which  I reflect upon imagination and channeling—and where, indeed, the two may meet. When a character as real as Carlos arrives in the life of a writer, does it have anything to do with past lives or other dimensions….or merely just a colorful sense of make-believe?

It is three in the morning. The crowd pours out of the amphitheater onto the misty streets of Southern Spain. With a clank, the gate locks behind us, and the theatre dims. I stare at the darkened stage where the songs of the great gypsy singer El Terremoto still resound in the empty auditorium, and the images of flamenco dancers twirl, like ghosts, in the black night. When I turn towards the streets to catch a cab to the hotel, the sidewalks are already empty. Where did everyone go? The chattering voices have died away, and not one taxi remains. I am lost, completely alone on a corner in Cádiz in the middle of the night.

I walk in search of a telephone, frightened, miles from my rented room. For a moment, I think I hear footsteps, but they are washed away into the sound of the sea. So I turn to Carlos Peña, the guide, the character, who brought me here. He is invisible, without skin, but has become a part of my life as alive to me as my husband and daughter. It is because of Carlos Peña that I travel miles alone and spend thousands of dollars on a journey into Andalusia to see flamenco and gypsies first-hand. It is for Carlos that I am standing in the damp night; for him, I listen to El Terremoto sing out. It is Carlos Peña who has turned my life into an obsession with flamenco.

“Okay, this is your town, Carlos. Take me to Calle Marques, back to the hotel.”

He says, “Don’t worry. I know these streets like the lines in my hands, the ones that can tell fortunes.”

I can feel his presence near me as I have in all the years I scribed Cante Bardo.  I follow him in blind faith down the Cádiz streets. He tells me he will protect me, and there is no need to worry. I will get back safely.

“Walk like a blind man at the hands of God. Just follow where I take you. I will tell you when to turn left or right.”

“Okay, Carlos.” My footsteps travel across the silent avenues. A car or two passes, but I keep my head pointed forward, trusting his guidance. It takes time, but soon I recognize the intersections of roads, a familiar streetlight, and the arches that mark the boulevard only blocks from my hotel. I am delighted but not surprised. I have learned to trust Carlos Peña.

When Carlos first comes to me, it is a June morning as I scribble in my journal. As I write, I hear his voice, full of breath, like a wind that is pushed between teeth as it directs my hand. “I am Carlos Peña. I lived in Cádiz, the town I love, and I want you to tell my story.” It is a man speaking, urgently, insistently. I have written stories before, but no character has come like this with the power and presence of a real person.

“Cádiz? Where’s that?” I write.

“Spain. I was a gypsy, a singer of songs. Now I am an Angel of Death.” My hand moves furiously to capture his words.

“An Angel of Death?” I ask him. He senses my fear and chuckles.

“Don’t be afraid. I just want you to tell my story.” It is a laugh that is both sinister and childlike. I come to know it well.

“Your story?”

“Yes, I am like tijeras, like scissors, that cut through people’s life, shredding them apart.”

He frightens me. I want no part of it. “You sound dangerous. I do not want you here if you are dangerous.”

He says, “I was dangerous once, but now I seek redemption.”

Redemption? He tells me how he died alone as he begged for forgiveness in the snow-filled Andalusian mountains. He tells me he wants to start again and break free from the past. He tells me that he needs to share his story, and only through that can he begin again. He asks if I will only listen, and he will speak, just let the words come through my hands, and he will do the work.

Although I have written for many years, I am not fully practiced at this. I am both afraid and intrigued, and I can feel his heart beat and even the presence of his sex, imposing, almost threatening.

“So, girl, will you?”


I write for an hour as his story begins, and the next day I write more. His story comes out little at a time, with anecdotes here and there about a gypsy growing up in the late 1800’s whose life was tragic as he chose death over love. In weeks, the first draft comes out on napkins, torn grocery bags, lined paper, in fragmented clusters and disconnected storylines. One day, instead of writing, I decide to watch television.

Carlos says, “You are running from me. You do this, don’t you? Run from your own soul. You remind me of the shallow people who would pay me for my songs but then abandoned me to my own death. You are like them,” he says, “aren’t you?”

“I’m tired, Carlos. I need to relax. I work all week, you know.”

“Relax with that little black box?”

I sink into the couch, put my feet up, and then the television explodes—right there and then. The tube completely shatters. I begin to shake.

When I call to my husband, he assures me, “The television is old. It was just a matter of time.”

“I think it was my character,” I say. “It was Carlos.”

My husband rolls his eyes. “The television’s old. I’ll bring it to the shop.”

Was it the television? Or was it Carlos? Who knows, but synchronicities like this appear more and more frequently in the days I write Carlos’s story. When Carlos is in my life, I feel a magic so profound that I learn to respect his requests, and we find ways to reach compromises. Working with him is an act of devotion for which I expect nothing in return except his trust. As I earn it, I get the joy of his story, his words, his creative guidance.

He tells me to cover the clocks in my house because I am too preoccupied with schedules. He says that creativity is timeless, and I am trapped by notions of ordinary time. He tells me to read all I can about flamenco and Spanish writer, Federico Garcia Lorca. Carlos introduces me to places I never knew existed, guiding my hand through maps and atlases, to small towns, valleys, and mountain ranges.

The couple of years that I write Cante Bardo are magical and inspiring. Writing the story of this magnetic Flamenco singer drew me deeply into a realm where imagination and spirit co-exist. I may never know exactly where Carlos came from, but it was a world that changed my life—and made me more open to the mystical language and experiences years later that led to my writing Words at the Threshold.

Click here for Part Two of Lisa Smatt’s article!

Lisa Smartt is the author of the bestselling Words at the Threshold  (2017 New World Library) based on the findings of her Final Words Project (, which she established with Dr. Raymond Moody. She has authored several other books including Diet for a Broken Heart, Lessons in Lullabies, Veil, and Cante Bardo. Lisa is also a book coach and delights in being a midwife to new ideas and authors. Find out more about her book coaching here:

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Details: After losing someone we love, grief grips the heart, and for many of us, we deeply long for at least one more interaction with our beloved. Dr. Raymond Moody suggests that this may actually be possible.

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