Good News For Writers Who Feel Guilty

I don′t know about you, but this last year has been a doozy in many ways. (Doozy, that′s a technical term for . . .whoa!) I have struggled to find time to work on my own creative writing, and felt a ton of guilt over what was clearly a lack of self-discipline. But an article in Poets & Writers Magazine′s Jan/Feb 2013 issue gave me new hope. Although this post is a little belated, I think you’ll find it worth your time to find the article and read it in its entirety if you haven’t already.Pencil Sharpeners and Pencil

The author, Arnie Cooper, takes us on a tour of the writer′s brain, touching on everything from writer′s block to why we humans love stories, plus some insights into why readers (and writers) become so engrossed in a character′s feelings and actions.

When it comes to writer′s block, Cooper introduces us to Roseanne Bane, an instructor at Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Her book, Around the Writer′s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer′s Resistance (Tarcher, 2012), focuses on the three parts of the human brain — the brain stem or “lizard brain” which controls bodily functions, the limbic system or “leopard brain” which gives us the capacity for emotion and reactions to threats, and finally the cerebral cortex or “learning brain” which allows us to solve problems, plan, design and, of course, write fiction.

The problem is that when a person is under stress or threatened by anything, whether that threat is actual or simply perceived, the limbic brain takes over. It limits higher brain functions in order to deal with the immediate threat, and doesn′t let go until things are calm . . . or at least we feel like they are.

According to Cooper, because we are not normally aware of this shift in control in the brain, we assume that the reason we can′t seem to get back to our writing is because we’re just plain lazy.  In reality, we are struggling against biologic reactions to life’s challenges.  Cooper gives us hope, however.  He notes that new research shows that “this resistance to writing can abe overridden by establishing new neural pathways — or more simply, starting new habits.”

To do so, Copper references “Hebb’s Law,” (named for Donald Hebb, a Canadian psychologist influential in the field of neuropsychology) which suggests that we can create new triggers to signal the brain neurons related to our writing tendencies to fire up and get busy.

For example, synapseswhen I was in college, I always sat down to write with a fresh cup of coffee and a peppermint stick (which is odd, since I don’t really care for more than one bite of peppermint at most.)  As I became engrossed in my project, I might forget about both of these triggers until the java was stone cold and the peppermint untouched. I also used to select a very specific piece of music (usually classical or jazz) that captured the feeling of the book or script I was working on. All I had to do was put it on, and I was instantly immersed in that particular story. Over time, I gave up those rituals, but I still probably have other, more subtle ones.

Toward the end of his article, Cooper discusses Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. (Ten Speed Press, 2012).  Now, there’s a mouthful.  Cron teaches at the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program, and cites some insights learned in a 2009 study reported in the journal, Psychological Science. Researchers used MRI to track the responses of people reading short stories.

In essence, that study and others around the world found that readers actually feel and experience what the characters do physically.  Apparently, when reading a book or watching a movie, the audience’s brain mirrors the sensations, both physical and emotional, even though the body is sitting still.

I did a little trolling on the Internet for more on this, and found intriguing discoveries that show readers (and presumably writers) experience much of what characters do.  Emory University researchers reported that when readers came across  statement like “He had leathery hands,” their sensory cortex was stimulated in the area responsible for perceiving touch, while the statement “He has strong hands” did not produce the same effect.  Studies from France show that when readers read about a character who “kicked the ball” or did some other physical act, the part of their brain that was stimulated was the motor cortex, and that the specific locations stimulated were those related to the specific action.

In a study led by the cognitive scientist, Véronique Boulenger, of the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France, the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.” The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements. What’s more, this activity was concentrated in one part of the motor cortex when the movement described was arm-related and in another part when the movement concerned the leg.

The amount of research out there about how readers read and how writers write is actually pretty astonishing.  I don’t know about you, but it makes me feel better to realize that when I have trouble writing fiction during a stressful or emotional time in my life, it’s not just because I’m a wimp: it’s simply nature.  And it’s also good to know that all that time we spend slaving over the beautifully crafted sentence or scene actually does matter.  Woman with typewriter.

Now, the question I have is . . . given that I am beginning to suspect that this kind of writing is falling by the wayside in today’s web-driven, short sentence, scanning-rather-than-reading world, are businesses and others missing the mark?  Does good writing really have a more powerful effect on people than we gave it credit for? Are we missing an opportunity for impact by dumbing down the quality of our language and messages?

Perhaps it’s time to refocus on the luxury of really well crafted prose (and poetry) rather than obsessing over those folks who are experimenting with “writing a novel” (yes, I am using quotation marks on that deliberately) via Twitter. Somehow, I just can’t see curling up in bed with a good tweet, and savoring it to the very last . . .  character?

© Chanda K. Zimmerman, 2013