Creating Reality: The Pleasant Psychosis of Writing
I’ve heard variations on that comment ever since I became a fiction writer, someone for whom spending time with people who don’t exist is heaven. When I can’t get to it for one reason or another, after a while I get a little depressed. We’ve all heard those tales about the hard-drinking writer “opening a vein” to get the words on the page. Not me. It’s not writing that makes me feel that a trip to the liquor cabinet is in order.
I have no idea why that is. Why fiction writing and not, say, clog dancing or totem pole carving? Does anyone really know why certain activities blow their hair back and others leave them flat?
I have four children and each of them is passionate about something that has nothing to do with how they were raised. My oldest son, for instance, would live in a tent in the woods if he had his way. His father and I never took him camping. In fact we hate camping—we like beds. But when he joined the Boy Scouts, it was like he’d located his mother ship. If some sort of cataclysmic disaster occurs and we all end up living in the wild, he’s your man, because at 16 he has more wilderness skills than most of us accrue in a lifetime.
I like to live in a story the way my son likes to live in the woods. And yes, that’s how it feels, like I’m living there. If that sounds mildly psychotic … well, it is, in a pleasant, controlled sort of way. I think about my characters all the time. Rather than creating them, it feels like I’m discovering them. “Oh,” I’ll realize in the middle of driving someone to sports practice, “that’s why she’s so angry. It’s because …”
For me, “discovering” a story involves four completely different activities:
- Information gathering: standard research (e.g. what’s the flight route from Nairobi to Boston?) and general noticing of things (e.g. the way a girl walks backwards to talk to her friends as they cross a parking lot at the mall).
- Planning the characters, plot and setting: Who are these people, what’s their problem, and where are they having it?
- Generating the story: Getting the words onto the page, cranking up that word count. (I love word count! 1,000 words a day is really satisfying. Any more and I start to feel like a superstar—in my own head, anyway. I still get up and do the laundry.)
- Editing: It’s great to reel off a bunch of words, but let’s be honest—they aren’t always pretty. Sometimes they don’t even make sense. Molding the rough draft it into something meaningful and artful is just as important as creating it in the first place.
These four activities are happening in various rotations almost daily. The most inherently creative is generating the first draft. And strangely it’s the one that feels the least like “doing” and the most like “discovering.”
My mind drops below the normal level of consciousness, almost into a trance-like state. I’m in control of the story, and yet it feels like I’m watching it, too—not quite as a passive observer, but not as the man behind the curtain pulling all the levers, either. It’s a little like watching a YouTube video where your semi-conscious mind is buffering the file, and your conscious mind is taking in the show.
It’s also a bit like dreaming. Most people believe that our brains create our dreams, choosing the subject matter, scenery, characters and action. But when you’re slogging through a leach-infested swamp, trying desperately to hide from a guy with a crossbow who is alternately your high school trigonometry teacher, your college boyfriend, and your great uncle Frank … it sure doesn’t feel that way, does it? It feels real.
Neuroscientists are now finding that reading fiction is also experienced as real. A recent piece in the New York Times titled Your Brain on Fiction states, “The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”
Further, “just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.” Reading fiction, it’s now being proven, helps us learn more about the complexities of relationships and hone our own interpersonal skills. And it only works because it feels real.
When I write a story—or when you read a story—we know it’s not real. The book is in your hands. The keyboard is under my fingers, the words are new, the characters are completely … sorry guys, but it’s true—you’re fictional. But the false realness of it is what makes my brain crackle and zing and spin around in dizzy joy like a two-year-old. And my greatest hope as I’m writing is that it will do the very same thing for your brain, too.