WuToWu #78: This is Your Brain on Fiction (and No Sleep)

Hi Jessica,

Thanks for taking me back to the old high school days with your last post. It makes me so happy that future high school students will be able to enjoy a modern theater, and a little proud that I was one of the last few classes that toughed out four years in the Haymarket. I wish I could have been there to see you, the erstwhile stage manager, taking the stage!

I know I told you to prepare a punishment, but I’ve concluded that I had better get in a WuToWu now, because if I put it off there’s no telling when I’ll get back to it, and that would be a true tragedy. So here I am, without a blog topic! I’m live! I’m off the reservation! I’ve escaped the asylum! I think I’ll rant a little bit about writing fiction, because I have a short story due on Saturday at the latest and it’s been slow going.

It’s difficult to balance the two levels of the short story, which are the narrative and the themes. So often, internal monologue and events are dictated by the themes of the story, but there is a danger in focusing too much on theme, because fiction can quickly turn into allegory (not that allegory isn’t wonderful – see The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – but my workshop isn’t focused on that style), and lose the important sticky materiality that makes fiction interesting to read. Otherwise, it’s just pretty philosophy.

At the same time, there are so many narrative pitfalls available, and fiction should be good not just in the telling but also in the plot and the characters. It’s a good thing when you can tell a simple story well, but it’s an even better thing when you can tell an engaging story well. Right now, there’s too much still to be decided about character motivations, relationships, and events for me to figure out what makes for a good narrative. There’s going to be a lot of trial and error in the next few days (and probably even more tea consumption)!

I learned something interesting about the stages of writing in my class. During the initial stage, the creation stage, when I’m racing along with my words and I have five different ideas about where the stories going, the brain reacts in much the same way as it does when it’s on a stimulant. In other words, there is a literal chemical high that results from those first stages of writing. Afterwards, when I’m revising and every option for moving forward seems to be obstructed by something else I’ve written, the brain’s active areas are those which I use when solving a tricky math problem or organic synthesis. It’s much more problem solving, and much less excitement.

Some writers have a hard time letting go of that high, and write new stories in order to get that rush, but I have a hard time holding onto the high, because my attention is constantly pulled to the problem solving: Is this timeframe logical? What’s my character’s background, and how is it revealed? Do I need another scene here? Am I balancing description and dialogue? Where’s the climax? What’s at stake?

It’s certainly frustrating, and it’s hard work, but it’s ultimately quite educational. Not to give too much away about the story I’m working on now, but I’ve learned a good amount about North Carolina in the last week. Thanks for listening to the rambles of my sleep deprived brain. Bonne Nuit! J’ai un examen français demain.

Charolais.

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