jimvanpelt (jimvanpelt) wrote,

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The Weirdness of a Writer's Brain

One of my colleagues at the high school, a biology teacher, asked me what I was writing at the moment, and I made the mistake of telling her enthusiastically about this piece I'm working on that combines SETI, kids' card games, and romantic comedy.  I wasn't two minutes into it before her brow furrowed up, and she said, "Mostly I think about how much weeding my garden is going to take this year and when I'll get a chance to get the family together this summer.  You have a weird brain."

Well, okay.  I do.  But I think all fiction writers have weird brains.  If other writers are anything at all like me, they spend a considerable amount of time in their heads thinking about counterfactual scenarios.  I mean, for the story I'm working on I'm imagining the lives of two main characters who don't actually exist, in a setting that I assembled in my head, working on a problem (and using a bit of technology) that isn't real, speaking sentences to each other out of personalities that I constructed, and falling in love in a hopefully dramatic and funny (but nonexistent) fashion.

So I asked my colleague if she ever fantasized.  She said, "Sure, but it's always about me.  I'm getting teacher of the year or winning the lottery or growing better flowers than last season.  Everybody does that.  But your fantasies don't connect to you.  Regular fantasies have an evolutionary logic to them.  If I can imagine something better for myself, than I'm likely to try to achieve it.  My fantasies give me a chance to rehearse a better outcome.  Evolution favors those who do better.  Your fantasies aren't about you.  It's like you're having somebody else's fantasies.  How does that make sense?"

I didn't have an answer that I could make in evolutionary terms.  I hadn't thought of fiction's role in an evolutionary context, nor had I considered nature's purpose in giving me an imagination that involves making up lives for people other than myself, but I've been thinking about where my head hangs out all day.  It's true, I think, that fiction writers brains are operating in a fundamentally different way than non-writers much of the time.

I remember in high school that I was asked one of those strange, philosophical questions that aren't answerable but that can nag at you constantly.  The question was, "How do you know that the color you see as blue, I see as red, but the color I see as red I call 'blue' because that's always has been the way I've seen it.  We could both be looking at the same thing, talking about it like we both understand it, but be seeing it completely differently.  How would we even know?"

I think writers must be a little bit like that.  We look at the world just like our non-writing friends, and we can talk to them about it in a way they understand, but we're seeing it in a completely different way.  "Nice tree," my friend says, while admiring the way the sun plays off its leaves.  "Yes, it is," I say, while thinking about lynchings, and leprechauns living in caves beneath the roots, and how the trees didn't like to have their apples picked when Dorothy was hungry.

See! Weird brain.
Tags: writing
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