J.T. Bushnell blew my mind at my first-ever writer’s conference in Kalama, Washington last week.
What do you think your most powerful tool is as a writer?
Dialogue? Characterization? Description?
Bushnell pointed out that scientists have taken people who were born blind and hooked them to a chair that brings information to them through their skin (by use of vibrating plates) – information about things happening on a screen in front of them. They postulated that the information was processed in the occipital cortex of the brain because of the way the test subjects responded. At one point, a blind test subject was said to have literally ducked to avoid something on the screen that “appeared” to be coming at him. Bushnell said that in these sorts of neuroplasticity studies, emotions appeared to appropriately go to the “primitive” lower areas of the CNS, while complex thoughts and interpretations found their way through higher cortical areas.
Here’s a link to a Wikipedia article that discusses a bit of this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Bach-y-Rita#cite_note-8.
Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain that Changes Itself, also discusses this research.
A PDF file of the original article (P.Bach-y-Rita. 1967. Sensory Plasticity. Acta Neurologica Scandinavica, 43:417-26) can be purchased here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1600-0404.1967.tb05747.x/abstract .
Similar things have been done using a postage-sized stimulator placed on the tongue. Here’s something on that: http://www.biomedsearch.com/article/use-tactile-vision-sensory-substitution/247030733.html
Bushnell says the developments in neuroplasticity tell us that the emotion’s central processing unit (the limbic system) can be reached directly and appropriately regardless of how the original stimulus arises and finds its way to the brain. Since vibrating plates can cause the visual cortex to “see,” and make a blind person feel the urge to duck, there must be hope for fiction writers.
Bushnell also said that one emotion can spill over into an area that deals with another emotion. So a smell in a story might evoke a feeling that spills over and adds zip to the neurons taking in an action scene.
Taking these ideas, he combined them to make the point that a writer’s description is the most direct, natural and effective way of reaching the reader’s emotions. This was a breakthrough moment for me. I work harder when I understand why the heck I’m working. Being told, “Show, don’t tell,” is telling, not showing.
I tend to consider description the “work” of writing. It’s something I’ve been told sets the backdrop for the good stuff, the characterization, plot and dialogue. I try to make descriptions live by having the vp character express feelings and opinions about the scenery, a technique that was discussed, in fact, in another excellent workshop earlier that day.
But now, such techniques reflect an old paradigm for me. It’s no longer as if description is an inherently weak element that needs a good trick to make it shine. Science is saying it’s the sharpest tool in the box.
The point was made that emergency medical techs calm the emotions of accident victims by asking questions designed to recruit the cerebral cortex. Questions like, “Who is the president?” and “What is your address?”
Why ask? Apparently, linear thoughts stir up the cortex which quiets the limbic system’s emotions. It’s analogous to giving Adderall, a stimulant, to hyperactive kids. The stimulant awakens the prefrontal cortex (so the story goes) which inhibits the lower parts of the brain, calming the kids down. Somehow I’m not comfortable with that analogy, but anyway…
This implies that interesting and complex ideas in a story may rev up the cerebral cortex and thereby dampen the limbic system’s emotional response. Readers tend to think or feel. Not both at the same time.
Man, is this counter-intuitive to me!
A description, on the other hand, may bypass the reader’s scientific curiosity and math skills, but go directly to the limbic system, making the reader feel what you’ve written.
A page-turner is born in description.
In an interview, Hemingway once said, “…I was trying to learn… and was searching for the unnoticed things that made emotions, such as the way an outfielder tossed his glove without looking back to where it fell…” (Here’s a link to the full interview: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4825/the-art-of-fiction-no-21-ernest-hemingway ) Bushnell contrasted this with a “telling” of the emotion: “The outfielder was dejected.”
Notice that when Hemingway speaks about conveying emotion, he goes straight to description and searches for “unnoticed things.” For him, the description of unnoticed things “made emotion.” He didn’t say that emotion is made by dialogue, clever twists of phrase, word rhythms, the scarlet letter worn by all adverbs, the plot, the OCD of consistent viewpoint… not even characterization.
Notice also the visuals that Hemingway did not mention here: “an outfielder tossed his glove without looking back to where it fell…” He left out “in the air,” “behind him,” and “as he walked away.” He showed these details without mentioning them. I think this is respect for the reader, and embodies the most significant reason to strive for tight prose.
Bushnell said that symbols in description can evoke disproportionately powerful emotions because they “connect with the primitive brain.” For instance, he discussed a story about a man who stopped smoking. The man’s beloved father had been a smoker. As a child, the smell of smoke and the color of tobacco were associated with his father. Although his father had died years before, when the son gives up smoking, it feels as if the last remnant of his father has been taken from him. He gave up more than an addiction.
The fact that all this was never spelled out, but was left in the vague realm of symbolism, made it powerful to the readers – at least to those who “got it.”
A reader’s sense of personally “getting it” in symbolism is analogous to the I-get-it nature of humor. Similarly, the reason why great writers say we should “show the reader some respect” by not spelling everything out, is that it leaves the door open for little “I get it” moments along the way that lend emotional power and perhaps art to our work.
Here’s a link to J.T. Bushnell’s bio: http://oregonstate.edu/cla/wlf/bushnell-jt
What a guy!
M. Talmage Moorehead
If you’re interested in intelligent design, weird artifacts, genetics and psychology from the perspective of a nineteen-year-old “Hapa Girl,” my in-progress novel may be a fun read. The protagonist, Johanna, is a genius geneticist with a younger brother who struggles with depression, though you wouldn’t know it to meet him. Her evolving story starts here.
It’s an experiment called, Hapa Girl DNA, and is a hybrid itself – a tightrope crossing of fiction and non-fiction. “Hapa” is the Hawaiian term for “half.” Johanna is half Japanese and half Jewish. In writing her novel, she and I ignore some important fiction-writing rules, partly because we like to test dogmas and partly because it’s fun to try new things.
But the “rules” are essential knowledge to anyone crazy enough to either break them or follow them mindlessly.
So you could download my e-book on fiction writing, the second to last chapter of which gives my current opinions on many of the dogmatic rules of fiction writing. Downloading that 10,000 word file will place you on my short list of people who will be politely notified when my traditional novel is done – possibly before the next ice age. (No spam or sharing of your info. I haven’t sent an email to my list yet. It’s been over a year.)
Next time you’re writing emails, if you think of it, please tell your best and hopefully weirdest friend about my blog (www.storiform.com). Thanks! I appreciate your thoughtfulness.