J.T. Bushnell is Brilliant

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.


Description – A Modest Proposal

First, make the reader focus at near objects with minute detail, and also at far-away objects.  This is a type of contrast that gives a 3D image to your work.

Next, remember that some say the only purpose for description is to create a mood or a feeling.

I would suggest that there are two components to this:  first you draw something with the potential to carry the elements of the mood you want to transmit.  Then you do something to transmit it.

Let’s say you want to create a dark place where some sort of nebulous danger awaits.

First you draw a mental picture of the things IMG_0940you want to see.  But to do this well, you might want to brainstorm it by listing a bunch of mood objects, noises, smells and textures that might be found in this sort of place.

You might make one of the objects symbolic of or related to something in the hero’s life…. The hero lost her daughter in a fire she caused by falling asleep while smoking, for instance.  So here in this solitary dark room there is an antique doll, a hundred years old if a day, with cigarette burns on its belly and chest.

You’ve got your list, you pick out the best stuff, make a mental image of the room and start putting the stuff where you want it.

It’s going to be effective if it’s not too wordy, not too long, not too static, and has objects that are interesting in and of themselves (so the reader is not just interested in getting through the boring description).  Example: in the “secret” chamber of the empty jewelry box there’s a tiny gyroscope, a child’s toy from an era where subtlety existed, even for children.

Don’t groan, that’s rude.

Now I’m thinking the next step is to somehow transmit the feelings of this room to the reader.

To do this, I don’t know. But I have some suggestions, at least.

Make the hero’s emotional reactions subtle, less than you hope the reader will have.

Bring the viewpoint character in with his back exposed to something that he and the reader disagree about. Perhaps the hero doesn’t think the object to his right is anything special so he looks away.  But the reader is more concerned about some detail the viewpoint character cavalierly described and dismissed.

Have your hero fixate on one object.  Maybe she stops and back-stories on the object’s history – briefly.  Maybe the object falls from her hands and cracks on the floor.  If so, it was expensive and now she’s worried about having to pay for it. Now you have two worries going on at the same time.  This is like real life!  And two worries amplify each other.  The reader is worried about “what’s behind the door,” and the hero is worried about paying for something she just broke.

That reminds me…  Naah, I’ll write about this later.  But for now, I just want to say that the human mind finds it exhilarating to do two things at the same time.  For instance, most of the best songs have a place where two melodies are going on at the same time – or two melody-like things.  They tend to be simple melodies that are down to a level where the average person and I can keep both melodies going at the same time in our heads even after the song’s over.  The same kind of thing might just apply to writing fiction.  I’m too much of a hack to know, but since I’m infallible and fearless, I’ll write more about it later.

Description is, according to one guru, the place where the magic happens in a story.  I don’t know, it could be.  I tend to write pages of “talking heads” sometimes.  You know, pages where one guy talks to the other and nothing else happens?  Then I go back and it feels like work to put in descriptions of things here and there, just for the sake of making the talking heads seem attached to chairs and whatnot.  I’m not going to be able to write great description while I’m struggling to write decent dialogue.  But, if I can make the process of writing description more interesting, it will be more fun and better for the reader (that theoretical person).


M. Talmage Moorehead