A Case for Positive Emotions

I cherish and love the scattered moments of joy in my life. Joy comes to me primarily when I’m helping someone in a unique way, as long as I’m not ruining the quality of my life at the same time. I did this for 26 years as a surgical pathologist and cytopathologist. It was a typical “success” trap where a good income is your jail cell. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

I’ve learned several useful things over the years from a broad spectrum of professors, writing gurus, and my own wall of anxiety (arising from a genetic SNP, a single-nucleotide polymorphism in my DNA that codes for my type 2 dopamine receptors).

I’m hoping to eventually work as a team with a few spiritually enclined writers who are warm-hearted, open-minded and want to make a difference in the world. Write to me here (cytopathology@gmail.com) if you think you might be interested in co-authoring something with me — fiction or nonfiction.

Here are the high points of several things I want to help you explore with me…

If you’ve read, The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle, you know why it’s almost magical to isolate the most fundamental parts of any complex skill you want to master. The myelination of relevant axons and dendrites extending from the neurons of the cerebral cortex is the fundamental target of world-class mastery. To develop any extremely valuable skill, you have to break it down into its simplest components, things that can be practiced in a precisely repetitive way. This exact repetition is the holy grail formula because “neurons that fire together wire together.” That is to say that myelin, which can increase nerve conductivity speed by 300 percent and is produced by the oligodendroglia, is wrapped around pairs and groups of neural extensions when they fire at the same time in response to mental and/or physical activity.

If you want to master shooting a basketball, for instance, you stand close to the basket in one unchanging spot, hold your feet, knees and legs still, keep your head and shoulders stationary, grip the ball exactly the same way each time and shoot at least a hundred baskets per day using only your arms and hands. The isolation of arms and hands means there are no extraneous neurons firing and being wrapped with myelin. You’re developing a pure shooting bundle without extraneous fibers that would take away from the accuracy of the shot.

Decades ago I did a few hundred shots this way every day for several months. It transformed my terrible shooting. Later I practiced the isolated shot from various distances and had a few 3 on 3 games where I was a holy terror. I still sucked on defense, though. Some great basketball players, like Michael Jordan, practiced more complex shots this same way, bringing in the legs in a fade-away jump shot, for instance.

Believe it or not, the same principle applies to a person’s ability to feel positive emotions in daily life.

Anxiety and depression are epidemic today, at least in the US. This is partly because we believe that positive emotions come to us passively as the result of favorable life circumstances such as having plenty of money, living in the right place, having trustworthy close friends, exercising our bodies, avoiding certain addictions, and finding a higher spiritual purpose in life that leads to altruism and belonging.

All these worthy goals and several others have been studied and shown to have a statistical correlation with happiness. To various degrees, the correlations appear to be causal. For those who manage to build these wonderful circumstances into their lives (through years of intelligent effort and work), there’s an increased probability of finding happiness (or the positive emotions that define it).

But there’s another path to positive emotions. This stems from the fact that emotions are, in a very real way, like a skill that can be broken down into simple repeatable components, practiced and mastered.

When the neurons of your semi-limbic prefrontal cortex (in the left cerebral hemisphere) develop a heavily myelinated superhighway as a result of your dedicated, disciplined, daily repetitive practice of conjuring up specific good feelings, positive emotions start to flow more freely in your daily life.

With the human body, brain, and mind (because of the diversity of the underlying DNA code) once size never fits all. Iron pills, for instance, are medicine to a person with iron deficiency anemia but will become toxic to a person with hereditary hemochromatosis. I lost a wonderful friend and mentor to this disease not long ago.

So everyone will have to discover a way of practicing positive emotions that works for them.

In my efforts to increase my neuronal capacity for feeling positive emotions, I use slow breathing which shunts blood to the prefrontal cortex. At the same time, I visualize a few carefully selected positive visual images of past moments when I felt a specific positive emotion. The very last time I surfed at Rincon in Ventura, four dolphins catching a wave came close to me. They seemed to be a family of four, one of them quite small. I’ve always felt like this was God’s Universe saying goodbye to me as a surfer. I’ve never caught a wave since then, though I tried once. I picture those dolphins sometimes when I’m breathing slowly and saying the word, “love” to myself. I felt the love of those marine mammals coming my way. I can still feel it to this day.

With other mental images, I try to isolate and practice feelings of joy, love, excitement, purpose, hope, courage, compassion, thankfulness, awe, faith, trust, bliss, contentment, the sense of mastery, and the feelings of humor or hilarity.

The thing is, this principle applies to writing, too. You just have to figure out how to break things down into the simplest, most precisely repeatable components.

In Archer and Jockers book, The Bestseller Code, their computer program has discovered that best-selling novels contain scenes with powerful emotional highs that are regularly interspersed among the emotional lows of the main characters, caused by problems that we know from The Story Grid, by Shawn Coyne, create narrative drive by progressing in complexity, intensity and scope while staying relevant to the main thrust of the story.

The upward waves of Archer and Jockers’ bestseller graphs help me understand the remarkable success of the late Blake Snyder’s book Save The Cat, a screenwriting method that seems to dominate Hollywood movies now, despite being too formulaic for many if not most novel writers. Among Blake Snyder’s highly specific recommendations is the “fun-and-games” section of the story where things must go remarkably well for the protagonist in the early scenes of a movie. Creating this rule of thumb that ensures an early emotional high in a story allows a more dramatic emotional fall for the main character and the audience or readers when things go south as they must in any story.

My insight on this point is that if you want to master popular novel-writing, you should isolate, practice and develop a special skill for creating moments of positive emotion involving a spectrum of good feelings. Then you can place positive feelings throughout your novel at evenly spaced intervals, as Archer and Jockers’ computer highly recommends.

I would suggest that you also ask your beta readers to grade each page or paragraph with regard to the subjective pull they feel while they’re reading your story. If you want to get mega-nerdy, graph the Beta Readers’ data and see how it correlates with a graph of the main characters’ emotional ups and downs.

You’ll probably find that your readers score your paragraphs highest (for page-turning pull) when your characters are involved in a conflict. Like it or not, it’s a fact that no one can take their eyes off a train wreck or a street fight. We’re human.

Which brings me to the most important message I have for you as a writer.

Human minds seem to be designed to learn from stories. Western culture swims in stories from cradle to grave. Among writers, the competition to create commercially viable stories has led us to overload stories and society with the negative emotions and actions of conflict. Incidentally, our popular music does this, too.

In essence, we are practicing to become the world’s gurus of quick anger, hatred, fear, resentment, revenge (especially PC-moral-outrage revenge that justifies “winning” at all costs), and an empathy-free sense of heroism built on top of despair, loneliness, abandonment, heartbreak and an endless parade of new categories of victimhood, one for each of us to embrace.

Despite the fact that most of us live in “developed” Western countries with relatively super-rich lifestyles where, at least in the US, the real danger to our lives comes from carbohydrates, bad air (including cigarettes), and automobile accidents, we are suffering an epidemic of debilitating anxiety and depression, at least in the US and Europe. In Europe, depression among woman has doubled since the 1970’s.

As an aside, I think it may be time to stop watching and reading the so-called “news.” It’s owned and controlled by five companies with a single agenda that has nothing to do with their pseudo-war over politics where the “left versus right” versions of truth bear no resemblance to one another.

Instead, the real agenda of “the news” seems to have everything to do with transforming the citizens of powerful democracies into easily manipulable pawns who are emotionally possessed by political outrage, hatred, and fear. If this isn’t obvious to you yet, please ponder it in the back of your mind and force yourself to watch or read some of the “fake” news coming from sources that appear to support the politics you oppose. It makes no difference which side of the aisle you’re on, if you make a small effort, I think you’ll see that there are not two opposing political sides at the level of the few elites who own and control the news.

But I digress.

As fiction writers, we have the opportunity to make a deliberate effort to write stories that help humanity myelinate a more balanced set of neuronal pathways. We can do this by learning to create scenes where the positive emotions of our characters equal or outweigh the negative emotions.

Fortunately, we have good evidence now from Archer and Jockers’ computer analysis that creating emotionally balanced stories increases our odds of coming up with a bestseller.

Morrill Talmage Moorehead, MD

By the way, if you’re looking for a co-author, I may be interested in teaming up with you. Send me an email (cytopathology@gmail.com) about yourself and what you’re thinking of writing — fiction or nonfiction. I’ll give it my thoughtful consideration and let you know if I can do the project with you.

As you may know, I’m one of 19 certified Story Grid editors in the world, so I do a little SG style developmental editing (on short stories only for now). You can read about that over here: https://www.storyscopemd.com/.

 


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).

Dude!

M. Talmage Moorehead


Read First Chapters – Only

aafterA meaningful page-turner develops that quality early on. It “hooks ’em in the first ten pages.”

The term, “hook” seems off-putting to me – like referring to the ecstatic magic of falling in love as, “bonding.”

But here’s a valuable suggestion from my sister-in-law. Go to Amazon and find a book that might be somewhat similar to a story you would write. Read the first few pages for free. See where they hook you and how. Take notes.

Buy the book only if you’re hooked.

Then go to the bottom of the page where they list similar books and do the same thing with those.  Read the first parts of every story you can.  I did this recently and it was an eye-opener that taught me a lot at the subconscious level.

It’s said that we will never become successful writers if we don’t read a lot of fiction.

I believe it, but still, I don’t personally enjoy reading fiction as much as I enjoy writing it. Reading fiction is a lot of work for slow readers like me. It seems overly time-consuming. And the more I love a story, the slower I read it for some dumb reason.

To my diseased mind, reading nonfiction is more fun than reading fiction! Ridiculous. And I want to be a fiction writer?

Yeah, I know. You read tons of fiction. You have since you were a kid. That’s great! Kudos. But one of your writer friends doesn’t. The quiet one. So hear me out.

A work of fiction has an infinite number of complex things going on simultaneously. The elements are too many, too subtle, and too complex to take into your mind cognitively, analyze and master without reading stories.

To become fluent in a new language, you have to move in with people who speak it exclusively. You have to be very young, too, if you want to avoid having an accent. Many of the important subtleties of connotation and the body language of the vocal apparatus cannot be taught, they can only be absorbed.

That’s like learning to write fiction.

Parts of it are beyond cognitive discussion. They’re machine level language to the mind. “Implied memory,” some call it.

Honestly, reading fiction kicks my butt.

I recently finished, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. As slowly as I read, it took forever to finish Green’s touching work of art. Of course, I couldn’t put it down, so that meant I was reading instead of doing a bunch of other things I “should” have been doing.

So I felt a little guilty about that.

Plus, I cried my eyes out all over the place when I was reading it. Not just in one spot, but here, there and at the end. Huge sobs, I’m sorry! I was a basket case by the time I was done. But inspired. Perhaps a little discouraged, too, because Green is orders of magnitude better than I am as a storyteller and writer.

Basically, I was worthless after that powerful story. (You gotta read it!)

So for me, reading only the first chapters of books that I don’t own is a useful discipline. It keeps me from spending too many consecutive hours reading. It teaches me the unteachable subtleties of the most practical component of success: hooking the reader in the first ten pages. It improves my writing like nothing else on earth. And it spares me the painful tears that great stories wring out of me.

Give it a try, maybe. First chapters only.

I want to give my sister-in-law credit again for giving me this valuable learning technique. Thanks !!!

M. Talmage Moorehead