Unraveling the Mysteries of the Writing Brain

The Creating Brain: Click on the image to watch a TED video about how the brain works

The Creating Brain: Click on the image to watch a TED video about how the brain works.

In writing process theory’s recursive “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” discussion, cogitation occurs before the act of writing.

It might not be conscious cogitation, but your brain is most definitely engaged, and it’s precisely the cognitive complexities involved in writing that make it not only the most complex skill humans possess, but also, not coincidentally, the most glorified.

Society puts writers on pedestals, granting them what French philosopher Pierre Bordieu calls ‘cultural capital,’ largely because we’re impressed when anyone can make something so seemingly difficult look so easy. We are also daunted by the mystery of writing; since we don’t know where inspiration comes from, we imbue it with magical properties.

In terms of what you’ve been told is true about writing, you are both conscious and unconscious of the societal influences you’ve been raised with. Your beliefs provide a mirror for the things you’ve been told. You aren’t going to believe or agree with everything you hear, but quite often, you’re not consciously aware of all of the messages you received, most of which are subsequently reinforced by society, just as they might be reinforced by your own life experiences.

The question when it comes to the brain, though, is where do these beliefs reside? It turns out that memory and memory-retrieval play a large part in forming our unconscious thoughts. These unconscious thoughts influence us much more than was previously believed.

Long story short, you and I, everyone in Western society, as a matter of fact, were taught to believe quite a few things about self-expression and creativity. Some of those things aren’t true, and in fact, the things that aren’t true only serve to limit and restrict you when you want to express yourself. Nowhere is the stigma cast by society as strongly negative as it is on the writer.

Once you honestly believe that only some rare and lucky people are innately talented, you’ve closed the door to your own potential. Although it is clear from research on the brain there is such a thing as an innate ability, that isn’t the endpoint, it’s only the rawest of beginnings. Our brains are all innately programmed for language skills, for example; how will those language skills be developed? How many neural connections will be encouraged by the people around us as our brains form?

One of the myths we’re told to believe is that it’s a mystery how creative geniuses can be significantly more inspired than the average person, with prolific flow that somehow never falters until the day the person dies. One of the things that’s wrong with this idea about how creativity functions is that the people who continue to write about “genius” not only sound star-struck, they typically write about the “genius” ahistorically and acontextually. This one simple fact does everyone who is creative a disservice, and I’ll explain why.

A recent example of this fault in researcher’s perceptions about creativity is to be found in the otherwise extremely helpful book about neuroscience’s role in understanding creativity, The Creative Brain by Nancy C. Andreasen.  

Andreasen provides a handful of examples of what genius looks like. Unfortunately, the creative people she chooses all come from the Romantic Era, which automatically means they describe their own creative abilities in the requisite dramatic, inexact, and emotionally-laden metaphors of their era. (To rephrase in once-popular parlance, the Romantics were extremely emo.)

Andreasen, predictably, relies on Amadeus Mozart as an example of creative genius. Not for the first time in creativity research is Mozart used as a fertile example of what we mean when we use the word ‘genius’. Unfortunately, Andreasen, a medical doctor and Ph.D., but not a “Freudian or psychoanalyst,” as she points out, cannot expand her subject to include environmental influences Mozart was surrounded by as he matured.  

In spite of the fact that it’s less popular to assert, it is nonetheless accurate to say that competition and collaboration, the kind found in a family of musicians, leads to spurred creation. In addition, no one has ever been able to analyse the myriad emotions that led to Mozart’s renowned desire and interest in learning everything he could about music.

It’s rare for these environmental factors to be taken into account when individual genius is assessed, because, for one thing, it’s less glamorous to revision the creator as anything but a demi-god. However, it’s also much more complicated to speculate that Mozart might have been more competitive than his siblings. He also clearly had one important personal characteristic that has more to do with creative output than any other: he was curious, with an insatiable desire to learn everything he could about music and composition.   

Everyone starts somewhere, even musical prodigies. Mozart's earliest compositions were vetted and criticized by other musicians, and the young composer was surrounded each day by music.

Everyone starts somewhere, even musical prodigies. Mozart’s earliest compositions were vetted and criticized by other musicians, and the young composer was surrounded each day by music.

Surface clues into the ‘mystery of genius’ Andreasen focuses on about Mozart are those we have all been taught to privilege when it comes to what ‘genius’ means: productivity and uniqueness.

It’s as though, when assessing Mozart’s creative force, it’s assumed he never left his room, never listened to anyone else’s music, never practiced, never had a bad day of composing when he threw everything away. In other words, his real life experiences are elided to perpetuate the myth of smooth, flowing, “pure” genius.

Later in the book, however, Andreasen does begin to unravel at least some of the mystery surrounding how the mind creates that all-too-elusive moment of inspiration that has been imbued with metaphor, myth, and mystery for far too long, when she gets to the meat of her neurological research. Andreasen tells us that

“most of the time we speak, we are producing a sequence of words that we have not produced before—in fact, that no one has produced before . . . we are producing language that is novel.  We make up coherent sentences “on the fly,” listening to ourselves speak while we are speaking, and planning what the next words will be as the words and sentences are produced” (Creative Brain 63-64, emphasis mine).

This one fact alone has profound consequences for writers. If we took our speech acts more seriously, we’d naturally do what I’ve suggested to writers for many years, which is read each other’s writing aloud, so that we could consciously hear what we’ve written, and respond verbally, all the while taking notes. We’d also take collaboration more seriously, since speaking our thoughts aloud is part of a series of necessary events in the writing process, but it is one that is not privileged by the old paradigm of the writer writing in isolation, speaking only to herself.  

Even though neuroscience is still unsure about the role each region of the brain controls, we all rely on various forms of memory-retrieval. The memory-retrieval skill of particular interest to writers is called “episodic memory,” which is used for free association, and it may be the source of

“information that is stored deeply and is therefore sometimes less consciously accessible. It draws on those freely wandering and undirected associative thoughts that constitute primary process thinking. It is a resource not only for the creative process but also for meditational states, religious experiences, and dreams” (Creative Brain 71-72).

The implications for writers in the above information has to do with understanding ourselves as creators. Instead of seeing the various acts of creation, especially the moment of inspiration we’ve imbued since the Ancient Greeks with the mystery of the Muse sitting on our shoulder, we can begin to free ourselves of our superstitions about writing, and replace our doubts with wisdom. No longer is the ‘wandering mind’ a negative state; it is, instead, crucial for creativity.

No longer will we think that information we’d otherwise wait to passively receive exists outside of ourselves; instead, now we can take responsibility for the fact that although we don’t know precisely where the thought came from, it is, nonetheless, stored in a part of our mind. Inspiration no longer resides in the ‘divine moment,’ it doesn’t belong to some long-dead lyrical Ancient Greek ‘Muse’—it is ours, it was always ours. This knowledge gives us ‘agency,’ which, not coincidentally, means we have power to act, speak, write, and best of all, to be free from limiting myths about creativity.

Woven together by an internal, seamless socially-inscribed ‘logic’, the myths that control how we think about writing are nonetheless not transparent, not natural, not fact. They are cultural artifacts, tattered remnants of a tapestry woven long ago by people who attempted to explain a phenomenon that seems mystical because it is so poorly understood: how a human being learns language and then uses that language to reflect emotion, impart wisdom and acquired knowledge, entertain with humor, incite a populace to war or to tears. And the myths exist in your unconscious memory; they influence your beliefs even now, unless you consciously choose to erase them and reframe them.

Grid structure of the major pathways of the brain, created by using a scanner that's part of the Human Connectome Project. Click on image for more information.

Grid structure of the major pathways of the brain, created by using a scanner that’s part of the Human Connectome Project. Click on image for more information.

When Albert Einstein’s brain was autopsied, it was found he had more neural connections between both hemispheres than the average person. It is important to recognize that he wasn’t born with those neural connections—they developed over time, and with effort on his part to constantly learn new things. The reason his brain could develop in this way has to do with the innate plasticity of our brains, and in this plasticity lies hope for anyone who wants to unlearn what you were told when young.

For example, recent discoveries have demonstrated that “cortical maps are subject to constant modification based on the use of sensory pathways” (Kandel & Hawkins 86).

This means that learning how to do something new literally changes the architecture of the brain.

We not only grow more neurons in response to learning (and the creation of a memory); we create an entire neural network that facilitates future learning, changing the brain’s cortical ‘map,’ or network of neurons. This has ramifications for those who believe our neural paths are fixed or predetermined, for it indicates that the act of learning itself changes the brain’s functioning.

Once the brain has learned and has formed new neural networks, the possibility for interaction between spheres increases, adding to the potential for increased intelligence. Increased neural networks allow for increased categorization and subcategorization of conceptual linguistic material such as metaphor and abstraction. 

What makes this learning possible in adolescents and adults is the brain’s neuroplasticity:

“[c]ontrary to the notion that the brain has fully matured by the age of eight or twelve . . . it turns out that the brain is an ongoing construction site . . . [m]aturation does not stop” (Schwartz and Begley, 128).

The tripartite interconnection between areas of the brain is facilitated, not by mystical intervention, but by learning, memorization, and experience, which creates “abilities that stick around if they’re used but wither if they’re not” (128).

Please contact me for details about the above references; since I have been researching this subject for more than 20 years, there’s a lot of data I can share with you, from the writer’s perspective.

Let’s start at the very beginning: Why Write At All?

Every now and then, I like to go back to my original thought, the one that leads into the maze, and follow Ariadne’s thread to rediscover my purpose.

Your story will be as unique as the snowflake you are...

Your story will be as unique as a snowflake.

When I got started working with writers (as opposed to working on my own writing) it was as an offshoot of being an editor, typesetter, and collaborator/co-writer. In addition to these jobs, I  had been an English major, and I loved history and literature. 

The question of “why I write” never occurred to me in those years, but subsequently, having dealt with many students whose response to a writing prompt was some version of “why bother,” it dawned on me that not everyone had a lust for self-expression; that not everyone was raised to value or desire the need to respond, to have an opinion, to say something.

That was only one problem during the years it took me to get here; another problem was that the writers I worked with, including published writers who I’d assumed had loads of self-confidence, too often told me some version of “I don’t believe in myself enough to do this.” 

Eventually I reached my own crisis of confidence, because I faced the yawning abyss of wanting to write fiction (after having had early work consistently rejected), yet having no credible reason to do so. “Why another piece of fiction,” I muttered to myself on bad days. Why now?  The world is swimming in fiction; surely, another mystery does not have to be written by me.

In fact, this is how I stop myself a lot of the time from writing many things I would otherwise feel compelled to write: someone else has said it already. You might think this is an excuse not to write, and on one level, I’m sure you’re right. It probably is an excuse. But another way of looking at it is that I don’t have to write everything; I do not have to have my thumb in every pie.

I have an opinion about too many things, and many people’s responses through the years have taught me that I really can shut up and let others talk. 

Your voice is distinct and unique.

Your voice is distinct and unique.

The day I decided I wanted and needed to write my mystery story was the day I also decided that the world needs entertainment, and that entertainment, on its own, is not a bad thing. In other words, I gave myself permission to write something that I did not have to write, but nonetheless wanted to write.

Largely, I wanted to write it because no one else has written it yet, or if they have, they haven’t written it the way I want to, from my perspective and research, in my voice.

I had had enough of wandering up and down the aisles of mysteries in Barnes & Noble, never seeing my book already written by someone else, never seeing my own name stuck somewhere, even haphazardly, in the “G’s”. I wasn’t there because I hadn’t written the book that belongs there, and it seemed like no one else was writing it either.

And this is why you should write what you want to write.

It is a truism that “everything’s been said,” but what is more true is that you haven’t had your shot to say it yet. No one has heard you say it, whatever it is, in your voice, from your perspective, in quite the way you would tell the tale.

This is where I could break into lyric song and tell you that you are a unique snowflake, and I will tell you a version of that. You are unique. No one knows the story you want to tell the way you do, and no one will ever tell the story you want to tell the way you want to tell it, which is why you should give yourself permission to write it, whatever it is. 

The world thrives on stories—we need more stories. Human beings absolutely crave stories; it’s how we make order out of what happens to us. Our brains do it each night when we dream—we create narratives, themes, metaphors, and plots to make sense of what happened to us in our lives.

blue and pink snowflake cookiesWe never tire of hearing, reading, or writing stories, narratives of some kind. It is part of who we are, it’s part of how we order our brains. We’ll create a story around a blade of grass if you let us.

Somewhere during my crisis of confidence I was also reading neuroscience about how the brain works, and the power and importance of stories, so it was then that I realised that it wasn’t infantile or useless or unnecessary to write one more story.

One more story, I realised, is exactly what people want and need, and if other people can write the stories they feel compelled to tell, so can I. 

Ultimately, I stopped judging myself for not writing what I should have been writing (which was scholarly and tedious) and began writing what I wanted to write, which requires a lot of historical research, but is fun and is important to me. Eventually, if I ever get it to an agent and/or a publisher, it might see the light of day and mean something to someone else, but that cannot be the reason I write, since “someday” cannot sustain you; it’s too amorphous, too built on fantasy. I have to write because it matters to me, but also because I believe in the story itself, in the need for this story. Without that belief, I was not writing—I was holding myself back because, at the time, I did not believe in the story. 

What story do you need permission to write? Are you giving yourself that permission?

Let me know!

Click on the picture to support the National PTA and its quest to help survivors of Sandy Hook schools

Click on the picture to support the National PTA and its quest to help survivors of Sandy Hook Elementary

The Passionately Curious Reader and The Writer of Great Imagination

The curious reader has the kind of imagination to see your writing not as it is now, but as it might be.

Writers have great imaginations, but virtually every writer has, at some point, had difficulty imagining his or her audience.

I propose that this is partially a side effect of the expectation that writers should isolate ourselves. If we therefore spend a lot of time in our heads, creating and imagining, the person we’re writing to might not exist in reality. Since we’re isolated and alone, we’re not likely to meet this person, either.

Therefore, it’s in our best interest, as writers, to collaborate with other writers or creative types, people who understand our inner world because they appreciate it, believe in it, or somehow speak its ‘language.’ You know who that person is: s/he is someone you feel comfortable enough sharing your writing with, someone who focuses less on errors and fixing your writing, and more on what you’re trying to say or accomplish with your story. This ideal reader, like Albert Einstein, could say “I have no special abilities; I am only passionately curious.” 

How do we access this ‘passionately curious’ reader if we don’t yet have a trusted writing partner, someone we can share our writing with? This reader is not what I would call a critique partner. I’ve had those. Even the writing partners who mean well, offering valuable advice that improves your writing skills, might not be the reader you really need, who sympathizes with you and the story you’re trying to tell.

In my experience, most critique happens long before your story has sufficient structure and purpose, and may end up doing more harm than good. Critique often stands in for copy-editing, and instead of allowing the writer to develop his or her thoughts and form a solid direction, nips incipient creativity in the bud far too early.

The helping hand of inspiration

There’s often a gap between the writing we produce and the writing we’ve got in our heart or mind’s eye. The difficulty will be finding the person who cares less about mistakes and more about what’s preventing you from telling the story you could tell if you had the right inspiration.

As writers, we share a fundamental hope. Somewhere deep inside we hope that our thoughts and feelings will be of interest to our readers. It’s this hope we nurture when we begin to write.

However, if, like me, you were trained by society to suppress your feelings, to forget your experiences and never speak of them, is it any surprise that when we sit down to write a story or essay that tells the truth, we stop ourselves with negative messages?

This is an insidious and debilitating process: I want to write, but I can’t let myself. We end up abandoning ourselves. We really need someone’s permission to say what needs to be said, yet we can’t allow ourselves to be that vulnerable. How, then, can we get past this fear and reconnect with our deep desire to write—complete with the conviction that our words are valuable?

One way is to make use of the powerful imagination writers have.

Sit in a comfortable chair. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, let the tension leave your body as you exhale. For a few minutes, sit quietly and pay attention to your breathing. Try not to think about much of anything. The goal is to relax your mind, release self-judgement, and allow self-acceptance.

Visualize your friendly, curious reader sitting across from you. This person accepts you no matter what you do, and is interested in everything you say. Remember the last conversation you had with this person, how openly you shared your ideas and feelings, realizing their significance as you spoke, knowing they would be received with understanding.

See his or her receptive, caring face and simply begin to tell your story. Open your eyes, pick up a pen and write to that friend. And now you’ve found your audience, for the time being at least. You’ve imagined what it feels like to have the ideal reader.

The next step is to find that friend in the real world, and share your imagination with him or her. This is the purpose of the Collaborative Writer forum; it exists with the intention of connecting writers who, hopefully, will end up trusting each other enough to share their writing with each other in a collaborative, not competitive, environment.

What Does Your Main Character Look Like? Why Your Readers Care

Joan Fontaine as Jane Eyre? I don't think so!

How often do you imagine what your favorite fictional character looks like?

How often do you wrestle with the author over the amount of detail you need to actually see your favorite character clearly in your mind’s eye? We make an emotional connection with the protagonist, and it ends up mattering very much to us what the main character looks like. Characters have the potential to become more real for readers than their own family members, and can elicit just as much sympathy and concern.

Do these people look odd? They should; they're police sketches of fictional characters!

Charlotte Brontë sketched her protagonist, Jane Eyre, as not particularly pretty. Jane had a small mouth, a high forehead, and unhealthy skin. I have no real idea what Jane Eyre actually looked like; I have to create her in my mind’s eye. Yet when I’ve seen actresses portray her, most of the time, they seem mis-cast. One is left wondering, in fact, what did Jane look like to Charlotte Brontë? She certainly didn’t describe a woman who looked like Joan Fontaine!

This image of Jane Eyre makes sense to my imagination

When a movie is made, or TV series created, you see the actor portraying your favorite character, and you sense, without knowing why, that the casting is simply wrong. The character isn’t supposed to look like that! But how do you know?

We’re relying on our sense of what this person looks like, the person’s face we create in our minds based on the bits and pieces the author gives us. As a writer, I believe that creating the character’s face for my reader is one of my most challenging tasks.

It feels very much like painting on a small canvas using too-large brushes, because the level of detail I’d need to let you see what I see seems obsessive to get into. I must, for the sake of brevity, leave you to fill in the missing pieces of the visual mosaic I’ve attempted to create for you. Hopefully, you will care enough about the character to fill in those blanks.

This is the right look for Jane Eyre (Charlotte Gainsbourg; 1996); not glamorised or prettified.

BBC News reports today that it’s possible to apply police sketch technology to recreate the characters of our imagination, making it that much easier to be sure the character’s representation matches our inner vision:

No matter how lovingly a fictional character is rendered in print, he or she is still just a figment of the literary imagination, with a face readers can only imagine.

Inevitably, a film adaptation prompts protests that whoever was cast doesn’t get the look quite right, though it’s never truly clear just what the look should be.

But now a new website uses police technology to sketch out faces of characters described in notable novels. Called The Composites, it shows images of literary characters created by using the author’s description of a character with law enforcement composite-sketch software.

The website shows the faces of Humbert Humbert,  from Nabokov’s Lolita; Vaughan, from J.G. Ballards Crash; Aomame, from Haruki Murakami‘s 1Q84; Emma Bovary, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and many others.

Now that we can see what our favorite characters look like, though, will we want to? Perhaps some things are best left to the imagination.


A new beginning for The Collaborative Writer!

The Collaborative Writer, a website I’ve been developing for quite some time, is finally up! Please visit, and consider becoming a member to join the community of writers who want to work with one another collaboratively, not competitively.

The goal of The Collaborative Writer is to help you rediscover yourself through your creativity.  Expressing your creativity is a process of rediscovery. As you allow yourself to explore your potential, your new self emerges. The Collaborative Writer’s supportive community exists to help you develop as a writer. Contrary to belief, writers are not born, they emerge over time.

This metamorphosis occurs more smoothly when you interact with other writers who can provide encouragement and reinforcement. Frequently, the biggest stumbling block to creativity occurs long before you ever start writing. Your own beliefs about what it means to be creative might be holding you back. We can explore these blocks, finding ways for you to visualise yourself as a writer.

Learning to believe in yourself and value your need for creativity is an ongoing process. Making time for this might seem to be a luxury, but self-expression is a necessary part of feeling whole. Through group interaction via the forum, the collaborative blog, or with me through one-on-one counseling, your identity as a writer will be strengthened. You’ll find contacts, friends, and resources at The Collaborative Writer that will guide you on your way to self-expression.