Mark Terry

Friday, April 18, 2008

Why Your Writing Matters So Much To You

April 18, 2008
I've noted a couple times fairly recently that when a lot of writers are asked why they write, there are a lot of responses along the lines of, "I just have to" or "It's who I am" or other similar responses that make me wonder about obsessive-compulsive disorders.

A couple scientists, Charles Limb, MD and Allen Braun, MD, with Johns Hopkins and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, recently published an interesting study. Braun, a former musician, wrote a piece of jazz, had several musicians memorize it, then had them play it or other similar things while having their brains scanned.

"When they improvised, the brain's dorsolateral prefrontal and lateral orbital regions were far less active—and another brain area, the medial prefrontal cortex, was more active.

The brain regions that were quiet during improvisation are involved in consciously monitoring, evaluating, and correcting behaviors, write the researchers.

In contrast, the medial prefrontal cortex allows self-expression, in this case in the form of jazz improvisation, according to the study."

I partly take that to mean that the parts of the brain that are involved in self-expression--the ones that say, "YES, THIS IS ME, ME, ME!!!!" are directly involved in creative expression.

When you think about it, that's not exactly a huge revelation. When we're writing, even if we're writing fiction about aliens on a far-off planet, or expressing something that's ultimately pretty personal. Lawrence Block once noted that his characters weren't exactly HIM, but were, rather, HIM IF HE WERE THEM.

Which is interesting, I think. My character in CATFISH GURU is Theo MacGreggor and he's very much a reflection of me, only divorced, raising a child alone, and better educated. Otherwise, same house, same problems mostly, with a PhD in toxicology. In DIRTY DEEDS, Meg Malloy is probably not me, although it's been pointed out she's a lot like my wife. Yet, if I were a dot-com refugee with $10 million in the bank, I might be a LOT like Meg. And as for Derek Stillwater, my character in THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK and THE SERPENT'S KISS, although I've never served in the military, don't have a PhD and know no terrorists (that I'm aware of), there is a kind of hypochondriac, neurotic, impatient quality to Derek that I share, at least some of the time.

In other words, if I were a person like Derek, that's probably how I would be.

Which is to say, one of the reasons we fiction writers get so wrapped up in getting published and getting readers and why we appear to be obsessive-compulsive maniacs with poor social skills is that the same parts of our brain that are involved in who we are are the same parts used to write our fiction. Reject my fiction, reject me. Love my fiction, love me.

Thank God I'm not an actor, though. Nobody's telling me my books are too fat, too bald, too old, too hairy, too young, too short, too tall, too American, too ethnic, too...  Of course, sometimes we're told, "You're just not right for the part," aren't we?



Mark Terry


Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I think this is your best blog post ever--in a blog of wonderful posts. While yes, I have thought about it . . . you hit it pretty close to home for me. No, my characters aren't me. But if I WERE to be a blues singer (Diary of a Blues Goddess) or the daughter of a killer (The Roofer) . . . that's pretty close to me. I feel like bits and pieces of my life waft through my books, the way some people leave behind a perfume. I can be somewhere, smell something sometimes, and it takes me back to my grandparents or a man I once loved--just a hint of it.

And yeah, reject me . . . and I want to take my toys and get out of the sandbox. ;-)

5:02 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Aaww, Erica, we want you to stay in the sandbox and play...

6:16 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

"Him if he were him"

That's it, that's perfect!

6:33 AM  
Blogger Idea Man said...

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!

I agree with Erica (with whom I share my real-life last name, coincidentally!)

You hit it on the head. Now I know how to describe my protagonists when people ask if those crazy, depressed, nutjobs making bad decisions are "really" me.

Yeah, if...

Great blog, by the way.

6:48 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Hey idea man:
Cool! I don't know to many Orloffs (and that's a my real-life name).


7:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess there's something of ourselves in all of our characters. At some level it is hard to imagine being someone else. The outward trappings can be imagined -- profession, appearance etc but trying to imagine being inside someone's else's head, when really, we never see the inside of anyone else's heads but our own. We receive communications from those places but we can't live there.

As for wanting to write....with me it's more just wanting to play with stories. As a kid I'd tell myself stories walking home from school. My stories were always more interesting - to me- than the familiar route home from school.


7:56 AM  
Blogger R.J. Keller said...

First of all, great photo. Made me smile bigger'n I have in awhile. Well...bigger'n anything that wasn't about ME. ;-)

You're spot on here, of course. My protagonists so far have all been "me...ifs".

1:36 PM  
Blogger Amy Nathan said...

Some have asked if my main character is me...and I say "No, she's a lot nicer than me!" Because my novel is technically my situation to which I've made up a story it's hard for the few who know me and know about the book to differentiate. I strive to develop differences in all my characters to anyone in real life who might have inspired me.

My favorite part of this process has been the invention of characters. Oh, if only we could do that in real life!

2:05 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I suspect there's more than a little bit of "Walter Mitty" fantasy in most writer's efforts, although that's always puzzled me about people who write depressing, dreary book where shitty things happen to the main character and it doesn't all turn out in the end. Maybe it just applies to commercial writers.

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