Why One Story and Not Another?
Why one story and not another? For the fiction writer, any and all stories are possible. Theoretically, there are no restrictions. If I wish to write a story about a child who grows wings and a tail at age thirteen and flies into another world, no one will stop me. I am entirely free, but that is not my question. Why does a story feel right or wrong while I am making it? How do I know that a character must smash another character over the head at this juncture in the narrative? And conversely, why do I know that the paragraph I have just written is false and must be erased and redone? I am not talking about changing sentences to make them more elegant or cutting out a paragraph after reading a text because I realize the story can do without it. Such alterations belong to editing, and, usually, I can explain my decisions. I am asking where fictional stories originate and what guides their creation? Why, as a reader, do some novels feel to me like lies and others feel true? I think these are significant questions that are seldom asked. There is, however, a related question, one universally maligned and ridiculed by writers around the world, a question, which dogs every novelist at countless events because someone out there in the audience inevitably asks it. But the dreaded question, regarded as the province of morons, is actually profound. The question is: Where do you get your ideas?
The word “idea” catapults us instantly into philosophy. What does it mean to have an idea? What is an idea? For Plato ideal forms were more real than our world of flux and perceptual sensation. For Plutarch an idea was by its very nature bodiless. Descartes posited thought as the only verifiable aspect of human existence and separated body and mind. Contemporary philosophers and scientists are busily doing their best to smash the Cartesian divide between spirit and matter, but what is the relation between our ideas or thoughts and our feeling, sensing bodies? Where do ideas come from? The mind-body question appears as soon as the person in the back of the room asks me or any other writer on tour where our ideas come from. Are ideas in brain tissue? I have discovered that even when presented in highly lucid language, readers have difficulty grasping the problem. In my book The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves I pose the question again and again from multiple perspectives, and yet I was amazed to find that in interviews about the book, my interlocutors ignored it entirely. I will try to articulate the problem yet again. As a culture we are so deeply inculcated with the idea that mental faculties—thoughts, ideas, memories, fantasies, and feelings—are different in kind from physical faculties—walking, running, having stomach aches, farting—that bridging the divide makes little sense to most people and rather than think about it, they avoid it all together.
The problem of dualism, made famous by Descartes cogito ergo sum, through which he proposed that we are two things, intellect and body, not one, was articulated beautifully in 1664 by the natural philosopher Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, whose radical works were mostly ignored or ridiculed in her own time because she was a woman: “I would ask those that say the brain has neither sense, reason nor self-motion; but that all proceeds from an Immaterial Principle…distinct from the body…where their Immaterial Ideas reside, in what part or place in the body?” Cavendish’s question remains urgent.
Indeed, we all know that a head injury or dementia can make us forget who we are, can change our personalities, our ideas and thoughts. We know that the psychological and the physiological are not unrelated. And yet, how the private inner subjective experience of ideas, thoughts, and memories is connected to the objective outer reality of brain anatomy, neuronal connections, neurochemicals, and hormones remains unanswered. There is no agreed-upon theoretical model for brain-mind function. There are huge amounts of empirical data, and there is a lot of theoretical speculation and guesswork. Some ideas strike me as better than others, but that does not mean we have figured it out. The next time you pick up a newspaper and read about the neural correlates or neural underpinnings or neural representations of fear, joy, sex or anything else under the sun, you can say to yourself, Ah, the words correlates, underpinnings, and representations are used because the scientists and philosophers are reluctant to say that those brain systems are fear, joy, sex or anything else under the sun. The words expose the gap between mind and body rather than close it.
I cannot solve the division for you, but I can say there is a strong return to the body in many disciplines. Some cognitive scientists are abandoning the metaphor that has held sway since the late sixties; that our brains are like or literally are computational machines, information processors. The brain is a moist organ inside a body, and the computational metaphor has failed to cover many aspects of brain-mind function, our bodily movement, something as simple as how we walk, for example, as well as our emotions and feelings. The writing of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the French phenomenologist, who emphasized embodiment has seen a resurgence both in the sciences and the humanities. From this point of view: “Where do you get your ideas?” must involve an embodied self or being. Ideas, too, are embodied.
So how can we think about where the ideas for stories come from? How do we frame the question? It is common to point to writers’ biographies, if even a remote connection between writer and novel can be found. Many writers have robbed their own lives, and the lives of their families and friends for material. This is undeniable, and yet, the art of fiction cannot be reduced to a writer’s autobiography. Nevertheless, stories must come from somewhere, and they must in one way or another relate to their authors, to their perceptions of the world and their experiences of it. A writer’s imagination is not impersonal, is it? And it is somehow connected to memory, isn’t it? Homer’s Odyssey begins with a call to the muse Mneumosyne: “Speak, Memory.”
The link between memory and imagination is old. Aristotle located memory and imagination in the same part of the soul, an idea echoed by Aquinas. Hobbes, a materialist, wrote, “Imagination and memory are but one thing, which for divers considerations has divers names.” Cavendish proposed a continuum of thought from reason to fancy, a nice borderless movement. For Spinoza imagination was the lowest form of knowledge and contained memory inside it. Giambattista Vico, regarded memory, imagination, and invention as parts of the same mental function and rooted them all in the body. Hegel understood consciousness and its ability to bring the past into the present, as an act of imagination. Although parsed in various ways by many thinkers, my point here is broad. Memory and imagination have repeatedly been connected or combined in philosophy and this makes sense when you think of mental imagery. What are those pictures we have in our heads? I can call forth an image of you at dinner last night or a visual memory of the house where I grew up. But I also have a picture of a character in my most recent novel—I see Harriet Burden working on a sculpture in her studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The first two images are from life, the last is from a work of fiction, but I do not think they are qualitatively different.
There is a lot of research on false memory, memory distortion, mis-recognition, and how one event often collapses into another to create a form of hybrid recollection. The same brain systems appear to be activated in both remembering and imagining. Recollecting oneself in the past and casting oneself as a character in the future belong to the same psychobiological processes. People who suffer memory loss from brain damage to the hippocampus are also poor at imagining detailed fictional scenarios. The scientists Daniel Schacter and Donna Rose Addis argue that our flawed, constructive, memory systems are actually adaptive because they are flexible rather than static and used to predict and anticipate what will happen to us through what has already happened to us. They write: “Thus a memory system that simply stored rote records of what happened in the past would not be well suited to simulating future events, which will probably share some similarities with past events while differing in other respects.” Gerald Edelman and Guilio Tononi in their book A Universe of Consciousness propose that in higher organisms, every act of memory is to one degree or another also an imaginative act. Surely, imagining oneself in the future is the creation a personal fiction, a narrative of what it might be like…which is a close relative to what if…, I hope…, and I dread…
The writing of fiction clearly partakes of this geography of the potential, the land of play, daydreams, fantasy, and reverie, of wishes and fears. The activity that the psychologist Endel Tulving called “time travel,” locating the self in the past and imagining it in the future is a function of reflective self-consciousness, the ability to represent and imagine one’s self as another person. There is growing evidence that human beings aren’t alone in this—dolphins, elephants, some primates and birds can recognize themselves in the mirror and learn some forms of language, but our sophisticated linguistic capacities allow for a flowering of artistic and intellectual imaginative play that can’t be found among other animals. Nevertheless, physiologically we have much in common with our rat cousins who are alive, alert and aware of their surroundings, who play and mate, and negotiate their environments through learning and memory. It would be interesting to know what mental imagery rats have. I suspect that they do not call up pictures in their minds of a great meal last Sunday or fantasize about one a week from now. And I can say with some confidence that my dog Jack, now dead, who spent many hours in a state of canine torpor, never once had an idea for a novel.
And yet, how does the link between memory and imagination help us understand why a book feels right or wrong? How can a writer possibly know where a story should take her? Robert Louis Stevenson, a writer who dreamed the doubles “Jekyll and Hyde” and attended closely to the nighttime visits of his brownies, the little people who danced about in the theater of his head, for inspiration, asked the question I posed earlier. Why do some passages, some stories, some books feel wrong. “The trouble with ‘Ollala’,” he wrote to a friend, “is that it somehow sounds false…and I don’t know why…I admire the style of it myself, more than is perhaps good for me; it is so solidly written. And that brings back (almost with the voice of despair) my unanswerable: Why is it false?” I cannot answer for Stevenson. I can say that any number of well-written books feel false to me, that falseness has nothing to do with either good sentences or subject matter. Kafka’s Gregor Samsa waking up as an insect and the terrible loneliness of Mary Shelley’s monster are just as true as Tolstoy’s evocation of Anna Karenina’s ostracism or the grief of Wharton’s Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, for whom the links in her bracelet have come to seem “like manacles chaining her to her fate.”
Truth, that is, the kind of truth Stevenson refers to, is located elsewhere. I have written about this fictional truth in an essay that was originally published in the journal Neuropsychoanalysis under the title, “Three Emotional Stories: Reflections on Memory, the Imagination, Narrative, and the Self.” It is republished in my collection of essays, Living, Thinking, Looking, without the subtitle, abstract, key words, and peer reviews. In the last line of the lopped off abstract, I write: “Culling insights from Freud and research in neuroscience and phenomenology, I argue that a core bodily, affective, timeless self is the ground of the narrative, temporal self of autobiographical memory and of fiction and that the secret to creativity lies not in the so-called higher cognitive processes but in the dreamlike reconfigurations of emotional meanings that take place unconsciously.”
What does this mean? I cannot reproduce this tightly argued essay here, which was written for a specialized audience, but I can say that I am interested in what happens underground, before an idea or picture or sentence surfaces. It is now a commonplace to say that most of what the brain does is unconscious, or non-conscious for those who want to avoid sounding Freudian. There are many debates about the exact nature of this subliminal reality, but no one is claiming any longer that it does not exist. Although much of a story may be created unconsciously, the writer’s recognition that a story is right is consciously felt. Feelings are by their very nature conscious and serve as guides for our behavior, even when we have no idea why we have the feelings we have. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s “somatic marker theory” is helpful in understanding how decision-making works. To simplify: he argues that reasoning always has an emotional component. To isolate passion from intellect is a mistake. The decisions we make are the result of emotionally-coded past experience—feeling associations that are literally of our brains. Without feeling, we cannot decide anything. And, despite certain arguments in analytical philosophy that argue otherwise, I maintain that emotions can never be unreal even when they are triggered by fictions.
I used the Russian Formalist term fabula in “Three Emotional Stories” to describe what a writer draws upon for a book. The difference between the fabula and the sujet can be described simply as the difference between what happens in a story and how it is told. The Cinderella fabula is always the same; its sujet, on the other hand, has taken myriad forms. The fabula of a story feels to me as if it is already there in me, not yet known, but glimpsed as a kind of dream-like memory, part of the subliminal self, a thing that must either be dredged to the surface or unleashed in a great rush. The sujet, on the other hand, is often up for grabs. How to tell it? Who should tell it? These are often fully conscious decisions. And yet, it happens that parts of books or poems or entire works are written in trances. The underground pushes upward and appears fully formed to become Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” or Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In his classic work on creativity (1952) that collects the accounts of many brilliant thinkers and artists, Brewster Ghiselin writes in his preface, “Production by a process of purely conscious calculation seems never to occur… automatism is reported by nearly every worker who has much to say about his processes, and no process has been demonstrated to be wholly free from it.”
Countless writers, as well as mathematicians and physicists, have described sudden revelations that came to them in dreams, dream states, or in sudden rushes of inspiration. I have experienced periods of more or less automatic writing in my own work when a book appears to compose itself. It is exciting, and it only occurs in states of physical relaxation and mental openness to whatever comes along. It is a permissive, fearless state, in which one gains access to “stuff” one didn’t know was there. The psychoanalyst Ernst Kris referred to this as “the release of passion under the protection of the aesthetic illusion”—a phrase that nicely suggests explosive creativity without ego disintegration.
The sudden release of a solution, formula, poem or part of a novel from subliminal regions of a person, however, is dependent on what is down there (to use a metaphor suited to the subterranean), and the bulk of that material, I am convinced, is not produced by an essential, fixed self, nor does it come from some elusive quality of “genius.” It is the accumulation of years of reading and thinking and living and feeling. It is the result of autobiography in the loosest sense—not as literal facts, but as the creation of a story that appears from a writer’s depths and feels emotionally true to her. The story of Mary Shelley’s monster expressed her own deep reality. In her preface to the novel she writes that the story poured out of her as in a waking dream. The lonely, vengeful monster is a product of her own emotional complexity, but it also, and this is essential, the product of her reading of and love for John Milton. Milton’s language, the rhythms of his verse, the immensity of his Satan, were reconfigured and wholly reimagined by the nineteen-year-old Shelley who wrote the story on a bet.
Every good novel is written because it has to be written. The need to tell is compelling, and it is always directed at another, not a real other but an imagined other person. (In my case, the fantasy person is someone who gets all my jokes, references, puns, and has read every single book I have read. I have come to understand that, despite my great longing for this stranger, she or he does not exist.) Nevertheless, every work of fiction inhabits the realm of both “I” and “you”—on what I call the axis of discourse or the in-between zone. Even journal and diary writing is written at the very least for another self, perhaps the one who returns to the entries years later and is surprised.
The platitude that fiction writers are professional liars is offensive to me. There are novels that lie, but they will not last. The writer who gets her or his material from the ready-made clichés of contemporary culture is doomed to oblivion, no matter how popular she or he is at the moment. The truth of a work of fiction is not easily articulated, but it is one that comes alive between the reader and the text. Its resonance is sensual, rhythmic, intellectual and emotional. The characters and stories may be fiction, but the feelings they evoke are real.