Monday, January 15, 2001

My first day back to work after a month of "paternity leave". It went okay. I like my day job, it's interesting enough, the people are great and the company is very generous -- and it's only 34 hours a week. However, I'd still much rather be home writing stories and snuggling with Esther and Aviva.

Trey is now also talking to his characters -- or they are talking to him. As I was talking about doing in my last entry. As Marti and Karina have recently reported doing. It's catchy.

Why do so many fiction writers report this phenomenon? Why do we get all gleeful and awed and say things like "Gosh, I know this sounds really weird, but I didn't write that scene -- the characters talked to me!" The non-writer is left thinking that either

  • we are just lying, or
  • this is a cheesy, affected way of describing something probably much less interesting, or
  • we are teetering on the edge of full-blown schizophrenic delusions.
But it doesn't feel to us like we are exaggerating, or nuts. It seems like our characters talk inside our heads, which seems bizarre and miraculous, and at the same time perfectly straightforward and normal.

So here's my theory. If hearing a (pseudo-)scientific hypothesis about this is going to ruin your enjoyment of and wonder at it, stop reading now.

What I reckon is going on here is that there are two parts of your brain at issue, both evolved over millions of years of mammalian history. (Note that I don't necessary mean physical, contiguous parts of the brain -- they could be mechanisms distributed over the whole brain, or whatever. I'm not a neuroscientist.) One is the part that tells lies. This is a more or less analytical part, which figures things out. It says, well, they can't prove I stole this banana if there are multiple available suspects whose motives seem equally strong. This is the part we often begin writing stories with: the part that tells elaborate falsehoods, woven out of half-truths, exaggerations and outrageous improbable leaps, some arising randomly out of the soup of creativity, but all carefully marshaled into a well-planned lie. 

Then there's another part of our brain that simulates for us the personalities of those we know well, particularly those close to us. Since it is a big selection advantage, among mammals as social as we are, to have a very accurate model of those around us -- mostly so as to figure out what we can get away with -- I think we devote a lot of space and processing power to this. So much so, that we don't receive results from this part through the narrow tube of discursive logic; we don't think, given that Sally tends toward anger, and that this is a mid-level provocation, Sally will probably be mad enough to speak loudly, but not to strike. Rather, we receive our model of Sally's reactions broadband, through intuition -- they spring up inside us as if from nowhere.

To test this hypothesis, imagine that you have just done something that you know will piss off your lover or roommate or parents -- like missed the last train, or flooded the bathroom, or used the metal spatula with the Teflon pan -- something they'll be mad at and you'll be defensive about. Better yet, think back to the last time you were in such a predicament. Can't you hear what they're going to say, and your defense, and their response to the defense, and so on -- don't you live the whole fight in your head even before they or you get home and you have to face the music? In fact, doesn't the whole fight play itself out unbidden to your mind, even if you don't really want to rehearse it? That's the part of your brain I'm talking about.

So I think what happens when your characters talk to you is this: you have spent long enough brooding on them, fiddling with them, and telling thought-out lies about them, that you have tricked your brain into believing they exist. Your brain is now allocating resources to modeling "what they would do", the same resources it uses for your real-life friends and enemies, and delivering the results broadband, though your intuition.  (It's analogous to the moment of achieving fluency in a foreign language, when speaking and listening suddenly stop being a grueling exercise in conscious decoding and start being instantaneous, just you talking and listening 'as usual' -- you have managed to move the foreign language around in your brain, from fact memory to tool memory).

Frankly, if that is the way it works, I think it's pretty cool. It doesn't make the moment of the character speaking less magical for me -- on the contrary, I feel awed by what amazing things our brains are. It's another layer of magic, under the layer of Marish somehow speaking to me out of the vortex of Storyland.

Gentle Reader, do you agree? Have you personally experienced this phenomenon? Do you have another theory? Do you think we're just nuts? Let me know, and I promise to give competing theories airtime here on The Benjamin Channel.

I have decided to use "The Ant King" and "Baby Love" as my application stories for Clarion East. The first is a no-brainer, given that I sold it to F&SF and it's quirky and surreal. The second, though, feels riskier, since I just wrote it. But I like it -- it's short but punchy, I think -- and it contrasts well with "The Ant King", since "Baby Love" is more traditional, straight-up "what if?" science fiction. It's speculative fiction in the strict sense, which "The Ant King" isn't really. (The "what if?" question in "The Ant King" is "what if Ben wrote down some really weird shit?")

So I am eagerly awaiting the rest of the critiques of "Baby Love" from the RMCrit online writer's group. I got four back so far, mostly positive (a more positive response, so far, than I got with "Corporate Anthropology", which I am relieved about) and with a lot of helpful suggestions -- particularly Trey did a yeoman job of detailed line-by-line commenting (after I pleaded for more specifics). Dawn's, Terry's, and Martin's comments were also quite helpful.

I am also awaiting comments and closure on "Baby Love" so that I can try to get critiquers for "A Siege of Cranes" -- although I have a few changes to make on that anyway, from Esther's first reading, and I want to let it sit for a bit before I tackle it. I'll probably do it Friday. But will RMCrit be ready for more Rosenbaumiana by Friday? Or have I flooded the pipeline?