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Creative writing and the voice (and movie) in my head

Gabriël Metsu’s marvelous “Man Writing a Letter” (1662-65), oil, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, captures the solitude of creativity but not its mystery. Note the props (globe, painting on the wall, open window, light) that ally the man of letters with the world of action.

Gabriël Metsu’s marvelous “Man Writing a Letter” (1662-65), oil, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, captures the solitude of creativity but not its mystery. Note the props (globe, painting on the wall, open window, light) that ally the man of letters with the world of action.

A new German study on brain activity during creative writing has got me thinking about one of the great intellectual mysteries: How do you write? How do I write?

It’s something that’s difficult to teach – one of the many reasons I’m not a teacher – and impossible to portray. Think about it: Movies about writers (“All The President’s Men,” “The End of the Affair”) always depict them in the throws of action or passion – which leaves very little time for writing.

In the study, Martin Lotze and his University of Greifswald team conducted brain scans while reclining subjects wrote on a propped-up writing desk. (The scanner’s magnetic field would’ve sent a computer flying.)

The novice writers showed more activity in the visual centers of the brain, while the experienced writers – who were also asked to copy some text and then riff on a short story – demonstrated more action in the speech areas. This led Lotze to conclude that the novice writers were watching their stories play out like movies while the experience writers were narrating them as if hearing an inner voice.

OK, that stopped me cold, because one of the great pleasures I’ve had since childhood is watching my stories on my brain’s big screen, and I’ve been writing fiction since I was 9. But then I realized that I’m sometimes also hearing a narrative voice that seems to accompany more still photography than a moving image.

Lotze’s “aha” moment occurred when he concluded that the experienced writers’ automatic activity was being coordinated by the brain’s caudate nucleas, much like that of an athlete or performer doing something he has practiced many times before. Well, yes, I suppose if you do anything often enough it becomes second nature, even something as seemingly self-conscious as writing.

A more interesting point was raised in Carl Zimmer’s New York Times piece by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who suggested a better comparison may be made between writing a short story and writing an essay.

Bingo. I think Pinker is on to something, because as I write this I’m thinking about the words I’m using to express abstract ideas. I’m not getting a visual on Pinker, Zimmer and Lotze, although I did briefly see the computer hurling across the room as I thought of its potential to do real damage.

So maybe this is how the brain writes: Maybe when you’re creating a work of fiction, you need to see the characters and their actions in your head and hear their voices, because only you know them. But when you’re writing an essay about an abstract idea or something that already exists in the world, like the dress shop I visited today, you don’t generally need to see or hear anything to frame your reference and thus you can just concentrate on the words that are shaping your impressions. 

Hey, Dr. Pinker, if you ever need a subject for that study, I’m your girl.