Good News For Writers Who Feel Guilty

I don′t know about you, but this last year has been a doozy in many ways. (Doozy, that′s a technical term for . . .whoa!) I have struggled to find time to work on my own creative writing, and felt a ton of guilt over what was clearly a lack of self-discipline. But an article in Poets & Writers Magazine′s Jan/Feb 2013 issue gave me new hope. Although this post is a little belated, I think you’ll find it worth your time to find the article and read it in its entirety if you haven’t already.Pencil Sharpeners and Pencil

The author, Arnie Cooper, takes us on a tour of the writer′s brain, touching on everything from writer′s block to why we humans love stories, plus some insights into why readers (and writers) become so engrossed in a character′s feelings and actions.

When it comes to writer′s block, Cooper introduces us to Roseanne Bane, an instructor at Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Her book, Around the Writer′s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer′s Resistance (Tarcher, 2012), focuses on the three parts of the human brain — the brain stem or “lizard brain” which controls bodily functions, the limbic system or “leopard brain” which gives us the capacity for emotion and reactions to threats, and finally the cerebral cortex or “learning brain” which allows us to solve problems, plan, design and, of course, write fiction.

The problem is that when a person is under stress or threatened by anything, whether that threat is actual or simply perceived, the limbic brain takes over. It limits higher brain functions in order to deal with the immediate threat, and doesn′t let go until things are calm . . . or at least we feel like they are.

According to Cooper, because we are not normally aware of this shift in control in the brain, we assume that the reason we can′t seem to get back to our writing is because we’re just plain lazy.  In reality, we are struggling against biologic reactions to life’s challenges.  Cooper gives us hope, however.  He notes that new research shows that “this resistance to writing can abe overridden by establishing new neural pathways — or more simply, starting new habits.”

To do so, Copper references “Hebb’s Law,” (named for Donald Hebb, a Canadian psychologist influential in the field of neuropsychology) which suggests that we can create new triggers to signal the brain neurons related to our writing tendencies to fire up and get busy.

For example, synapseswhen I was in college, I always sat down to write with a fresh cup of coffee and a peppermint stick (which is odd, since I don’t really care for more than one bite of peppermint at most.)  As I became engrossed in my project, I might forget about both of these triggers until the java was stone cold and the peppermint untouched. I also used to select a very specific piece of music (usually classical or jazz) that captured the feeling of the book or script I was working on. All I had to do was put it on, and I was instantly immersed in that particular story. Over time, I gave up those rituals, but I still probably have other, more subtle ones.

Toward the end of his article, Cooper discusses Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. (Ten Speed Press, 2012).  Now, there’s a mouthful.  Cron teaches at the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program, and cites some insights learned in a 2009 study reported in the journal, Psychological Science. Researchers used MRI to track the responses of people reading short stories.

In essence, that study and others around the world found that readers actually feel and experience what the characters do physically.  Apparently, when reading a book or watching a movie, the audience’s brain mirrors the sensations, both physical and emotional, even though the body is sitting still.

I did a little trolling on the Internet for more on this, and found intriguing discoveries that show readers (and presumably writers) experience much of what characters do.  Emory University researchers reported that when readers came across  statement like “He had leathery hands,” their sensory cortex was stimulated in the area responsible for perceiving touch, while the statement “He has strong hands” did not produce the same effect.  Studies from France show that when readers read about a character who “kicked the ball” or did some other physical act, the part of their brain that was stimulated was the motor cortex, and that the specific locations stimulated were those related to the specific action.

In a study led by the cognitive scientist, Véronique Boulenger, of the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France, the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.” The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements. What’s more, this activity was concentrated in one part of the motor cortex when the movement described was arm-related and in another part when the movement concerned the leg.

The amount of research out there about how readers read and how writers write is actually pretty astonishing.  I don’t know about you, but it makes me feel better to realize that when I have trouble writing fiction during a stressful or emotional time in my life, it’s not just because I’m a wimp: it’s simply nature.  And it’s also good to know that all that time we spend slaving over the beautifully crafted sentence or scene actually does matter.  Woman with typewriter.

Now, the question I have is . . . given that I am beginning to suspect that this kind of writing is falling by the wayside in today’s web-driven, short sentence, scanning-rather-than-reading world, are businesses and others missing the mark?  Does good writing really have a more powerful effect on people than we gave it credit for? Are we missing an opportunity for impact by dumbing down the quality of our language and messages?

Perhaps it’s time to refocus on the luxury of really well crafted prose (and poetry) rather than obsessing over those folks who are experimenting with “writing a novel” (yes, I am using quotation marks on that deliberately) via Twitter. Somehow, I just can’t see curling up in bed with a good tweet, and savoring it to the very last . . .  character?

© Chanda K. Zimmerman, 2013

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Should You Get a Writing Degree?

Should you get a writing degree? The question came up recently in an online discussion on LinkedIn, and it got me thinking deeply about the topic.  It’s been a running controversy for years among writers. Many have degrees, and many don’t.  There are successful and less successful writers on both sides of the aisle.  In light of the recent plethora of creative writing degree programs, it’s worth asking yourself whether a writing degree is worth the time, cost and effort.

When I went to school for my MFA in Professional Writing from USC, there were very few programs with a master’s degree in writing in any form.  There were probably even fewer with a specialized BA program in just creative writing.  Add to that the fact that in my orientation class at USC, there were a lot of people (70+?)  and I think more were actually enrolled. The director of the program told us few of us would finish, and he was right. There were 7 in my graduating class 3 years later.

Today, I have read that there are about 250 or more creative writing programs scattered throughout U.S. colleges and universities. There is also discussion about whether these programs have shaped what constitutes “good writing” in a somewhat artificial way, promoting a style and type of literary story that young writers are trained to emulate, and supporting a literary market that would not today accept some of the great writers of the past since their work didn’t meet those criteria.

Personally, I chose my degree program because it was focused on “commercial writing”— or as USC instructors put it, writing you could make a living at. Needless to say, poetry wasn’t part of the curriculum regardless of its literary value.  Literary programs are fine for some people. but that wasn’t what I was looking for.

The value of any degree is in the eyes of the beholder.  If you find yourself longing to take a degree in writing, there’s no reason not to.  If you don’t feel the need, then there’s nothing that says you have to.  But this attitude hasn’t stopped people from wanting to tangle over this issue. Hm. How did taking a writing degree become an issue anyway? Gun control is an issue.  Equal rights for women is an issue.  Whether or not to take a writing degree is hardly in the same realm.  Nonetheless, a writing degree often prompts a lot of snorting and pawing the ground among writers.

The most obvious argument against a degree is the most simplistic.  Somebody is sure to say “You don’t need a degree to write.” In reality, there are a lot of things in life you don’t really need a degree to do. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be helpful to have one.

Then someone else will name a litany of famous, respected writers who didn’t have degrees. We’ll stipulate to that fact, as they say in the courtroom. Finally, someone will tell the old chestnut about the famous writer who was scheduled to speak to an auditorium full of writing students about the craft of writing. He arrived, stared at the audience a moment and asked “So you all want to be writers?”  They answered that they did. ”Well, what are you doing here then,“”he sniffed. “Why aren’t you home writing?”

While it’s true you need to practice any craft, there’s something to be said for an apprenticeship. Even in the days of yore, we didn’t send people out to learn how to be a blacksmith by just throwing them into a forge and saying “have at it.”  Yes, you can do it that way, but it’s inefficient and sometimes problematic.

Some writers argue that they’ve met people with writing degrees who were selling cars instead of writing for a living.  In reality, the same could be said of any other degree program out there.  I suspect that relatively few people leave college and go on to work in their specific field. The implication is that a writing degree is supposed to be something more profound, like taking holy orders. It’s apparently supposed to be different from other professions.

And it is.  A true writer writes because she must, not because she can or because she has a degree. But this gets mixed up with the whole issue of making a living from writing. Money is definitely important. I remind myself of that everyday with a quote that hangs on my wall: Remember, Shakespeare wrote for money. But I also believe that writing is also an art, and can (and should be) practiced for its own sake.As you can see, the question of studying writing often prompts a much larger, longer, more convoluted discussion about things far removed from the education of the writer.  So the question remains unanswered: is a writing degree worth the time, cost and effort.  More important to me is the larger question of does a writing degree do anything for you as a writer?

Personally, I honestly believe I am a better writer — both business and creative — for having taken my degree, and for doing a research paper on the films of Graham Greene, discussing the original cut of the extended screenplay for Little Big Man with the man who produced that famous film, doing papers on the literary marketplace that opened my eyes to the cold, hard facts, and spending endless hours discussing the best point of view for a particular story with my critique group. Can I show you how it’s made me money? Not exactly. Like most things in life, it’s hard to find direct links. But I know the value overall, and that’s enough for me.

In the end, writer at workpeople write for their own reasons  — and they take a writing degree for their own reasons.  Curiously enough, the original question online was “Where can I find a good online degree program in scriptwriting?” It wasn’t “Should I take a degree in writing?”  But if you open the door to where, you’re going to get an earful of why, mostly from writers who did, or more specifically, why not, mostly from writers who didn’t.  In the end, neither side is right or wrong.

That’s because it comes down to some essential questions: why are you taking (or not taking) a degree? What do you want from it? What really drives you as a writer, and how will this somehow enhance your experience?

I took my degree because I wanted to. In the end, as far as I’m concerned, it was so worth it. I hope everyone else who decides to pursue a writing degree will be able to say the same.

© Chanda K. Zimmerman 2012