Sunday, 24 October 2010

We are our own stories

Read a couple of interesting journal articles this week, both from Literature and Medicine Journal.

The first, The Narrative Shape of Traumatic Experience by Jane Robinett, looked at how two writers dealt with their traumatic experiences of war through their novels, and in particular, looking at the particular narrative structures they used to achieve this.

I picked up this article because Robinett starts it by writing about work by trauma theorists "...who insist on the fundamental 'inaccessiblity of trauma.'". These theorists are supported by neurobiolgists such as Bessel Van der Kolk, whom, Robinett writes, "...holds that because people who undergo psychological trauma suffer 'speechless terror...the experience cannot be organized on a linguistic level' and thus becomes not only inaccessible but also unrepresentable." Robinett's article challenges this view by analysing two novels about the experiences of war: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh. Both authors saw active service: Remarque served in the German army in WWI and Ninh served in the North Vietnamese army in the Vietnam war.

Through her analysis of each of the novels, Robinett finds similarities in the use of narrative structure and language that she believes illustrate an effective expression of trauma in linguistic form. Some of the techniques she describe as particularly effective in conveying the horror of war and the narrators' experiences of trauma include jarring shifts in tense and in point of view; plain and flat language; and silences. For example, she quotes sections from both authors' books and comments:

"...neither narrator comments or elaborates on the events. Instead, silence surrounds these fragmentary narratives, isolating them within the larger narrative...They occur almost casually, with the flatness that psychological trauma produces in its constrictive forms. The language and syntax are unvaryingly straightforward..."

Robinett describes several other instances of how each author uses narrative structure and technique to successfully portray the horror of war. This is of interest to me as a writer, in that I can look at the techniques used and see how I might modify them for my own writing. As a researcher, I found Robinett's article interesting both from the perspective of how the trauma theorists have used a neurobiologist's work to support their own theories and from the manner in which she challenges the trauma theorists' views through the analysis of the two war novels.

The second article I read was Evolution, Human Enhancement and the Narrative Self by Neil Scheurich. Scheurich writes about evolutionary psychology theory and the ethical concerns it raises for some; narrative as a way to cope with consciousness; medical and psychological enhancements as threats to human identity; and transhumanism. Which is a helluva lot for one article. Although there isn't one particular thing in the article that directly relates to my own research, I nevertheless found everything he wrote interesting. But if I had to pick one quote from the article that sums up what he is on about, I think this is it:

"Language and narrative are thus the means by which determined biology gives rise to ambiguity, uncertainty and the only kind of self-reflective freedom that could make sense to us."

Which he summed up in his conclusion by stating "...after all, narrative itself is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy."

Any link between Robinett's and Scheurich's articles is probably tenuous at best. But what I take away from both of them is that we are our own stories, and that they way we choose to tell them helps us to define who we are, and in finding some kind of definition or shape for ourselves, we find a way through life that helps us deal with whatever it is we've been given in this life: brain, genes, environments and experiences. And that this holds true for ourselves as humans, and, as writers, for the way we choose to tell our stories through characters. Which, in a roundabout way, comes back to neuroconstructivism in that it is all about context dependence: who we think we are shapes the stories we tell about ourselves; and the stories we tell about ourselves shapes who we think we are.

At least, I think so...

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Ideas are everywhere

Reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us gives a whole new perspective to my obsession with the brain and how it works. Reading that you’re likely to be replaced by a toothed worm is a bit confronting. But also reading possible different outcomes about how the plant and animal life is likely to regenerate itself also has you thinking that perhaps the Earth would be better off – more beautiful, more fascinating – without us.

Weisman lays out a range of scenarios of how nature would move in if humans suddenly disappeared, dealing with everything from architecture to toxic waste. He talks to experts in their fields and looks at case studies around the world, including the Korean demilitarised zone and the archaeological site of the ruins of the Mayan civilisation, to imagine a world without humans. What plant life would thrive? How would forests recover? How would animals adapt and evolve without the threat (or protection) of humans?

It may be a long way from neuroscience but in terms of my research, Weisman’s book is an invaluable resource for ideas about how to construct the physical world of my novel, which is set in an abandoned resort in remote far north Queensland, and to look at the science that might be re/misinterpreted by a group who hold the core belief that the Earth is better off without humans.

Weisman’s book is a useful companion to The Revenge of Gaia, where the author James Lovelock expands on his theory that the Earth works as a single living, breathing organism, one that we humans have made chronically (although not yet fatally) ill. The Revenge of Gaia is a little more hard going in terms of readability (and in terms of its hypothesis that we're pretty much all screwed) but again offers fascinating insights and facts that can be fed into my neurons and if the right bits fire up, hopefully come out with an interesting insight that will add detail to my manuscript.

Where do you get your ideas seems to be one of the most commonly asked questions of writers. And when you read some writers’ work you have to wonder how they came up with the amazing stuff they did. But it still seems to me to be a strange question to ask. Ideas are everywhere.

Shaun Tan, talking about his book The Arrival, said that the idea for his immigrants being set loose in their new homes in balloons came from seeing how coral spawn by releasing eggs that float off into the water like hot air balloons soaring up into the sky. I love the way he made that connection between watching how the coral release their eggs off to an unknown destination and how immigrants coming to a new land are often sent off to places they know nothing about. That's the beauty of ideas in action.

News stories, particularly science based news, teems with ideas just waiting for a writer to come along, pick them out and give them new life. But if science isn’t your thing then go for history, war, crime, sport, music or art (generally the weirder the better). Getting ideas shouldn’t be a problem. It’s choosing the right idea, and how to put it together with other, seemingly disparate ideas to come up with something unique (just as Tan did) that’s the hard part. But if you are a writer who’s stuck coming up with something, give Weisman’s book a go. Depending on how things go with us humans it might have enough ideas in there to last the rest of modern civilisation.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

The fruitless search for creativity in the brain

My supervisor has been gently hinting that perhaps I should stop talking about my non-existent manuscript so much and actually start writing it. So this week I took myself up to the beautiful Sunshine Coast hinterland village of Montville to get started. I was staying in accommodation a few kilometres out of town, situated at the end of a long and isolated driveway, surrounded by the bush and beautiful views and not much else. It was the perfect place to write - no internet connection meant no distractions. (Its isolation also made it a perfect place to set a horror/thriller, but that's for another story).

And guess what - it worked. I started to write a draft of the story that I will eventually submit as part of my Phd in a few years time. But it didn't come out at all like I thought it would.

I set myself up on the front deck, got comfortable with my views of the hinterland reaching out towards the ocean, and started with some writing exercises (I did number 11 & 12). In the writing exercises I used characters from the story I'm writing for my manuscript. Although up until this point I hadn't written very much of the manuscript (maybe 1000 words) I had done lots of writing about stuff that may or may not eventually end up in the manuscript, so I've got a pretty good handle on my main characters.

The writing exercises immediately jump started my brain. Whether this was because of my location, the exercises I chose, the fact that I had given myself this time just to write and do nothing else or a combination of these things, the words started to flow easily and I gained some new insights into my characters as well as some interesting stuff that may find its way into one of the manuscript drafts at some point.

The exercises took about 45 minutes. Then, it was time to start on the manuscript itself. The first thing I noticed was that the 'voice in my head that tells me what to write' (yes I have one but I'm pretty sure I'm not insane) was being harassed by my inner critic/editor. The 'voice' was telling me one thing; the critic/editor was trying to tell me something else. It took a bit of shutting up. But after I'd started writing what the 'voice' said the critic/editor started to fade.

One of the reasons it was a bit difficult to listen to this particular voice was that it wasn't the one I was expecting. But it was the one that showed up so I had to shut up, listen and write. It doesn't always happen this way. Sometimes there is no 'voice' at all and I have to stumble along and do the best I can. Sometimes I'll be writing for a while before it shows up. Sometimes it's hard to hear and sometimes it's as clear and strong. But up at Montville I got lucky and it hung around for pretty much the whole time I was there.

In her book The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady: a writer looks at creativity and neuroscience, Sue Woolf writes that there is " underlying assumption that all that's needed for creativity, or the study of creativity, is a knowledge of the brain's circuitry. That had always seemed to me too simplistic to reflect the enormous complexity of creating."

When I'm doing my research into neuroscience, I enjoy learning about how the brain works (or how neuroscientists are learning about what they think makes the brain work the way it does). The complexity of the brain's structure, the way it develops and grows, the factors that influence its development (both within the brain itself and stimuli external to the brain) are a source of endless fascination for me. I'm big on internal logic within a story and if a character behaves in a particular way I want to know why. Why is a character weak or good or a pushover or a bully or insensitive or blind to what is going on around them? What makes a character do what they do? For me, neuroscience and neuropscychology open up a whole world of possibilities in terms of character creation. But I never, ever think about this when I'm writing creatively. The purpose of creative writing, for me, is to just shut up and listen to the voice in my head that's telling the story. I let my neurons (or whatever) just do their thing.

When I came back from my short break and did a bit more work on my manuscript at home, the 'voice' was a lot weaker. This morning, although I wrote a fair bit, it didn't really turn up at all (but I kept writing anyway and not all of it was crap... I think). Writing was not as easy as it was up at Montville - I was back at home with the distractions of the internet and my daughter and the dog and the dishes and day to day 'life' and all of it quickly intruded in on my writing.

Montville was, in some ways, a 'false environment', as false as sticking a creative person into an fMRI and tracking their brain while they're being 'creative' to see what areas of the brain start firing. While there are no doubt some common elements in the creative process for artistic works, I believe a person's creative processes are as unique to them as their brains. Just as a human brain is a reflection of an individual's genes, body, environment and early experiences, so must our creativity be.  That is, the creative choices I make in my writing are in some ways already set because of who I am.

I think most writers can improve their creative processes by reflecting on them within a neuroscientificneuroscientists could stimulate a particular part of a brain and make a person instantly more creative.  But I think creativity is much more than the sum of our neurons, so I don't see it ever happening.

Besides, I'd rather holiday in Montville than have an electrode shoved in my brain.