This Is Your Brain on Writing

Photo by Johannes Plenio from Pexels

I wrote a newsletter post last month about the weird compost-heap-of-the-mind phenomenon that happens with writers: you witness some event—and it might seem trivial at the time—in your past, put it on ice in the frosted back fridge of your brain for years, and one day you’re eating your pickled rutabagas for lunch and it happens: the event resurfaces, and you think: Why, that’s a story, that is!

And sometimes the prompt might even be something you’d read long ago, and even if you don’t dredge up the adjectives and adverbs, the tingling verb of the original story touches you: Why, I could make a story out of that story! Heck, it might even happen to you when you’re listening to a Paul Simon song and you think, Man, that guy’s short. No, I mean, you think: That song puts me in mind of a story.

You don’t even have to eat rutabagas for that to happen.

The Benefits of the Fermenting Brain

OK, that wonderful thing that is the fermenting brain does do some remarkable work, particularly when you just let it simmer for a bit. Case in point: in the article I referenced above, the idea for the story air-mailed itself into my mind like the cat grabbing for that live tuna you mistakenly left in your lap.

So I did write the story, with my usual hemming and hawing, delay and diversion. But I didn’t have an ending. Endings are a fine way to end a story, and I didn’t have one. But my sweetheart Alice gave me an ending opening: not the ending, just a suggestion for the vocations of some ancillary characters who come to visit my main character. Yeah, yeah, that’s good, that will add something.

It did: it added the ending. Just in the way that stories drop from the sky onto a writer’s addled pate, such did an ending for the story screech up in a taxi. And when I say that, I mean truly: this was a case of the entire ending, involving a full scene with all the story’s characters, coming into the brain like an injection. There’s something wonderful, scary and bizarre about how that happens.

Ponder and Incubate

I have read of many breakthroughs, often in science, where the scientist puzzles furiously over some insoluble problem for a week, then shuts the door on the problem while she relaxedly takes a bath—and zounds! The solution appears, a rabbit out of the hat. (Like all of you, I too wear a hat when I bathe.)

Here’s a short article, with a short video on this process, called The Four Stages of Creativity. It’s clear that you do have to engage the problem, in this case the ending of a story, before your story yeast is going to rise. There must be incubation. (Sorry I’m mixing cooking and gestation metaphors here, but the burners are on.) But the miracle of this is always so unexpected when an idea becomes bread, in an instant.

I don’t quite understand how it works, but I’m grateful. Now, whether the story is any good or not, that’s a different issue. I’m sending it out to see if anyone agrees. Have you had these hit-by-lightning story moments?

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4 thoughts on “This Is Your Brain on Writing

  1. Do you wear the hat on your head, or somewhere more creative? Fur felt is almost impervious to water.

    Since I started reading about the Zeigarnick Effect (before I even knew it was called that by some) I’ve built incubation into my art. Sometimes it happens with prose; a solution, a twist, will fly past in the shower or even less convenient location, and there it is!

    It’s happened often enough that I forget to be surprised, though I’m always delighted.

    I’ve had nearly complete songs present themselves, scribbling them down as fast as I could to capture them. I wonder if writing more songs causes more songs to appear?

  2. Joel, I do admire that you actually pegged the name of the phenomenon. (I thought it might be the Ziggurat Effect, where you have to climb up and down a thousand-stepped tower until the story ending comes to you, or you expire.) But yes, it is a startling, and ever so welcome sensation.

    I love that sense of songs appearing out of the air, and I’d venture a “yes” on the question of whether writing them begets more—I think they are procreative beasts that just need some brain jelly to work out.

  3. You’ve got a college football chant going there:

    Dodge a rat!

    I read about the ZE in Rosanne Bane’s “Around the Writer’s Block” and picked up more about it in Anne Janzer’s “The Writer’s Process.” Both excellent books, but Rosanne’s the one who knew the name.

  4. Wow, you’re an example of ZE—look how quickly that song came into your head! (We won’t address the quality of the lyric.) I’m not familiar with those books, except I think you were either on Rosanne’s site with a post or you’d mentioned it before on one of your posts. My memory is a Ziggurat of crumbling steps. I’ll peek inside on Amazon…

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