During the act of reading engaging fiction, we can lose all sense of time. By the final chapter of the right book, we feel changed in our own lives, even if what we’ve read is entirely made up.
Research says that’s because while you’re engaged in fiction—unlike nonfiction—you’re given a safe arena to experience emotions without the need for self-protection. Since the events you’re reading about do not follow you into your own life, you can feel strong emotions freely.
The key metric the researchers used is “emotionally transported,” or how deeply connected we are to the story. Previous research has shown that when we read stories about people experiencing specific emotions or events it triggers activity in our brains as if we were right there in the thick of the action."
Also see how storytelling makes us human.
apropos of my AWP Day 2 post!
(Source: , via monica-vitti)
Day 2, kicked off with cold pizza in our cozy Beacon Street digs. Here we go:
“This is your brain on fiction,” an aptly-title panel which ddressedthe latest raft of studies which show how fiction affects the brain. Firstly, the exciting news: when we read about fictional experiences we experience them in our minds as though they are real—thus our pulsing hearts and sweaty palms and tears over the death of Little Nell. The same studies proved also that good writing matters physiologically: participants responded more to “leathery” skin than “rough” skin, for instance. Moreover, several studies have shown that fiction makes us more empathetic people, able to attempt the great leap of understanding into others’ minds (although one study cited did make me wonder whether fiction makes us more empathetic or more empathetic people are drawn to fiction). Stories also may have a biological purpose, preparing us evolutionarily-speaking, for the emotional gauntlets we may run in life, by tapping into a universal “palace of memories”—fear, grief, romantic and familial love, anger, etc. This is why we can identify strongly with characters whose external circumstances differ from our own. One thing that I found applicable to my “craft’ is that talking out a writing project can produce the same effect as writing it—a procrastination pothole I have fallen into many times.
Questions addressed by the panelists included how the internet is changing our brains and attention spans, and whether our obligations as writers change with the knowledge of how viscerally fiction affects readers. A lot of what was presented felt like the beginning of a discussion only; there were no real answers.
- This is Your Brain on Fiction. (Susan Hubbard, Brock Adams, Hillary Casavant, John Henry Fleming, John King) )
Next I went to a poetry reading sponsored by Salmon Poetry, an Irish publisher, which featured the writers I studied with in a wine bar basement in Galway as an angst-ridden 20 year old studying abroad. Kevin Higgins’ work remained sharply satirical and provocative, his wife Susan Miller Du Mars read a number of breathtaking poems about the death of her mother in law, at home in their care—and how it interacted with her agnosticism and relationship to faith. It was very moving after my family’s similar experience with my grandmother’s death this summer. And then the final reading of their group consisted of a husband reading his late wife’s poetry in her honor. Suddenly my allergies were acting up—or did the room just fill with onions?
- A Poetry Reading by Four of Ireland’s Most Dynamic Younger Poets.
Keeping with the fairly devastating theme of the day, I felt compelled to go to a panel called “writing past the end,” on writing traumatic loss and grief. It included writers in all genres who had addressed a past tragedy through their work. The panelist’s presentations were stunningly honest and lyrical. They spoke about the need to tell the story of the artist’s own relationship to the lost one, accepting that not all will be told, that others have their own stories.
The writer’s job, they all imparted to us, is to break silences, return to hard places, to utter the names never mentioned, filling in a hole all who are touched by tragedy feel. Ultimately, as one panelist noted, coming back to retell the story of the tragic loss can achieve a freeing: enabling the life of the person to be greater than her death.
- Writing Past the End. (Kim Stafford, Gregory Orr, Jill Bialosky, Nan Cuba)
When I first left teaching to be a writer, I got recruited by a well-established editor to write for a new magazine. I was green and the publication was too, and somehow internal politics and lack of clear communication led me to go quite quickly from being exhilarated at a well-paying opportunity to negotiating a kill fee and discovering that the person who brought me on board was not really involved anymore with the magazine (which has since folded).
From thereon in, my freelance career has been more slow and steady, occasionally thrilling, often agonizing. Pitches have been met with rejections and near-acceptances that didn’t work because the timing was off. There have also been been blessed, blessed staff writer positions and regular gigs, and short-lived connections that led to a few solid assignments and then faded away when my editor moved on.
But at the end of it—(and that first incident was exactly six years ago, a full year before I stopped being an educator with the majority of my time), I have a very large portfolio of work, as I realized when I assembled it on a new platform, Contently. To be honest, as the algorithm brought clips with my byline piling up on my computer screen, I felt a rare moment of contentment, proud of myself for getting here. I’ve got a lot of flaws, I’m not by nature that pushy or even particularly focused on single ambition compared to my peers in the NYC journalism world (which isn’t to say I’m not ambitious, rather that my ambitions tend to be more diffused over writing, activism, creative, educational and personal pursuits)—but here I was, with hundred of clips and thousands of words and dozens of publications to my name. Many of them were even halfway decent! So many of those pieces began with the same precarious editor-writer dance as that first failed piece, and they tipped in the other direction, the good one.
Now with my short fiction aspirations, I’m at the very beginning of this journey again. Some beginner’s luck (and some money) has come my way and also some bad luck—I just spent months revising a piece of my collection with a fabulous magazine’s great fiction editor only to have it supplanted in the pub’s short story slot at the 11th hour.
I was treated well throughout the process, unlike at that first chaotic magazine assignment, but it did make me remember the feeling I had that summer six years ago, tumbling down into uncertainty after I’d felt like I had a foot firmly on the ladder’s first rung.
Being a free agent, and starting something new, is terrifying. But this is my second time around, and I get it now. All I have to do is not give up.
I haven’t followed all the best advice for freelancing and fiction that’s out there. I’ve often failed to “follow up” or be aggressive about ”networking” or schmoozing or making “connections.” But neither have I stopped writing, or pitching, or thinking, and as a result my career has inched along, my own organic network has emerged, and my interests and skills have kept growing.
So with this whole short story thing, I’m going to just follow my own lead, and put one foot ahead of the other, and hope I’ll look back at myself in six years and breathe, smile, feel grateful for the bylines I’ve accrued—and persist, and persist, and persist.
Everything about this interview is amazing. Just everything. Abortion. Grief. Writing about grief. Credit card debt. Read it.