The Science of Writing
© Raymond Huber, 2014
In my experience writing both fiction and science I keep finding connections between the two disciplines. Science fiction is the obvious meeting place – my latest sci-fi novel begins with the fact that atoms are mostly empty space inside so the entire human race could be compressed to the size of a sugar cube. Although writing is not a science (thankfully), they both involve definite structures and forces, as well as some mysterious effects. And both writing and science are about observing the world.
I’ll begin with a ‘forced’ physics analogy. A writer’s work is shaped by four forces: imagining, writing, editing and hoping; which might be said to echo the four fundamental forces – electromagnetism, the nuclear forces, and gravity – which hold the physical universe together.
Imagination is like electromagnetism which links atoms together to create all matter. It’s the dominant force in our world, and likewise imagination is the basis of all story creation.
Every good writer I know needs to go into some deep, quiet place to do work that is fully imagined.– Jonathan Franzen
Writers are fortunate that imagination has infinite range (as does electromagnetic force) so there’s never a shortage of ideas from that deep place. The imaginative force is powered by our brain which wields it to remarkable effect. Science has shown that thinking, or imagining, a thing can make it physically happen: witness the recent Google Glass which takes photos using brain waves; or the placebo effect. Science itself is a rich source of ideas: in my novel, Sting, I used the remarkable magnetic navigational ability of the honey bee.
The second force is the act of writing itself. Its parallel in physics is the ‘weak’ nuclear force which is confined within the nuclei of atoms. Likewise the writer is confined to a room and must exert energy to write:
Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down. – Neil Gaiman
Writing fiction seems to be a weak force but those tiny words become sentences, paragraphs, chapters and eventually, a novel materialises. This is how all life is built up, from inner space to outer space: atoms into molecules, molecules into cells, then into organisms, ecosystems. These wholes are made of parts which are themselves wholes:
At each level, the whole is more than the sum of the parts, with properties that cannot be predicted from the study of the parts in isolation. – Rupert Sheldrake
Just as consciousness far transcends the neurons and chemicals in the brain, so a whole novel acquires a meaning beyond its parts (hold that thought).
Editing a novel is akin to the ‘strong’ nuclear force which binds all atomic nuclei together. Editing binds a shaky first draft, giving it the structure and strength to stand alone. The force is applied by cutting needless words, refining and shaping the story.
Go over and over it…refusing to let anything stay if it looks awkward, phony, or forced. – John Gardner
Anyone can write but editing requires learning a skill, and getting published almost always depends on a sharp edit.
Fourthly, hope is as essential as the force of gravity. Gravity anchors us on Earth, just as hope keeps a writer grounded. I suspect that most writers experience self-doubt.
When I sit down to write, a monstrous reader looms up who sits down beside me and continually mutters, ‘I don’t get it, I don’t see it, I don’t want it.– Flannery O’Connor
Add rejections, failed applications, dismal reviews and sales, all of which can unseat a writer. But hope, like gravity, has to be directed towards something substantial – perhaps writing has to be more of a calling or a passion than a job if you’re to survive.
That’s the physics, now let’s look at the art of writing by way of neuroscience. You’ve imagined a story, you sit down and write five chapters, but then you realise you’ve written yourself into a plot corner. Fear not, neuroscientists tell us that the brain is incredibly plastic. Plasticity (the ability to change and grow) is due to billions of neurons in the brain which are able to fire in trillions of possible connections. All the stuck writer needs to do is wait while the sub-conscious brain processes and connects the plot in a way that creates new directions for the story. The wonderful writer-editor E. B. White suggested that delay be a natural part of a writer’s routine:
He is like a surfer—he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along.
Besides, ‘delay’ is a more tolerable concept than procrastination.
Neuroscience also has something to teach the writer about style. The intricate network of brain connections enables us to learn to read, a process which actually creates new pathways within the brain. Brain expert Maryanne Wolf describes reading as a ‘neuronally circuitous act’ and says that while reading fiction the brain is encouraged to be active in constructing and imagining a story. She argues that the more indirect the writing the more it enriches the brain:
By using indirect approaches (writers) force their readers and viewers to contribute more actively to the construction themselves.
Indirect writing is more commonly known as ‘show don’t tell’. It was the first real writing lesson I learned, thanks to the generous editor of my first novel. Help the reader experience a story by showing action, dialogue, reaction, emotion and the senses.
The quantum level is the most mysterious of all sciences, involving numerous tiny particles behaving in unpredictable ways. For example, electrons sometimes act like distinct particles, sometimes like waves; and the act of observing particles seems to determine their actual state. A novel is also a quantum mystery: a collection of distinct words and a whole story at the same time ( and greater than the sum of its parts, remember?). Writers often have the feeling of characters taking on a life of their own, even determining the direction of a story, and in the finished book it’s as if they are somehow real. Dorothy Sayers (writing in the 1930s) described the effect of a kind of ‘energy’ being released by creative writing:
It is the thing which flows back to the writer from his own activity and makes him, as it were, the reader of his own book.
In her poem The Speed of Darkness, Muriel Rukeyser wrote,
The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.
This appears to be a lyrical leap away from science, but recent cosmology suggests that there’s truth in the poet’s words. It turns out that only four percent of the universe is composed of Normal Matter (atoms), such as stars, planets, and humans. The other 96% is mysterious dark energy and dark matter that has not yet been described.
Science has little to say about the purpose of life, although some scientists have speculated that the universe is geared towards the development of mind. Some say the universe has an ‘anthropic’ meaning; that in a sense the universe depends on humans to witness it; to make it real. Perhaps then it is made of stories – writers at least are disposed to finding a narrative behind everything. Ultimately, scientists and writers can only communicate through the symbols of language and they also share a common purpose. Robert Sapolsky said,
The purpose of science is not to cure us of our sense of mystery and wonder, but to constantly reinvent and reinvigorate it.
That’s a pretty good goal for writers too. The job of writers is not merely to record the world, but to engage with it, to enlarge our view of life, and to tell the story of the universe.
A shepherd on a hilltop who looks at a mess of stars and thinks, ‘There’s a hunter, a plow, a fish,’ is making mental connections that have as much real force in the universe as the very fires in those stars themselves.–Annie Dillard
Jonathan Franzen, The Globe and Mail, August 2010, online interview
John Gardner, The Art of Writing
Rupert Sheldrake, The Science Delusion
Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch
E.B. White, The Paris Review, online interview.
Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid.
Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker
Robert Sapolsky, The Trouble with Testosterone
Annie Dillard, The Meaning of Life