Writing and Your Brain

December 28, 2011 § 2 Comments

Writing and Your Brain

Wow. This is fascinating!

This interview with a neurologist explores the connection between processes in the brain and impulses to write. In 1998 Dr. Alice Flaherty lost two premature twin boys at birth. Ten days later she developed hypergraphia-the compulsive urge to write. She scribbled random thoughts and notes everywhere and on everything and found herself unable to stop.

Dr. Flaherty now has gained more control over her compulsions, though she still goes through periods of writing mania. In this Harvard Medicine interview, she mentions several authors who can be characterized as hypergraphic (though many of them are less than pleased to be labeled with the term), among them Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates. The interview also explores the relationship between mood disorders-depression, bipolar, and schizophrenia- and writing. According to Flaherty:

“The rate of mental illness is about 70 percent for musical performers, poets, prose writers, painters, and composers, but only 25 percent for doctors, scientists, politicians, and businesspeople.”

Why is mental suffering so strongly correlated with creativity? Is that all creativity boils down to? An imbalance in your temporal lobes? Is there scientific backing to the “tortured artist”? As artists, how do we make our work our own, and not the byproduct of firing neurons?

All my life I’ve been involved in the arts-theatre, music, writing. And it’s true that there was more drama in the drama club than a lot of other cliques in high school. Many of my friends friends suffered from anxiety and depression. There were at least two who I, personally, believed to have narcissistic personality disorder. Then there was me. I had my own issues that I kept pretty quiet-obsessive thoughts, anxiety, depression. In dark periods I either never wrote a word or filled 20 pages with my fears. During one particular panic attack I sat on the edge of a hotel bathtub and filled an entire notepad with some less than stellar story about a girl who was teased about her weight. In the moment, quality was not the concern. My goal was to keep all my energy focused on the page, to make that pen keep moving. I suppose that therefore my work can occasionally be tied to “hypergraphia.” Perhaps every writer has experienced this sensation to some degree. It is only when it becomes isolating and never-ending that it transforms into a disease, as in the case of Dr. Flaherty.

As Dr. Flaherty says, you don’t have to be sick to be creative. However, it is interesting and important to note that many who are wired a specific way drift towards the arts. In my own experience, the arts have done a lot for me-writing has helped me make sense of my feelings and ground them in something a little less abstract than my mind. Both theatre and writing make me feel part of a community, and therefore less alone.

So if you happen to write and suffer from bouts of depression, don’t panic that you’re crazy (a fear I struggled with for a long time and occasionally still haunts me) and that your talent is nothing but a symptom. As long as that creative brain of yours doesn’t get out of control and become a detriment to your life and work, consider it a blessing. The way you are helps you to see things other people can’t. You have the ability to create beauty. You have the ability to see below the surface. And in the end, I really do believe we are all more than firing neurons. Artists have more than just this type of brain or that-they have a highly sensitive and attuned soul.




In a good book, I see myself.

December 26, 2011 § 2 Comments

From a young age, I read anything and everything, though I did have my favorites that I would reread a hundred times. I went through a strictly Beverly Cleary phase, then Roald Dahl. During lonely nights at home or when my best friend fell asleep at a sleepover, I pulled out the comfort of Matilda or Ramona, Age 8. I read so often it drove my parents crazy. “For goodness sake, put DOWN that book!” my mother would cry out in exasperation as I dragged myself to dinner, eyes locked on the page.

Now that I’m on winter break, I’m taking advantage of the extra time and filling it with reading. Unfortunately, I often go long periods without looking at a single book. Like many people of my generation, I can fall victim to the instant gratification of the web. I sit down at my computer and before I know it I’ve been on StumbleUpon for three hours and I don’t know where the time has gone and why I can’t pull myself away. I don’t discount what the internet has to offer; without the wonders of modern technology, I wouldn’t be sharing my thoughts with you via blog post right now. But a lot of the time I realize another day has gone by and I have nothing to show for it. My brain is fuzzy and aching after staring at the screen all day and I feel thoroughly unsatisfied.

But when I sit down and force myself to read, I remember how much I love getting sucked in to that other world, a world that may not exist in any sort of physical reality but is nevertheless still startlingly real. In a good book, I see some aspect of my life or person explained. I get the feeling I’m not alone. In a good book, I see myself. And that is what glues me to the page, what might as well make my mother a million miles away when she’s yelling at me to unload the dishwasher or let the dog out. And, I would argue, it is the reason many of us readers read (and, by extension, why we writers write.)   The character’s struggle becomes our struggle. Writers create meaningful people and situations by exploring their own selves, their friends, their family, their communities, their worst enemies. Readers connect to these works. If a writer writes in earnest, their story will resonate with an audience.There is something so special and unique about that writer-reader connection. It’s not forced and it’s not artificial. Rather, it is natural, something hard to define, the mark of a gifted author. Creating this bond, this mutual understanding, between myself and another person is my most highly esteemed goal with everything I write.

Right now I am reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower (a gift from Santa, in case you were wondering.) After the first couple of pages, I groaned a bit inside. Yet another coming-of-age novel, I thought to myself. It’s not that I have anything against such novels, but I do feel like I’ve read quite a few, probably because there are so many on the market. These books are incredibly popular because they are relatable; they put into words all the confused feelings of adolescence. However, as I continue to read The Perks, I am starting to revise my initial opinion. I can easily see myself writing a novel that would be placed in the coming-of-age category. I actually don’t even like that term; coming-of-age feels limiting. I think books like Catcher in the Rye and The Perks of Being a Wallflower are talkin’ more than just puberty. There is so much more at play: human isolation, the phoniness of society, the many beautiful and heartbreaking elements of the human experience. What attracts me to Perks is the honesty and candidness of main character Charlie. There are descriptions of his sadness in particular that stop my heart. In other words, there are several instances in which I see myself in Charlie. If you’ve read the book, you know that there is even a part where Charlie admits he has a hard time separating himself from the novels he reads.

There is a little bit of yourself in every character you write, whether they be personal attributes you consider strengths or things you wish you could change. Integrating these elements into your characters is very often unconscious; my friends or family usually pick up on bits of myself in my characters before I do. The important thing is that these parts of your soul are also reflective of the shared human soul. You are not only seeing yourself in your own characters or the characters of another novel; you are seeing a piece of everyone else. This is why reading makes me feel less alone, why I feel the urge to write and tell others that they are not alone. I want  to forge connections with people who may technically be strangers, but are in many ways mirrors of myself.

In a good book, I see myself. I see the world.


Creating Characters-Questionnaire 2

December 19, 2011 § 2 Comments

Creating Characters-Questionnaire 2

Creating Characters

December 19, 2011 § 1 Comment

Creating Characters

I love building characters, probably because I love finding people, discovering them. You know when you’ve known someone for years, but then suddenly in an intimate moment or a sudden action, you see them in an entirely new way? They open themselves up to you, maybe in a deep conversation over coffee or maybe just through a look from the corner of the kitchen, and for the first time you are seeing who they are. Those moments are so magical to me. I search for them everywhere. We really do all have interesting stories to tell, stories that are always changing, developing. People are unpredictable and contradictory. I’ve always found the adage “Be yourself” annoying. Who are we, anyway? I’m not the same person I was yesterday, and I’ll probably be a different person a minute from now. Accepting the innate dynamism of people means accepting it in your characters. Some writers see characters as very separate entities, that is, they don’t see them as people. And true, you might not see a living, breathing grouchy Mr. Smith walking through your neighborhood grocery store…but then again, you do. Make your characters believableBe honest when you write. Write people.

Of course, this is a lot easier said than done. But if you’re a writer, you’re probably already interested in creating characters that are relatable and that matter. Please do not create cookie-cutter people, even if it’s easier. Avoid the ditzy friend and the smart guy and the goth girl. These characters signify amateur writing. People are multidimensional. Sticking your characters in a box makes them unrealistic, inhuman. Take risks with your characters. Let them be more than one thing. After a lot of practice, you’ll find that your characters don’t need to be identified or marked by a single trait. You’ll know them, you’ll see them. You will have really gotten to know them. You will have reached that thrilling moment when suddenly, they are alive.

Stephen King scoffs at too much character development in On Writing, suggesting that focus should be on moving the story along and keeping the reader engaged. In thrillers and mystery novels like that of Mr. King, characters mainly serve as a vehicle to tell the story. Pacing and having an interesting, worthwhile plot are clearly major concerns. However, I tend to disagree with Mr. King (without disregarding his talent and skill) on the importance of filling out characters. There is no excuse for flat characters.The story is important, but if I don’t buy into the person telling it, credibility is lost and I close the book. In order to care about the story, I have to care about the people. You know The Da Vinci Code? Fascinating book. Main character Robert Langdon? Perhaps the most boring and most obvious example of I’m-just-using-this-guy-to-tell-you-all-the-cool-facts-I (the author)-know. I urge you. Don’t be that guy. Give the world someone they’ll remember, like Mrs. Dalloway or Harry Potter.

How do you do that? Character questionnaires are a good way to get started. When I first started asking myself preliminary questions about new characters, I realized just how little I knew about my old ones. Now, I strive to know as much of my characters as possible. As a writer, I feel it is my responsibility; I owe it to my reader. I also find these questionnaires to be incredibly exciting and, gosh darnit, fun. The two links above provide sets of questions that deal with everything from employment to family history to biggest fears. Try them out. Don’t feel like you have to answer everything. You aren’t going to tell the reader all of this information, but knowing it as you write will help shape your characters into real people with thoughts, feelings, pasts and futures. When you feel good about this character sketch, write exactly how their living space looks. Write a brief biography of their life up to this moment

The number one rule for any writer, especially when it comes to creating characters: observe. Be very aware of the people around you. How do they interact with their environment? Can you read their emotions just by looking at their face? Do they play with their hair? Body language? Tone of voice? Any habits they are trying to kick? What draws you to someone? What pushes you away? Any speech patterns? How do the physical things you observe reflect personality?  

As important as it is to get to know your characters, don’t get bogged down in these exercises. Your characters will develop and change as your story unfolds. Get a good plan of who this person is in mind, and then get ready for it to change. When you feel your character going down a different path, don’t try redirecting them to the first. We writers are only hold so much control, believe it or not.

So go create someone! Let them tell you, and the world, something meaningful.

Writing and Self Value

December 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

Yay, finals are over! Back to blogging!

I am so glad I’m going to have more time to write now that I am on winter break. Now I can reintegrate my morning pages into my routine and work on some new pieces! Getting back into the swing of things after a considerable hiatus is always challenging. Often there’s something that keeps us from jumping right back in even though we know we love it, even though we know it makes us happy. That pesky something can keep us from writing for a few days, perhaps a week, or in my case, years.

When I was younger, I wrote constantly. I was always scribbling something, poems or short stories or sometimes entire manuscripts. As I got older my writing dwindled away, right around that awkward, painful adolescence period. I stopped writing regularly was when I was about 12 going on 13, alone and gawky and as confused as anyone on the verge of becoming a teenager. At the time it wasn’t a conscious decision; my mind simply wasn’t as free anymore. It was burdened by obsessive thoughts of not fitting in, my changing appearence, and finding out who I was. Pen didn’t connect as seamlessly to paper. Writing had always been natural to me, something I didn’t think about, something that just happened, something that had been praised by my teachers all throughout my academic life. And then suddenly, it was forgotten. What had long been my identity was lost. I went running full steam ahead down that path to nowhere, questioning my worth, my abilities, even my sanity. It would be awhile before I walked, tired and worn, back to where I was supposed to be.

I think these workless periods are a very important thing for writers to discuss. It’s not like you’re taking a vacation, a perfectly legitimate option for other professions. We write because it’s a passion. We write to understand ourselves in relation to the world outside. We write to understand others, to solve problems, or to never solve problems and just keep asking more questions. It might seem existential or over dramatic, but if you’re a writer, you know it’s all true. Taking a break from writing  disconnects you from yourself. For me, that was most definitely the reason I stopped, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Simply put, I was afraid. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I was afraid to dig deep inside, afraid to look. Writing meant facing the changing person within, and I couldn’t do it. I’m not going to call it cowardly; I’ll call it human. If I had actually sat myself down and forced myself to write, maybe things would have made more sense. Maybe they wouldn’t. Either way, it can’t be denied that I ran away.

No matter what reason we come up with, disregarding our art can always be traced back to one culprit: ourselves. As I’ve said before, writing is an intensely personal activity. You write down in your own words what you believe, what you wish was, the joys and pitfalls of the human experience and then in many instances, showcase it to the world. That requires quite some courage, so it’s only natural that we sometimes tend to back away from the challenge. Fear of failure is ultimately the fear of self-hate (I can’t take credit for that, I read it somewhere). We aren’t really worried what people will think; we are worried how what they think will shape the way we think of ourselves. I am well-aquainted with fear. I grapple with it in many areas of my life and in every instance in which it has won, I have paid the price. Fear suffocates writing. Don’t let it. Writing is your voice. Breathe. Be heard.

I know it may seem scary/ borderline terrifying, but you need to sit your butt down and write, write, write. “Morning pages”, writing three page stream of consciousness in the mornings, is a good way of getting past your inner critic. Don’t freak out over sentence flow or word choice. Just keep writing. Who cares if it’s a piece of crap? This isn’t going to be Pulitzer Prize stuff. This is for you. Write about how you feel like you can’t write. Unleash all that pent-up frustration on the page. It’s been said before, but some of the greatest stuff is borne out of pain. I find that often it’s not just the pain-it’s the frustration of pain not going away. Use it. I promise you your gift hasn’t gone away. It’s still there, but talent is nothing if you don’t pick up the pen.

I believe in you. Go do what you were meant to do.







Exploring Emotions through Writing

December 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

All my life I feel as if I have been pushed to describe how I feel. As a child I spent three years in a hospital after a toxic exposure, experiencing multiple symptoms from chest pains to sinus infections to seizures that doctors had difficulty figuring out. While I made a full recovery, my environmental sensitivities have persisted. Whenever my symptoms start to interfere with daily life, I’m back with the doctors, watching them scratch their heads and peer into my face and ask, “So, could you explain to me again how it feels?”

In mental recovery as well, I had a hard time describing my emotions. I regarded a lot of my feelings as scary, things I could hardly understand myself, never mind put into words for somebody else. I’ve found that writing can help. Here is an example of an emotion piece.


When all the world pushes itself together, into a massive and mighty chain, strong and united and utterly indestructible. And there you are, but you might as well not really be standing there at all. You’re substance, but are you? This powerful force, this chain, is certainly more real than you. It is undeniably present. But you? What is there to prove that you are really standing there or two feet, swaying, the colors blurring into one, the heat rising in your face, your heart hammering in order to make itself known, screaming that it exists, fighting against the cage of your weak and pathetic body? You move against the chain, one foot in front of the other, but you’re stuck. The colors, still blurred, change in shade, from blues to reds. The wind is practically bursting your eardrums, infesting your brain with bugs of terror, that breed, multiply, hijack. You continue to try to move, but your limbs are growing heavier. The blood in your veins is turning to lead. But still your heart is screaming. It beats faster against its prison, throwing itself in the walls, rolling around your ribcage and throwing a fit. It is here. It is here. It is here. A small part of your brain, still free, hears the din from below. I am here, it thinks.

I am here.

Your mouth moves.

“I am here.”

The chain is utterly surprised. It recoils. It senses strength. It binds itself tighter together, suffocating itself, turning inward. It lashes out at you, and you fall, bleeding. But it doesn’t matter, because your brain is still firing and your mouth is still moving and your heart is jumping and running and pulsating and screaming louder than the wind, louder than the colors, louder than the ugly chain.

And now the chain is falling apart, and people, real people, are falling out, gasping for breath. They are certainly real. They are flesh and blood, but much more than that too. That is for certain. The chain does not exist. This startling thought runs through the group. It never existed in the first place. It was an invention. The reality is this: they are people, lying, seemingly beaten, on a hard, solid foundation. They are gasping for breath like fish thrown unexpectedly onto land. And their hearts are hammering, announcing their presence to one another, making themselves known.

The People on the Street

December 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

A man is walking down the street, his lips twitching as he makes eye contact with others.  It is by no means a smile, but at least a polite twitch, showing that he knows the rules, that strangers on the street should acknowledge that there are other strangers on the street going places and doing things and thinking thoughts. He is wearing a very nice beige suit, well pressed.  It is a bit tight on his elbows and this seems to be a nagging annoyance to him and he shakes his arm as he walks, his Rolex bouncing along on his wrist. His brief case is worn, and yellow papers stick out at all ends, covered with deep blue ink. He notices me on the bench; the lips twitch. I smile widely and this throws him and he glances back in surprise, wondering who the girl on the bench is with the red hair. In a second though, he has forgotten-damn this suit, and the arm wiggles.

Then comes the woman, dressed in her Sunday best and smiling widely at everyone she sees. Her teeth are bright white and the people that pass her nearly cover their eyes or pull sunglasses out of their small purses. A blue flower, sparkling with sequins, blossoms in her hair. The dress is of the same shade but flows like water, rippling over her large stomach and tickling the knees of anyone who passes too close. She stands firmly in the middle of the sidewalk, a force of nature and the people keep walking, keep moving, keep thinking, and she is just a woman in blue with a flower in her hair…

A girl stumbles on the sidewalk and her white white skin becomes red red. She’s a pretty girl, young and fresh. Her hair is brown and silky and shiny, coiled tight in a bun. She frets for a minute, bracelets jangling as her hands reach up and claw at the strands of lovely hair, pulling and tearing until the tie comes free and the hair streams down, covering up the red of her cheeks. She glances around, looking like so many lost and pretty girls, looking, I suppose, to see if anyone noticed that trip, that carelessness, that moment when vigilance stole away from her. Her eyes meet mine, girl with red hair, just sitting on the bench, and her eyes surprise me. They are big and wide and child’s eyes, and they seem sorry, sorry for everything, sorry they’ve wronged me, sorry that nothing has worked out as planned. I feel as if she has swallowed me whole in them, but I am not trapped. Rather, I am free. She has freed me, she has seen me, she has seen.. .And then she is darting away, and I am girl with red hair on a bench, and I hear her bracelets jangling but no longer can I see the eyes, and without the eyes she may never have been here at all…

There is a girl with red hair sitting on the bench. Her hair is curly, a careless curliness. It bounces around in the breeze, skimming her shoulders, tracing the outline of her chin. It seems to entertain itself, fluttering around in the breeze, rubbing against her reddened cheeks, a child desperate for play. But the girl is too busy for that sort of nonsense. She is quite busy existing on the bench. She has to focus on breathing, for starts, and seeing too, and then really seeing, which requires much more concentrated effort. A man on his way to work sees her smiling at him, leg bouncing up and down, shoe dangling dangerously from her toes. A woman in blue walking to a church meeting spots the girl on the bench smoothing her skirt and tossing her hair, pulling at the curls, toss, pull. The woman looks away and back again and sees the girl furiously writing in a notebook, and then stops, seemingly distracted by the blue of her dress. And now the pen is off again. The woman smiles, remembering when she was young and spent her Friday mornings sitting on benches and writing in books. A long time ago, though, she thinks to herself as the wind ripples her dress. A young girl is late to class, busy with thoughts about that boy she likes and the parents she misses and the schoolwork she has yet to do. Tears start in her eyes as she pushes down the street, as if working against an unseeable force, and her breath comes in sharp, painful jabs. Her eyes dart along the people on the street, the buildings, the trees, but she sees none of it, she sees the boy and the parents and the schoolwork and her tears…and a girl on a bench. With red hair. Red curly hair. The girl is sitting and watching and her hair is down and she looks quite pretty. Her curls flutter in the wind and…and the girl trips over a brick jutting out of the walk and her face flushes and the boy and the parents and school all rush back and she pulls down her hair to hide the tears. She waits for them to come, concealed behind her wall, seeing nothing anymore. Yet they do not. They will not. Her heart beats. The painful stab of breath reminds her that she is here, standing on a sidewalk in a city far from home. She opens her eyes and sees the girl, the girl with red hair, the girl sitting on the bench, looking right at her. And the girl’s eyes surprise her. They are big and wide and child’s eyes, and they seem sorry, sorry for everything, sorry they’ve wronged her, sorry that nothing has worked out as planned. And then the young girl moves, she walks down the street, she does not look back. 

And I am a girl with red hair watching the people go by and I stand up and walk with them, walk with the people, the people on the street.

Where Am I?

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