Monday, December 12, 2005

Inside a Writer's Brain

I sponsor an after-school writers club for third and fourth grade students. We're using Ralph Fletcher's book, A Writer's Notebook (Harper Trophy, 1996), a great book about how to keep ideas for later. One of his quotes jumped out when I was reading the book to the students. He states that "Writers are like other people, except for one important difference. Other people have daily thoughts and feelings, notice this sky or that smell, but they don't do much about it. All those thoughts, feelings, sensations, and opinions pass through them like the air they breathe. Not writers. Writers react."

For much of my early life, I didn't realize others didn't have stories going on in their heads all the time. I used to entertain my little sister at bedtime with an ongoing story, adding a chapter every night. Not until I hit upper elementary and was writing stories for reports did I find out that others didn't think the same way that I did.

I always have a story, maybe even two, going on in my head. I can be shopping, the list in my hand, picking up milk, bread, spices. . . and my characters are having an argument about the committee they've been forced to co-chair. Or I'm wondering if maybe I should change the setting, the main character's name, get rid of the great-aunt in this book or maybe beef up her part. All while I'm perusing the aisles, thinking about dinner plans, writing my check.

Fletcher's comments helped me recognize the difference between writers and nonwriters. It's not enough for us to look at a beautiful day or to listen to a conversation in a restaurant between two obvious lovers. We don't even file it away in our brain under 'interesting experience.' Instead, we wonder if a storm might be brewing that will wreak havoc with our almost-to-get-together hero and heroine. Maybe his ex is about to walk in. What if she stops at their table and casually mentions how much she enjoyed seeing him the other night? Or what if someone runs into the restaurant and orders them all onto the floor? Other ideas popping into your head?

So, the question is. . . are we writers because we notice things and put our imagination to work? Or are we writers because our imagination kicks in and we see the possibilities? The chicken or the egg?

Ever think about what you would do with your time if you weren't writing? What would fill your head if characters weren't talking to you?


Nancy Herkness said...

Terry, I would go nuts if I weren't writing. My brain would simply implode. I need that outlet for all the pent-up connections that my mind makes almost constantly.

That brings me to your other question: what makes us writers? I think writers are born observers with a quirk: we constantly connect the observations we make in interesting and unusual ways. I am often amazed that no one else notices the small and amusing ironies that occur in daily life. But that's because they don't make the same connections that I do. Writers take strands that begin in many different places and braid them together into a story. We can't help ourselves; our minds just work that way.

Happy Holidays to all my fellow authors and readers here on this blog!

Terry Z McDermid said...

I agree, I can't imagine not writing. My boys and husband quickly learned that if Mom doesn't have regular writing time, life gets a little iffy around the house.

What's interesting to me is watching my little group of already writers -- I wonder if I was functioning the same way at their age. They grab onto an idea and pretty soon, we have all kinds of story ideas wafting around the room. They're eight and nine, most of them.

That's when I believe the most in writers being born, to some extent, with a different outlook on life. I'm the only one in the family to use my creativity by writing. My two brothers sing and play musical instruments; my sister is into quilting and crafts bigtime, even branching into a job with it. Each creative in our own special way.

Allison Brennan said...

If the characters stopped playing around in my head? I think I would be very, very bored. And I'd probably sleep a lot more.

Great post, Terry. Like you, I've always had an imagination populated by "people" who had lives of their own. Sometimes their stories just played out, othertimes I manipulated them ;) . . . but they've always been there. Glad to know I'm not alone!