There is a belief that writing is a solitary act and in moments, I don’t disagree that it is. There are many times, as a writer, where I have had to shut myself off from the rest of the world and delve deep inside my mind to pull out the words that were bouncing around inside my head. I know the best way for me to do this is to sit by myself, away from any sort of distraction or potential distraction (i.e. suddenly, I need to reorganize the labels for each country of my coin collection), and sometimes even shut my eyes so all I see is blackness under my eyelids, and all I feel are the tips of my fingers hitting each key letter on my laptop.
But since beginning my fiction MFA program at Lesley University, I’ve been thinking more and more about how writing cannot be undertaken in a solely solitary state. A writer’s ideas are born from the influences and circumstances of their life, meaning every interaction they encounter with another human, animal, plant, object, plays into their subconscious and it is from this subconscious that a writer pulls out the needed words to create their story.
In my MFA program, I feel comfort when my classmates and I meet to discuss the struggles of writing. How we hate to write and revise, but love to see the final product. How we envy another writer’s ability, while thinking our own work is crap. How we try not to listen to our internal critic – the worst critic of all — when he/she tells us we aren’t good enough. By knowing my classmates struggle with these same challenges, I know I’m not alone.
Delving further into how the art of writing occurs, it could be argued that writers are in fact the most social creatures on the planet. For instance, when you become a writer, you have to learn how to be a researcher. I’m currently working on a short story involving a character in medical school. This character comes from a family of doctors, surgeons in fact. Despite coming from a medical family, I don’t have the necessary medical knowledge for the characters I’ve been trying to bring to life. I realized that for me to learn who these characters were, to understand their daily interactions and perhaps topics of conversation with other medical colleagues, I would have to reach out to my medical friends. For instance, in my story I have a father and son, cardiologist and surgeon respectively. To determine what possible topics these two characters might discuss in an informal setting with one another, I asked a cardiologist and a surgeon friend for advice, and lo and behold— they were able to provide me with suggestions for my storyline.
As writers then, we are often reaching and connecting with others. In another way, this same idea also applies to readers of fiction. A 2013 Emory University study found that fiction readers make great friends as they tend to be more aware of others’ emotions. Specifically, the study looked at the brains of fiction readers and compared it to the brains of people who didn’t read:
The researchers also found increased connectivity in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory region, which helps the brain visualize movement. When you visualize yourself scoring a touchdown while playing football, you can actually somewhat feel yourself in the action. A similar process happens when you envision yourself as a character in a book: You can take on the emotions they are feeling.
Other studies have shown similar results. A study at York University and another at the University of Toronto found that fiction readers are capable of the most empathy and “theory of mind,” or the ability to hold opinions, beliefs and interests apart from their own. Study after study shows that the more people take to reading, the better their ability to connect with characters they haven’t met yet in stories, and in a reader’s everyday reality, this understanding translates into better connections with people they interact with on a daily basis.
I am pursuing an MFA because I believe stories help us to connect with one another. Growing up, stories were my best friends at times and my worst enemies at other times, telling me the things I wanted to hear and the things that were difficult for me to hear but nonetheless, imperative to hear. Book series I read as a child like the Ones Last Wish Series taught me compassion, while another book series, Fear Street, helped me make friends in 5th grade when I was at a new elementary school (every girl in my class read the series and we shared books). Later on, as a teenager and young adult, the descriptive writing of Alice Sebold in The Lovely Bones, taught me it was possible to write about the hurt and pain involved with tough topics like sexual assault and rape, while Jhumpa Lahiri’s descriptions of Bengali culture, showed me I wasn’t alone in feeling confused regarding my multicultural identity. All of these books have helped me in numerous occasions, when I was hurting, failing, succeeding, and/or ecstatically happy. Writing and reading are tools that have helped me find solace, companionship and, more importantly, hope by seeing that I wasn’t alone. These days, I am more aware of the effect the written word has on my psyche as well as the social aspects writing and reading provides to my soul.