Story is real

True confession time: although I’m often billed as a science fiction writer, there’s actually very little science that engages me beyond either the practical (Does it make my life better? Or If it’s broken, how do I fix it?) or the aesthetic (Meteor showers are pretty!). I have never been fascinated by science for its own sake. It is human experience that interests me, and it’s true that much of human experience is grounded in, or informed by, science — in particular, how we respond to our own biology (gender, sex, illness, dying, fear, memory…). Each practically-identical biological human mechanism — and in spite of our individual genome patterns we are 99.9% the same — is also a particular person with our own thoughts and feelings and responses, our own unique set of experiences. We are essentially the same, and a huge part of that sameness is that we hunger to be different and are yet so often terrified by difference in others. We are souls who drive, and driven by, the most complex wetware that we know of in the universe… now that’s interesting.

And so in spite of my general disregard for scientific discoveries, I am in love with the idea of mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons fire in our brains when we perform an action or when we see someone else performing an action. Mirror neurons help us assign meaning to other people’s behavior. I see you and I know what your actions mean, because in my brain there is no neuronal difference between you doing a thing and me doing it myself. It feels the same to my brain.

I know what it means when you look at me with rage or hurt or bedroom eyes — because the same neurons fire when I look that way at you. I know that look. I see you pick up a baseball bat and shift your grip, heft it in that certain way, and I know the only thing you’re planning to knock out of the park is me. I know when a baseball bat turns into a weapon — and there, you know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you? Because even reading a description of an action, if it is accurately and specific, fires your mirror neurons.

There are lots of theories now that mirror neurons are the basis of empathy, and that they are instrumental in acquiring language. But what they mean to me as a storyteller is that I really can show you what’s happening instead of having to always tell you.

And now I know why story works. I know why words on a page or pixels on a screen can make me feel such deep joy or sadness, can make me tremble with fear or wonder. Because when story in any medium is done right, it really does come to life inside us. For an instant, we live the story. It’s real.

And I know something else: I know why I am a writer. I know why I took an acting degree that I was so clearly at the time unsuited for. I know why I dance. I know why I sing along with U2 at the concerts.

Because story is real. When I write, when I act, when I sing in the car, when I am brave or stubborn enough to keep at it until I have been as specific and honest as I can be in the creation — when I get the story right — it fires all those fabulous mirror neurons, and those moments of story are just as real to my brain as if I were actually doing them. I am watching my life drop down an elevator shaft; I am a rock star; I am fighting for my life or struggling with love or having amazing sex or holding my breath at the immensity of some moment of everyday life in which, suddenly, everything has changed…

In his blurb for Dangerous Space, Matt Ruff refers to “emotions this raw.” I’ve always liked (and been grateful for) that, because it comes closest to my own ideas about what I love in story, and what I strive for in the stories I tell. I don’t give a fuck about Big Ideas. I am all about Big Feelings. Not necessarily big experiences — although I like those too — but the way that the large and the small of life can make us feel, and what we do because of or in spite of those feelings.

I’ve said that I write because I want to make people feel those things. To make difference accessible to readers — behavior and feelings that they might not otherwise choose in their own lives. To open a mainline into someone else’s personal truth. But that’s not it, or at least not the most important part. I do it because I want (or need) to feel those things myself, in ways that don’t necessarily involve actual experience. I won’t ever be a rock star, but I want the physical and psychic blast of 20,000 people singing my song to me. I don’t want people I love to die, but I respond so violently to grief in stories that it’s like I am practicing or preparing as best I can for the day when it will grab me by the throat and shake me. I can’t be an astronaut (that science thing…) but I want to see my world suspended in a deep dark universe of wonders.

And I can. We all can. We’re not limited by our own lives, by our own choices. We can live other lives and other choices too, and that’s not just an intellectual concept. It’s real. It’s as real to your brain as your last banana muffin on a warm Sunday morning, or how your sunglasses make you feel hip even when you’re just pumping gas, or the smile yesterday from that beautiful stranger on the train, or the heartstopping second before you say I love you to someone new.

And there. I just told you four little stories, and perhaps one of them was real to you. Perhaps for a second you were there. Really there.

Story is real. It makes me want to shout or dance or cry or go hug someone from the sheer joy of being human. Every story you love, whether it’s Frodo and Sam, or Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, or Buffy, whether it’s Shakespeare or Calvin and Hobbes, is alive and real in the amazing space inside you.

8 thoughts on “Story is real”

  1. The joy and horror of mirror neurons. The Joy: we can connect to others in an empathic way but it is a simplistic, chemical understanding of their actions. This ability to understand the other should never be underestimated. In fact humanity as a dominant species and as individuals within it, would seem to depend on it.

    The Horror: It does not lead to deep understanding. You do not understand ME any better by understanding the change in my grip of the bat. You may understand that my intention has changed, and you may even have a fledgling understanding of why but you will not understand it as I do. You are better able to survive (ie- you can get the hell outta there) but you do not feel as I feel. In fact, you are feeling something quite different. Even in describing your own event accurately you are re-living it as an “as-if”. This is valuable, especially as a writer trying to ellicit a certain feeling state in others, but it is not the same as.

    To me, it is similar to language. We use a “common” language as well, but green to me is a different green to you. “Love” is not “love”. How many times have others misconstrued your “accurate” description of an event?

    It is also true that as story tellers we rely on this ability. Without it, it would all be just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. You write from a desire to connect, to be understood and show your understanding of others . . . maybe this is as close as you/we can get.

  2. Robin, this is absolutely true — my mirror-neuronal response to a story, for example (since that’s my admittedly narrow focus here) doesn’t give me any insight at all into the creator. And yet that’s a mistake we make all the time, isn’t it? To confuse the artist with the art. To want the artist to be “like” the creation. But that’s another topic (grin).

    I think the comparison to language is spot on. Communication can be a tricky thing even between people who know each other very well, mostly because of our differences in meaning. I certainly wasn’t trying to say that we are all emotionally or psychologically (or experientially) alike, or even that we should be (shudder). But language is the tool we have to connect with each other in a way that seems, as you’ve said, essential to our survival. And mirror neurons are another tool. But they are, at best, a tool of empathy — not telepathy.

    So my response to story is different from yours and anyone’s — but it’s a real response. That’s what I’m goobing on right now. When I fall into a story to that extent, it’s a “real” experience as far as that part of my brain is concerned. And I love that. The best story has always felt real to me, in the negative-capability “I know it’s not real except then why am I crying” way. And now I know that it is real.

    I love the idea that what I do, if I do it well, plugs directly into someone else’s brain that way.

    And I love that what I do, when I do it well, lives inside of me in a way that is not entirely metaphorical. I make story, and it bursts in my brain with all the force of my particular background of experience and assigned meaning brought to bear, so that it is powerful and rich for me in ways that I can barely describe. I’ve been searching for a while for a way to talk about this feeling, and mirror neurons are helping.

  3. As an identical twin, I find discussion of mirror neurons both intriguing and…well…duh. Not news. How empathy happens is a discussion I guess I’ve met my whole life, with a variety of insights and responses that change with whatever intelligence and articulateness I could muster decade by decade. I used to say to “singletons” something like, “Well, as a twin, you enter life in a shared bubble. It took me years to understand that everyone does not live, nor necessarily like intimacy; you mean people don’t GET each other without words?” Understanding so fundamentally a face so like your own as it changes through a minute’s (and then a lifetime’s) emotions…well I never have found language for that place of non-language. On the other hand, I sometimes explain to those who claim to not “get” art in storytelling, that what I like about literature–and theater in particular–is that “I get to sit in the dark and watch other people emote and I get to feel affected, but I don’t have to give them a response.” I can watch and muse without firing my mirror neurons. Well, I guess they do “fire”. That would be your point, I suppose: that I inescapably respond to the actors” emoting because of the nature of my brain cells…hmm. I will think about all this for some time, I expect.

  4. Kelley, my god it gets complicated fast! The story, any story, is real for your understanding of the world. Same as author, don’t you think? In some sense I don’t understand Solitaire at all, I just overlay my interpretation of what you meant!!! I’m laughing now . . .
    Still, I loved YOUR story and how it made me feel – my own feelings!!! I do also enjoy your visceral excitement in finding a new reason for connection with story. Thank you for sharing it . . .

    I had one other pressured thought on this – on a mirrored neuron understanding of the world . . . true sociopaths take advantage of it! That’s part of the horror – those who can/will/easily take advantage of empathy . . . . it makes me shudder just to think of it.

    Though it belongs elsewhere . . . congrats on your successful dancing debut! If I’m ever in the area I’ll be sure to check it and you out! Lucky you too . . . my partner would kill me before she’d “let” me dance in public for money . . . much less watch me do it. LOLOLOLOLOL!!!!!!!!

  5. I do like it, very much. Thank you!

    Shakespeare’s dead (grin). And anyway, he had his own relationship with writing. I imagine that it possessed him with the same strength and passion that you have written about.

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