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.