It’s been a long time again, but it’s not been laziness that’s kept me from posting here. Without exaggeration, and without unnecessary detail, I can say that my world imploded. In the space of two days the life I thought I had, vanished. In the months since, I have started from scratch. New home, new job, new friends, new future.
All of us, I’m sure, have occasionally fantasized about picking up, moving on, and starting over. If only I could go somewhere far away, we think. Then I’d be someone new. As though a change of scenery could allow us to throw off our identity like an old coat.
But as William James so memorably put it, even “The most violent revolutions in an individual’s beliefs leave most of the old order standing.” Bumping up against that realization can be pretty disheartening, especially if you’re committed to self-improvement.
According to some neuroscientists, over 95% of the thoughts we think each day are the same thoughts we had the day before. In other words, our trains of thought go mostly ‘round the same old track, clickity-clack, clickity-clack. We think in habitual patterns, turning over the same fears, the same hurts, the same if-onlys as the day before, all the while imagining ourselves to be living in the present moment.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m tweaking the focus of this blog to reflect my study of creativity. The more I learn, the more I’m convinced that developing our inherent creativity isn’t just a fun thing to do, it is an absolutely essential part of living a full and rich life.
But just as creativity can create glorious possibilities in all facets of our life, it can also do the opposite. When we misuse our creative powers we can make our lives unnecessarily… horrible. Unfortunately, I’ve had an abundance of first-hand experience with this, both from myself and others – which isn’t surprising, actually, because it’s one of the things that make us human.
As Russ Harris points out in his book The Happiness Trap, “Our minds evolved to help us survive in a world fraught with danger… The number one priority of the primitive human mind was to look our for anything that might harm you and avoid it!”
Psychology and neuroscience (among other disciplines) have demonstrated how future-oriented thinking has allowed our species to thrive. Somewhere along the line hominids developed the ability not just to fight off snakes and lions and tigers (oh my) but to realize that,
If I go wandering in that part of the savannah all by myself at dusk, there’s a good chance some horrible thing will try to make a meal of me.
So they brought spears, or travelled in groups, or made a lot of big scary noises. In other words, they shaped their behaviour to account for possible threats. It was a handy way to stay alive and it was a profound act of creative imagination.
In the modern day, we retain this handy skill. The problem, of course, is that most of us do not live in perpetual mortal danger. Ravenous beasts seldom attack us at the supermarket. And yet, in a multitude of ways, we continue to live as though the world and everyone in it is out to get us.
Again, this isn’t a failing per se. There are good reasons our minds work this way, but as Dan Zadra is credited with saying,
“Worry is a misuse of imagination.”
Fiction writers are liars. Liars, thieves, and con artists. We make things up and try to pass them off as true. And thank god for that. (Tweet this.)
In our culture, lying is not often considered a useful, valuable skill (except in politics, but more about that later). For a fiction writer, however, whipping up a mess of lies and distortions is not just a skill, it’s a virtue.
Now let’s be clear, nobody reads a story hoping to be lied to. Just like no one drinks water hoping it will be wet – it’s expected. The word “fiction” means “a belief or statement that is false.” The irony, of course, is that people read stories in order to suspend disbelief and enter a world that seems… true.
Every reader has had that experience. You’re reading a book and you fall into its reality.
You can feel the heavy jeans sticking to your legs, hear the squeak of wipers on the bus window, sense the rush of water thundering through the tire wells.
It’s as though we’ve been transported into another reality and we willingly surrender our disbelief to enjoy it (or enjoy hating it).
So how is it done? How do storytellers make us believe in make-believe?*