Michele and I recently took a three-week trip, and during it, I realized some things about writing that I hadn’t really paid attention to before. They had to do with the nature of space and time, the importance of attention, and the ability of the brainmind to invest imagination with reality. Let me describe what I learned.
“Real” Space & Time vs. “Fictional” Space & Time
At the start of a stay in a new place, I often feel disoriented, even in places I once was familiar with. For a while, the relation of one area to another is hard to grasp. Distances aren’t easy to calculate, and things are either closer together or farther apart than I think (even after using MapQuest). With no familiar mountains to orient me, my directional sense struggles until I create some familiar landmarks. Nothing is “homely.” Martin Heidegger used that word, in German, to characterize the nature of being-human—to be human is to be “at home, in place.” (If you’d like to read more, go here.)
I noticed that, without the routines of home, time in a strange place also seems distorted, and for a couple of days, I find it harder to gauge how long events, such as a meal with friends, last without the familiar time-cues I have at home. Where the sun “should be,” as a cue to what time it is, doesn’t work as well until I get my bearings in space. Space and time flow into and out of one another—which of course is the notion behind the word, spacetime.
However, when I opened my laptop to work on my novel, Nobody’s Safe Here, I was immediately immersed in familiar spacetime. Nothing in that fictional world of Monastery Valley had changed, the landmarks are familiar, distances are known and stable, time is clear. What’s happening?
Attention and Virtual Worlds in the Brainmind
The disorientation we feel in strange places highlights the importance of paying attention to space and time. Not knowing where a destination is in relation to one’s current place forces one to attend to cues (maps, signs, etc.). Not knowing how long a trip will take forces one to pay closer attention to discovering both distances and traveling conditions. To ride ten miles in a car takes a different time than to ride the ten miles in a bus, or to walk them.
When I was working on the novel, though, the fictional spacetime took on all the “reality” of the outer world of my journey. Why is this?
Cognitive scientists have demonstrated that the brain treats imagined events the same as it treats “real” events. For example, on a hike, if I misperceive a large black dog to be a black bear, the brain signals a “fear” response that triggers all the same neurotransmitter and hormonal responses that would happen if it were actually a bear.
Many religious traditions take good advantage of this fact. When a devout practitioner visualizes the deity or a venerable person (saints, bodhisattvas, arhats, etc.), the more deeply he or she attends to the visualization (that is, to the imaginary presence), the more “real” the imagined beings become and the more potent the image becomes for altering consciousness and experience.
What This Means for Writers
John Gardner talked often about a writer of fiction must maintain a fictional “dream,” not allowing flaws in the writing, plot, or structure of the book to “awaken” the reader from the fictional dream. That dream can be thought of as the reader’s attention to the fictional world’s space, time, action, character, and so on. Becoming immersed in the fictional dream is possible because of the brain’s ability to treat the imagined as real.
For fiction writers (and this may be true of successful non-fiction as well), this inherent brain-capacity in our readers is an invitation to create absorbing, gripping, and emotionally salient worlds in our books and stories, and to ensure by diligent editing and proofreading that no mistakes wake our readers up from that dream-world.