Hemingway is bleeding, Bradbury says to use emotional excess, and so on. Even David Brooks thinks emotion and social stuff is the next big thing in polemic writing. It seems you gotta make your readers feel.
I went to a little library writer’s conference and heard a talk by Lisa Cron about what a story is, and why story is the only thing that matters in writing. The thing that stuck with me is emotion is not a story. Not Big-E emotions like love, hate, and fear, rather that emotion is the only word we have to explain why stories are important to us and why we relate to them.
Big-E emotions are prehistoric visitors that sit on the primordial three-legged stool of chemicals, reproduction, and defense. To exist and continue our species we must have chemical energy and feedstock to build our bodies, food, reproductive access, sex, and protection from other life forms coming to take our chemicals, fear. In Carl Sagan’s now dated “Dragons of Eden,” the old limbic system (the neomammalian complex), was thought of the bus wiring for basal emotions. Food, sex, and fear responses drive every living thing on Earth, even if they don’t have a brain. The brains of higher animals, not just humans we now know, take those instinctual inputs to construct all other emotions from them: envy, greed, lust, jealousy, hate and so on to varying degrees of sophistication. They are all various combinations of the basic three survival/reproduction behaviors of all life.
Our identity operates on top of it all, our infamous abstract self awareness. All the ratiocination about existence our pre-frontal lobes exercise gets put into a virtual identity framework, somewhere in the brain, that integrates our previous experience with the immediate inputs from our senses. Without the identity framework to put the constant flood of sensory inputs into, we would be just an amoeba running on automatic, responding to chemical and energy disturbances in the force to find chemicals and defending itself while accumulating enough chemical energy and building enough pieces of ourselves in order to reproduce.
What I enjoyed about Ms. Cron’s talk was the story about how our identity matrix needs stories to understand what our reality is, to be able to operate in it successfully. She postulates that we use the word “emotion” to define the processes in our identity that allow us to make decisions about what our senses are telling us at the moment. That kind of “nameless emotion” is the blood and guts of what a story is.
One example she gave was, “a bunch of red taillights up ahead on the freeway.” If we try to think about what that means every time we see it we crash our car more than out insurance provider desires. We have build a story in our brains telling us it would be dangerous for us to not put on our brakes double quick, but not so quick that we get hit ourselves. Somewhere in our past we experienced the red lights for the first time and made a story out of it in our identity that tells us what to do automatically when we see them on the freeway. We relate to other stories we read/hear about driving on freeways because we have that red light and other stories like it installed into our brains by experience. Good fictional stories are echo chambers that confirm our identity biases, our core beliefs, our preexisting stories–and extend them. We like the extending ones best of all and learn from them.
The red light story example also connects to the old big-E emotions too. We get a little twang of fear about crashing as we brake. Fear comes in large part from the amygdala at the base of the brain. It causes us to respond in hard wired ways very quickly, the processing in that old brain network runs faster than the rational, pre-frontal brain so we act immediately. This red light story’s virtual reality uses the fear so we hit the brakes automatically. We need a new word for the story/big-E emotion processor in our identity to help us understand what a story is at its foundation. That is what Lisa was saying in my interpretation.
We understand stories with freeways in them and relate to them like the native in Brazil relates to stories about the branch in the tree that moves and has a head on it that can kill you, or the artic native knows that moving snow with a black nose is “run like hell before you are polar bear lunch.” Everybody likes a good snake story with a bear in it.
So, we need a word for how to write stories that isn’t “emotion” because the good stories aren’t emotional – they are about how we make sense out of life and resonate with our identity matrix.
Morpheus told me this story about Agent Smith…