Monthly Archives: June 2014

They Probably Have a Very Long Word for It in German

Scientists in Germany recently have discovered that creative writing involves using various parts of our brains, your correspondents at the Dogpatch are not the first to report.

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Researchers at the University of Greifswald in Germany strapped willing participants into MRI scanners to track their brain activity while writing creatively. And this new research into the neuroscience of creative writing discovered that a broad network of regions in the brain all worked together when people are turning out a piece of fiction, which may not be news to discerning readers of the Dogpatch.

But what may come as news is that the inner workings of professionally trained writers showed some similarities to people who are skilled at other complex actions like music or sports.

 

Magnetic Fields 

The researchers at the University of Greifswald could not let their subjects use a laptop to write with because the magnetic field generated by an MRI scanner would have hurled it across the room. So subjects had to lie flat on their backs, while their writing arm rested on a desk nearby, as they scribbled on a piece of paper clipped to a board set at an incline beside them. A system of mirrors let them see what they were writing while their heads remained cocooned inside the scanner.

Some of you may be asking how creatively a person can be expected to write while lying flat on her back, her head strapped into an enormous, humming metal tube, but what perhaps cannot be in question is the elaborate nature of the protocols employed by the scientists at the University of Greifswald.

Before having their subjects attempt creative fiction, the researchers first had them simply copy out some text, giving them a baseline reading of the subjects’ brain activity during writing.

They then had their volunteers simply think about what they were planning to write. During these ‘brainstorming’ sessions, some vision-processing regions of the brain became active, suggesting that the subjects were, in effect, seeing the scenes they intended to write.

Finally they had their subjects write creative fiction, and here the researchers found that other regions of the brain were called into play, including the hippocampus, that part of the brain which retrieves factual information.

There was also activity noted in a region near the front of the brain that is crucial to holding several pieces of information in mind at once, suggesting that juggling several characters and plot lines may put special demands on it.

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But the researchers at University of Greifswald recognized a big limit to their study: none of the participants had prior experience writing fiction.

Would the brains of full-time writers respond differently? Continue reading

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“Charity’s Discovery” – a Biscuit story by David Marx

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Hello from the Dogpatch. In the style of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, comes Biscuit, a collection in process by Dogpatch Founder David Marx. For this “dogfight” round, we read and commented on “Charity’s Discovery,” a story from the collection in which the lead character crosses from girlhood to womanhood and hopefulness to bitterness. Below is a bit of the story along with our remarks to David. Feel free to chime in!

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We’re also very pleased to announce that another of David’s Biscuit stories, “Merle, Molly and the Cast-Iron Frying Pan” is forthcoming in The Saint Ann’s Review.

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—From “Charity’s Discovery”:

She had gone to the restroom and while she was away, Ed Billick put a tack on her chair. When Charity sat on the tack, she let out a little scream. Ed’s desk was next to Charity’s making his guilt obvious. Now the teacher, Gladys Horton, was preparing to punish him. Miss Horton walked slowly to Ed’s desk and as she did, Charity saw the look on her face; it belonged on the face of an executioner about to administer justice and eager to do the task.

“Honestly, it didn’t hurt at all,” Charity said, hoping to prevent Miss Horton from taking drastic action.

The teacher stared back at Charity and said, “If we don’t punish them when they’re young, they will surely grow up to be criminals.”

 

Jilanne: The Writer's Shadow

Jilanne: The Writer’s Shadow

Jilanne’s comments:

It’s been awhile since I’ve had the pleasure of reading one of David’s stories in this collection.

Here we are in a small town called Biscuit where Charity, a young woman virtually chained to her mother (Faith), ends up a thwarted spinster. In this story, David is doing something immensely difficult, distilling 40+ years of this woman’s life into a single chapter. And for the most part, David’s effort is successful. His black humor marks every page even while we’re watching the train wreck that is this woman’s life. But as with all good stories, Charity is just as much a victim of her own reluctance to fight her mother and change the status quo as she is a victim of her mother’s cruelty. Bravo!

Here’s what I think needs work: Right now, there are a few places where I think the telling vs. showing are flipped. A couple of key scenes need to be fleshed out instead of racing by with exposition. And similarly, when you’ve got a great scene, don’t prep us with how this is going to change her life, include the scene that changed her life, and then tell us that it did indeed change her life. It’s a great scene. Trust us to get it.

I want to see the conflict build between Charity and her mother so that when we get to the end, it’s earned. Right now, we don’t get to see how Faith squelches every romantic interest Charity has ever had until after the “big one.” I need to see these thwarted attempts beforehand and watch Charity turn into a pressure cooker. Continue reading

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Coen-Esque, You Betcha!

“A little less Fargo and a little more Raising Arizona,” an editor wrote to me once about a story in which I’d killed off one of the characters.

The old church I used as a model for the "old Lutheran Church" in the story "Dearest" was torn down long ago. This is the Catholic Church in Bruneau I grew up attending, although I also went to Sunday School at the Protestant Church up the street, since they had way better music and cookies.

The old church I used as a model for the “old Lutheran Church” in the story “Dearest” was torn down long ago. This is the Catholic Church in Bruneau, Idaho, I grew up attending, although I also went to Sunday School at the Protestant Church up the street, since they had way better music and cookies. It was fun to conceive this story in Bruneau and then pick it up and move it to Moorhead, Minnesota. I moved it back and forth a couple times and finally decided that Moorhead in Clay County worked the best for the story purpose.

First the editor buttered me up by saying that my story reminded him a bit of the Coen Brothers.

I was ready to put on hot pink lipstick just at the thought of my work reminding anyone of those guys, whose work I highly admire.

The film analogy was an especially apt one in this case, where I’d veered the story in too dark a direction for its overall tone. That comment stuck with me and has been a reminder of my tendency to write dark endings, whether or not they’re the right one for the story. The dead character was brought back to life in the aforementioned story, and the story was better for it.

But I keep having to learn the lesson over and over again with each new story. Recently, the Dogpatch reviewed a story of mine, which is due out this month in Clover: A Literary Rag, the gorgeous letterpress magazine published by the Independent Writers’ Studio.

In the small town in which I grew up, there was a guy we kids were afraid of for no justifiable reason I’ve ever known. My friend Cynda and I would ride our bikes really fast past his house on the way to school. That became the seed of the story “Dearest,” which started as my way to understand why we kids needed a monster to be afraid of, and why it was also fun to be afraid.

The Bruneau Canal in Idaho, where I originally imagined the character in the story would walk. I swapped it for the Red River that separates North Dakota and Minnesota, as a more believable place for the character to lose her money in the wind.

The Bruneau Canal in Idaho, where I originally imagined the character in the story “Dearest” would walk singing a tune about two cowboys who meet the devil. I swapped it for the Red River that separates North Dakota and Minnesota, as a more believable place for the character to lose something she couldn’t retrieve by jumping into the water. It was hard to lose the Bruneau Canal, since I grew up playing alongside it and swimming in it, but the expanse of water needed to be wider and faster moving for the scene to work.

Continue reading

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