Using your Non-Dominant Hand

Last night my writer’s group was talking about whether or not we, as novelists, were more comfortable writing by flying by the seat of our pants, unsure even where the plot is headed, or whether we preferred instead to structure our work with a tight outline, then fill in the gaps. The one we are comfortable with, Justin Fike said, is like our dominant hand. (A third way emerged, which is to write fiction by taking copious research notes.)

Justin Fike then urged us to set goals that would help us increase our ambidextrousness.

The image that came to mind was that of a baseball player learning to use a glove. My left is my dominant, so my right hand is my glove hand. I am one of those people who is extremely dominant on one side. My right hand is so bad that I have trouble typing the O and P keys on a keyboard (making matters worse, I damaged my right pinkie when I was 14 years old). But when I was only 4 or 5, I learned to put a baseball glove on the right hand and catch with it. I can’t throw for anything with that hand, but I can snap that glove shut on a ball. And for playing baseball, that’s the main thing I had to learn with the non-dominant hand.

Writers have to learn at least some competency with their non-dominant hand. Your dominant one is fun, easy and relaxing. For me, I can just get an idea and take off writing. Coming back to the structure part is work, takes concentration, and isn’t fun. At first, it’s awkward, just the way a kid feels when you first put that glove on their non-dominant hand and tell them to catch with it.

I suspect even if you’re not a writer, whatever job you have there are aspects that come more easily than others. Some people say to focus on your strengths, which probably has some value in certain seasons of life. But no baseball coach ever told a kid not to worry about catching and just focus on throwing. That would be stupid. You can’t really throw if you haven’t caught the ball.

Top three reasons coaches should read fiction

Self-reflection: Because literary fiction uses techniques that dislocates our minds and call our attention to strangeness in the world (called foregrounding) that may lead us to be unsettled and look at things differently (defamiliarization) which interacts with stillness which includes self-contemplation and appreciation of art (which I believe is a component of what I’ve called hedgerows) and causes self-reflection.

Empathy: Kidd and Castano: We propose that by prompting readers to take an active writerly role to form representations of characters’ subjective states, literary fiction recruits Theory of Mind. In other words, fiction may increase empathy – both accurately identifying peoples’ emotions cognitively, but also giving us the flexibility to place ourselves in their shoes (affective empathy). There is some indication that reading fiction helps us suspend judgement of others.

Goal Setting: This one surprised me. According to Oatley, narrative fiction constitutes simulation that runs our “planning processor” which is the part of our minds we use in daily life to plan actions in order to attain goals.

The academics have much more work to do, but the more studies they do, the more links they find between reading literary fiction and several of the major pieces we need to become really good motivational listeners.

A researcher named Oatley famously said that “fiction is twice as true as fact”. I believe that this idea is related to my concept of “absolute truth” that by extending our possible world views we broaden truth, rather than narrowing it.

All these papers have one major commonality: they all acknowledge that there isn’t definitive proof of cause. When it comes to encouraging the reading of literature for the sake of improving empathy, some major issues come up. Your personality type, how do you define “literature”, whether your empathic personality predisposes you to reading, or does reading really cause empathy? There are a lot of outstanding questions.

Here’s one more statement I found interesting:

Because fiction gives us a low-threat context, it gives us an optimal aesthetic distance for constructive content simulation.

I in 2011 and 2012 as I finished my first novel, our financial situation was treacherous. (What, you’ve never heard of a first-time novelist who’s broke?) There were days it seemed it would be easier to just ditch everything, get in my car and leave my family behind. It wasn’t that my wife and I were having problems, certainly not that we had fights or marital issues, in general, but perhaps the best way to put it was that I felt pretty strongly that I wasn’t helping our situation, and no matter what I tried, I couldn’t seem to shake that for a long time. The character in that novel named Arnold, who leaves his wife and young children and goes to Alaska, was, for me as a writer, constructive content simulation. I was able to enter the world of a man who leaves his wife (entertain a fantasy, one might say) from a safe aesthetic distance, which allowed me to engage my “planning processor” and think through the ramifications of such activity, experiencing it virtually, without doing something destructive. None of the research I’ve read says anything about writing fiction. But it seems to have done the same thing for me. The immersion for the writer is, in many ways, far deeper than it is for the reader. The writer has to read the work dozens of times over, correcting it for authenticity as much as possible, which means the planning processor mode works overtime.

Sometimes it feels as though that planning processor, like a microchip, is at risk of overheating. It occurs to me now that this sort of overheating may be one cause of writer’s block.

Note: I haven’t included links, but if you want to read some of the papers, just email me.

Memory’s Patina

In courtroom psychology, where facts are king, memory has been shown to be one of the more unreliable tools for discovery. Each time we recall an event, our brains add to or subtract from the experience, creating a patina, adding layers of varnish or grime so that while the antique table of our memories looks less and less like it did the day that memory was made, we only recognize it years later as the shiny antique we now see.

If an ancient memory is like an antique table, what is the value of stripping it back to its bare facts? For those who love the PBS show Antique Road Show you know that stripping the patina and refinishing a piece of old furniture actually lessens the value of it, but in some cases a painting or piece of furniture can also be restored by an expert, giving it even greater value. In the same way, your memory, coated over with layers, may become less valuable as a tool to illuminate beauty and principle if stripped by confrontation with the basic facts; as if it were a pearl stripped back to the initial grain which irritated the oyster. On the other hand, the idea of “cleaning or restoring” corresponds to the idea that we might take that memory and distill from it the underlying principle, making it elegant again.

We do not want to strip the memory to bare facts, but we do want to highlight the beauty of what we learned from it, what stays with us as evidence of the refining of time which makes it more valuable. It isn’t the wood of the table (though it may be from an extinct tree such as the American chestnut – that is the like the last remaining person whose personal memory includes World War One). The beauty is the patina itself, something nobody could create, it’s only made by time.

So. Memories attached to emotions, are one of the most reliable tools for getting at the principles of what impact events have had on the speaker’s life. For example, my memories of Congo are not perhaps factual, (see Congo blogs in archives) but the principles I’ve drawn highlight what was valuable in the experience.

We might even say that the writers of the four Gospels, who waited some thirty years, may not have given us the facts, in the strictest sense, that they might have if they were involved in some sort of daily journalism during the days of Christ. On the other hand, their somewhat delayed picture may be even more valuable for the patina they added; the things they remembered because of how the principles continued to ring true over time come closer to an illumination of the indelible reality Jesus left them with than what a newspaper man might have given us looking at events in real time.

The Listener understands that truth may contain facts, but no true story contains all facts, and therefore a motivational listener is unconcerned with knowing all facts. Long before Christ walked the earth Lao Tzu speaks of the “Myriad things” or “Ten-thousand things” while Solomon ridiculed the quest for all facts “everything under the sun is vanity.” The aim of their poetic philosophy is to uncover principle, not to catalog fact. They realized long before computers existed that nobody would ever be able to collect all facts in one place and that facts were, in fact, relatively superfluous to the discovery and illumination of truth.

The Listener hears stories constructed from Memory knowing that such stories are, as time goes on, scientifically unreliable in terms of factual reconstruction of events, but that the same Memory is remarkably reliable in its able to recall emotions experienced or established during an event. In my recollections of Congo/Zaire 27 years ago, my memory now has such a patina that you should not trust my memory to give you a perfect rendering of the facts. You should be able to trust that the patina on my memory will give you a very accurate rendition of how the events shaped my life. And that is the reality I now live.

Canonized books of story or poetry which have been used as factual sledgehammers cause us discomfort, but their original impact in society was due to their usefulness in the way their story elucidated truth regardless of factuality. The first question to ask when studying canonic texts is not “is this or that a fact?” but rather, “how does this story impact me emotionally? What true principles are here?” If the story should turn out to be factual as well, all the better.

The Listener reads fiction with abandon, uncovering truth wherever it may be found, and reads non-fiction with caution, recognizing that each fact stacked upon another fact could build a tower of Babel; that a large collection of facts twisted for the writer’s profit is less valuable than a single principle uncovering some absolute truth. And so, for example, the books of the Bible, if you take them to be fiction, read them with abandon, and if you read them as non-fiction, read them with caution. When you listen to a companion, encourage their wildest fantasies, let them ride unicorns to the ends of rainbows where they find pots of gold, and take their statements of fact (particularly when remembering facts of long ago) with a grain of salt.