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The Unbearable Lightness (and Sadness) of Writer Brain

April 6, 2015

There’s nothing like discovering a great book. When everything comes together, when the plot threads interweave seamlessly, clues and props are seeded throughout the story, the action and the dialogue flows, a theme and a mood are subtly invoked, expectations played with or used to good effect, and I’m sucked in for the ride so much that I lose time, it’s a perfect natural high—visceral, fizzing, grin plastered on my face, tell everyone about it.

The feeling wouldn’t be this strong if I was merely a reader, though, I don’t think. I’d still know I was reading a good book, of course, but writing brings another level to the experience because I can admire the craft. I know how and why the author’s done a thing. I pick up on clues sooner than I would’ve before I started writing. My brain starts sorting through possibilities, trying to guess where things are going, and building a sort of schematic of the story elements. My attitude shifts from “I wonder where this is taking me” to “It’s taking me here. How will I get there?”

(This is also why I don’t mind spoilers for most things. I get as much joy from watching the journey as I do from reaching the destination.)

Of course, there’ s a downside. When I pick up an okay book, and especially a mediocre one, where the plotting and characters and everything is weaker (which usually also means more formulaic), I don’t get the same enjoyment from the journey, because I know the tropes won’t get played with. Jenny the Heroine is going to find the Evil Vampire in a run-down part of town. She’s going to attack him without backup but get rescued by Brian the Hero after discovering a power she didn’t know she had. She will reject Brian because her tragic past has given her a fear of commitment. And so on. It’s disappointing and I end up lowering my expectations to maintain enjoyment, because I rarely ever put a book down.

And occasionally I pick up a book that activates the story schematic because it’s so weak and formulaic. I start noticing moments when the writer made the boring choice, where the clichés really come through, where I could take the ideas and do them better. It kicks me out of the story entirely and I feel bad for the author because obviously they tried for a better book and didn’t make it. Sometimes, if this gets me really badly, I start ranting. It’s my equivalent of throwing a book at the wall. 

This happens with graphic novels, films, TV shows, and stage plays as well—both the good parts of writer brain and the bad. I could tell you all about them, but that would be cruel to the creators.

And then the mental schematic thing starts up on my own writing and picks it apart. Those are the “this sucks, I suck, going to eat worms” moments. We’re not going there, hopefully for a long, long time.

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