Guest post by Katy Pye
In 2005, Katy traded the hot Central Valley for California’s North coast. Here, she renewed her love of writing and translated one form of environmentalism into another: an award-winning novel, Elizabeth’s Landing. She and her writer husband share daily walks along the bluffs and in redwood forests. Photography, volunteering at the Point Cabrillo lighthouse, singing in the Threshold Choir, and an occasional article for the Kelley house museum keep her busy. She talks to tree frogs, hummingbirds, turkeys—sometimes coyotes—and is delighted when they talk back.
Find more at http://katypye.com
Eighteen months since publishing my first novel—a book that took seven years to research, write, and release—supporters are asking, “What’s next?”
I shuffle and smile. “I’m exploring a few ideas,” I say. Inside a voice whines, “I don’t know. I don’t know!”
The process of writing Elizabeth’s Landing involved long stretches of attentive diligence, relieved by room-pacing, chocolate-munching periods of bewilderment and self-doubt. What’s next? Olympic weight-lift training looks easier than writing another book.
Toe dancing around new ideas means facing the big W of writing. What will it take to be creative again? Am I really a writer? That old emotional corpse, Fear of Failure, raises its head and grins.
Last week, I came across an article, “How Reading Fiction Can Help You Live a Better Life”
Brain research confirms reading fiction can increase our empathy, demonstrate how change is inevitable, spark our curiosity, and enliven our own story-telling. This happened as I wrote my novel. Empathy for my characters made them alive; their growth and change made them believable. My curiosity for the subject and how the story would end kept me writing forward. I certainly was a better storyteller the final year than when I started.
As a neuroscience nut, I wondered what kicks around the “little gray cells” on the other side of the equation—writing. Recent studies prove 1) writers benefit cognitively and emotionally from the process, and 2) the earlier right-brain, left-brain theory of creativity is way too simplistic. Creativity brick-laying is not divided; instead we rely on complex handshakes between conscious and unconscious maneuvers. This fun infographic, “How Does the Act of Writing Affect Your Brain?”captures how different hemispheres of the brain help us puzzle out and record our stories.
As my Google search results stacked higher, I had an epiphany: writing is my new anti-aging, mind and body fitness program. Just the physical act of writing things down and telling stories improves our memory for facts. I’ve been meaning to start meditating again, especially over my “next project” anxiety. Turns out free-writing and journaling have similar, meditative affects in calming the mind. Two “butt in the chair” rewards at once. Thank you, neuroscience!
Remember boring penmanship practice in grade school? In fact, handwriting exercises the brain in more complex ways than typing. Besides sharpening eye-hand coordination, shaping letters and watching a pen glide over paper involve problem-solving skills. No Spell/Grammar-check. No Backspace/Delete. Think before you write that sentence because it’s harder to change. Hello, brain library and wit stacks, I’m comin’ home.
Yet, “practice and you’ll improve” are words to induce motivation coma. What fascinated me were studies of writers “brainstorming” a story idea. Novice writers use parts of the brain dedicated to visual work, where seasoned writers fire from regions related to speech. I remember the shift late in writing my novel when words finally came more easily. I still experienced scenes as if they were movie clips, but the sinews between words and images cinched tighter.
I still don’t know what’s next, and understanding how the creative brain functions probably won’t always stop the voice in my head, shouting, “Lost! Turn back!” But I believe my particular tangle of creative, network neurons will ferry me wherever my river runs. They already have. Perhaps my little skiff will dock alongside a reader’s imagination (and neural synapses), offering us both a better life.