It happened a number of times over the course of my career as a psychologist.
Folk would say that they’d just told me something they’d never shared with anyone else. It was one of those unique privileges and responsibilities I had a mental health professional. In the room, there was a deep sense of trust and safety. My client and I were together on sacred ground.
But there was yet a different phenomenon that also ushered in a similar sense of intimacy to the work. Often I would subjectively experience the emotional state of the client in front of me, feel it with as much vividness and immediacy as I felt my own emotions. It would come as a flash, typically as a sudden overwhelming sense of sadness. It was different from a deliberate fostering of empathy for my client or the insightful reading of facial cues and body language. It was spontaneous, unbidden and totally emotional.
The neuroscientists have a way of describing this phenomenon, reducing it down to their level of analysis. They identify it as arising within the mirror neuron system of the brain. You might be interested in looking that up. As is the case for all reductionistic explanations, their idea was intriguing at first and then a bit of an emotional let-down thereafter: a complex and important gift of being human explained rather than held in reverence.
Such reductionism is the well-fondled prize of psychology: the ability to postulate things like complexes, or diagnoses, or brain structures, or reproducible phenomena. And while it was useful (I guess), it always missed the point. As soon as we objectify something, we otherize it. Otherizing it leads us to dismiss, devalue, discredit and destroy: this rather than to feel a sense of transcendence and awe.
You as a reader of fiction, and me as an author, get to experience this emotional synchronicity as well. You get it when you subjectively experience the internal emotional state of a character in a compelling work of fiction. Tears might spring forth from your eyes in the midst of a sad event. Disgust might erupt, or revulsion even, as a character you’ve identified with is treated in an evil way by another character. You might feel befuddled by a situation, or panic, much like a character is. But before you knew it was happening, those characters and those events were no longer words on the page in front of you. They were alive within you as a reader.
As an author this experience in the reader is what I am aiming for.
But as an author, it is also what drives me to do the crazy work of writing. And then subsequently, to do the hard work of self-editing. It becomes a compulsion. The muse implants a character and context into my mind, as I write I feel what that character feels. The process takes me a bit deeper into what it means to be human. Typically, the writing just blurts its way out onto my MacBook screen. Subsequently in the editing, I must look critically at the words on the screen to polish the text that conveys that subjective sense of emotion and meaning, to chisel away the words that don't.
In the process, the characters are as real to me as were the clients and colleagues years ago. I learn from them, learn what is within me, revealed by what is within them.
Currently I’m rewriting a novel, shifting it from the perspective of a third person narrator to a first person account. It’s a lot of work. That might not make much sense to you. The plot and the characters are all still the same. But instead of watching it happen as a detached observer, I’m writing (and you will be reading) the story as it is experienced inside the head and the heart of the main character. There’s a world of difference. Some of that difference is technical, what I need to do as an author for the first person narration to have integrity. But most of the difference is phenomenological, how the whole thing will be experienced by the reader.
This re-write gets me, and you as the reader, onto that sacred ground, emotions in sync.
Good fiction does more than entertain us or allow us to escape who we are. It sinks us deep into the human condition: the human condition of the characters in the story, but into the human condition of ourselves as well.
Perhaps you might consider reading the short stories linked on the hmmm… page of this website. Ask yourself: what do I feel within and thus understand better about myself as I read each story? The Peter story talks about the sense of reliance we have on others, the absolute panic that can come when we think that’s threatened. The Four of us story reminds us that bad things can push us in different directions. The Scroll of Alphaeus story reminds us of the longing we have for something transcendent and the sense of doubt that can go along with it.
I’m going to give you a key to getting there. And I know what I am going to suggest is hard, like learning a new yoga pose or taking up a sport in late middle age. I want you to imagine that the work of fiction you are reading has been written by an author, a real human being (you can do this now, won’t be able to in a few years when AI has taken over). What are those characters, their dilemmas and delights, telling you about the author’s unique personal experience of the human condition?
And then, what is it revealing about yours?
Clickable links to previous blog posts
August 2023 - Are we there yet?
July 2023 - How smart is SMART?
June 2023 - Only half there
May 2023 - Who gets to write the story?
April 2023 - Intersubjectivity. Hunh?
March 2023 - A disturbing trend
February 2023 - About being in the middle
January 2023 - Can we have a little heart here please?
December 2022 - A story about story
November 2022 - Facing One's Fears
October 2022 - Transitional folk
September 2022 - Transitions
August 2022 —At the other end of life's journey
July 2022—The problem with what emerges.
June 2022 — So who am I doing this for anyway?
May 2022 - Wait for it ... wait ...
April 2022 — Someone called me a Nazi.
March 2022 — Shush! Don't tell anyone.
February 2022 — So does life imitate art? Well, maybe sometimes.
January 2022 — The two most powerful lines in the book.
December 2021 — About time and being human.
November 2021 — Not a tidy little murder mystery
October 2021 — Flow versus focus.
September 2021 -- It's beautiful because it tells the truth.