Two or three times a year, someone tells me, “You know that everyone in your dream is you.” Says who, besides Carl Jung? Do night sweats running around a retirement home in my bathrobe looking for my demented mother always reflect fear of dementia? Granted, random dream figures can stimulate insights as effectively as tarot cards or tea leaves. We are the meaning makers, and new perspectives invite us to fresh meaning.
In writing, on the other hand, to some degree every character is the author. How can you make responses authentic except by putting yourself in the characters’ heads, or them in yours?
The same goes for reading. A child who becomes Pooh in imagination, then Piglet, then Eeyore or Tigger learns empathy. Mirror neurons don’t so much put us in someone else’s head as create an image of their intention in ours. In that sense, one might argue, you are everyone you see or imagine, including the characters in your dreams.
The stranger on the Appalachian Trail was as dirty and unkempt as most serious hikers, the ones who hadn’t just come out for an afternoon. He looked as though he hadn’t shaved in a month. He was wearing faded blue jeans and a University of West Virginia sweatshirt.
The author lost me right there. I grew up on and around the West Virginia University campus. The Mountaineers played and studied at WVU, never UWV. Never mind that the guy on the trail was a minor character, his sweatshirt of no significance except to make his image more vivid. An author who mistakes West Virginia University for the University of West Virginia is not one I can trust.
What does it mean for fiction to be credible, when it’s untrue by definition? Willing suspension of disbelief takes collaboration between reader and author. The reader consents to think of fictional people, places, and things as real, to care what becomes of folks who don’t even exist, to accept the presence of a street or town that’s not on any map outside the book’s covers. The author avoids jarring that suspension out of place with stilted dialogue, glaring anachronisms, or behaviors that feel unnatural in the context of the story.
Had the University of West Virginia been a major setting of the novel, located not in Morgantown but in a fictional canyon beset by mayhem unrelated to any real school, I might have kept my disbelief suspended. It was the very insignificance of the name on the sweatshirt that made it come across as carelessness rather than intention. If the author can’t even get that right, why should I go along with anything else?
In his autobiographical Permanent Record, Edward Snowden’s joy in the freewheeling, anarchic Internet of the 1990s strikes a surprising chord. Born earlier and no techie, I recall the same youthful thrill of trying on different selves where nobody knew who I was.
In summer camps far from home, I could play at being whoever I wished and none of it would follow me home. Going out of state for college allowed another fresh start. We students were all exploring, testing ideas by trial and error, with no shame in saying something stupid one day and rescinding it the next. In my twenties, moves every year or two offered a series of chances to reinvent. Only my immediate family gave continuity, and they didn’t try to box me in.
Though by my thirties I found relationships in community at least as liberating as serial anonymity, later life events renewed the freedom—and the need—to recreate who I wanted to be.
Isn’t this the best of both worlds? A few close kith or kin who not only know you deeply, but also encourage you to experiment, change, and grow.
Max Escher gazes up from the self-portrait that absorbed much of my January. Nearly devoid of crisp lines or vivid colors, right angles skewed by his reflecting sphere, it launched me more than once into searching the floor for a piece I knew must be missing.
Winter is jigsaw puzzle season. We’re fortunate to have a suitable table available, since the holidays, for as long as the thousand pieces take to assemble. Though I feared this one might take months, gradually my perceptions sharpened. Distinctions of tone and texture emerged that were invisible at first. This temporary shift in perception is as predictable as the conviction that a piece is missing.
For a time, the world around me grows more vivid, too. Colorless midwinter takes on myriad shades of brown, gray, and white. Like skills or muscles, the senses we exercise grow stronger. Perhaps that’s why writers are encouraged to carry notepads, not just to capture phrases or incidents for future reference, but to hone the skill of noticing.
One delight of reading historical fiction is the discovery of cultures I didn’t know existed. Reading Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse, I wondered if the “Merikins” Sherlock’s brother encounters in Trinidad were a figment of the authors’ imagination. They turn out to be quite real.
During the War of 1812, hundreds of American slaves escaped to the British navy for a promise of freedom and sixteen acres of land. Afterward these “Merikins” and their families settled six hilltop “company villages” in southern Trinidad, corresponding to the six companies of their service in the Colonial Marines.
The Merikins left a lasting mark on Trinidadian culture. They’re credited with introducing hill rice as a major crop. Merikin descendants celebrate a heritage that includes their Baptist faith and the gayap tradition of “each one, help one.” Historical markers identify the company village sites, two of which—Fifth Company and Sixth Company—retain their original place names.
Photo from the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago.
Researching a college term paper on early Czech nationalism, I learned medieval theologians didn’t use Latin only to please the Church.* Everyday languages like Czech lacked a vocabulary for complex theological ideas; ordinary folk didn’t need it. Language, in turn, shaped and limited what non-scholars could think. It’s hard to discuss or even contemplate matters for which you lack the words.
New terms (neologisms) and new ideas grew hand in hand. Over time, languages became richer and more complex. Specialized vocabulary (jargon) within a skill or interest group made communication more precise. Plumbers confer about a leak in terms that mean nothing to me, with far better results than if they depended on my floundering “that round part on the bottom.”
Neologisms like blog and webinar gain easy acceptance. Not so with death tax, feminazi, intersectionality, and microaggression. Such terms flag the user’s sympathies.** Some serve no other purpose (buzzwords). Consider Democrat Party vs. Democratic Party, or people of color vs. colored people. The choice of phrasing communicates nothing but the leanings of the speaker.
* Of course, Latin also let scholars communicate internationally, as French did later and English does today.
** Some of these terms also facilitate precise discussion.
It wasn’t so much a New Year’s resolution as a turn-of-the-year experiment. Anticipating six days in a row with no scheduled obligations, I resolved to spend the week writing at a pace I hadn’t sustained in a while and see what happened. Would focus and flow come back?
Recently I happened on an article about the brain states of zebrafish. They have a limbic system (involved in emotion) similar to humans and they’re easier to study. Researchers have found a hub of neurons that control a brain-wide motivational switch. When it’s activated, a zebrafish goes into high focus for a limited time to chase prey. Unrelated skills are suppressed until the hunting state winds down. Then the zebrafish swims about restlessly exploring its environment.
Focus or explore? I identify with the zebrafish in its need for both. My New Year’s experiment managed to reactivate the focus switch for hours at a stretch. But art and life also need periods of diffuse attention to fuel creativity, taking us places we didn’t know existed. Without the aimless times, I’d never have thought to inquire into the brain states of zebrafish.
Temple lamps lit with a one-day supply of oil still burn eight days later. Wise men bearing gifts have begun their long journey to Bethlehem. Ancient tales, passed down through generations, transmit truths that run deeper than fact.
Humans are story-telling creatures. All the logic and statistics you can offer won’t move hearts or minds as much as the well-told tale of a character’s struggle. Personal, emotionally gripping stories engage more of the brain than raw data. One study found subjects were much more likely to solve a logic puzzle when it was embedded in a problem-solving narrative.
Another research team found blood levels of oxytocin rose after a compelling story. Oxytocin promotes empathy and trust, makes us more sensitive to social cues, and increases altruistic behavior. It’s no coincidence this season of stories and movies is also a season of giving.
Christmas boosts my spirits. Lights, songs, stories, and human connections push back against the darkness. But “the most wonderful time of the year” is a lot to live up to. Alongside joy, this can be a season of forced cheer, reminders of loss and grief, awkward get-togethers, or unwanted solitude. A search for “How to Survive the Holidays” generates zillions of hits online.
I like to approach Christmas as a massive buffet table, laden with more selections than will ever fit on my plate. One year I sing carols and admire flamboyant lawn decorations. The next year, my plate holds a simple Indian restaurant, a walk by the lake, and the start of a new jigsaw puzzle. In good years and hard years alike—and aren’t most years some of each?—replacing expectations with options helps fit the observance to the needs of the moment.
Big box bookstores did a number on small independents, and then online vendors took a toll on the big boxes. University Book Store in Madison sells mostly Badger sportwear and gift items, plus textbooks and school supplies. The clerk told me people who want a book for pleasure or self-education shop online.
The period from the middle 1990s to 2009 saw a 40 percent drop in the number of independent bookstores in the U.S. Now they’re making a comeback, with new stores opening and sales growing 7.5 percent compounded over the past five years. Online giants may be a quick, cheap source for a specific book, but walk into an indie to discover one you never heard of, get tips from knowledgeable booksellers, and bump into book-loving neighbors.
Parnassus Books co-owner and bestselling author Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, The Dutch House) attributes her Nashville indie’s success in large part to author appearances, community loyalty, and five shop dogs who help customers feel at home.
Thanks to the Sisters in Crime December newsletter for these sources.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.