Friday, January 28, 2011

Brain Glitches

For your enjoyment on this beautiful Friday is one more essay on fiction writing from Godine author Ernest Hebert, author of the forthcoming novel Never Back Down. Please stay tuned for more blog entries from Hebert closer to the book's publication date in April.

Brain Glitches
By Ernest Hebert

I was complaining once to a very smart friend in the computer industry about the word processor I was using. He responded by saying, “There's something wrong with all software.” I think his critique applies not only to computer apps but to our individual minds.

The brain glitch is common in human beings, even among the smartest of us. You can see these minor defects best in the people closest to you—partner, kids, parents, bosses, friends, and especially in your enemies. Harder to see these glitches in yourself, unless you write, in which case they jump out at you when you copy-edit your work.

Just yesterday, as I was typing an email, the administrator in the executive suite of my brain said, “Ernie, type the word ‘studio.’” But the muscle memory supervisor in the engine room, contemplating his long-time affair with my hands, said, “Ernie type the word ‘student.’” I typed “student.” Later the overworked, under-appreciated, out-sourced and sometimes annoying copy-editor in my brain corrected the error.

I make a lot of these kinds of mistakes. The most common is omitting words, usually the articles “a” and “the,” but sometimes more meaningful words, even entire phrases, so that my sentences make no sense. On occasion the editor in me can't even remember what the creative writer in me meant to say, and I have to re-jigger the entire paragraph. You would think that with all the experience I’ve had as a professional writer I could just type out my thoughts. Such writers are rare but do come along from time to time. Isaac Asimov, who published 500 books and anthologies, claimed he never wrote a second draft. I’ve published a mere ten books, but I swear I wrote each one fifty times, so in the end I’ve probably cranked out as much copy as Asimov. I am incapable of getting it right the first time. I have too many brain glitches to overcome. Sometimes I don’t even know what my thoughts are until I type them, a rather thrilling and sometimes unsettling experience.

I see brain glitches in the papers my students write. Usually these defects lead to minor miscues, and sometimes accidental plays on words that delight me, such as the Japanese exchange student who was thinking “bridegroom” but typed “bridegloom.” Sometimes, though, the glitches can be serious.

Years ago when I was teaching a course at a small, private college I had a student who wrote a paper that I had to read several times before I understood it. The story made sense, the words were well chosen, the sentences adequate, the paragraphs more or less logically organized. What was missing was an understanding of punctuation. At a glance his paper appeared to be punctuated properly with commas, periods, occasional question marks, and semi-colons. However, his punctuation was inserted at random. A sentence might read, “All men are created; equal but some are. more, Equal, than others.” When I talked to the student he confessed he had no idea where punctuation was supposed to go. His brain map for punctuation was purely visual, the logic part missing.

In the end I think the minor brain glitch is good for writers, forcing us to reread, rethink, refeel, and rewrite. Isaac Asimov was a very good thinker and writer, but he was not much of a prose stylist and I think if he had gotten into the habit of rewriting, the result would have been fewer but better books.

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