What Really Grabs Us When We Read

One of most revealing (and sometimes scary) things about brain science is how often it exposes the real reason we do  something. You know, as opposed to the reason we’re absolutely positively surewe did it. Which translates to: we’re often very, very wrong. Just knowing that you might judge a stranger as either a warm or cold person, based solely on whether you’ve just held a cup of hot or iced coffee, sure can give you pause.

The point is, we often mistake what seems obvious on the surface for the deeper reason – the real reason – we're drawn to something. Like novels, for instance.

What’s on the surface of novels? Words. Language. Sentences. That’s what we see. And often, those sentences are exquisitely beautiful. And so we think that’s what has us hooked.

It’s not. What we’re responding to is the story those beautiful sentences are harnessed to. What makes me crazy is the common notion that if you learn to “write well” – to compose luminescent sentences – then, Voila! you’ll have written a story.

That’s why, reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s piece, “My Life’s Sentences,” in the Sunday New York Times, I thought my head would explode. It came close when I read her assertion that the sentences that “come to her . . . are pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, handed to me in no particular order, with no discernible logic. I only sense that they are part of the thing.”

Not wanting my head to explode, I popped two aspirin and did the next best thing. I wrote a letter to the editor of the Times making the point that -- despite the article's implication -- no one but a genius like Lahiri can expect stories to arrive magically, in such a lyrically otherworldly fashion. That is, and have them make a lick of sense. They printed it under the headline, “The Art of Writing: The Story’s The Thing.”

The story is the thing. It’s what has actually captured you. And the great prose, exquisite sentences, and splendid voice? Their job is to serve the story. Alone, they’re window dressing in a vacant house.

And here’s the most important thing of all: story isn’t something you either have in your bones, like Lahiri, or not. While you can’t learn voice – it’s what you’re born with – story is something you can learn.

You don’t even need a muse. Because, creativity and imagination? Guess what, they aren’t magic or “otherworldly” either. Says science writer Jonah Lehrer:

"For most of human history, people have believed that the imagination is inherently inscrutable, an impenetrable biological gift. As a result, we cling to a series of false myths about what creativity is and where it comes from. These myths don’t just mislead—they also interfere with the imagination."

So, to hell with muses, divine inspiration and magic. Great stories come from having the gumption, determination and perseverance to stick at it, draft after draft, until you’ve wrestled the damn magic onto the page.

What magic is that? The very real magic causes the reader to surrender to the story so completely that it doesn’t feel like a story at all. What it feels like is life.

Long live story!