Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Flaubert, Writing and the Discovery of Self
Naturally, neural flare-ups are part and parcel of the mammalian brain, but the key, however (as a humble writer and neuro-dilettante understands it) is repetition, intensity and breadth. Repetition of particular practices solidify learning pathways in the brain; imagine these connection of neurons as Frost's tangled pathways through snowy woods, the roads less-traveled are also the roads less remembered. When we engage in the creative exercise of piecing together prose, pondering word choice and mulling over plot development, we are utilizing and stimulating a wide array of neurons across the cerebral cortex. Countless skill sets typical of higher-process thinking are engaged: the transfer and accumulation of knowledge, judgement, critical analysis, induction, deduction, prior-knowledge evaluation for prediction... and of course it goes on. Essentially, not only are we nourishing our brains, enabling the formation of new dendritic pathways and facilitating synaptic connection, but with repetition we are strengthening those pathways; converting Frost's muddied dirt path, obscured by tangled undergrowth, into a mental highway. It is this ability to recognize and activate information stored in memory circuits throughout the brain's cerebral cortex that is critical to creative insight.
Writing is typically defined as a solitary process, a lonely engagement of one. It is in fact a dynamic action in which the writer engages the self. Writing for Gustave Flaubert was a torturous progression; he believed in, and pursued the principle of finding le mot juste (the right word), which he considered an essential prerequisite for quality prose. Unlike his peers (Balzac and Zola for example), Flaubert was not prolifically published, and it was not uncommon for him to labor for a week over a single page. His most famous work, Madame Bovary scandalized the reading public of 1856, however it gradually became apparent that this novel was the beginning of something new: the scrupulously truthful portraiture of life. The French writer's painstaking devotion to his craft, the nurturing of synaptic connections, and the cultivation and utilization of these numerous high-process skill sets (that are now understood to be by-products and prerequisites for the literary endeavor) enabled Flaubert's masterpiece.
So for us, for the writers aspiring, our primary concern should be simply to write; for it is in the very act of creative composition that we stimulate our gray matter, enabling connections and pathways that were hitherto lost in the foliage. In this process of active engagement we discover facets of ourselves, illuminated during the process of searching, as we attempt to define and understand with ever greater lucidity. It can be a mental struggle: to convert the airy ether of emotional response to the black and white solidity of language which often seems inherently inadequate to the task. So we tax our brains, imagining the most complex of circumstances, detailing subtle character attributes, all portrayed against a fictional landscape where the reader can feel the warmth of the sun and the bite of the wind. And our brains grow further complex like some cocooned creature of alien birth, breathing silently in the blood-nourished darkness. And with the sweat-sheened effort of writing, we gain a glimmer of understanding of who we are and from whence we have come.