The Psychology of Writing
via The Guardian
The novelist Kamila Shamsie measures out her life as an author in chapters, punctuated by a familiar ritual.
“Usually at the end of writing every chapter I’ll print out and read aloud,” she says. It’s something she’s been doing since university, she continues, citing the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali, who told her “there are things the ears pick up which the eyes don’t”. As she sits on the lookout for repeated words, unexpected clunks or unwanted dissonances, it “feels like listening”.
“I don’t know how to say that any better. It’s about the sound of the sentences.” After years of “developing your ear for the sounds of language” she doesn’t have to think about “why a particular clump of syllables sounds wrong to my ear. I just know that it does.”
At the heart of Shamsie’s process of revision is a delicate dance between regions of the brain dedicated to producing and interpreting speech and writing; regions that, according to an elegant study led by Professor Brenda Rapp at Johns Hopkins, are separated at a very deep level.
After following patients with specific difficulties in speech and writing for 15 years, Rapp has demonstrated that writing and speaking are supported by different parts of the brain, not just in terms of the processes controlling the hand and mouth, but at deeper levels of the language system that contain knowledge of how words are put together.
Researchers showed participants pictures of an action, and asked them to describe what they saw. Some subjects would say “the boy is walking”, but write “the boy is walked”, while others would say “Dave is eating an apple”, and write “Dave is eats an apple.”
“It’s as though there were two quasi-independent language systems in the brain,” Rapp explains.
This separation between systems for producing speech and writing is mirrored in divisions between regions of the brain associated with understanding spoken and written words. Connections across multiple scales of both size and time mean these systems do not function in isolation, Rapp continues, but their interactions are still an ongoing area of study. “In neuro-imaging research we have developed reasonable methods for identifying where things are, but are only just starting to develop methods for understanding how things happen, what the detailed mechanisms are.”
For Philip Davis, professor of literature at Liverpool’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, the story of literature is that “where speaking has to stop, writing has to take over and ‘talk’ in a different medium of what cannot be said direct”.
“Some writers will take the written more than the spoken as their writerly model,” he says, “others will want more of the spoken translated into the written.”
But that notion of “translation” from one mode to another is vital, Davis continues. “It is crucial to the generation of meaning that in reading what is seen by the eyes is registered in a non-written area of appreciation and recognition, including emotion, memory and their sub-vocal voices viscerally saying ‘Ouch’ or ‘Wow’ or ‘A-ha!’ The separate but related areas are crucial for meaning to explode across the realms.”
For the novelist and professor of psychology Charles Fernyhough, it’s certainly possible to write without sounding out the words in your head, but for literary writing – and fiction in particular – it is quite a different matter.
“My hunch is that, in creating fiction, you have to do a lot of the imaginative simulation that relies on phonological and other, for example visual, forms of processing,” Fernyhough says. “Put simply, you have to put yourself there in the situation.” Some writers may be able to pull off the trick of total immersion required without hearing the words in their heads or reading them back to themselves, he continues, but reading fiction “fills the mind with voices. We’re starting to understand more about the science of this, and I imagine it will back up the instincts of writers, expressed over many centuries.”
He says he sounds his own writing out “vividly” in his head, and often reads it aloud as well. “A writer’s perspective would probably be: my brain might be able to do this without phonology, but my readers need it.”
Rapp isn’t so sure narrative voices are what she calls “auditory” voices, proposing they might instead be “more abstract, transcending modality”.
“Theories of language generally assume – based on various types of evidence – that we have representations of words and syntactic structure that are neither spoken nor written but ‘abstract’, which can be given written or spoken form,” she says. “This means that a writer could compose largely at the level of abstraction, and that the reader can experience text at this abstract, formless level as well, with the forms in the background.”
Rapp is unwilling to speculate whether her research might suggest that writers who read their work aloud are trying to produce a text that promotes coherence between systems in the brain designed for understanding speech and those for processing writing.
“All we know is that it is not necessary to use the spoken form to mediate between meaning and the written word,” she explains. “One can go directly from meaning to the written word and vice versa – for both the reader and the writer.” The spoken clearly can mediate between the two, she continues, but “we just don’t know when it does so, if one can foster or promote one mode or the other and so on.”
According to Davis, writers reading their own work back to themselves is a “complicated and varied phenomenon”.
“It is not necessarily at the end of a session,” he says, “or out loud – some reading back happens near automatically in the almost immediate revision of a sentence, for example.” Authors may not even need to read anything aloud in order to truly hear it, he continues. “There are no tests that a writer can provide that allow him or her now to be the reader rather than the writer, as if the two were mechanically interchangeable or wholly different.”
Many novels use a narrative voice that shares something of the vibrancy of spoken language, and yet they still, defiantly, written. The isle of fiction may be full of noises, but these voices must, by their very nature, function on the page.
It is perhaps this iron law which means that the novelist AS Byatt never reads her work aloud while she is writing, insisting instead that there are “clearly distinct forms of written and spoken language”.
“My hands hurt a lot now and everyone tells me I can dictate to the computer – but the rhythms would be wrong,” she says. Byatt has never “completely mastered the rhythms of computer writing”, preferring to write fiction by hand. “I need written rhythms which I feel in my fingers and eyes.”