Thursday, June 21, 2007

Real or Imagined?

What makes a memorable story?

They say our brains can't tell the difference between something that has happened to us and something that we only imagine has happened to us. There have been all kinds of experiments about this. The one that comes to mind right now is the one where they took two groups of kids and allowed the first group to practice basketball for hours & told the second group to spend the same amount of time imagining they were practicing basketball. At the end of the experiment, the two groups had improved equally.

Our bodies apparently react to an imagined stressful event in the same way as an experienced stressful event.

I started noticing recently that when I have my toddler twins out in public and I loose sight of one of them (mind you, I only take them to gated in areas when I 'm alone with them, so it's not like they can run off) I have been reacting a lot stronger than I have in the past. By this I mean, I pretty much am over-reacting. I get the whole heart racing, light headed fight or flight thing. When it happened today, I tried to pinpoint the fear and what I came up with was that I was reliving a memory. A memory of losing my child, of wondering where he was at that moment, knowing he was terrified to be without me. Only, I have never lost my child.

The "memory" stems from the story of the four year old little girl who had been kidnapped from her parent's hotel room while they were vacationing not too long ago. I am so empathetic by nature that every time I read something about this story, I couldn't help but put myself in the parents shoes, imagining each detail in technicolor, feeling the horror...the terror and the heartbreak as if it were my child. Of course, I will never know the fullness of their pain but for me, this story has become my own terrible memory.

So, the question of the day is...can we, as fiction writers, affect people like this with our stories? Or is it only "the truth" that can do this. If our brains can't tell the difference between what we are experiencing through our imagination and what we are experiencing in the real world, then it should be possible.


B.E. Sanderson said...

I know the first time I read Stephen King's The Stand, I jumped every time someone around me sneezed. Other books have effected me on an emotional level - like a book that has a negative philosophy of life can really make me crabby, and the opposite is true for positive happy books.

I hope that answered your question. I'm kinda thick today.

Shawn said...

Great post! It couldn't be more perfect because I'm linking to you in a post today.

But, I love this topic of the mind and memory. I have memories that I do not seriously know if they are true or not. I have quite the imagination, I've realized.

There are many cases every day when stories hit the news and you know that there is just no way anyone could make them up.

But, still, I've been so moved, and so impacted by so many great pieces of fiction ... some that left me feeling like the characters were a part of my life.

Probably a bad example, but Sex and the City, to me, is a great fictional tale that has left me feeling like it was all true, like Carrie really exists in the streets of NYC. I know, sad, pathetic ... but if you are a fan than you know what I'm talking about.

Shannon said...

b.e.-I've had some books affect me powerfully like that (the most recent one being The Road) but I still don't process them as my memories, I don't think. Not like when I read something I'm told is "true." Maybe that was the point behind the Blair Witch Project.

Shawn- That great imagination is a double edged sword, isn't it?!!

I guess I've been thinking about this lately because of all the uproar over the novel "Sarah". The author is being sued because it was supposedly a true story of a boy growing up in a world of prostitution. She wrote under the penname J.T. LeRoy. When it was found out who she was, suddenly the movie co. that bought the rights wants their money back.

So, do they feel that only truth moves people?

Shannon said...

Oh, by the way, Shawn....loved Sex & the City, totally lived vicarously through Carrie.

Anonymous said...

Great fiction will affect the reader, surely. However, what if the opposite is also true? What if the writer becomes so influenced by the story he or she writes that it becomes a "real memory" to them? This is a very interesting concept...

Shannon said...

hmmm...almost like being able to create our own reality :-)