Why as writers, we strive to make sense of the world

Stephen Rayburn → in Plants & trees

I’m a reader, teacher, and (intrinsic) writer of literature. I’ve been trained to make meaning from the meaningless. To spot symbolism. To recognize “patterns.” For example, in Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening bird references run rampant. First there is the notion of the ‘caged bird,’ hence, the life of the Victorian woman, but as Edna Pontellier’s story moves forward, and she both physically and mentally escapes her bounds, the bird becomes an emblem for freedom—well, sort of.

This post is not an analysis of The Awakening. Instead, it’s an examination of both the reader’s and writer’s minds. As a student of literature, I would have been expected to pick up on Chopin’s bird motif. As a teacher of literature, I might expect my students to do the same.

I’ll always attest to the fact that my extensive reading of the classics and beyond has forever changed the way my brain functions. For years, my search for the significant went beyond the page. Those crocuses sprouting from the dusty snow became a personal “sign.” Hard times are over; transformation is possible. The stray cat in my backyard became an omen for an unexpected visitor. The tenuously shaped heart in the foam of my beer meant love was on its way. It was as though my life were a novel.

Recently, however, I discovered that science can explain this need to make sense of one’s surroundings. In the July issue of Psychology Today magazine, author Matthew Hudson says in his article “Your Sixth Sense:”

“Pattern-finding is so central to survival and success that we see patterns everywhere, even in random data—a phenomenon called apophenia. We spot faces in clouds and hear messages in records played backward. And while we expect some level of order in the world, on occasion our pattern-spotting gets away from us and makes a connection we wouldn’t expect. When that happens, we demand, at least subconsciously, an explanation.”

For the full article click here:http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201206/your-sixth-sense

Hudson says (and I paraphrase) that since our early schooling days, we are taught to recognize patterns. For example, we learn the alphabet and to count—all pedagogical pattern-finding practices. We are shown that the American Flag signifies liberty, and thus, our minds begin to associate stars and stripes with pursuing our dreams.

I believe we writers…we intrinsic writers are quite the experts on this practice. To us, everything is figurative. I’ve gotten so adept at this system that it happens naturally as I write. For anyone who has ever seethed in skepticism, “Did the author really mean to do that? Did she really intend for the road kill on the boulevard to mean that Mrs. Bumblestick’s dreams of becoming a model were ‘squashed?’”

My answer? Maybe. But more likely, with consistent practice, the author has simply gotten good at creating a web of connotation.



Filed under The Writing Life

8 responses to “Why as writers, we strive to make sense of the world

  1. Very true for this writer. I like to joke that metaphor is my religion … but it’s really no joke. The falling leaf is a momentous, but silent, surrender that my brain links to universal surrenders and cycles of life and death. Great post!

  2. Hi Terri! Thanks for your comment. I love your falling leaf metaphor. It’s true…it is no joke…this is how I function. I love that you call it your religion.

  3. I just love that other writers are still at one with the classics. Their thought-provoking pattern-play seems to be lacking in modern-day works, and I miss it – which is one of many reasons I inevitably return to the classics for total reading satisfaction. As for Hudson’s article, I must agree that we are conditioned to pattern-finding from the first day of pre-school onward. Everything in our early learning process is a rhyme, a rhythm, matchings…and pattern-findings.

    And, just as a testament to the power of pattern-play, when exactly did that heart foam up in your beer? Did it “pattern” out for you? Do I hear wedding bells in the distance…? [smirk]

    • I agree, Sylver. I’ve been thinking about breaking out some of my old classics again. I’ve mostly been reading contemporary stuff, so I’m anxious to get back to my Bronte sisters!

      The beer foam thing was a while back…college probably. I’m SURE I imagined it!

  4. One of the most gratifying moments in writing has to be when I discover I have written something that only my subconscious knew about until it hit the page–things like characters taking on the persona of the sea or the sky, initials spelling out words, or autumn leaves standing in for fire.
    And, yes, finding these strange coincidences makes me feel as if I’ve finally brought some sense and order into my otherwise chaotic existence.

    I love the blog. Will be following. 🙂

    • Hi Kirsten! Thanks for the follow! I know exactly what you mean. I love the subconscious stuff. It’s so much better when it’s not deliberate…like forced symbolism. That’s so obvious to the readers!

  5. Great post. I found your blog on She Writes and decided to come check it out. I am always interested in the patterns you can find in life. For me writing gives me a way to make sense of things that seem to have no sense.

  6. Hi Penny. Thanks for stopping by! Yes, making sense of things is what we writers are good at. It dawned on me how ‘trained’ we are to spot life’s coincidences in a more refined way than most!

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