VOCABULARY & SUMMER READING
My summer reading was ostensibly a strange bisociation - on one hand Aaron Mahnke’s LORE, the book of the popular podcast series that explores folklore and the supernatural stories that spring from human culture of myth and imagination. The other was the latest issue of NAUTILUS; a popular-science magazine that examines the nexus of science and philosophy.
And as I lay on the beach it was a particular article in Nautilus that struck me as bridging these two worlds in a simple but profound way.
The article in question was written by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology who writes about Emotional Intelligence and Neuroscience. The thoughtful article discarded the outdated idea of a layered human brain where emotion and cognition wrestle (reptilian vs mammalian) and instead looked at the latest research on the brain as a system where emotion and cognition are intertwined as a means for the brain to function as a ‘predictive’ machine.
The idea is that our brains are constantly working to connect information from our senses (hearing, sight, taste, touch, smell) with our memories in order to predict events and circumstances, and drive our emotional responses to them. The logic then goes that the more varied and diverse our personal emotional memories are, the deeper the ‘data-set’ the brain has to draw upon to generate our own sophisticated emotional reactions. (this would seem to further reinforce my thoughts from a previous post about Kids and Horror stories and of the misguided harm we may do by denying young people experiences of the dark...)
As storytellers certainly we can say that among the most crucial of skills any writer must possess is emotional intelligence. Emotion is the currency we trade in - authentic emotion at that. In one of the many long story sessions I’ve had with my colleague Vicki Madden she once dropped a simple adage that struck a profound chord with me and which I have tried to apply to all my work since - “the only thing a writer should ever want their work to be is Truthful”. Obviously this doesn’t mean literal truth only related to reality, but rather an emotional truth that cuts to a reality of the human condition. In a similar way, celebrated Australian actress Miranda Otto once told me in an interview that what she looks for first in a script is “a truth expressed in a way you’ve never heard before”. That mix of being both original but also immediately recognizable as authentic. (Don’t we all long to have our audience exclaim, “OMG i’ve never thought of that but that’s so true!”)
This brings me to LORE. Stories that deal with the macabre, mysterious, and supernatural are those that are invariably centered on human emotion at its most raw, vibrant, and exposed - fear, dread, terror, desperation, anxiety, shock, unease, distress, passion, fragile hope, and the almost indescribable sense of the uncanny. To write supernatural stories - perhaps more than any other narrative - requires highly complex articulation of emotion. To say you want to ‘scare’ your audience is just not good enough. The genre requires dexterity and nuance of emotional beats that crack open ‘fear’ into a complex web of related but distinct emotions. If Inuit peoples have a hundred words for snow, the supernatural writer needs a hundred words for fear.
And that returns us to Emotional Intelligence and the work of Lisa Feldman Barrett in Nautilus. The bottom line of Barrett’s research is that the primary driver of emotional intelligence - both the ability to experience a broad spectrum of complex emotional responses AND to read those same degrees of subtlety and nuance in others (which, for a writer, translates to creating authentic emotion in character and story) is Vocabulary...
Now, there would seem to be nothing extraordinary about that idea except that Neuroscience backs it up in literal and specific neurological terms. The research shows that “when you learn new emotion words you sculpt your brain’s micro-wiring, giving it the means to construct new emotional experiences... in short, every emotion word you learn is a new tool for future emotional intelligence”. The core of this is that a wide vocabulary of emotion words creates a wider web of neural pathways in the brain that can be connected to memories and past experiences. A person with a small emotion vocabulary has less dexterity, nuance, and sophistication in their ability both experience emotions and read the emotions of others because the pathways and neural connections in he brain have not been forged.
The implications of this for writers goes far beyond just wether they know enough words to make their writing interesting. Neuroscience tells us there is a direct connection between vocabulary and the experience and understanding of emotion hardwired into the brain.
Reading this prompted me to reflect upon my time teaching at the AFTRS and where I was exposed to a huge range of emerging and aspiring writers and filmmakers. Life experience is obviously in short supply for a young writer just starting out, so the ‘database’ of emotional experiences their brain can draw upon in its ‘predictive’ mode of emotional intelligence is limited. BUT where any aspiring writer can potentially make up for this life experience short fall is vocabulary...
In my somewhat infamous AFTRS lectures on Horror screenwriting I often ran a simple exercise where I would ask the class what their emotional expectations of a horror film were - How did they expect the movie to make them feel? I’d then have the class brain storm all the emotion words they could think of and write them up on the whiteboard. Undoubtably the first word called out would be ‘fear’ which I would declare as bleeding obvious and push them do go deeper. We’d soon get to ‘Shock’, ‘Tense’, or possibly ‘Dread’. But almost invariably at that point the well would begin to run dry. “You’re writers for God sake! Surely you can do better than that’?” I would often find myself declaring. But alas it was a rare class that could get past more than half a dozen words without prompting. I would then implore them to buy a thesaurus and move on.
I reflected upon this in the context of the Nautilus article on emotional intelligence. Without life experience OR vocabulary how could a young writer be expected to develop a sophisticated emotional intelligence that could render ‘truth’ to character and storytelling? (a fact only compounded by the sad truth that the overwhelming majority of screenwriting students I have known have come from highly privileged white-anglo, wealthy, urban backgrounds. In the spectrum of life experience this largely has the nutritional value of sugary white-bread). The bottom line is that gathering life experience is hard and takes time and circumstance. But gathering a rich, diverse, emotional vocabulary just requires books and a bit of effort. As the Nautilus article points out; “Many factors that were traditionally placed outside of the realm of emotion, such as your vocabulary, have a profound impact on how you feel, what you see, and what you do.”
(I could at this point make a final observation about certain vile and insidious world leaders whose unbearably stunted vocabulary would seem indicative of their utter lack of emotional intelligence, but I shall refrain from stating the bleeding obvious....)
The final take away from my summer reading is, if nothing else, is the idea that the most valuable book I possess may well be a Thesaurus.