Friday, January 27, 2012

Reaching An Action Potential

I start to boil water for coffee, put on pants, set the microwave for two minutes my oatmeal, check email. I pack a bag of dance clothes for a ballet class, put on a shirt. I grab a book I want to read during breakfast and put it on the desk in front of me, then pour the water over my coffee grounds. I begin eating my oatmeal, get up to pour the coffee, go back to the oatmeal, realize I can't read, drink coffee, and eat oatmeal, contemplate listening to the radio. But by the time I get the radio going, my oatmeal is finished, and it's time to go use the bathroom if I'm to leave the house at the appointed time.

Instead of the ballet class I'd packed the bag for, I might decide to do my ballet routine at home "to save time" though it ends up feeling like a waste of time. So it's twenty minutes of exercises, splits, and a shower.  I'm trying to squeeze in that routine before I go off to class at NYU. Oh yeah, and at some point, I'm supposed to be reading the New York Times. This all inevitably puts me in a bad mood. Doing one thing prevents me from doing another, and I'm never doing the right thing, or so go my thoughts.

Later that day, my bad mood still with me, I decide to play the violin "for a little while" to cheer myself up.  I play scales, exercises, the Préludio from Bach's E-major partita. Half an hour has gone by. But I keep playing, working on an Andante movement, always Bach. It goes well. My fingers are warm; my sound is warm, too, and the in-tune notes fill the basement. I just want to play it again. So I do. Then, I think of playing a fiddle tune, Baker's Waltz. Then, I play some Swedish music. An hour and a half has gone by. I am happy.

I think that 90 minutes of playing violin, not sure where the playing would lead me, was worth 3 hours of doing various, structured activities in order to check them off a list.  When I do six different activities, some of them at the same time, with an aim to "get them done," I may be efficient, in the sense that I check things off the list, but I don't reach that point of feeling warm, happy and satisfied.

I think that these activities are like nerve impulses.  As a nerve cell prepares to send a message,
positive ions go into the cell, but only when the cell reaches a certain voltage will the nerve "fire": will the ion channels that open in response to voltage open their doors, letting in more ions, which open more doors in a positive-feedback loop. If the nerve doesn't reach that threshold voltage, it can't send its message. Those positive ions entered the cell for nothing. Poor sodium. 

I think that in doing something, like playing violin, if you don't get warmed up, you don't reach the point at which you can do really satisfying work.  That's known about exercise and music, to some extent: you have to warm up. But I think it really applies to all activities. For example, when I start to write, I may not feel inspired. If I write for 20 minutes and stop on my circuit of productive activities, chances are, I won't get anywhere.  I keep going, something usually comes to me. 

There's a certain point in writing an essay where I feel inspired. When I have a deadline, that point usually happens the day before it's due. I remember trying to write an essay about Tennessee Williams' "Suddenly Last Summer" and winding up with some theory about how people who love each other also exploit each other. The essay didn't turn out that well, but I did have a moment of inspiration when I realized what the point of all my writing was.  This happened rather late in the game, too close to my deadline for me to really polish the idea. But sometimes, I don't reach that point at all with a piece of writing. I might just write a piece that doesn't really have a compelling point. Blog posts, published too early, are like essays that don't reach their full potential.

An action potential in one cell is what lets the nerve send its message to the next cell and nudges that cell toward an action potential of its own. I think that activities work the same way. I think that doing one activity to its fullest, being inspired, and being in a good mood leads one naturally into the next activity. When I used to go running in the morning before work, a short run might just put me in a rush and stress me out, but a nice, long run would put me in such a good mood that I would have a great day at work. The runner's high led to other highs throughout the day; the impulse propogated.

I am happiest when I can do things until I reach that inspired point.  Stopping early, like leaving this blog post now and doing something else, would leave me unsatisfied. I might check more items off my list, but I might ultimately feel disappointed. I'd be like a nerve cell that had let in some positive ions but not enough to fire.  That cell might as well have done nothing.

As for a person doing nothing, that may not be such a bad thing. Rest is probably better for the body and soul than a flurry of unsatisfying activities. Better for the mood, too.

Moods are rooted in action potentials and communication among nerves, after all. Maybe this allegory is more scientific than I realize.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Journalist and Mrs. Brown

In her 1924 essay/lecture, "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," Virginia Woolf talks about how novelists from different literary periods develop characters, and as an example, she creates a hypothetical character, "Mrs. Brown," whom Woolf imagines encountering in a carriage on the way to a train. Some writers, she says, would be inclined to focus on Mrs. Brown's situation (her house, her town, the property laws in her area) and discuss her in relation to it. Woolf, on the other hand, is inclined to start with Mrs. Brown and develop the novel around the character.

I think it's worthwhile to think about how journalists would treat Mrs. Brown, even though Woolf created Brown for a speech about how novelists develop characters.

After all, journalism has limits not only of reality -- you have to describe the people and events you choose to discuss as truthfully as you can -- but also of fiction -- you have to create a story that makes sense, and that sometimes requires you to pass by real people and true stories that don't make sense in the story.  In a story about obesity, for example, you can't just spy an obese person on the street, call her Mrs. Brown, observe her and write about her without interviewing her or asking her permission, as you could if you were writing a novel. Nor would you want to approach Mrs. Brown and say, "I'm writing a feature story about obesity; could I interview you?" Instead, you look for people who admit, by joining a support group or chat room, to being obese and indicate that they are open to discussing it. Even then, you can't just write about anyone. You need someone who is who is obese, willing to talk and has a simple enough story without too many twists and turns. Twists and turns confuse the reader, but in journalism, you have to face them. In fiction, you can just leave them out, or your character might not encounter them in the first place. In order to find a suitable journalistic subject, you may end up sending message after message to people in chat rooms and forums. It's sometimes a lot of work to come up with a real character you can use. (As Coleridge wrote, "Water, water, everywhere; Nor any drop to drink.")

To me, this seems like a contradiction, because I like to think of nonfiction as writing ready-made stories with ready-made characters. In fiction, you have to make your own characters before you can write about them, or as you write about them, which seems like it might be more work.  I realize now that, to some extent, you are making up the character in both cases. In both cases, you have certain requirements for Mrs. Brown: she has to be obese and go through some kind of ordeal. In fiction, you can make Mrs. Brown act just as your story demands. In journalism, you have to choose among a limited number of real people. Sometimes, I think writing fiction might be easier than finessing reality as a journalist.

This journalistic process, of starting an article with a situation and developing a character within it, is analogous to starting a novel in which Mrs. Brown is the heroine by describing her house and the property laws that govern it.

For example, in Katherine Eban's Self piece, "The Hidden Dangers of Outsourcing Radiology," which is about doctors reading X-rays  from afar and failing to communicate critical information, Eban opened with a compelling story about a character who was the victim of this medical neglect, then described the larger problem.  She started with Mrs. Brown, then described her house.  In fact, though, the author started the story knowing what kind of house she wanted in her story, then searched for a character who could inhabit it. The character she found, rather than driving the story, was someone she finally found at the end of a long search for a suitable subject, Eban told my NYU journalism class.

Not only do journalists use characters, like Mrs. Brown, as props in stories about houses, but they sometimes write the stories in a form that makes them seem like they are stories about Mrs. Brown, when really, the stories could have been about anyone who happened to live in the right house.

I think that a novelist does more justice to the real Mrs. Brown by observing her and making up a story about her than a journalist who wants to write a story about housing laws and decides to use Mrs. Brown in the lede. Even if the journalist quotes Mrs. Brown and writes only facts about Mrs. Brown, that journalist may be able to or even want to express what's most important about Mrs. Brown's character.

Mrs. Brown might not tell a journalist that she's a poor old woman about to sell her property to the domineering man in the carriage next to her. The journalist can observe her mended clothes and the way she seems to recoil in front of this man, but the journalist can't print a story about how this paunch-faced old man intimidates Mrs. Brown without quotes or some kind of proof, which the proud Mrs. Brown and the power-hungry man will not furnish. The journalist can't really tell Mrs. Brown's story. The novelist can - but only by making it up.  

Which way of telling a story is more truthful, describing a character or describing a house? I think both ways of telling stories are valid, but I think that people go through life as characters interacting with other characters whose lives are affected by their circumstances but who deal with them on a small scale, not as brushstrokes in the big picture.