The Storyteller Reports: Shake Up Your Schema!

I read a fascinating interview in The New York Times two days ago. Gary Marcus is a cognitive psychologist who learned to play the guitar as an adult. He received some thought-provoking questions, and delivered some thought-provoking answers. You can read it here.

I won’t steal too much of his thunder, but I do want to throw in some speculation. I know little about psychology, so if I trip up, feel free to throw some virtual tomatoes.

What does this mean for writers? Let’s think about genres. If you’ve been lucky enough to spend many years writing, you may or not have settled in one genre. If you’re an avid reader, you may settled into reading historical fiction (or Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time). So, after such long experience in one genre (or subject, if you write/read non-fiction), what happens when you try a new one? I wager it’s difficult.

I’m sketchy on the details, but there’s a psychological concept called the schema. Jean Piaget popularized it. Your mind takes the information that your mind takes in, and organizes it. The schema is the way it organizes. Just as we have folders with different categories (and reasons for putting different things in these categories), so our mind has different categories into which it classifies things.

After such long exposure, it might take time for the schemas to shift and get used to new information. Right? The rules for science fiction novels are a little different than literary short stories. You use different words, and even write in a different style, when it comes to French history as opposed to memoirs, or scholarly journals on astrophysics.

It seems clear that adults take more time to get used to new things than kids do, and Gary gets into more detail with that.

What the takeaway is for writers is that diversity is imperative. We can’t just stick with one genre. Those schemas could get so rigid that when something new comes along that we don’t understand, we don’t deal with it as well. I read too much highbrow fiction. I read too much fiction with dark endings, as we’ve talked about in weeks past.

That’s why, right now, I’m reading a non-fiction book about Catholicism. After that, I’m going to finish a reading a YA novel that a friend lent me a couple of weeks ago. Then I’m going to read some Elizabethan poetry. I want to shake up my schemas a little bit.

What about you?

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