The Fiery Fountain

My first book hasn't been out for long, but I'm thinking it's almost time to start writing the next one. I came back from my trip to the U.K. with a head full of ideas, and I want to start getting them down on the page.


My next book is going to be a novel, not nonfiction. I may write another book about atheism in the future, but at the moment, I don't have any topic ideas that haven't already been covered better by other authors. But I do have some ideas for works of fiction, lots of them, in fact. There are books inside me; I can feel them lining up to get out. I may never write all of them, but somehow I feel an obligation to these embryonic ideas: as if, having conceived them, I owe them a chance to see the light of day.

I bring this up partly because I want to make a public commitment to give myself some motivation, but also because, lately, I've been contemplating the urge to write. I've wondered what it is that's kept me blogging on a regular schedule since 2006, while so many other blogs, including some I've loved reading, go silent after a few weeks or months. Don't their authors want to keep speaking, I wonder? Don't they have more to say to the world?

For me, it's almost a kind of synesthesia. I see words everywhere, wherever I look, and I feel like I can just reach out and they'll come to my hand like tame birds. Other days, I feel as if there are words flowing inside me, a fountain of them, and all I have to do is scoop up a handful and pour them out. (I sympathize with the author of Jeremiah 20:9: "Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay." I know how that feels.)

But I wonder where this creativity comes from. How do new sentences come into being, how does the brain "make up its mind" about what to say, without invoking the nonsensical and question-begging idea of the Cartesian homunculus that sits in the central cortex and presses the buttons that invoke the speech centers? (How does he decide what to say?)

In his book Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett suggests a model of language production he calls "Pandemonium". When a circumstance arises that calls for a verbal response, it stimulates many temporary and transient coalitions of neurons, each one representing a particular concept, word or phrase, that compete with each other for access to the speech centers. In effect, the brain is full of words that want to get themselves said. And if one particularly salient word or phrase wins out in this competition, it may pull along others that have strong associations with it, while suppressing others that don't.

Rather than concentrate all the intelligence into one unified mental agent, one Cartesian demon, the Pandemonium model decomposes and distributes intelligence into many mini-demons, each one of which is just small and unintelligent enough to be something the brain could actually implement in neural circuitry. The other virtue of this model is that it explains certain kinds of malapropisms, like when we make a Freudian slip or say something that's a nonsensical blend of two words - two of these word-demons have crossed the finish line at the same time.

This is purely anecdotal, but this idea makes a lot of sense to me given the way I write posts. When I write, I start by throwing out words, phrases, sentence fragments - just splattering color onto the emptiness of the blank page, like a Jackson Pollock painting - as if I'm letting the word-demons of my mental Pandemonium run riot. Then I go back and look for connections among those scattered ideas, reorganizing them, linking them together, filling the gaps with structure and transition. (As you can probably guess, I'm a product of the computer age; I find it very difficult to write a blog post on a sheet of paper.) It's only rarely that I sit down and write a post from start to finish in one sitting, and only when I'm gripped by the white heat of a perfect idea.

Those of you who write, blogs or otherwise, does this ring true for you? What does your creative process feel like?

Daylight Atheism: The Book is now available! Click here for reviews and ordering information.

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