Classic Tess ~ On Brains and Writing

Tess Gerritsen left a
successful practice as an internist to raise her children and
concentrate on her writing. She gained nationwide acclaim for her first
novel of medical suspense, the New York Times bestseller Harvest. She is
also the author of the bestsellers Life Support, Bloodstream, Gravity, and The Surgeon. Tess lives with her family in Maine. (PHOTO CREDIT: Paul D’Innocenzo) –as appeared her blog.

Do you have to be smart to write fiction?

By Tess Gerritsen
Recently I was asked to contribute my thoughts about this topic, for
an upcoming book about creativity and intelligence.  And I’ve come to
the conclusion that the answer is no, you don’t have to be smart not
if by “smart”, you’re referring to the sort of intelligence that’s
usually measured by IQ tests.I know a number of doctors and
engineers.These are classically “smart” people – the straight-A
crowd who dazzled their classmates in college and graduate school. 
They’d probably ace a Mensa qualifying exam.  They excel in logic,
they’re up on current events, and they know all the nuances of
grammar.  They know how to spell. Every so often, one of them will
write a novel, and beg that I take a peek at their first chapter.

 
Most of these people can’t write worth beans.

What is about writing fiction that’s beyond these brilliant
people? How does it happen that a high-school drop-out can write a
bestselling novel, while a PhD can’t even write an interesting query
letter?

If anything, it’s been my impression that people who are highly
educated in the sciences have a disadvantage when it comes to fiction. 
It’s so ingrained in scientists to think objectively, to come to
logical conclusions.  But real life — and human beings — are not
logical.  And what we writers must do is create characters who seem
like real people, with all their imperfections, all their
inconsistencies and craziness. People who don’t always compute. In
order to do that, you have to be a little bit illogical yourself.  You
have to hear the voices of people who don’t exist, and know
instinctively what unexpected things these non-existent people will
do next.

Most important, you have to FEEL what they’re feeling, channel their
emotions.  Feel the same stab of betrayal, the same giddiness of
falling in love, that your make-believe people experience.  To do this
requires a different kind of smartness, something that’s not measured
on those IQ tests. Some people might call this “emotional
intelligence”, the ability to connect with the feelings of other human
beings, to understand what’s going on in their heads. Whatever it is,
it’s an instinct one absolutely has to have to be a powerful writer.

And it’s not something they teach you in school.  It’s not something
you can read in textbooks.  I think you’re born with it.  Or maybe
you learn it from your parents and your siblings, by watching
them scream and cry and throw tantrums at the dinner table.

Maybe it’s that same understanding that makes some people talented
actors.  I think that a good novelist must also be a bit of an actor. 
Maybe the writer’s too shy to ever get up on a stage.  But in the
privacy of his office, a novelist will suffer all the joys and agonies
of his characters.  He’ll say aloud the dialogue and dribble tears on
the page.  I know that people seldom use the word “actor” and
“intelligent” in the same sentence.  But by golly, a good actor will
have special insights into his fellow human beings that most rocket
scientists simply won’t have.

Finally, there’s the fact that some people are just born boring.  No
matter how smart they are, how accomplished in their particular fields,
they just don’t know how to tell a good story.Most of us know
someone whom you dread sitting next to at a family gathering. Someone
who, within a few minutes, has you ready to scream from boredom.

What they lack is a sense of the dramatic.  They don’t know what
other people find interesting: conflict, crisis, fear, anger. They
think that it’s just as interesting to talk about what they had for
breakfast this morning, and how it gave them heartburn, and have you
heard the latest about that antacid?

Can someone who lacks a sense of the dramatic ever become a good
storyteller? I don’t think so.  I don’t think it can be taught,
either. Writing workshops may teach them how to get their manuscript
looking neat and how to submit it to agents and editors, but it can’t
give them the insight to understand that “John finds spiritual growth”
is a boring plot while “Mary fights to get her husband back” is a lot
more interesting.