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This is Your Brain on Fiction: An Interview with Philadelphia Workshop Leader Sarah A. Strickley

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We’ve been running this conference for more than six years now, and after all this time, it can be hard to come up with totally new panel and workshop ideas. Sometimes it seems like there’s just not that much new under the sun. That’s why we were excited when our friend, Assistant Editor, great writer and super-smart person Sarah A. Strickley suggested a panel about what fiction writers can learn from cognitive science.
Cognitive science? we said. Theory of Mind? Let’s face it: we are simple folk here at the Barrelhouse Mansion. Only one of us really understands poetry, for goodness sake. Sarah was kind enough to sit down around the virtual table with us to break down some cognitive science, fiction writing, boxed wine, and Patrick Swayze movies.

Here’s the panel description:

As The New York Times recently noted, breakthroughs in neuroscience have confirmed what many of us have known all along: readers of novels are better able to understand others, empathize with them, and see the world from their perspective. This is great news for those interested in justifying a healthy reading habit, but what does it mean for writers? As it turns out, a close look at groundbreaking critical texts can offer insights no fiction writer should ignore—chief among them a novel answer to the question of why we write, but also a series of craft-based revelations that may serve as helpful reminders that reading “like a writer” doesn’t mean we have to lose sight of the novel for the forest of words on the page. Find out how an awareness of “theory of mind” can revolutionize your work with hybrid forms, unlock the power of the unreliable narrator, and help you to harness your natural storytelling abilities.

And here’s our conversation with Sarah: 

BARRELHOUSE: Can you tell us a little more about “theory of mind?”

SARAH A. STRICKLEY: “Theory of Mind” is cognitive scientist-speak for our tendency to interpret the behavior of others in terms of their underlying thoughts and feelings. We use this ability in many social contexts, but the most interesting for our purposes is literature. “Theory of Mind” is often charmingly abbreviated as ToM. So, Dave, meet, ToM. He’s in your brains.

BHOUSE: This is a different way of looking at writing, which I think is really cool. When did you first start thinking about writing in this way? What led you down this particular path?

SAS: I was first introduced to ToM by a professor here at the University of Cincinnati, Gary Weissman. As a writer, I have a natural inclination to distrust literary theory (I’ve seen too many good writers felled by deconstructionist weirdness) but my reading eventually led me to drop my (hugely snarky) attitude. I became persuaded that there were technical insights I’d be a fool to ignore in the discussion surrounding ToM. Of course, no one writing about ToM is writing about it from the point of view of the writer. So, gleaning craft-based lessons from the available texts takes some reverse engineering. I’m doing the work so you don’t have to!

BHOUSE: Without giving away exactly what you’ll be doing at the conference, can you give us a specific example of how ToM can contribute to fiction writing? Maybe something from your own work, if you’re comfortable with that?

SAS: For any writer struggling against self-doubt or against the sense that our culture is designed to make writers feel like misguided idiots for trying to make a life of writing stories, the news that our minds evolved to excel precisely at the kind of imagining novels require of readers is welcome news. If nothing else, ToM offers writers a new retort to the (strangely frequent) demand that we explain ourselves, our work: in a very real sense, our minds were made to do it. But, beyond that, the intricacies of ToM can help us to understand, for example, how and why hybrid forms are more successful when one thread is subservient to the other. Prying apart those threads can give us a radically fresh way of looking at genre. It helped me to understand why my girl trash noir novel wasn’t working. Now others can profit from my mistakes!

BHOUSE: I want to read a girl trash noir novel! You mention unreliable narrators in the panel description. I’m a big fan of those. Does mentioning that make me one? Then I’d be more interesting, at least. Anyway, can you tell us a little about unreliable narrators and ToM?

SAS: The thing with really good unreliable narrators is that they’re often able to put pressure on the “mind reading” apparatus that helps us to sort out the source of information–or misinformation, as the case may be. Occasionally, they even lose track of themselves of the source of lies, which makes them really good liars, but also, you know, psychopaths. I’m tempted to offer you a reading of a few of the most famous unreliable narrators through this lens, but that’s a cat I’d like to keep in the bag for the time being.

BHOUSE: I love that description: “they even lose track of themselves.” That, to me, is a perfect summary of what the best, most entertaining and revealing unreliable narrators can do. On a very practical level, what can Conversations and Connections attendees expect out of the workshop on September 28?

SAS: In addition to a tasteful laser light show, attendees can expect a jargon-free treatment of ToM and craft-based lessons designed to crowbar open all the old ways of talking about genre, POV, voice.

BHOUSE: Okay, before I totally spoil-alert your whole panel, let’s bring this back down to a Barrelhouse-level interview. I have two remaining questions:

As I hope you know, we’ll be enjoying $200 of complimentary boxed wine, courtesy of our friends at Submittable. What’s your favorite boxed wine, and why? I have to warn you that I am an expert in this area, so no bullshitting.

SAS: I knew you’d try to get me with the boxed wine question, so I’ve been preparing for this all month: the best boxed wine is the kind that looks like it might be boxed soup.

BHOUSE: The boxed wine is Bandit, I believe. Around here, what we would refer to as a nice tailgating wine. Easily transported, easily hidden, no harm done if some frat boy wanders off with your carton.

SAS: Ah, yes. The Bandit. I know it well. Back in the day, I would have called it “purse wine.”

BHOUSE: Our closer, as always, is this: what’s your favorite Patrick Swayze movie?

SAS: Road House. Because, even after all these years, pain still don’t hurt.


Sarah A. Strickley is a writer and an editor, who is currently a doctoral candidate in the University of Cincinnati’s Department of English and Comparative Literature. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is also the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship. Her work has appeared in Oxford American magazine, A Public Space, Gulf Coast, the Harvard Review, The Southeast Review, Seneca Review, The Barcelona Review, Quarter After Eight, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of an Ohio Arts Grant, the Glenn Schaeffer Award for fiction, the Hatfield/Westheimer Short Story Prize, and the Swink Magazine Editors’ Award for Emerging Writers. She serves as an assistant editor for Barrelhouse.

Posted September 20, 2013 in: Uncategorized by davehousley

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