Gray Matter Boulevard

My curiosity has always been hitched to the human mind. That is why I’m a fiction writer. As such, I have always been somewhat solitary. However, when the pandemic coincided with the onset of my ALS, which robbed me of speech and made talking with others difficult, I have spent even more time alone turning inward. It sometimes feels as if I have changed my place of residence, to an address in the recesses of my mind — call it Gray Matter Boulevard — where I think about my life and the lives of my fictional characters, imagining what they, too, might be thinking. What fascinates me about human thought is its unknowability; it is the final truly private frontier off limits (so far) to the invasive technologies of Google and Apple and Facebook. Science has tried to probe our brains with PET scans and MRIs, but the contents of what we’re thinking is still beyond the reach of researchers. We are left to speculate and imagine about what goes on in other people’s minds based on our own experience of thinking. I am often tortured with curiosity, yearning to read the minds of those around me.

One of the exercises I liked to assign in my fiction writing classes was called “Braiding Time.” I used this exercise in the interests of encouraging my students to think about what their characters thought about and how they thought — did they have minds that darted nervously here and there, for example, or did they tend to obsess over one thing. To facilitate this I asked the students to assign percentages to the amount of time they themselves spent thinking about the past, the present, and the future. It’s a challenging thing to do — try it! — and they reported wildly different results, some saying they spent most of their time in the past, others saying their thinking was all about the future, and a few claiming they remained staunchly in the present. These results were clearly not scientific and provable, but they launched the students into thinking about their characters’ — and their own — habits of mind. Then I would tell them to write a short piece focusing on the thought processes of a specific character, remembering that our minds often wander fluidly from one time frame to another.

Because the amount of time I have yet to live is uncertain, making my relationship to the future challenging to think about, and because many old friends have reached out to me recently, I find myself lingering on thoughts about the past more frequently than usual, recalling long-forgotten events, some delightful, some embarrassing. My relationship to the future is more complicated. I can picture the period that extends through next September when I have two novels coming out. This is a happy thought, a time I look forward to, and I expect to show up in full force, hoping my body complies. Beyond that, the picture fractures a bit. It’s hard to imagine the details of a future in which you know you will be weaker, but you aren’t sure exactly how that will manifest and how you will feel about it. But I suppose that’s no different from how the future has always been.

What I’m most struck by as I consider my own habits of thought is how much they’ve been honed by how I spend my time. I marvel at my accountant who can look at pages of numbers and make a tax estimate in seconds. (I have been so impressed by this that one of the characters in my upcoming novel, Livid, is an accountant.) Seeing my accountant’s skill, I realize how singularly focused most of us become over the years of doing our work. Even when I am not putting pen to paper I am thinking about characters, story, sentences, words; I’m noticing details of the world around me that I want to remember to include in my current work. In school I excelled at math, but if I were to have to do now what my accountant does, I would fail miserably. Research confirms that thinking repeatedly about the same thing over time expands certain synapses and curtails others.

If we try to understand other people’s thought based on our own thinking, what are we to do when faced with people who behave in such radically different and unfathomable ways that our speculation about their thought fails us, and our minds cannot begin to imagine theirs? This is not only a problem for the fiction writer, but also for anyone who lives in the current heterogeneous world.

I am thinking about this now in terms of dictators. Well, one in particular. The one who is decimating Ukraine and all its people. What does Putin think when he gets out of bed in the morning? Is he looking at his developing paunch and thinking of what he’ll have for breakfast? Is he worried about his daughter? Is he immediately seized by his hatred for Zelensky and everyone in the West? Maybe he’s obsessing about the military mistakes he has made and how he can compensate for them. Or maybe he’s noticing a stain on his suit, and he’s furious about that. Does he ever think of the people he has killed, the people he has yet to kill? If he doesn’t — and I think that is probable — how did he come to have such a blatant deficit of empathy?

Imagining such things is my metier, the chosen focus for my life, but I come up short with a man like Putin. I cannot see clearly how he developed from an innocent baby to the monster he is today. Yes, I am sure feelings of inferiority played a role, a sense of never measuring up, but how these common feelings took him to this point of extremity I do not understand. Perhaps, more aptly, I don’t wish to do the work to understand him.

Perhaps, from my new residence on Gray Matter Boulevard, I can convince myself not to look away. Maybe I can try to hone my powers of observation so even human beings like Putin will become more transparent to me. Would it help the world? I don’t know. But more understanding is usually better and right now, until science or tech companies can probe human thought, it’s the purview of us fiction writers.

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Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.

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Cai Emmons

Cai Emmons

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.

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