Why I write fiction

Ancient man had no consciousness of self, according to Julian Jaynes, in his masterpiece of research and speculation, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.  Jaynes argues that ancient man did not recognize the voice inside his head as his own, attributing that voice to God (or to the gods).  It was only when man learned to attribute that inner voice to himself, Jaynes speculates, that we became conscious of self and others in the sense that we mean those terms today.

Whether or not we accept Jaynes’s hypothesis, what should be obvious is that our inner voice has enormous influence over our behavior and our experience.  We spend most of our waking hours talking to our self, telling our self what to think and how to feel.  It is, I believe, why we cherish those moments when we manage to turn off that inner monologue.  Without an inner voice telling us what to think and feel, we experience the world directly.

When I am writing fiction, the distinction between self and other disappears and I experience a world (albeit a fictional world) directly.  The inner voice comes neither from me, nor from God.  It comes from a fictional character who reveals that voice to me, who shares that voice with me and bestows on me both the privilege and the responsibility to tell the story.  There is a certain exhilaration that comes to me at those moments.  It is why I write fiction.

6 thoughts on “Why I write fiction

  1. I read that book in college. I think the course was called parapsychology and writing. Something like that. Very fascinating stuff. And yes, it is a kind of treat when that distinction between self and other vanishes in the act of creativity.


    1. When I was studying psychology at Princeton in the early 70s, Jaynes was a graduate member of the department, or perhaps he was what they call a “friend of the department”, an itinerant scholar of sorts, writing his book and guest lecturing from time-to-time in various departmental classes.


  2. I’m skeptical of theories like Jaynes’. Also I would like to know what period in humanity’s history he’s referring to.

    I read something recently that suggested that fiction as a genre had only really been developed in the last 1000 years or so, that before that people might have told myths and educational tales (like parables and fables) but that elaborate fiction purely for entertainment is a relatively recent phenomenon.

    It’s true that there isn’t much ancient written fiction around, but I suspect that fiction has been around for nearly as long as lying has.


    1. Jaynes speculates that consciousness of self, as we mean it today, emerged in man approximately three thousand years ago. And much of his model is indeed speculative, but it is speculation of the most exquisite kind, thoughtful, nuanced, steeped in a deep appreciation for art, literature, history and philosophy. It is an extraordinary book, well worth reading.


  3. That is an interesting theory, and it makes sense to me. The idea that there is a “God gene” (VMAT2) that is thought to make people “more religious) makes Jayne’s theory make a lot of sense.

    It is interesting to read why other people write. Sometimes I write to get thoughts out of my head. I’ve never thought about what writing means to “me”. I think writing gives the voices in my head a chance to experience the world outside of my brain.


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