Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Odyssey Project: where stories come from

Readers, and writers, too, have always wondered where the characters and their stories come from that seem to magically appear as our fictional creations stream out onto the computer screen or come to life as blobs of ink on paper. Interestingly, not all people can do this. It is usually ascribed to a nebulous notion about something called a talent for writing.

I have a confession to make. Some time back I held the winning ticket for a lottery jackpot worth several millions of dollars, even after being drastically cut for a single payout and reduced further by the IRS’s unseemly slice. After quite a round of negotiation with the lottery folks, I got them to award the prize to a fictitious name (sort of a nom de flam, as in flimflam). I convinced them that I intended to use the money for a research project that might easily become skewed if it became known and was linked to me.

The Odyssey Project, as it was called, brought together top flight minds in the fields of psychology and sociology, specialists in behaviorism, motivation, and human development. Their task: to locate the source of the fictional experience.

The name Odyssey was chosen for obvious reasons. Homer’s tale of Odysseus and his heroic struggle to return home from the Trojan War is one of the earliest classics of imaginative fiction. It is both inventive and inspiring. Little is known about the writer, but it is believed that he was a blind bard. He gave us something to shoot for.

The researchers conducted hundreds of interviews with authors, never revealing their true intentions. You have no doubt read many of them which have appeared in both print and digital versions online. Others, in collusion with medical practitioners, studied the physical and mental makeup of writers around the country. Some, masquerading as sleep clinic personnel, did research on brain waves of sleeping authors who reported they had taken whole plots from their dreams.

Lexicologists read hundreds of books, comparing the range of words and meanings that contribute to the sources of thinking from which our stories spring. Mathematicians studied the patterns of letters and words used to convey our thoughts. Authors’ pharmacy records were surreptitiously gathered to determine the possible effects of prescription drugs on fertile minds.

After this exhaustive range of material was tabulated and collated, a group of learned scientists poured over the mass of pages and discussed its implications. Their final report was brief but concise.

“These people who call themselves authors are nuts. They have no clue where this stuff comes from, and neither do we.”

There you have it. The next time a reader asks where you get your ideas, you can speak with scientific authority.

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