Thursday, October 8, 2009

Brain Activity and Public Speaking

"The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public." – George Jessel

I define public speaking as talking to one or more people I don’t know. Therefore, I classify an interview as a public speaking engagement. Though I haven’t had anything too traumatic happen during an interview, I still find them a little nerve wracking. I’m also frustrated that by time I think of the perfect response the interview has been over for hours—sometimes days. Often the great, “if only I’d said…” epiphanies come to me in the middle of the night when they do absolutely no good at all.

Recently, I ran across an article in by Arthur Krystal, “When Writers Speak,” that made me feel much better about my speaking skills, or lack of them. In the article he talks about watching a 1950s interview with Vladimir Nabokov on YouTube. Discussing Lolita, Nabokov came up with a response that at first impressed Krystal as a clever off the cuff remark. Then he realized that Nabokov was reading off of note cards. Krystal goes on to say:

“Fluent in three languages, he relies on prefabricated responses to talk about his work. Am I disappointed? I am at first, but then I think: writers don’t have to be brilliant conversationalists; it’s not their job to be smart except, of course, when they write.”

But it’s these thoughts that really caught my attention:

"There seems to be a rhythm to writing that catches notes that ordinarily stay out of earshot. At some point between formulating a thought and writing it down falls a nanosecond when the thought becomes a sentence that would, in all likelihood, have a different shape if we were to speak it. This rhythm, not so much heard as felt, occurs only when one is composing; it can’t be simulated in speech, since speaking takes place in real time and depends in part on the person or persons we’re speaking to. Wonderful writers might therefore turn out to be only so-so conversationalists, and people capable of telling great stories waddle like ducks out of water when they attempt to write.

So the next time you hear a writer on the radio or catch him on the tube or watch him on the monitor or find yourself sitting next to him at dinner, remember he isn’t the author of the books you admire; he’s just someone visiting the world outside his study or office or wherever the hell he writes."

And later on in the article:

There’s something about writing, when we regard ourselves as writers, that affects how we think and, inevitably, how we express ourselves. There may be no empirical basis for this, but if, as some scientists claim, different parts of the brain are switched on by our using a pen instead of a computer — and the cognitive differences are greater than what might be expected by the application of different motor skills — then why shouldn’t there be significant differences in brain activity when writing and speaking?

He ends the article with this funny little story:

Speaking of dinner, when the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt told a friend, a Parisian doctor, that he wanted to meet a certifiable lunatic, he was invited to the doctor’s home for supper. A few days later, Humboldt found himself placed at the dinner table between two men. One was polite, somewhat reserved, and didn’t go in for small talk. The other, dressed in ill-matched clothes, chattered away on every subject under the sun, gesticulating wildly, while making horrible faces. When the meal was over, Humboldt turned to his host. “I like your lunatic,” he whispered, indicating the talkative man. The host frowned. “But it’s the other one who’s the lunatic. The man you’re pointing to is Monsieur HonorĂ© de Balzac.”

I found the entire article fascinating and well worth reading if you have a few extra minutes. Also, here is the YouTube interview with Vladimir Nabokov that Arthur Krystal wrote about.

Are there significant differences in your brain activity between when you’re writing and when you’re speaking?

Thanks for stopping by.

Tags: George Jessel, brain activity, public speaking, Lolita, Nabokov , YouTube, Balzac,


Helen Ginger said...

I think there definitely is a difference. For one thing, if you speak the words, they're out there. They are heard by your listeners. It's as if they're real and irretrievable. When they're written, you can change them, manipulate them, delete them, rearrange them. They're more fluid and alive.

Straight From Hel

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Wow, I loved the part about how the brain switches on & off in different areas between using a pen and using a computer! Gosh, everyone thinks I'm bonkers because I hand-write all of my work first before transfering it to the computer. Now I have proof that I really can't think creatively when typing!
I feel so vindicated.
On a side note, the public speaking is easy for me, although I'm not likely to spout off something incredibly witty. I'm just not that kind of funny. (Safe to say I'll never be a comedian.)

Tamika: said...

Hi Jane!

The funny thing about your question is, I started speaking long before I started writing.

I love speaking! I love seeing the faces of the people that I am speaking to, and making a connection with each person.

Writing has felt more isolated at times, and a little lonely.

Great post.
Blessings to you...

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I like the description - fluid and alive, Helen.

Diane, as I mentioned in my comment on Marvin's blog - I'm afraid I wouldn't be able to read my manuscript if I hand-wrote it. But I'm glad you're vindicated at last!

Thanks for stopping by, Tamika. Good point about talking before writing. I can tell by your enthusiastic comment that you are probably an excellent speaker.

Marvin D Wilson said...

Oh yes - totally two different states of mind. One is in engage/interaction mode, the other is in isolated/creative mode. Well, both are creative, but way different. Great stuff & lots of good info on this topic in this post, Jane.

The Old Silly

Anonymous said...

This is a great post, Jane. Informative and fascinating! I engage in public speaking every so often, and only practice seems to make it easier. I may not ever understand what my brain is doing since I'm just trying so hard to control my mouth!

ashleighburroughs said...

My formal writing is different from my letter writing. Now, blogging, I feel like I'm talking as I type, just as I did when I was penning letters 40 years ago. Public speaking comes easily to me; my blog seem, more often than not, be resemble my conversations, too.

Enid Wilson said...

Very interesting Jane. I think writers think in different perspectives of characters (at least for fiction writers). Their heads could be jammed with conversations that they become lousy speakers when they speak.

Bargain with the Devil

Carol Kilgore said...

Interesting article and subject. Speaking is so different because you connect on so many more levels than just the written word. And you can't take anything back and change or rearrange it.

Galen Kindley--Author said...

I used to do some public speaking. I did a lot of speaking extemporaneously, one on one as a flight instructor. The point? Well, I tend to write the way I think, and I speak the way I think, therefore, if A=B, and B=C, than, I must write the way I think. Is this good or bad. Hmmm. Not sure. I know I do lots of revision, but, who doesn’t. I probably to verbal revision too…in fact, I know I did. You know, saying things like, “Strike that,” or, “Let me try again.” What does my comment mean? Due to it’s garbled nature, I can apparently neither write, nor think with clarity. HA!

Best Regards, Galen

Imagineering Fiction Blog

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Interesting subject!

I don't enjoy speaking, but I do it fairly easily now. When I'm writing, words flow really easily...not so when I'm speaking.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Anonymous said...

It was extremely interesting for me to read that article. Thanks for it. I like such themes and everything connected to this matter. I would like to read more soon.

Anonymous said...

It was certainly interesting for me to read that blog. Thanx for it. I like such themes and anything connected to them. I definitely want to read a bit more soon.

Jane's Ride - Novelist Jane Kennedy Sutton's journey through the ups and downs of the writing, publishing and marketing world