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The Carletonian

Famed Author Reflects On the Creation of Fiction

<claimed author of five novels, two books of non-fiction, and a book of poetry and nonfiction Siri Hustvedt opened her convocation with reflections on creativity in order to address the question “where does fiction originate?”

In her presentation, she outlined the age-old question of where one’s ideas come from, focusing on a long line of philosophical thinkers and their examinations of narrative and storytelling.

“Writers have often robbed their own lives and those of their family to include in their works,” Hustvedt admitted. “Yet to reduce fiction to biography is overly simplistic” and severely erodes the power of literature to transport the reader into the emotional narrative of the book.

She highlighted how approaches to the origins of fiction emerge from discussions of the brain and body. “As a society, we’ve been occupied with the concept that intellect and body are completely separate,” Hustvedt illustrated, noting how many view the process of crafting ideas as distinct from the realm of physical action.

She argued that such a gap overlooks the continuity between imagination and memory: “the mind does not float above the body, but rather is firmly connected with the physical self.”

Furthermore, Hustvedt viewed the mind not as a repository of untouched memories, but instead a bank of reconsolidated thoughts that resemble “a hybrid collection, a store of many images and feelings.” From here, characters in fiction can be constructed from “the personality of one person, the speaking style of another, and the age of a third.”

This consolidation in the mind takes place unconsciously, and these beginnings are what interest Hustvedt the most: “the processes that take place underground, before ideas surface.”

“Sometimes a novel comes from an uncanny feeling,” she recalled. “These beginnings tell us about the conscious, not the unconscious.” Yet she maintained that there is clearly evidence of the latter process, taking place well before any conscious character or narrative construction takes place. She also maintained that the unconscious is neither primitive nor unsophisticated, but a crucial stage of the imaginative procedure.

“Writers want to reproduce feelings, not just incidents,” Hustvedt argued, pointing to the natural human tendency to produce narratives out of memories and particularly trauma, “to make sense of nonsense.”

In elaborating on the intimate connection between mind and body, Hustvedt outlined the prominent cultural debate that has confined women to the latter.

“Often works are viewed depending on if they were written by a man or a woman,” she illustrated, recalling times when she was complimented for supposedly “writing like a man.”

Hustvedt emphasized how “women are bombarded with prejudice” and as a result often have their works judged based on their gender, and the stereotypical qualities associated with femininity.

Hustvedt also lamented the evaluation of literature in contemporary culture, arguing that professional reviews often confine works to strict dichotomies such as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ She evoked the concept of taste in art and highlighted how the value of a piece of literature should not be defined by just a one-time read: “people take different things from a text at different times,” and therefore one should not limit judgment to a single experience.

She concluded by returning to her original question of where fiction comes from, of “Why this story and not another?” To her, “the great enemy of creativity is the readily-received idea” – presumptions that confine the value of a work to established paradigms.

“The great force of literature is in its evocation of life and human beings,” Hustvedt maintained. “Reading and writing allows us to shift our perception, to travel with someone else until the end of the story, whether it means with one who’s young or old, sane or mad, or man or woman.”

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