Synaptic Renaissance

One of the best lessons I learned in college was never formally taught in the classroom. Instead, it manifested itself organically through a series of interactions with a professor who decided, for whatever reason, to take me under his wing. In short, Dr. Queen1 taught me that one should never stop asking questions.

He was a mysterious figure within the English department, and I was drawn to him immediately. Some students were put off by his style, but what they didn’t understand was that, in a way, he wanted you to be uncomfortable. He wanted to challenge you, to make you question yourself and the world around you, and to never be satisfied with even the most seemingly mundane conceptualizations of truth. If you said that grass was green, he was the type of fellow to ask, “What about in the winter?”

This would often set off a string of verbal volleys.

Grass is dead in the winter.

Does that mean it’s no longer grass?

It’s still grass, just not living grass.

When you die, will you still be you?

And so on and so forth. His was a great class from which to learn literature. His goal, though of course I can’t be certain, seemed to be to foster creative thinking. Even if he disagreed with you, if you had evidence to back up your claim, Dr. Queen had an ear to listen.

Let’s apply this sort of imaginative inquiry to language. Since I live in Korea and speak very, very little Korean, most of what I say is little snippets, yet people tend to catch my drift. I was at a restaurant once with a group of friends and one person didn’t want to eat. The waitress tried taking her order, and I simply pointed at my friend and said (in Korean), “No eat.” The waitress understood immediately and went to the kitchen with the rest of our orders. No subject and predicate were needed for her to understand. It’s strange that somewhere in every language’s history someone set up rules on how to make proper sentences. Further, why is “No eat,” any worse or better than, “She’s not eating”?2

A moment ago I wrote, “His was a great class from which to learn literature.” I had initially written it ungrammatically and so erased it and rewrote it as you read it above. But why is, “He was a great professor to learn literature from,” any worse or better than the former? I will not accept, “Because you can’t end a sentence with a preposition,” as an answer.

With creative writing, there should be no end to the questions a writer asks herself. Not that I’m an example of perfection (though the case could be made), but when I open Scrivener to work on a project, I often refresh myself on yesterday’s work by reading through it and adding comments in the form of questions. If the question deserves a deeper look, I have a “brainstorm” document set up that acts as a sort of FAQ of the piece I’m working on. I’ll jot down the question and then freewrite until I’ve worked out some possibilities. I’ve got loads of backstory, streams of consciousness, and character drafts that will never see the light of day, but all of it works together to strengthen a project. And most of it stemmed from a series of seemingly simple questions.

If you’re a writer, I challenge you to take something you’re working on (preferably something old) and give it the once-over with active inquiry in mind. Really push yourself to reexamine your characters, their choices, your plot structure, anything and everything regarding your story to see if there’s something else hiding within its text. Or maybe it’s not a new character or plot point, but simply a better way telling your story.

If you’re not a writer, but you love literature, reread one of your favorite books, but examine it in a way that you never have before. Look at it from the perspective of the author. Why are they telling this story? What do they want the reader to get from it? Or perhaps even better, Why do you find yourself loving this story? this character? this description?

And if none of that appeals to you, then I challenge you to try it in your everyday life. Give your order at a coffee shop without using a sentence. Ask someone a question that makes them reconsider a choice they’ve made. Why’d you choose a blue car? What do you mean you just like the color blue?

I’ve been out of college for over seven years, and I don’t know about you, but my intellectual prowess had dulled. I spend a lot of time reading, browsing the internet, and watching far too much TV. I constantly need to sharpen my senses, to engage in a synaptic renaissance, and that’s why I enjoy asking questions. The problem, of course, is coming up with satisfactory answers.


1 Dr. Queen is not his real name. I chose this name for two reasons: 1) It’s one of my favorite bands; 2) It’s the first word that I thought of when I pictured my professor’s face.

2 Technically, Korean has a different syntax structure than English, but I simplified it for ease of understanding. “No eat” would be more literally translated as “Eating no” and “She’s not eating” would be “She eating is not.”


Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.

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3 thoughts on “Synaptic Renaissance

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  1. I love this post so much, probably because I could relate. I have had a couple of teachers like that (high school and college). And, I have always enjoyed the give and take relationship between teacher and student and the, though frequently frustrating, Socratic method.

    1. As a teacher, I catch myself employing the Socratic method all too often (Can it ever be too often?). Due in part to the teacher types mentioned in the article. I’m glad you could relate!

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