It may not be the obvious place to start but you could learn a lot about storytelling from the corpse-washers of ancient Egypt. Picture the scene. It’s a busy Monday morning. You’ve got three new Pharaohs to prepare for the journey to the next life.
What is the first thing you do? You scoop out the brains and throw them away.
Good riddance. The brain, as every Egyptian physician knew, is just a reservoir for the snot that runs out of your nose when you get a cold.
Now you can get on with the important stuff: the heart. Which has its own special jar.
The heart, after all, is the seat of the emotions. This is a truth that has been universally acknowledged in every culture and clime, throughout history by almost everyone: poets, lovers, priests, shaman, madmen, your grandmother… The only people who haven’t spotted it are doctors, such as this one:
The heart is a bunch of muscles with some nerves that stimulate it and some chemical receptors which allow it to respond to chemical and neurological stimuli…in reality it’s a pump, that’s what it does. I know I can take the heart out, and you can still fall in love. — Consultant Surgeon Dr. Francis Wells from Papworth Hospital, Cambridge in the UK
OK, doctors may be very clever but there is no notion too daft that a doctor hasn’t embraced it at one point or another. In the first half of the 20th century there was a learned debate among them about whether babies felt pain or not. Quite a few babies were pricked with needles to find out. Even then they couldn’t be sure.
Rene Descartes, an early adopter of this rationalist creed, once dissected his wife’s dog alive to prove that animals have no emotional life. The howls of pain, he claimed, were just the creaking of mechanical clockwork.
Writers and artists, however, are with the common folk on this one.
‘If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing’ — Marc Chagall
Writing is about generating emotion within the reader. It’s not about instructing them how to feel. It is about using words in such a way that the required feeling is evoked. And the place to evoke it is in the heart. Or thereabouts.
To see what I mean, consider this true story. A friend recounted to me the story of his daughter’s first day at school when she was five. He drove her to the school gates and in answer to her query how long she had to go to school for he told her until she was sixteen. When they parted at the gate, she looked at him with wet eyes and said, ‘Daddy, you will come and fetch me when I’m sixteen, won’t you?’
Did that make you go ‘ah’ somewhere deep in the softest recesses of your heart? I hope so. This ‘ah’ is what we are talking about here. There is no way I could have instructed you to experience it. I had to tell a story that evoked it.
Doctors might think the heart is just a pump, but the common folk have never been in any doubt about its true importance. The fact is embedded in the language we use every day. Broken hearted, downhearted, heartfelt, hearty, heart not in it, lose heart, big hearted etc. The list goes on and on and it’s the same in other languages too.
Interestingly, recent scientific discoveries have weighed in on the side of the common folk.
Apparently there is a network of neurons or brain cells found in the heart. 40,000 or so, making up what has come to be called the brain in the heart.
Scientists will tell you the neurons are just there to regulate the function of the heart. But is that all?
There is a surprising amount of anecdotal evidence to suggest that heart transplant patients sometimes acquire tastes belonging to the donor. Such as father-of-two Kevin Mashford who became a passionate cyclist after receiving the heart of a donor who died in a cycling accident.
Or consider the famous case of Sonny Graham.
In 1996 he received a heart from a donor who had committed suicide by shooting himself. After the operation Sonny met the donor’s widow. They fell in love and got married. They lived happily for twelve years, until Sonny committed suicide by shooting himself.
It’s an amazing story. The heart fell in love with a woman, moved to a new body and fell in love with her again.
The eminent heart surgeon quoted earlier said he could take your heart out and you would still fall in love. But it looks like it’s the other way round. You can take away the body and the heart will still fall in love.
If you want to be a writer, ignore the boffins and follow your pump!